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Summary of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini by the Commission for Doctrine, Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops

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Verbum Domini - Apostolic Exhortation on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church
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This Apostolic Exhortation of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI is a response to the 2008 Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, whose theme was The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church. One of the goals of the Synod was to review the implementation of the directives on Scripture found in the Second Vatican Council, especially its Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum, and to confront the new challenges of our day. The continuation of this task is one of the main objectives of Verbum Domini (no. 3).

The document consists of three parts, entitled Verbum Dei (The Word of God), Verbum in Ecclesia (The Word in the Church), and Verbum Mundo (The Word to the World). This summary will provide some important highlights from the document, particularly those which may have pastoral importance. It is in no way, however, a summary of the whole of the document, which deals with far more themes than could be dealt with here.

Part One: Verbum Dei (The Word of God)

Part One begins by outlining the significance of the Incarnation, in which the Word became flesh. It then briefly discusses the human response to God’s word, before an extended treatment of the topic of the interpretation of Scripture.

Central to the Christian mystery is the Incarnation of the Word, which is the ultimate expression of God’s condescension (nos. 11-12). When we speak of “the word,” this is always the primary referent. In Christ, the Incarnate Word, God has revealed himself completely (nos. 12, 14).

But the Incarnation also means that God’s revelation occurs in space and time. Thus, we have the concept of “inspiration,” which implies that revelation contains both a human and divine element (no. 19). When interpreting the Scriptures, we cannot lose sight of the concepts of “inspiration” and “truth” (no. 19).

The fact that God speaks his word to people means that he calls them into a dialogue with himself (no. 23). Mary provides the supreme example of the faith-filled hearing of God’s word (no. 27). She is also an example to us of familiarity with that word. “Since Mary is completely imbued with the word of God, she is able to become the Mother of the Word Incarnate” (no. 28).

Interpretation of Scripture in the Church

In this section, Pope Benedict stresses that Scripture cannot be properly understood apart from a living faith, nor outside of the family of faith, the Church. Interpretation is not a personal matter apart from the community, for “the Bible was written by the People of God for the People of God, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit” (no. 30). Because the Bible is the Church’s book, it cannot be properly understood apart from that Church.

Regarding methods of exegesis, Benedict draws on Dei Verbum, no.12, in order to provide guidelines to be followed in the interpretation of Scripture. The historical-critical method is beneficial, since Christian faith deals with history and “should thus be studied with the methods of serious historical research” (no. 32). But it is inadequate on its own, since the true goal of exegetes is reached “only when they have explained the meaning of the biblical text as God’s word for today” (no. 33).

In order to appreciate the divine element in the Bible, three criteria are necessary: [1] the text must be interpreted with attention to the unity of the whole of Scripture (also known as “canonical exegesis)”; [2] the Tradition of the Church must be taken into account; and [3] the analogy of faith must be respected (no. 35). Although many Catholic exegetes are competent in the historical-critical method, more attention needs to be paid to the theological dimension of biblical texts, in accordance with these three elements.

The danger today is “a dualistic approach to Sacred Scripture” that separates the human from the divine element. Unfortunately, this “occurs even at the highest academic levels” (no. 35). This “dualism” results in the meaning of the text being relegated to the past and having no meaning for us today. This absence of faith often gives way to a “secularized hermeneutic” which tends to reject any miraculous or divine elements in Scripture and even to de-historicize events such as the Lord’s Resurrection (no. 35). Such a flawed methodology can cause great harm to the clarity of homilies and to the formation of seminarians (no. 35).

The Bible’s unity is grounded in the fact that all the Scriptures ultimately point to Christ, the Word (nos. 38-39). This means that the Old Testament remains valid for Christians, even if it has been fulfilled (no. 40). The close relationship between the Old and New Testaments must be brought out in both pastoral and academic settings (no. 41).

A “hermeneutic of faith” must resist both faithless reductionism and fundamentalism. In order to foster such a hermeneutic, Episcopal Conferences are encouraged to help pastors, exegetes, and theologians to work more closely together (no. 45).

With respect to ecumenism, Pope Benedict calls for “an increase in ecumenical study, discussion and celebrations of the word of God,” provided these celebrations of the word do not appear as alternatives to the Mass (no. 46). The creation of common ecumenical translations also remains important (no. 46).

The lives of the Saints, who allowed their lives to be shaped by the word of God, provide the most profound interpretation of Scripture. “Every saint is like a ray of light streaming forth from the word of God” (no. 48). Their holiness is an interpretation “which cannot be overlooked” (no. 49).

Part Two: Verbum in Ecclesia (The Word in the Church)

Part Two considers the place of the word of God in the Church, particularly in the liturgy and in the sacraments. The liturgy is not only the privileged setting in which we hear the word of God, but it is also the goal to which a faith-filled understanding of Scripture must always refer (no. 52). Unfortunately, the close relationship between word and sacrament is not always understood by the faithful, and so it is the task of priests and deacons to explain this unity when they administer the sacraments (no. 53).

Given the importance of the Mass readings, which are proclaimed by a reader, more training should be provided for those who carry out this task in the liturgy. This training should be in the areas of biblical formation, liturgical formation, and technical preparation (no. 58).

Because of the importance of the word of God in the sacred liturgy, the quality of homilies needs to be improved . . . [I]t should lead to an understanding of the mystery being celebrated, serve as a summons to mission, and prepare the assembly for the profession of faith, the universal prayer and the Eucharistic liturgy. . . . Generic and abstract homilies which obscure the directness of God’s word should be avoided, as well as useless digressions which risk drawing greater attention to the preacher than to the heart of the Gospel message. The faithful should be able to perceive clearly that the preacher has a compelling desire to present Christ, who must stand at the centre of every homily (no. 59).

To this end, resources and publications should be developed to help the ministers carry out this task (no. 60).

In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the penitent should begin his or her confession by reading or listening to a biblical exhortation, and should use an act of contrition “based on the words of Scripture” (no. 61). Communal celebrations of the Anointing of the Sick are urged in parishes and hospitals (no. 61).

The Liturgy of the Hours has an important place in the Church, and must be prayed daily by Bishops, priests, deacons, and seminarians (no. 62). The recital of Morning and Evening Prayer is to be encouraged among the lay faithful in parishes and religious communities (no. 62). In order to aid parishes that lack weekly access to a priest, Pope Benedict asks the competent authorities to develop ritual directories that provide new Sunday celebrations of the word which will not be confused with Sunday Mass (no. 65).

Within the celebration of the Eucharist, the faithful should be educated in the value of silence (no. 66). There could also be a greater solemnity (particularly on major feasts) surrounding the Gospel by making use of the Gospel Book and carrying it in procession. It is also helpful when the Gospel is proclaimed in song, particularly on solemnities (no. 67).

During the Mass, the readings from Scripture are never to be replaced by other texts. This includes the Responsorial Psalm (no. 69). Songs and hymns should be chosen which “are of clear biblical inspiration and which express, through the harmony of music and words, the beauty of God’s word,” particularly traditional music such as Gregorian chant (no. 70). Accommodations should also be made in the liturgy, whenever possible, for the visually and hearing impaired (no. 71).

Pope Benedict urges all the faithful to read the Scriptures and so to encounter Jesus Christ: “I express my heartfelt hope for the flowering of a ‘new season of greater love for Sacred Scripture on the part of every member of the People of God, so that their prayerful and faith-filled reading of the Bible will, with time, deepen their personal relationship with Jesus’” (no. 72). When the faithful do not know the Bible, they are often preyed upon by various sects which promote a distorted reading of Scripture (no. 73).

The knowledge of biblical personages and events is to be encouraged, especially the memorization of those scriptural passages “which are particularly expressive of the Christian mysteries” (no. 74). This scriptural knowledge is to be supplemented by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is “a sure norm for teaching the faith” (no. 74). Centres of formation should be established where laity and missionaries can receive a stronger formation in the word of God (no. 75).

Within Catholic families, family prayer and reading of the Bible is to be encouraged. Every household should have its own Bible, “to be kept in a worthy place and used for reading and prayer” (no. 85). In all cases, reading of Scripture should be accompanied by prayer. Here, Benedict cites Saint Augustine: “When you read the Bible, God speaks to you; when you pray, you speak to God” (no. 86).

The practice of lectio divina is to be encouraged (no. 87), as is the recitation of the rosary. As regards the latter, the announcement of each mystery should be followed by a short biblical text relevant to that mystery (no. 88).

Part Three: Verbum Mundo (The Word to the World)

Part Three deals with the theme of mission and evangelization. The word of God given to us makes us not only hearers, but also heralds so that we share in Christ’s mission and are empowered by the Holy Spirit (no. 91). The word that we receive is meant for all; it cannot be kept to ourselves. Since it is true, it belongs to everyone (no. 92).

Every area of society needs the light of Christ. “It is not a matter of preaching a word of consolation, but rather a word which disrupts, which calls to conversion and which opens the way to an encounter with the one through whom a new humanity flowers” (no. 93).

This task of proclaiming the word of God belongs to all the baptized. Consciousness of this mission “must be revived in every family, parish, community, association and ecclesial movement” (no. 94). Because many people, particularly in the Western world, are “baptized, but insufficiently evangelized,” there is need for a “new evangelization” (no. 96). This mission must not neglect the poor (no. 99) and the need to strive for justice (no. 100). In this regard, the faithful should receive formation in the Church’s social teaching (no. 100).

Many young people have a “sincere desire to know Jesus.” The Gospel should be proclaimed to them clearly, and they should be taught the Sacred Scriptures so that they can share the Gospel with their peers (no. 104).

In many historically Christian countries there is a large influx of migrants who do not know Christ. This offers a unique opportunity, and “migrants are entitled to hear the kerygma, which is to be proposed, not imposed. If they are Christians, they require forms of pastoral care which can enable them to grow in the faith and to become in turn messengers of the Gospel.” (no. 105).

In Sacred Scripture, the poor have a special place. It is to be emphasized, however, that the poor are also themselves agents of evangelization (no. 107).

Recognizing that the entire cosmos was created through the Word (cf. John 1.2), we acknowledge a responsibility toward creation, which is not to be viewed simply as raw material to be exploited. Thus, “accepting the word of God, attested to by Scripture and by the Church’s living Tradition . . . promotes an authentic ecology which has its deepest roots in the obedience of faith” (no. 108).

Because religious education is so important, “religion teachers should be given careful training” (no. 111). As well, competent offices and groups should promote solid scriptural formation in artists, who are capable of greatly contributing to the beauty of our Churches and our liturgy (no. 112). Further, new means of communication, especially the internet, are to be used in the new evangelization, even if they can never replace personal contact in the real world (no. 113).
Because the word of God is capable of speaking to all human persons, inculturation is possible. This, however, is not to be confused with “superficial adaptation” or a “syncretism which would dilute the uniqueness of the Gospel in an attempt to make it more easily accepted” (no. 114). Rather, true inculturation occurs “when a culture, transformed and regenerated by the Gospel, brings forth from its own living tradition original expressions of Christian life, celebration, and thought” (no. 114).

An essential part of the Church’s proclamation consists in encounter, dialogue, and cooperation with followers of other religious traditions. “This is to take place without forms of syncretism and relativism” (no. 117), but should follow the lines established in the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration Nostra Aetate and the subsequent Magisterium. Mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims should be fostered (no. 118).

Conclusion

Although this Apostolic Exhortation deals with a number of themes, we conclude our summary with Pope Benedict’s impassioned plea at the end of the document:

I remind all Christians that our personal and communal relationship with God depends on our growing familiarity with the word of God. Finally, I turn to every man and woman, including those who have fallen away from the Church, who have left the faith or who have never heard the proclamation of salvation. To everyone the Lord says: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3.20) (no. 124).

Commission for Doctrine
Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops
17 November 2010

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