There is much worry about the Second Vatican Council – and there will be even more this year as the 60th anniversary of its opening falls next October. Has it been correctly implemented? What does correct implementation mean?
It is therefore heartening that an unambiguous post-conciliar success has been the deepening of devotion to the Holy Scriptures by Catholics in the pew. It’s something to celebrate this Sunday, designated by Pope Francis in 2019 as “Sunday of the Word of God.” This designation of the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time recognizes the explosion of Bible study by the Catholic faithful in recent years and encourages this expansion.
“Easy access to the Holy Scriptures should be provided to all faithful Christians”, Dei Verbum (22) teaches, the Vatican II constitution on divine revelation.
This has been achieved in spades, with the last year bringing some significant new initiatives. Indeed, 2021 was known for the success of the Ascension Press podcast “Bible in a Year” with Father Mike Schmitz and Jeff Cavins, which climbed to the top of the most popular podcast lists.
The podcast’s phenomenal reach is yet another medium for the Great Adventure Biblical Timeline, which Cavins developed decades ago to provide an overview of biblical revelation by focusing on 14 key “narrative” books.
Cavins was a pioneer of new media, recording cassette sets and audio CDs in the 1990s. Now the material is digital, but the original Great Adventure Bible itself, with its timeline and graphics, is always a good starting point for Catholics seeking to deepen their understanding of the Word of God.
While the Great Adventure timeline approach may be decades old, there are a plethora of new resources worthy of attention on Word of God Sunday.
Before moving on to the latest offerings, it would be good to note some major achievements in recent Catholic Scripture commentaries. Two are notable for scholars and preachers of a more intellectual bent: Sacra Pagina and the Catholic commentary on Sacred Scripture. Both sets cover the New Testament in 17 volumes, the first appearing in the 1990s and the second completed in recent years.
Making expert scholarship more accessible to non-specialists was the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible series, edited by Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch, published as a book-by-book booklet. An elegant one-volume New Testament was published in 2010, and the Old Testament books are still published.
Word on fire Bible
One of the most ambitious Bible publishing projects ever attempted is the Word on Fire Bible, with Bishop Robert Barron’s team producing what they call “a printed cathedral”. The sacred text is supplemented with commentaries by Bishop Barron himself, a compendium of relevant quotations from tradition, and adorned with Christian sacred art. Volume I: The Gospels was released in 2020, and Volume II: Acts, Letters and Revelation came out this week. The Bible offers an intellectual and visual feast, analogous to the Catholicism DVD series from 10 years ago.
Consider the presentation of the First Letter of Peter. The theme highlighted is suffering for Christ. There is a stunning visual scheme of St. Peter’s Tomb beneath the Vatican Basilica, evocative of the best of National geographic. There are quotes from across the millennium, including saints – Benedict, Cyril of Alexandria, Ignatius and Paul VI – as well as Archbishop Fulton Sheen, Henry de Lubac and Flannery O’Connor. All in just a few pages, including two short essays by Bishop Barron.
The Word of Fire Bible picks up – with greater depth and more advanced publishing technology – the kind of large family Bibles that were common decades ago. For example, in 1953 Father Patrick Peyton published the “Family Rosary Edition”, which included much sacred art, an extensive essay on extra-biblical sources on Mary’s life, and the full text of two encyclicals on the Scriptures – Pope Leo XIII Providentissimus Deus (1893) and Pius XII Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943) 50 years later. Father Peyton had a pretty high sense of what Catholic families might want to read!
Father Peyton’s biblical project was not unlike that of Bishop Barron in his day, including additional material such as artistic essays on major Roman basilicas and – oddly to our taste today – formal portraits of all North American cardinals.
Augustine’s Bible — ESV
The high quality production is also evident in Augustine’s Bible, published about two years ago. While the Word of Fire Bible uses text from the NSRV Catholic Edition, the Augustine Bible uses the English Standard Version (ESV), which has an interesting history. The ESV is in the tradition of the King James and Douay translations, taking as its starting point the 1971 Revised Standard Version (RSV), which is the Vatican’s preferred English translation. Published in 2001 on a Protestant initiative, a Catholic edition was approved in 2018 by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India.
It is a beautiful Bible with a literal and literary translation. It does not include significant additional material, but will serve well as a Bible for reflection and study. It should be noted that this initiative has its roots in India, indicating an important contribution of the young local Church to the English-speaking Catholic world.
Commentaries from the Lectionary
Most American Catholics will hear the New American Bible (NAB) translation at Mass because it is the translation approved by the American bishops. This past year has brought two new comments to these Sunday readings.
One of the best is by John Bergsma, one of Scott Hahn’s main collaborators at the St. Paul Institute for Biblical Theology, The Word of the Lord: Reflections on the Readings of Sunday Mass. The current “Year C” volume was released last year. Volumes for Year B and for special holidays were also published; Year A will follow this year.
Bergsma is one of my favorite Bible commentators; he immerses himself in the sometimes tedious world of scholarship – so his readers don’t have to. We get the benefit without the work. Consider this passage from last Sunday’s Cana reading:
“We found many stone vessels at Qumran, the site of the Dead Sea Scrolls, but mostly small ones, nothing on the scale of these very large jars,” writes Bergsma, an authority on the scrolls. “The family hosting this wedding was both rich and devout – rich in being able to afford such large stone pots, and devout in that they spent the money to make ritual cleanliness possible in the house. “
They were not a foolish young couple, but a wealthy family who took their piety and religious duties seriously. The point is clear – even the best and honorable efforts of the wealthy are not enough for our salvation.
Bergsma’s commentary, with sections for each of the four Bible readings at Mass, will provide preachers with several homily options for each Sunday — in fact, for a lifetime of Sunday preaching.
Word of Fire, meanwhile, published a gigantic Sunday commentary by Peter Kreeft, Food for the Soul: Reflecting on Mass Readings Cycle C. Kreeft, who published two more books last year, devoted his prodigious mind and prolific pen to long commentaries on each of the Sunday readings. Cycle A and B volumes are forthcoming.
Kreeft has long made the Catholic tradition of perennial philosophy accessible to the intelligent non-specialist. He does the same here for the Scriptures, but the amount of material can prove daunting to the typical priest – whom Kreeft takes as his audience, including both the indolent who only seeks to imitate and the industrious who seeks to improve.
“Your homily should be heart-to-heart,” Kreeft writes, while nurturing the soul — and the spirit. “This does not diminish the importance of wit and intelligence, but increases it. The mind is the closest adviser to the heart.
Nevertheless, not all paragraphs need to be read, but there is profit on every page. Consider his commentary on Ezra, the first reading this Sunday:
“Few people could read or write anywhere in the world at that time, so their auditory memories were much better than ours,” Kreeft writes. “Ezra was called a ‘scribe’, meaning someone who could read and write. It was a rare and special vocation. Books, in roll form, were extremely rare and extremely expensive. There were no private libraries. No one read in private and in silence; books to them were like sheet music to us: instructions for the public performance of music. This event was like hearing a symphony orchestra for the moment in your life.
It’s likely that Kreeft readers will hear a lot for the first time in their lives.
Prologue of Saint John
The three-year lectionary cycle of Bible readings is a fruit of the post-conciliar liturgical reform and, by wide consensus, one of its most successful aspects. However, something was lost in the reform, namely the importance given to the prologue of the Gospel of Saint John (1-18), which had been read at the end of each Mass – the so-called “last Gospel”. “. Any liturgical commentary on Scripture would be incomplete without it, though it now rarely appears in the lectionary.
Anthony Esolen has a recent book on the prologue, appropriately enough titled, In the Beginning Was the Word: An Annotated Reading of John’s Prologue (Angelico Press). Esolen was a gifted scholar of literature and history, and he is probably best known today for his monthly essays on Magnificat.
In addition to his comments on the theological significance of “the most influential paragraph in the history of man,” Esolen introduces his readers to the poetry of John, and as a poet writing in a foreign language, Greek.
“The deathly dull New American Bible, the one I and my fellow Roman Catholics in the United States must hear at Mass, seems to have made all poetry and all sublimity their enemies,” writes Esolen, who has a polemical side.
He notes that poetry and proclamation are the appropriate categories for reading John’s prologue, as it was composed “seventeen years before journalism was invented, eighteen hundred before the realist novel”. To read John, or Scripture in general, as a news story is to miss the point. Esolen does not miss the point and revives the magnificent prologue – one of the greatest literary works of all time.
It should be noted that these recent offerings come largely from lay authors – Hahn, Bergsma, Kreeft, Esolen – who teach their priests, making them better preachers. This is another cause for celebration for this Sunday of the Word of God.