Article 19: Catechism of the Catholic Church Series
Father John G. Hillier
The old proverb, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink,” is probably the oldest English proverb that is still in use today. It was used as early as the year 1175, (in homilies) and later appeared in other literature including the play “Narcissus,” published in 1602.
Although it may not be the most dignified proverb to use when discussing holy things, the fact remains that this proverb fits well when discussing “Sacred Scripture in the Life of the Church.” Why? Because as often as the Christian faithful are invited by the Church to read the Sacred Scriptures, no one can really force another to read, study or reflect on the words of the Holy Bible, or any other text for that matter.
I have always found it curious that even among the Catholic households that prominently display a Bible, perhaps on a living room coffee-table or bookshelf, this is often the closest proximity that family members actually get to reading the Bible. Still, the Catechism insists that “access to Sacred Scripture ought to be open wide to the Christian faithful” (ccc 131). This not only includes the use of Sacred Scripture in “pastoral preaching, catechetics and all forms of Christian instruction” (ccc 132) but all the Christian faithful are urged “to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ, by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures” (ccc 133). The Catechism insists that such exposure to the Sacred Scriptures is imperative for our spiritual development because, quoting from Saint Jerome, the Catechism explains, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ” (ccc 133).
The Catechism encourages us to read, study or otherwise reflect on the Sacred Scriptures “as strength for our faith, food for the soul, and a pure and lasting font of spiritual life” (ccc 131). Curiously, what I discovered in my youth is that practicing Catholics are very much familiar with the Sacred Scriptures, even though it may not always seem apparent. Contrary to popular opinion which suggests that Catholics are pretty much ignorant of the Scriptures, allow me to offer the following:
In addition to listening to different Scriptural readings proclaimed each time a person attends Holy Mass, practicing Catholics also hear and speak many Scriptural texts that have been incorporated into the liturgy of the Mass. When we respond “Amen” or “And with your spirit,” we need to remember that these responses come directly from the Bible.
“Amen,” for example, is found throughout the Sacred Scriptures. When Jesus says, “truly, truly I say to you …”, as in the Gospel of Saint John 6:47, for example, it is often translated, “Amen, amen I say to you …”
There are other occurrences of “Amen” at the conclusion of a prayer or a blessing, as in the case when Saint Paul uses “amen” seven times in his Letter to the Romans (cf. Romans 1:25, 9:5, 11:36, 15:33, 16:20, and 16:24, 27). As well, in most translations, the last word in the Bible is, “Amen” (Revelation 22:21).
The response, “and with your spirit,” is the common rendering of the Latin, “et cum spiritu tuo.” It forms part of the salutations at the end of some of Saint Paul’s letters: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit brethren. Amen” (Gal 6:18; Phil 4:23; Philemon 25); “The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you” (2 Tim 4:22).
Other, more lengthy prayers like the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) and the Lamb of God prayer, just prior to Holy Communion, likewise come from the New Testament. (Cf. John 1:29, Matthew 8:8).
Then of course there are Catholic devotions like the holy rosary, the divine mercy chaplet and the stations of the cross that include words and images from Sacred Scripture. For those who pray the Liturgy of the Hours, the use of Sacred Scripture, especially the liberal use of the psalms, is paramount. Then there are the images from Sacred Scripture like the body of Christ on the cross (prominently displayed in every Catholic church) and biblical themes that are often incorporated into stain glass windows.
So you see, many Catholics have a more profound exposure to Sacred Scripture than one might first assume. This can provide a rich background in helping Catholics become even more competent in reading and reflecting on God’s written Word.
Although there are different reasons for people to read the Bible, the Church is telling us through the words of the Catechism that the Bible is our handbook for our journey in faith. Our goal is “to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ” (ccc 133). One way to accomplish this is by “frequent reading (of) the divine Scriptures” (ccc 133).
Then there are members of the faithful like those preparing to become priests, deacons or lay pastoral leaders who ought to have a more profound knowledge on the Bible. The Catechism reminds those engaged in such theological studies that “the study of the sacred page should be the very soul of sacred theology” (ccc 132). Those who receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders are reminded that, “the liturgical homily should hold pride of place” (ccc 132). Thus, a more thorough background in the Sacred Scriptures is crucial for pastoral leaders.
We began with the old proverb, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Perhaps another English proverb is apropos given our task as proclaimers of the Gospel in word and deed, “if at first you don’t succeed, try try again.”