A Lenten Bible Story for Catholics: April 20, 2003 Easter Sunday

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As we celebrate Easter today we Roman Catholics can rejoice in how we have been on very friendly terms with the Bible since Vatican II ended on December 8, 1965. More than ever, Catholics read the Sacred Scriptures on their own. It is not uncommon for them to have Bible sharing or Scripture study groups. Many people listen attentively to how Sunday or daily preaching interprets the Scriptures. Others have studied Scripture in religion courses. In the quiet of their home or sitting silently in the midst of a busy crowd Catholics feel free to open their Bible, read a Scripture passage, and meditate on the meaning.

This Lent we have learned that Roman Catholic openness to Sacred Scripture and the Bible did not happen over night. It has been a long journey. Now I believe it is correct to say that the quest to understand the Bible is as much a part of being Catholic as when we go to Mass where we celebrate the Liturgy of Eucharist or say the Rosary and participate in other devotions.

Because St. Joseph’s Monastery Church is a Passionist sponsored parish in the Archdiocese of Baltimore it is appropriate that we let Passionist Scripture scholar Father Barnabas Ahern remind us what that the 1965 Vatican II document Dei Verbum meant. These were thoughts he gave at a 1966 talk at the University of Notre Dame. A major point is that the divine word is a living communication of God with humanity. All divine revelation centers in Jesus Christ. As a document, Dei Verbum is divided into six chapters. Chapter one describes revelation itself—that God has a relationship with all of us, while chapter two concentrates on the transmission of divine revelation—affirmed through “the living presence of tradition, whose wealth is poured into the practice and life of the believing and praying Church.”

Chapter three concentrates on the Divine Inspiration and the Interpretation of Sacred Scriptures. This, said Father Ahern, meant that we should uphold the balance between the realities of God speaking and the church responding. Moreover, he stressed an important point that we who live in the shadows of Vatican II should remember. It is this. All the documents of Vatican II were the result of compromise between the conservatives who looked back towards Trent and the progressives who looked ahead to a new spirit. This is the gift of Vatican II. Each group kept the other one honest. Simply put, we may say that the architects of old school and those of the new school had to build a new building of faith. So when we think of Vatican II in this way it helps us appreciate how we Catholics had to come up with a new way of living in this new building of faith.

Father Ahern explained that a major point of chapter three was that the growth of the spirit can only occur by a responding Church with a living tradition of past and present and know what the inspired writing of the Bible “as truly human writers, intended to say.” This was an idea that had come to life in Divino Afflante Spiritu of 1943. With all his wisdom Ahern then said, “The methods that Scripture scholars, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, have consistently followed are here approved with all force of a Conciliar [Vatican II] constitution. Never again, ” added Ahern, “will there be any reason for benighted fundamentalism in the Church; no more will there be any reason for those unjust criticisms, which have so often blighted the lives and labors of the Church’s devoted scholars.” In effect he was telling his audience then, and we of the church of today, that Catholics should see the Bible as graced book of based upon sound principles modern biblical scholarship where science and faith reap understanding. In no way did Ahern or the participants Vatican II see that Catholics should use Sacred Scripture as a proof text for Catholic orthodoxy.

If we follow that idea, then I suggest that that limits the profound way in which the Church, the sacraments, and the abundant theological principles esteemed by the Church come to life for peoples of the modern world in order to express their Catholic faith. To be blunt. The Bible must not become a battleground for Catholics. To do so makes us more the God. That is wrong.

Father Ahern went on to remind his Notre Dame audience that chapter four of Dei Verbum spoke of the Old Testament. This has to be appreciated as salvation history which is a truly historical yet theologized record of God’s saving action. All this leads ultimately to Christ. Chapter five concentrated on the New Testament. He thought the writings “orchestrate the consummate revelation of God…” Moreover, though Vatican II stayed away from decisions about precise authorship of the Gospels because more study was necessary, it affirmed that such study should be done with the tools of modern biblical scholarship. Then in chapter six, the last chapter of Dei Verbum, Ahern hoped that his listeners would come to understand the “pastoral preoccupation” of the Scriptures.

When all is said and done it is my hope that this seven week Lenten Bible Story for Catholics makes us appreciate the Bible. We need to be reminded that the Catholic Church has a pulse of faith. Now we know that the ability to embrace Sacred Scripture came to life because of encyclicals and scholars such as Passionist Father Barnabas Ahern. We, their followers, thankfully praise the Lord!

by Fr. Rob Carbonneau, C.P.
Historian and Director of The Passionist Historical Archives.