Ever since becoming bishop of Camden, one point I have emphasized consistently is my concern about inactive Catholics.
It pains me that so many Catholics in South Jersey, in percentages similar to other places across the country, fail to connect with the rich spiritual treasures offered by the church.
Jesuit Father Thomas Reese, a prominent commentator on things Catholic, noted in an April 18 column in the National Catholic Reporter one reason this may be so: Too often, we fail to feed the great hunger for Scripture.
Father Reese was examining data from the Pew Research Center which noted that one out of every 10 Americans is a former Catholic. If this group were put into its own denomination, they would rank third in the United States, behind active Catholics and Baptists.
Father Reese noted that these non-practicing Catholics are roughly divided equally between those who join other congregations and those who drop out of all religious practice. His article focuses on those who join Protestant groups, both evangelical and traditional mainline denominations.
He offers three main explanations from the data as to why Catholics join Protestant groups, but let me focus on one. Those who leave Catholic practice often report that they find their hunger to understand the Scriptures better fed outside the Catholic Church.
This should be disturbing. Many Catholics often feel intimidated by their Protestant friends who have an easy familiarity with quoting the Bible chapter and verse. This is sometimes exaggerated. I find that Catholics who faithfully follow the Mass readings have a greater knowledge and understanding about the Scriptures than they give themselves credit.
Still, we can do more.
It’s important for us as Catholics to grow more comfortable with both the Old and the New Testaments. Sacred Scripture is the living word of God. In the Scriptures God speaks to us in the here and now. Scripture is not merely a recounting of events that happened in the past, but it is God’s word to us in the reality of our everyday life.
As Catholics, we need to understand that reflecting upon the Scriptures should be an important part of our prayer life.
Some will say they don’t understand what the Scriptures are saying. And yet, if we take the time to reflect, we discover that God’s word does speak to our present-day situations.
As an example: a prayerful reading of the Psalms can surprise us at how the author speaks to our own emotions, at times a sense of feeling lost or abandoned, declaring that our trust must be in God who hears our cry. (Psalm 27)
As we read the events of Jesus’ life, we discover the reality of Jesus’ humanity. Jesus grieved over the rejection he experienced from his own people (Luke 23). How often do we face rejection?
Jesus weeps over the death of his friend Lazarus and the sorrow of his friends, Martha and Mary, Lazarus’ sisters (John 11). We see concrete examples of Jesus’ forgiveness and mercy. The woman caught in adultery is set free by Jesus (John 8). Today, through the Scriptures, I can connect with Jesus’ understanding, forgiveness and love. The Sacred Scriptures remain a great gift to nurture our faith, to strengthen our trust and to guide us in being faithful followers of Jesus.
But how can we get the familiarity with Scripture so that it becomes a friend on our prayer journey?
The Internet can help. At www.usccb.org, the readings for each day’s Mass are posted for us to reflect upon.
Footnotes in many Catholic Bibles describe the significance of biblical terms and history. In this way, the meaning becomes clearer. Praying over the Scriptures is not just for professionals with advanced theological credentials.
As Catholics, we view the Scriptures differently than some of our Protestant neighbors. The church reminds us that as a good teacher, God tries to help us understand the truth though the use of imagery, examples and use of stories.
As we become more versed in Scripture, we will find ourselves reflecting on a particular verse or story that speaks to our own spiritual pilgrimage. St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, chapter 2, has become a touchstone of my spiritual reflection, particularly this passage: “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
This slice of Scripture reminds me that the self-emptying love of Jesus requires a lifelong challenge. The call to have the mind of Jesus urges me to let go even of good things in my life so I can be more into Jesus. Discovering what Jesus wants can be discovered with a prayerful reading of his word, as relevant today as it has been for centuries.