Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Church's Bible, the Bible's Church

As of tomorrow, 10 January 2011, I will have been a Catholic for eighteen years. I was baptised at St Mary's Parish in Muskegon, Michigan, by the late Fr Marvin Archer on the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord in 1993.

I came to join the Catholic Church from the Baptist denomination. In seventh grade, I read a book about the Catholic Church that utterly astounded me: as a Baptist, I was always under the impression that any gathering of "Bible-believing Christians" was haphazard. As a former confrere put it, "I am a Christian; I happen to go to a Baptist church." My reading of Church history, on the other hand, demonstrated to me beyond any reasonable doubt that the Catholic Church of today traces its lineage to the original community of disciples gathered by Jesus Christ. In other words, no other denomination could make the same claim as did the Catholic Church: that Jesus Christ is our Founder. It would not be until I was a sophomore in high school, however, that I was received into Holy Catholicity.

At a local parish, I introduced myself to a priest after Mass and indicated that I wanted to become a Catholic. He was an elderly man, and a serious one, but full of warmth. I remember his tight grip on my hand as he was greeting parishioners on their way out of Mass. In front of me was a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus that seemed strangely familiar, strangely "right." We never had statues in Baptist churches, but the mere gaze upon this figure proclaimed to me Christ who was eager to receive my soul, full of love and mercy.

After the priest finished greeting the parishioners, we drove to his rectory. I was shocked by how bare and simple it was--hardly any furniture, a small television, and a little dog. At the time, I had been attending a Baptist church just around the corner from this parish, much to the priest's surprise, since he was accustomed to slander and misinformation about the Catholic Faith on the part of non-Catholics, especially Baptists and Fundamentalists. We chatted for a while and, as I was leaving, he gave me two books. The first, Catholic Answers to Fundamentalists' Questions, was a useful compendium of Catholic replies to common Fundamentalist misinformation. The second was a catechism, Instructions in the Catholic Faith, which is unfortunately out of print.

Instructions in the Catholic Faith was unique in that the beginning of each chapter began with a section from the Scriptures and the documents of the Second Vatican Council. I distinctly remember reading those chapters on the peculiarly "Catholic" doctrines like the Eucharist, papal primacy, and purgatory with the accompanying texts from Scripture. I was astounded at how biblical the Catholic Faith was, so astounded in fact that I checked these Biblical references in my NIV Bible just to make sure. And, sure enough, those Scripture texts cited by the catechism to substantiate those peculiarly Catholic beliefs. From that book began my journey to the study of sacred theology, my "love affair with the Truth" to use the title of a documentary on Pope Benedict XVI.

I had been vaguely aware of the Baptist comment that "Catholics don't read the Bible." My experience of the Catholic Church during the first few years of exploration completely obliterated that. When I attended Sunday Mass, I noticed that there were always three readings from the Scriptures, generally the first from the Old Testament, the second from the New Testament, and a Gospel. Between the first and second readings was a sung Psalm. We never sang the Psalter in the Baptist church! In fact, it was fairly common for there to be only two to five verses read by the pastor followed by a forty-five minute speech. The Catholic homily, on the other hand, is rarely more than ten minutes, but is preceded by a "Liturgy of the Word" that is often lengthy. More to the point, at the Easter Vigil, there is an extremely long Liturgy of the Word with eight readings from Scripture. The charge that Catholics don't read the Bible is nothing more than misinformation. Really, "misinformation" is a euphemism for "lie"--it is a patent lie that Catholics don't read the Bible. What do we have Lectionaries for?

A year after my baptism, when I was seventeen, I ordered a set of the Liturgy of the Hours and began to use it, albeit with some difficulty at first. Coming from a Fundamentalist background, the breviary is a most unusual book: in four volumes, the Bible arranged for prayer at least five times daily, preceded (generally) by three Psalms and a short reading (as is the case for Morning Prayer, Daytime Prayer, and Evening Prayer). The so-called "Office of Readings" began with three Psalms but concluded with two lengthy readings--the first from Scripture and the second, generally, from one of the Fathers of the Church. Here again I encountered what was assumed nonexistent as a Baptist--that there are writings from the first Christian centuries, and let me tell you, they don't sound anything like any Baptist preacher I know!

So here I am, attending Sunday Mass with three readings, praying the Liturgy of the Hours, and reading the Bible on my own time. I was getting myself soaked in Scripture.

One day, I was with my Boy Scout troop manning a fundraising booth at the annual fair. I saw one of my former confreres at the Baptist church I attended during my earliest years. When I mentioned that I had become a Catholic, he launched into a two-dimensional commentary on how Catholics don't read the Bible. Catholics attend Sunday Mass with three readings, but "Catholics don't read the Bible." Priests and religious are required to celebrate the Liturgy of the Hours but "Catholics don't read the Bible." Every parish had a Bible study group going on but "Catholics don't read the Bible." I remember being very, very irritated by this man whose contact with the world beyond his prejudice was governed by the garbage he was fed at my former Baptist church, passed off as "Sunday School." Little did I know that this promised to be a consistent experience.

When I was a senior in high school, one of the sign-language interpreters came from my former Baptist church (which was, in fact, right across the street from the school). She is a wonderful lady, and to this day she is a friend of mine. A genuine Christian. But, for the life of me, her self-advertisement as a "Bible-believer" had little to show for it. I distinctly recall a discussion in the hallway before class about why the Catholic Old Testament was slighly longer than the Protestant one. I had begun to explain that the Jews of Alexandria had translated the Old Testament into Greek and this was the Old Testament used by the earliest Christians...

"I'm really not interested in that," was her interruption.

I was astounded. A "Bible believer" not interested in the history of the Bible? Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Fundamentalism.

As a Catholic, I am continually in awe of the reverence that the Church shows to the Bible. "The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures as she venerated the Body of the Lord, in so far as she never ceases, particualrly in the sacred liturgy" (Dei Verbum, 21). The parish I was baptized had a beautiful, silver-plated cover for the Book of the Gospels. During the reading of the Gospel, it was held aloft by the priest during the singing of the Celtic Alleluia, and kissed when the reading reached its conclusion. Anyone can see this sort of thing when they watch the pope's Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve: an ornate Book of the Gospels is enthroned on an elaborate stand , then carried in procession accompanied by candles, enveloped in clouds of incense, and not just read alout but sung. It is brought to the pope at the conclusion of its proclamation for him to kiss and to take up and bless us with the sign of the Cross. I am appalled, on the other hand, to see Bibles rolled up in one hand by television "preachers," slammed on the pulpit, and worst of all, quoted in isolation from the rest of the text. If singing the Bible, incensing the Bible, kissing the Bible, enthroning the Bible, does not count for reverence and veneration, I don't know what does!

Additionally, an ancient monastic praxis of reading the Bible known as lectio divina is a uniquely Catholic patrimony. Every silent retreat I have ever attended as a Catholic has included strong encouragement not only to spend time with the Bible in prayer each day, but has recommended especially the method of lectio divina.

There is more! The 'Biblicality' of the Catholic Faith, if I may coin a word, is understood in terms of culture. Catholics are not satisfied with simply a retrieval of doctrine from the Bible but even more a celebration of Biblical symbols in the life of the Church. It is true that there is a three-year cycle of Scripture readings on Sundays (and a two-year cycle for weekdays), but there is also a liturgical year which commemorates the various events of the Biblical narrative: the Annunciation (25 March), the visit of the Magi on Epiphany (6 January), the Baptism of the Lord (Sunday after Epiphany), the Presentation of the Lord (2 February), the Purification of Mary, the Temptation in the Desert (First Sunday of Lent), the Transfiguration of the Lord (6 August), Pentecost (fiftieth day of Easter), and so forth. There are also days in which the memory of various Biblical figures are commemorated, such as Sts Peter and Paul (29 June), St Andrew the First-Called (30 November), St John the Apostle and Evangelist (27 December), the Prophet King David (29 December), the Prophet Isaiah (6 July), the Prophet Elijah (20 July), and so forth. Still, Fundamentalists say that "Catholics don't read the Bible."

And again, the symbols of Biblical narratives are used: on Epiphany, extra candles are lit in the church as a reminder of the Star that led the Magi to the infant Jesus. On the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord, water is sprinkled on the liturgical assembly as a reminder of our baptism. At Easter, the astronomical interplay of the sun and the moon reminds us of the Light of the World who was resurrected. During the Advent season, the "Jesse Tree" serves to remind us of the ancestry of Jesus, rooted in the history of Israel. I could go on. And still, Fundamentalists say that "Catholics dont' read the Bible."

As a seminarian preparing for Holy Orders, I am required to devote a bulk of my time to the study of Scripture. According to the supreme authority of the Church, "Hence, [seminarians] should be trained for the ministry of the Word, so that they may gain an ever increasign understanding of the revealed Word of God, making it their own by meditation and giving it expression in their speech and in their lives" (Optatum totius, 4). At my own seminary, I am proud to say, at least eight, 3-credit courses in Scripture are required for Ordination: Introduction to Scripture, Matthew and Mark, Like-Acts, Pauline Literature, Johannine Literature, Prophets, Psalms and Wisdom Literature, and the Pentateuch.

Every non-Catholic institution of higher learning offers degrees in the study of Scripture, but the Catholic Church alone has a system of credentialing those who undertake such a study at a higher level. These degrees are known as the Licentiate of Sacred Scripture (abbreviated "S.S.L.") and the Doctorate of Sacred Scripture ("S.S.D."). In Rome, there are at least two institutions of higher learning known for their curricula in Scripture, the Pontifical Biblical Institute and the Pontifical Gregorian University, both of which are operated by the Society of Jesus (popularly known as the Jesuits). In point of fact, one of the editors of the current Critical Text of the Greek New Testament is himself a Jesuit, His Eminence Carlos Cardinal Martini, who holds a double doctorate in both fundamental theology and Scripture. The pope also has a body of advisors on matters of Scripture known as the Pontifical Biblical Commission. And, according to Fundamentalists, "Catholics don't read the Bible"?

In recent times, popes have issued numerous documents on the Scriptures, beginning with Providentissimus Deus (Pope Leo XIII, 1893), Dei Filius (First Vatican Council, promulgated by Pope Pius IX, 1870), Spiritus Paraclitus (Pope Benedict XV, 1920), Divino afflante Spiritu (Pope Pius XII, 1943), Dei Verbum (Second Vatican Council, promulgated by Pope Paul VI, 1965), and most recently Verbum Domini (Pope Benedict XVI, 2010). I wonder how many Fundamentalist have even heard of these documents, let alone read them.

The Catholic Church is, for lack of better phraseology, the house of the Scriptures. Our art, our study, our liturgy, our prayer is saturated with the Scriptures.

At a deeper level, however, Catholicity and Protestantism differs enormously in the "reception" of the Scriptures. Since the Catholic Church was founded by Christ, the "deposit of faith"--that is to say, the body of doctrines--was "once for all entrusted to the holy ones." In other words, the delivery of the doctrine of Christ happened once and only once; it cannot be "delivered again." The body of Catholic doctrines that is believed today was set in motion by Christ and His Apostles; Scripture is a reminder of what Christ and the Apostles has taught. This is a crucial difference between the fundamental theology of Catholicity and of Protestantism. Recall that, at the Transfiguration, God commanded Sts Peter, James, and John to "Listen to Him!" Colossians 2:3 speaks of "the knowledge of God's mystery, that is Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." It is Jesus Christ who is the locus of Divine Revelation, it is He who discloses God, not the Bible. Remember that the Pauline communities were already Chrisians when the Apostle wrote his epistles (cf. Rom 15:15); many of these communities were founded by Paul himself, and not one of the ancient Christian communities were founded on the basis of an apostolic letter! This is precisely the Catholic position: the Faith is handed on to us by the preaching and teaching of the Church's leadership and the Bible is a reminder of what was handed on. Protestantism, on the contrary, is only one-quarter as old as Christianity itself, and for that reason it does not exist in the privileged stream of apostolic succession; it has tried to use the Bible to represent a "leapfrogging" of Church history from the age fo the Apostles to the time of Martin Luther. Christianity is just that: the religion of Christ, not the religion of the Bible, otherwise it would be called 'Bibleanity.' The Bible cannot be a 'reset button' that can be hit whenever we suspect our pastor of un-Biblical doctrines--to do so is to usurp the privileged work of the Holy Spirit, who was sent to lead us "into all the Truth." The Catholic Church, therefore, is a Biblical culture. Fundamentalism--the attempt to be "Bible-based"--is ultimately an idolatrous and blasphemous endeavour because it is Christ who is our foundation. Christ reveals God. To substitute the Bible for Christ...I won't bother to finish that thought because, if I needed to, then my reader has wasted time reading this post.

The Scriptures is preeminently the Book of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. That's all there is to it.

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