Imagine that you had the privilege to be invited to attend Mass with Pope Benedict himself. In his private chapel, you find yourself accompanied by a handful of cardinals, a bevy of bishops, and several priests and deacons – but it turns out that you are the only lay Catholic present. When it comes to the time for the First Reading, what will happen?
All of the eyes in the chapel, from the lowliest deacon, to the Supreme Pontiff himself, will turn towards you – because not one of the clergy present is permitted to read the Word of God at Mass, apart from the Gospel, as long as there’s a competent lay person present.
When we commission lay ministers to assist with Holy Communion, we call them Extraordinary Ministers, and train them to understand that the Church’s normal practice is that ordained clergy handle the Blessed Sacrament, so lay ministers only assist when there’s a practical necessity for extra help. Holy Communion is God’s gift to us who are members of His Church, so it is most appropriate for the Blessed Sacrament to be handled by ‘churchy’ ministers – that is, by those set aside by ordination for sacred duties, and wearing priest’s or deacon’s vestments.
But every baptised Christian is a proper minister of the Word. This means that each one of you present, if you have been baptised, then you are called to take God’s Word out into a world that needs to hear it. If you’ve been confirmed, God has promised you the strength to carry out this work more effectively. And when you’re present at Mass, if you can do so competently, you have the right to proclaim God’s Word to our community of faith.
There are two challenges that we all face, together: sharing God’s word in Church, especially at Mass – and sharing God’s word outside Church – in the community.
The more difficult task, of course, is sharing God’s word in the community. The Christians in ancient Philippi understood how important this was. It’s possible that they were the very first Christian community in Europe, as St Paul and the other early missionaries passed from the Middle East into Greece. In today’s letter, Paul writes to them: “I pray with joy, remembering how you have helped to spread the Good News from the day you first heard it right up to the present.” If I should write my memoirs one day, I hope that I too would be able to write: “When I first came to St John Lloyd parish, I invited them to share their faith in Jesus with their neighbours, friends, colleagues and families. Over the next few years, they took God’s Word to heart and shared it with many people in Rumney, Trowbridge and St Mellon’s.”
But before we can share God’s Word with others, we need to have a clear understanding of what God’s Word is. That’s why I’m giving the monthly talks now in my series on Catholic Roots. Next year, I’ll be challenging us, as a parish, to discuss how we take the next steps – how do we find a new enthusiasm for what we believe? And what’s the most effective way to share it with those who have never been Christians, or who’ve drifted away from Christian faith? I’m deliberately using the word “Christians” rather than “Catholics”. A Catholic is someone baptised or received into the Catholic Church. A Christian is someone who is consciously trying to follow the example and teaching of Jesus. Does it make sense to be a Catholic without being a Christian?
If we’re serious about wanting to follow Jesus, we need to know what He taught – which of course we find mainly in the pages of the New Testament. But is it OK for Catholics to just pick up the Bible and read? It’s true that there were rules against Catholics reading the Bible in the past – but these rules didn’t ban Bible reading – they licensed it, so that from 1584, Catholics were only allowed to read translations of the Bible into modern languages if they had the permission of their parish priest or spiritual director.
These rules were made at a time when much of the population was poorly educated, and the Catholic bishops knew from experience that without guidance, it was very easy for people to misunderstand things in the Bible. But we now live in a very different culture, with widespread education; in 1757, Pope Benedict XIV declared that Catholics were now permitted to read translations of the Bible approved by the Vatican or containing references to Catholic scholars. Nowadays, the Church positively encourages us to read Scripture, and declares that any Catholic who devoutly studies an approved translation of the Bible will receive the kind of blessing called an indulgence.*
So we are indeed encouraged read the Bible – but do we? A recent survey found that in Britain, 17% of churchgoing Catholics said they read the Bible on a daily basis; but more than four out of five said that they read the Bible seldom or never. That’s a pity, because it means that if we are a typical congregation, more than three-quarters of the us never pick up the Bible – and with modern technology, if we can’t read, audio Bibles are readily available, too.
Bishop Kieran Conry suggests we should ask ourselves four questions this weekend:
- Do we own a Bible?
- Do we know where it is?
- Do we make time to read it prayerfully daily?
- Are we open to God speaking to us through it?
These are good questions! And I’d like to suggest a fifth one: “Where do I start?” – because some parts of the Bible are easier to understand than others. Today’s Gospel, for example, explains a prophecy from Isaiah. Who is the voice crying in the wilderness? For hundreds of years, Jews had read that passage and wondered. St Luke explains that it is John the Baptist.
The New Testament is easier to read than the Hebrew Bible, because the New Testament writers knew about Jesus and could make better sense of God’s big picture. So if you want to start reading the Bible, pick up a Gospel – perhaps Luke – and then try the Acts of the Apostles. And when should we read the Bible? Sooner rather than later, because Bible is spelled B.I.B.L.E. – that’s Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth!
Finally, I want to say a word to our Parish Readers. Thank you for your willingness to come to this pulpit and read in public. Recently some younger members of our community have started reading in public, and I would like to see our rota of readers grow larger, so at every Sunday Mass we could be sure of having two readers on duty. I know that public reading can be quite nerve-wracking, and that sometimes you have to cope with place-names or personal names which are not easy to pronounce in English. But what you do is tremendously valuable, because you are giving God’s Living Word to our gathered community – and remember, apart from the Gospel, that’s something that no Pope, Bishop, Priest or Deacon is permitted to do at Mass if you are present, willing and able! Anyone who receives Holy Communion and who can read English clearly is welcome to share in the ministry of the Word of God.
In October, I formally commissioned or re-commissioned our parish ministers of Holy Communion. As a sign that the ministry of Reading is no less important, I would like to formally commission all of the Parish Readers present at this Mass, and so I now invite you to come forward and stand before the altar, as our whole community stands to join in the Prayer of the Faithful.
- * The full grant is of a plenary indulgence for half-an-hour spent reading Scripture devoutly, under the usual conditions, and for those who cannot read, they are permitted to make use of audio or video recordings of the Bible instead. A partial indulgence is given for devoutly attending to Scripture for a shorter period.