On January 26, 2020, I brought my Bible to church. I’m Catholic: I never bring my Bible to church. Pope Francis named the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time the Sunday of the Word of God, and my priest was blessing Bibles at all weekend Masses in honor of the occasion. As I entered the sanctuary, the Good Book in hand, I was taken back to a history class five years prior at Furman University, a formerly-Baptist liberal arts college and my alma mater.
“Young people just don’t know their Bibles anymore!” our professor had lamented. He was waiting for someone to provide a general description of the Biblical figure Job, and no one in the class of twenty-five could.
In all fairness, Professor, I thought, I’ll bet my Catholic parents and grandparents don’t know their Bibles either. I resisted the urge to defend myself and simultaneously confirm the stereotype that Catholics are ignorant of Scripture.
The prejudice is, in fact, well-earned. In Pew Research Center’s 2010 U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey, fewer than half of American Catholics could name Genesis as the first book of the Bible, the lowest proportion of all religious groups surveyed including atheists and agnostics, and only a third could name all four gospels. Even fewer—just 25 percent–could identify the Biblical figure who remained obedient to God despite great suffering, Job.
I told you so, Professor!
While Catholics’ Bible knowledge has improved over the past decade—a 2019 iteration of the study showed improved recognition of Moses and Abraham—Catholics still earned lower scores on Biblical knowledge questions than Evangelicals, Mainline Protestants, Mormons, Jews, Atheists and Agnostics. In fact, the only groups that Catholics outperformed were Historically Black Protestants and “Nones.”
Such poor Biblical knowledge bespeaks minimal Bible reading. Pew’s 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study found that just a quarter of Catholics read Scripture weekly, while more than half seldom or never do. Catholics trailed Muslims, Buddhists, and every other Christian denomination surveyed in Scripture-reading habits. But almost 80% of the same Catholics report praying at least weekly. These aren’t Catholics in name only. They just rarely read the Bible.
At this point, some may object: Catholics know the Bible; they just don’t know that they know the Bible. The “Our Father” and the “Hail Mary” are Scriptural prayers, they’ll point out. That means most Catholics have Bible verses committed to memory. They will name common hymns containing Bible verses and point out parts of the Mass taken from Psalms, Isaiah, the gospels, and Revelation. They will remark that there are four readings from the Word of God at every Sunday Mass.
It is true that most of what Catholics do is Biblical, that readings from Scripture comprise half of every Mass, and yet most common Catholics in the pew do not know the Bible and rarely lay eyes on pages of the Book themselves.
This should not come as a surprise. Scripture has not enjoyed the pride of place in Catholic practice and perception that it often has in other Christian denominations. In that same 2014 Pew study when Catholics were asked if they thought reading the Bible essential to being Catholic, only 22% agreed. By comparison, 60% of Evangelical Protestants in the same survey said Bible-reading was essential to being Christian.
So are Catholic practice and perception of the importance of Scripture consistent with Catholic teaching on the topic? Far from it.
Since Jesus’ Resurrection and the Catholic Church’s inception, the Church has recognized Christ’s presence in both the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation is clear on this point:
The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God’s word and of Christ’s body.
In his apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini, Pope Benedict XVI also explained Jesus’ presence in the Word as analogous to that of His sacramental presence in the Eucharist:
By approaching the altar and partaking in the Eucharistic banquet we truly share in the body and blood of Christ. The proclamation of God’s word at the celebration entails an acknowledgment that Christ himself is present, that he speaks to us, and that he wishes to be heard.
Thus, it seems the Pope’s new observance of the Sunday of the Word of God is a response to the dissonance between practice and perception on one hand and magisterial teaching on the other. His letter Aperuit Illis announcing the new celebration takes its name from one of the disciples’ earliest encounters with Jesus after his resurrection: “He opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (Luke 24:45). The disciples encountered the resurrected Lord on Easter Sunday not only in the breaking of the bread but also in the breaking open of the Bible. That encounter demonstrated that both scripture and sacrament were necessary to encounter Jesus. As St. Jerome famously preached in the fourth century, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”
I had to live this truth to learn it. Back in that college class, my ignorance of scripture had been laid bare, but I had yet to realize how it equated to ignorance of the Lord. Encouraged by some Evangelical friends who did know a thing or two about Job, I began fumbling my way through the Word of God. For twenty minutes a day, I read the gospels chronologically. I memorized Scripture verses. I joined a Bible Study. And over time, an interesting thing happened: I learned a lot more about Jesus.
I am now Campus Minister of a Catholic high school, and I see among the students I shepherd the same distance from the Bible that I experienced at their ages and that is quite common among Catholics. So, this Lent I attempted to address it. Wanting students to make a habit of picking up their Bibles daily, I issued a challenge. Interested students signed up to read through the gospel of John from beginning to end, day by day, until Easter.
When the challenge began on Ash Wednesday, I was unsuspecting of stay-at-home orders to come. On March 16, as Baton Rouge schools closed and implemented distance learning plans and the Bishop of Baton Rouge suspended public Masses indefinitely, it became clear the idea was providential. In previous Advent and Lenten seasons, I had increased the availability of the sacraments on campus, promoted small groups, or held worship events—all ways of practicing faith that presuppose physical presence. But on March 17, the 125 students who had committed to daily scripture study during Lent continued to read the gospel of John from home without a hitch.
Since the suspension of public Masses in mid-March, the focus of many Catholics has been on their resumption. Some criticize bishops’ decisions to suspend public liturgies in the first place, while others propose drive-through distribution of the Eucharist.
Certainly, the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life,” as the catechism teaches, and the Word of God can never take its place in the practice of our faith. But neither can the Eucharist replace the Word of God. In recent history, it may have. Perhaps the Lord in his providence is giving us an opportunity through COVID-19 to balance the scales.
Calls for carpool communion and criticism of bishops’ law-abiding decisions betray a one-dimensional worship, an underappreciation for Scripture and the sustenance it provides. In this time of suffering, as we yearn for communion with Christ and his body, the Church, around the Eucharistic table, we would do well to dust off our Bibles, for in them, the catechism says, we can find “strength for [our] faith, food for the soul, and a pure and lasting fount of spiritual life.”
Maybe a good place to start would be with Job, that Biblical figure, little-known in Catholic circles, who remained obedient to God in his suffering. With him may we have the grace even now to say, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!”