10 Ways to Study and Pray With The Bible

10 Ways to Study and Pray With The Bible

AUG. 27, 2010 ( - I am commonly asked how a Catholic might start reading or praying with Sacred Scripture. Therefore, I decided to introduce you to a range of different ways to read, study, and pray with the Bible. I hope you find it helpful.

These ten methods are not the only ways to study and pray with Scripture, but merely some of the most popular ways.


1 - Read and pray with the Lectionary.
Many Catholics, including my family, like to read the Scriptures they will hear in the Liturgy of The Word before and/or after they attend Mass. Some subscribe to periodicals that make it easier for them to have the readings and may also include mediations on the readings. These include, The Magnificat, The Word Among Us, and Living Faith.

2 - Big Picture Study
There are some very nice resources that will help you get the "big picture" of the story of salvation. One of the best resources, though it is very expensive, is The Great Adventure series by Jeff Cavins. We do have this series here at St. Mary's, but do not keep it in the library, due to the expense of having to replace it if it isn't returned. Other resources include some nice courses from St. Paul's Center for Biblical Theology.

3 - In-Depth Study With Commentaries
There are many good commentaries that can help you study one book of The Bible at a time. Maybe you have an interest in the Psalms, Revelation, or Romans. While this can be a more expensive way to study the Bible, but you can find most of my recommendations below in St. Mary's Library. With this kind of study you can get in-depth study into language, cross-references, culture, etc. Some of my favorite series of in-depth studies include the Navarre Bible, The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible (only New Testament has been released so far), and the Sacra Pagina series.

4 - Thematic Study
Thematic studies will focus on a certain theme (e.g. Men's Bible study, social justice Bible study, Bible study on patience, Marian Bible study) and bring together the different passages that focus on that issue. Many Catholic publishers have various kinds of thematic studies. We have a wide-variety in our library.

5 - Cover-to-Cover Study
I don't necessarily recommend this method of reading The Bible, especially for those that aren't very familiar with Sacred Scriptures. This is because many people get bogged down in some of the Old Testament books that have difficult passages or less interesting parts. There are a number of resources that can give you a 1, 2, or 3 year plan to read the entire Bible. One good one is from the Coming Home Network which give Catechism passages as well.

6 - Use The Four Senses and Three Criteria for Interpretation Given By The Church

These can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The four senses are:
1. Literal sense - is to understand what the human author intended to teach and what his audience understood. Does NOT mean “word-for-word” interpretation. We consider - language / culture / type of literature / human authors understanding of world, relationships, etc.

Three layers to the Spiritual sense:
2. Allegorical sense -Some call this Typology. The New Testament is the fulfillment of the Old Testament, which looks toward the New and should be read in light of it.
3. Moral sense - Personal - we have to apply the text to our lives. Thus, what does this passage mean for my life? How should I live in light of this truth?
4. Anagogical sense - Also personal, but a more spiritual sense, not active – but contemplative. Points us to heaven.

The Three Criteria for Interpretation are (CCC 111-114):

1. Be especially attentive "to the content and unity of the whole Scripture."
2. Read the Scripture within "the living Tradition of the whole Church."
3. Be attentive to the analogy of faith. – See with eyes of faith


1 - Lectio Divina
Lectio Divina means "Divine (or holy) reading". There are several different methodologies to Lectio Divina, but the basics include reading the Scripture passage slowly several times, quiet meditation, response in prayer, and quiet reflection and rest in God's presence. More can be found here.

2 - Imagination / Understanding / Love
First, use your imagination to place yourself in the scene described in the passage you are reading. Then try to understand how this passage applies to you. Then move your heart to love God more.

3 - Pray / Read / Reflect / Resolve
Following this simple formula we start to try and conform our lives to Sacred Scripture. We start with a prayer inviting the Holy Spirit to inspire us. Next, there should be slow reading of the passage. We then spend a good time reflecting on the passage and finally we make a resolution to draw closer to God in whatever way we are drawn to.

4 - Praying / Singing The Psalms
The Psalms were once memorized by the Israelites as a devotion to Yahweh. We also can pray the Psalms by singing them or praying with them through recitation and meditation on them.



One Hundred Questions that Jesus Asked

One Hundred Questions that Jesus Asked and YOU must answer
By Msgr. Charles Pope

One of the bigger mistakes people make in reading Scripture is that they read it as a spectator. For them Scripture is a colloection of stories and events that took place thousands of years ago. True enough, we are reading historical accounts. But, truth be told these ancient stories are our stories. We are in the narrative. You are Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Deborah, Jeremiah, Ruth, Peter, Paul, Magdalene, Mother Mary, and, if you are prepared to accept it, you are also Jesus. As the narrative we read unfolds, we are in the story. We cannot simply watch what others say or do or answer. For what Peter and Magdalene and others did, we do. Peter denied and ran. So do we. Magdalene loved and never gave up, should should we. Magdalene had a sinful past and a promising future, so do we. Peter was passionate and had a temper so do we. But Peter also loved the Lord and ultimately gave his life for the Lord. So can we. Jesus suffered and died but rose again and ascended to glory. So have we and so will we.

The scriptures are our own story. We are in it. To read scripture as a mere spectator looking on is to miss the keynote. Scripture is our story.

In the light of this keynote there emerges another very important and powerful key to unlocking the text. The key is simply this: Answer the Question! Among the many things Jesus did, he asked a lot of questions! And whenever you read the Gospels and Jesus asks a question, answer it! Do not wait to see what Peter or Magdalene, or the Pharisees or the crowd say for an answer. You answer the question, in your own words. This brings Scripture powerfully alive.

So twenty years ago Bishop John Marshall, Bishop of Burlington VT. and later Springfield Mass compiled a book: But Who Do You Say That I Am? In the book he collected and listed all the questions Jesus asked in the Gospels. And he encourages us to answer the question. He also listed questions asked by others in another section of the book. Bishop Marshall in listing the question gives extra verses for context and adds brief commentaries. However, I would like to list just the raw questions. I will give the verse reference so you can look it up. But I encourage you to print this list and take it to prayer. Read it slowly, perhaps over days or weeks. I have attached a PDF version of the List here: 100 Questions that Jesus asked and YOU must answer. Ponder each question. Answer each question prayerfully and reflectively. This is not the complete list of questions but it is surely food for thought. Now, answer the questions:

100 Questions that Jesus asked and YOU must answer:

  1. And if you greet your brethren only, what is unusual about that? Do not the unbelievers do the same? (Matt 5:47)
  2. Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your lifespan? Matt 6:27
  3. Why are you anxious about clothes? Matt 6:28
  4. Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye yet fail to perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? (Matt 7:2)
  5. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? (Matt 7:16)
  6. Why are you terrified? (Matt 8:26)
  7. Why do you harbor evil thoughts? (Matt 9:4)
  8. Can the wedding guests mourn so long as the Bridegroom is with them? (Matt 9:15)
  9. Do you believe I can do this? (Matt 9:28)
  10. What did you go out to the desert to see? (Matt 11:8)
  11. To what shall I compare this generation? (Matt 11:6)
  12. Which of you who has a sheep that falls into a pit on the Sabbath will not take hold of it and lift it out? (Matt 12:11)
  13. How can anyone enter a strong man’s house and take hold of his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? (Matt 12:29)
  14. You brood of vipers! How can you say god things when you are evil? (Matt 12:34)
  15. Who is my mother? Who are my brothers? (Matt 12:48)
  16. Why did you doubt? (Matt 14:31)
  17. And why do you break the commandments of God for the sake of your tradition? (Matt 15:3)
  18. How many loaves do you have? (Matt 15:34)
  19. Do you not yet understand? (Matt 16:8)
  20. Who do people say the Son of Man is? (Matt 16:13)
  21. But who do you say that I am? (Matt 16:15)
  22. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life and what can one give in exchange for his life? (Matt 16:26)
  23. O faithless and perverse generation how long must I endure you? (Matt 17:17)
  24. Why do you ask me about what is good? (Matt 19:16)
  25. Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink? (Matt 20:22)
  26. What do you want me to do for you? (Matt 20:32)
  27. Did you never read the scriptures? (Matt 21:42)
  28. Why are you testing me? (Matt 22:18)
  29. Blind fools, which is greater, the gold or the temple that makes the gold sacred….the gift of the altar that makes the gift sacred? (Matt 23:17-19)
  30. How are you to avoid being sentenced to hell? (Matt 23:33)
  31. Why do you make trouble for the woman? (Matt 26:10)
  32. Could you not watch for me one brief hour? (Matt 26:40)
  33. Do you think I cannot call upon my Father and he will not provide me at this moment with more than 12 legions of angels? (Matt 26:53)
  34. Have you come out as against a robber with swords and clubs to seize me? (Matt 26:53)
  35. My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me? (Matt 27:46)
  36. Why are you thinking such things in your heart? (Mark 2:8)
  37. Is a lamp brought to be put under a basket or under a bed rather than on a lamp stand? (Mark 4:21)
  38. Who has touched my clothes? (Mark 5:30)
  39. Why this commotion and weeping? (Mark 5:39)
  40. Are even you likewise without understanding? (Mark 7:18)
  41. Why does this generation seek a sign? (Mark 8:12)
  42. Do you not yet understand or comprehend? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes and still not see? Ears and not hear? (Mark 8:17-18)
  43. How many wicker baskets full of leftover fragments did you pick up? (Mark 8:19)
  44. [To the Blind man] Do you see anything? (Mark 8:23)
  45. What were arguing about on the way? (Mark 9:33)
  46. Salt is good, but what if salt becomes flat? (Mark 9:50)
  47. What did Moses command you? (Mark 10:3)
  48. Do you see these great buildings? They will all be thrown down. (Mark 13:2)
  49. Simon, are you asleep? (Mark 14:37)
  50. Why were you looking for me? (Luke 2:49)
  51. What are you thinking in your hearts? (Luke 5:22)
  52. Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and not do what I command? (Luke 6:46)
  53. Where is your faith (Luke 8:25)
  54. What is your name? (Luke 8:30)
  55. Who touched me? (Luke 8:45)
  56. Will you be exalted to heaven? (Luke 10:15)
  57. What is written in the law? How do you read it? (Luke 10:26)
  58. Which of these three in your opinion was neighbor to the robber’s victim? (Luke 10:36)
  59. Did not the maker of the outside also make the inside? (Luke 11:40)
  60. Friend, who appointed me as your judge and arbiter? (Luke 12:14)
  61. If even the smallest things are beyond your control, why are you anxious about the rest? (Luke 12:26)
  62. Why do you not judge for yourself what is right? (Luke 12:57)
  63. What king, marching into battle would not first sit down and decide whether with ten thousand troops he can successfully oppose another king marching upon him with twenty thousand troops? (Luke 14:31)
  64. If therefore you are not trustworthy with worldly wealth, who will trust you with true wealth? (Luke 16:11)
  65. Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God? (Luke 17:18)
  66. Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night? (Luke 18:7)
  67. But when the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on earth? (Luke 18:8)
  68. For who is greater, the one seated a table or the one who serves? (Luke 22:27)
  69. Why are you sleeping? (Luke 22:46)
  70. For if these things are done when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry? (Luke 23:31)
  71. What are you discussing as you walk along? (Luke 24:17)
  72. Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter his glory? (Luke 24:26)
  73. Have you anything here to eat? (Luke 24:41)
  74. What are you looking for? (John 1:38)
  75. How does this concern of your affect me? (John 2:4)
  76. You are a teacher in Israel and you do not understand this? (John 3: 10)
  77. If I tell you about earthly things and you will not believe, how will you believe when I tell you of heavenly things? (John 3: 12)
  78. Do you want to be well? (John 5:6)
  79. How is it that you seek praise from one another and not seek the praise that comes from God? (John 5:44)
  80. If you do not believe Moses’ writings how will you believe me? (John 5:47)
  81. Where can we buy enough food for them to eat? (John 6:5)
  82. Does this (teaching of the Eucharist) shock you? (John 6:61)
  83. Do you also want to leave me? (John 6:67)
  84. Why are you trying to kill me? (John 7:19)
  85. Woman where are they, has no one condemned you? (John 8:10)
  86. Why do you not understand what I am saying? (John 8:43)
  87. Can any of you charge me with sin? (John 8:46)
  88. If I am telling you the truth, why do you not believe me? (John 8:46)
  89. Are there not twelve hours in a day? (John 11:9)
  90. Do you believe this? (John 11:26)
  91. Do you realize what I have done for you? (John 13:12)
  92. Have I been with you for so long and still you do not know me? (John 14:9)
  93. Whom are you looking for? (John 18:4)
  94. Shall I not drink the cup the Father gave me? (John 18:11)
  95. If I have spoken rightly, why did you strike me? (John 18:23)
  96. Do you say [what you say about me] on your own or have others been telling you about me? (John 18:34)
  97. Have you come to believe because you have seen me? (John 20:29)
  98. Do you love me? (John 21:16)
  99. What if I want John to remain until I come? (John 21:22)
  100. What concern is it of yours? (John 21:22)

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USCCB's 10 points for fruitful Scripture reading

The Bible Is for Catholics:
USCCB's 10 points for fruitful Scripture reading
By Mary Elizabeth Sperry

The Bible is all around us. People hear Scripture readings in church. We have Good Samaritan (Luke 10) laws, welcome home the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), and look for the Promised Land (Exodus 3, Hebrews 11). Some biblical passages have become popular maxims, such as "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Matthew 7:12)," "Thou shalt not steal (Exodus 20:15), and "love thy neighbor" (Matthew 22:39).

Today's Catholic is called to take an intelligent, spiritual approach to the bible.

Listed here are 10 points for fruitful Scripture reading.

Bible reading is for Catholics.

The Church encourages Catholics to make reading the Bible part of their daily prayer lives. Reading these inspired words, people grow deeper in their relationship with God and come to understand their place in the community God has called them to in himself.

Prayer is the beginning and the end.

Reading the Bible is not like reading a novel or a history book. It should begin with a prayer asking the Holy Spirit to open our hearts and minds to the Word of God. Scripture reading should end with a prayer that this Word will bear fruit in our lives, helping us to become holier and more faithful people.

Get the whole story!

When selecting a Bible, look for a Catholic edition. A Catholic edition will include the Church's complete list of sacred books along with introductions and notes for understanding the text. A Catholic edition will have an imprimatur notice on the back of the title page. An imprimatur indicates that the book is free of errors in Catholic doctrine.

The Bible isn't a book. It's a library.

The Bible is a collection of 73 books written over the course of many centuries. The books include royal history, prophecy, poetry, challenging letters to struggling new faith communities, and believers' accounts of the preaching and passion of Jesus. Knowing the genre of the book you are reading will help you understand the literary tools the author is using and the meaning the author is trying to convey.

Know what the Bible is – and what it isn't.

The Bible is the story of God's relationship with the people he has called to himself. It is not intended to be read as history text, a science book, or a political manifesto. In the Bible, God teaches us the truths that we need for the sake of our salvation.

The sum is greater than the parts.

Read the Bible in context. What happens before and after – even in other books – helps us to understand the true meaning of the text.
The Old relates to the New.

The Old Testament and the New Testament shed light on each other. While we read the Old Testament in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus, it has its own value as well. Together, these testaments help us to understand God's plan for human beings.

You do not read alone.

By reading and reflecting on Sacred Scripture, Catholics join those faithful men and women who have taken God's Word to heart and put it into practice in their lives. We read the Bible within the tradition of the Church to benefit from the holiness and wisdom of all the faithful.

What is God saying to me?

The Bible is not addressed only to long-dead people in a faraway land. It is addressed to each of us in our own unique situations. When we read, we need to understand what the text says and how the faithful have understood its meaning in the past. In light of this understanding, we then ask: What is God saying to me?

Reading isn't enough.

If Scripture remains just words on a page, our work is not done. We need to meditate on the message and put it into action in our lives. Only then can the word be "living and effective."(Hebrews 4:12).
- - -

Mary Elizabeth Sperry is Associate Director for Utilization of the New American Bible.

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How to Read the Most Widely Read Book in the World

"According to the Scriptures."
How to Read the Most Widely Read Book in the World

First Genesis, then the Gospel of Mark, then the Prophet Jonah, then... A guide to reading of the Bible, for those who open it for the first time, and perhaps are not even Christian. In a brand-new edition offered to the public by two major secular newspapers

by Sandro Magister

ROME, May 1, 2009 ( – In a few days, the daily "la Repubblica" and the weekly "L'espresso" will offer to the Italian public, in hundreds of thousands of copies and at a reasonable price, the entire Christian Bible, in a new translation edited by the bishops' conference (CEI), accompanied by extensive notes and illustrated with artistic masterpieces from all time periods.

The work will be published in three volumes: the first with the Pentateuch and the historical books; the second with the wisdom books and the prophets; the third with the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the letters, and Revelation.

The initiative is all the more unusual in that "la Repubblica" and "L'espresso" are the leading publications for secular opinion in Italy, and are often critical of the Catholic Church and the Christian faith itself.

But this does not change the fact that, by offering the three volumes to the public, the two newspapers are presenting the Bible as "a book to have, to read, and to live," and moreover with the "guarantee of authority" of the Church's official translation.

The three volumes are introduced by Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, archbishop of Genoa and president of the CEI, and by Giuseppe Betori, archbishop of Florence and coordinator of the illustrious scholars who produced the new translation, which took almost twenty years. A famous saying of Gregory the Great is cited on the jacket flap: "The divine words grow with him who reads them."

The following is the article with which "L'espresso" presents the Bible to its readers, and suggests how to read it for the first time. Not cover to cover, but starting with Genesis, then going immediately to the New Testament with the Gospel of Mark, then returning to the Old with the book of Jonah, then... This guide to reading is naturally debatable, but it reflects the style in which the Church reads the Scriptures in its liturgies.

Immediately after this, on the same page, is the speech by Benedict XVI to the synod of bishops on "The Word of God in the life and mission of the Church," the morning of Tuesday, October 14, 2008. On that occasion, pope Joseph Ratzinger, speaking extemporaneously, explained how he wants the Sacred Scriptures to be read, in order to savor their full and authentic meaning, in an age in which "interpretations have been proposed that deny the real presence of God in history."

"The divine words grow with him who reads them"
From "L'espresso" no. 18, 2009

For Marc Chagall, the Bible was the alphabet of colors from which all of Western art had drawn. That's exactly right. Century after century, the artistic fortune of the sacred Scriptures has been so boundless that today, many more people have learned about sacred history from painting, sculpture, architecture, than have read the text. The Bible is the most widely sold book in the world. But few have read the whole thing. Paul Claudel, a French poet and a convert, used to say that "Catholics show tremendous respect for the Bible – they stay as far away from it as possible."

An unforgivable error. Because if it is true that Raphael teaches many things, it is all the more true that the rooms in the Vatican that he frescoed remain undecipherable if one does not know the biblical narrative that provides their substance, if one does not see, for example, that the philosophers of the "School of Athens" are walking toward the heavenly and earthly liturgy of the "Disputation of the Holy Sacrament" painted on the opposite wall. The Bible is the "master code" of Western culture. The greatest literary critics agree on this. In a memorable chapter of "Mimesis," Erich Auerbach demonstrated that Genesis and the Gospels, even more than the Homer's Odyssey, are at the origin of the realism of modern literature: "It was the story of Christ, with its uncalculating combination of everyday reality and lofty, sublime tragedy that repealed the ancient stylistic laws."

Of course, few are able to read the Bible in the original text, which is in Hebrew for the Old Testament and Greek for the New. But now that the Italian bishops' conference has, after almost twenty years of work on the part of biblical and literary scholars, produced the most accurate Italian translation of the Bible ever, there is yet another reason to read it. This new translation of the Bible, which "L'espresso"is offering to its readers, is the same that is read every Sunday at Mass. It is therefore made to be proclaimed, sung, accompanied by music, illustrated: like the Vulgate of St. Jerome, the ancient Latin translation of the Scriptures that for centuries was part and parcel of great Western art, and, at the same time, of the everyday life and language of myriads of men and women.

But be careful, the Christian Bible can punish those who venture into it blindly. It is an extremely special book, or rather collection of books, seventy-three in all, produced over a thousand years and divided into two major collections, the Old and the New Testament. These absolutely cannot be separated, at the cost of understanding nothing. The Mass shows why this is. The Gospel is never read without a prior reading from the Old Testament, which anticipates it "in allegory." Jesus is incomprehensible without the prophets. If he is risen from the dead, as the Gospels attest and the "Credo" proclaims, this took place "according to the Scriptures." If blood and water gush from the pierced side of Jesus, It is impossible not to think of the second chapter of Genesis, and the sleeping Adam from whose side God takes Eve, the mother of the living. The cross is the new tree of life of paradise, like the magnificent cross in bloom in the mosaic in the Roman basilica of Saint Clement. It is the fountainhead of the Church, it is the beginning of the new creation.

One should begin by reading Genesis in the Old Testament. It should come as no surprise that there are not one but two accounts of creation, one after the other and very different in style and content. The Bible does not intend to say how the world came about, but why. And also why, in a world that is indeed blessed by God as "good," so much evil should be unleashed, not by destiny but according to free and voluntary choice, disrupting both man and nature. From Cain to Lamech, from the Tower of Babel to the flood, wickedness invades the earth. But there is Noah the just man, in the ark that is saved from the waters. Then there is the calling of another just man, Abraham. And there is also justice beyond the chosen people, in a mysterious Melchizedek, "without father, without mother, without genealogy," as the author of the letter to the Hebrews would write in the New Testament. And there is God who visits Abraham in the person of the three anonymous guests whom Rublev, in the 15th century, would depict as an icon of the Trinity. And again, God who fights with Jacob on the shore of the river Jabbok. God? The Bible doesn't say so. It hints at it. Maybe.

In this, the Bible is truly extremely modern. It never says everything. On the contrary, it requires the reader to enter into the plot and decide. "The divine words grow with him who reads them," Pope Gregory the Great said in a homily on the prophet Ezekiel. It is as if the Scriptures were sleeping, before the reader came to wake them up. They were written this way, full of enigmas, ellipses, narrative leaps, obscurity. Rabbinical exegesis has always been this way: the "midrash" is an inexhaustible accumulation of readings and re-readings, reconstructions and reinterpretations, reality and vision. A painting by Chagall illustrates this perfectly. And the Christian liturgy is the same way: there, the Word of God is not a bookish reading, but becomes a living reality in the sacramental symbols. The Word of God takes on body and blood.

There is an antiphon, in the Mass for Epiphany according to the Ambrosian rite that is celebrated in Milan, that is a hymn to creativity in approaching the Bible. It sings: "Today the heavenly Bridegroom is joined with his Church, because he has washed her sins in the Jordan. The Magi come with gifts to the royal wedding, and the banqueters rejoice in the water changed into wine. Alleluia!" Here there are at least three references to the Gospels: to the visit of the Magi with gifts for the Child, to the baptism of the adult Jesus in the Jordan, and to the miracle at the wedding in Cana. But the chronological order is completely disregarded, and the narration has been dismantled and reassembled. The wedding becomes that between Jesus and the Church, the baptismal waters purify the bride, the Magi bring gifts to the banquet, and the guests take communion by drinking and miraculous wine obtained by Jesus himself, here and now.

After reading Genesis, one should skip to the New Testament and read Mark, the oldest, shortest, and most folgorante of the four Gospels. Everything hinges on the narrative device of the "messianic secret," a secret glimpsed only in part, in obscurity, the true identity of Jesus, and is revealed only at the end with the words of the Roman centurion in front of the cross: "Truly this man was the son of God!" Another extremely modern element of the Gospel of Mark is the way it is cut off at the end, left in suspense. The one who recognized Jesus was a pagan officer, all of the disciples had fled, and the women who came to the empty tomb didn't say anything to anyone, "because they were afraid." Period. In reading that kind of ending, how is it possible to avoid taking a position? How can we resist entering the scene ourselves? It is a shame that the music of the "Marcus-Passion" by Johann Sebastian Bach has been lost, given the sublime masterpieces that he drew from the more solemn, ceremonial passion of Matthew, and the mystical one of John.

And then one should return to the Old Testament. One should read the very short book of Jonah, the prophet sent by God to convert and forgive pagan Nineveh, who was swallowed up by a fish and spit out on the third day, a sparkling account woven with fine irony throughout: and then one will understand why Jesus identified himself in the "sign of Jonah," and why Michelangelo painted this prophet, in grandiose form, at the highest point of the altar wall in the Sistine Chapel, between the creation and the judgment, between the beginning and the end of time.

And then one should read the book of Job, which is both grand theology and lofty poetry. And the Song of Songs, an enchanting canticle of love. And then one should again open the New Testament, with the diptych of the Gospel of Luke and of the Acts of the Apostles, with the adventures of Paul who is shipwrecked on Malta, and finally arrives in Rome. We'll never again say that the Bible is boring.

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The Magisterium Part 1 of 4

The Magisterium: What is it and why we need it
By Dr. Marcellino D'Ambrosio

Part 1 of a four part series on the role the magisterium or sacred teaching office of the bishops and pope of the Roman Catholic Church.

AUGUST 24, 2008 ( - All Christians can agree on this, that the Bible is God’s authoritative and inspired word, and ought to govern the faith and life of the Christian community. What’s in accord with Scripture is good. What contradicts Scripture must be rejected.

The Protestant Reformers, inspired with zeal for God’s word, went one step further. Under the banner of “Sola Scriptura” they proclaimed the Bible as the only infallible authority for Christians. That meant that both Tradition and Church authority could be opposed in the name of fidelity to Scripture.

Funny thing, however. From the outset of the reformation, the movement that agreed on the supreme authority of the Bible disagreed bitterly on what the Bible said. The Protestant Church was divided from the beginning. Nearly 500 years later, we see thousands of competing churches claiming the same Bible and sola scriptura heritage.

That’s because the Bible is a collection of written documents. And one of the truths about all written documents, even if they happen to be inspired by the Holy Spirit, is that they can be interpreted differently by different people.

The founding fathers of America knew this. That’s why in addition to providing a constitution for the United States, they set up a court system to serve as the ongoing, living authority to interpret and apply that written document. If the country was to maintain its unity, someone in every generation would have to be entrusted with the authority to determine what was in accord with the Constitution and what was not. In the USA, that’s the responsibility of the Supreme Court.

We can also see this operating in organized sports. Every sport has a rule book. But in baseball for example, bitter arguments arise as to whether a ball is fair or foul, and whether a runner is safe or out. Umpires therefore are an absolute necessity in every game, so that someone has the final say on how the rules are interpreted and applied.

The Lord Jesus Christ is certainly no less wise than the founding fathers of the US government and the commissioner of baseball. In establishing his Church, he did not Himself write anything, except in sand (Jn 8:8). Instead, he established the college of the apostles, gathered around Peter, as a living teaching authority, entrusted with passing on and teaching all that they’d received from Jesus. They did this through oral instruction and eventually some writings. Through the laying on of hands which we know as the sacrament of holy orders, the apostles in turn entrusted their teaching authority to their successors, called bishops, and imparted to them the same charism of truth that they’d received from the Holy Spirit (CCC 861-862).

These successors discerned which of the many Christian books and letters bearing names of apostles actually were authentic and deserved to be regarded as sacred scripture. Thanks to them, the phony gospels of Thomas and Mary Magdalene are not read every Sunday in our churches. They also passed on and interpreted apostolic traditions that were not written down in the New Testament books, like the practice of meeting for weekly worship on Sunday, the day of the Lord’s resurrection, rather than Saturday, which was the Jewish Sabbath. Finally, they were the ones responsible to authoritatively interpret and apply the sacred scriptures amidst dispute and controversy, such as the fourth century controversy over the divinity of Christ.

This teaching role of the successors of the apostles, gathered around the successor of Peter, is called “the Magisterium,” which simply comes from the Latin word for teaching office. The Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God coming to us through Scripture and Tradition. Instead, the Magisterium is clearly under its authority–it is the servant of the Word. Its role is to faithfully safeguard the truth about God and his plan for our lives which came to full expression in the teaching and saving work of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. It is not to add to God’s revelation or to subtract from it. Only to faithfully interpret and apply it (CCC 85-86).

The Magisterium is supposed to function much like the Supreme Court at its best or a good umpire. But there is a few very big differences. Neither the Constitution of the United States nor the official baseball rulebook are documents inspired by the Holy Spirit. The Bible, on the other hand, is. Neither the Supreme court nor the world series’ umpires have received a promise of special divine assistance. But the successors of the apostles have. Speaking to apostles, Jesus said “he who hears you, hears me” (Lk 10:16). The Magisterium speaks with the authority of Christ, guided and empowered by the Spirit of Truth.

So ultimately there is no opposition between the Bible and the Magisterium of the Church. In fact they are so interdependent that the New Testament itself calls the Church “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (I Tim 3;15).

Biblical authority and Church authority–you can’t have one without the other.

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The Magisterium Part 2 of 4

The Magisterium: A Complex and Diverse Reality
By Dr. Marcellino D'Ambrosio

Part 2 of a four part series on the role the magisterium or sacred teaching office of the bishops and pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Click here to read Part 1.

JUL 16, 2009 ( - If the term “Magisterium” means “teaching office” and refers to the teaching role of the Pope and bishops, where does that leave all the other teachers in the Church–parents, catechists, professors, priests and deacons? The answer is, it leaves them with a lot of work to do!

The passing on the Catholic Tradition to people who have yet not heard the gospel, whether they be new generations of Catholic children or un-evangelized peoples–this is a task that requires the efforts of the whole Church (DV10). The teaching activity of the Church is certainly not limited to the hard work of our pope and bishops.

Their unique role, however, is that they, as successors of the apostles, judge authoritatively what is in accord with the gospel and what is not. The teaching of the Magisterium sets the standard. In formulating their teaching, the Pope and bishops rely on the help of theologians who are not bishops. And myriads of teachers pass on and explain the teaching of the Magisterium once it is formulated. Yet it is clear where to look to know the authentically Catholic position on a subject. When we say “the Church teaches” something, we are speaking about the teaching of the Magisterium.

But this magisterial teaching is presented to the church in diverse ways. First of all, there is the distinction between the local and the universal Magisterium. Local bishops preach day in and day out and sometimes write pastoral letters to their flock. Occasionally they meet together with other bishops such as in national bishops conferences. The documents that flow from such occasions would be exercises of the local Episcopal Magisterium. But the common teaching of bishops worldwide obviously carries more weight since it is an expression of the universal Episcopal Magisterium. The Pope, though he has responsibility for the local diocese of Rome, is the successor of Peter. In that capacity, he has a unique responsibility and authority to feed the whole flock (John 21), so all of his teaching is an exercise of the universal Magisterium.

But as we examine the Papal Magisterium, we see that its teaching takes many forms. There are the daily homilies, audiences, and addresses (sometimes called “allocutions”). Then there are documents of various types. Some come from the Pope directly, such as apostolic letters, encyclicals, and ever more solemn “apostolic constitutions.” Some come from the departments of his “curia” or administration, such as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. All of these are expression of the universal, Papal Magisterium and therefore are important. Yet the different forms help indicated different degrees of importance. For example, when the Catechism of the Catholic Church was officially presented to the world by Pope John Paul II, he chose to promulgate it through an Apostolic Constitution, indicating the supreme importance of the Catechism as an expression of Catholic Faith.

This brings us to an important distinction between the kinds of subjects covered by magisterial documents. The Church militant is a family of some 1 billion people. Like any family, there must be various rules to keep things running smoothly. Some of these rules are not necessarily God-given moral laws but are rather regulations developed by the heads of the household to keep good order. Such things are referred to in the Catholic community as matters of “discipline.” Liturgical issues such as when we kneel or stand at Mass, holy days of obligation, fast and abstinence laws, and priestly celibacy--all these are examples of discipline. These practices, given their human origin, have changed over the years and can vary from place to place in the Catholic world.

“Doctrine,” on the other hand, refers to the teaching about God and his plan for our lives that flows from Divine Revelation. Doctrine, or teaching pertaining to faith and morals, has a direct bearing on our salvation. It is not of human origin but comes ultimately from God, though it is expressed in human words. God’s truth does not change. The Church’s understanding and articulation of it can get clearer and deeper as time goes on, so we can speak of “development of doctrine” (CCC 94). But there is no question of some arbitrary change in doctrinal teaching on the part of the Magisterium. The Magisterium cannot subtract from or add to “the deposit of the faith”– only pass it on, explain it, and defend it.

“Dogma” is best understood as a subset of doctrine. Dogmas are doctrinal truths which the Magisterium proposes without hesitation as being revealed by God and therefore binding on the faithful (CCC 88). That Jesus is true God and true man, that the one God is a Trinity of three persons, that the Eucharist is truly the body and blood of Christ--these are dogmas that must be accepted by all who wish to call themselves Catholic. Many of these dogmas have been solemnly defined by ecumenical councils and in a few cases, Popes. But before they were defined through such extraordinary acts of the Magisterium, they were already taught as dogmas through the universal, ordinary, exercise of the Episcopal Magisterium as bishops went about teaching their flock throughout the world, day by day.

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The Magisterium Part 3 of 4

The Magisterium: Infallibility?
By Dr. Marcellino D'Ambrosio

Part 3 of a four part series on the role the magisterium or sacred teaching office of the bishops and pope of the Roman Catholic Church.

JULY 29, 2009 ( - If there is any dogma that sticks in the craw of non-Catholics, it is the dogma of Papal Infallibility. “How,” ask many, “can Catholics actually believe that any human being be incapable of error?”

But what about the human authors of sacred Scripture? The gospel narratives are quite frank about the foibles of Peter, Paul, and the rest. But all Christians believe that their writings come not from them, but were inspired by the Holy Spirit. In all that they teach us about God and his plan for our salvation, they are therefore “inerrant.”

The Pope and bishops of the Catholic Church are no less human than the apostles and evangelists. Left to themselves, they can make their share of mistakes. But in their capacity as apostolic teachers, they are not left to themselves. They receive divine assistance much like Peter received at Caesarea Philippi when he blurted out that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God (Mat 16: 16-17).

So the Church believes that when the bishops of the world, in the course of their ordinary teaching and preaching, together present a doctrine to God’s people as something revealed by God, they teach this dogma infallibly by virtue of the Ordinary, Universal Magisterium.

But sometimes it is hard to precisely identify what all bishops of the world agree upon in their daily teaching. So when serious doctrinal disputes arose in the early Church, Councils of Bishops gathered to settle things. These special councils were called “ecumenical” from the Greek word for “household.” They dealt with matters pertaining to the whole household of the faith and represented all the bishops of the world. Hence their judgments, once confirmed by the Pope, were considered binding on the whole Christian family. Some of their pronouncements had to do with discipline, and so are not binding on all generations. Some of their teaching was doctrinal, pertaining to faith and morals, but was presented in an ordinary way. But sometimes the council fathers engaged the fullness of their apostolic authority and issued solemn dogmatic definitions in which they fundamentally guarantee that a certain truth is revealed by God. They usually make crystal clear their intent to define a dogma by strongly condemning contradictory teachings and noting that those who hold such heretical opinions have put themselves outside the Church.

From about the 9th century, we can document a widespread belief that dogmatic decrees by ecumenical councils are infallible in light of the assistance given to the council fathers by the Holy Spirit (see Acts 15:28).

But what if a council could not be called in time to respond to a crisis? Would it remain up for grabs how we should interpret the Scriptures and identify the authentic apostolic Tradition?

Medieval theologians said no. They saw the special assistance given to Peter by the Spirit in Mat 16:16. They noted the extraordinary track record of the Popes of the first millennium in upholding orthodoxy even when many of the great bishops and patriarchs from around the world fell into heresy. Many concluded that the successor of Peter is assisted by the Spirit in a particular way. If he should teach ex cathedra (literally “from the chair” of Peter), engaging the fullness of his apostolic teaching authority on a matter pertaining to faith and morals, his judgment is indeed infallible. From about the 12th century this became a widespread opinion and was defined as dogma by the First Vatican Council in 1870.

Infallibility, then, is not a burden, but a necessary gift, indeed a charism of the Holy Spirit. Without it, the promise made by Christ at Caesarea Philippi could not be kept. Remember--He guaranteed that the jaws of death would not prevail against His Church. But if the church had no sure way to locate the truth, the jaws of death would be free to gobble up many and shatter the remaining flock into a million pieces.

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