Mother Luc Congar OSB,
Abbey of Pradines, France
In 2010 an important text on the Word of God was published, the apostolic exhortation ‘Verbum Domini’ of Benedict XVI. For those who have not been able to read that document this article attempts to give a taste by tracing certain major themes which will support our lectio.
First, what sort of text is it?
Verbum Domini – the Word of the Lord – is a post-synodal apostolic exhortation. In October 2008 the Synod of Bishops took place in Rome on ‘The place of the Word of God in the life and mission of the Church’. Two years later the Holy Father brought out this apostolic exhortation. It presents the fruit of three weeks of labour which brought together about 300 bishops, experts and invited guests, including a rabbi. Symbolically this text was signed on 30th September, 2010, the feast of St Jerome, the Father of the Church whom the Pope quotes in the document, referring to him as ‘a great lover of the Word of God’ (no 72). A reading of the text shows that the author is another such, who ardently wishes that every Christian should know and love the Bible better.
Benedict XVI invites us and the whole Church to an experience, a personal encounter with Christ in the Word. This is, I believe, one of the keys to understanding this text. It is not a matter of acquiring new knowledge, nor an intellectual advance, but a process of faith and love: to meet the living Christ today in the Word read in the Church.
Two texts constitute the backbone of the exhortation:
• The Prologue of the Gospel of John.
• The Constitution Dei Verbum of Vatican Council II.
With the Prologue of the Gospel of John one can speak of a real Christology of the Word. As for the Constitution Dei Verbum it will be quoted very frequently on the interpretation of scripture, the inspiration of scripture, tradition, and so on.
Three parts follow one another with clear logic:
1. Verbum Dei, the Word of God.
2. Verbum in Ecclesia, the Word in the Church.
3. Verbum pro Mundo, the Word for the World.
This gift of God (1) is the treasure of the Church (2) and must be offered to the World (3). A verse of the Prologue of John, finely adapted, is set at the head of each of the parts:
Verbum Dei: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh (John 1.1-14).
Verbum in Ecclesia: And to all those who received him he gave the power to become children of God (John 1.12).
Verbum pro Mundo: No one has ever seen God. The only-begotten Son, who is turned to the embrace of the Father, has made him known (John 1.18).
1. Verbum Dei, the Word of God
This first part opens with a quotation from the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum 2: ‘It pleased God in his wisdom and his goodness to reveal himself in person, and to make known the mystery of his grace, thanks to which human beings, through Christ, the Word made flesh, come in the Holy Spirit to the Father... In this revelation the invisible God addresses human beings in his immense love as friends. He converses with them in order to invite them to enter into communion with him and to receive them in this communion’ (cf. Verbum Domini, p. 15).
Our God is a God who speaks and who takes the initiative in making himself known to human beings. This is the true nature of Revelation: God makes himself known to humans through his Word, the Word made flesh (no 6). It is therefore no surprise that the first part is much the longest: it is a Christology of the Word.
This Word of God is presented as a gift so rich and varied that it may be understood as a ‘symphony of the Word, a unique Word which is expressed in different ways, like a song for several voices, where all converges on the person of Christ’ (no 7). The exposition runs from the creation to the end of time (nos 8-14), showing us the Word in all its dimensions, even silence: ‘God speaks also through his silence’ (no 21). The essential concepts of tradition, inspiration, truth of the scriptures are clearly presented.
On the way (no 10) we find a lovely commentary on the ‘realism of the Word’. It is worth quoting a few lines: ‘The Word of God makes us change our idea of what realism is. The realistic person is one who recognizes in the Word of God the basis of all things. … Life must rest not on the ephemeral but on a solid and lasting foundation which remains even when human certainties melt away... Our hearts must be able to say to God every day, “You are my shelter, my shield; I hope in your Word”’. (Psalm 119.114) This constitutes a new invitation to live from an encounter with the person of Christ who changes our lives. We must answer a God who speaks: ‘Each of us is made by God capable of hearing and answering the divine Word.’ From this point of view sin is presented as a refusal to listen to the Word of God (no 26). By contrast, Mary is put forward as the model of listening (nos 27-28). Numbers 29- 49, entitled ‘A hermeneutic of the holy scripture in the Church’ take up again the great principles of interpretation put forward in Dei Verbum:
• Awareness of the unity of scripture: the Bible is explained by the Bible, and Christ in his mysteries is explained by the whole Bible.
• Alertness to the living tradition of the Church.
• The analogy of faith (agreement of the truths of faith among themselves, and in the whole work of Revelation).
My attention was drawn by no 42, ‘the obscure pages of the Bible’. The Pope tells us outright that the obscure pages of the Bible will always remain obscure pages, but scholars and pastors can help us to understand that these pages have a purpose and a meaning in the light of the Mystery of Christ. Benedict XVI pays homage to the work of exegetes, since all the demands of reason must be honoured and the texts must be respected. But he calls us to go beyond the letter to ‘a process of understanding guided by the interior movement of the text as a whole’ (nos 36-38). In explaining the connection between the Old and the New Testament, especially by the concept of fulfilment, which at the same time continues, ruptures and goes beyond the original, he underlines the importance of the encounter of Jews and Christians in the matter of reading the scriptures (nos 40 and 43).
2. Verbum in Ecclesia, the Word in the Church
In this second part of the exhortation two points especially claim our attention:
As monks and nuns we are more familiar with these two moments in the life of the Church, but we are strengthened and comforted by the concern which our Pope has for them. ‘In considering the Church as the dwelling-place of the Word, the liturgy demands our attention above all. It is truly the privileged place where God speaks in our present life, where he today speaks to his people who listen and respond’ (no 52). So the liturgy is the privileged place where God speaks and human beings respond. The Word of God in the liturgy, as in the history of salvation, has an effective character, that is, it accomplishes what it says, without separation between what God does and what God says: ‘The education of the people of God to discover this effective character of the Word of God in the liturgy also helps it to see the action of God in the history of salvation and in the personal history of each of its members (no 53).
The Pope devotes a great deal of space to the celebration of the Eucharist. On the question of the homily he gives detailed instructions: ‘Vague and abstract homilies which obscure the simplicity of the Word of God are to be avoided. It must be clear that the heart of the preacher is focussed on showing Christ on whom the homily is centred’ (no 59). He also prescribes that a homiletic directory should be produced.
Among the forms of prayer celebrating the Word of God Benedict XVI gives a special place to the Liturgy of the Hours. ‘It constitutes a privileged form of listening to the Word of God because it puts the faithful in touch with the holy scripture and with the living tradition of the Church.’ (no 62) This document invites us to well-constructed and coherent liturgy when it underlines,
• The solemnity of the Word of God.
• The importance of silence and of silences in the liturgy.
• A well-prepared and audible proclamation of the Word.
After the liturgy the Pope runs through the life of the Church with a fine air of optimism. At no 72 we may read, ‘If it is true that the liturgy is the privileged location for proclamation, hearing and celebration of the Word of God it is no less true that this encounter must be prepared in the hearts of the faithful and above all must be assimilated and meditated. In fact the Christian life is essentially marked by encounter with Jesus Christ who invites us to follow him... With the Fathers of the Synod I express the living hope that a new reason for a great love of the holy scripture may flourish... so that prayerful and faithful reading may over time allow Christians to deepen their relationship with the person of Jesus himself.’
Benedict XVI deals with the prayerful reading of the holy scripture in nos 86-87. He takes up the four movements of lectio divina which have been passed down to us from Guigo II, twelfth century monk of the Grande Chartreuse.
• Reading of the text (lectio) which provokes a quest for the authentic knowledge of the content: what does the biblical text mean in itself?
• Meditation (meditatio) which puts the question, what is the biblical text saying to us? Here every individual must be open to being touched and questioned.
• Prayer (oratio) puts this further question, what are we saying to the Lord in answer to his Word? Prayer is the first way in which the Word changes us.
• Contemplation (contemplatio), in the course of which we take on as a gift of God the same stance as God in judging reality, and we ask what conversion of spirit, heart and life the Lord is asking of us.
In monastic language we would say that contemplatio is the sweetness we sometimes experience in lectio. After this little treatise on lectio divina the Pope encourages the prayer of the Angelus, and finishes by mentioning the Holy Land, where Christian communities are living through major difficulties.
3. Verbum pro mundo, the Word for the World
The third part recalls that the Church is missionary. By the coming of the Word we have received grace for grace. For Christians a grace is always a mission, that of announcing to the world a word of hope which can bring light to every condition and every situation of life (nos 90-98). It is a living Word which takes a stance for the poor, for justice, for the young, for migrants, anyone who is suffering. This list is all the more impressive in that for Benedict XVI it is not a simple list but makes concrete proposals. Even safeguarding creation is taken into consideration (nos 99-108). In the cultural domain the Word of God comes into dialogue with the world of art, culture, the media. Indeed, it has a full place in inter-religious dialogue (nos 117- 120).
In his conclusion the Pope recalls the longing which underpins the whole exhortation: ‘I want once more to exhort the whole People of God, pastors, consecrated religious and laity, to make it their business to become ever more familiar with the holy scripture’ (no 121). With that we return once more to the Prologue of the Gospel of John, which has been present all through the text: ‘As the Prologue of the Gospel of John brings to mind, the whole of creation falls under the sign of the Word. The Word flows forth from the Father and comes to dwell among his own, then he returns to the bosom of the Father to bring with him the whole of creation which was created in him and by him.’
This communion with the Father in Christ is a source of joy (no 123). This joy had already been declared to us in no 2 of the exhortation, entitled, ‘That your joy may be complete’ with a quotation of 1 John 1.4, ‘Your communion is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We are writing all this to you that our joy may be complete.’ The Pope’s last word is for Mary, whose blessedness is ‘born of the Word heard and put into practice’ (no 124). May this joy flood and transform our life so that we may communicate it to those with whom God grants us to share our life.