The Power of the Word of God
A Pastoral Note from Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron on Sacred Scripture
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
A Church alive in Christ is a Church whose members love the Scriptures, study them, pray them, and live by them. As the Archdiocese of Detroit continues to undergo its “missionary conversion,” so that every Catholic may be formed and sent forth as a joyful missionary disciple, I would like to highlight the necessity of turning to the Word of God to equip and inspire us for this task. In doing so, I am taking up the charge Pope Francis gave to the whole Church when he established the Sunday of the Word of God, celebrated annually on the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time: to encourage the prayerful reading of the Bible and greater familiarity with God’s word.
St. Paul reminded Timothy, a young man he had recruited and formed as a missionary disciple, of the gift he had received in being taught the Scriptures from his earliest years:
From childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:15-17)
Because Scripture is no mere human writing, but is authored by God himself, it has a unique power to transform the human heart, to “make us wise for salvation.” Scripture enlightens our minds, unveils God’s glorious plan of salvation, teaches us his ways, and shows us how to live as his people. In order to meet with confidence and wisdom the many challenges of our time, Catholics need to be renewed in their zeal to study the Bible and to teach it, even to the very young.
God gave this mandate to his people Israel:
These words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. (Deuteronomy 6:6-7)
There is no greater model for hearing and keeping the word of God than Mary, the Mother of God. She reflected on God’s promises in Scripture, and as these promises were being fulfilled before her eyes, she “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). She had the amazing privilege of teaching the Scriptures to the Word of God himself: Jesus, her son. As St. Augustine wrote,
A woman cried out: Happy is the womb that bore you, blessed is that womb! But the Lord, not wishing people to seek happiness in a purely physical relationship, replied: More blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it. Mary heard God’s word and kept it, and so she is blessed. She kept God’s truth in her mind, a nobler thing than carrying his body in her womb.
To imitate Mary in faithfully hearing and keeping God’s Word is to grow as a disciple of Jesus. It is, thus, an essential part of the threefold process for evangelization as identified at Synod 16: Encounter, Grow, Witness (see Unleash the Gospel, Marker 9.2). The study of Scripture is also an essential part of parish renewal in the Archdiocese of Detroit (UTG, Marker 3.2).
In this Pastoral Note, I will briefly review Catholic doctrine concerning the Bible, reflect on how we read the Bible in prayerful dialogue with the Lord, explain the importance of the Bible in our life as a local Church and our call to respond to the word, and, finally, recommend some ways for parishes to foster a biblical renewal among their members.
Jesus taught his disciples a profound reverence for Scripture. Because it is the living word of God, “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). Jesus himself lived in obedience to the Scriptures, and by his life, death, and resurrection, he fulfilled them. After his resurrection, he gave the most extraordinary Bible study in history to two disciples on the road to Emmaus when he “interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” Afterward, they said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:27, 32). Their hearts burned because they were discovering the untold riches hidden in Scripture: the revelation of Christ himself, whom they then experienced in “the breaking of the bread.”
From the beginning, the Catholic Church has followed Christ in revering Scripture. In it “the Church constantly finds her nourishment and her strength, for she welcomes it not as a human word, ‘but as what it really is, the word of God.’” The Church acknowledges that because the Bible is inspired by God, it teaches the truth with absolute reliability:
Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.
In composing the Scriptures, God made use of human authors. They were truly authors, writing in their own languages and historical and cultural contexts, making use of their own skills and knowledge. Therefore, in order to understand Scripture rightly, we have to “carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words.” This is why good biblical scholarship and Bible study resources are so important to the life of the Church. As Pope Francis recently noted, “Together with a greater emphasis on the study of Scripture in ecclesiastical programs of training for priests and catechists, efforts should also be made to provide all the faithful with the resources needed to be able to open the sacred book and draw from it priceless fruits of wisdom, hope and life.”
At the same time, “Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the same Spirit in which it was written.” Just as the Holy Spirit’s inspiration was needed for the human authors of Scripture, so too is the Spirit’s inspiration needed for us to understand what God is communicating to us through his word. Prayer to the Holy Spirit is thus an indispensable part of the reading and studying of Scripture. Likewise, Scripture must always be interpreted in light of the living tradition and the teaching of the Church, which are guided by the same Holy Spirit. “Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. Working together, each in its own way, under the action of the one Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.”
The counsel that St. Jerome gave to Christians of his time remains valid today: “Read the divine Scriptures constantly; never let the sacred volume fall from your hand.”
Reading Scripture is not like reading any other book, because Scripture is a living word through which God speaks to each of us personally, right here and now. “In the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them.” God reveals his heart to us and he longs for us to respond from our hearts. When we read Scripture prayerfully, it becomes a dialogue of love. We listen to God’s heart through his word and we respond from our heart in prayer.
Christian tradition developed the practice of lectio divina as a way to exercise this kind of prayerful reading. Lectio divina traditionally consists of four simple steps:
Christian tradition has developed other helpful ways for us to listen attentively to God speaking to us through his Word. The spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius, in which we use our imagination to place ourselves within the scene of a biblical story, is a particularly effective way to incorporate Scripture into our prayer.
As we study Scripture prayerfully, it shapes our relationship with God, which in turn shapes our whole life: our values, judgments, desires, words, and actions. Even though it was written thousands of years ago, Scripture addresses the challenges of our time. God’s word speaks to family life, education, commerce, social justice, deadly pandemics, racial and political tensions, and living as God’s people in a world that is too often hostile.
In times of uncertainty and turmoil, it is all the more essential to be nourished on Scripture every day. God’s word becomes an anchor for our souls. We begin to see everything in this life in its true light: as passing away in preparation for our final destiny. At the same time, we begin to experience how utterly trustworthy is God’s word:
All flesh is grass,
and all its beauty is like the flower of the field….
The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isaiah 40:6-8)
We also begin to experience the spiritual fruitfulness of God’s word, which has an intrinsic power to accomplish its purpose in our lives and in the Church. God’s word is creative: “God said, ‘Let there be light, and there was light’” (Genesis 1:3):
For just as from the heavens
the rain and snow come down
And do not return there
till they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
Giving seed to him who sows
and bread to him who eats,
So shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;
It shall not return to me void,
but shall do my will,
achieving the end for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)
God’s word gives guidance for our lives, helping us discern rightly how to make decisions and how to act in difficult situations:
Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path. (Psalm 119:105)
God’s word purifies us by showing us hidden areas of sin and leading us to repentance:
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)
Finally, God’s word saves us by calling us to believe in Jesus and live in accord with his will, that we may be prepared for the day of judgment:
Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you, which is able to save your souls. (James 1:21)
Scripture is a gift not only for individuals but for the body of Christ as a whole. The primary home for Scripture is the liturgy. Scripture is the language Christ gives his Bride, the Church, for all of her liturgical actions, including each of the sacraments. “Sacred Scripture and the sacraments are thus inseparable.” The Word of God is preeminent in the high point of the Church’s liturgical actions, which is the Mass. Here Scripture is proclaimed in the readings, explained in the homily, and then enacted in the Eucharistic sacrifice:
The Church has always venerated the Scriptures as she venerates the Lord’s Body. She never ceases to present to the faithful the bread of life, taken from the one table of God’s Word and Christ’s Body.
The entire liturgy is steeped in Scripture. The more the faithful know the Scriptures, the more fully will they be able to participate in the liturgy and the more fruitfully will they receive Christ, the living Word, in Holy Communion.
Catechesis and all pastoral ministry also need to draw constantly upon the word of God. Pope Benedict XVI, in his apostolic exhortation on Scripture, emphasized the need for all the Church’s activities to become more grounded in the Bible:
I wish first and foremost to stress that catechesis “must be permeated by the mindset, the spirit and the outlook of the Bible and the Gospels through assiduous contact with the texts themselves….” A knowledge of biblical personages, events and well-known sayings should thus be encouraged; this can also be promoted by the judicious memorization of some passages which are particularly expressive of the Christian mysteries….
Theology too, must become more deeply rooted in Scripture: “The study of the sacred page should be the very soul of sacred theology.” Every branch of theology thrives only by constantly returning to the word of God and letting it shed new light on the questions and problems of our time.
In a particular way, evangelization relies on Scripture because the word of God has a mysterious attractive power, even for unbelievers who do not know that the Bible is God’s word. Its truth resonates with a human heart that is open. At the same time, an evangelist who “lives in the word” is able to speak with greater compassion and clearer conviction. In fact, seeking to unleash the Gospel without making use of Scripture is like trying to drive a car without wheels. As Pope Francis noted,
All evangelization is based on [the word of God], listened to, meditated upon, lived, celebrated and witnessed to. The sacred Scriptures are the very source of evangelization. Consequently, we need to be constantly trained in hearing the word. The Church does not evangelize unless she constantly lets herself be evangelized.
God’s word calls for a response from the human heart. Jesus is the divine Sower who sows the seed of his word generously, but the fruitfulness of the seed depends on the quality of the soil that receives it:
A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold. (Luke 8:5-8)
This parable, as Jesus explains, describes the variety of human responses to God’s word:
The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience. (Luke 8:11-15)
The sobering truth is that it is possible to be like barren soil on which God’s word bears no fruit: by being unreceptive; or by being only superficially receptive so that we fall away in time of trial; or by letting the word be “choked out” by worldly pleasures, concerns and preoccupations. But the good news is that if we have been unreceptive soil up to now, it is always possible to change and become good soil! For those who receive the word and “hold it fast in an honest and good heart,” God’s word is superabundantly fruitful.
From all that has been said above, it is clear that for priests, deacons, and all the faithful in the Archdiocese of Detroit, our efforts to unleash the Gospel must include bringing people into deep and life-giving contact with God’s word.
Many Catholics have heard the lectionary readings at Mass for years but are unfamiliar with the context or those readings or the overall storyline of the Bible. They have heard excerpts of Scripture but may not have read a whole book of the Bible or discovered the amazing interconnections among different parts of Sacred Scripture. Many are hungry to discover how to study the Bible so that they can “learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ, by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures.”
To that end, I encourage all pastors and their coworkers to establish Bible studies in the parishes, using sound Catholic Bible study materials, in order to help parishioners become familiar with the Scriptures and, especially, the kerygma, which is the basic Gospel message. It is appropriate to have some Bible studies for beginners and others that allow for more depth by focusing on an individual book of the Bible or a biblical topic. I recommend efforts to teach the faithful the practice of lectio divina. I also encourage initiatives to help the faithful take up the challenge and blessing of reading the entire Bible, with designated chapters for each day.
Pastors should also attend carefully to the training of lectors. Lectors must be proficient not only in oral proclamation but also in the content of the Scripture readings, so that they may proclaim God’s word with understanding and faith. All lectors are asked to engage in ongoing biblical study.
Finally, I highly recommend the Rosary as a way to receive the word in faith, in union with Mary the woman of faith. Each decade of the Rosary focuses on a mystery in the life of Christ, from his incarnation to his passion and glorification. By praying these mysteries with Mary, we learn to reflect on God’s word in the silence of our hearts and treasure it as she did. It is especially fruitful to pray the Scriptural Rosary, which makes more explicit the biblical foundations of the mysteries. There are various forms of the Scriptural Rosary, some in which brief passages of Scripture are read aloud between each Hail Mary, and some in which longer passages are read between the decades.
As our local Church and its activities become more saturated with the word of God, that word becomes the seed of a way of life in which Christ is known and loved, believed and adored, and in which our relationships with one another and with the outside world more fully reflect his love. By the grace of the Holy Spirit, may it be said of the Church in Detroit as of the early Church in Jerusalem, “The word of God continued to spread, and the number of the disciples increased greatly” (Acts 6:7).
Sincerely yours in Christ,
The Most Reverend Allen H. Vigneron
Archbishop of Detroit
 Francis, Aperuit Illis, 3.
 Sermo 25, 7-8 (PL 46, 937-938).
 Mt 26:53-56; Mk 14:49; Lk 4:21; 22:37; Jn 13:18; 17:12; 19:28.
 CCC 104, quoting 2 Thessalonians 2:13.
 Vatican II, Dei Verbum, 11.
 Dei Verbum, 12.
 Francis, Scripturae Sacrae Affectus.
 Dei Verbum, 12, literal translation.
 See Francis, Aperuit Illis, 10.
 CCC 95.
 Jerome, Epistle 52.7 (CSEL 54, 426), quoted in Pope Francis, Scripturae Sacrae Affectus.
 Vatican II, Dei Verbum, 21.
 Francis, Aperuit Illis, 8.
 CCC 103.
 Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini, 74.
 CCC 132.
 Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, 174.
 CCC 133.
 One excellent resource for the scriptural Rosary is provided by the Knights of Columbus here.