A Lenten Bible Story for Catholics: March 30, 2003

Home / Publications / Historical Reflections / A Lenten Bible Story for Catholics / A Lenten Bible Story for Catholics: March 30, 2003

In November 1943 St. Joseph’s Monastery, Irvington, Maryland celebrated its 75th Diamond Jubilee. The monastery was home to a good number of Passionist priests, brothers and seminarians. The new parish church, dedicated during the Depression, was now eleven years old. The old monastery church retained that time worn sacred sense of prayer. The School Sisters of Notre Dame had been teaching at the parish school for 53 years. World War II was almost two years old. Sparrows Point was operating a full steam. Racial attitudes were as defined as the fair and foul lines at the old Oriole Park: home to the Baltimore Orioles, who were then part of the International League.

1943 also proved to be an important year in promoting increased Catholic appreciation of the Bible. On September 30, 1943 Pope Pius XII issued the encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (DAS). The background of two personalties can help us appreciate the meaning of this document which also serves as the foundation for the important Vatican II 1965 document Dei Verbum, or as it is more commonly known, The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation.

First, German-born Father Augustin Bea, S.J. (1881-1968) played a decisive role in the shaping of DAS in 1943 and Dei Verbum at Vatican II. Ordained in 1922, he had studied Near Eastern philology for a semester at the University of Berlin. From 1917-1921 he taught Old Testament at the German theologate of the Jesuits in Holland. There he was prefect of studies. Later he served as the Jesuit provincial of Bavaria, and a the Jesuit visitor to the Japan mission he was influential in the founding of Sophia University, Tokyo. In 1924 he went to Rome to take charge of the Jesuits assigned to graduate studies and taught at the Pontifical Biblical Institute where he was rector from 1930 until 1949. Also, he was a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, confessor to Pius XII (1945-1958), chairman for the revision of the Latin psalter or prayer book, and editor-in-chief of the Roman journal Biblica (1931-1951).

Recall that post-World War I period was still suspect of modern scientific investigation of the Bible. Father Bea took a middle path while he professor at the Biblical Institute (1928-1959). In the classroom he maintained a balance. Most often, he erred on the side of caution and conservatism. His classes were taught in easy fluent Latin with an abundance of references and critical observations. He gave students a good sense of how to study the meaning behind a Bible passage and at the same time encouraged them to pursue personal research on the Bible. This approach helped make his students respect traditional understanding of Scripture while teaching them to respect the less restricted and more progressive positions could develop a means of expression. When all was said and done Father Bea helped create and atmosphere whereby it made sense to take a fresh look at how Catholics, especially priests, should study and interpret the Bible. With support of Pius XII, the encyclical DAS was published. The second person is Passionist Father Barnabas Ahern. Born in Chicago in 1915, ordained a priest in 1921, he was sent to study theology at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., so as to teach Scripture to Passionist seminarians in the western United States. There Father Ahern, like Father Bea, learned to respect Church tradition while embracing modern biblical scholarship in order to reveal the power of Sacred Scripture. This exciting time is clearly evident in Ahern’s 1945 Catholic Biblical Quarterly article “Textual Directives of the Encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu.”

Written more for the scholar than the person in the pews, Father Ahern’s seven page article is nonetheless an early example in the United States that the time had come to read the Bible with new anticipation and hope. In sum, the Chicago born Passionist with hair like Albert Einstein and a body like Ichabod Crane, or better yet Kramer of TV’s Seinfeld, wrote about how the 1943 encyclical DAS had to be understood in the context of the fiftieth anniversary of Providentissimus Deus.

Ahern’s article began with a short historical overview about how fifty years of Catholic Bible study had occurred by knowledge of the original languages of the Sacred Scripture, new international Catholic Bible translation projects, and various programs of how the Bible was being studied in seminaries. Three primary points followed. Familiarity with biblical languages should continue. Next, the past fifty years of inquiry made use of textual criticism all that more important. Finally, Ahern also took the middle road when he suggested that such new investigation of Scripture would build upon and “not run counter to the decrees of Trent.” Furthermore, Ahern wrote that “the well-equipped student who seriously undertakes this tedious work will soon find it an engrossing study; he will experience the satisfaction of considered personal opinion on the value of the text before him.” In these ways, Pope Pius XII’s desire to promote Sacred Scripture would be fulfilled.

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