It is a mistaken commonplace of religious studies that the Protestant Reformation, with its doctrine of ‘Sola Scriptura’ (only the Bible) as one’s ultimate authority, is the reason why many Protestant denominations are far ahead of us in honoring the Bible and actually reading it! I say mistaken because, while it may have been true for 400 years after the Reformation, the picture changed radically with the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II).
I remember that, when I was an altar boy in the Pre-Vatican II Church, the same Gospel passage (the Resurrection of Lazarus) was used at every funeral. I only realized this after I went to the minor seminary and started to learn Latin. There was only the Roman Missal in the Pre-Vatican II Church; it contained not only the rubrics and the words for the Mass and the sacraments, but also the Readings to be used.
But after Vatican II, the Church divided the Missal into two separate books (or separate kinds of books, often of more than one volume): There was the Sacramentary, which is the book used by the Celebrant that is placed on the Altar and by the Celebrant’s Chair, containing the prayers and the order of service of the Mass; and the Lectionary, containing the Readings to be used; the Lectionary is the book placed on the Ambo (or pulpit), an extension of which is the Gospel Book carried in the Entrance Procession by the Deacon or Lector.
The reason for the need of a separate book was that the theologians who worked on the new lectionary had an ambitious plan to implement the new Catholic perspective that the Word of God should be prominent in all the sacraments. In a methodical way, they developed two cycles of readings to be used over multiple years through which the Catholic faithful would have liturgical exposure to most of the Bible. There is a Sunday cycle of three years (Years A, B and C) and a two-year cycle of weekday readings (Year 1 and Year 2). If a Catholic goes to Mass each day, within three years he or she would have heard proclaimed from the Ambo almost the whole Bible!
This is an astounding reversal that has not often been noted. We went from a Church where the average Mass participant (you!) hardly ever heard or read the Bible to a Church where someone will have at least heard over and over again the main texts of the Old and New Testaments. Those of us who are a little older can remember that the Bible was practically considered a Protestant text and a warning was given about the Bible being so technical a book that it is dangerous to read it lest it lead us astray.
Now, we have to admit that the warning was at least partially true. An individualistic interpretation can lead people astray: witness the multiplicity of Protestant denominations. A Catholic who has a particular insight regarding a passage of Scripture must check it out against the ‘Tradition of the Church’ embodied in the Magisterium, or teaching authority of the Church. If it contradicts any aspect of it, then the interpretation is deemed to be false and must be discarded. This ensures the unity and universality necessary since the Truth is one and cannot contradict itself.
With this caveat in place we can readily see that a Catholic Christian today hears more of the Bible than practically any other Christian, even Bible-thumping Protestants! However, that is true only if he or she is listening and open to the Word of God. Where our Protestant brothers and sisters are way ahead of us still is in the private study and reading of Scripture. Someone once remarked that the difference between a Protestant and a Catholic Bible in the home is that the Protestant Bible is open and read and the Catholic Bible is on a shelf and gathers dust. One must truly love Scripture and, because of it, one must want to learn more in regard to it. There is still something very beautiful about seeing a Protestant reading his or her worn and underlined Bible. It is obviously a companion to the believer.
While Bible Catholics hear a lot of Scripture, if it remains only in the ears and not in the heart, it will do no good. But if it is loved and treasured and followed, it can give life and direction to the faithful Christian. For as St. Jerome puts so clearly: “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”
Catholics should prepare for Mass by reading over the Readings of the day before the Liturgy (we even have special missalettes for daily Mass participants that have the daily Readings). Then we should listen attentively to the Readings and to the homily, which should explain and comment on the Readings. Finally, we should have a Bible at home that we read often, maybe taking a passage a day and perhaps sharing it with our family. This may require that we participate in some form of Bible study group or program; or at least a private study through reading. For difficult passages, there are always the Priests of the parish to consult!
The Bible is the Book of the Church. What a wonderful thing it is when the Baptized Catholic reads, studies and prays with and through the Scriptures!