Part 8 – Basic Catechism on the Bible
Over the past two months we have gone through a basic catechism on the Holy Bible. We have covered topics ranging from the inerrancy of the Sacred Scriptures, the authorship of the Old and New Testaments, to the danger of so-called “false gospels.” This general overview of the Bible has been helpful to cement a Catholic ‘lens’ with which to approach the Scriptures. Now that we see the Bible through truly Catholic eyes, what is the best way to read the Bible? Is there a best way? Are there many ways to read the Scriptures? If so, which one is right for you?
For the sake of brevity, we will look at two common ways to read God’s Word. First, it can be read cover to cover, which is a daunting task unless approached with a plan. Second, we can read the daily readings from Mass, along with good commentary. In truth, both of these methods are useful and will fit into our reading habits differently, depending on ability and season of life.
Cover to cover.
Reading the Bible from the first page to the last is something many have attempted and failed to complete. It is no wonder, as the Bible is not an easy book to read, and reading the correct English translations requires a strong level of literacy. The Old Testament is full of a diversity of literature forms, including history, prophecy, wisdom literature, and prayerful psalms. Each style of literature brings with it a symphony of cadence and prose that may be overwhelming if approached haphazardly.
If you are a very strong reader, then a cover to cover approach may be correct for you. I should note that an avid reader is not necessarily a strong reader in the sense I am intending. If you think of the mind as a muscle, there are varying levels of mental fitness that can withstand differing intensities of resistance. It may be that you consistently read some sort of popular theological work or fiction, but these books are written to appeal to a grade nine or lower reading level. This is to ensure universal readability and ease, not a reflection of the intelligence of the reader.
It is easy for you to burn out mentally when reading the Bible from start to finish, which has the added effect of discouraging you from continuing. I personally like to read the Bible in modified cover to cover fashion, in which I follow a Catholic “Bible in a Year” plan which can be found here. I recommend this approach for the cover to cover enthusiast. Even if the year time frame is too narrow, having a sequential plan helps to keep you on track with an end goal is sight.
A Slight Variation on Cover to Cover.
A related option is simply to read certain books “cover to cover.” For example, if you consider yourself relatively inexperienced in reading the Bible, the best place to start is the Gospels. The four Gospels are the “heart” of the Bible because they most directly inform us about the words and deeds of Jesus Christ. The entire Old Testament leads to and prepares us for the Gospels, and the remainder of the New Testament is a reflection upon the Gospels. They are also probably the easiest books to understand and Catholics generally have the most familiarity with them. Yet even the most knowledgeable theologian or experienced bishop should make the effort to continually read and re-read the Gospels.
A laudable first effort at reading the Bible would be to read the four Gospels cover to cover, from St. Matthew through St. John. Once you accomplish this you will have greater confidence and will also have built up a daily habit of reading Sacred Scripture. You could then opt to read the Pauline Epistles, or the so-called ‘Catholic’ Epistles (of Peter, James, John and Jude), or perhaps the Pentateuch, or the historical books of the Old Testament. Following thematic reading of this sort, with piecemeal milestones, will most likely increase your probability of reading the entire Bible.
You may have heard it said that the Lectionary of the New Mass contains a greater amount of Scripture than the Traditional Rite. However, the fruits of the novelties since the Second Vatican Council have not been overly sweet. The old adage “less is more,” is appropriate when approaching the Scriptures liturgically. It is easy to forget that the focal point of the Bible is Jesus Christ, Who is also the focal point of the Mass. If we are to read the liturgically offered Scriptures, then we are wise to do so with the intention of getting to know Jesus better.
It has never been the case that the average Catholic was expected to read the entirety of the Bible. It is a good thing to do in some cases, but clearly many heretics have been voracious readers of Scripture. Thus it seems that our approach is more important than prolific readership. The Scriptures are ultimately liturgical in their function and therefore bring us to Christ through His Church. In fact, the New Testament was written with the intent that it would be heard within the context of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Thus, every passage has a liturgical and Eucharistic subtext.
I would imagine many of the greatest saints of the past were functionally illiterate, yet they knew Christ through the Scriptures better than most of us. How could this be? There are many reasons, but one very important factor is the traditional style of preaching that historically opened up the Scriptures for the average parishioner. Most homilies at your average parish today do not teach the meaning of the Scriptures in any significant way. If you are fortunate enough to hear traditionally minded sermons, this is a blessing. All of us, however, could use a greater proliferation of strong teaching in our spiritual lives.
In order to get the most out of a daily reading approach, I recommend reading the passages with traditional commentary. A good way to start is to read the daily selections along with the perennial Haydock Bible Commentary, which pulls from the writings of the great Saints and Fathers. Traditional Bible commentary is recommended as a companion to any scriptural reading habit.
A Slight Variation on Daily Readings.
You may have also heard that priests and religious take a vow to pray the Divine Office every day. The Divine Office, also referred to as ‘The Breviary,’ is the official prayer of the Church and consists of eight daily canonical hours (Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline). When our priests pray it, they do so on behalf of their entire flock. Through the Divine Office, the Church Militant all over the world offers unceasing praise to God at all hours of the day. Truly, it is a way of sanctifying the entire day and all of time.
The psalms make up the bulk of every canonical hour, but Sacred Scripture fills every page. The canonical hour of Matins is the one which includes three longer passages, or ‘readings’ of Scripture. When a saint’s feast is honored by the liturgy, the third of those readings is directly related to the saint. Major feasts have nine readings.
As lay persons, we can choose to pray some of the hours, or even parts thereof. Thus, a variation on praying the Mass’ daily readings is to pray the daily readings from the Office of Matins. The entire Office has been collected on-line at DivinumOfficim.com. You can go there each day, click on Matins for the day, and scroll down to pray the readings. That site has even made a convenient app for your smart phone, called “Breviarium Meum.” Thus, one can now carry the entire Divine Office in his pocket and pray the readings of Matins, or any other part of the Office, throughout the day.
In our next article, we will focus on Lectio Divina as a way to approach the Bible as a form of prayerful devotion.
 Another excellent commentary is the Catena Aurea by St. Thomas Aquinas. In this work, St. Thomas collects and organizes the commentaries of the Church Fathers on the four Gospels. If you wish to familiarize yourself more with the Psalms, then we would recommend St. Robert Bellarmine’s Commentary on the Book of Psalms. Certainly, those commentaries authored by saints and those which have passed the test of time are the ones we should focus upon.