Archbishop Wuerl reflects on upcoming Synod of Bishops on Word of God
Wednesday, October 15, 2008 1:35 AM
Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl was interviewed Sept. 24 about the upcoming Synod of Bishops by the Catholic Standard. Following are highlights of his comments during the interview. Archbishop Wuerl also served as a U.S. delegate to the 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist.
Jesus the Divine Word icon at Jesus the Divine Word Parish in Huntingtown, Md.
A challenge for Pope Benedict is leading more people to read the Bible
By John Thavis
Catholic News Service
When Pope Benedict XVI chose the Bible as the topic for this fall's Synod of Bishops, he turned the Church's attention to an area he has long considered crucial and in need of revitalization.
The pope's concern touches several levels. For one thing, despite an upsurge in biblical interest after the Second Vatican Council, only a minority of Catholics read the Bible regularly. The pope views the lack of scriptural formation as part of a wider crisis of catechetics in the Church.
At a more academic level, the pope sees a danger in modern biblical interpretation that he believes diminishes the meaning of Scripture and erodes the bond between Bible and Church.
In particular, he has warned that various modern-day methods of interpreting the Bible are too limiting; for instance, some scholars read Scripture as if they are seeking to break a code and pluck out answers one by one.
Instead, Pope Benedict believes the Bible must be seen as a whole and as the word of God, in which everything relates to everything else and offers the possibility of a spiritual journey, rather than being seen as a textbook on divine matters.
So in convoking some 250 bishops for the Oct. 5-26 synod, the pope did not intend to host a forum for scriptural analysis. His primary interest is pastoral, and a main challenge is to lead more Catholics to the Bible.
As he told synod planners earlier this year, reading, interpreting and living the words of Scripture are fundamental to the faith life of Christians. Without that, he said, the Church's great works in the modern age, including evangelization and ecumenism, are bound to stall.
Nor does the pope believe that scriptural expertise comes before the simple experience of reading the Bible. As a cardinal, he once said that he shares the view of liberation theology that the Bible belongs to the people, not the scholars.
And while specialists are needed, he said, "the real and essential meaning of the Bible is something the simple believer can grasp just as well."
That's something the pope has been promoting as universal pastor since his election in 2005. The very first words of his pontificate were a quote from Scripture Ð a greeting from the First Letter of Peter Ð and his talks and sermons over the last three and a half years have included some 3,000 references to scriptural passages.
The pope once said the Bible would be one of two books he would take with him if marooned on an island (the other was St. Augustine's "Confessions.") His own familiarity with Scripture is evident in the way he cites passages even in off-the-cuff remarks.
His written works seem to breathe Scripture. His first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est ("God Is Love"), was typical. It began with a citation from the First Letter of John and on practically every page drew from the Old and New Testaments, often making connections between the two. In his discussion of unjustified suffering, for example, he begins with a lesson from the Book of Job, then weaves in several Gospel passages.
One of Pope Benedict's primary convictions is that the New Testament offers the key to understanding the Old Testament and that, as a whole, the Bible necessarily leads to Christ.
But he believes this traditional Christological approach has been threatened by some modern schools of interpretation that would limit the meaning of any biblical book to the author's historical context.
In a 2001 essay, he described in dramatic terms how such interpretation jeopardized the "internal harmony" of the Bible as understood by Christians through the centuries.
By presuming that Old Testament writers could not have intended to refer in advance to Christ and the New Testament faith, he warned, this new line of biblical study would "sound the death knell" for the Christian understanding of Old Testament-New Testament unity.
As early as the Second Vatican Council, the pope Ð then Father Joseph Ratzinger Ð was involved deeply in a debate over the relationship among Scripture, tradition and the Church's magisterium, or teaching authority. Here, too, the future pope identified a dangerous trend in biblical interpretation that saw Scripture as the entire deposit of the faith.
As a council expert, Father Ratzinger wrote that this approach was not balanced and that "revelation ... is greater even than the words of Scripture."
Much later, he expanded on this point in the book, "God and the World," saying that when it came to the authorship of the Bible it was clear that "God did not just dictate these words." Instead, the words of Scripture bear the impression of a history guided by God, a history that directly involves the Church, he said.
Pope Benedict always has emphasized that this history continues, and that the Bible, far from a piece of literature or a historical record, is a living book that touches the present.
In a foreword to his 2007 book, "Jesus of Nazareth," the pope said the books of Scripture involve three interacting subjects: the individual author, the Church and God.
"The people of God Ð the Church Ð is the living subject of Scripture; it is in the Church that the words of the Bible are always in the present," he wrote.
What he attempted to do in his book on Jesus, he explained, was to use historical insights to help reveal the figure of Jesus, but to go beyond purely historical interpretation.
Instead, he said, his method takes the conviction of faith Ð faith that Jesus truly was God Ð as a starting point for reading Scripture. This approach allows for a proper theological interpretation of the Bible, yet does not sacrifice the Church's "serious engagement with history," he said.
The pope has noted the Bible's ability to inspire individuals and impact their day-to-day decisions. But he has also cautioned against reading the Bible for easy answers, which would "turn Scripture into an oracle."
What's important, he once said, is to "read the Bible regularly, to let it keep us company and guide us."
Soon you will leave for Rome, to serve as a delegate for the Synod on the "Word of God in the Life and the Mission of the Church." What pastoral impact do you hope the synod will have on the lives of Catholics?
"The first and most obvious desired outcome is to help our Catholic faithful access better the Word of God. The synod is going to lift up this idea of the Word of God in our lives. In response, we hope our Catholic faithful will have better understanding and be prepared to access (the Word of God), that means understanding the Word of God as more than just pages in the Bible. The Word of God is the continuing living presence of Christ in the world, because He is the Word made flesh, and that Word continues in a written way in the Scriptures, and in a living way in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. This Word of God, this Word made flesh, continues to be made present today in His new body, the Church."
Why do you think Pope Benedict chose this as the topic for the synod? How meaningful is it that it follows the Synod on the Eucharist and takes place in the year of St. Paul?
"The two great manifestations of Christ in His Church are the Word and the Sacrament... The 2005 Synod was all about the Eucharist. In that document (by Pope Benedict that followed the synod) Sacramentum Caritatis, "The Sacrament of Charity," the pope relates all seven sacraments to the Eucharist. The next logical point of reference is the Word, and so the pope called a synod on the Word. The Word and the Sacrament go together, like a couple married, they go together.
"This turned out to be an interesting, providential experience that the pope chose this (synod in the year of St. Paul). Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles. He's the one who in his outreach to them, wrote and wrote and wrote letters, to the Hebrews, to the Thessalonians, to the Philippians, to the Romans. And what was he writing? He was writing, trying to explain how you live once you've experienced Christ. So he was the great teacher of the faith, and the instrument he chose was the written word... In St. Paul's letter to the Corinthians, he reminds them, 'I'm passing on what I've received.'"
The synod's working document calls the Bible "a treasure for all humanity." Why do you think more Catholics don't read the Bible?
"Most Catholics access the Scriptures through Mass. Catholics every Sunday go to Mass, and over the three year liturgical cycle, they hear almost the entire New Testament, and significant portions of the Old Testament. For Catholics, the Scriptures are not just books that you read. The Scriptures are a living part of the celebration of the faith, a living part of our contact with Christ at Mass.
"The synod is going to be inviting Catholics to continue to enrich their spiritual life. The point of Scripture (is they are not just) books to study. They provide us an encounter with Christ."
What advice would you offer to Catholics, young and old, especially families, about making the Bible a part of their lives? How do they start?
"The Church is also encouraging Catholics to turn more regularly to the Bible, not just in the context of the Mass, but to take time in the privacy of your home, in the quiet of your home, to open the Bible and pray out of the Bible. (For example, pray) the lectio divina, to just take a phrase out of the Bible (and reflect on it during the day.) My favorite section to go to is St. John's gospel. You can find so many beautiful lines (that) you can reflect on and pray on. Jesus says, 'I am the resurrection and the life.' And he says, 'I am the way, the truth and the life.'"
"You can let the Lord speak to your heart, and open your heart in return."
Archbishop Wuerl said that Catholics, in addition to experiencing the Word of God at Mass, can participate in Bible study groups at their parish.
He also encouraged Scripture reading as a family. "Find some time when the whole family can pause and listen to the reading of Scripture together."
As far as making the Bible part of the fabric of one's everyday life, the archbishop said, "One of the simplest ways is to keep a New Testament close at hand, somewhere in easy access to you. In the bedroom when you get up, you can read a sentence or two, and keep that phrase with you during the day, keep returning to it.
"You can always find a quiet moment when you can sit down and open the New Testament and pray out of it.
"I know of a group of businessmen who once a week make it a point of getting together before they go to their offices. They have a half hour that they spend reading and reflecting out loud on the meaning of a passage (from the Bible) that they read and pray (about)."
Archbishop Wuerl will be participating in his fourth Synod of Bishops. He said it is an honor to be chosen by his brother bishops. Days at the synod are long and filled with work, but he said it is inspiring to share the experience with bishops from around the world and witness the unity of the faith.
How does the Word of God give you strength each day for your work as archbishop?
"We're immersed every day in Scripture," Archbishop Wuerl said, noting how priests celebrate the Mass and pray the Liturgy of the Hours, which is filled with psalms, prayers and readings from Scripture.
"The practice I've kept up since the seminary is to reflect on some sentence from Scripture and just keep that with you all day Ð lectio divina."
"The two things that sustain every priest are the Word of God and the celebration of the Sacrament, and they happen to be the two things at the heart of our ministry. They not only sustain us. They're what we do."
One key point of the synod's working document is that the Bible should always be read with Jesus in mind. Why is that important?
"The Christian understanding (of the Bible is) the Old Testament is fulfilled in Christ... They (Scriptures) all have to be understood in terms of Christ's life, death and resurrection.
"...Jesus is not just the truth, He's the way. The Scriptures, especially the Gospels, set for us a plan for life. It answers the great human questions, the purpose of life, the meaning of life.
"...The purpose of Scripture is to put us into a living encounter with Christ, with God. It's the word of God being spoken to us."