In his Apostolic Letter of 30 September 2019, Aperuit illis, Pope Francis established the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time as the ‘Sunday of the Word of God’. It is a day devoted to the celebration, study, and spreading of the Word of God. Bishop Dermot Farrell, Bishop of Ossory, has written a pastoral letter, Opening the Way to the Scriptures, to mark ‘Sunday of the Word of God’ in the Diocese of Ossory. Here is Bishop Farrell's Pastoral Letter:
Opening the Way to the Scriptures - Introduction
In the renewal of the Church at the Second Vatican Council, the Council realised anew that the People of God receive the Body of Christ both at the table of the Eucharist and at the table of the Word (see Dei Verbum, 21).
During the Council debates, the world’s bishops began to appreciate that, for too long God’s people had found their way only to one of these tables. In the last sixty years we have been finding our way anew to the table of the Word. It was Saint Jerome - the 1600th anniversary of whose death we celebrate this year - who famously said that “ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” His words resonate every bit as much today. The risen Lord continues to speak to us through the Scriptures. He continues to knock at the door of our hearts and minds; if we hear his voice and heed it, then he will enter our lives and remain with us.
On this anniversary of the death of Saint Jerome, Pope Francis has highlighted again the importance of Sacred Scripture in the life, worship, and mission of the Church. He underlines the urgent need for each of us to realise that the Bible is not the preserve of the few. It belongs to all of us. It is the book of the people of God. It is a rich source for prayer, for contemplation and consolation. And it is through attentive, regular listening of the Scriptures - especially at Mass - through reflecting on them, through praying with them, that our love of God’s Word will grow, and bring us closer to Christ, our Saviour.
Jesus and Sacred Scripture
Pope Francis, in his document Aperuit illis, (“Instituting the Sunday of the Word of God”) draws on a line from the Gospel of Luke which tells how the risen Lord “opened the minds of his disciples to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45). Luke had related how the risen Lord had appeared to two dispirited disciples who had left Jerusalem and their fellow disciples, their hopes in Jesus shattered. Along the road to Emmaus they were joined by the risen Lord, who beginning with Moses and the prophets interpreted for them “the things about himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27). During the course of that journey with Jesus their sadness was changed to joy, their preoccupation with their problems was turned into concern for the stranger and they invited him to stay with them.
When we listen to the words of Jesus in the gospels, or at Mass on Sundays, we see how his life was imbued with the Bible which for him was the first (what we call the Old) Testament. He would have heard them prayed at home with Joseph and Mary. He would have heard them read and commented upon also in the local synagogue. How often in his ministry did he use the words of the prophet Isaiah - in the synagogue at Nazareth when he declared fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, or in his ground-breaking Sermon on the Mount, or in his reply to John the Baptist who sent disciples to him asking him if he was the one who was to come or were they to wait for another. As he was dying on the cross the words of Psalm 22 are found on his lips. He often used images from his Bible in his teaching. Isaiah and the psalms provided the inspiration for those words of blessing - the Beatitudes - with which he began his great sermon and which set the tone for the rest of that sermon and indeed his whole ministry. From childhood he was well versed in the Scriptures and he used this treasure trove to great effect in his ministry - “like the householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt 13:52).
Jesus’ words and deeds transmitted by his disciples became in turn the Sacred Scriptures of Jesus’ followers. The gospels and letters were gathered together to form the New Testament. Together the two parts of our Bible form a unity around the figure of Christ. Together they help us to understand the person and the mission of Christ. Together they challenge us to live lives worthy of our calling as followers of Jesus.
Listen to the Word of God
In Jesus’ story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31), the Rich Man beseeches Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers to warn them as to how they should live in order to avoid the torments to which he is now subject. His request is refused. They have Moses and the prophets, Abraham tells him, “let them listen to them.” In other words, they have the Sacred Scriptures and are called to listen to them. If they can’t listen to the Scriptures, they will not be able to hear the One who is risen from the dead.
We too have the Sacred Scriptures. We regularly listen to them in church. We hear them opened up in the homily. We hear them read at other Church celebrations. Their very reading calls for a response from us. In the words of Isaiah we are challenged to ensure that the Word of God does not return empty from us, but accomplishes God’s purpose (see Is 55:11).
Like the Rich Man in the parable we are called to listen attentively to the Word of God, to pay attention to it. We need to be open to it, allowing it to nurture our lives and inspire us to live out the call of Christ in our daily lives. We need to listen attentively to the Sacred Scriptures, study them assiduously, reflect on them carefully, and interpret them “in the light of the same Spirit through whom they were written.” When our hearts and minds are open to the presence of Christ in the Scriptures, we will also find Him in our neighbour in need.
We will also find consolation in the words of Scripture, in the Psalms, in the words of Jesus, in the words of Paul – words that can bring us great comfort in times of loss and bereavement, words that can bring us hope and consolation.
Scripture is at the centre of everything the Church does. The Scriptures nourish and shape our prayer and our worship. They help us understand our world. They shape our world view. They teach us how to live and relate to each other. They continually call and challenge us to permit the Word of God to take flesh in our lives.
Through Sacred Scripture, kept alive by the faith of the Church, the Lord continues to speak to his people, showing us the path we must take to enable the Gospel of salvation to reach everyone. Without any pretence at completeness, the following practical suggestions may be helpful in making the Word of God speak to the people of God in parishes throughout the diocese:
1. Resources for Sunday of Word of God
In response to Pope Francis’ recent Motu Proprio, Aperuit illis, a number of members of the Faculty of Theology in Maynooth have prepared some biblical and liturgical resources for the celebration of the Sunday of the Word of God (Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, 26 January 2020).
These may be of use to anyone involved in the preparation of the Liturgy at diocesan and parish level.
These resources are available through the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference website and can be accessed here: https://www.catholicbishops.ie/2019/12/17/resources-for-sunday-of-the-word-of-god/
2. Pray the Psalms
We can pray with exactly the same words that Jesus used for his daily prayer. He knew the psalms off by heart. We find the words Psalm 22 on his lips as he was dying on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”
The psalms, which are God’s word to the one who listens and responds, have been used for private and community prayer for almost 3,000 years. The poetic language of the psalms reflects an entire range of attitudes that make up one’s approach to God - joy, anger, consolation, vindictiveness, fear, thanks, loss, suffering, praise, loneliness or trauma. Although we may not be very conscious of it, they are already part of our prayer lives, since at every celebration of the Eucharist the Psalm is a response to the First Reading. On the Sunday of the Word of God, you might take home the Mass leaflet and pray the responsorial psalm once a day during the week. When human words fail, the psalms - the prayers of Jesus - can come to our aid.
3. Volunteer to Proclaim the Word of God at Mass
The import of the reading of the Word of God in Church can hardly be overestimated, since it is our custom and tradition that this is the key contact with the Word of God during the week. Readers in a parish are to be encouraged to meet from time to time to reflect on what they are too proclaim in Church. Young people might be encouraged to read in Church, especially as they already read at First Holy Communion and Confirmation Masses.
4. Pray the Scriptures (Lectio Divina)
Many people find the ancient practice of lectio divina (sacred reading) a fruitful way of welcoming the Word of God. It is built upon a person’s choosing a few lines of the Scriptures they wish to pray. The Benedictine monk, Father Luke Dysinger, a master in the practice provides the following helpful guidelines:
Read: Turn to the text and read it slowly, gently. Savour each portion of the reading, constantly listening for the “still, small voice” of a word or phrase that somehow says, “I am for you today.” Do not expect lightning or ecstasies. God is teaching us to listen, to seek him in silence. God does not reach out and grab us but gently invites us ever more deeply into his presence.
Ponder: Take the word or phrase that strikes or touches you: bring it into yourself, into the quiet of your heart. Memorise it and slowly repeat it to yourself, allowing it to interact with your inner world of concerns, memories, and ideas. Do not be afraid of distractions. Memories or thoughts are simply parts of yourself that, when they rise up during lectio divina, are asking to be given to God along with the rest of your inner self. Allow this inner pondering, this rumination, to invite you into dialogue with God.
Pray: Whether you use words, ideas, or images - or all three - is not important. Engage with God as you would with one who you know accepts you, who loves you. Approach your heavenly Father, as you would want your child to approach you. Give to God what you have discovered during your experience of pondering. Give to God what you have found within your heart. That is a true gift that only you can give.
Remember you are not “performing” or seeking some goal. Only strangers perform for each other. Those who have learned to love, have learned to be with the other. Praying God’s word has no goal other than that of being in the presence of God by praying the Scriptures. (Luke Dysinger OSB on www.GiveUsThisDay.org)
5. Some Brief Maxims or Sententiae of Bernardo Olivera, OCSO
If you’re looking for further guidance, the spiritual wisdom of Father Bernardo Olivera may provide a departure for fruitful pondering.
(i) The Gospel is the power of God: it shows us the way and gives us the strength to follow it.
(ii) Only the one who is recollected receives; only in silence is heard the beating of the heart of God.
(iii) We speak to God when we pray with love; we hear God when we read his Word with faith.
(iv) The Bible is not intended only to inform us about God, but to transform us according to the form of Christ.
(v) If you want to know and reach Christ, you will attain him more quickly by following him than by reading about him.
Pope Francis has proclaimed “a Sunday entirely dedicated to the Word of God, in order to grasp the inexhaustible riches which flow from the constant dialogue between God and his people” (Misericordia et Misera, 7). The best way to learn from the Bible whose teaching is perennially relevant to the people of God, is to read it and reflect on it, receive it. After all we receive, “the Bread of Life from the one table of God’s Word and Christ’s Body” (Dei Verbum, 21). In a time where some speak of a ‘post-truth’ society, one in which ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ are the order of the day, we know “that ‘the word of God is alive’ (Heb 4:12): it does not die nor does it age; it abides for ever. It stays young in the presence of all that passes away (see Matt 24:35), and protects from interior aging those who put it into practice. It is alive and it is life-giving” (Pope Francis, Address to the Catholic Biblical Federation, April 2019).
Bishop of Ossory