By Father Lucas Teixeira, LC
ROME, OCT. 5, 2008 (Zenit.org).- A renowned biblical scholar who will be participating in the synod of bishops on the word of God has advice for the faithful who don’t know where to start to get to know the Bible better. 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 today. 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 1 of this interview was published Friday. Q: The synod is arousing and will arouse a renewed interest in the Bible. What plan would you suggest to the faithful to follow who want to know the word of God better?
Cardinal Vanhoye: It is clear that for the Christian it is necessary to begin with the Gospel, to delve into it in meditation, in prayer, to apply it to your own life. This is the first essential thing. But the Gospel itself points to the Old Testament. Jesus is the promised Messiah. So, it is helpful to read the prophetic texts, especially the messianic ones. The Psalms are useful for prayer, but it must be said that they do not always have the Gospel spirit. A distinction has to be made, then. Some Psalms are full of curses against enemies, they are very far from Jesus’ precept about loving enemies and praying for them. It is clear that it is necessary for the faithful to have the assistance of aids that present the texts and place them at the intellectual level of the faithful, their capacity to understand and live. Then among the Gospels there is a difference between the Synoptics and John’s Gospel. From the point of view of the faithful the most interesting Gospel is Mark’s, which is very lively, which tells of miracles in a very detailed way, etc. The Gospel of Matthew gives a richer teaching and so it is necessary to always return to it to be filled again with the evangelical spirit. On the other hand, John’s Gospel goes deeply into the faith in a marvelous way. It is necessary to really meditate on John’s Gospel, to grasp it in faith and love for the Lord. Luke, too, is very interesting. It is the disciple’s Gospel. It would also be possible to start with Luke’s Gospel, which occupies itself more with the disciple’s relationship to the Lord Jesus. The great discourses of Matthew are broken up in Luke’s Gospel. The beatitudes, instead of being expressed in the third person are addressed directly to the disciples: “Blessed are you poor… .” This is an example. Then Luke relates himself to Jesus in a very delicate way, especially in the account of the Passion. There you see his delicate love for the Lord very well; his way of softening the most cruel, most offensive things.
Q: For young priests, the Psalms can sometimes seem distant from their own concrete reality. What advice would you give them for profiting more from the Liturgy of the Hours?
Cardinal Vanhoye: I would advise them to find a good commentary, that is, a commentary that goes into the depths, not purely philological, historical-critical, a commentary that highlights the spiritual content of the Psalms. Because it is clear that from the spiritual point of view the Psalms contain a marvelous wealth: There is the sense of adoration, the sense of confidence in God, the sense of union with God in prayer, in life. There are truly very beautiful and very powerful spiritual aspirations in the Psalms. St. Ambrose said that the Psalter is the summary of the entire Old Testament, because there are also historical Psalms, sapiential Psalms, Psalms of welcoming of the law of the Lord, etc. After the Council the application of the Psalms to Christian life was facilitated by the omission of the things that were furthest from the Gospel. This was in my opinion a good thing because the Christian cannot, for example, wish for the children of persecutors to be smashed into the ground, as it says in the Psalm of the Babylonian exiles. This Psalm expresses a very deep and tender affection for Jerusalem, but it ends with the most cruel wishes against enemies. It seems opportune and useful from the point of view of the acceptance of the Word of God to omit things that have been corrected by Jesus.
Q: The synod will also concern itself with sacred Scripture in the context of ecumenism. Have you had some experience of work, study or prayer in this field?
Cardinal Vanhoye: I participated in the French ecumenical translation, a very fruitful undertaking from the ecumenical perspective that was inspired by the Council. It is claimed that the Bible is truly a site of unity. Naturally, there are Biblical texts that have been an occasion for very strong differences of opinion. But there are many things in common and we must profit from them. The synod will have this aspect of ecumenical openness. It is clear that if a Protestant follows Luther’s “sola scriptura,” he is not in the current of the Tradition. There is a problem. But, on the other hand, Catholics have a tendency not to meditate much on the Bible, and to be more attentive to the dogmas and devotions. So, the attention given to the written Word of God is certainly a very strong connection that helps us to come closer together in mutual acceptance.
Q: You knew and taught many exegetes. How is it possible to avoid turning the Bible into a mere object of study detached from one’s own spiritual life and to avoid drawing conclusions that could place the truths of faith in doubt?
Cardinal Vanhoye: It seems to me that the principal remedy is meditation on the Biblical texts in an attitude of faith and prayer. Exegetes cannot just stop at studying the texts. They have to meditate on them in an atmosphere of union with the Lord, of seeking him and being always aware that Christ alone gives us all the wealth of inspired Scripture, that it is he who completely opens our minds to the understanding of Scripture, as the Gospel of Luke says at the end. Therefore, the remedy, I would say, is prayer, understood as meditation that seeks union with the Lord, welcoming his light, welcoming his love. Only this can keep us from the danger of a rationalistic and sterilizing attitude; that can become an obstacle for the life of the faithful.
Q: What are your expectations for the synod? Will it also have some influence on Biblical studies?
Cardinal Vanhoye: I am not certain that the synod could influence exegetical studies much in the pastoral sense. It is a perspective that will certainly also enter into the explanation of Biblical texts, but exegesis is an in-depth scientific study, from a perspective that is not directly pastoral. From the synod we can certainly expect very fruitful indications about having a greater knowledge of the Bible, a greater integration of the Bible in the life of Christian communities and in people’s spiritual lives. There is also an ecumenical interest, which is directly expressed in the “instrumentum laboris.” We can hope for a greater reconciliation of the various Christian confessions thanks to this acceptance of the written Word of God. The “instrumentum laboris” gives the impression that the synod will especially concern itself with the written Word of God, even if it broadens its perspective. It says that the Word of God is Christ and so it says that the purpose of the synod is to make Christ better known. This seems true to me as the ultimate purpose but the more immediate purpose will obviously be to draw attention to the necessity of a stronger and more profound contact with the written word of God by the whole Church. Naturally, the written word must once again become living, and it cannot remain a dead text, and so that it become living again it must be inserted into the living current of the Tradition, also of the preaching and life of the Church.