Today the Vatican released Pope Benedict XVI's apostolic exhortation on the Word of God, Verbum Domini. This document is basically the pope's way of summarizing what was articulated at the 2008 Synod of Bishops on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church. A Synod of Bishops involves hundreds of bishops meeting in Rome for weeks at a time to discuss a specific topic relevant to life in the Church. This fall saw a synod on the Middle East, and 2009 saw a synod on the Church in Africa.
In true Vatican fashion (unofficial motto: "We think in centuries here"), the document released today accompanies a synod now two years past. Since the apostolic exhortation itself is over 200 pages long, it might be helpful to read the Catholic News Service report on the document. And for a more point-by-point analysis, Mary Sperry from the New American Bible staff here at the USCCB offers the following summary:
Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini (the Word of the Lord) reflects on the meetings and proposals of the Twelfth Ordinary Synod of Bishops which took place in October 2008. The theme of the Synod was “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church.”
The exhortation begins by affirming that the word is at the heart of every ecclesial activity and likewise should be encountered and interpreted within the community of the Church. After a brief look at 100 years of Church documents on the word and the role of the Synod, the Holy Father divides the exhortation into three main parts.
The first section, Verbum Dei (the Word of God), addresses the multiple understandings of the term “word of God,” all finding their fullest meaning in the person of Jesus Christ. Still, the word of God is Trinitarian. God the Father is the origin of the word. Jesus is the word. And the Holy Spirit inspires the word.
After extensive discussion of the relationship between Scripture and tradition, Pope Benedict turns his attention to our response to Scripture, namely, faith. He holds up Mary as a role model because she heard the word attentively and allowed it to take flesh in her.
Turning his attention to biblical interpretation, Pope Benedict affirms the indispensability of historical-critical exegesis and other methods of textual analysis. The goal of all biblical interpretation is the come to an understanding of the meaning of the Bible as God’s word for today. Such interpretation requires both faith and reason, linking the reality of the faith expressed in the Scriptures to the experience of faith today. He cautions against interpretations which lead to fundamentalism or which are closed to the possibility of Scripture.
In the second section, Verbum in Ecclesia (the Word in the Church), Pope Benedict characterizes the Church as a community that hears and proclaims the word of God. Liturgy is the privileged setting for the word of God and every liturgical action is steeped in Scripture. Similarly, we must understand Scripture in light of the paschal mystery celebrated in the liturgy. Word and gesture are united in the celebration of all the sacraments. There is no separation between what God says and what he does.
The Holy Father offers an extended reflection on the unbreakable bond between Scripture and the Eucharist. In considering the Mass, Pope Benedict discusses the importance of biblical, liturgical, and technical training for readers and gives substantial consideration to the significance of the homily in helping people come to a personal encounter with Christ through the word. He notes that Christ must stand at the center of every homily. Similarly, Scripture must be a part of every sacramental celebration and blessing. The Liturgy of the Hours emphasizes the dialogue at the heart of our encounter with Scripture. As such, participation in at least Morning and Evening Prayer should be encouraged.
Pope Benedict calls the Church to a new season of greater love for Scripture. The Bible should inspire all pastoral work, fostering the personal encounter with Christ who gives himself in his word. Catechesis should be biblically inspired. All the faithful should know the important people and events of the Bible and should even memorize some key passages. Every household should have a Bible to be used for prayer and reading. Scripture helps us to grow in relationship to Christ and, thus, in our call to holiness whatever our vocation.
Turning to Scripture and prayer, Pope Benedict gives extensive consideration to lectio divina, an ancient practice of reading, prayer, and reflection leading to conversion of heart. He looks at traditional Latin and Eastern Marian prayers (including the Angelus and the Akathist Prayer) that help us come to a fuller understanding of the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ.
The final section of the exhortation, Verbum Mundo (the Word to the World) states emphatically that the Church’s mission is to preach the word of God to the world. All the faithful must develop a missionary consciousness so as to become heralds of God’s word. This mission belongs to all the faithful by virtue of their baptism. This mission has two parts, the mission ad gentes to those who have never heard the word of God and the new evangelization to those who need to hear the word anew. The credibility of this proclamation requires an authentic Christian witness.
Proclaiming the word requires engagement with society, promoting peace, justice, and reconciliation, reaching out to migrants, the suffering, and the poor. Special attention must be given to young people who will find in Scripture the answers to many of life’s questions.
The word of God must have an impact on culture, through shared human values, the arts, and through communications, including new media. The word of God speaks to all peoples and cultures and the Church must give special care to ensuring that all people have a complete translation of the Bible in their own language. Finally, the word of God must inform interreligious dialogue, helping to identify shared values.
Pope Benedict concludes the exhortation by affirming that the proclamation of the word creates communion and brings joy.