Elizabeth Julian rsm
2 December 2012
Fifty years ago we did not have the Mass in English, a three-year lectionary cycle, or even a homily based on the gospel – rather they were based on Church teaching or practice.
Before Vatican II 50 years ago, the Bible played a minimal role in the lives of most Catholics.
As a 10-year-old at St Joseph’s School in Levin, I knew nothing about the Bible apart from some stories in a little grey/blue book called Bible History.
The possibility that I would one day teach scripture was nowhere on the horizon.
But Vatican II opened the Bible for Catholics. The Council recommended that ‘easy access to Sacred Scripture be provided to the Christian faithful’ (Dei Verbum, #22) and that a ‘warm and living love for Scripture’ be encouraged (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #24).
Today, those two statements are still changing the lives of Catholics, including the children at Sunday Mass who process out to hear the Word at their own level.
With prayers and hymns more often reflecting biblical images and themes, emphasis on the Bible has enriched our spirituality enormously.
Here I wish to highlight a few aspects of the profound significance of Dei Verbum (commonly known in English as ‘On Divine Revelation’).
It is helpful to note at the start that Church documents are written in Latin. A document’s title is usually the first two words of the first sentence.
Thus Dei Verbum begins, ‘Dei verbum religiose audiens…’ (Hearing the word of God with reverence …).
Church historian William O’Malley points out that before Vatican II the language of church documents was generally negative, adversarial and threatening, eg., ‘We condemn, reject and detest…’; ‘If anyone should… let him be anathema sit!’
Vatican II, however, introduced a very different style that held up ideals, was inviting and persuasive. It used such terms as ‘collegiality’, ‘dialogue’, ‘cooperation’, ‘partnership’ and ‘collaboration’.
So what is Dei Verbum about?
Among the 16 documents issued by the Council, Dei Verbum is one of only two dogmatic constitutions, the other being Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.
Therefore Dei Verbum is one of the Council’s most authoritative and important documents. Four long years in the making involving three major drafts, numerous revisions and many heated exchanges, it was finally promulgated on November 18, 1965.
It spells out in six relatively brief chapters the Church’s understanding of the nature of revelation; that is, the process whereby God communicates with us.
Revelation had previously been thought of in propositional terms, ie., God revealed certain things (propositions) which we then had to believe – for example, there are three persons in God. Dei Verbum, however, speaks not about propositions, but of a divine self-communication: God communicates God’s very self to us.
Dei Verbum deals with scripture, tradition and the magisterium (the teaching authority of the Church).
Contrasting earlier understanding, it teaches that there is only one source of revelation, God, with two modes of transmission, scripture and tradition under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
As biblical scholar Ronald Witherup notes, the document uses ‘tradition’ and not ‘traditions’, emphasising unity rather than an accumulation of ancient practices.
The magisterium is not above the word but serves it. The Bible is God’s word but it is expressed in the language and culture of the biblical period and therefore requires interpretation.
Finally, in a remarkable statement in the last chapter (#21), we are encouraged to venerate the Bible just as we do the Eucharist!
What is the the legacy of Dei Verbum?
Even those Catholics whose only Catholic practice is Mass on Sundays, Christmas Day and perhaps a few Easter ceremonies, have acquired some basic biblical literacy.
The liturgy itself is full of biblical themes and most homilists try to preach on the readings of the day.
Many songs are biblically based — the well-known hymns Come Back to Me, Though the Mountains May Fall, Like a Shepherd, Be not Afraid and Micah’s Theme are evidence indeed that we can sing our way through the Old Testament prophets.Furthermore, many people today use the Bible for prayer, inspiration and guidance in their life decisions.
That we know how to open this extraordinary book and find such riches in its pages is the fruit of Vatican II, and its remarkable document Dei Verbum.