A Lenten Bible Story for Catholics: March 16, 2003

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Soon after the Passionists arrived in the United States in 1852, they quickly established themselves as dynamic preachers of parish missions. Frequently, Passionist priests held a crowd in rapture as they preached about the power of God. It was a message preached to men, women, children, and non-Catholics. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Passionist priests who lived at St. Joseph’s Monastery, Baltimore, Maryland (dedicated in 1868) also became known as respected preachers.

This Lenten season, as we celebrate how Catholics became more familiar with Sacred Scriptures in the Bible it worthwhile for us to recall that Passionist life in the monastery and preaching from the pulpit was directly impacted by the Modernist controversy. For example, in 1911, four years after Pope Pius X published his encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis which announced Modernism to be “the synthesis of all heresies”, the head of the east coast United States Passionists, Father Stanislaus Grennan, C.P., sent a letter to all the Passionists under his responsibility. Father Grennan took great pain to warn that the “danger ” of Modernism did exist for all Passionists. It “lies in its SPIRIT. The spirit at work in Modernism,” Grennan went on to stress, “is Naturalism and this is what we have to fear. There is,” continued Grennan “no immediate danger of our denying the Incarnation, the Divinity of Jesus Christ, His Resurrection or any other doctrine defined by the Church. No, the danger,” concluded the Passionist leader, “is not that we shall become open heretics and avowed Modernists, but that we may unconsciously become tainted by the spirit of Modernism.” What this short selection from the 1911 official letter of Father Grennan tells us is that Passionists, like so many in the world-wide Catholic Church, distrusted rational science and philosophy and were nervous of modern methods that would explore the new scientific ways to interpret the meaning of the Bible. It would be a rare moment that Passionist preachers would encourage people in the pews to read the Bible!

Still, the question remains. When did an atmosphere develop whereby Catholics were encouraged to read about the Bible? We will see next week that it will not take place until 1943. So, during the course of four decades a mood existed that shunned any new exploration in the meaning of the Bible for Catholics. It was also during this time that officials in Rome founded and supported organizations or modes of thought which led to insuring a slow, cautious, and conservative study of Sacred Scripture by Catholic scholars. For example, in 1902 Pope Leo XIII established the Pontifical Biblical Commission which was made up of scholars to oversee the correct interpretation of Catholic Scripture. Later, in 1909, the Pontifical Biblical Institute, staffed by the Jesuits, was started in Rome, Italy to promote proper study of Sacred Scripture. Finally, in 1920 Pope Benedict XV published the papal encyclical Spiritus Paraclitus which upheld St. Jerome’s love of Scripture as a model; encouraged students to study at the Pontifical Biblical Institute; and promoted daily reading of the New Testament. In sum, the encyclical did not apply any new avenues of scholarly inquiry but rather affirmed much of the limited tone to investigate Scripture written about in Providentissimus Deus of 1893.

Looking back, we might say that the only bright light on the horizon during these years was the École Biblique near Jerusalem. Begun in 1890, by a French Dominican priest, Father Marie Joseph Lagrange, with the approval of Pope Leo XIII, the purpose of the institution was to study the religious culture where Jesus Christ lived and preached. To do this the science of archeology and language study was used. As a result, the program at the École Biblique served as a consistent place where scholars ever so quietly and slowly applied the scientific method as a tool to unravel Scripture to illumine the person of Jesus. Notable is the fact this Dominican school was, even with all the Catholic controversies about interpretation surrounding Scripture, able to serve as place to teach priests from all over the world. In fact, except for World War I , 1914-1918, it has been able to keep its doors open and its purpose steadfast.

Some may be disheartened by this whole debate on the true interpretation of Catholic Scripture during the first part of the 20th century. A debate which we see even influenced the life and preaching of the Passionists. Helpful may be seeing the events depicted in the March 9 and this week’s St. Joseph’s Parish Bulletin in the context of a recent book about the English Bible which can be found at Barnes and Noble or Borders.

Writer Benson Bobrick in Wide As the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution it Inspired (Penguin 2002) reminds us that Sacred Scripture and the Bible is a very important document. For centuries it has fostered deep emotion and meaning for all who read it.

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