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November 16, 2010

Special report on pope's new apostolic exhortation,
"The Word of the Lord."

In this edition:
1. Pope's new apostolic exhortation: "The Word of the Lord."
2. God's closeness, God's silence: The exhortation.
3. Mary, woman of the word: The exhortation.
4. Inspiration's meaning and importance: The exhortation.
5. The steps of "lectio divina": The exhortation.
6. Quotes to ponder in the apostolic exhortation.
7. Christians, Jews and Scripture: The exhortation.
8. Vatican ecumenical office's 50th anniversary.

1. New Apostolic Exhortation: "The Word of the Lord"

Pope Benedict XVI encourages "the flowering of 'a new season of greater love for sacred Scripture on the part of every member of the people of God'" in an apostolic exhortation the Vatican released Nov. 11. Titled "The Word of the Lord" ("Verbum Domini"), the document represents the pope's reflection on the recommendations of the October 2008 assembly of the world Synod of Bishops.

The pope's lengthy, far-reaching document might be termed a compendium of reflections on many key points in current church discussions of the Bible as the word of God - from its inspiration to its role in prayer, from biblical scholarship to Scripture's key role in liturgy, from the care for the poor Scripture fosters to its value for family life.

As a reflection on the word of God, it isn't surprising that the Prologue to John's Gospel, which speaks of the eternal Word who "became flesh," is accented here. Pope Benedict says that "when we consider the basic meaning of the word of God as a reference to the eternal Word of God made flesh and we listen to this word, we are led by the biblical revelation to see that it is the foundation of all reality."

The dynamic, present-day role of the word of God in the church, the world and the lives of living, breathing people is what the document aims above all to address.

Pope Benedict wants the work of the 2008 synod "to have a real effect on the life of the church: on our personal relationship with the sacred Scriptures, on their interpretation in liturgy and catechesis, and in scientific research, so that the Bible may not be simply a word from the past, but a living and timely word."

Perhaps the following quote from the document helps draw into focus what it is really about: "While in the church we greatly venerate the sacred Scriptures, the Christian faith is not a 'religion of the book'; Christianity is the 'religion of the word of God,' not of 'a written and mute word, but of the incarnate and living Word.'"

It needs to be remembered "that all authentic and living Christian spirituality is based on the word of God proclaimed, accepted, celebrated and meditated upon in the church," Pope Benedict says.

The pope aims "to point out certain fundamental approaches to a rediscovery of God's word in the life of the church as a wellspring of constant renewal." He hopes "the word will be ever more fully at the heart" of every church activity.

Scholars who interpret Scripture will be interested in the pope's call for a balance of historical-critical research with theology itself and church tradition. He speaks of historical-critical and theological methods as two "levels" of interpretation that both need to be respected. He holds that, when it comes to Scripture, no necessary barrier divides the human and the divine or the literal and spiritual meanings of Scripture.

"To distinguish two levels of approach to the Bible does not in any way mean to separate or oppose them, nor simply to juxtapose them," Pope Benedict writes. The two levels "exist only in reciprocity," but "unfortunately, a sterile separation sometimes creates a barrier between exegesis and theology."

Pope Benedict notes that "the [2008] synod fathers rightly stated that the positive fruit yielded by the use of modern historical-critical research is undeniable." However, he adds, "while today's academic exegesis, including that of Catholic scholars, is highly competent in the field of historical-critical methodology and its latest developments, it must be said that comparable attention needs to be paid to the theological dimension of the biblical texts."

2. The Closeness of God; the Silence of God

God is close by, but God sometimes seems silent too, according to Pope Benedict's new apostolic exhortation. I think it can safely be said that the closeness of God has become a theme of this pontificate; the pope has spoken of this many times.

For Christians, the word of God is "not simply audible," the pope observes. For, not only does God's word "have a voice," it "has a face, one which we can see -- that of Jesus." Pastorally speaking, it is of "decisive" importance that the word of God be presented "in its capacity to enter into dialogue with the everyday problems" people face.

Being Christian "is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a definitive direction," the pope states. He says, "The word of God, in fact, is not inimical to us; it does not stifle our authentic desires, but rather illuminates them, purifies them and brings them to fulfillment."

For the pope, "the novelty of biblical revelation consists in the fact that God becomes known through the dialogue which he desires to have with us." Every effort should be made, the pope says, "to share the word of God as an openness to our problems, a response to our questions, a broadening of our values and the fulfillment of our aspirations."

Yet, "as the cross of Christ demonstrates, God also speaks by his silence. The silence of God, the experience of the distance of the almighty Father, is a decisive stage in the earthly journey of the Son of God, the incarnate Word." And "this experience of Jesus reflects the situation of all those who, having heard and acknowledged God's word, must also confront his silence."

When I read that, I thought of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. Her dark night of the soul became known far and wide only after she died. Many seemed shocked to learn of these times when she could not feel God's closeness. However, Pope Benedict says the experience of God's silence "has been the experience of countless saints and mystics, and even today is part of the journey of many believers."

The pope believes that in such "moments of darkness, [God] speaks through the mystery of his silence. Hence, in the dynamic of Christian revelation, silence appears as an important expression of the word of God."

3. Mary, Woman of the Word

With the approach of Advent and Christmas, what Pope Benedict writes about the Virgin Mary seems timely. Here he invites further study by scholars of "the relationship between Mariology and the theology of the word." He refers to Mary as the "mother of God's Word" and views her in strong terms as a model of faith for people of the 21st century.

"The figure of Mary as the model and archetype of the church's faith is of capital importance for bringing about in our day a concrete paradigm shift in the church's relation with the word," the pope says.

In Mary, Pope Benedict affirms, "the interplay between the word of God and faith was brought to perfection." In fact, the pope states, "the incarnation of the word cannot be conceived apart from the freedom of this young woman who by her assent decisively cooperated with the entrance of the eternal into time."

Thus, the pope speaks of Mary as "the image of the church in attentive hearing of the word of God, which took flesh in her."

Mary's "familiarity with the word of God" is evident in the Magnificat, her "marvelous canticle of faith" in Luke's Gospel. Pope Benedict notes that in the canticle "the Virgin sings the praises of the Lord in his own words." It is "a portrait, so to speak, of her soul," and is woven entirely "from threads of Holy Scripture, threads drawn from the word of God."

In the Magnificat "we see how completely at home Mary is with the word of God." She moves with ease "in and out of it," Pope Benedict observes. "She speaks and thinks with the word of God; the word of God becomes her word."

In contemplating the mother of God, whose life is "totally shaped by the word, we realize that we too are called to enter into the mystery of faith, whereby Christ comes to dwell in our lives," Pope Benedict says. And St. Ambrose thought that every Christian in some way "interiorly conceives and gives birth to the word of God," the pope writes. Thus, "though there is only one mother of Christ in the flesh, in the faith Christ is the progeny of us all."

There is an important link "between Mary of Nazareth and the faith-filled hearing of God's word" that needs greater recognition today, the pope stressed.

4. The Meaning and Importance of Inspiration

Pope Benedict calls in "The Word of the Lord" for "a deeper study of the process of inspiration." He hopes such study will "lead to a greater understanding of the truth contained in the sacred books." It seems that what he considers the need here is to recognize that Scripture is inspired and teaches the truth, while also interpreting it in accord with its "nature."

The pope examines the interrelation of inspiration and revelation, and of the Holy Spirit and the human writer. In speaking of Scripture as God's word set down in writing under the Holy Spirit's inspiration, "one recognizes the full importance of the human author who wrote the inspired texts and, at the same time, God himself as the true author," the pope observes.

He says, "A key concept for understanding the sacred text as the word of God in human words is certainly that of inspiration."

I ought to note that in the apostolic exhortation the pope locates the problem of fundamentalism in the way it "seeks to escape any closeness of the divine and the human." He writes:

"The basic problem with fundamentalist interpretation is that, refusing to take into account the historical character of biblical revelation, it makes itself incapable of accepting the full truth of the incarnation itself."

Yet, Pope Benedict cautions that "whenever our awareness of its inspiration grows weak, we risk reading Scripture as an object of historical curiosity and not as the work of the Holy Spirit in which we can hear the Lord himself speak and recognize his presence in history."

5. How to Practice "Lectio Divina"

The overview in Pope Benedict's new apostolic exhortation of "lectio divina" and how it is practiced seems worth excerpting here as a brief text. "Lectio divina" is a practice of spirituality in which Scripture fulfills a basic role. This prayerful use of Scripture incorporates meditation on a text and ultimately leads to putting faith into action.

Here is a passage from the apostolic exhortation in which the pope describes how "lectio divina" works (No. 87):

"I would like here to review the basic steps of this procedure. It opens with the reading ('lectio') of a text, which leads to a desire to understand its true content: What does the biblical text say in itself? Without this, there is always a risk that the text will become a pretext for never moving beyond our own ideas.

"Next comes meditation ('meditatio'), which asks, What does the biblical text say to us? Here, each person, individually but also as a member of the community, must let himself or herself be moved and challenged.

"Following this comes prayer ('oratio'), which asks the question, What do we say to the Lord in response to his word? Prayer, as petition, intercession, thanksgiving and praise, is the primary way by which the word transforms us.

"Finally, 'lectio divina' concludes with contemplation ('contemplatio'), during which we take up, as a gift from God, his own way of seeing and judging reality, and ask ourselves what conversion of mind, heart and life is the Lord asking of us?

"We do well also to remember that the process of 'lectio divina' is not concluded until it arrives at action ('actio'), which moves the believer to make his or her life a gift for others in charity."

6. Quotes to Ponder in the Apostolic Exhortation

Christ's Presence: "Christ, truly present under the species of bread and wine, is analogously present in the word proclaimed in the liturgy. A deeper understanding of the sacramentality of God's word can thus lead us to a more unified understanding of the mystery of revelation, which takes place through 'deeds and words intimately connected.'"

Lectors: "I would like to echo the synod fathers who once more stressed the need for the adequate training of those who exercise the 'munus' of reader in liturgical celebrations, and particularly those who exercise the ministry of reader, which in the Latin rite is, as such, a lay ministry. All those entrusted with this office, even those not instituted in the ministry of reader, should be truly suitable and carefully trained. This training should be biblical and liturgical, as well as technical."

Homilies: "Generic and abstract homilies which obscure the directness of God's word should be avoided, as well as useless digressions which risk drawing greater attention to the preacher than to the heart of the Gospel message. The faithful should be able to perceive clearly that the preacher has a compelling desire to present Christ, who must stand at the center of every homily."

God's Word Within a Global Wealth of Cultures: "The church speaks in many tongues, and not only outwardly in the sense that all the great languages of the world are represented in her, but, more profoundly, inasmuch as present within her are various ways of experiencing God and the world, a wealth of cultures, and only in this way do we come to see the vastness of the human experience and, as a result, the vastness of the word of God."

Social Justice: "The spread of the word of God cannot fail to strengthen the recognition of, and respect for, the human rights of every person."

Inculturation: "The authentic paradigm of inculturation is the incarnation itself of the Word: 'Acculturation' or 'inculturation' will truly be a reflection of the incarnation of the Word when a culture, transformed and regenerated by the Gospel, brings forth from its own living tradition original expressions of Christian life, celebration and thought."

7. The Church and Judaism; Old and New Testaments

Before concluding this report on the new apostolic exhortation, I want to mention a brief section of it subtitled "Christians, Jews and the Sacred Scriptures." Here Pope Benedict explores the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, specifically the notion that the old finds fulfillment in the new.

Realizing this discussion's sensitivity for the Jewish community, the pope also takes care to accent God's continued care for the Jews and the value placed by the church on its relationship with Judaism.

"Theologians and pastors alike need to be conscious of the relationship between the Old and the New Testaments," the pope writes. He notes that "the New Testament itself acknowledges the Old Testament as the word of God and thus accepts the authority of the sacred Scriptures of the Jewish people."

Pope Benedict recalls, for example, that "St. Paul specifically makes clear that the Old Testament revelation remains valid for us Christians." Christianity's roots "are found in the Old Testament, and Christianity continually draws nourishment from these roots," says the pope.

Entering into the notion of the fulfillment of Hebrew Scripture in the New Testament, he writes: "The New Testament itself claims to be consistent with the Old and proclaims that in the mystery of the life, death and resurrection of Christ the sacred Scriptures of the Jewish people have found their perfect fulfillment."

He stresses that "the concept of the fulfillment of the Scriptures is a complex one." This complexity is found in the concept's three dimensions: "a basic aspect of continuity with the Old Testament revelation, an aspect of discontinuity and an aspect of fulfillment and transcendence."

What is known as "typology" in the interpretation of Scripture has been present in the church throughout its history, the pope points out. Typology, which "is in no way arbitrary," discerns prefigurations in the Old Covenant of what God will accomplish in the fullness of time through his incarnate Son, the pope explains.

Thus, he continues, Christians "read the Old Testament in the light of Christ crucified and risen. The pope speaks of "the inexhaustible content of the Old Testament from the standpoint of the New," insisting it must not be forgotten "that the Old Testament retains its own inherent value as revelation."

After considering "the close relationship between the New Testament and the Old" and the need to continue use of the Old Testament in the church's life, Pope Benedict turns "to the special bond which that relationship has engendered between Christians and Jews, a bond that must never be overlooked."

The pope quotes his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who referred to the Jews as "our 'beloved brothers' in the faith of Abraham." Pope Benedict says:

"To acknowledge this fact is in no way to disregard the instances of discontinuity which the New Testament asserts with regard to the institutions of the Old Testament, much less the fulfillment of the Scriptures in the mystery of Jesus Christ."

However, "this profound and radical difference by no means implies mutual hostility," Pope Benedict continues. He encourages an attitude of respect, esteem and love for the Jewish people. Speaking of God's irrevocable call, the pope writes:

"Indeed, St. Paul says of the Jews that 'as regards election they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers, for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable!' (Rom 11:28-29)."

The people of the church and the Jewish people "encounter one another as brothers and sisters who at certain moments in their history have had a tense relationship, but are now firmly committed to building bridges of lasting friendship," Pope Benedict says.

The church strongly "values her dialogue with the Jews," he states. Thus, "wherever it seems appropriate, it would be good to create opportunities for encounter and exchange in public as well as in private, and thus to promote growth in reciprocal knowledge, in mutual esteem and cooperation," as well as "in the study of the sacred Scriptures."

8. Vatican Celebrates 50th Anniversary of Ecumenical Office

This edition of the jknirp.com newsletter appears on the eve of a Vatican event to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Vatican Secretariat for Christian Unity, which in 1988 was renamed the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Blessed John XXIII founded the secretariat in 1960 as part of preparations for Vatican Council II.

Do 50 years constitute a long time? Well, Vatican participation in the ecumenical movement clearly is nothing new. But some in the church appear to have grown weary after all the official ecumenical dialogues of the decades since the council and their countless agreed statements. Many wonder where the Christian unity movement is headed today.

"It has become commonplace nowadays for people to lament what appears to be the slow progress of ecumenical engagement," Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta said in a speech last April to the National Workshop on Christian Unity, held in Tampa, Fla. He added:

"Some have even spoken of a 'winter' of ecumenism in the sense that the enthusiasm of the early days has given way to a more sober realism. And many of us have become discouraged by the emergence of new areas of disagreement."

It now is known that the road to Christian unity is longer than many perhaps expected, Archbishop Gregory said. Looking to the future, he encouraged a "dialogue of charity." By that he meant that ecumenical partners "must always speak the truth to one another" as they see it, but are going to need to do so in a spirit of friendship and charity.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, immediate past president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, also has looked to the future of ecumenism in recent presentations, while at the same time calling attention to the importance of past ecumenical accomplishments. The cardinal retired from the council this summer.

Today it is essential "to keep alive the memory of our achievements" in dialogue, educate the faithful about how much has been accomplished and prepare a new generation to carry on the work, Cardinal Kasper told an ecumenical symposium at the Vatican last February.

In keeping alive "the memory of our achievements over the last decades," the hope is that "the rich fruits of these achievements are not buried on dusty shelves," he said.

The cardinal expressed confidence that a new generation today "stands ready to take up the torch to continue the ecumenical journey." He said: "It is normal, indeed it is necessary, that this generation have new and fresh ideas, but it should not start again from zero; rather, it can count upon a solid foundation."

He insisted "there is no reason to be discouraged or resigned" about the future of ecumenism, but he acknowledged that "many are." He realizes, Cardinal Kasper said, that the next phase of ecumenical dialogue "may be less enthusiastic than the dialogue of our youth, but will be more mature and no less imbued with courage and hope."