On January 26, the Church will celebrate for the first time an important new annual feast, the Sunday of the Word of God, which Pope Francis established last September 30 to accentuate the importance that Sacred Scripture is meant to have in the faith, prayer and lives of believers.
He announced it intentionally on September 30, which is the feast of St. Jerome, the famous translator of the Bible from the Greek and Hebrew into Latin, then the common language of the people. This year the Church marks the 1,600th anniversary of St. Jerome’s death. He is famous for emphasizing, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ”: unless we are familiar with what Jesus said and did in the Gospel, how He fulfilled all the prophecies of the Old Testament, and how the Apostles proclaimed Him, we really do not know Him.
In his decree establishing the feast, Aperuit Illis, taken from the words in the Emmaus scene describing how Jesus “opened to them what referred to Him in all the Scriptures” (Lk 24:27), Pope Francis said he hopes that it will help believers “grow in religious and intimate familiarity with the Sacred Scriptures,” “appreciate the inexhaustible riches contained in that constant dialogue between the Lord and His people,” “experience anew how the Risen Lord opens up for us the treasury of His Word and enables us to proclaim its unfathomable riches before the world,” and “marked by this decisive relationship with the living word, grow in love and faithful witness.”
Desiring the feast to be dedicated to the “celebration, study and dissemination of the Word of God,” he made various practical suggestions. He asked that the Sacred Scriptures be “enthroned” during Mass, to focus on the permanent, normative value of God’s Word. He suggested that the installation of lectors or commissioning of readers take place, showing the importance of proclaiming God’s Word and giving extra attention to readers’ formation to proclaim it faithfully and beautifully. He asked priests in a particular way to focus on their preaching, so that the Word of God may be better understood and come more alive in the heads of hearts of believers. He proposed that pastors give away a Bible, a set of the Gospels, or at least one of the books of Sacred Scripture, to emphasize the importance of reading, appreciating and praying daily with God’s Word. He encouraged training in lectio divina, so that people may prayerfully assimilate the content of Scripture. And he expressed hope that since the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time either will fall each year within or at the end of the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, the Sunday of the Word of God might bear great ecumenical fruit, “since the Scriptures point out, for those who listen, the path to authentic and firm unity.”
I would like to underline two points.
The first is about celebrating the Word of God as the great treasure it is.
During the 2008 Synod on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church, Bishop Anton Justs of Jelgava, Latvia, gave an unforgettable intervention. He described a priest, Father Viktors, who was arrested by the Soviets for possessing the Bible and commanded him to step on it. Instead, he knelt and kissed it, for which he was condemned to 10 years of hard labor in Siberia. When he returned a decade later as an emaciated witness to Scripture’s inestimable value, he celebrated Mass with his people. After proclaiming the Gospel, he kissed once more the Word of God, and he and the people cried profusely with gratitude to God.
Father Viktors wasn’t alone in his testimony. “In Latvia, during the Soviet era,” Bishop Justs continued, “no religious books, no Holy Scriptures, no catechisms were allowed to be printed. The reasoning was: if there is no printed Word of God, there will be no religion. So our Latvian people did what the first century Christians did: they learnt the passages of the Holy Scriptures by heart.”
And specifically with regard to celebration, he recounted, “Still today in Latvia there is an oral tradition alive. We stand on the shoulders of our martyrs to proclaim the Word of God. Our grandchildren remember their grandfathers and grandmothers, who died for their faith; they want to be, in their turn, heroes of faith. In Latvia we proclaim the living Word of God! We go in the processions and on the pilgrimages, we sing songs and we pray and say: ‘This is the Word of God, for which our grandparents died.’”
A people learning Sacred Scripture by heart, taking the Bible on pilgrimages, proudly proclaiming the Word of God, and seeking to be heroes in witness to it — this is what the Catholic Church is meant to be. This is the type of faith and celebration Pope Francis, by establishing this feast, is trying to catalyze.
The second point is about learning Sacred Scripture.
About a decade ago, I happened to meet a priest from Cleveland at Green Airport in Providence. I invited him to lunch. When the cashier asked if there would be one check or two, I said one and gave my credit card. Father Bob immediately interjected, “Sirach says we should go Dutch!” I stared at him quizzically, but retorted, “Jesus calls us to love one another as He loves us and the Last Supper wasn’t Dutch. I’m paying!”
When we got to the table, immediately after grace, I asked whether he had invented the quotation from Sirach. “Not at all!,” he enthusiastically replied, as he pulled a worn Bible from his backpack and amazingly opened it to the exact page in the Book of Sirach where it says not to be ashamed to “share the expenses of a business or journey” (Sir 42:3).
Blown away, and frankly filled with holy envy by his command of Scripture, I asked how he had come to know the Word of God so well. He told me he had made a promise the day of his diaconal ordination to read the entire Bible once a year and that he had been faithful to that promise. “After 24 years,” he said with a smile, “You get know what Sirach says about restaurant bills!”
I asked him how long it takes to read the whole Bible in a year. He replied that it takes cumulatively only 75 hours, or 12-15 minutes a day.
Since that encounter, I’ve tried to emulate Father Bob’s commitment to reading the Bible each year and have encouraged many others to join us. Twelve to 15 minutes a day can change your life. There are so many books and smartphone applications that make reading the Bible in a year easier, intelligently varying the passages to help one understand it better than if one just read from cover to cover. I’d encourage you to consult them.
If ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ, intimate familiarity with the Word of God will help you to know not only the inspired words but the Word-made-Flesh so much better. The upcoming inaugural Sunday of the Word of God would be a grace-filled occasion to make a resolution to give those 12-15 minutes a day, either individually, or with family, friends or fellow parishioners.
If you do, then what happened on the Road to Emmaus can happen on the very paths you walk.
Anchor columnist Father Roger Landry can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.