Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Power of the Word of God

This post focuses on the following passage, from article 25 of Dei Verbum (1985), a Vatican II document:
“… editions of sacred scripture, provided with suitable notes, should be prepared for the use even of non-Christians, and adapted to their circumstances. These should be prudently circulated, either by pastors of souls, or by Christians of any walk of life” [1]

The focus of Dei Verbum is divine revelation in the Church. To give some context, earlier in article 25 the document focuses on steering the laity back to reading and praying Scripture in their prayer life. Prior to Vatican II, the Catholic laity had relied on popular devotions in their prayer life, while largely neglecting Scripture. (Ratzinger notes this in his commentary, cited below). Later in article 25, the council extends this focus on Scripture to non-Christians as well. I found the above passage to be particularly interesting largely because of Cardinal Ratzinger’s commentary after the council in 1967. Here is an excerpt of what Ratzinger says:

“What for a long time has been taking place on the Protestant side will now become the proper work of Catholic Christians and of the Catholic Church – namely, the dissemination of the Bible among non-Christians. A new element thus enters into the understanding of mission, … a trust in the self-operative power of the Word, which of course cannot and should not render the Church’s preaching superfluous, but that it can carry as a piece of the presence of Jesus Christ among the peoples, far beyond the realm of the hierarchical Church.” [2]
This is quite interesting! Ratzinger notes that Vatican II council encourages the simple act of handing out Bibles to non-Christians. There is also an acknowledgement here that Catholics have sort of missed the boat in this form of evangelization in comparison to Protestant Christians. In fact, I’m sure most of us have experienced this enthusiastic Protestant distribution of the Bible in one way or another. The Bibles in hotels, mini Gideon bibles with the New Testament and Psalms, etc. Well, this is now our duty too! Why? Because of a new understanding of the Power of Scripture.

What is this new understanding? Ratzinger says this “new element” that is mentioned in Dei Verbum is the “self-operative power of the Word”. This idea, that the Word, on its own, has the power to bring people to Christ, is beautiful and powerful! In fact, he says that in the distribution of Bibles, Jesus is present among people. Later he likens this personal encounter with Scripture to those who touch the hem of Christ’s garment as he passes through the crowds. There is a trust, then, that giving the pages of Scripture to a non-Christian can plant the seeds for conversion. The holy words in Scripture have the power to lead the reader to salvation. However, Ratzinger is quick to point out that this does not undermine normal methods of evangelization, which is the mission of the Church. The word “prudently” in the Vatican II document also must not be forgotten. Shooting Bibles from T-shirt guns at sporting events might not be the most prudent way to hand out the Bible.

Thus, we too should realize the power of Scripture. We should look for opportunities to hand out Bibles to non-Christians. We should do this not as a replacement of the Church’s mission of evangelization, but in addition to and alongside of that mission! And we must always remember to practice love and humility in all that we do.

Has anybody out there handed out Bibles to non-Christians? Let us know if you have any experiences to share or any advice in this work!

“Ignorance of Scripture is Ignorance of Christ” – Saint Jerome, 5th century

[1] Vatican II: Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Buy on Amazon, or read for free online

[2] Joseph Ratzinger commentary on Dei Verbum,

Photo obtained here.