Heroes of the Bible, The Anchor, November 7, 2008

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
November 7, 2008

Recently a large international study on Catholics and the Bible found that only three percent of Catholics read the Bible each day. Eighty percent of Catholics confess that the only time they hear the Word of God is when they hear it proclaimed at Mass. One of the obvious conclusions of the survey was that even though ninety-three percent of Catholics in the developed world own a Bible, few of them profit from this divine treasure at their fingertips.

This is one of the reasons why throughout the month of October Pope Benedict convened the triennial Synod of Bishops to study the theme of the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church.

The working document in preparation for the Synod aptly described the situation that bishops from around the globe came to the Vatican to examine and seek to remedy: “For some the Bible is seen purely as a cultural object with no effect on life, while others, instead, display a certain affection for the book but without knowing why.” For many Catholics the seed of the word of God falls on hardened, rocky, or thorny soil. The bishops, well aware of this soil sample from their own diocesan vineyards, wanted to focus the attention and energy of the Church to tilling this soil to make it good, capable of producing fruit thirty, sixty or one-hundred fold (Mark 4:2-20).

At the Synod — as in many times in Church history — the soil of genuine faith was nourished by the blood of the martyrs. This fertilization was carried out in an unforgettably moving five-minute witness by Bishop Antons Justs of Jelgava, Latvia. His words brought the prelates not only to their feet but to tears. They have the power to make readers irrigate this editorial page as well.

“In my presentation,” Bishop Justs began in simple, straightforward English, “I would like to ta1k about the martyrs of twenty century and in particular those in my country Latvia These are the priests, men and women who died for proclaiming the Word of God.

I remember one Latvian priest, Viktors, who during the Soviet regime in Latvia was arrested for possessing the Holy Bible. In the eyes of the Soviet agents the Holy Scriptures were an anti-revolutionary book. The agents threw the Holy Scriptures on the floor and ordered the priest to step on it. The priest refused and instead knelt down and kissed the book. For this gesture the priest was condemned to ten years of hard labor in Siberia.

“Ten years later, when the priest returned to his parish and celebrated the Holy Mass, he read the Gospel. Then he lifted up the lectionary and said: “The Word of God!” The people cried and thanked God.”

The Word of God, they knew, was a treasure worth suffering for, even the tortures of a decade in a brutal Siberian labor camp. It was worth getting down on one’s knees to kiss. It contained within the open secrets of a true and definitive revolution. Fr. Viktors clearly knew the value of the Word of God and became a living witness to its inestimable value.

He was not alone in this testimony. “In Latvia, during the Soviet era,” Bishop Justs continued, “no religious books, no Holy Scriptures, no catechisms were allowed to be printed. The reasoning was: if there is no printed Word of God, there will be no religion. So our Latvian people did what the first century Christians did: they learnt the passages of the Holy Scriptures by heart.

“Still today in Latvia there is an oral tradition alive. We stand on the shoulders of our martyrs to proclaim the Word of God. Our grandchildren remember their grandfathers and grandmothers, who died for their faith; they want to be, in their turn, heroes of faith.
 In Latvia we proclaim the living Word of God! We go in the processions and on the pilgrimages, we sing songs and we pray and say: ‘This is the Word of God,’ for which our grandparents died.”

A people learning Sacred Scripture by heart, taking the Bible on Pilgrimages, proudly proclaiming the Word of God, and seeking to be heroes in witness to it — this is what the Catholic Church is meant to be. As these faithful Latvians demonstrate, the Bible is not a dead document but a “living word,” since the Word of God is not principally a book or a series of books but a Person, an incarnate Word, whom we encounter through the Bible’s sacred words.

Pope Benedict is clearly trying to bring the Word of God alive again in this way in the hearts of Catholic faithful and Catholic Biblical scholars. In his Synod intervention, he stressed that the Bible needs to be viewed and read with faith as a living encounter with God and never merely as a dead anthology of humanly-revered texts. Otherwise “the Bible becomes a book only about the past. Moral consequences can be drawn from it, one can learn about history, but the Book only speaks about the past” and its interpretation remains at the level of the history of literature rather than an encounter with a God who is very much alive.

In commenting about these insights by Pope Benedict, Fr. Thomas Rosica, a Canadian Biblical scholar who was the English press spokesman for the Synod, talked about the implications for Biblical Scholars. Most Biblical scholars, he said, are trained as “surgeons” to dissect particular passages of Scripture in order to isolate the exact meaning of a particular participle or describe all the redactions of a particular phrase. “What we sometimes forget,” he said, “is that we’re operating on a living body, not a corpse. We’re supposed to be heart surgeons, not coroners. Success is defined by whether the body survives the surgery.” When the Bible is examined without faith, all that remains is body parts. When it is probed with faith, not only does it become alive but we become alive as well.

The same principle applies for ordinary Catholics in their approach to the Bible. Sacred Scripture is more than a Bartlett’s Book of Holy Quotations that we can use to buttress whatever arguments we’re making. It is encounter with a God who speaks to us, who reveals himself to us, who shows how he has acted in history for our sake, and who manifests to us our origin, our dignity, our weakness, and our supreme calling. For that reason we must approach it with a holy listening to what God is saying and an obedient faith. This is the way by which we will be transformed from “idle listeners” into “doers” of the word (James 1:22). This is the way we will become “living exegetes,” as Pope Benedict is accustomed to say. This is the way we will become true heroes of the faith like the Latvians.

This Year of St. Paul that we are now living is a great opportunity for every Catholic to approach the Bible with renewed faith and zeal. Not only is it an occasion to study the letters that the Holy Spirit inspired St. Paul to write to the first Christians — tackling problems and issues that are still highly relevant today — but it is an opportunity zealously to learn the books of the Old Testament that Paul traveled from Tarsus to Jerusalem to assimilate with relish at the feet of the great Rabbi Gamaliel.

Most importantly this Pauline Year is a time for us to come to know intimately the teaching of the Gospel. Like in 20th century Latvia, at St. Paul’s time there were no written Gospels to read. He and the early Christians needed to learn the teachings of Jesus by heart. They did and passed on this life-saving treasure by an oral tradition that was eventually written down. They became, by necessity, walking, breathing Bibles. They processed throughout the world, with songs and prayer, saying “This is the Word of God.” And they transformed and renewed the world.

The Word of God has the same power to bring about that true revolution — if only we, like the Latvian heroes, like St. Paul and the first Christian heroes, receive it on good soil and respond to it with a living faith.