Weekly General Audience February 18, 2009
Pope Benedict XVI continued his series of teachings on the early Christian writers of the East and West during his general audience on Feb. 18. He spoke about St. Bede the Venerable, one of the most learned men of the early Middle Ages and a prolific writer who was renowned for his great holiness and wisdom.
St. Bede wrote extensively on Scripture and on the mystery of Christ and the Church. He is best known, however, for his historical writings, in which he traced the history of the Church. His writings are a legacy and a guide for teachers, pastors and religious today in living out their vocations in the service of the Church’s mission.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today we will examine a saint called Bede, who was born in Northumbria in the northeast part of England around the year 672 or 673.
He himself recounts that when he was 7 years old his parents entrusted him to the care of the abbot of the neighboring Benedictine monastery for his education.
“Spending all the remaining time of my life in that monastery,” he wrote, “I wholly applied myself to the study of Scripture, and amidst the observance of regular discipline and the daily care of singing in the church, I always took delight in learning, teaching and writing” (Ecclesiastical History of the English People, V, 24).
Indeed, Bede went on to become one of the most illustrious figures of learning during the High Middle Ages, availing himself of the many valuable manuscripts that his abbots brought back from their numerous trips to the continent and to Rome.
His teachings and the fame of his writings earned him the friendship of many of the most important figures of his times, who encouraged him to pursue his work, which benefitted so many people. Even when he was ailing, he never stopped working and always maintained an inner joy expressed in prayer and song.
He concluded his most important work, the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, with this prayer: “I beseech you, good Jesus, who graciously allowed me to partake of the sweet words of your wisdom, to kindly grant that someday I may come to you, fountain of all wisdom, and forever stand before your face.” He died on May 26, the feast of the Ascension, in 735.
The Importance of Scripture
Sacred Scripture was Bede’s ongoing source of theological reflection.
In a careful, critical review of its texts (a copy of the monumental Codex Amiatinus of the Vulgate, on which Bede worked, has been handed down to us), Bede offers a commentary on the Bible, which he interprets in a Christological light.
Two things emerge. First, he listens to exactly what the biblical text says: He truly wanted to listen to and understand the text itself. Secondly, he was convinced that the key to understanding sacred Scripture as the word of God is Christ and that with Christ — with his light — the Old and the New Testaments could be understood as a single unit — “one” holy Scripture.
The events of the Old and New Testaments go together. They are the way to Christ, although they are expressed through different signs and institutions (which he calls concordia sacramentorum).
For example, both the tent of the covenant that Moses set up in the desert and the first and second Temples of Jerusalem are images of the Church, the new Temple built on Christ and the apostles as living stones, with the charity of the Spirit as the cement.
Moreover, just as pagans contributed to the construction of the old Temple, offering precious materials and the technical experience of their master artisans, the apostles and other teachers — consisting not only of people of ancient Jewish, Greek and Latin origin but also people from the new nations, including, much to Bede’s pleasure, the Irish Celts and the Anglo-Saxons — contributed to building up the Church.
St. Bede witnessed the growth of the universality of the Church, which was not limited to a specific culture but encompassed all the cultures of the world, which must open themselves to Christ and find in him their resting place.
The history of the Church was another area that was dear to Bede. Following his study of the era described in the Acts of the Apostles, he examined the history of the Fathers of the Church and of the councils, convinced that the work of the Holy Spirit continues throughout history.
In the Chronica Maiora, Bede established a timeline that became the basis for the universal calendar ab incarnazione Domini (from the incarnation of Christ). Up to then, time had been calculated based on the year that the city of Rome was founded.
However, Bede recognized the birth of Christ as the true reference point in history — the center of history — and left us the calendar that calculates history starting from Our Lord’s incarnation. He also left an account of the outcome of the first six ecumenical councils, clearly presenting their teachings on Christ, on Mary and on salvation theology, and denouncing the Monophysite, Monothelite, iconoclastic and neo-Pelagian heresies.
Finally, he edited the Ecclesiastical History of the English Peoples, already mentioned, with a documentary preciseness and a literary expertise for which he has been recognized as the “Father of English Historiography.”
Bede sought to highlight two characteristic features of the Church.
First, he highlighted its catholicity, which he saw as faithfulness to tradition while remaining open to historical developments, and as the search for unity in diversity — differences in history and culture — in accordance with the guidelines that Pope Gregory the Great had given to the Apostle of England, Augustine of Canterbury.
Second, he highlighted both its apostolic and Roman character. In this regard, he considered it of primary importance to convince all the churches of the Irish-Celts and the Picts to celebrate Easter according to the Roman calendar.
The computation he scientifically elaborated to establish the exact date of the celebration of Easter each year — and as a result, of the entire cycle of the liturgical year — has become the reference text for the entire Catholic Church.
Teacher of Liturgy
Bede was also a distinguished teacher of liturgical theology. In his homilies on the Gospels for Sundays and feast days, he interpreted the true mysteries of the faith.
He taught the faithful how to celebrate the mysteries of the faith with joy and how to reflect those mysteries in a consistent way in their lives as they awaited their full manifestation with the return of Christ, when, with our glorified bodies, we shall be admitted to the offertory procession of God’s eternal liturgy in heaven.
In accordance with the “realism” of the teachings of Cyril, Ambrose and Augustine, Bede taught that the sacraments of Christian initiation make every faithful soul “not only Christian but Christ.”
Indeed, every time a faithful soul receives and cultivates the word of God with love, in imitation of Mary, he conceives and generates Christ anew.
Moreover, every time a group of catechumens receives the sacraments at Easter, the Church “regenerates itself,” or using an even more daring expression, the Church becomes “the mother of God,” participating in the generation of her children through the work of the Holy Spirit.
A Message for Everyone
Thanks to his method of doing theology in which the Bible, liturgy and history are woven together, Bede has a message that is relevant today for various “states” of Christian life.
First, he reminds scholars (doctores ac doctrices) that they have two essential tasks: to scrutinize the marvels of God’s word in order to be able to present them in a manner attractive to the faithful, and to explain dogmatic truths, while avoiding heretical complications, and maintaining “Catholic simplicity” with the attitude of the meek and humble, to whom it pleases God to reveal the mysteries of the Kingdom.
For their part, pastors must give priority to preaching, not only verbally through sermons and teachings on the saints, but also through icons, processions and pilgrimages.
He urged them to use the local language, as he himself did, explaining the Our Father and the Apostle’s Creed in the Northumbrian language and carrying forward to the last day of his life his commentary on the Gospel of John in the vernacular.
To consecrated people who have dedicated themselves to the Divine Office, living in the joy of fraternal communion and progressing in spiritual life through asceticism and contemplation, Bede recommends a concern for the apostolate.
No one should keep the Gospel solely to himself. Rather, he should consider it as a gift for others, both by collaborating with bishops in various kinds of pastoral activities that support emerging Christian communities and by being available for evangelizing missions among pagan peoples outside their own land as pilgrims pro amore Dei (for the love of God).
Placed in this perspective, in his commentary on the Song of Songs, Bede presents the synagogue and the Church as coworkers in spreading the word of God.
Christ the bridegroom wants a Church that is industrious and that is “darkened by the tasks of evangelization” — a clear reference to the words of the Song of Songs (1:5), where the bride says, “Nigra sum sed formosa (I am dark but lovely)” — a Church intent on cultivating other fields or vineyards in order to set up among new nations “not a temporary hut but a stable dwelling”; in other words, intent on introducing the Gospel into the fabric of society and its cultural institutions.
From this perspective, this saintly doctor exhorted laypeople to be assiduous in religious instruction, imitating those “insatiable crowds in the Gospel, who would not even give the apostles time to eat a bite.” He taught them how to pray continuously, “reproducing in life what they celebrate in liturgy,” offering all their actions as a spiritual sacrifice in union with Christ.
He explained to parents that even in their small domestic circle they can exercise “the priestly office of pastor and guide” by giving Christian formation to their children.
He points out that he knows many faithful — men and women, married or celibate — “who are capable of irreproachable conduct that, if suitably pursued, could approach daily Eucharistic Communion” (Epistola ad Ecgberctum, ed. Plummer, p. 419).
Wisdom and Holiness
The fame for holiness and wisdom that Bede enjoyed while still alive earned him the title of “Venerable.” Even Pope Sergius I spoke of him in this way when he wrote to Bede’s abbot in 701, requesting that he be sent to Rome temporarily to give advice on matters of universal interest.
After his death, his writings were spread extensively throughout his homeland and throughout the European continent.
The great missionary of Germany, St. Boniface, a bishop who died in 754, asked the archbishop of York and the abbot of Wearmouth on several occasions to have some of Bede’s works transcribed and sent to him so that he and his companions could enjoy the spiritual light that they emanated.
One century later, Notker Balbulus, the abbot of St. Gall who died in 912, taking note of Bede’s extraordinary influence, likened him to a new sun that God had made to rise not from the East but from the West in order to illuminate the world.
Apart from their rhetorical emphasis, it is a fact that through his works Bede contributed in an effective way to building up a Europe that was Christian, in which diverse populations and cultures were united, conferring a uniform character inspired by the Christian faith.
Let us pray that even today there may be people of Bede’s stature who can keep the entire continent united. Let us pray that all of us may be prepared to rediscover our common roots in order to build a Europe that is profoundly human and authentically Christian.