Family Bible or a book for the family?

Archbishop Paul S. Coakley

Among the memories of my childhood home is the beautiful leather-bound family Bible. It occupied a place of prominence on the coffee table in the living room.

Ironically, the living room was not a place that we kids were ordinarily allowed to go except on special occasions. It was more for display and for guests. I would have to say that the family Bible was probably treated in much the same way. I don’t recall ever sitting down to read it. I do recall occasionally looking at the wonderful glossy pictures of scenes from the life of Jesus and from salvation history. That’s the way things were in many Catholic homes in the 1960s. But, that began to change about 50 years ago.

Fifty years ago, as the Second Vatican Council was about to conclude, it promulgated one of its key documents, one that has had as great an impact as any on the life of the Church in subsequent years.

The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, or “Dei Verbum” as it is known by its Latin title, has helped usher in an era of much greater biblical appreciation and literacy among all Catholics. It changed the way we approach evangelization and catechesis. It changed the way priests prepare homilies and celebrate the sacraments. It helped kick-start many efforts in Catholic biblical studies. It encouraged the development of popular biblical resources and motivated many Catholics to pick up and read the Bible. One of the greatest fruits of the Second Vatican Council has been the renewed emphasis it placed on the Word of God in the life of the Church and in the life of every Christian.

This week, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops invites families, parishes, schools and all Catholics to participate in National Bible Week in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the publication of “Dei Verbum.”

National Bible Week is observed this year from Nov. 15-21. The theme for 2015 is “The Bible: A Book for the Family.” The theme builds on Pope Francis’ recent visit to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families and the recently concluded Synod of Bishops on the Family. In both of these watershed events there was an emphasis placed on renewing the family through regular conversation with God’s Word in the Sacred Scriptures.

Many Catholics still may not know how to begin daily Scripture reading. Reading the Bible with the Church by following the daily readings from the Mass provides a daily guide that ensures a thorough exposure to the whole of God’s saving truth and plan for our salvation.

How does one approach this kind of biblical reading? It is certainly helpful to have a good Catholic study Bible, which can provide some background and context for the various biblical texts. Catholic Bible studies also can be valuable in helping us grow in our biblical literacy. Excellent print and on-line materials are readily available. “The Catechism of the Catholic Church” is a helpful companion as well. These are beneficial, but they are not enough. They are tools; but they only prepare us for the saving encounter with God’s Word.

“Faith, then, comes through hearing,” as Saint Paul teaches in the Letter to the Romans (10:17). The liturgical assembly is the primary place where we encounter God’s saving Word. The Liturgy of the Word at Mass, including the homily, has great power to touch and convert our hearts. But, we can prepare ourselves to benefit as fully as possible from that liturgical proclamation through our own personal and prayerful reading of the Bible. The traditional name for this slow prayerful reading of the Bible is “lectio divina.”

By calling upon the Holy Spirit and then slowly and reverently reading, reflecting and responding to God’s Word, we allow the Word of God to gently penetrate our hearts and gradually, by daily contact with the saving Word, to transform us.

This is a spiritual exercise that requires patience and perseverance. We have to slow ourselves down, wait on the Lord, listen and then respond to the prompting of his grace when some word, phrase, image or insight touches us. It will move us to some practical resolutions. Daily fidelity to “lectio divina” is a source of solid spiritual nourishment, which helps us prepare to participate fruitfully at Mass and helps us to experience anew the joy of the Gospel by preparing us to encounter Jesus Christ.

We can practice “lectio divina” with any biblical texts. The Mass readings are just one place to begin. This practice also is a way for families to pray together. Families can set aside time to listen to God’s Word and then share their responses with one another. By taking up the family Bible, dusting it off and reading it together, families will come to experience the Bible  as a book for the family (as the theme for National Bible Week proposes). May it be so!