God, Christians and the World
Overview of Benedict XVI's Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Verbum Domini
The Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini presents to the universal Church, the members of other Churches and Christian communities, to believers of non-Christian religious denominations, as well as to people of good will, the results of the 12th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on The Word of God in the life and mission of the Church, which was held at the Vatican from the 5-26 October 2008. After the Assembly, the Synod Fathers petitioned the Holy Father Benedict XVI to "provide a document on the mystery of the Word of God in the life and mission of the Church, especially in light of the Year dedicated to St Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles, on the occasion of the 2,000th anniversary of his birth" (Propositio 1). The Apostolic Exhortation is the result of that request which the Holy Father Benedict accepted willingly, using the contribution of the 12th Ordinary Council of the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops.
Verbum Domini is divided into three parts, following the structure of the theme of the Synod: The Word of God in the life and mission of the Church. Therefore, the first part is entitled Verbum Dei, the second Verbum in Ecclesia and the third Verbum mundo. Obviously, the document begins with an Introduction that provides useful preliminary indications, including the purpose of the Exhortation, and ends with the Conclusion which sums up the key ideas.
Before presenting briefly the structure of Verbum Domini, I want to focus on the meaning of the title and on the purpose of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation.
The title Verbum Domini is taken from the ancient words of the Prophet Isaiah, in the manner in which St Peter revived them in his First Letter.
Verbum autem Dei nostri manet in aeternum "The word of our God will stand for ever" (Is 40:8). The so-called Book of Consolation of the "Second-Isaiah", "Deutero-Isaiah" begins with this verse of chapter 40 of the Prophet Isaiah. The Prophet announces the release of the chosen people. Its slavery is over and, under God's guidance, it is preparing a new exodus. In the contingency of nature: "The grass withers, the flower fades" (Is 40:8), and man: "All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field" (Is 40:6), the only permanent power is the word of our God, which will stand for ever.
The First Letter of St Peter gives the quotation from the Prophet Isaiah, to urge Christians to let themselves get regenerated "not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God" because "all flesh is like grass, and all its glory the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower falls, but the word of the Lord abides forever" [Verbum autem Domini manet in aeternum] (1 Pt: 24-25). The author of the Letter concludes: Hoc est autem verbum, quod evangelizatum est in vos ["And this is the word of the Gospel which was preached to you"] (i Pt 1: 25).
Therefore, in the title of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini one can easily perceive the concordance and hence the continuity between the Old and the New Testaments as well as its fulfilment and surpassing in the Person of Jesus Christ, as testified in the 27 books of the New Testament. In effect, the Gospel of which St Peter speaks is the Gospel "of Jesus Christ, Son of God" (Mark 1:1). It is the Good News of the Paschal Mystery of Jesus. "Through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (1 Pt 1:3), God his Father regenerated us in his great mercy, to a living hope, "to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading" (1 Pt 1:4). This is the content of the Gospel proclaimed by St Peter and by all the Apostles, which the Post-Synodal Exhortation highlights clearly.
The title of the Apostolic Exhortation, therefore, takes the Latin version of the First Letter of St Peter, in the translation attributed to St Jerome, the Vulgate. By Divine Providence, Verbum Domini bears the date of his liturgical Memorial, 30 September. It is only right to recall that another important document on the Bible was published on the same day 67 years ago. This is the Encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu of the Servant of God Pius XII, published on 30 September 1943. St Jerome is also mentioned in Dei Verbum, one of the four Dogmatic Constitutions of the Second Vatican Council. In particular, it cites the familiar expression "ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ" (Dei Verbum, n. 25), echoed by Verbum Domini (cf. Verbum Domini, n. 30), a document that abounds in patristic citations. Dei Verbum is often evoked in the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, as indeed was also during the Synodal Assembly.
Also because of the linguistic similarity Dei Verbum — Verbum Domini, the Post-Synodal Exhortation refers to the Council's Constitution. Verbum Domini recognizes the great impetus Dei Verbum had on the rediscovery of the Word of God in the life and mission of the Church. At the same time, under the action of the Holy Spirit who guides the Church in the continuity of progress, indicated by the Lord Jesus, the Synod on the Word of God wanted to "further reflection on the theme of God's word, in order to review the implementation of the Council's directives, and to confront the new challenges which the present time sets before Christian believers" (Verbum Domini, n. 3). Verbum Domini is the evidence of this intention. It is significant that Verbum Domini begins with the quote from the Bible with which Dei Verbum closes: "Just as the life of the Church is strengthened through more frequent celebration of the Eucharistic mystery, similarly we may hope for a new stimulus for the life of the Spirit from a growing reverence for the word of God, which 'lasts for ever' (cf. Is 40:8; 1 Pt 1:23-25)" (Dei Verbum, n. 26).
The title, then, of Verbum Domini has an important liturgical prominence. In fact after each reading of the passage from sacred Scripture in liturgical celebrations, especially the Eucharist, the People of God give thanks for the food of the Word exclaiming Verbum Domini, giving thanks to the person of the Incarnate Word, Jesus of Nazareth, present in the Word proclaimed. The title, therefore, indicates the Liturgy as the privileged place of God's Word.
The purpose of Verbum Domini is manifold:
1) To communicate the results of the Synodal Assembly, "to make known to the whole People of God the rich fruits of the Synodal Assembly and the recommendations which resulted from our common endeavour" (Verbum Domini, n. 1). Pope Benedict XVI wishes to present the results of the Synod on the Word of God so that they may influence effectively the life of the Church and her mission in the world.
2) To discovering the Word of God, the source of constant ecclesial renewal. "to point out fundamental approaches to a rediscovery of God's word in the life of the Church as a wellspring of constant renewal" (ibid.). The Synod's acquisitions on the Word will have an affect "on our personal relationship with the sacred Scriptures, on their interpretation in the liturgy and catechesis, and in scientific research, so that the Bible may not be simply a word from the past, but a living and timely word" (ibid., n. 5). Understood in this sense, "the Church will always be renewed and rejuvenated, thanks to the word of the Lord which remains for ever (cf. 1 Pet 1:25; Is 40:8)"(ibid., 124). The renewal presupposes listening, meditation, conversion of heart and aptitudes indispensable to observe the Word of God (cf. Lk 11: 28), the source of a Pentecost even today. It is "an ongoing Pentecost" (Verbum Domini, n. 4), since many persons and peoples are still waiting for the Word of God in their own language and culture, which makes the missio ad gentes urgent.
3) To promote the biblical animation of pastoral care. The Word of God, in fact, must become "ever more fully at the heart of every ecclesial activity" (n. 1). For this to become reality, we must encourage proper formation in Scripture at all levels. In this regard, "attention needs to be paid to the biblical apostolate, which is a very valuable means to that end, as the Church's experience has shown" (n. 75).To
4) To be witnesses of the Word. The faithful are called to "renew their personal and communal encounter with Christ, the word of life made visible, and to become his heralds, so that the gift of divine life — communion — can spread ever more fully throughout the world" (n. 2). "The proclamation of the Word creates communion and brings about joy" (n. 123). It is the duty of Christians to "communicate the joy that comes from encountering the Person of Christ," the great pastoral urgency of our time. "There is no greater priority than this: to enable the people of our time once more to encounter God, the God who speaks to us and shares his love so that we might have life in abundance (cf. Jn 10: 10)" (n. 2).
5) To undertake a new evangelization "in the certainty that God's Word is effective" (n. 96). "Our own time, then, must be increasingly marked by a new hearing of God's word and a new evangelization" (n. 522). Rediscovering the centrality of God's Word requires to continue, with renewed enthusiasm, the missio ad gentes and "vigorously to embark upon the new evangelization, especially in those nations where the Gospel has been forgotten or meets with indifference as a result of widespread secularism" (n. 522). In the countries of the new evangelization, the Word of God must also be proposed to immigrants (cf. n. 105).
6) To promote ecumenical dialogue, stressing the centrality of biblical studies with a view to the full unity of all Christians, convinced "that by listening and meditating together on the Scriptures, we experience a real, albeit not yet full communion" (n. 46). It was touching to listen to the Fraternal Delegates who attended the Synod Assembly, including in particular His Holiness Bartho-
lomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (cf. n. 4). "There should be an increase in ecumenical study, discussion and celebrations of the word of God, with due respect for existing norms and the variety of traditions" (n. 46). In the ecumenical work, of great importance are the common translations of the Bible in different languages.
7) To love the Word of God. The information above can be summarized in the attitude of Christians to be led by the Holy Spirit to "an ever greater love of the word of God" (n. 5) ultimately, in the Person of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word. All Christians are invited to love the Bible. Verbum Domini bears, therefore, a remarkable ecumenical significance.
The Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation is divided into three parts, which in turn are composed of several chapters. It draws inspiration from the beautiful prologue of the Gospel according to St John.
The first part, Verbum Dei, stresses the fundamental role of God the Father, the source and origin of the Word (cf. no. 20 and 21), as well as the Trinitarian dimension of revelation. It is divided into three chapters. In the first, The God who speaks, it emphasizes the will of God to open and maintain a dialogue with man in which God takes the initiative and reveals himself in various ways. Therefore, using the category of the analogy, the Document analyses different meanings of the divine Word. God speaks through creation, especially man and woman created in His image. He has spoken through the prophets. The books of the Old and New Testament are his Word, attested and divinely inspired. The living Tradition of the Church is also His Word. The Word of God is also the silence that culminated in the cross of the Lord Jesus (cf. no. 21). All the meanings of the Word of God lead to him, the Word made flesh, full and perfect expression of God's Word. Therefore, Verbum Domini emphasizes the Christological aspect of the Word, while also stressing the pneumatological dimension, to highlight its source and end in God the Father. This part addresses the relationship between Scripture and Tradition as well as the theme of the inspiration and truth of the Bible.
The human response to God who speaks is the title of the second chapter. Man is called to join the Alliance with his God who hears and answers his questions. To God who speaks, man responds with faith. The most suitable prayer is the one made through the words that God himself revealed and that remain written in the Bible. It often describes human sin as not listening to the Word of God. This sin was overcome by the radical obedience of Jesus Christ, even to the point of death on the cross (cf. Phil 2:8). The Virgin Mary, Mater Verbi and Mater fidei, offers the example of the perfect accomplishment of reciprocity between the Word of God and faith.
The third chapter is dedicated to the theme The Interpretation of Sacred Scribture in the Church. It is the mosttheoretical part of the Document but very important for the proper comprehension of the Word of God. Sacred Scripture should be, as desired by Verbum Dei, "the soul of sacred Theology". The Church is the primary place for the interpretation of the Bible. After some considerations on the development of biblical research and the Magisterium of the Church, it is the biblical hermeneutics of the Second Vatican Council that must be rediscovered in order to avoid a certain dualism of secular hermeneutics. It could lead to a fundamentalist interpretation of Scripture or to a spiritualist interpretation. Correct hermeneutics require the complementarity of the literal and spiritual sense, a harmony between faith and reason. In reaffirming the inherent unity of the Bible, Verbum Domini examines the relationship between the Old and New Testaments without neglecting the so-called "obscure" pages of the Bible, and then focuses on the relationship between Christians and Jews with reference to sacred Scripture. A very special relationship exists between Christians and Jews, who share a large part of the Scriptures, which Christians call the Old Testament. In addition, in order to understand the Person of Jesus Christ properly, it is necessary to recognize him as a son of the Jewish people, culture and religious experience.
The Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation also reflects on the Bible and ecumenism, given that sacred Scripture is an important bond of unity among Catholics and other Christians, members of the Christian Churches and communities. The veneration of the Bible and the administration of the sacrament of Baptism are fundamental links between all those who believe in the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, whose mystery has been revealed in sacred Scripture.
The Document also provides valuable contributions to a dialogue between pastors, theologians and exegetes, as well as to the structure of theological studies. The section on the hermeneutics of sacred Scripture ends by mentioning some of the saints, noting that saints are the best interpreters of the Word of God.
The second part, Verbum in Ecclesia, emphasizes that, by Divine Providence, the Church is the house of the Word of God that receives the Word who was made flesh and pitched his tent among us (cf. Jn 1:14). This part is divided into three chapters. The first, The Word of God and the Church, points out that by the Word of God and sacramental action, Jesus Christ is a contemporary of men in the life of the Church.
The Liturgy, Privileged Setting For The Word Of God is the title of the second chapter that reflects on the Word of God in the Sacred Liturgy. The vital link between Scripture and the sacraments, and in particular the Eucharist, is emphasized here, given that the Liturgy of the Word constitutes the first part of holy Mass. The Document takes into consideration the Word of God and also the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Anointing of the Sick. The connection between the Sacraments and the Word of God opens the reflection on the sacramental nature of the Word which needs further exploration. Echoing the thoughts of the Synod Fathers, Verbum Domini recalls the importance of the Lectionary, which the reform of the Second Vatican Council enriched with an abundance of passages from Scripture. In this context, one could not omit the importance of the proclamation of the Word and the ministry of the Reader and, above all, the homily, a topic that is of considerable importance in the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation. Verbum Domini also underlines the great importance of God's Word and of the Liturgy of the Hours. It also offers valuable suggestions for the liturgical animation, celebration and proclamation of the Word of God, silence, the Christian liturgical season, the exclusive use of biblical texts in the liturgy, biblically-inspired hymns and special concern for the blind and the deaf.
The third chapter is dedicated to The Word of God in ecclesial life, emphasizing the importance of biblical animation in pastoral care, the biblical dimension of catechesis, the biblical formation of Christians, sacred Scripture in large ecclesial gatherings and the Word of God in relation to vocations. Particular attention is given to the Word of God and to Pastors — Bishops, priests, deacons, candidates for Holy Orders — and members of the consecrated life, as well as the lay faithful, and especially within marriage and family. A significant part of the chapter is dedicated to prayerful reading ofsacred Scripture, in particular to Lectio divina, and Marian prayer. The chapter ends with appropriate reflections on the Word of God and on the Holy Land, where the Word of God became incarnate, was revealed and has been jealously guarded in both the oral and written forms.
The third part, Verbum mundo, emphasizes the duty of Christians to proclaim the Word of God to the world in which they live and work. It is divided into four chapters. The first is The Church's Mission: To Proclaim The Word Of God, reflects on the mission of the Church whose starting point and end are the mystery of God the Father. The Word of God has handed on to us divine life. His Word involves us not only as recipients but also as his heralds. In fact, all the baptized are responsible for preaching the Word of God, which is the source of the Church's mission. It is oriented to the first proclamation, ad gentes, to those who still do not know the Word, the Word of God, but also to those who have been baptized but not sufficiently evangelized, and who are in need of a new evangelization, to rediscover the Word of God. The credibility of the Good News depends on the witness of the Christian life.
The Word Of God And Commitment In The World is the title of the second chapter. In it are listed the tracks to follow for an animation of the complex reality of the world through the Word of God. Christians are called to serve the Word of God in the least of their brethren and, therefore, to work in society for reconciliation, justice and peace among peoples. The Word of God is the source of a creative and active charity to alleviate both the material and the spiritual suffering of the poor. Verbum Domini, with the light of the Word of God, addresses youth, migrants, the suffering and the poor. It also has important ecological connotations in the Christian vision of creation that is, analogically, the Word of God.
The third chapter is dedicated to the Word of God and Culture, since the Bible is rightly perceived as a great code for the culture of humankind, an inexhaustible source of artistic expression to this day. It would therefore be desirable that the Bible be better known in schools and universities and that the means of social communication be better adapted in divulging it, taking advantage of all the existing technical possibilities. The inculturation of the sacred Scripture is also linked to the translation and dissemination of the Bible, which should be made more widely available. In every way, the Word of God needs to be expressed in the cultures of peoples, but exceeds cultural limits by far.
The Word of God and interreligious dialogue is the theme of the fourth chapter. After establishing the value and timeliness of interreligious dialogue, Verbum Domini, in the light of the Word of God which was fully revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, gives useful indications about the dialogue between Christians and Muslims, as well as with those belonging to other non-Christian religions within the frame of religious freedom that includes not only the freedom to profess one's faith in private and in public, but also freedom of conscience, that is, to choose one's own religion.
In the Conclusion, the Holy Father Benedict reiterates his appeal to all Christians "to become increasingly familiar with the sacred Scriptures" (n. 121). The Word of God leads to mission, as in the example of St Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles. "In our day too, the Holy Spiritconstantly calls convinced and persuasive hearers and preachers of the word of the Lord" (n. 122). They are called to be "credible heralds of the Word of salvation", communicating "the source of true joy... born of the awareness that the Lord Jesus alone has words of everlasting life" (cf. Jn 6, 68) (no. 123). "This close relationship between God's word and joy is evident in the Mother of God": Mater Verbi et Mater laetitiae (n. 124).
Lastly, the great contribution of the Holy Father Benedict XVI to the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation should be noted. It gathers his rich Magisterium on the Word of God, expressed during the 12th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. Besides the intervention of 14 October 2008 in the Synod Hall — which was received by the Synod Fathers and elaborated in Verbum Domini — the homilies at the beginning and end of the celebration of the Synod were particularly rich in contetn. Thus, by enriching the reflections of the Synod, they have given quality to this Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation. This Document, in fact, it does not only convey the reflections of the Synod and the advice addressed to the Holy Father, but is a truly deep examination of various aspects. Bearing in mind the numerous quotations and the references to the enlightened Magisterium of His Holiness, it is only right to recognize the qualified contribution of the Bishop of Rome, President of the Synod of Bishops, to the Synod discussions, which he has then developed in Verbum Domini. It highlights once again the priority of the Word of God in his pontificate. Considering these facts, we may conclude that the Holy Father Benedict can be termed the "Pope of the Word of God".
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17 November 2010, page 11
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