What Is Needed for a Bible Comeback (Part 1)

ROME, OCT. 3, 2008 (Zenit.org).- For the Bible to become an integral part of Catholics’ spiritual life, education and mediation are the two things needed, according to a renowned biblical scholar who will be participating in the synod of bishops on the word of God this month.

Cardinal Albert Vanhoye, a Jesuit priest and former rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and former secretary of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, spoke with ZENIT about sacred Scripture and the synod that opens Sunday.

He has been a professor at the Biblical Institute since 1963, where he has taught New Testament exegesis since 1998, giving courses on the Letter to the Hebrews and St. Paul’s letters, as well as courses in methodology, Biblical theology and seminars on the Gospels, the New Testament letters, and the Book of Revelation.

He took part in the drafting of documents from the Pontifical Biblical Commission such as “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” (1993) and “The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible” (2001).

Part 2 of this interview will be published Sunday.

Q: How and when did you begin to be interested in studying the word of God?

Cardinal Vanhoye: My interest in the word of God definitely began in childhood, but it was deepened and intensified especially with the study of theology. I was preparing for priestly ordination and became passionate about the Gospel of John. I was prepared for this study because before I took theology I taught upper level classical Greek to young Jesuits who were preparing for their degree at the Sorbonne in Paris. So I was in direct contact with the Greek text of the New Testament and the Greek texts of the Old Testament.

In particular, I studied the theme of faith in John’s Gospel, an obviously basic theme. For John faith consists in believing in the Son of God. This is not just adherence to revealed truth, but it is above all adherence to a person, a person who is the Son of God, who does the work of the Father, in union with the Father and who also invites us to do his work.

Q: You then became one the greatest experts on the Letter to the Hebrews.

Cardinal Vanhoye: There were some articles that came out of this study of St. John. But because of the time, because I immediately had to begin teaching, I was not able to continue this work. At the same time I found that I had discovered some very interesting things in the Letter to the Hebrews and that therefore I could, having some free months every year, prepare a thesis on this text, which was little studied at the time.

So, my interest focused on the Letter to the Hebrews, which is a very profound writing, a synthesis of Christology in a priestly perspective. I have always admired the depth of this letter, which is in fact a homily, in which the mystery of Christ is presented in all its dimensions, from the highest dimension of Christ Son of God, splendor of the glory of God, image of his substance, to Christ our brother, who took on all of our misery, and lowered himself to the level of those condemned to death precisely to bring his love there and open a way to God.

On the other hand, the Letter to the Hebrews displays a truly extraordinary knowledge of the Old Testament, and the fulfillment of the Old Testament with the three dimensions of correspondence, breaking with some aspects and then of course a going beyond, a complete fulfillment. Providence made it such that I was able really to dedicate my whole life to the in-depth study of Scripture for the profit of students from every nation. So, I thank the Lord very much for having given me this privilege.

Q: What assumptions guide you in your study of the Bible?

Cardinal Vanhoye: My assumptions are clearly assumptions of faith. The Bible is a text that expresses the faith. To receive it in a serious and profound way it is necessary to be in the current that produced it. So, it is essential to approach the inspired text with an attitude of faith. On the other hand, there is also the conviction that the Bible is a historical book and not simply theoretical. It is a revelation with facts, with events; it is an existential historical reality that must be accepted as such.

Q: In all these years of studying the word of God, what has stimulated you the most to continue your research in the face of the various difficulties in the exegetical field and in the work itself? What are your deepest motivations?

Cardinal Vanhoye: Certainly that sacred Scripture is essential for knowing Christ, for conforming to Christ, for investigating all the dimensions of the mystery of Christ. [There is a] close link between exegetical research, in-depth study of the faith and the spiritual life. Because of these things I never hesitated to engage in research, to spend all of my efforts and my abilities in this study that is of fundamental importance for the life of the Church.

Q: What have been the most precious fruits for your priestly life of this contact with the Word?

Cardinal Vanhoye: The word of God nourished my spiritual life in a very deep way. For example, when I was still a student at the Pontifical Biblical Institute I did a study on two phrases in John’s Gospel that express the relation between Jesus’ work and the Father’s work. Jesus was given the gift of works. In two phrases Jesus speaks of the works that the Father has given him. I saw the insistence: “My Father goes on working and so do I” (John 5:17). A very important theme for the deepening of the spiritual life not only in a speculative way but in work itself. As the Father gave his works to Jesus, so Jesus gives us his works.

This is a point that nourishes me: I must always do the work of the Lord with the Lord. And, on the other hand, I understood that in order to do the Lord’s work with the Lord it is essential to be united to the heart of the Lord so that the Lord’s work is not something administrative that can be done with a certain detachment, but is a work of love. This is a beautiful, profound and demanding orientation that continues to guide me. The Lord is the principal author, I am a poor and modest assistant, but one who must be dedicated because what the Lord is doing is important and beautiful. This is the principal example of my relationship with Scripture.

Q: What is it that is lacking in the Church today that is keeping Scripture from being integral to the spiritual life of the faithful?

Cardinal Vanhoye: Two principal things are lacking: on the one hand the tools, the aids that can help the faithful to be in a good position to receive the word of God; and, on the other hand, meditation on the Biblical texts by the faithful.

These are two things that, by the grace of God, are quite present in the Church’s life, and that have been made more present thanks to the Second Vatican Council. Nevertheless, there is always progress to be made: On the one hand educating the faithful to receive the word of God completely not only in their mind but in their heart and in their life. This is clear. The faithful need to be educated to do this. And on the other hand, in order that this be truly effective, it is indispensable that the faithful meditate on the word of God, reconsider it, reflect on it. And in this way their life will be transformed little by little by the power of the word of God.

Q: Pope Benedict has several times recommended “lectio divina” as the best means for this purpose.

Cardinal Vanhoye: Certainly “lectio divina” is a very serious method of entering into inspired Scripture. But in order for it to have an impact on life it is necessary that the last step be an application to life. It is possible to do a “lectio divina” that stops at an attentive consideration of the text, and then a meditation. But it must be completed by an effort of the believer to apply it to life, to truly receive the word of God in his life, to make it not only present but operative.

This method has the great merit of first bringing to our attention the Biblical text considered in itself, before going off on speculations that perhaps have no relationship to the text. “Lectio divina” begins with true and proper “lectio,” that is, attentive reading. Cardinal Martini insisted on this when he held long meetings on “lectio divina” in the cathedral in Milan. After this, you try to meditate, to see the relationship with the current situation of the believer, then you try to adopt spiritual attitudes of contemplation, of union with God, etc. But, as I said, it is necessary to prolong “lectio divina” in the sense of a transformation of your life.

Q: The synod will also take up the theme of the preaching of the word of God, especially in the liturgy. From your experience, what are the essential elements to pay attention to in homilies?

Cardinal Vanhoye: Homilies should be the fruit of “lectio divina” practiced in one way or another, that is, they must really give the faithful a concrete contact with the word of God, explain clearly enough its immediate significance and continue in the application to life, in its actualization. A homily can never be merely theoretical. It must have a penetrating impact on life. Thus, it must begin carefully from the text and apply the text to the spiritual life.

It should be said that it is also good to use examples of the saints in preaching. The saints help people to grasp some aspects of the biblical texts that might be a little distant. The saints help the biblical texts to be more directly relevant to the faithful. It is clear that the spirit of spiritual childhood, for example, that is required by Jesus in the Gospels—“Unless you become like children, you will not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 18:3)—is much better understood by people if they take St. Thérèse as a model.

Or, in regard to charity toward the poor, Mother Teresa is an example that stimulates people to understand that charity should be exercised toward those most in need, that we cannot be united to Christ if we are not open to this charity. Mother Teresa connected prayer, union with Christ and charity well. Her life was nourished by a very deep prayer, by a demanding and sometimes painful spiritual life. So, examples are useful, but they must be used in relation to the biblical texts, because saints are made to bear witness to the biblical texts.

Part 2 of this interview will be published Sunday.

[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]