For many, perhaps most, Catholics, the most frequent place of encounter with the Bible is in the Liturgy of the Word at Mass. Prior to the Second Vatican Council, that encounter was severely restricted. The Scripture readings at Mass were on a one-year cycle and most of the Bible, including most of the New Testament, was never proclaimed.
One would never hear in church, for example, the stories from John's Gospel of the raising of Lazarus, Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well or the healing of the man born blind. The Old Testament was used sparingly, although occasionally a reading from one of the prophets would be proclaimed as the "Epistle."
The fathers of Vatican II changed that drastically. Indeed, Pope John Paul II once wrote that the new emphasis on the Word of God was one of the most important reforms of the council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium).
"Growth in liturgical life and consequently progress in Christian living cannot be achieved except by continually promoting . . . 'a warm and living knowledge of Scripture,'" he wrote on the 25th anniversary of the constitution in 1988.
CNS PHOTO | ALESSANDRO DE MEO, REUTERS
Vatican II's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy decreed, 'The treasures of the Bible are to be opened up more lavishly' in the liturgy.
Sacrosanctum Concilium had decreed, "The treasures of the Bible are to be opened up more lavishly" in the liturgy (SC 51).
So it was. The Church developed a three-year cycle of readings for Sundays and a two-year cycle for weekdays that ensured the faithful would hear, as part of the liturgy, every important piece of Scripture over the three years. For many Catholics, including myself, it was like opening a treasure box. The rich imagery of the prophets and of John's Gospel gave a whole new sparkle to the faith.
The constitution said that in the liturgy, "Christ is still proclaiming his Gospel" (SC 33). Indeed, as the Word was broken at Mass, Christ's presence was almost palpable.
Catholic Bible study groups sprung up in parishes and Catholic laypeople began to study Scripture formally at institutions such as Newman Theological College, which was established right after the council. Priests too received a much stronger grounding in Scripture in their seminary formation.
Locally, Redemptorist Father John Spicer went to great lengths to educate people in the Bible, establishing formation programs and bringing in some of North America's leading Scripture scholars to speak to lay and clergy audiences. As well, the charismatic renewal ran a residential Bible school at Radway for about 25 years.
It is true that Vatican II was followed by much confusion about the faith. However, this Catholic discovery of the Bible was one of the most beautiful aspects of the life of the Church in the 20th century. It led to a deepening of the faith and greater involvement in the liturgy.
Pope John Paul's words are still true. If we want to promote progress in Christian living, "a warm and living knowledge of Scripture" is likely the key.
As far back as 1943, Pope Pius XII had used his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu to encourage the Catholic laity to study the Bible and to give a qualified endorsement to modern methods of Scripture scholarship. But it wasn't until Scripture was given a more prominent place in the liturgy that a love of the Bible was visibly manifested among Catholics.
When we talk about full, conscious and active participation of the faithful in the liturgy, it is through the study of Scripture that this can be nurtured and developed. It is the Gospel and other readings that give a unique colouring to each celebration of the liturgy. By reading and meditating on those short pieces of Scripture before Mass, one can enter more fully into the entire liturgy of the day.
If those who proclaim the readings from the sanctuary practise those readings aloud and pray through them before they come to church, that too can facilitate the participation of the faithful. Theologian Pamela Jackson encourages readers to think of themselves as loaning their lungs and vocal chords to the Holy Spirit so that God may better speak his word through them.
The dialogue between God and the worshipping community does not end when the reading stops. There is a moment of silence for pondering and the priest's homily to elevate one's special reflection and meld it with that of the rest of the community.
As the Liturgy of the Word moves into the Liturgy of the Eucharist, one may still chew on a morsel of the Word, uniting it with the living Bread of the Eucharist.
When someone says they are "a Vatican II Catholic" that ought to mean one thing above all – that their personal and liturgical spirituality is founded on the Word of God. Scripture sustains them and their meditation on God's Word is an active force in their lives.