Every Friday I attend a men’s fellowship run by Chris White’s Leadership Ministries. At 7 AM, men fill a local Mexican restaurant long before its serving day begins. Collectively, we hear a biblically-inspired talk. Then we break up into small groups for more intensive Bible study.
What our group does is a form of lectio divina, although it’s not called that. Most of the members are Protestants and would find the term alien.
We examine no more than 3 or 4 verses from Philippians at a time and chew over them to understand their place in the developing argument of the epistle, how they reference St. Paul’s circumstances, and their application to our own lives. What is the Lord trying to tell us, right here, right now? That’s lectio divina in a nutshell.
While most of the fellowship’s members are Protestant, nearly half of those in my small group were raised as Catholics or Orthodox. Three of us remain committed to the ancient communions while others have become Protestants. One considers himself a “Catholic in recovery.”
To that I replied, “I’m in the business of recovering Catholics.”
Why is it that so many people who were raised Catholic feel that they never had a genuine encounter with Jesus Christ until they met the Lord through Protestant witness?
Why are so many Protestant mega-churches overflowing with former Catholics?
Part of the answer to these questions lies in our fellowship group. It’s almost impossible to understand Christianity—at any depth—without Bible study.
While the Church officials have sometimes been ambivalent about the laity studying the Bible in the past, this is no longer the case—thank Heaven. In the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) Catholics are urged “to learn by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures the ‘excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ’ (Phil. 3:8).”
“For ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ,” as St. Jerome said.
Since the time of the charismatic renewal of the 1970s and 1980s, Catholic Bible studies have become widespread. Sadly, millions and millions of Catholics still know too little about the Bible or fail to understand the inner dynamic of what they have been taught.
This is odd because there’s more Bible study in a Catholic Mass than most Protestant worship services these days. Including the responsorial Psalm, we read four passages from the Bible every Sunday and three at every daily Mass. In fact, almost every line of the liturgy references the Scriptures.
The Mass loosely follows the structure of the Gospel texts as well. It begins with the proclamation of Christ’s reign — his glory, with the Father and the Holy Spirit — and then proceeds through biblical readings and their homiletic exposition to explain the mission of Christ, just as Jesus did through his earthly ministry. The Mass culminates, as do the Gospel texts, with the realization of Christ’s Kingdom through his Passion.
The grandeur and beauty and meaning of all this is lost on so many Catholics, though, because they don’t know their Bibles.
This is not the laity’s fault.
It’s the fault of the way in which Catholics have traditionally gone about catechesis and spiritual formation—or simply failed to go about these vital tasks.
One of the great advantages of coming to the Catholic Church as a convert from evangelicalism is that I can hear the biblical music that informs and gives meaning to the liturgical dance. I know the story of the Jews, their covenant with Yahweh, the ritual and heartfelt sacrifices by which this covenant was maintained and how this covenant became the new covenant in the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, who takes away the sins of the world.
I understand how partaking of the Eucharist belongs to my personal relationship with Jesus Christ—in fact, how I am being incorporated into the life of the divine Trinity as I become a new creation in Christ.
“This is my body” makes so much more sense when you immediately hear St. Paul’s response: “It is no longer I but Christ who lives in me.” I understood why I am kneeling before that altar and the eternally valuable gift upon it.
Through my children I have been experiencing Catholic catechesis. I attended their confirmation classes, because the priest-in-charge invited my wife and me along. He was a very good priest and the confirmation classes were good, in their way.
What I noticed, though, was that in confirmation — and other catechetical programs — we concentrate as Catholics on the dance — on how to participate in the sacraments. The explanation of the meaning of the sacraments can go by in a flash. Without immersion in the Bible and the Church’s understanding of the Scripture, it’s all to easy to know when to stand, sit, kneel, and put one’s hands out for communion without truly understanding why.
So as Catholics we learn these dance steps, but we often cannot hear the biblical music, and without the music, what reason is there to dance?
(Evangelicals, on the other hand, cannot figure out the true nature of worship and so are constantly trying to reinvent it.)
What I would like to say to my beloved Church is this: More Bible, please. More Bible!
There’s a specific type of Bible study that’s particularly needed in the Catholic Church and I’ll have more to say about that next week.
For now I’ll end by saying that this fall Catholic Exchange will begin making a contribution again to involving Catholics in Bible study. I hope to run a series on historical backgrounds to the New Testament. We have other truly outstanding biblical commentators waiting in the wings, as well.
I want to thank those who have been signing up as monthly donors to Catholic Exchange. We are still about 30 donors away from achieving our “Wonderful 100.” Please consider giving $25 per month or more here [hyperlink to donation page]. This is absolutely vital to being able to offer the Bible studies and other new forms of content that we are planning.
Last week I wrote a column about the Tea Party Movement. In that column I was not endorsing the movement but trying to get at the underlying angst that unites many within the movement — the fear that Americans may be bargaining away their freedom for a mess of pottage.
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