This column is excerpted and adapted from the archbishop’s June 26 National Catholic Bible Conference remarks.
In the Old Testament, the most dramatic example of renewal through God’s word is the story of Josiah, which is found toward the end of 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles. Josiah was perhaps the greatest of the Davidic kings of Judah. He ruled at a time when the leaders and the majority of God’s people had assimilated to the worst elements of the pagan culture surrounding them.
Josiah’s grandfather was King Manasseh, whose 55 years of leadership over Israel marked one of the darkest periods for the people of God. Scripture tells us that Manasseh “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord,” which not only included pagan idolatry but also child sacrifice. He offered up even his own sons in sacrifice in the valley of Hinnom, and since the word in Hebrew for valley is “Ge” it was known as the valley of Ge-henna, a name that the New Testament uses as a metaphor for hell.
It’s sobering that God’s own people could be so deeply degraded by a pagan culture that they would sacrifice their own children. But obviously we don’t need to look very far to find modern parallels. Manasseh’s son Amon continued the sins of his father, and was murdered by his own servants after only two years of rule. That left Amon’s son, Josiah, as the ruler of Israel at the age of 8 years old. Josiah had everything going against him: a culture that had imbibed for almost two generations the worst of pagan beliefs and behaviors; a family that was far from the Lord; and huge responsibilities and power handed to him at a very young age.
Yet, Scripture tells us that “while he was yet a boy, he began to seek the God of David his father” (2 Chr 34:3). Here’s the lesson in those words. To renew the Church and the world we need to begin with ourselves. It’s tempting to see the moral problems of today’s wider culture and want to begin our work there, outside ourselves, focused on others. But all authentic reform begins within our own hearts.
Josiah purged the pagan altars from Jerusalem and the rest of Israel. Much of the Temple had been abandoned. Some of it had been adapted for various pagan cults. Josiah ordered the Temple to be purified and renovated. While cleaning out the Temple, the high priest Hilkiah discovered the “book of the law” (2 Kgs 22:8), referring to God’s word, specifically Deuteronomy and perhaps the rest of the Pentateuch. When the book was read to the king and the people, it was the first hearing of the Torah for that generation. In other words, things had become so perverse that Israel had completely lost the word of God, this last copy being found in the nearly abandoned Temple.
When the “book of the law” was read, Josiah responded with humility and penance, and rent his clothes (2 Kgs 22:11). The people were moved by his example. They renewed the covenant and turned away from the paganism they had accepted. Josiah’s reforms succeeded. He destroyed the pagan shrines in the valley of Hinnom, “that no one might burn his son or his daughter as an offering to Molech” (2 Kgs 23:10); he restored the Temple and its worship; and by his leadership the rift between God and his people was healed.
Renewal happened because Josiah recovered God’s word and made it available to everyone. As Scripture says, he read the word of God to “all the people, both small and great” (2 Kgs 23:2). This is why in our own day Vatican II said that “The Church forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful … to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ, by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures” (CCC, 133; DV 25).
We need to remember the lesson of Josiah’s witness; that is, that we need to hear God’s word, not just one day a week but everyday, until it soaks deeply into our souls. This is what Josiah did, and any personal and ecclesial renewal requires that each of us recover the daily practice of praying with and hearing God’s word.