Fr. Peter Daly
February 1, 2002
It is lamentable that, until recently, Bible study was not a typical offering of many Catholic parishes.
Some older Catholics will even tell you that they were discouraged from reading the Bible, because of possible “misinterpretations.” Occasionally, Catholic households did not even own a copy of the scriptures. More often, the family Bible gathered dust on the shelf, serving only as a place to record family events, like births and baptisms.
As a result, many Catholics are not comfortable with the scriptures. Many of us have little or no working knowledge of their content.
Thankfully, this began to change in 1965 when the Second Vatican Council issued a document on the sacred scripture called Dei Verbum (“The Word of God”). Catholics were encouraged to read the word of God on their own.
As Fr. Richard Neuhaus has observed, the Council opened the Church more fully to the gospel. In a sense, the Protestant Reformation won the 16th century debate about the role of the scriptures in the life of holiness.
Scripture study is now a firmly established feature of Catholic parish life. Like most parishes, we use the Bible in our religious education classes for children and adults. We give our confirmation classes a copy of the scriptures as their gift. Most importantly we have two weekly Bible study groups for adults, one on Monday mornings, the other on Monday nights.
I have found, is that group Bible study is not only important to us as a parish, but important to me as a priest.
A year ago, in the midst of a big building program in our parish, I was feeling like my life was out of focus. Too much emphasis on the material and not enough on the spiritual. So last fall, I started what I had done in other parishes as an assistant pastor, a weekly Bible study. We are reading the gospel of Matthew, which is the cycle of readings at Sunday mass this year.
It is the most satisfying part of my week. In fact, after the liturgy, Bible study is the most satisfying thing I do as a priest, pastor and Christian.
When I was in the seminary, the great Biblical scholar, Fr. Raymond Brown told us that when we teach the Bible, don’t be afraid of the text. “The way to begin,” he said, “is to open the Bible and start reading.”
Brown pointed out that teaching “about” the Bible is like an English teacher who talks “about” Shakespeare. Much better just to read Shakespeare and let the students encounter the bard for themselves (with an occasional nudge from the teacher).
Over the years I have found that Fr. Brown gave good advice.
What we do is simple. We just take turns reading a few verses at a time. We stop and discuss each little section. Sometimes it takes us three weeks to get through a chapter. That’s ok.
For example, just after September 11, we spent a whole evening discussing five verses in the fifth chapter of Matthew. It was Jesus’ command to love our enemies. We all had some trouble figuring out what the Lord’s teaching meant in light of those terrible events.
Discussing the gospel in Bible study gives me a fresh perspective on the meaning of passages that would never occur to me on my own.
Every now and then, I hear from priests who tell me that their ministry has become arid. But there is a way to tap into the springs of living water that Jesus offered to the Samaritan woman at the well.
Get some people together. Open the Bible. Start reading.