CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For more than 50 years, a popular Protestant Bible study has been leading Catholics away from the Church. Three new Catholic Bible-study programs hope to change that.
The new programs are introducing many Catholics to the Bible in a way that's faithful to Church teaching, some for the first time.
Gail Buckley had been involved in the Protestant Bible Study Fellowship at Hickory Grove Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C., for several years. Her program was one of three offered in Charlotte and had more than 400 members.
She described the San Antonio-based Bible Study Fellowship as anti-Catholic.
“They say it's nondenominational, but it's not,” Buckley said. “They never speak of Mary or the sacraments. It was very contradictory to the Catholic Church.”
A former Methodist, Buckley came into the Church in 1994. She now oversees Catholic Exchange's Catholic Scripture Study — a program written by biblical scholar Scott Hahn and Catholic author Mark Shea.
Catholic Scripture Study's format is modeled after Bible Study Fellowship's popular seven-year study. It brings participants together weekly for prayer, 45 minutes of small-group discussion and a 30-minute wrap-up lecture. The study sends material and discussion questions to participants.
Started last September, Catholic Scripture Study currently has 70 groups meeting across the country. They vary in size from 30 participants up to 300. At Buckley's parish, St. Vincent de Paul in Charlotte, more than 275 participate weekly.
Father Patrick Winslow, parochial vicar at St. Vincent de Paul, provides the lectures. Each week his lectures are recorded and uploaded onto the Catholic Scripture Study Web site along with his lecture notes.
Group leaders are free to download the lectures for replay for their groups, or they can give their own lectures based on Father Winslow's notes. Buckley said virtually all the groups replay the lectures, but Father Winslow's notes are quite extensive and it would be difficult for anyone to deviate from them.
What Jesus Meant
Prior to starting a Catholic Scripture Study group in Baltimore, Barbara Melanson had participated in Community Bible Study, another popular Protestant Bible study, for five years.
She recalled that during her last year with the study, the group discussed the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John.
“We were asked what we thought Jesus meant by John 6. There were four Catholics in my group who weren't sure. I told them, I can tell you exactly what he means. Jesus is saying, ‘I am giving you my flesh and blood to eat.’ If you read the next few passages the people say this is too hard for us,” Melanson explained. “There wasn't a sound in the room.”
Afterward, the teacher asked Melanson not to share her opinion with the entire group. When the whole group gathered, the teacher explained that what Christ meant was that “the word became flesh, and it is on the word that we gnaw and digest.”
“Not one of these Catholic women knew that the Eucharist was the Body of Christ,” Melanson said. “That set me on my journey.”
“They say it's nondenominational, but it's not,” Buckley said of the Bible study.
In September, Melanson started a Catholic Scripture Study group, which now brings 92 women together on Tuesday mornings and 92 men and women on Thursday evenings at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Community in Baltimore.
The study draws from the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the writings of Church Fathers, saints and popes. “It opens up multiple layers of meaning,” Melanson explained.
A Bible study geared specifically toward mothers and their children is being used in the Midwest. Titled Making Connections with MACH1 (Mothers and Children): The Bible, Coffee and Community for Moms, it was first developed in 1997 by Catholic mothers Roberta Johnson and Carol Tepley. The study received an imprimatur from Bishop Victor Balke of the Diocese of Crookston, Minn.
“The study is designed to draw participants back into the sacraments and provides hospitality so that they are drawn back each week, hopefully to form closer relationships with Christ and the body of Christ,” Johnson said.
Directed at women raising children, the study meets weekly at four parishes in the Fargo, N.D., Diocese and one in the Crookston Diocese.
A Great Adventure
Currently, the nation's largest Catholic Bible study is taking place in St. Paul-Minneapolis under the leadership of Catholic radio talk-show host Jeff Cavins.
The 24-week Great Adventure Bible Timeline seminar has more than 1,000 participants who meet weekly at the Church of St. Paul in Ham Lake and Our Lady of Grace in Edina, suburbs of the Twin Cities. Like the Baltimore program, it started last September.
Carol Locke coordinates the program, which is also modeled after the popular Protestant studies. Participants gather for a half-hour of praise-and-worship music followed by a 10-minute introduction, 45-minute small-group discussions and a 45-minute wrap-up lecture by Cavins.
Ascension Press has been videotaping the lectures to make them available to other Bible-study groups nationwide.
Locke, too, had been a participant in a Bible Study Fellowship study for nearly 15 years. She remembers asking herself the first time she attended one, “Why can't we have something like this in the Catholic Church?”
The Catholic Bible-study groups ensure participants are getting accurate, faithful teaching, and the new Catholic programs have detailed leaders manuals that give step-by-step instructions.
The Catholic Scripture Study was written largely by Scott Hahn, a former Presbyterian who has become a well-respected Catholic biblical scholar and has taught for many years at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. It was developed following the guidelines of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and is awaiting an imprimatur from Bishop Robert Brom of San Diego.
And Cavins, who teaches the Great Adventure seminar, holds a master's degree in theology from Franciscan University.
An additional Bible-study course is available on the Internet free of charge. The Steubenville-based St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, founded by Hahn, began offering a no-cost Scripture course online last fall. The program currently has more than 750 registered participants from around the world.
“Catholics have been a bit slower to get on the Bible-study bandwagon,” said Hahn's executive assistant, Emily Stimpson. “Scott and [his wife] Kimberly Hahn's dream is that 10 years from now, when someone moves to a town and asks, ‘Where is the best Bible study in town?’ they'll be directed to a Catholic Bible study.”
Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.