By Father Thomas Rosica, CSB
VATICAN CITY, OCT. 23, 2008 (Zenit.org).- On Tuesday afternoon when Carl Anderson, supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, and papally appointed auditor, finally addressed the full Synod of Bishops, he touched upon two very important topics that have emerged at this synod, and which can reveal either the full flowering or complete failure of the impact of the Word of God on the lives of ordinary faithful people.
The supreme knight echoed some of the Marian themes that were sounded during Cardinal Marc Ouellet’’s opening address to the synod on its first day. This address, which the archbishop of Quebec delivered in Latin, set the tone for the entire synod.
Carl Anderson spoke specifically about the art of “lectio divina” and called for a renewed Marian devotion and piety. The supreme knight of the world’’s largest, Catholic, fraternal and charitable organization said: “For many years the Knights of Columbus has promoted a form of “lectio divina” within the context of Marian devotion through the rosary and Marian Hours of Prayer. We consider such communal proclamation and meditation on the Word of God within the setting of traditional Catholic devotions — especially recitation of the rosary — to be part of an effective response to the advances of the sects especially in Latin America, where communities are disadvantaged because of a priest shortage.”
Anderson touched upon a very important dimension of the Word of God: Its power to touch the lives of ordinary people through solid piety, authentic devotion and attentiveness to the living Word that is not locked in a remote past, enchained by scientific methods, presented in linguistic strangleholds or covered with archaeological inconsistencies. While the biblical stories we read and contemplate come from a past time, their message is current. Though the stories may be historically inaccurate, their writers were not authoring historiographies but living, theological messages that kept communities of faith alive. Given that archaeology has been so helpful in locating places, unearthing artifacts, confirming details in the text, the science of archaeology deals with dead stones and at times lost civilizations. The Word of God deals with the living communities of faith who have handed down the message to us, a message that keeps alive our community of faith.
For many people who do not have the luxury, privilege, money, time or perhaps desire to delve into serious Scripture studies, their only encounter with the Word of God might be through the liturgy or popular piety and devotion. For this reason, it is incumbent on those who teach and preach the Word of God to show respect and act humbly when we speak of piety and devotion. When I have attended countless gathering of the Knights of Columbus throughout Canada or the United States, one of the things that impresses me is the seriousness and openness of the knights and their wives in praying the rosary, the chaplet of Divine Mercy, celebrating the sacraments and reflecting prayerfully on the Word of God. The question I have heard over and over again from them and many others is: “What is this Word asking me to do today?”
I must confess something here: In the world of the “academy”, in the laboratories of theology and Scripture studies, not only have we often discounted, discredited and downplayed piety and devotions in the Church, but we have failed to see these activities as golden opportunities to teach the Word of God.
I recall my first pastoral assignment 23 years ago. The ethnic communities in that parish were labeled as using outdated devotions and embracing “meaningless” pieties, especially because many members of these communities simply refused to attend the regularly scheduled “Bible-study classes” for the “enlightened.” Going against the current, I decided to work with the ethnic groups, French and English, and “breathe” the Scriptures into their piety and devotions. The results were more than surprising. Not only did numbers of people increase for the piety and devotional activities, but also a hunger was created for the Word of God. We then formed “bible-study” groups for them!
Scripture scholarship bears fruit for the whole Church when it calls forth serious studies and discoveries, deep reflection, “lectio divina,” personal conversions, authentic piety and rich, biblical based devotions for the People of God. We are not a people of the book, but a people of the Living Word of God that introduces us to a person who is Christ.
Scripture studies are dead in the water when they elicit discord, disunity, disbelief, indifference, complacency, pride, elitism, doubt and faithlessness. If I measure my success as an exegete or Scripture scholars by how much division and doubt I can sow among my listeners and students, woe to me.
This synod has helped us to take an honest look at the gulf that has widened over the past years when Scripture studies have become mere literary criticism divorced from the living, breathing, community of the Church. Several of the fraternal delegates and observers present here (from other Christian and ecclesial communities) have lamented the damage done to Scripture studies by groups such as the “Jesus Seminar”, as well as how many young men and women preparing for ministry in the various Churches have been turned off by modern scriptural methods that have had no reference to theology of the life of the Church, not to speak of the doubt that is sown among the faithful.
Perhaps this is why the synod is calling for a new paradigm through which we approach the Word of God, and welcome that word into our own lives.
In his opening address to the synod, which set the tone for all discussions and deliberations, the “”relatore generale,”” Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec City, said: “A woman, Mary, perfectly accomplishes the divine vocation of humanity by her ‘yes’ to the Word of Covenant and her mission. Through her divine motherhood and her spiritual motherhood, Mary appears as the permanent model and form for the Church, like the first Church.”
Let us look briefly at the flesh-and-blood dimension of Mary, between the old and the new Covenant, who accomplishes the passage from Israel’s faith to the Church’s faith. Let us contemplate the Annunciation, which is the unsurpassable origin and model for self-communication with God and the experience of faith in the Church. This will be used as a paradigm to understand the dialogic identity of the Word of God in the Church.
The event of the annunciation and Mary’s life illustrate and recapitulate the structure of the Covenant of the Word of God and the responsorial attitude of faith. They emphasize the personal and Trinitarian nature of faith, which consists in a gift of the person to God who gives himself through revealing himself. “This attitude is the attitude of saints. It is the same as the Church’s who never ceases converting to her Lord in response to the voice addressed to her”. This is why attention to the figure of Mary as model and even archetype of the Church’s faith appears to be capital to concretely operate a change of paradigm in the relationship with the Word of God.
This change of paradigm does not obey the philosophy of the day, rather it is the rediscovery of the original source of the Word, the vital dialogue of the Trine-God with the Church, his Spouse, achieved in the holy Liturgy. “Effectively, for the accomplishment of this great work by which God is perfectly glorified and men sanctified, Christ is always associated with the Church, his truly loved Spouse, who invokes her as the Lord and who goes through him to give her worship to the Eternal Father.”
We are currently celebrating the special 150th anniversary year of the Marian apparitions in Lourdes, France. Benedict XVI’’s historic September visit to this little town tucked into the Pyrenees of southern France offered the whole Church a chance to look again at the story of Bernadette Soubirous and the “beautiful lady” in the grotto with new biblical, theological, pastoral and spiritual lenses.
When Pope Pius IX proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, he referred explicitly to the biblical story of the Annunciation in Luke’’s Gospel. The angel Gabriel’s salutation, “Hail, full of grace,” is understood as recognizing that Mary must always have been free from sin. No other human being collaborated in the work of redemption as Mary did. The Early Church wanted to explain in a plausible manner how God’’s Son could be “completely human, yet without sin.” Their answer was that the mother of God must have been without sin.
Within the Roman Catholic tradition we have given this pre-eminent disciple many names and titles out of love and honor. We celebrate three great moments of her life knowing that they represent all of our lives. Through the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, God was present and moving in Mary’s life from the earliest moments. God’s grace is greater than sin; it overpowers sin and death. Through her Immaculate Conception, Mary was called for a special mission.
The second moment of Mary’s life is the Incarnation. Through the virginal birth of Jesus we are reminded that God moves powerfully in our lives too. Our response to that movement must be one of recognition, humility, openness, welcome, as well as a respect and dignity for all life, from the earliest moments to the final moments. Through the Incarnation, Mary was gifted with the Word made Flesh.
The Church celebrates Mary’s final journey into the fullness of God’s Kingdom with the dogma of the Assumption promulgated by Pius XII in 1954. As with her beginnings, so too, with the end of her life, God fulfilled in her all of the promises that he has given to us. We, too, shall be raised up into heaven as she was. In Mary we have an image of humanity and divinity at home. God is indeed comfortable in our presence and we in God’s. Through her Assumption, Mary was chosen to have a special place of honor in the Godhead.
What happens to Mary happens to Christians. We are called, gifted and chosen to be with Jesus. When we honor the Mother of God under the title “Immaculate Conception”, we recognize in her a model of purity, innocence, trust, childlike curiosity, reverence, and respect, living peacefully alongside a mature awareness that life isn’t simple. It’’s rare to find both reverence and sophistication, idealism and realism, purity, innocence and passion, inside the same person as we find in Mary.
Something inside us yearns always for innocence, purity, freshness and trust. If we lose these we find ourselves cynical and disillusioned with an unhappiness that comes precisely from having been around, from having had our eyes opened, from having knowledge without innocence. We need to hold that innocence and experience in a proper tension. Mary, Mother of the Lord teaches us how to do just that. In Mary, Daughter of Zion, we have an image of humanity and divinity at home. God is indeed comfortable in our presence and we in God’s. Through these Marian lenses, let us approach the Word of God, consume it and bear it for a waiting world.
Speaking about a waiting world, stay tuned for the final message to the People of God and the propositions that will be revealed to the world over the next two days!
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Basilian Father Thomas Rosica is the Vatican’s English-language press attache for the 2008 world Synod of Bishops. A Scripture scholar and university lecturer, he is the chief executive officer of the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation and Television Network in Canada, and a member of the General Council of the Congregation of St. Basil.