Vol. XVIII, No. 8
Scripture and the New Evangelization
A Review of the Recent History of Vernacular Bibles, Lectionary
by Helen Hull Hitchcock
“Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ,” said Saint Jerome, who translated the Bible into the vernacular of his time. But reading the Bible was rare among Catholics for many centuries — and for many reasons. Most Catholic people had little personal knowledge of the Scriptures; did not actually read or study the Bible themselves, nor did they usually even hear it in their own language at Mass — until the Second Vatican Council.
The fundamental importance of the knowledge of Scripture to the Catholic faith was firmly established by the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum (The Word of God), the fourth document of the Council, promulgated by Pope Paul VI on November 18, 1965.
Dei Verbum expressly urged “all the Christian faithful” to “put themselves in touch with the sacred text” (§25).
Easy access to Sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful.
That is why the Church from the very beginning accepted as her own that very ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament which is called the Septuagint; and she has always given a place of honor to other Eastern translations and Latin ones especially the Latin translation known as the Vulgate. But since the word of God should be accessible at all times, the Church by her authority and with maternal concern sees to it that suitable and correct translations are made into different languages, especially from the original texts of the sacred books. And should the opportunity arise and the Church authorities approve, if these translations are produced in cooperation with the separated brethren as well, all Christians will be able to use them. (§22)
Though several new translations of the Bible in the English language had appeared a bit earlier, the years following the Council saw an unprecedented proliferation of vernacular translations of the Bible in the English language.
That the Church’s mission is to proclaim the Word Of God to the world was strongly reaffirmed in Verbum Domini (The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church), Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic exhortation issued in 2010, following the 2008 Synod on the Word of God.
Verbum Domini states that the Word of God is the source of the Church’s mission, and to proclaim it to all the world is the responsibility of all the faithful — “the task of all of the disciples of Jesus Christ based on their Baptism,” it says.
No believer in Christ can feel dispensed from this responsibility which comes from the fact of our sacramentally belonging to the Body of Christ. A consciousness of this must be revived in every family, parish, community, association and ecclesial movement. The Church, as a mystery of communion, is thus entirely missionary, and everyone, according to his or her proper state in life, is called to give an incisive contribution to the proclamation of Christ. (§94)
We must never forget that all authentic and living Christian spirituality is based on the word of God proclaimed, accepted, celebrated and meditated upon in the Church. This deepening relationship with the Divine Word will take place with even greater enthusiasm if we are conscious that, in Scripture and the Church’s living Tradition, we stand before God’s definitive word on the cosmos and on history. (§121, original emphasis)
Indeed, the letter says, the “new evangelization” depends upon “a new hearing of God’s word.”
Recovering the centrality of the Divine Word in the Christian life leads us to appreciate anew the deepest meaning of the forceful appeal of Pope John Paul II: to pursue the missio ad gentes and vigorously to embark upon the new evangelization, especially in those nations where the Gospel has been forgotten or meets with indifference as a result of widespread secularism. May the Holy Spirit awaken a hunger and thirst for the word of God, and raise up zealous heralds and witnesses of the Gospel. (§22)
The Synod on the New Evangelization, taking place as we write, is clearly the logical sequel to the Synod on the Word of God.
Fundamental as the Bible is to the Christian faith, it is a particular irony that such a confusing array of English translations of the Bible has appeared since the mid-twentieth century. This virtual babble of Bibles confronts anyone who intends to read God’s Word with understanding, to hear it, to preach it, to transmit it to others. How to choose?
Navigating this complexity also presents a serious challenge to bishops who must provide an authentic version of the Word of God, both for use in the Church’s liturgy and to evangelize — to transmit the truth of the faith.
Of this responsibility of bishops, Dei Verbum says:
It devolves on sacred bishops “who have the apostolic teaching” to give the faithful entrusted to them suitable instruction in the right use of the divine books, especially the New Testament and above all the Gospels. This can be done through translations of the sacred texts, which are to be provided with the necessary and really adequate explanations so that the children of the Church may safely and profitably become conversant with the Sacred Scriptures and be penetrated with their spirit. (§25)
The present situation concerning Scripture translations for use in the liturgy in the English-speaking world is confusing — to say the least. As Pope Benedict has repeatedly observed, the expanded use of Scripture at Mass in the years following the Council — the three-year cycle of readings in the Lectionary in the vernacular — is a vast improvement in bringing the Word of the Lord more fully to believers.
However, there is no single “authorized version” of the Bible in the English language to be used for worship. Different translations are used in the various English-speaking countries. And, to add to the confusion, in the United States there is no single version of the Bible that matches the readings in the Lectionary. The negative effect this has on implanting Scripture into one’s memory is obvious.
The chronology (click here) traces the events and developments in producing Scripture translations in English and the Lectionary for the United States. The twists and turns along the path have been many — and accomplishing the task set by the Second Vatican Council remains a challenge — fifty years after the Council.