Sunday, January 22, 2023

The Sunday of the Word of God


On September 30, 2019, to mark the 1600th anniversary of the death of Saint Jerome (the ascetic Scripture scholar who translated the Bible into the Latin Vulgate and is one of the four great Doctors of the Latin Church) Pope Francis issued the Motu Proprio Aperuit illis, designating the Third Sunday per annum as "The Sunday of the Word of God." Aperuit Illis takes its name from the Gospel quote with which it begins, "He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures" (Luke 24:45). 

The Pope's immediate practical object in establishing "The Sunday of the Word of God," was to highlight the centrality of the Sacred Scriptures to our Christian identity - specifically the three-fold relationship among "the Risen Lord, the community of believers and sacred scripture." This observance, the Pope suggested, will also "be a fitting part of that time of the year when we are encouraged to strengthen our bonds with the Jewish people and to pray for Christian unity." The Pope proposed that on that Sunday the proclamation of the Word be highlighted, the honor due to it be emphasized, and "that in the Eucharistic celebration the sacred text be enthroned, in order to focus the attention of the assembly on the normative value of God's word." We did that in my first (and last) observance of the Sunday of the Word of God as a pastor in January 2020 (photo).

"Devoting a specific Sunday of the liturgical year to the word of God," the Pope claimed, "can enable the Church to experience anew how the risen Lord opens up for us the treasury of his word and enables us to proclaim its unfathomable riches before the world." More than half a century after the Second Vatican Council, this newest papal initiative seemed especially timely. The Bible, the Pope pointed out "belongs above all to those called to hear its message and to recognize themselves in its words." It "is the book of the Lord's people, who, in listening to it, move from dispersion and division towards unity."

However one feels about the totality of post-conciliar liturgical developments, I think that the Council's call that there should be more varied and suitable reading from scripture in the liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium 35) has to be counted as one of the reform's greatest successes. Even there, of course, critics can quibble about the details. Some fault the shortness, lack of context, and consequent incomprehensibility of many pericopes. Others object to the congregation's being bombarded by too many words. Though they appear somewhat contradictory, pastoral experience suggests that both those objections have some significant merit. That said, however, even considering all such objections, the overall increase in the amount of scripture proclaimed and, in particular, the congregation's increased exposure to the Old Testament and to more of the Gospel texts has to be considered a great improvement in the life of the Church.

In The Church and the Age (1887), Servant of God Isaac Hecker, the Founder of the Paulist Fathers, wrote: “The reading of the Bible is the most salutary of all reading. We say to Catholic readers, read the Bible! Read it with prayer, that you may be enlightened by the light of the Holy Spirit to understand what you read. Read it with gratitude to God’s Church, which has preserved it and placed it in your hands to be read and to be followed.”

Photo: The Book of the Gospels exposed for veneration to celebrate the first Sunday of the Word of God, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, January 26, 2020.

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