In the earliest centuries of Christianity, this was taken for granted. The Fathers and Mothers of the Church, and the great ecumenical Councils, looked to the New Testament as their ‘source’ when they began to reflect upon the mystery of what God had done for us, in and through his Son. That was where they looked for an infallible and inspired Word.
Many factors, both internal and external to the life of the Catholic Church, led to a gradual loss of contact, understanding and use of these foundational texts in our tradition. As older Catholics know, from the time of the Reformation (16th century) the bible became the book for the Protestants. We had the Mass, the sacraments, the priests, bishops and our pope.
As Catholicism faced the challenges of the modern era, its leadership saw that it needed to look back to the inspired source of our faith. In 1893, Pope Leo XIII, in his Encyclical Providentissimus Deus, exhorted Catholics to return to the bible which he described as the “very soul” of the life and practice of the Catholic tradition. Fifty years later, Pope Pius XII, in the difficult times of the carnage of World War II, wrote Divino Afflante Spiritu, an encyclical commemorating the message of Leo XII but stating it even more urgently.
Very little happened in the faith and practice of the ordinary Catholic! The Mass, the sacraments, the priests, the bishops, and the pope all remained in place, and very few took serious notice of the Word of God, found in the bible. Some very fi ne Catholic professors emerged, but they did not make a great impression on “the soul” of the Church. We continued as we had done for centuries, and the bible remained the book of the Protestants.
The amazing voice of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) spoke out loudly, addressing this situation wherein the Church had taught the importance of the biblical Word, but very few listened. Notable citations from the Council’s document on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum (Latin for “the Word of God”), and named for its fi rst two words, include:
“Access to sacred Scripture ought to be open wide to the Christian faithful.” (Dei Verbum 22)
“The spouse of the incarnate word, which is the Church, is taught by the Holy Spirit. She strives to reach day by day a more profound understanding of the sacred Scriptures, in order to provide her children with food from the divine words .” (Dei Verbum 23)
Perhaps the most shocking statement from the Council places the sacred scriptures side by side with the eucharist as the “one table” that nourishes the believers:
“The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures as she venerated the Body of the Lord, in so far as she never ceases, particularly in the sacred liturgy, to partake of the bread of life and to offer it from the one table of the Word of God and the Body of Christ.” (Dei Verbum 21)
We have always seen the importance of going to Mass, but to claim that the scriptures and the eucharist form “the one table” is very challenging.
My sad experience is that it continues to be too challenging. Pope Benedict XVI indicated his unhappiness with the lack of concern for the Word of God in the life of the Church by convening an Episcopal Synod on the issue in 2008, and publishing a magnificent post-Synodal Exhortation, Verbum Domini, in 2010. A number of good initiatives are in place in the contemporary Catholic Church. But on the whole there are more critical issues that face the Church and its leadership. They are unable to devote time, action (and finances) to the biblical education of the clergy and the faithful.
But we must continue to try. We should learn to raise the questions that throw great light on the readings that we hear week after week in our Sunday liturgy. There are many documents in what we call the New Testament. Where did they come from? How did it come about that by the fourth Christian century, certain early writings were regarded as ‘inspired’?
What is the particular ‘point of view’ of each author, and how does this contribute to the faith of the Church, and my own faith? Why does the post- Conciliar Church have a new Lectionary, and a Year of Matthew (Year A), a Year of Mark (Year B), and a Year of Luke (Year C)? Finally, can the Word of God nourish my life of prayer? Reponses to these questions are fascinating – and life giving! They serve to guide us more deeply into our use of the New Testament in our Christian lives and in the life of the Church. Using the languages and writing materials of their own time, and the God-given experiences of their hearts and minds, the men and women who had experienced Jesus of Nazareth told his story (the Gospels). Other documents (Paul’s Letters, other Letters, and the Book of Revelation) communicated what God has done for us in and through his life, teaching, death and resurrection.
My little book, A Friendly Guide to the New Testament, is an initial attempt to respond to the questions I asked in the previous paragraphs. Since publishing this book, I have made a further attempt to cross the bridge between the Lectionary and the people in the pews with a longer book, available locally; Reading the New Testament in the Church. A Primer for Pastors, Religious Educators and Believers (Melbourne: John Garratt, 2015). I pray that my efforts respond to the needs of today’s Church in some small way, “that a new impulse of spiritual life may be expected from increased veneration of the Word of God which stands forever”. (Isaiah 40:8; see 1 Peter 1:23-25) (Dei Verbum 26)
Francis J Moloney, SDB, AM, FAHA is a Senior Professorial Fellow in the Faculty of Theology and Philosophy at Australian Catholic University. A Friendly Guide to the New Testament is available at the Resource Centre, St Laurence Centre, 137 Broadmeadow Road, Broadmeadow.