By Steve Halligan
Over the past 18 months, I have been involved in the synodal journey initiated by Pope Francis by participating in a listening session and conducting multiple listening sessions. Since its release, I have prayerfully read and immersed myself in our diocesan Synod Synthesis. As I have prayed over our synthesis document, one thing that speaks to me is the requests for parish Bible studies.
My experience of attending parish Bible studies, at multiple parishes over the years, is that they are often poorly attended. This has caused me to wonder if the desire for Bible studies points to something else. One thing I perceive is that people want to know the scriptures more. This is a great thing. Perhaps the issue is that people aren’t comfortable reading the scriptures on their own out of a lack of familiarity or a concern that they might misinterpret what they read.
Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation states that the Church “earnestly and especially urges all the Christian faithful” to “learn by frequent reading of the divine scriptures” (Article 25). With this in mind, let’s look at some simple steps to increase familiarity with scripture study.
First, be sure to use an approved Catholic translation. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) lists approved translations for Catholic Bibles on their website www.usccb.org. Just click on the “Bible” tab and then click on “Approved Translations.” Also, the New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE) is the official text for use in our liturgies, making it perhaps the best translation to use. It is produced by numerous publishers and there are a variety of editions available. Just be sure it is the NABRE.
Once you have your approved translation of the Bible, get familiar with all the material it contains. Look at the Table of Contents. It will list the books of the Bible, but there is often a variety of other material the publisher included. For example, my Bible contains Vatican documents, Bible dictionary, an index of terms, list of maps, list of pictures, and more. Perhaps the most important is the list of abbreviations. This comes in handy when you see a quote for Hg 1:1 and unless you look up the abbreviation you may not know that the quote is for the prophet Haggai, chapter one, verse one.
So, once you have become familiar with your Bible, what do you do? One suggestion is to set aside 20 minutes each day when you can quietly and prayerfully read the scriptures. Next, pick a New Testament book that interests you – any one of the four gospels is a great place to begin. As I settle in to read the Bible, I always begin with a prayer devoting the time to God and asking him to guide my studies.
Once you have done this, go to the book you have chosen to read. Notice that most translations have an introduction to that book. Read the introduction first because it will give you important information about the author, the people he was writing to, and usually an overview of the main concepts you will encounter in the book. Once you have done this, begin with chapter one, verse one, and prayerfully read the Word of God.
As you read, watch for clues that there is additional information available to you. For example, my Bible uses an asterisk (*) to let me know that there is a footnote at the bottom of the page with valuable information about that verse or verses. Also, my Bible uses an italicized small case letter like a or b to let me know that there are other Bible verses that may be similar or add additional insight to the word or phrase just read. These are called cross references and they are also on the bottom of the page in my Bible. You don’t have to read the footnotes and cross references, but they will add insight and help you grow in understanding about what you are reading.
If at any time you become perplexed or you just don’t understand something you have read, you can always ask your parish priest or deacon for their insight. I am sure they would be happy to help.
A final thought about the process of reading the Bible on your own. God wants to speak to you in the concrete realities of your life through the words of sacred scripture. So, open your heart and your Bible, and let the journey into God’s word lead you into a deeper relationship with Him.
Steve Halligan is the Program Director of Continuing Ministry Formation Program (CMFP), a program of the diocesan Ministry Formation Institute (MFI).