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Pope Francis Institutes Annual Celebration of God’s Word

"The Bible cannot be just the heritage of some, much less a collection of books for the benefit of a privileged few."

Jimmy Akin

On September 30th, Pope Francis decreed that the third Sunday of Ordinary Time henceforth will be celebrated as the Sunday of God’s Word.

The document title, Aperuit Illis (Latin, “He opened them”), refers to Luke 24:45, wherein we read that Christ opened the minds of the disciples so they could understand the Scriptures. Pope Francis had proposed the idea for the celebration in 2016 (see Misericordia et Misera 7).

Every day of the Church’s liturgical year involves reading Scripture at Mass and in the liturgy of the hours. Yet, precisely because Scripture is a regular part of the Church’s life, some can treat it as routine and unexceptional. The new Sunday celebration is meant to provide an annual reminder of just how precious God’s word is and to encourage us to appreciate that fact.

Pope Francis points out a number of ways the Sunday will be celebrated:

The various communities will find their own ways to mark this Sunday with a certain solemnity.

It is important, however, that in the Eucharistic celebration the sacred text be enthroned, in order to focus the attention of the assembly on the normative value of God’s word.

On this Sunday, it would be particularly appropriate to highlight the proclamation of the word of the Lord and to emphasize in the homily the honor that it is due.

Bishops could celebrate the Rite of Installation of Lectors or a similar commissioning of readers, in order to bring out the importance of the proclamation of God’s word in the liturgy.

In this regard, renewed efforts should be made to provide members of the faithful with the training needed to be genuine proclaimers of the word, as is already the practice in the case of acolytes or extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion.

Pastors can also find ways of giving a Bible, or one of its books, to the entire assembly as a way of showing the importance of learning how to read, appreciate and pray daily with sacred Scripture, especially through the practice of lectio divina (n. 3).

Some groups may see the Bible as something that is exclusively theirs. Biblical scholars, members of the clergy, and Protestants sometimes fall into this trap. However, Pope Francis emphasizes that this is not the case:

The Bible cannot be just the heritage of some, much less a collection of books for the benefit of a privileged few. It belongs above all to those called to hear its message and to recognize themselves in its words. At times, there can be a tendency to monopolize the sacred text by restricting it to certain circles or to select groups. It cannot be that way. The Bible is the book of the Lord’s people, who, in listening to it, move from dispersion and division towards unity (n. 4).

A key way the Church helps people appreciate Scripture is through the homily, in which a priest or deacon explains the readings and helps the faithful apply them to their lives. Pope Francis indicates that this “is a pastoral opportunity that should not be wasted!” He writes:

Sufficient time must be devoted to the preparation of the homily. A commentary on the sacred readings cannot be improvised. Those of us who are preachers should not give long, pedantic homilies or wander off into unrelated topics. When we take time to pray and meditate on the sacred text, we can speak from the heart and thus reach the hearts of those who hear us, conveying what is essential and capable of bearing fruit (n. 5).

In recent years, skeptical biblical scholars have cast doubt on the historical reliability of Scripture—including its accounts of Jesus’ resurrection—but Pope Francis rejects this:

Since the Scriptures everywhere speak of Christ, they enable us to believe that his death and resurrection are not myth but history, and are central to the faith of his disciples (n. 7).

He goes on to repeat the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on the inerrancy of Scripture:

Dei Verbum stresses that “we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures” (Dei Verbum 11).

Since the Scriptures teach with a view to salvation through faith in Christ (cf. 2 Tim. 3:15), the truths contained therein are profitable for our salvation. The Bible is not a collection of history books or a chronicle, but is aimed entirely at the integral [i.e., complete] salvation of the person. The evident historical setting of the books of the Bible should not make us overlook their primary goal, which is our salvation. Everything is directed to this purpose and essential to the very nature of the Bible, which takes shape as a history of salvation in which God speaks and acts in order to encounter all men and women and to save them from evil and death (n. 9).

He also cautions against neglecting the Old Testament and regarding it as something that does not apply to us:

The Old Testament is never old once it is part of the New, since all has been transformed thanks to the one Spirit who inspired it (n. 12).

Pope Francis stresses the role of the Holy Spirit in helping us understand and apply the Scriptures, which helps avoid a restrictive, fundamentalist reading:

Without the work of the Spirit, there would always be a risk of remaining limited to the written text alone. This would open the way to a fundamentalist reading, which needs to be avoided, lest we betray the inspired, dynamic and spiritual character of the sacred text. As the Apostle reminds us: “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). The Holy Spirit, then, makes sacred Scripture the living word of God, experienced and handed down in the faith of his holy people (n. 9).

While Scripture is inspired by God in a unique sense, Pope Francis sees the ongoing activity of the Holy Spirit as providing a form of “inspiration” today (note his quotation marks):

God’s revelation attains its completion and fullness in Jesus Christ; nonetheless, the Holy Spirit does not cease to act. It would be reductive indeed to restrict the working of the Spirit to the divine inspiration of sacred Scripture and its various human authors. We need to have confidence in the working of the Holy Spirit as he continues in his own way to provide “inspiration” whenever the Church teaches the sacred Scriptures, whenever the Magisterium authentically [i.e., authoritatively] interprets them, and whenever each believer makes them the norm of his or her spiritual life (n. 10).

As I discuss in The Bible Is a Catholic Book, Catholics rely on the triad of Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium. Pope Francis has already mentioned Scripture and the Magisterium, and he stresses that Tradition “is also God’s word,” stating:

We frequently risk separating sacred Scripture and sacred Tradition, without understanding that together they are the one source of revelation. The written character of the former takes nothing away from its being fully a living word; in the same way, the Church’s living Tradition, which continually hands that word down over the centuries from one generation to the next, possesses that sacred book as the supreme rule of her faith (n. 11).

He also exhorts us:

The sweetness of God’s word leads us to share it with all those whom we encounter in this life and to proclaim the sure hope that it contains (n. 12).

The first celebration of the Sunday of God’s Word will be in 2020, when the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time will be January 26th.

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