A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH

What Is Needed for a Bible Comeback

Part 1

Interview With Cardinal Albert Vanhoye

By Father Lucas Teixeira, LC

ROME, 3 OCT. 2008 (ZENIT)

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

ROME, 5 OCT. 2008 (ZENIT)

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.

[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]
 

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