Although the Catholic Church and its preachers and educators have made tremendous progress over the past fifty years, the average Catholic is still not comfortable with the Bible, neither liturgically nor personally. The Service of the Word at Sunday liturgies and at daily Mass is still viewed as a preliminary to the “real” parts of the Mass, the Eucharistic Prayer and Holy Communion. Often worshippers are still getting adjusted in their pews as the Scripture readings begin. And, let’s be frank, the assorted speakers and the assorted speaking systems in the various parishes do not always insure an effective proclamation worthy of the God’s Word. The handy Missalette and other publications can substitute for a forceful reading but this is not the ideal situation. Proclamation, not merely reading out loud, is the liturgy’s intention and the practical goal. Even after five decades of liturgical renewal, the Service of the Word still needs attention and imagination.
In the American popular mind, the Bible is associated much more with Protestants than with Catholics. History is somewhat responsible for this imbalance. The early Protestants made the Scriptures their sole source of inspiration and teaching. “Sola Scriptura” (Scripture alone) replaced the creeds and rituals that were essential to Catholicism. Catholics in turn, at least on a popular level, reacted by almost shunning the Bible. The catechism, the sacraments and pious devotions were the stuff of Catholic daily spiritual life. The mysteries of the Rosary certainly have a biblical foundation and the Catholicism’s finest stained-glass windows almost always celebrate Biblical events. But American Catholics have never been pre-occupied with Bible reading – and especially not the King James Version of the Bible. The Liturgy of the Hours, the popular magazine Magnificat, and Pope Benedict’s nod toward Lectio Divina are notable recent efforts to correct this neglect of Scripture on the part of many, indeed most, Catholics.
The very first generations of Christians certainly did not have Bibles on their night tables for inspirational reading. The ancient Church knew the Bible more through memorization than through reading — which is probably the way they knew most of the lessons. Books, scrolls, and even paper were very expensive in the ancient world. The ancients would have heard Biblical phrases and expressions repeated over and over again. The first psalm celebrates the pious Jew who relishes the words of Scripture: “the law of the LORD is his joy; and on his law he meditates day and night.” The pious Jew more than meditated on the law. He mumbled it, he murmured it, he whispered it, over and over “day and night.” This rote recitation was the manner through which one generation passed the “magnolia Dei,” the wonderful works of God, onto the next generation. St. Paul alludes to Timothy’s early Scriptural indoctrination in this Sunday second reading: “Remain faithful to what you have learned and believed, because you know from whom you learned it, and that from infancy you have known the sacred Scriptures, which are capable of giving you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Before the printing press, Bibles were certainly not handy to most generations of Christians. But, as St. Paul observes elsewhere, “Faith comes through hearing…” And it was hearing the Word of God at home, at synagogue, at church and at school that nurtured the faith of the Christian community, both young and old.
Jesus himself certainly did not walk the roads of Galilee with a Bible in his hand. He spoke from his own mind, from the words he knew from childhood: “And beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the scriptures.” Jesus knew the Scriptures and employed them readily as a teaching and inspirational instrument. Personal knowledge of the Bible is the best preparation for hearing the Bible proclaimed effectively in the liturgy. Familiar words will not be so apt to go right over the hearer’s head as they do now. As St. Paul writes again, “Be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching.” Scriptural effectiveness in the liturgy is the burden of the believer as well as the responsibility of the lector and the sound system. Everyone needs to be prepared.