On Scripture

Author: Archbishop Bruno Forte


Archbishop Bruno Forte on Scripture

"Listen to His Words, Let His Heart Speak to Yours"

CHIETI, Italy, 27 JAN. 2007 (ZENIT)

Here is a translation of the pastoral letter written in Italian by Archbishop Bruno Forte of Chieti-Vasto, member of the International Theological Commission, on the theme "The Word for Living: Sacred Scripture and the Beauty of God."

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The Word for Living: Sacred Scripture and the Beauty of God
Pastoral Letter for 2006-2007

Let us try together to understand what the Word of God is: If you truly understand it, with the mind and with the heart, you will feel the need to bring yourself to listen to the Words in which it is God himself who speaks to you, giving you the light to know yourself in truth, wisdom to discern the signs of his presence, strength to make you able to speak to him Words of love, which are the voice of your prayer, confession of your humble faith, song in the song of the whole Church, which is born from the Word and is called by the Word to be a witness unto the ends of the earth.

1. Why a letter on the Word of God?

I thought I should write you a letter on the Word of God because I am convinced that in our complex society something is happening that is similar to what is described in the book of Amos: "The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will send a hunger into the country, not hunger for bread nor thirst for water, but of hearing the Word of God" (Amos 8:10). I recognize this hunger in the need for love that is in each of us, men and women of this "post-modern" time. We are becoming more and more prisoners of our solitude. Only an infinite love can satisfy the expectation that burns inside of us: Only the God who is love can say to us that we are not alone in this world and that our house is in the heavenly city, where there will no longer be neither sorrow nor death. "From that city," writes Augustine, "our Father has sent us letters, he has sent us the Scripture, and from this awakens our desire to return home."[1]

If you understand that the Bible is this "letter of God," which speaks to your heart, then you will approach it with the trepidation and the desire with which one who is in love reads the Words of the beloved. Thus God, who is Father and Mother in love, will speak just to you, and the faithful, intelligent, humble, and prayerful listening to what he says to you will slowly begin to satiate your need for light, your thirst for love. Learning to listen to the voice that speaks to you in sacred Scripture is to learn to love: The Word of God is the good news against solitude! For this reason listening to the Scriptures is a listening that liberates and saves.

2. God speaks!

Only God could break the silence of the heavens and irrupt into the silence of the heart: Only he could speak to us — as no other — Words of love. This is what happened in his revelation, first to the chosen people, Israel, and then in Jesus Christ, the eternal Word made flesh. God speaks: Through events and Words that are intimately connected, he communicates himself to men. Put in writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, these texts constitute sacred Scripture, the dwelling of the Word of God in the Words of men. The Word of God is God himself in the sign of his Word! It shares in his power: "For just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to him who sows and bread to him who eats, so shall my Word be that goes forth from my mouth; It shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it" (Isaiah 55:10ff).

The Hebrew Word "dabar," usually translated as "Word," means Word just as much as action: Thus, the Ten
Commandments are called "the ten Words" in Hebrew, to indicate that they express both the demands of God's love and the help that he gives for following them. The Lord says what he does and does what he says. In the Old Testament he announces to the children of Israel the coming of the Messiah and the founding of a new covenant; in the Word made flesh he accomplishes his promises beyond all expectations. The First Testament and the New Testament narrate the story of his love for us, according to a path with which God prepares his people for the gift of the covenant's fulfilment: the Old Testament is illumined by the New and the New is prepared by the Old! How can the grown tree be any less than the roots from which is comes? "If the root is healthy, the branches will be too ... Know that it is not you who carries the roots but that the roots carry you" (Romans 11:16, 18). For this reason the disciples of Jesus love the Scripture which he himself loved.

3. The Word becomes flesh

"And the Word became flesh and came to dwell among us" (John 1:14). The fulfillment of revelation, supreme gift of divine love, is Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man for us, the unique Word, perfect and definitive of the Father, who in him says everything to us and gives everything to us. In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe" (Hebrews 1:1ff). In Jesus the texts of the New Testament acquire and manifest there full meaning: "All Scripture is a single book and this book is Christ."[2] To nourish oneself with Scripture is the nourish oneself with Christ: "Ignorance of the Scriptures," affirms St. Jerome, "is ignorance of Christ."[3] Whoever wants to live from Jesus must listen incessantly to the Sacred Scriptures, no one excepted. It is in them that the countenance of the beloved is revealed, in this today which is passing and in that day of love without end: "I seek your face, O Lord: seeking the face of Christ must be the life of all of us Christians.... If we persevere in seeking the face of the Lord, at the end of our pilgrimage our eternal joy with be Jesus, our recompense and glory forever."[4]

4. The Spirit interprets the Word

How can we meet the Living One in the garden of the Scriptures, as in the garden of the sepulcher? If we wish to happen to us what happened to the woman whose eyes were opened to recognize the risen Lord after first taking him to be the gardener (cf. John 20:15ff), it is necessary to be called by the beloved, touched by the fire of his Holy Spirit: "The comforter, the Holy Spirit who the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and remind you of all I have said" (John 14:26). The Holy Spirit who guided the chosen people, inspiring the authors of the sacred Scriptures, opens the heart of the believer to the understanding of what is contained in the Scriptures. Thus, the Scriptures "grow with the one who reads them."[5]

No encounter with the Word of God will be experienced, then, without an invocation of the Spirit who opens the sealed book, moving the heart and turning it to God, opening the eyes of the mind and giving sweetness in consenting to and believing the truth.[6] It is the Spirit who will lead us into the whole truth through the door of the Word of God, making us workers and witnesses of the liberating power that it contains and which is so necessary in a Word that often seems to have lost its taste and passion for truth. Before reading the Scriptures, you must always invoke the giver of gifts, the light of hearts: the Holy Spirit!

5. The Church: creature and house of the Word

To make us capable of faithfully receiving the Word of God, the Lord Jesus wanted to leave us — together with the Spirit — also the gift of the Church, founded on the Apostles. They were the ones who received the Word of salvation and handed it down to their successors as a precious jewel, kept in the secure custody of the people of God on pilgrimage through time. The Church is the house of the Word, the community of interpretation, guaranteed by the guidance of the shepherds to whom God wished to entrust his flock.

The faithful reading of Scripture is not the work of solitary navigators, but is done in the bark of Peter: proclamation, catechesis, liturgical celebration, the study of theology, personal or group meditation, also in the family and spiritual understanding that has matured along the path of faith are all channels that allow us to come to know the Bible in the life of the Church. It is particularly beautiful and fruitful to meditate on the Word according to the distribution of readings proposed by the daily liturgy, letting take us by the hand through the luxuriant forest of biblical texts.

Accompanied by mother Church, no baptized person should feel indifferent to the Word of God: listening to it, proclaiming it, allowing it to enlighten us so that we may enlighten others — these are tasks that touch all of us, each one according to the gift he has received and the responsibility entrusted to him, with the missionary passion that Christ asks of his disciples, no one excluded (cf. Mark 16:15). This is why I wanted in the diocese a school of the Word open to all! From priests to deacons, from parents to catechists, from consecrated men to consecrated women, from theologians to teachers, from members of associations and movements to each baptized individual, whether young or old, we are all called to be the Church generated by the Word that proclaims the Word: even you!

6. The obedience of faith to the Word

You will truly correspond to the Word of the Lord if you bear along it in that welcoming listening that is the obedience of the faith, "by which man commits his whole self freely to God, offering the full submission of intellect and will to the God who reveals and freely assenting to the truth revealed by him."[7] The God who presents himself to your heart calls you to offer to him not just a part of you but your entire self. This receptive listening makes you free: "If you remain faithful to my Word, you will truly be my disciples and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free" (John 8:31-32).

In the Word it is God himself who comes to you and transforms you: "The Word of God is living, efficacious and sharper than any two-edged sword; it penetrates to the very division of the soul and spirit, the joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart (Hebrews 4:12). Give yourself, then, to the Word. Trust in it. It is eternally faithful, like the God who speaks it and inhabits it. That is why if you welcome the Word in faith, you will never be alone: In life, as in death, you will enter through it into the heart of God: "Learn to know the heart of God by the Words of God."[8] Listen, read, meditate on the Word; taste it, love it, celebrate it; live it and proclaim it in Words and deeds: this is the way that is opening to you if you understand that in the Word of God is the fountain of life. In it God visits you in person: for this reason the Word implicates you, catches up your heart, and offers itself to your faith as a help and a defense in your spiritual growth.

7. A way of welcoming the Word: "lectio divina"

How should we read the Word of God? A tried and true way of delving into it and tasting it is "lectio divina," which constitutes an authentic spiritual journey in various stages. The first stage is the "lectio," reading. Read a passage of Scripture attentively and more than once and ask yourself: "What is the text itself about?" Move on then to the "meditatio," meditation, which is like an interior resting. Recollect yourself and ask God: "What are you saying to me with these Words of yours?" Adopt the attitude of the young Samuel: "Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening!" (1 Samuel 3:10). Then answer with prayer, "oratio," turning to the God who has spoken to you: "What will I say to you, my Lord?" Ask the Lord to live in the house of your heart so that he transforms your thoughts and your steps. You now arrive at the "contemplatio," that active contemplation in which your heart, touched by the presence of Christ, will ask: "What must I do now to realize this Word?" and will try to live it.

Through these four ways — attention, understanding, judgment, decision — experienced in the encounter with the Word, it will be for you as a "lamp that shines in a dark place until the dawn comes and the morning star rises in your hearts" (2 Peter 1:19). Precisely in this way Scripture can guide and accompany you on the paths of life: "Your Word is a lamp for my steps, a light on my way" (Psalm 118 [119]:105). Sometimes it can seem that the Word you have read says nothing to you. Do not be discouraged! Return to it and ask: "Lord give me life according to your Word" (Psalm 118 [119]:107). The problem you are having has been experienced by many before you, Abraham, Sara, Moses, Jeremiah, Esther, John the Baptist, Peter, Paul: These and other men and women of the Bible can tell you about the struggle and the joy of believing. Try to meet them by meditating on the texts that narrate their story, using the steps of the "lectio divina": You will discover how near they are to your questions and how their experience speaks to you — this is the way that I am trying to follow in the meetings of the "laboratory of faith" which have been directed above all to young people.

8. The Word: fount of love

The Words of the God who is love make us capable of loving. Love is the fruit that is born from the true hearing of the Word: "Be doers of the Word," says St. James, "and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves" (1:22). He who allows himself to be enlightened by the Word knows that the meaning of life does not consist in being focused on himself, but in that exodus from self without return, which is love. Listening to sacred Scripture makes you feel loved and renders you capable of loving: If you hand yourself over without reserve to the God who loves you he will be the one who gives you to others, enriching you with all the necessary power to put yourself at their service.

This is why Benedict XVI especially invites young people, who stand before life, "to acquire a familiarity with the Bible, to have it at their fingertips, so that it be as a compass indicating which road to take."[9] The Word is a certain guide because — among the many distractions of the world — it leads us to commit ourselves to others in the footsteps of Jesus, to recognize in them his voice that calls us. The works are our signs of caritas in our Church: counseling centers, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, etc., the different volunteer activities, the challenges of justice, of peace, and of care for creation, the people that knock at your heart each day, await you to see whether the Word you listen to has truly changed your heart. If you do these things, then you can feel that the following Words of the Lord are directed to you: "Each time you did these things for the least of my brethren, you did them to me" (Matthew 25:40).

9. The Word: fount of joy and hope

If you listen to the Word and carry it with you, you will sense that your life is in the heart itself of God, whence is born confidence for the present and hope for tomorrow: "Whoever hears my Words and puts them into practice," says Jesus, "is like a wise man who built his house on rock" (Matthew 7:24). This confidence is nourished by the joy of feeling loved: "When your Words found me I devoured them; they became my joy and the happiness of my heart because I bore your name, O Lord, God of hosts" (Jeremiah 15:16). This is why the two disciples on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, in the explanation of the Scriptures experienced a burning in their hearts, they rediscovered the reasons for hope, they were full of the joy of the meeting (cf. Luke 24:13-35).

Scripture, which is the account of the history of the covenant between God and his people, is a living memory of this great love, which awakens confidence in him who will bring his promises to fulfillment. Giving you reasons for life and hope, the Word opens you to God's tomorrow and helps you bring it into the present by the power of humble acts of faith and simple gestures of charity. It is because of its power that the Word is also the reason for the great hope that animates ecumenical dialogue: If we make the effort to be disciples of the one Word, how can we consider our divisions more important than the unity to which the Word calls us?

10. From the Word to silence

From obedient listening to the Word flows, therefore, the eloquent silence of life: "We give thanks to God always because, having received from us the divine Word we preached, you accepted it not as the Word of men but, as it truly is, the Word of God who is at work in you who believe" (1 Thessalonians 2:13). This existence which is inhabited by the Eternal is constantly nourished by listening to his silence, which comes to us through the Word and opens us up to the silence of desire and expectation. Those who love the Word, know how necessary silence is — both interior and exterior — to truly hear it, and to allow that its light transform us through prayer, reflection, and discernment: In an environment of silence, in the light of the Scriptures, we learn to recognize the signs of God and to bring our problems to the plan of salvation to which the Scripture bears witness. Listening is the fruitful silence inhabited by the Word: "The Father pronounced one Word, which was his Son and he repeats it in an eternal silence; thus it must be listened to in silence by the soul."[10] Never pronounce, then, the Word of life, without having traveled long in the paths of silence, in the meditative and profound silence of the Word that comes from the Eternal!

11. The icon of Mary: the Virgin of listening

Mary is an icon of fruitful listening to the Word: She teaches us to welcome it, to care for it, and to meditate on it without ceasing: "Mary, for her part, treasured all these things, meditating on them in her heart" (Luke 2:19). Perfect image of the Church, Mary allows herself to be formed by the Word of God: "Let it be done to me according to your Word" (Luke 1:38). And listening she makes a gift of love: The Virgin of the annunciation goes to Elizabeth to help her in her need. The woman of listening, Mary presents herself in the visitation as the Mother of love: "How is it that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" (Luke 2:43). Her voice is the bearer of messianic joy: "When the voice of your greeting came to my ears the child in my womb leaped for joy" (Luke 1:44).

Her blessedness is to have heard and believed the Word of the Eternal: "Blessed is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill his words to her" (Luke 2:45). I ask Mary — creature of the Word, who intercedes for us in the glory of God — to help us to live as she did in listening to the Word, to welcome the Word of life and bring him to others, in transparency and in the concerns of our everyday life. Pray with Mary, entrust yourself to her intercession (with prayer of the rosary, for example, rich with biblical motifs), she will help you to care for and live the divine Scriptures.

12. The Word for living

The prayer of a monk, expert in the assiduous meditation on the Scriptures, can help us to listen to the Word of God according to Mary's example: "We beseech you, Lord, to make us know what we love, so that we seek nothing outside of you. You are everything for us: our life, our light, our salvation, our food, our drink, our God. We pray to you, our Jesus, to inspire our hearts with the breath of your Spirit and to transfix our souls with your love so that each one of us can say in all truth: Make me know him whom my heart loves; I am indeed wounded by your love. I desire that those wounds be made in me, O Lord. Blessed is the soul transfixed by charity! It will seek the fountain and drink. Drinking from it, it will always thirst. Quenching its thirst it will desire with ardor him for whom it always thirsts, though drinking from this fountain continually. In this way, love is thirst for the soul that seeks with desire; it is the wound that heals."[11]

Only love opens one up to knowledge of the beloved: "Only he who rested on Jesus' breast can understand the meaning of Jesus' Words."[12] Rest your head on the Lord's breast too, like the beloved disciple at the Last Supper (cf. John 13:25), and listen to his Words, let his heart speak to yours! This is what I ask of God for you as I "commend you to God and to the Word of his grace, which is able to build you up and give you the inheritance among all the saints" (cf. Acts 20:32). Amen!

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[1] "Commentary on the Psalms," 64, 2-3.
[2] Hugh of St. Victor, "Noah's Ark," II, 8.
[3] "Commentary on the Prophet Isaiah," PL 24, 17.
[4] Benedict XVI, Discourse of Sept. 1, 2006, at the Sanctuary of the Holy Face of Manoppello.
[5] St. Gregory the Great, "Homilies on Ezekiel," I, 7, 8.
[6] Cf. Second Vatican Council, "Dei Verbum," 5.
[7] Second Vatican Council, "Dei Verbum," 5.
[8] St. Gregory the Great, "Letters," 5, 46.
[9] Message for World Youth Day 2006.
[10] St. John of the Cross, "Opere," Rome, 1967, 1095.
[11] St. Columba, "Instruction 13 on Christ Fountain of Life," 2-3, "Opera", Dublin, 1957, 118-120.
[12] Origen, "In Joannem," 1, 6, PG 14, 31.

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