Category Archives: Sacred Scripture

Why the tetragrammaton (YHWH) is not allowed in the Liturgy

On August 10th I posted an article on the Pope’s prohibition of the use of tetragrammaton in the sacred Liturgy. You can read the original posting here.


A recent reflection on the restoration of this practice follows.


Why “Yahweh” Isn’t Used in Catholic Liturgy

Biblical Expert Says It Reflects Jewish Tradition

JERUSALEM, NOV. 21, 2008 ( – To understand the Vatican directive reiterating that the name of God revealed in the tetragrammaton YHWH is not to be pronounced in Catholic liturgy, it helps to know the history behind the Jewish tradition, says a biblical expert.

Father Michel Remaud, director of the Albert Decourtray Institute, a Christian institute of Jewish studies and Hebrew literature, explained to ZENIT that the message published in June by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments reflects current Jewish practice.

The Vatican note explained: “The venerable biblical tradition of sacred Scripture, known as the Old Testament, displays a series of divine appellations, among which is the sacred name of God revealed in a tetragrammaton YHWH — hwhw.

YHWH.jpg“As an expression of the infinite greatness and majesty of God, it was held to be unpronounceable and hence was replaced during the reading of sacred Scripture by means of the use of an alternate name: ‘Adonai,’ which means ‘Lord.'”

Father Remaud said that “until almost the year 200 B.C., the divine name was pronounced every morning in the temple in the priestly blessing: ‘The Lord bless and keep you: The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you'” (Numbers 6:24-26).

He said this blessing originated out of the context of the next verse in Numbers: “So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.”

Left unsaid

Furthermore, the priest said that the Mishna, the Jewish law codified toward the end of the second century, “specifies that the name was pronounced in the temple ‘as it is written,’ while another denomination (Kinuy) was used in the rest of the country. After a certain period, the divine name was no longer pronounced in the temple’s daily liturgy.

“The Talmud leads one to understand that the decision was taken to avoid a magic use of the name by some.”


According to Father Remaud’s sources, ever “since the death of the high priest Simon the Righteous, about 195 B.C., the divine name was no longer pronounced in the daily liturgy.”

The expert compared the Talmud’s testimony with the Book of Sirach, which mentions Simon the Righteous in Chapter 50. Chapters 44-50 remember all “godly men” since Enoch, including Abraham, Moses and David.


Father Remaud said the seven-chapter passage ends with the high priest Simon pronouncing the divine name: “Then Simon came down, and lifted up his hands over the whole congregation of the sons of Israel, to pronounce the blessing of the Lord with his mouth, and to glory in his name; and they bowed down in worship a second time, to receive the blessing of the Most High” (Sirach 50:20-21).

Yom Kippur.jpgFrom the time of Simon the Righteous until the temple’s ruin, the name was only heard “as it is written” during the Yom Kippur liturgy at the temple of Jerusalem, where the high priest pronounced it 10 times, continued Father Remaud.


“On hearing the explicit name from the mouth of the high priest, the ‘cohanim’ [Aaron’s descendants] and the people present in the atrium knelt down, prostrated themselves with their face on the ground saying: ‘Blessed be the glorious name of his Kingdom forever.'”

The Mishna does not say that the high priest pronounced the divine name, but that the name “came out of his mouth,” he clarified.

A whisper


Moreover, continued Father Remaud, it seems that toward the end of the period of the second temple — 70 A.D. — the high priest now only pronounced the word in a whisper. This was explained in a childhood memory of Rabbi Tarphon (1st-2nd centuries), who recalls that even straining to hear, he could not hear the name.


The biblical scholar also noted that the formula of Exodus — “This is my name forever” (Exodus 3:15) — through a play of words in Hebrew is interpreted by the Talmud of Jerusalem as “This is my name to remain hidden.”


“Today, the divine name is never pronounced,” continued Father Remaud. “In the Yom Kippur office of the synagogue, which replaces the temple’s liturgy by the recitation of what took place when the temple existed, the people prostrated themselves in the synagogue when recalling — though not pronouncing — that the high priest pronounced the divine name.”


The Catholic priest noted that the first Christians called “Jesus by the term ‘Lord’ (Kyrios),” by which they “deliberately applied the term used in Greek to translate the divine name.”


“In Judaism’s liturgical tradition, this divine name was only pronounced in the liturgy of forgiveness of sins, on the day of Kippur,” he continued. “One might see an allusion to this tradition and to the purifying power of the Name, in this verse of the First Letter of St. John: ‘Your sins are forgiven for his names’ sake’ (1 John 2, 12).”

Lectio Divina

This article by Jesuit Father John Belmonte on lectio divina is helpful for coming to know the Lord. Lectio is a place of encounter with the Lord and it is in lectio we come to know and love Him in whom and by whom we are saved.


Talk show host Jay Leno has a very funny segment on his “Tonight Show” where he interviews the “man on the street,” testing people’s knowledge in a given subject matter. Rare is the person who does well. On one occasion, he asked questions about a topic that keenly interests me: the Bible. While the survey was hardly scientific, the questions were very basic. No historical-critical method here. “Name one of the Ten Commandments,” Jay asked. “Freedom of speech,” a man unhesitatingly responded. “Name the four Gospels,” Jay asked. With a befuddled look, a woman was unable to answer. “Name the four Beatles,” Jay asked. Without any hesitation and a relieved smile, the woman responded, “John, Paul, George, and Ringo.” My personal favorite was the man whom he asked, “In the Old Testament, who was swallowed by the whale?” He looked directly into the camera and, as serious as death, said, “Pinocchio.”


As someone who has taught Scripture to high school students, these answers did not surprise me. Religious educators and biblical scholars regularly decry a growing lack of familiarity with Scripture. Catholic ignorance of the Bible is proverbial. A study of 508 teenagers by the Princeton Religion Research Center confirmed that Catholic young people are much less familiar with Scripture than their Protestant counterparts. Even more distressing is the finding that thirty percent said that they never even opened the Bible. If Saint Jerome’s axiom, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ,” is true, then those of us who are full members of the Catholic Christian community have a serious situation on our hands. Isn’t it incumbent upon us to pass on the tradition, to introduce others to the living God, to dispel ignorance of the Word of God? If not us, then who?

monks1.jpgEven amid the decline in elementary biblical knowledge, help is on the way. Vatican II did much to help revive interest in Scripture, and one method that may help bridge the gap Mr. Leno so cleverly pointed out is the ancient monastic method of reading the Bible called lectio divina. The Latin expression lectio divina does not translate into English with great accuracy. Literally, it means “holy reading within the monastic tradition, and in Saint Benedict’s rule in particular, its meaning is obvious. Lectio divina is an attentive and in-depth reading of the sacred Scriptures intended not simply to satisfy one’s curiosity but to nourish one’s faith. Benedict’s monks were to nourish themselves with the divine food of Scripture in order to have sufficient resources for the journey of faith. In the Rule of Saint Benedict, the monk is exhorted to listen carefully and willingly to holy readings, the lectiones sanctae. The reading is holy because its object is the word of God. Scripture is approached not for scientific or technical reasons but in order to deepen one’s personal commitment to God and God’s Son. 

Lectio Divina from the Monastery to the Marketplace


All quarters of the church, from official pronouncements to informal movements, have in recent times repeatedly affirmed the need for and effectiveness of lectio divina. There are many ways in which one can encounter God through the biblical word. Yet, the rich history, significant connection to tradition, genuine spirituality, and pastoral applicability of lectio divina make it a particularly attractive method.

St Ignatius & Paul III.jpgLectio divina is one instrument of grace by which we encounter Christ in the Scriptures. When practiced every day, lectio divina fosters the kind of contact with God’s word that, over the course of a lifetime, promises a life of prayer lived out in faithful love. To suggest that a specific method for lectio divina might be necessary carries with it a risk. In our practice of this method, we might be tempted to follow rigidly the proposals offered as rules and not as suggestions. To do so would be a mistake. What lectio divina demands in the first place is an openness to the Spirit, which any master of the spiritual life would see as a prerequisite to prayer. Ignatius of Loyola’s instruction in his Spiritual Exercises to those who intend to pray is a good example. He suggests that believers must always pray “with great spirit and generosity toward their Creator and Lord.” Balance and flexibility are very important as one begins to practice lectio divina. We should always avoid rigidity, excessive formalism, or forcing things. My intention is not that the suggested schema that follows be realized as a fixed program; lectio divina is a way to encounter God, and we should always feel free to utilize it according to our own rhythms, gifts, and desires. 

Having pointed out the importance of some prerequisites to lectio divina, such as balance,

Monks2.jpgopenness, and flexibility, a word is in order about the structure or steps that this ancient practice usually takes. Much has been written about these steps, but the most exhaustive and perhaps best-known example comes from Guigo II (1115-1198), the Cistercian prior at Chartres from 1173 to 1180. In his “Letter on the Contemplative Life,” also known as Scala Claustralium, Guigo gives the classic four-part expression to the lectio divina: lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio. Since Guigo’s text has become a nearly obligatory point of reference for someone considering lectio divina, it seems appropriate to reproduce here a brief summary citation from the letter: 

One day during manual labor, as I was beginning to reflect on the spiritual exercise of man, suddenly four spiritual steps appeared to my mind: reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation. This is the ladder of the monks by which they are elevated from the earth to heaven and even though it may be formed by only a few steps, nevertheless it appears in immense and incredible greatness. The lower part rests on the earth; however, the higher part penetrates the clouds and scrutinizes the secrets of the heavens.


Now the reading consists in the attentive observation of the Scriptures with one’s spirit applied. The meditation is the studious action of the mind, which seeks the discovery of hidden truth by means of one’s own intelligence. The prayer consists in a religious application of the heart of God in order to dispel evil and obtain favors. The contemplation is an elevation into God, from the mind attracted beyond itself, savoring the joys of eternal sweetness….


Reading seeks the sweetness of the blessed life, while meditation finds it. Prayer asks for it and contemplation tastes it. Reading, in a certain way, brings solid food to the mouth, meditation chews and breaks it up, prayer obtains its seasoning, contemplation is the same sweetness which refreshes and brings joy.


Guigo sets down a four-part method, but for our purposes we will reduce that structure to three: lectio, meditatio, and oratio. The reason for collapsing the final two steps into one is simple. Prayer is at the core of the way the two final steps are conceived. By collapsing them into a third phase, we respect the progression that naturally develops from the first two steps. However, we leave open the possibility of expanding on the process of prayer by adding three more steps: discretio, deliberatio, and actio. Some critics object to any tinkering with the traditional structure of lectio divina. Even so, a brief look at the historical development of the method over the centuries shows that one can understand Guigo’s four steps as an expression of the monastic world of his time. Our minor change should be viewed in the same light.


The Practice of Lectio Divina


The first thing necessary to practice lectio divina should be obvious: time. As with anything worth doing or any relationship worth maintaining, the practice of lectio divina must be worth spending time doing. While we should avoid the kind of rigidity described above, the spiritual life does demand a certain amount of healthy discipline. Whether we want to fix a regular time, a certain period, or the most effective time, regularity is important. Our time is a precious thing, and offering it to God is a very simple and concrete first step toward our meeting God in prayer.

St Jerome.jpgEqually obvious but also quite necessary to consider is which text to use for lectio divina. Our emphasis in lectio divina remains squarely with the biblical text. It is possible to substitute other texts for biblical texts; however, we should not lightly forfeit the surpassing value of reading, meditating, and praying with what the Fathers called the sacra pagina. Jerome himself reminds us that “the text presents itself simply and easily in words, but in the greatness of its meaning, its depth is unfathomable.” 

Related to our emphasis on the biblical text itself is the presupposition that lectio divina is a continuous reading of the whole Bible. In our practice of lectio divina, we should avoid the temptation to select texts well suited to topics chosen in advance. By attending to the whole of Scripture, as the liturgy does in the lectionary, we preserve the context of biblical revelation, both the Old and New Testament. We must avoid the risk of allowing the lectio to “overflow the riverbanks of the tradition and the church,” as Cardinal Martini has written. Practicing lectio divina within the context of the whole of biblical revelation emphasizes the unity of Scripture and our belief in the Bible’s inspiration by God. Moreover, emphasis on the unity of Scripture allows us to avoid the temptation of placing Scripture at the service of ideology or subjectivism.

bible3.jpgTime set aside for God should take on a dimension different from the rest of one’s day. To help mark that moment, most spiritual masters suggest that the person who sets out to pray begin by making some kind of epiclesis, which is an invocation or “calling down” of the Holy Spirit to consecrate. In the Eucharist, we call down the Spirit upon the bread and wine to transform them into the body and blood of Christ. As we begin lectio divina, we should remind ourselves that it is through the work of God in the Spirit that the written word is transformed in our lives into the living word.

The Four Steps of Lectio Divina: Lectio, Meditatio, Oratio, Actio


Having set aside the time, “selected” the text, and invoked the Spirit, we are ready to begin the first formal step of lectio divina, called the lectio. This is the moment in which we read and reread a passage from the Old or New Testament, alert to its most important elements. The operative question is, What does the text say? Patient attentiveness to what the text has to say characterizes our stance before it. We should read the text for itself, not to get something out of it, like a homily, a conference, or a catechism lesson. The word of God should be allowed to emerge from the written word.


In lectio, each person’s experiences and talents before the text come into play. The more experience or education one has, the more one will potentially bring to the text. Knowledge of biblical languages or an understanding of theology can also enrich one’s reading. Consultation of available biblical commentaries or dictionaries can be especially helpful as we attempt to expand our understanding about what the text is saying. Paying attention to grammar, the usage of words, and the relationships of verbs to nouns or of subjects to objects can make the text begin to take on new and unexpected significance.

contemplation.jpgThe second step, called the meditatio, is equally important. We leave behind the specifics of the text and focus instead on what is behind it, on the “interior intelligence” of the text, as Guigo puts it. The meditatio is a reflection on the values which one finds behind the text. Here, one must consider the values behind the actions, the words, the things, and the feelings which one finds in a particular scriptural passage. Anyone who honestly seeks God and one’s authentic self in prayer will hear the echoes of joy, fear, hope, and desire coming from the sacred page. The operant question for this stage doesn’t stop at what the text says, but asks, What does the text say to me? We seek to make emerge from history and context the specific message of the text. The shift from external forms to internal content makes this stage an important one.


The meditatio is an activity that engages our intellect. As we pass from the second to the third stage of lectio divina, we move more into the realm of religious emotions. Remaining on an intellectual level can be safe and comfortable, but the goal of prayer is not knowledge about God, but God himself. In the oratio, our imagination, will, and desires are engaged as we seek union with God. Oratio in its most fundamental sense is dialogue with God. Gregory the Great called it “the spontaneous meeting of the heart of God with the heart of God’s beloved creature through the word of God.”


When we progress from meditatio to oratio, an immediate experience of infused mysticism is hardly to be expected. Mystical union with God is not necessarily an ordinary part of Christian life. Nevertheless, the passage from meditatio to oratio is the vital and decisive moment of Christian experience. The more deeply we enter the oratio, the more we move beyond the text, beyond words and thoughts. The lectio is useful and the meditatio is important since they lead us to the oratio, which is life in its fullest sense, the life of Christ that he lives in the one who contemplates him. Oratio is the passage from the values behind the text to adoration of the person of Jesus Christ, the one who brings together and reveals every value. Unlike the lectio and meditatio, there is no operant question in the oratio. At its core, oratio is the silent adoration of the creature before the Creator, a rare and miraculous gift.


When the person who practices lectio divina reaches the level of oratio, it would seem that that moment would be conclusive. However, the dynamism of prayer that began during the epiclesis before the lectio is not interrupted here. To the contrary, it naturally continues and the oratio, as we are proposing it here following Cardinal Martini’s insight, possesses its own steps, called discretio, deliberatio, and actio. These three steps represent the way lectio divina is lived out in daily life. Given the growing dissociation of the faith from daily life, these three successive moments take on great significance.


Since the meditatio intends to put one in contact with the values of Christ, to encourage our identification with those things that are important to Christ, we naturally come to moments of decision. The discretio is the capacity that the Christian acquires through grace to make the same choices as Christ. Cardinal Martini describes discretion like this: “It is the discernment of that which, in a determined historical moment, is best for oneself, for others, and for the church.”


The second moment of the oratio is called the deliberatio. It is an interior act by which one decides in favor of the values of the gospel. One chooses to associate oneself with Christ and everything that association represents–in a word, discipleship. If the discretio is described as the capacity of a person to choose, then the deliberatio is the choice itself.


The final moment is called actio. In this final step, the choice we make in the deliberatio is given form and substance. Prayer becomes something more than simply setting aside time for God or an attempt to better ourselves. Our lives begin to take shape from the choices we have made as a result of prayer. The actio is the integration of a kind of apostolic consciousness that informs our choices so that we have made and lived our choices from our encounter with the living God.

Christ washing the feet.jpgSome critics would leave these last steps, particularly the actio, out of any proposed lectio divina. The addition of an extra step suggests perhaps overzealousness or even the influence of an “ideology of efficacy” regarding one’s prayer. Too often we feel we need to make prayer into something. However, in the face of a modern world in which the outward signs of the mystery of God are ever more difficult to recognize, where a daily experience of gospel or even  transcendent values becomes harder to find, and where choices besiege one’s conscience and stifle rather than uplift the Spirit, this criticism is unconvincing. If anything, the connection between prayer and our life choices should become more explicit, not less. The faith, hope, and love made manifest in the choices our lives become must be nourished by contact with the word of God. 


Daily Bread.jpgLectio divina is one graced instrument to bridge the gap that exists between our hearts and God’s. As the faith risks being further dissociated from daily life, the simplicity and potential of a method like lectio divina take on greater significance. Firmly rooted in the church’s tradition, it presumes careful attention to what biblical specialists are thinking and teaching. Rigorous study is complemented by disciplined meditation and prayerful contemplation of the word of God. Far from being an objective or rigid technique whereby one produces religious experience, lectio divina represents daily contact with God’s word that occurs within a lifetime’s engagement with the Living God. The principal aim of such engagement is to foster living prayer in faithful love. Lectio divina unfolds more than it proceeds; progresses and develops more than it advances.

Dedicated practice engages the whole person–the intellect as well as the imagination, the will as well as the affect. It promises contact with God that is the normal fulfillment of prayer. Lectio divina is open to every person and not the exclusive property of a select few. Those who practice lectio divina reaffirm the belief that the proper place for the word of God is in the hands of the faithful.


Wouldn’t Geppetto have been pleased if, instead of his firm response, “Pinocchio,” that young man had looked into Jay Leno’s TV camera and answered with conviction, “Jonah”?


Reprinted from Chicago Studies 39 (2000): 211-19.

New Grail Psalms get positive vote by bishops; wait for the Holy See’s approval

This vote of the US bishops is long in coming. Kudos to Abbot Gregory and the monks of Conception Abbey. I look forward to using the psalter.

Bishops choose Revised Grail Psalter for liturgical use in U.S.

BALTIMORE (CNS) — The U.S. bishops chose the Revised Grail Psalter produced by the monks of Conception Abbey in Missouri over the Revised New American Bible translation of the Book of Psalms for liturgical use in the United States. The vote at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ meeting in Baltimore Nov. 12 was 203-5 in favor of accepting a recommendation of the USCCB Committee on Divine Worship to adopt the Grail Psalter for use in all liturgical settings. The decision also must be confirmed by the Vatican. There was little debate before the vote and no amendments could be made to the translated psalms. Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli of Paterson, N.J., chairman of the Committee on Divine Worship, said the Revised Grail Psalter also had been recommended over the Revised New American Bible version by the Committee on Doctrine’s Subcommittee on the Translation of Scripture Text and by the now-defunct music subcommittee of what was then called the Committee on the Liturgy.

Pope: the Scriptures are a fact of the Church

The concluding homily of Pope Benedict for the Synod of Bishops on the Word of
Benedict XVI arms3.jpg
God on Sunday, 26 October 2008, Rome.



Brothers in the Episcopacy and the Priesthood,
Dear Brothers and Sisters!

The Word of the Lord, which echoed in the Gospel earlier, reminded us that all of Divine Law is summarized in love. Matthew the Evangelist tells that the Pharisees, after God answered the Sadduceans closing their mouths, met to put Him to test (cf. 22:34-35). One of them, a doctor of law, asked Him: “Master, which is the greatest commandment of the Law?” (22:36). The question allows one to see the worry, present in ancient Hebrew tradition, of finding a unifying principle for the various formulations of the Will of God. This was not an easy question, considering that in the Law of Moses, 613 precepts and prohibitions are contemplated. How to find which is the most important one among these? But Jesus has no hesitation, and answers promptly: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment” (22:37-38). Jesus quotes the Shemà in His answer, the prayer the pious Israelite recites several times a day, especially in the morning and in the evening (cf. Dt 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Nb 15:37-41): the proclamation of whole and total love due to God, as the only Lord. Emphasis is put on the totality of this dedication to God, listing the three faculties that define man in his deep psychological structures: heart, soul and mind. The word mind, diánoia, contains the rational element. God is not only the object of love, commitment, will and feelings, but also the intellect, which should not be excluded from this. Our thinking must conform to God’s thinking. Then, however, Jesus adds something which, in truth, had not been asked by the doctor of law: “The second resembles it: You must love your neighbour as yourself” (22:39). The surprising aspect of Jesus’ answer consists in the fact that He establishes a similarity between the first and the second commandments, defined this time with a Biblical formula drawn from the Levitic code of holiness (cf. Lv 19:18) as well. And therefore, the two commandments are associated in the role of main axis upon which all of Biblical Revelation rests: “On these two commandments hang the whole Law, and the Prophets too” (22:40).

The Evangelical page we are focusing on sheds light on the meaning of being disciples of Christ which is practicing His teachings, that can be summarized in the first and greatest commandment of Divine Law, the commandment of love. Even the First Reading, taken from the Book of Exodus, insists on the duty of love; a love witnessed concretely in relationships between persons: they must be relationships of respect, collaboration, generous help. The next to be loved is the stranger, the orphan, the widow and the indigent, that is to say those citizens that are without a “defender”. The holy author goes into details, as in the case of the object pawned by one of these poor persons (cf. Ex 22:25-26). In this case, God Himself is the guarantor for the person’s situation.

St Paul apostle.jpgIn the Second Reading, we can find a concrete application of the supreme commandment of love in one of the first Christian communities. Saint Paul writes to the Thessalonians, leading them to understand that, while having known them for such a short time, he appreciated them and bore affection in his heart for them. Because of this, he points to them as “an example to all believers in Macedonia and Achaia” (1 Th 1:6-7). There is no lack of weaknesses or problems in this recently founded community, but love overcomes all, renews all, wins over all: the love of who, knowing their own limits, docilely follows the words of Christ, the Divine Teacher, transmitted through one of His faithful disciples. “You took us and the Lord as your model, welcoming the word with the joy of the Holy Spirit in spite of great hardship”, the Apostle wrote. He continued: “since it was from you that the word of the Lord rang out — and not only throughout Macedonia and Achaia, for your faith in God has spread everywhere” (1 Th 1:6.8). The lesson that we can draw from the experience of the Thessalonians, and experience that is a common factor in every authentic Christian community, is that love for the neighbor is born from the docile listening to the Divine Word and accepts also hardships for the truth of the divine word and thus true love grows and truth shines. It is so important to listen to the Word and incarnate it in personal and community existence!

In this Eucharistic Celebration, which closes the work of the Synod, we feel, in a particular way, the bond that exists between the loving hearing of the word of God and disinterested service towards the brothers. How many times, in the past few days, have we heard about experiences and reflections that underline the need emerging today for a more intimate hearing of God, of a truer knowledge of His Word of Salvation; of a more sincere sharing of faith which is constantly nourished at the table of the Divine Word! Dear and Venerable Brothers, thank you for the contribution each of you offered in discussing the theme of the Synod: “The Word of God in the Life and the Mission of the Church”. I greet you all with great affection. A special greeting goes to the Cardinals, the Delegate Presidents of the Synod and the General Secretary, whom I thank for their constant dedication. I greet you, dear brothers and sisters, who came from every continent bringing your enriching experience. In returning home, give everyone an affectionate greeting from the Bishop of Rome. I greet the Fraternal Delegates, the Experts, the Auditors and the Invited Guests: the members of the General Secretariat of the Synod, all those who worked with the press. A special thought goes for the Bishops of Continental China, who could not be represented during this Synodal assembly. I would like to speak on behalf of them and thank God for their love for Christ, their communion with the universal Church and their faithfulness to the Successor of the Apostle Peter. They are present in our prayers, along with all the faithful who are entrusted to their pastoral care. We ask the “Chief Shepherd” (1 Pt 5:4) to give them apostolic joy, strength, and zeal to guide, with wisdom and far-sightedness, the Catholic community of China so dear to all of us.

All of us who have taken part in the work of the Synod will carry with us the renewed knowledge that the Church’s principal task, at the start of this new millennium, is above all to nourish ourselves on the Word of God, in order to make more effective new evangelization, the announcement of our times. What is needed now is that this ecclesial experience reach every community; we have to understand the necessity of translating the Word we have heard into gestures of love, because this is the only way to make the Gospel announcement credible, despite the human weaknesses that mark individuals. What this requires first of all is a more intimate knowledge of Christ and an ever-more docile acceptance of his Word.

In this Pauline year, making the words of the Apostle our own: “I should be in trouble if I failed to [preach the Gospel]” (1 Cor 9:16), I hope with all my heart that in every community this yearning of Paul’s will be felt with ever more conviction as a vocation in the service of the Gospel for the world. At the start of the Synod, I recalled the appeal of Jesus: “The harvest is rich” (Mt 9:37), an appeal we must never tire of responding to whatever difficulties we might encounter. So many people are searching for, sometimes unwittingly, the meeting with Christ and His Gospel; so many have to find in Him a meaning for their lives. Giving clear and shared testimony to a life according to the Word of God, witnessed by Jesus, therefore becomes an indispensable criterion to verify the mission of Christ.

Emmaus Duccio.jpgThe Readings the liturgy offers us today to meditate on remind us that the fullness of the law, as of all the Divine Scriptures, is love. Therefore anyone who believes they have understood the Scriptures, or at least a part of them, without undertaking to build, by means of their intelligence, the twofold love of God and neighbor, demonstrates that in reality they are still a long way from having grasped its deeper meaning. But how should we put into practice this commandment, how can we live the love of God and our brothers without a living and intense contact with the Holy Scriptures? Vatican Council II asserts it is necessary that “easy access to Sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful” (Cost. Dei Verbum, 22), so that persons, on meeting the truth, may grow in authentic love. This is a requisite that today is indispensable for evangelization. And since often the encounter with Scriptures is in danger of not being “a fact” of the Church, but informed by subjectivity and arbitrariness, a robust and credible pastoral promotion of the knowledge of Holy Scripture, to announce, celebrate and live the Word in the Christian community, becomes indispensable, dialoguing with the cultures of our time, placing ourselves at the service of truth and not of current ideologies, and increasing the dialogue God wishes to have with all men (cf ibid 21). With this in mind, special care should be paid to the preparation of pastors, ready then to take whatever action is necessary to spread Biblical activity with appropriate means. Ongoing efforts to give life to the Biblical movement among lay people should be encouraged, along with the formation of group animators, with particular attention being paid to the young. We must also support the effort to allow faith to be known through the Word of God to those who are “far away” as well and especially those who are sincerely looking to give a meaning to their lives.

Many other reflections should be added, but I will limit myself to underlining that the privileged place where the Word of God rings out, that builds the Church, as has been said many times during the Synod, is undoubtedly the liturgy. In this is where it appears that the Bible is a book of a people and for a people; an inheritance, a testament handed over to readers so that they can put into practice in their own lives the history of salvation witnessed in the text. There is therefore a reciprocal relationship of vital belonging between the people and the Book: the Bible remains a living Book with the people which is its subject which reads it; the people cannot exist without the Book, because it is in it that they find their reason for living, their vocation and their identity. This mutual belonging between people and Holy Scripture is celebrated in every liturgical ceremony, which, thanks to the Holy Spirit, listens to Christ since it is He who speaks when the Scripture is read in the Church and welcomes the Covenant that God renews with his people. Scripture and liturgy converge, therefore, with the single aim of bringing the people to dialogue with the Lord and to the obedience of the Lord’s Will. The Word that leaves the mouth of God, witnessed in the Scriptures, returns to Him in the shape of prayerful response, of a living answer, of an answer of love (cf Is 55:10-11).

Virgin of the Annunciation Angelico.jpgDear brothers and sisters, let us pray that from this renewed listening to the Word of God, guided by the action of the Holy Spirit, an authentic renewal of the universal Church may spring forth, as well as of every Christian community. We entrust the fruits of this Synodal Assembly to the motherly intercession of the Virgin Mary. I also entrust to Her the II Special Assembly of the Synod for Africa, that will take place in Rome in October of next year. Next March I intend to go to Cameroon to deliver the Instrumentum laboris of that Synodal Assembly to the representatives of the Episcopal Conferences of Africa. From there, God willing, I will go on to Angola to celebrate solemnly the 500th anniversary of the evangelization of that country. Most Holy Mary, who offered your life up as the “servant of the Lord”, so that everything would happen in accordance with the divine will (cf Lk 1:38) and who told us to do whatever Jesus tells us to do (cf Jn 2:5), teach us to recognize in our lives the primacy of the Word that alone can grant us salvation. Amen!

Beholding God’s Word, Touching God’s Word

The Ecumenical Patriarch spoke not just of words imprinted on the hearts and minds of the holy ones, but also of the gift of the fire of God’s Word that must be alive and burning within the hearts of the saints. (Father Thomas Rosica, CSB)


Your Holiness,
Synodal Fathers,

It is at once humbling and inspiring to be graciously invited by Your Holiness to address the XII Ordinary General Assembly of this auspicious Synod of Bishops, an historical meeting of Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church from throughout the world, gathered in one place to meditate on “the Word of God” and deliberate on the experience and expression of this Word “in the Life and Mission of the Church.”

Bartholomeos.jpgThis gracious invitation of Your Holiness to our Modesty is a gesture full of meaning and significance — we dare say an historic event in itself. For it is the first time in history that an Ecumenical Patriarch is offered the opportunity to address a Synod of the Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, and thus be part of the life of this sister Church at such a high level. We regard this as a manifestation of the work of the Holy Spirit leading our Churches to a closer and deeper relationship with each other, an important step towards the restoration of our full communion.

It is well known that the Orthodox Church attaches to the Synodical system fundamental ecclesiogical importance. Together with primacy synodality constitutes the backbone of the Church’s government and organisation. As our Joint International Commission on the Theological Dialogue between our Churches expressed it in the Ravenna document, this interdependence between synodality and primacy runs through all the levels of the Church’s life: local, regional and universal. Therefore, in having today the privilege to address Your Synod our hopes are raised that the day will come when our two Churches will fully converge on the role of primacy and synodality in the Church’s life, to which our common Theological Commission is devoting its study at the present time.

The theme to which this episcopal synod devotes its work is of crucial significance not
benedict and Patriarch.jpgonly for the Roman Catholic Church but also for all those who are called to witness to Christ in our time. Mission and evangelization remain a permanent duty of the Church at all times and places; indeed they form part of the Church’s nature, since she is called “Apostolic” both in the sense of her faithfulness to the original teaching of the Apostles and in that of proclaiming the Word of God in every cultural context every time. The Church needs, therefore, to rediscover the Word of God in every generation and make it head with a renewed vigour and persuation also in our contemporary world, which deep in its heart thirsts for God’s message of peace, hope and charity.

This duty of evangelization would have been, of course, greatly enhanced and strengthened, if all Christians were in a position to perform it with one voice and as a fully united Church. In his prayer to the Father little before His passion our Lord has made it clear that the unity of the Church is unbreakably related with her mission “so that the world may believe” (John 17, 21). It is, therefore, most appropriate that this Synod has opened its doors to ecumenical fraternal delegates so that we may all become aware of our common duty of evangelization as well as of the difficulties and problems of its realization in today’s world.

This Synod has undoubtedly been studying the subject of the Word of God in depth and in all its aspects, theological as well as practical and pastoral. In our modest address to you we shall limit ourselves to sharing with you some thoughts on the theme of your meeting, drawing from the way the Orthodox tradition has approached it throughout the centuries and in the Greek patristic teaching, in particular. More concretely we should like to concentrate on three aspects of the subject, namely: on hearing and speaking the Word of God through the Holy Scriptures; on seeing God’s Word in nature and above all in the beauty of the icons; and finally on touching and sharing God’s Word in the communion of saints and the sacramental life of the Church. For all these are, we think, crucial in the life and mission of the Church.

In so doing, we seek to draw on a rich Patristic tradition, dating to the early third century and expounding a doctrine of five spiritual senses. For listening to God’s Word, beholding God’s Word, and touching God’s Word are all spiritual ways of perceiving the unique divine mystery. Based on Proverbs 2.5 about “the divine faculty of perception (ασθησις),” Origen of Alexandria claims:

This sense unfolds as sight for contemplation of immaterial forms, hearing for discernment of voices, taste for savoring the living bread, smell for sweet spiritual fragrance, and touch for handling the Word of God, which is grasped by every faculty of the soul.

St Basil the Great.jpgThe spiritual senses are variously described as “five senses of the soul,” as “divine” or “inner faculties,” and even as “faculties of the heart” or “mind.” This doctrine inspired the theology of the Cappadocians (especially Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa) as much as it did the theology of the Desert Fathers (especially Evagrius of Pontus and Macarius the Great).

1. Hearing and Speaking the Word through Scripture

At each celebration of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the presiding celebrant at the Eucharist entreats “that we may be made worthy to hear the Holy Gospel.” For “hearing, beholding and handling the Word of life” (1 Jn 1.1) are not first and foremost our entitlement or birthright as human beings; they are our privilege and gift as children of the living God. The Christian Church is, above all, a scriptural Church. Although methods of interpretation may have varied from Church Father to Church Father, from “school” to “school,” and from East to West, nevertheless, Scripture was always received as a living reality and not a dead book.

In the context of a living faith, then, Scripture is the living testimony of a lived history about the relationship of a living God with a living people. The Word, “who spoke through the prophets” (Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed), spoke in order to be heard and take effect. It is primarily an oral and direct communication intended for human beneficiaries. The scriptural text is, therefore, derivative and secondary; the scriptural text always serves the spoken word. It is not conveyed mechanically, but communicated from generation to generation as a living word. Through the Prophet Isaiah, the Lord vows:

As rain and snow descend from heaven, watering the earth … so shall my word go from mouth to mouth, accomplishing that which I purpose. (55.10-11)

Moreover, as St. John Chrysostom explains, the divine Word demonstrates profound
St John Chrysostom2.jpgconsiderateness (συγκατάβασις) for the personal diversity and cultural contexts of those hearing and receiving. Adaptation of the divine Word to the specific personal readiness and the particular cultural context defines the missionary dimension of the Church, which is called to transform the world through the Word. In silence as in declaration, in prayer as in action, the divine Word addresses the whole world, “preaching to all nations” (Mt 28.19) without either privilege or prejudice to race, culture, gender and class. When we carry out that divine commission, we are assured: “Behold, I am with you always.” (Mt 28.20) We are called to speak the divine Word in all languages, “becoming all things to all people, that [we] might by all means save some.” (1 Cor. 9.22)

As disciples of God’s Word, then, it is today more imperative than ever that we provide a unique perspective — beyond the social, political, or economic — on the need to eradicate poverty, to provide balance in a global world, to combat fundamentalism or racism, and to develop religious tolerance in a world of conflict. In responding to the needs of the world’s poor, vulnerable and marginalized, the Church can prove a defining marker of the space and character of the global community. While the theological language of religion and spirituality differs from the technical vocabulary of economics and politics, the barriers that at first glance appear to separate religious concerns (such as sin, salvation, and spirituality) from pragmatic interests (such as commerce, trade, and politics) are not impenetrable, crumbling before the manifold challenges of social justice and globalization.

Whether dealing with environment or peace, poverty or hunger, education or healthcare, there is today a heightened sense of common concern and common responsibility, which is felt with particular acuteness by people of faith as well as by those whose outlook is expressly secular. Our engagement with such issues does not of course in any way undermine or abolish differences between various disciplines or disagreements with those who look at the world in different ways. Yet the growing signs of a common commitment for the well-being of humanity and the life of the world are encouraging. It is an encounter of individuals and institutions that bodes well for our world. And it is an involvement that highlights the supreme vocation and mission of the disciples and adherents of God’s Word to transcend political or religious differences in order to transform the entire visible world for the glory of the invisible God.

2. Seeing the Word of God — The Beauty of Icons and Nature

Nowhere is the invisible rendered more visible than in the beauty of iconography and the wonder of creation. In the words of the champion of sacred images, St. John of
St John of Damascus.jpgDamascus: “As maker of heaven and earth, God the Word was Himself the first to paint and portray icons.” Every stroke of an iconographer’s paintbrush – like every word of a theological definition, every musical note chanted in psalmody, and every carved stone of a tiny chapel or magnificent cathedral – articulates the divine Word in creation, which praises God in every living being and every living thing. (cf. Ps. 150.6)

In affirming sacred images, the Seventh Ecumenical Council of Nicaea was not concerned with religious art; it was the continuation and confirmation of earlier definitions about the fullness of the humanity of God’s Word. Icons are a visible reminder of our heavenly vocation; they are invitations to rise beyond our trivial concerns and menial reductions of the world. They encourage us to seek the extraordinary in the very ordinary, to be filled with the same wonder that characterized the divine marvel in Genesis: “God saw everything that He made; and, indeed, it was very good.” (Gn. 1.30-31) The Greek (Septuagint) word for “goodness” is κάλλος, which implies — etymologically and symbolically — a sense of “calling.” Icons underline the Church’s fundamental mission to recognize that all people and all things are created and called to be “good” and “beautiful.”

Indeed, icons remind us of another way of seeing things, another way of experiencing realities, another way of resolving conflicts. We are asked to assume what the hymnology of Easter Sunday calls “another way of living.” For we have behaved arrogantly and dismissively toward the natural creation. We have refused to behold God’s Word in the oceans of our planet, in the trees of our continents, and in the animals of our earth. We have denied our very own nature, which calls us to stoop low enough to hear God’s Word in creation if we wish to “become participants of divine nature.” (2 Pet 1.4) How could we ignore the wider implications of the divine Word assuming flesh? Why do we fail to perceive created nature as the extended Body of Christ?

St Maximus.jpgEastern Christian theologians always emphasized the cosmic proportions of divine incarnation. The incarnate Word is intrinsic to creation, which came to be through divine utterance. St. Maximus the Confessor insists on the presence of God’s Word in all things (cf. Col. 3.11); the divine Logos stands at the center of the world, mysteriously revealing its original principle and ultimate purpose (cf. 1 Pet 1.20). This mystery is described by St. Athanasius of Alexandria:

As the Logos [he writes], he is not contained by anything and yet contains everything; He is in everything and yet outside of everything … the first-born of the whole world in its every aspect.

The entire world is a prologue to the Gospel of John. And when the Church fails to recognize the broader, cosmic dimensions of God’s Word, narrowing its concerns to purely spiritual matters, then it neglects its mission to implore God for the transformation — always and everywhere, “in all places of His dominion” — of the whole polluted cosmos. It is no wonder that on Easter Sunday, as the Paschal celebration reaches its climax, Orthodox Christians sing:

Now everything is filled with divine light: heaven and earth, and all things beneath the earth. So let all creation rejoice.

All genuine “deep ecology” is, therefore, inextricably linked with deep theology:

“Even a stone,” writes Basil the Great, “bears the mark of God’s Word. This is true of an ant, a bee and a mosquito, the smallest of creatures. For He spread the wide heavens and laid the immense seas; and He created the tiny hollow shaft of the bee’s sting.”

Recalling our minuteness in God’s wide and wonderful creation only underlines our central role in God’s plan for the salvation of the whole world.

3. Touching and Sharing the Word of God — The Communion of Saints and the Sacraments of Life

The Word of God persistently “moves outside of Himself in ecstasy” (Dionysius the Areopagite), passionately seeking to “dwell in us” (Jn 1.14), that the world may have life in abundance. (Jn 10.10) God’s compassionate mercy is poured and shared “so as to multiply the objects of His beneficence.” (Gregory the Theologian) God assumes all that is ours, “in every respect being tested as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4.15), in order to offer us all that is God’s and render us gods by grace. “Though rich, He becomes poor that we might become rich,” writes the great Apostle Paul (2 Cor. 8.9), to whom this year is so aptly dedicated. This is the Word of God; gratitude and glory are due to Him.

The word of God receives His full embodiment in creation, above all in the Sacrament of
icon2.jpgthe Holy Eucharist. It is there that the Word becomes flesh and allows us not simply to hear or see Him but to touch Him with our own hands, as St. John declares (I John 1,1) and make Him part of our own body and blood (σύσσωμοι καί σύναιμοι) in the words of St. John Chrysostom.

In the Holy Eucharist the Word heard is at the same time seen and shared (κοινωνία). It is not accidental that in the early eucharistic documents, such as the book of Revelation and the Didache, the Eucharist was associated with prophesy, and the presiding bishops were regarded as successors of the prophets (e.g. Martyrion Polycarpi). The Eucharist was already by St. Paul (I Cor. 11) described us “proclamation” of Christ’s death and Second Coming. As the purpose of Scripture is essentially the proclamation of the Kingdom and the announcement of eschatological realities, the Eucharist is a foretaste of the Kindom, and in this sense the proclamation of the Word par excellence. In the Eucharist Word and Sacrament become one reality. The word ceases to be “words” and becomes a Person, embodying in Himself all human beings and all creation.

Within the life of the Church, the unfathomable self-emptying (κένωσις) and generous sharing (κοινωνία) of the divine Logos is reflected in the lives of the saints as the tangible experience and human expression of God’s Word in our community. In this way, the Word of God becomes the Body of Christ, crucified and glorified at the same time. As a result, the saint has an organic relationship with heaven and earth, with God and all of creation. In ascetic struggle, the saint reconciles the Word and the world. Through repentance and purification, the saint is filled — as Abba Isaac the Syrian insists — with compassion for all creatures, which is the ultimate humility and perfection.

This is why the saint loves with warmth and spaciousness that are both unconditional and irresistible. In the saints, we know God’s very Word, since — as St. Gregory Palamas claims — God and His saints share the same glory and splendor.” In the gentle presence of a saint, we learn how theology and action coincide. In the compassionate love of the saint, we experience God as “our father” and God’s mercy as “steadfastly enduring.” (Ps. 135, LXX) The saint is consumed with the fire of God’s love. This is why the saint imparts grace and cannot tolerate the slightest manipulation or exploitation in society or in nature. The saint simply does what is “proper and right” (Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom), always dignifying humanity and honoring creation. “His words have the force of actions and his silence the power of speech” (St. Ignatius of Antioch).

And within the communion of saints, each of us is called to “become like fire” (Sayings of the Desert Fathers), to touch the world with the mystical force of God’s Word, so that — as the extended Body of Christ — the world, too, might say: “Someone touched me!” (cf. Mt 9.20) Evil is only eradicated by holiness, not by harshness. And holiness introduces into society a seed that heals and transforms. Imbued with the life of the sacraments and the purity of prayer, we are able to enter the innermost mystery of God’s Word. It is like the tectonic plates of the earth’s crust: the deepest layers need only shift a few millimeters to shatter the world’s surface. Yet for this spiritual revolution to occur, we must experience radical metanoia — a conversion of attitudes, habits and practices — for ways that we have misused or abused God’s Word, God’s gifts and God’s creation.

Such a conversion is, of course, impossible without divine grace; it is not achieved simply through greater effort or human willpower. “For mortals, it is impossible; but for God all things are possible.” (Mt 19.26) Spiritual change occurs when our bodies and souls are grafted onto the living Word of God, when our cells contain the life-giving blood-flow of the sacraments, when we are open to sharing all things with all people. As St. John Chrysostom reminds us, the sacrament of “our neighbor” cannot be isolated from the sacrament of “the altar.” Sadly, we have ignored the vocation and obligation to share. Social injustice and inequality, global poverty and war, ecological pollution and degradation result from our inability or unwillingness to share. If we claim to retain the sacrament of the altar, we cannot forgo or forget the sacrament of the neighbor — a fundamental condition for realizing God’s Word in the world within the life and mission of the Church.

Beloved Brothers in Christ,

We have explored the patristic teaching of the spiritual senses, discerning the power of
icon.jpghearing and speaking God’s Word in Scripture, of seeing God’s Word in icons and nature, as well as of touching and sharing God’s Word in the saints and sacraments. Yet, in order to remain true to the life and mission of the Church, we must personally be changed by this Word. The Church must resemble the mother, who is both sustained by and nourishes through the food she eats. Anything that does not feed and nourish everyone cannot sustain us either. When the world does not share the joy of Christ’s Resurrection, this is an indictment of our own integrity and commitment to the living Word of God. Prior to the celebration of each Divine Liturgy, Orthodox Christians pray that this Word will be “broken and consumed, distributed and shared” in communion. And “we know that we have passed from death to life when we love our brothers” and sisters (1 Jn 3.14).

The challenge before us is the discernment of God’s Word in the face of evil, the transfiguration of every last detail and speck of this world in the light of Resurrection. The victory is already present in the depths of the Church, whenever we experience the grace of reconciliation and communion. As we struggle — in ourselves and in our world — to recognize the power of the Cross, we begin to appreciate how every act of justice, every spark of beauty, every word of truth can gradually wear away the crust of evil. However, beyond our own frail efforts, we have the assurance of the Spirit, who “helps us in our weakness” (Rom. 8.26) and stands beside us as advocate and “comforter” (Jn 14-6), penetrating all things and “transforming us — as St. Symeon the New Theologian says — into everything that the Word of God says about the heavenly kingdom: pearl, grain of mustard seed, leaven, water, fire, bread, life and mystical wedding chamber.” Such is the power and grace of the Holy Spirit, whom we invoke as we conclude our address, extending to Your Holiness our gratitude and to each of you our blessings:

Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth
Present everywhere and filling all things;
Treasury of goodness and giver of life:
Come, and abide in us.

And cleanse us from every impurity;
And save our souls.

For you are good and love humankind. Amen!

About the author

Paul A. Zalonski is from New Haven, CT. He is a member of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, a Catholic ecclesial movement, and an Oblate of Saint Benedict. Contact Paul at paulzalonski[at]
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