Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

How Catholics Should Approach Scripture

November 9, 2015


In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis devotes quite a bit of attention to the importance of the homily and in this he also says something critical, I believe, about an authentic Catholic approach to the Scriptures.  The Holy Father writes,

The first step (of preparing to preach), after calling upon the Holy Spirit in prayer is to give our entire attention to the biblical text, which needs to be the basis of our preaching.  Whenever we stop and attempt to understand the message of a particular text, we are practicing “reverence for the truth.” This is the humility of heart that recognizes that the word is always beyond us, that “we are neither its masters or owners, but its guardians, heralds and servants.”

This attitude of humble and awe-filled veneration of the word is expressed by taking the time to study it with the greatest care and holy fear lest we distort it.  To interpret a biblical text, we need to be patient, to put aside all other concerns and to give it our time, interest and undivided attention.  We must leave aside any other pressing concerns and create an environment of serene concentration.  (EG, 146)

A tendency that we can fall into on the Catholic side of things (I know I have) is to reduce Scripture to just being a proof text for the sacraments and for apologetics regarding Catholic Church teaching. This “reduction” does not demonstrate the fullness of “reverence for truth” that Pope Francis is calling us to in our approach to Scripture as both preachers and also all Christians in general.  Yes, sacramental theology and all Church teaching is based in Scripture and it is certainly fair to point this connection out and even dive deeply into it but Sacred Scripture is also and always the living word of God and this should never be lost sight of. 

To too  heavy handedly equate a passage a Scripture solely as a proof text to Church teaching is to lose something of the “awe-filled veneration of the word” that, as Christians, we should cherish and treat with the deepest respect and holy fear and even build our very lives of discipleship around!   

My hunch is that we Catholics have too easily accepted the supposition that Catholics have the sacraments and Protestants have the Bible.  What I say is that Catholics have both!  After all, we do speak of the two parts of the Mass: the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  But, do we believe it?  Do our actions and preparation, both as preachers preparing to preach the word and as community preparing to receive the word, demonstrate this belief?  I think that this is a question Pope Francis openly asks in his apostolic exhortation.  Our liturgical documents teach that Christ is uniquely present in the Eucharist but this is not an “all or nothing” equation, the same documents also teach that Christ is present in the proclamation of the word!  I take this to mean that there is a grace present in the proclamation of Scripture and in encounter with Scripture both within and outside of liturgical prayer.

How might we learn to encounter the fullness of Scripture and to avoid any reductionist tendency toward Scripture?  I think that the passage quoted above from Evangelii Gaudium specifies two attitudes that guard against any reductionist approach to Scripture – humility of heart and patience.

One of my favorite saints, St. Teresa of Avila had a saying, “While on this earth – humility.”  Humility means knowing who we are and who we are not.  We are forgiven sinners beloved of the Father and if I can bring that awareness with me when I read Scripture then I realize that Scripture is first and foremost a place of living encounter and not just interesting stories from the past or the foundational document for religious tenets.  When we read Scripture, God seeks us out and God wants encounter with us.  The Bible is not a dead book it is an amazing and grace-filled place of encounter!  Humility of heart enables me to both be receptive to this and to even experience it firsthand as I make my journey of faith!

Patience may not be a prized virtue in our age of instant gratification but it is esteemed throughout Scripture and essential for true maturity of faith.  Patience in regards to Scripture, the Holy Father notes, particularly means giving Sacred Scripture the time and attention it deserves.  Reading Scripture is not like reading the daily paper where I expect to know the “who, what, when, where and how” within the first few sentences in order to then move on to the next story.  Regretfully, I must confess that just as I have had rushed to size a person and his or her story up at different times I have also done the same toward Scripture.  “Oh, I know this parable … these are the key points.”  I am ashamed to admit how many times I have done this.  Patience with Scripture means taking the time to encounter the word and being patient to let the word speak a new and probably surprising truth to my heart that I need today in this moment.  Being patient with Scripture means admitting that I never fully know a passage even if I have read it a thousand times before!  There is always a new truth to be revealed if I take the time and if I do not rush.  For this very reason Scripture can never be reduced to being just a proof text for anything.  God, himself, is at work through Scripture!

St. Jerome gave us the great one liner; “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”  I am not a scholar of St. Jerome but in this quote I do not believe that the saint only means that Scripture tells us about Christ (which it does) but even more so that within Scripture we encounter Christ himself.  Within Scripture, Christ seeks us out and he speaks to our hearts! 

Sacred Scripture can never be reduced to just being a proof text for anything.  Pope Francis is right.  The only authentic way to approach Scripture is in a profound reverence for truth, knowing we are never Scriptures’ masters but rather its humble servants.