Catholic Church to Mark ‘Sunday of the Word of God’ for First Time in History

COMMENTARY: Pope Francis established a new important annual feast, the Sunday of the Word of God, to accentuate the importance sacred Scripture is meant to have in the faith, prayer and lives of believers.

Faithful hold up Bibles at a papal audience in St. Peter’s Square on July 3, 2015.
Faithful hold up Bibles at a papal audience in St. Peter’s Square on July 3, 2015. (photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP via Getty Images)

Since the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has given particular attention to how Catholics celebrate the Mass. The Mass is not only, as the Second Vatican Council clearly taught, the “source and summit of the Christian life,” but also a school. Because the faith of believers is profoundly influenced by the way the Church prays (lex orandi, lex credendi), Pope Francis has sought in various ways to strengthen the liturgical curriculum.

He has buttressed the Marian piety of the Mass, establishing the memorial of Mary, Mother of the Church, on the day after Pentecost and extending the memorial of Our Lady of Loreto to the universal Church. He has bolstered devotion to St. Joseph as the guardian of the Church by requiring his intercession to be invoked in every Eucharistic Prayer. He has underlined the necessary connection between liturgy and charity in establishing in 2017 the World Day of the Poor on the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time.

We come in a few days to another of his liturgical initiatives. On Jan. 26, the Church will celebrate for the first time an important new annual feast, the Sunday of the Word of God, which Pope Francis established to accentuate the importance that sacred Scripture is meant to have in the faith, prayer and lives of believers.

He announced it intentionally last September, on the feast of St. Jerome, the famous translator of the Bible from the Greek and Hebrew into Latin, then the common language of the people. This year, the Church marks the 1,600th anniversary of St. Jerome’s death. He is famous for emphasizing, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ” — that unless we are familiar with what Jesus said and did in the Gospel, how he fulfilled all the prophecies of the Old Testament, and how the apostles proclaimed him, we really do not know him.

St. Jerome learned this lesson the hard way. As a brilliant young student traveling to study from the great masters of his day, he got deathly ill with something that took the life of his companions. He had been up until this point a lukewarm Christian, far more passionate about Greco-Roman literature than the faith.

During his sickness he had a dream in which he was appearing before the judgment seat of Christ. When he professed he was a Christian, Jesus replied that he was, rather, a Ciceronian, because he knew far more about Cicero and his writings than he did about Christ and his teachings. It struck Jerome to the core. He didn’t know Christ because he didn’t know the Scriptures! After he awoke and recovered, he resolved to pour his mind, heart and time into the study and diffusion of the word of God. Pope Francis is hoping that St. Jerome’s example of converted zeal will be contagious.

In his decree establishing the feast, Aperuit Illis, taken from the words in the Emmaus scene describing how Jesus “opened to them what referred to him in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27), Pope Francis said he hopes that this feast will help believers “grow in religious and intimate familiarity with the sacred Scriptures,” “appreciate the inexhaustible riches contained in that constant dialogue between the Lord and his people,” “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,” and “marked by this decisive relationship with the living word …, grow in love and faithful witness.”

Desiring the feast to be dedicated to the “celebration, study and dissemination of the word of God,” he made various practical suggestions. He asked that the sacred Scriptures be “enthroned” during Mass, to focus on the permanent, normative value of God’s word. He suggested that the installation of lectors or commissioning of readers take place, showing the importance of proclaiming God’s word and giving extra attention to readers’ formation to proclaim it faithfully and beautifully. He asked priests in a particular way to focus on their preaching, so that the word of God may be better understood and come more alive in the heads of hearts of believers. He proposed that pastors give away a Bible, a set of the Gospels, or at least one of the books of sacred Scripture, to emphasize the importance of reading, appreciating and praying daily with God’s word. He encouraged training in lectio divina (prayerful reading of Scripture), so that people may prayerfully assimilate the content of Scripture. And he expressed hope that since the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time either will each year fall within or at the end of the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, the Sunday of the Word of God might bear great ecumenical fruit, “since the Scriptures point out, for those who listen, the path to authentic and firm unity.”

I would like to underline two points.

The first is about celebrating the word of God as the great treasure it is.

During the 2008 Synod on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church, Bishop Antons Justs of Jelgava, Latvia, gave an unforgettable intervention (talk). He described a priest, Father Viktors, who was arrested by the Soviets for possessing the Bible and commanded him to step on it. Instead, he knelt and kissed it, for which he was condemned to 10 years of hard labor in Siberia. When he returned a decade later as an emaciated witness to Scripture’s inestimable value, he celebrated Mass with his people. After proclaiming the Gospel, he kissed once more the word of God, and he and the people cried profusely with gratitude to God.

Father Viktors wasn’t alone in his testimony. “In Latvia, during the Soviet era,” Bishop Justs continued, “no religious books, no Holy Scriptures, no catechisms were allowed to be printed. The reasoning was: If there is no printed word of God, there will be no religion. So our Latvian people did what the first-century Christians did: They learnt the passages of the Holy Scriptures by heart.”

And specifically with regard to celebration, he recounted, “Still today in Latvia there is an oral tradition alive. We stand on the shoulders of our martyrs to proclaim the word of God. Our grandchildren remember their grandfathers and grandmothers, who died for their faith; they want to be, in their turn, heroes of faith. In Latvia we proclaim the living word of God! We go in the processions and on the pilgrimages; we sing songs, and we pray and say: ‘This is the word of God, for which our grandparents died.’”

A people learning sacred Scripture by heart, taking the Bible on pilgrimages, proudly proclaiming the word of God, and seeking to be heroes in witness to it — this is what the Catholic Church is meant to be. This is the type of faith and celebration Pope Francis, by establishing this feast, is trying to catalyze.

The second point is about learning sacred Scripture.

About a decade ago, I happened to meet a priest from Cleveland at Green Airport in Providence, Rhode Island. I invited him to lunch. When the cashier asked if there would be one check or two, I said one and gave my credit card. Father Bob immediately interjected, “Sirach says we should go Dutch!” I stared at him quizzically, but retorted, “Jesus calls us to love one another as he loves us and the Last Supper wasn’t Dutch. I’m paying!”

When we got to the table, immediately after grace, I asked whether he had invented the quotation from Sirach. “Not at all,” he enthusiastically replied, as he pulled a worn Bible from his backpack and amazingly opened it to the exact page in the Book of Sirach where it says not to be ashamed to “share the expenses of a business or journey” (Sirach 42:3).

Blown away, and frankly filled with holy envy by his command of Scripture, I asked how he had come to know the word of God so well. He told me he had made a promise the day of his diaconal ordination to read the entire Bible once a year and that he had been faithful to that promise. “After 24 years,” he said with a smile, “you get know what Sirach says about restaurant bills!”

I asked him how long it takes to read the whole Bible in a year. He replied that it takes cumulatively only 75 hours, or 12-15 minutes a day.

Since that encounter, I’ve tried to emulate Father Bob’s commitment to reading the Bible each year and have encouraged many others to join us. Twelve to 15 minutes a day can change your life. There are so many books and smartphone applications that make reading the Bible in a year easier, intelligently varying the passages to help one understand it better than if one just read from cover to cover. I’d encourage you to consult them.

If ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ, intimate familiarity with the word of God will help you to know not only the inspired words but the Word made flesh so much better. The upcoming inaugural Sunday of the Word of God would be a grace-filled occasion time to make a resolution to give those 12-15 minutes a day, either individually or with family, friends or fellow parishioners.

If you do, then what happened on the road to Emmaus can happen on the very paths you walk.