News Analysis

The ‘Year of the Word’ will remind us of Benedict XVI’s wisdom

In September, the Bishops of England and Wales will unveil a programme of events to mark the “Year of the Word”, to which 2020 will be dedicated.

The Year is still being planned, in collaboration with the British Bible Society, but details are starting to emerge. It could involve the appointment of “Scripture champions” to every diocese; all parishes would be invited to take part. They will be asked how they can improve their understanding of the Word of God so that they might “achieve transformation in our hearts and in our communities”.

The bishops have also drawn up an online survey which asks the faithful 10 questions, such as how frequently and in what situations they read the Bible. They are also asked what they perceive Scripture to be, and what they gain from reading it.

The bishops also want to speak to a wider audience: there is the possibility of national events, such as an exhibition to illustrate how the Word of God is represented in art. At the conclusion of the Year of the Word, the bishops will seek to evaluate whether attitudes to Scripture have changed.

Two anniversaries make 2020 an appropriate year: first, it sees the 1,600th anniversary of the death of St Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin. The programme will be officially launched on September 30, the saint’s feast day, but will start on December 1, the First Sunday of Advent and the start of the Church’s year.

Next year is also the 10th anniversary of Benedict XVI’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini. Indeed, the initiative has been titled “The God Who Speaks”, a phrase from the exhortation.

Verbum Domini builds upon the teachings of Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation. Benedict’s exhortation has also changed the context of biblical exegesis. It ended more than 60 years of fixation on the historicity of the Bible. These debates had become stale and had little prospect of being resolved as academics sought to grasp Scripture through historical-critical methods of analysis which are simply inadequate in explaining who Jesus was.

Benedict XVI’s three books on the life of Christ were written partly with the purpose of combating this. His first volume hailed the new movement towards “canonical exegesis”. This involves reading individual texts within the totality of Scripture. It helps to restore the notion of the Bible as a holy book inspired by God, one which can be understood only through the eyes of faith.

The same is true of the person of Christ. According to Rudolf Schnackenburg, quoted by Benedict, “without anchoring in God, the person of Jesus remains shadowy, unreal and unexplainable”.

Though Benedict’s magnificent biographies of Christ were not magisterial works, Verbum Domini is not only authoritative but also, in the words of one English bishop, a “fantastic teaching document” because of its rich theology of revelation and insights from the Church Fathers and great medieval scholar saints. By drawing on such teachings, the Year of the Word will be an opportunity for Catholic parishes to be transformed by Scripture, to rekindle their enthusiasm for the Bible and their faith and, ultimately, to know better and draw closer to Christ.

Because the Word – to quote Verbum Domini – “sheds light on human existence and stirs our conscience to take a deeper look at our lives”, it may also prepare the faithful for evangelisation and help to create the “missionary parishes” recommended by Pope Francis.

The Year of the Word is about the renewal of the Church. It cannot come soon enough.