In the School of Pope Benedict

The new semester’s starting up. We’re heading back to school. I’m readying my lesson plans. My students are shopping for the best buys on their textbooks.

Maybe your school days are long over. But isn’t it good that we have these seasonal nudges—perennial reminders that we should never be finished with our learning? Maybe the school bus doesn’t stop for us any more, but we should still feel an eagerness to be trained in the ways of God—and in the Word of God.

It’s now almost a year since Pope Benedict released his apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini, “on the Word of God in the life and mission of the Church.” Here he takes the Church’s official teaching on the Bible to a whole new level. (Well, not entirely new, if you’ve been following the work of the St. Paul Center.) I’m proposing that you and I make a pact, that we agree to take up this letter again and read it as if for the first time. (If you haven’t read it yet, that part should be easy!)

You really should read it all the way through. Notice the form the pope chose for his message. It’s an “exhortation.” He’s exhorting us — urging us — to do something, and that urgent something is the contemplation of God’s word. Just so we don’t miss the invitation, he addressed the letter to “the lay faithful” of the Church, among others. So there it is: it’s practically in your mailbox, waiting for your response. Let’s say yes to His Holiness.

One of the highlights of my summer was a small conference for seminary professors on this very document. We scholars tend to be diverse; and when we sit down to talk about business, we can be contentious. But we were singing from the same hymnal at this gathering—and we were singing the praises of Verbum Domini. It has that kind of effect on people. We all agreed, of course, that it is the Church’s most important document on Scripture in almost seventy years. But it’s still more than that: it’s the capstone of the previous documents. It takes the Church’s various teachings on this subject and weaves them into a single, systematic exposition, a program for faithful immersion in God’s singular revelation.

People who read Verbum Domini sometimes jokingly ask me if the Holy Father had read the St. Paul Center’s ten-year plan. He does manage to sound all the themes that have defined our mission for a decade. He writes at length about scholarship in service to the Church. He writes of the need to encounter the Word in the heart of the Church: in the sacred liturgy. He speaks eloquently of divine inspiration. He expresses his deep concerns about the place of Scripture in seminary formation, in everyday prayer, in the parish, and in colleges and universities. He sets out an ambitious program for biblical study that is life-transforming, Church-renewing and world-changing.

Yes, world-changing. You’ll notice that he often speaks of the “New Evangelization.” Well, his biblical doctrine is the key to his program for “re-proposing the Gospel.”

It does sound like our work at the Center, doesn’t it? But he’s not learning it from us. We’ve learned it from him! For more than a quarter-century, I’ve been drawing from him. I’m not ashamed to say that I’m more dependent on Joseph Ratzinger than on any other Catholic theologian.

Pope Benedict is, as always, especially attentive to the doctrine of the Apostles and the Fathers of the early Church. He wants us to read the Bible as the saints have read it. He wants us to read it in light of their lives and teaching. He wants us to read it with them.

How good, then, that you and I should take up our study this month, as the school year begins. It’s a month of great feast days: St. Matthew, St. John Chrysostom, St. Cyprian, St. Jerome, St. Gregory the Great. These men were titans of biblical interpretation. We also celebrate the feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross and the birthday of the Blessed Mother.

All heaven is conspiring with the pope to bring us together in the pages of Verbum Domini, and in the pages of the Word of the Lord. Is that the school bell, or the Church bell, or both?

Let’s pray for one another as we begin our studies anew. I thank you for all you’ve done to help the St. Paul Center in its mission to help others. Please stay with us. The pope is leading the St. Paul Center – and you and me—to a new phase of our mission.