success stories

Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini's address
to the 43rd Plenary Assembly
of the Italian Bishops' Conference in May 1997

'He Explained the Scripture to Us'
(Luke 24:32)


As the starting point of my reflections I should like to take an image: Jesus explaining the Scripture to the disciples on the Road to Emmaus. I should like to interpret the passage from the viewpoint of the listeners, ‘sad...as if blind, so that they did not recognise him’. It is the position of someone who hears the exegesis of Scripture with a burning heart (though without immediately realising it) but nevertheless finds it hard to believe. It cannot have been easy for Jesus to convince his two companions, if the whole long journey, the shared evening meal and the breaking of bread were needed before their eyes were opened. The unfolding of the meaning of Scripture requires a slow, continuous process which lasts as long as a walk from afternoon to evening, an image of our pilgrimage through life. It is a long road which we all follow, until the moment when our eyes are opened to the vision of the Lamb who breaks the bread at the table of the Kingdom.


The Bible, ever more beautiful, ever more difficult

The more I get to know the Bible, the more beautiful it seems, but also the uglier. I apologise for using the word ‘ugly’ of something where I have the role of a loving son. But even a mother can, over the years, acquire features which are less attractive, though she still earns our love. The more I perceive over the years those aspects of the Bible which bring the light of Jesus to shine in our midst, the more I am pained by the difficulty of Scripture, pages which one does not read or accept readily, and which fit badly into the image of a humble and merciful Christ. What do I actually mean by this? There are many passages in the Bible (and I penetrate deeper into them each day) which radiate great riches, where Jesus’ voice can be heard leading us to him. These are especially the Gospels, and particularly the Beatitudes, the whole Sermon on the Mount, the Parables, mainly those passages in which charity is central, the signs of love and forgiveness, the majestic, more than human greatness which speaks from the Passion Narrative. Moreover I remember many Pauline passages where Paul emphasises the primacy of the Gospel over the Law, a primacy of grace over sin. There are also many passages which are not only difficult to explain, but hardly possible to read, difficult to accept and to digest.

These passages speak a language of force, describe massacres and murders as willed by God, and relate, unmoved, capital punishment and divine vengeance. Such passages are not confined to the Old Testament, but continue right through to the Book of Revelation. I mean the many passages (in Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, Chronicles) which, on the whole, no longer have a place in the liturgy but are accessible to anyone who happens to open the book. If these passages already cause difficulty to me, and trigger off an instinctive resistance in me, then I ask myself how they affect someone who does not know Scripture very well, and knows nothing about hermeneutics.

With quite a few readings, particularly the extended second readings on feast days, I long to look into people’s faces and to ask myself how much they will understand of those few lines which are already difficult to read in the original context. Do people really listen? How can I manage, in my all too short homily, to avoid even the worst misunderstandings? Exegesis struggled for centuries — like Jacob with the angel — with these texts, found answers and explanations by different methods, from the allegorical through the literary perspective to relatio continua, etc. In the first part of the document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, the various methods and viewpoints are listed. But it cannot be denied that despite the great modernity, even ‘postmodernity’, appropriate to many symbols and themes of the Bible, numerous passages in Holy Scripture remain strange to us. Neither our mentality, culture nor language can come to terms with many aspects of our religious sensibility. But disregard of these difficulties or neglect of them as banal does not contribute to treating the Bible in such a way that it becomes the place of a blessed encounter with Christ.

Several Roads to Emmaus

My second personal observation is that growing familiarity with Holy Scripture occasions the need to distinguish the different levels of the biblical text. In the approach to the sacred text, and with it to Our Lord Jesus Christ, we inevitably take different routes at different levels, without the later ones ever replacing the earlier ones. It is as if there were not one road to Emmaus but a whole network of roads. I should like to distinguish schematically three phases or moments of approach to the Bible:

Firstly the philological-exegetical way which is today easily accessible to all, thanks to multiple aids (commentaries, introductions, dictionaries, atlases, encyclopaedias, CDs, etc). At this stage one becomes aware of the enormous riches contained in the texts, the vigour, even human and literary, which will never be researched in its entirety.

Parallel to growing familiarity with the linguistic-literary aspect of the Bible arises the need ever more forcefully to comprehend the meaning of the message and to compare it to one’s own frame of reference. The text remains a necessary point of departure and reference, but from it arises a whole stream of reflections, questions, analyses, replies which nourish the mind and warm the heart. This is the moment when Jesus, on the road to Emmaus, not only quotes passages from Scripture but reveals to the disciples the connections and direction of its all-embracing meaning.

Eventually comes the moment when the text in its precisely and objectively drawn contours tends to become blurred, when it abandons, as it were, its mat-erial consistency. It is then that the person of the Lord, the mystery of the Kingdom, shines through ever more clearly in anticipation of the heavenly vision and as a stimulus to prayer and contemplation.

I have here described the three classic steps of lectio divina, that is, lectio, meditatio, contemplatio. I do not want to say that there are no other methods of lectio divina. For this a comprehensive literature exists. I only wanted to establish that the different steps of lectio, however they are named, gradually alter their significance, their importance on the spiritual road, until they make possible an encounter with Jesus. Then the text somewhat pales before the spiritual presence. Every pastoral approach to Scripture must keep this way in mind and encourage it, without insisting too much on a definite scheme. We must allow for the dynamic of prayer which arises from the Bible, including all its detours and setbacks. Therefore the encounter with Jesus through the Bible is, in the end, always a very personal adventure, a lonely struggle with an angel, a journey with the Holy Spirit, where pastoral guidance could only indicate the general direction, disposition and model. This is what happens in a School of the Word.

The Book and the Chalice

A third observation: with the growing familiarity with Holy Scripture comes the consciousness of how much the Bible is interwoven with the whole action of the Church, always present, beyond all differences and oppositions (Scripture, tradition, writing, sacraments), behind all fear of fundamentalism and extreme movements (biblicism, gnosticism, etc.). Perhaps it can be represented by an image used by a former Patriach of Venice, Cardinal Roncalli. It is the image of Alpha and Omega, or of Book and Chalice. ‘In the work of a bishop and his priests the Holy Book, is like the Alpha. The Omega, on the other hand, if I may employ this apocalyptic expression, is the consecrated chalice on our daily altar. In the book the voice of Jesus is heard in our hearts, in the chalice Christ’s blood, always a source of grace, reconciliation, salvation of the Church and of the whole world. Between these two poles all other letters of the alphabet can be found. But these are nothing unless they are supported and upheld by both extremes — the word of Jesus, which comes from Holy Scripture and re-echoes in all statements of holy Church, and the blood of Christ in the final sacrifice, as eternal source of grace and blessing’ (Angelo Roncalli, La Sacra Scrittura e S.Lorenzo Guitiniani, Pastoral Letter, 1956).

Taking up this image proposed by the late Pope, I should like to say that the connection Bible-Tradition and Bible-Sacraments, and most of all Bible-Liturgy, is more than a merely theological position. It is more a practical knowledge which grows with time and experience and the grace of the Holy Spirit. But it does not grow merely by controversy, nor by warnings of very real dangers such as biblicism, a certain intellectualism, or even gnosticism, for these cannot be overcome merely by a hostile presentation. I refer particularly to a danger which was rightly pointed out by one of the Regional Conferences, namely that the Bible, ‘especially in some groups, is considered more as an edifying exercise than an authentic search for an opening onto the person of Jesus Christ’. Such snares exist. They are best overcome by a constant pastoral approach to the Bible, together with the local and universal Church, with the help of the Bible Pastoral Letter. Not less Holy Scripture, but more and better — such an approach to the Bible will save us from deviations which occasionally are to be feared and deplored.


From the foregoing personal observations which I have presented in schematic and allusive form, so as to invite my listeners to find some echo in their own experience and memory, I should like to deduce some pastoral consequences about the way in which the Bible can lead to a personal encounter with Jesus. In so doing I shall refer to the three personal observations I have just formulated,

1. The Bible constantly becomes more beautiful and more difficult.

2. There are several road to Emmaus, or many varied attitudes to the text.

3. The Book and the Chalice, or the natural place of the Bible as a means to salvation.

1. Three practical consequences of the first observation.

Unity and awareness of limitation

We must not deny the fact that the approach to the Bible as a whole is difficult and in some ways must always be attempted anew, as much for new generations as in the course of our own life. Difficulties, resistance and rejection must be taken into account, but should not surprise us too much. To overcome these requires from every new generation a renewal of patience and love. In particular it seems that today we do not dispose of a rigorous theory of inspiration which could answer exhaustively all questions asked by modern people with regard to Holy Scripture. The theories established by the so-called biblical question (see Providentissimus Deus, 1893) remain on the whole valid. On the other hand, new attempts are welcome to find a modern, or rather a postmodern, language for the complex notion of a divinely inspired text, a text we call the Word of God. This text must be accepted as the Bible presents it, not a something abstract. It must be accepted with all its passages, the easy and the difficult ones, with the pages where God appears as speaker and those where human beings speak to God, answer him or simply talk to him, desperate or angry, just as anyone talks to other members of the family, recounts sayings through which basic understanding becomes clear, or everyday observations of the most varied kinds.

Exegesis over the last 50 years has made great strides, but much remains to be done concerning literary theories and theological perspectives before we get to the root of subjects like oral tradition, significance of writing, various forms and aspects of communication, narrative perception, etc. It follows that we must be patient and accept that not every question has a satisfactory answer. We must also help all seekers to distinguish what is clear from what is not, in humility and awareness of our own limitations.

Clarity first

In pastoral practice we must do as Jesus must certainly have done at Emmaus: he helped the disciples first of all to see clarity and light, before drawing attention to darkness and shadows. The Church has always preferred certain passages or books in the Bible from which light was gathered to others. Although I am much in favour of a lectio continua of the Bible as it occurs in the liturgy (and as it was defended by that great lover of Scripture, Giuseppe Dossetti), I should like to say that getting to know the Bible is most of all getting to know the Gospels and Acts, familiarity with many Psalms, and with selected passages from the Pauline Epistles, from Exodus, Isaiah and Genesis, always viewed against the background of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Any systematic guidance to Bible reading must consider these main points and this Christological key to understanding which make it possible to bring together this rich and manifold world. On the other hand, we must accept that we come near to Christ through different historical and existential approaches in which the Bible is so rich. These must not be arbitrarily skipped. It is as if the unique word that God has spoken in history, in a thousand different places and contexts, in a thousand different tone-colours, must be grasped in the individual tones and their precise significance. Otherwise the harmony which repeats the basic theme in an overwhelming modal multiplicity cannot be achieved.

The School of the Word

The particular effectiveness of a School of the Word must be noted. A few central passages are chosen and set into a wider context, as an initiation and stimulus for a direct, personal contact with the biblical text. The School of the Word which already exists in many dioceses — often as a bishop’s direct initiative to youth — must not be confused with exegetical reading, sermon or catechesis. All these forms retain their full validity and significance. It should rather be an incentive for those concerned. How do I find a text which speaks to me personally, by which I reach an encounter with the Lord who speaks to me in and through the text?

So it becomes obvious how important it is to show our faithful, with the help of Bible Weeks and Bible Courses, that the Bible is a structured reality, at different levels. It requires a well-considered organic approach, rather than something uniform and monolithic, as certain charismatic groups sometimes suppose.

2. Three consequences of the second observation about the changing relation to the text.

Avoid schematic repetitions

In all activities of the biblical apostolate we must above all avoid getting stuck in a certain pattern. Changing moods, different levels of understanding and capacity to assimilate must determine the approach. A successful initiative (e.g. a School of the Word) is not valid always and everywhere, so that it can be adopted in every situation. I have considerable hesitations about supposed recipes for success. We must pay great attention to the constant changes in our target-group, be it negatively (habit or surfeit) or positively (the emergence of new existential questions). We must rethink our formulae and activities regularly and question them again and again.

This applies also to the liturgy of the Word outside the Eucharist. At the moment these seem to me too stereotyped. They have lost the capacity to lead people really to the text, as was the case when they were introduced at the time of the Second Vatican Council. At services of the Word I often have the impression that texts have been chosen hastily from a superficial preference. They are often too long or too dense, and they are normally for some reason hastily read out only once, without regard for the needs or the explicit or unspoken questions of the faithful. The choice of texts for the liturgy of the Word is a delicate decision and cannot be left to chance. The basis for this choice, as for the manner of presentation and explanation, must be geared to the situation of the listeners. Their understanding of the Scriptures and their most urgent problems in life must be taken into account.

Promote an encounter with the Lord

We must make the biblical text a companion for people in a truly spiritual way, a way which most of all promotes the knowledge of the Lord, rather than simply knowledge of the Bible. The purpose of the biblical apostolate in all its forms is not to create biblical experts, but men and women of prayer who let the Bible lead them to knowledge of the Lord who calls them in the real situation of their lives, here and now. Naturally we must avoid shortcuts and must not give in to the illusion that from every page of the Bible some spiritual fruit will grow. We must bravely walk through the labyrinth of history and biblical language, keeping the aim always before our eyes and trusting the power of that Spirit through which Scripture needs to be read and understood. The old wisdom of the Imitation of Christ remains still today the golden rule for every approach to the Word of God, ‘All holy books are to be read in the Spirit in which they were written’.

Formation of leaders

A third consequence concerns the formation of animators. Here too it is chiefly a question of the spirituality of these people in whom the wish to study the Bible, the desire to share their knowledge with others, arises from their longing for an intimate knowledge of Jesus Christ. Future leaders should acquire all re-quisite specialist knowledge, including the study of biblical languages, even Hebrew, a tendency I observe more and more among the laity. With such a formation they are sure not to pick up incoherent, confusing elements, but acquire an authentic motivation, so as to get to know Jesus in Holy Scripture and to bring him to others. Places of training for leaders do not therefore have the task of forming biblical scholars. We do need experts, but special institutions are available for them, and catechetical schools can make their own valuable contribution. I am rather thinking of simple lay functions: leaders of Bible groups, those responsible for the neighbourhood apostolate, or ‘visiting helpers’ in the forefront of the popular mission. In the last few years I have had the chance to get to know many of these, and they are all people hungry and thirsty for Scripture. It is now for us, by prayer and a lived spirituality, to make this goodwill blossom.

3. Notes on the third observation, Book and Chalice.

For an integrated way

The different methods of using the Bible in pastoral care should complement each other so as to create a common way which alone leads to a full familiarity with the holy book of the Church. The pastoral writings of the Italian Episcopal Conference mention four forms of encounter with the Bible in the pastoral work of the Church: liturgical celebration, with a special emphasis on the homily, the way of introducing catechesis, and generally the service of the Word, religious teaching in schools. To these I should like to add lectio divina in common.

For these and similar forms is relevant: ‘Every one of these ways makes its own demands, but requires also close connection with other forms of expressing the faith with which the Church accompanies an encounter with the Bible’. A further contribution from the bishops fits in here: in the biblical apostolate the starting-point must be already existing and uncontested premises, that is, premises which have their roots in Dei Verbum iste, n. 1, and which are there set out in more detail. It is a matter of achieving a revaluation of the Bible in two forms: in one, in the different moments of the Church’s life (liturgy, catechesis), in the other, in a direct approach to the biblical text. I should like to take up point 22 which neatly summarises what I have tried to say, ‘the approach to the Bible in faith is itself precious, even if it is not closed in itself. It must remain independent in its methods, but also closely related to other forms of mediating the faith which are part of the Church’s tradition (liturgy, catechesis). Two different complementary ways to the reappraisal of the Bible are relevant: the direct approach to the text and the promotion of biblical components in other channels mediating the faith, such as catechesis and celebration’.

Then comes the problem of a practical balance between these two ways. Is it better to bring the so-called estranged immediately into contact with the basic kerygmatic Bible texts or to lead them along the systematic way of catechesis? It seems to me that the different solutions are not opposed but complementary, and that the decision will always depend on practical considerations. In my experience with the ‘chair for non-believers’, of which I shall say more shortly, it is beneficial to harmonize both ways intelligently, with regard to the people concerned, their condition and the available time, even if the direct approach to the Bible has a strength and fascination which is perhaps absent from the slow systematic approach.

Practical examples for a diversified approach

To end these considerations of the synthesis of the different ways I should like to add a few practical examples of my experience of the different forms of approach. I want to sketch out five situations:

Holy Scripture and the search for the meaning
Holy Scripture and catechesis for adults
Holy Scripture and the family
Holy Scripture and the ways of vocation
Holy Scripture and youth

In our big cities there are today many people who are seeking. I mean mainly those who have had a Christian education, but who have then, sometimes quite early in life, turned away from the faith. The Italian Episcopal Conference has asked itself very seriously how they can help such people. I should like to put forward an initiative which I called somewhat provocatively the ‘chair for non-believers’, and where it is not primarily a matter of approach to the Bible. It starts from another point, namely from the reasons for loss of faith. People describe with great sincerity their way of life, seeking a meaning, their problems and doubts. We cannot confront these people straight-away with a page from Holy Scripture (in the sadness of the two Emmaus disciples there was little explicitly biblical) — in fact this consequence will show itself relatively quickly. For even on those encounters the Bible proves itself quickly as a source for the great archetypes of humanity, with expressive symbols for all forms of human search for meaning. The starting-point will not necessarily be a passage from the Bible, as is the case with lectio divina, but rather doubts, problems and questions which very soon find their reflection in a page or an image in the Bible, and will lead some to thinking about themselves, others on the way to faith.

Holy Scripture and catechesis for adults

I am impressed by the practice of the so-called ‘house Bible meetings’ which present a new form of adult catechesis. They arise generally from the preparation of popular missions, or as a result of them, sometimes spontaneously. In these groups, led by animators with their own formation, there is at the beginning a passage from the Bible, after which the participants can turn to structured catechesis. In this connection I was surprised by the remark of a Regional Episcopal Conference which regretted the ‘atomisation of the biblical apostolate, mostly restricted to a few groups, which does not show the relevant continuity, and is not integrated into the religious structure of the Church’. To me these house Bible groups seem a very good opportunity for our parishes as well as for the whole diocese, as an opportunity for a wider public. I have been doing this for some years in Lent through my radio catechesis which is followed by hundreds of groups in numerous parishes. This achieves a formation in faith for adults which is not elitist, offers a certain continuity, and fits into the structure of Church life.

Holy Scripture and the family

This is one of the most difficult areas. Some traditions — I am thinking of the reading in common of the history of saints — have completely disappeared, as also grace at meals. It is not easy to introduce new habits. The diocese of Brixen has committed itself most energetically, where basic aids are handed out on a large scale, to enable families to read the Sunday readings on the previous evening. We must probably consider again the practice of the rosary; this practice of family prayer is still alive in some places and could be valuable as an introduction to praying with the Bible.

Holy Scripture and ways of vocation

Very useful was the following attempt: a group of young people aged 17-25 (about 150-200 each year) carry on for a year a living reflection on spiritual vocation. These are young people who want to fulfil the will of God without compromise and who do not exclude any call coming from God, but who are as yet unclear about the future. They submit themselves for a year to a rule of life and prayer, and receive spiritual guidance. I try, with the help of Scripture, to bring some clarity, for example, they should reflect for a year (one Sunday afternoon each month) on the Call of the prophet Samuel and his life (1 Sm 1-15). The contact with the Bible sharpens the consciousness of the self, of one’s own resistance and anxieties, and puts the question: what does God want from me, in such a way that the personal decision becomes easier. The method used is that of a long and often repeated lectio divina, practised first in common, then in form of a personal prayer and finally in small groups with exchanges. Thanks to personal accounts which I have received in all these years I have been able to follow up the spiritual way of more than a thousand young people, and reconstruct the enormous difficulties which prevent in our times clear and brave decisions of this kind. At the same time I have been able to witness changes of position in the direction of the imitation of Christ, at the beginning of which stood the encounter with the Bible.

Holy Scripture and youth

I have already mentioned the Schools of the Word which are held in many dioceses and often by the bishop himself. In this ‘school’ are experienced the power of the biblical word and the longing of young people for authenticity and prayer. The same applies to quiet retreats with meditation on a biblical passage. It is important in all these approaches to the text that they create a climate of reflection and enable young people to let themselves be addressed personally by the word of the Bible. They discover, as I have often been told, that God really speaks about me and to me in this text. We must certainly trust again the ability of the young to develop honest interests from apparent alienation and apathy, if they have the feeling that there is a text where I can find myself, a text which carries the fascination of a story and the progress to a predestined conclusion, which requires, here and now, honest answers.


May I be allowed two concluding points? The first I take from a contribution to regional conferences which, I think, resumes the meaning of my talk. It is said that this gathering should emphasize that in the belief of the Church and in the reading of the Bible in the context of prayer and conversion the answer lies to the urgent needs of the new evangelisation. This is particularly relevant for the request to form a laity mature in the faith, able to translate the Bible into today’s world, as well as the request, against all modern tendencies to relativistic and syncretist religiosity, to strengthen the faith in Jesus as the One Saviour of the world.

The second conclusion is based on a letter which I received recently during Lent. It concerns my diocesan radio broadcasts on the Christology of John’s Gospel. The letter came from a man of 50 in a Bible group, whom I do not know personally. To the question what a shepherd of souls expects when he wants to bring the Bible to people he writes:

"In these weeks of encounter, reading, listening and discussions, I have rediscovered a great truth, understood and completed with new knowledge — I need Jesus. He is the way for me, truth, life, bread and light. Without him I would be lost, in him and through him my life gains infinite worth, my daily actions become jewels of mysterious eternal beauty. What is so beautiful about it is that it comes to me spontaneously from the heart, thanks to your thoughts, Eminence, as if this truth had been slumbering, only waiting to be awoken. Now I know that the truths of my religion are not speculations of my intellect, but realities which are closely linked to my heart, my human nature. Now I no longer feel alone, I know that Jesus is with me, I know that I can find in Holy Scripture, in the magisterium of the Church, answers to my deepest needs".

I wish that our words and attempts towards a biblical apostolate may always find hearts so ready to receive the seeds of the Word.

(Transl.: Henry Wansbrough)

Ref.: Bulletin Dei Verbum, n. 47, 2/1998.

Catholic Biblical Federation.