A springtime for Scripture: Thoughts on ‘Aperuit illis’

St Jerome tells us that if we do not know the Scriptures, we do not know Jesus Christ.

The great Father of the Church, St Jerome, died in Bethlehem in 420AD. A “hot tempered character,” Jerome utilised his passion for truth and his knowledge of the Scriptures for the building up of the Church. Famous for his saying that “ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ,” Jerome is a great ambassador for a new springtime in the promotion of Scripture as the Word of God.

Almost 1600 years after Jerome’s passing, Pope Francis offers to us in his new Apostolic Letter, Aperuit illis a reminder of the centrality of the Scriptures for the Christian life. This is not before time!

For many of the Catholic faithful the Sacred Scriptures are a daunting and unapproachable mystery, replete with archaic language and concepts, littered with names and places that could well be from a Tolkien novel.

In the end, for many, the Bible is deemed too long and wordy to bear opening and thus it becomes just another monument to a lost culture gathering dust on the bookshelf.

Pope Francis holds up a Bible as he promotes reading of the Bible during his Angelus delivered from the window of his studio overlooking St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican October 2014. To help the church grow in love and faithful witness to God, Pope Francis has declared the third Sunday in ordinary time to be dedicated to the word of God. PHOTO: CNS/Paul Haring

This general reluctance to engage with the Scriptures extends into the field of Catholic education. As a former high school teacher and a current teacher of teachers, I write with some experience on this point. While there are some wonderful exceptions to the rule, the average Catholic school teacher has at best a rudimentary understanding of the Scriptures and this shows in the way these sacred texts are often taught.

What we find is that too many students leave our school system, through little fault of their own, with little to no understanding of the meta-narrative of the Scriptures and a fear of opening the Bible which is based on ignorance of correct methods for interpreting the text.

Other faithful Catholics, often charismatic in spirituality (though of course all baptised Catholics have been given charisms!), are eager to jump into reading the Scriptures.

Many of these feel comfortable to open the Bible daily to receive words from the Lord. Often these people are comparatively well formed in the Scriptures, perhaps through the influence of Bible-based ecumenical groups or churches. Others, however, lack awareness of the context of the passages they read or they fail to grasp well the literal sense of the text. This can be dangerous as it can lead to erroneous and damaging interpretations that can draw people away from orthodox doctrine or into making poor decisions.

The faithful are dependent for the most part on their pastors to teach them how to open up the Scriptures. Many of our priests, good and faithful men that they are, have been ripped off in their formation in the Scriptures. Many of these priests were subjected to dry, overly scientific and analytical exegetical (interpretive) techniques in their seminary years. They were often discouraged from recognising the truth that it is the Holy Spirit who is the true author of the Scriptures.

Pope Francis’s latest apostolic letter released on the 30 September feast of St Jerome, Aperuit Illis, is based on a verse from the Gospel of St. Luke, “Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” Photo: CNS/Karen Callaway, Catolico

As a consequence, any thoughts that our loving Father could speak to them through the Scriptures were regarded as pious and unscientific; rather, the text was to be dissected to the nth degree to discover what it really meant. Those who reacted to this ‘formation’ retreated to purely spiritual interpretations that treated the Scriptures on their merits without really engaging with the fact that they are historical documents written by men who “made use of their [own human] powers and abilities.” Many homilies today reflect this formation.

So what can we do to combat this ignorance of Scripture which, as Jerome tells us, is ignorance of the One with whom we are called into friendship – the Word made flesh, Jesus?

In the first instance, it seems necessary to promote a narrative approach to teaching Scripture. By this I mean formation in the big picture of the Scriptures and their place in the history of salvation history, God’s saving plan for His children. The Great Adventure Bible Study and the accompanying book Walking with God stand out as exceptional resources for teaching the Bible narrative.

It is vital too that the faithful are taught how to pray with the Scriptures.

They are not simple history texts that need to be committed to memory in order to win trivia nights or battles with those who think differently to us!

The practice of lectio divina is recommended by the Holy Father. This ancient way of entering into the mystery of the Word is ideal for coming to the sure knowledge of the spiritual sense of the text. In this way, God’s heart which burns so much for us can speak to our own hearts, giving us sure knowledge of the meaning of the written word.

The promotion of Scripture Study groups in parishes needs to be a priority. This would require first of all that leaders for these groups are well formed for the task. Resources can help, but more important is that leaders be chosen from among those who are willing to follow the dictates of Dei verbum: that the Scriptures be read as a unified text authored and inspired by the Holy Spirit; that they are read within “the living Tradition of the Church”; and that they are read in the faith that they speak God’s Word.

Pope Francis 9/11 September 11 World Trade Centre Twin Towers New York City
During his visit to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York on in September 2015, Pope Francis looks at a Bible fragment found in the rubble following the 2001 terrorist attack in lower Manhattan. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring

Better formed laity should lead to more worthy celebrations of the liturgy. The liturgy is, of course, the traditional place of encounter with the Word. Here it is proclaimed, just as it was in Old Testament times, for all the people to hear and reflect on. What a privilege we have to hear God speak to us directly every time we come to Mass!

In his latest Apostolic Letter, the Holy Father recommends better formation of lectors in order that the faithful may hear the Word proclaimed more clearly and powerfully. This would need to be accompanied with the pastorally difficult task of asking some current lectors to step aside. Not all people have the gift of proclaiming the Word satisfactorily.

Another way the Scriptures can be better utilised for the building up of the Church is in the sacramental liturgies outside of Holy Mass. Every liturgical rite includes a proclamation of the Word, but frequently this is omitted or downplayed to the detriment of the rite. Perhaps we can look more closely at how we support our priests at Baptisms, Second Rites of Reconciliation, and funerals, so that the Word is proclaimed with the dignity it deserves.

It was perhaps fitting that this Jerome passed from this world at the place of the birth of the Word made flesh, for Jerome knew better than most that “God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion.”

Today we have the opportunity to correct some of the mistakes of the past, to help people to fall in love again with our God who speaks to us as a loving Father, especially through the Scriptures.

The Bible is a book of love, but loving words are not always easy to hear. Let’s make every effort to demystify this text and to empower people to read it wisely and faithfully. A Scriptural springtime beckons!


Dr Kevin Wagner

Dr Kevin Wagner is a lecturer in Theology on the Broadway campus of the University of Notre Dame, Australia, and he is, with his wife Helen, co-responsible for the Emmanuel Community (Communauté de ‘Emmanuel) in Sydney.

With permission. This article first appeared on www.catholicweekly.com.au

Redfern locals welcome the Word on the street

The Emmanuel Community’s Victoria Costello talks to a passer-by on the street. Photo: Patrick J. Lee

A group of Sydney Catholics are gently but confidently taking Jesus Christ to the streets of Redfern each month.

The outreach run by the Emmanuel Community is a shared passion with the parish priest of Catholic Community of City South Father Paul Smithers. On Friday 13 September around 40 members of the Emmanuel Community and others gathered on Redfern Street outside of St Vincent de Paul Church for the regular ‘mission night’.

While half of the group remained outside to sing praise hymns and offer a friendly greeting, chat, or even the offer of a prayer to passersby, the others prayed for their efforts before the Blessed Sacrament.

Reconciliation was available and people deciding to enter the church had an opportunity to light a candle, pray quietly, take a short scripture passage home, or simply pause for a moment before going on their way.

Rebecca Saleme shares a greeting with passersby on Redfern Street. PHOTO: Patrick J Lee

“Our aim is not to get people to come to into the church, some do, but we hope they will have an encounter with Jesus either through our presence outside or anything they encounter inside,” said the Emmanuel Community’s Helen Wagner who believes she has never had an unfriendly reaction to its unique style of street evangelisation.

“Even if someone doesn’t want to engage very much with us but only takes away an impression of a friendly smile and a ‘hello’, that is still valuable,” she said.
“It might be an important step towards building a bridge of trust with the Church.”

Emmanuel Community member Renita Rosario and Sam Laffy discuss life, the universe and everything with members of the public. Photo: Patrick J. Lee

Father Smithers said that the locals appreciate the fact that the group is a regular “gentle presence for the curious” and his experience of the mission nights this year corresponds with recent statistics that 24 percent of non-Christian Australians were ‘warm’ towards Christianity.

“It is a ministry of simply being present to talk to those passing by on the street,” he said. “They don’t push faith, they are a gentle presence for the curious. Some people even take the step to come into the church to spend a little time in quiet prayer.


Last month the Catholic community of Waterloo, Rosebery and Redfern celebrated the 160th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone of the Shrine of Our Lady of Mt Carmel in Waterloo, at which Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP said he trusted that “new adventures” in the parish, including in evangelisation and formation, would bear fruit.

The next mission night will be on 18 October from 7.30-9pm. Anyone wishing to join the team may email emmanuelcommunitysydney@gmail.com.

With permission. This article first appeared on www.catholicweekly.com.au

Teresa Hodal: Lose yourself, find yourself

Teresa Hodal (second right) and fellow ESM participants offer hot food to the homeless in New York.
Teresa Hodal (second right) and fellow ESM participants offer hot food to the homeless in New York.

I decided to do the year-long Emmanuel School of Mission in New York in October last year.

The School is run by the Emmanuel Community, one of the new ecclesial movements in the Church which was established in France in the 1970s and emerged out of the charismatic renewal.

It seemed like a great opportunity for many reasons.

I wanted to strengthen my faith, learn how to be a missionary and spread the love of God with everyone I met.

It also sounded like a great year to be formed more in the Catholic faith and to serve the poor – in this case (and especially) in the Bronx.

It wasn’t an easy decision, but when all the doors opened and I couldn’t find any more reasons for not doing it, I quit my job, moved out of my house and tried to prepare myself for what lay ahead.

Within six weeks I flew halfway across the world and found myself in what seemed like a different universe.

Settling in, I learned to love things such as community Praise (which I had never experienced before) and even the ceaseless background noise of the Bronx.

We were nine missionaries from eight different countries, with two priests. We lived in community – one of the best experiences of ESM.

ESM participants in Adoration in front of the Blessed Sacrament in New York.
ESM participants in Adoration in front of the Blessed Sacrament in New York.

Yes, it was at times challenging and, despite the initial language barriers (especially between myself and the French speakers) we spent nine months laughing, cooking, cleaning, leading missions, studying, eating and praying together. Life-long friendships were made and now I have friends all over the world.

A big part of the year was obviously mission life. We were based in the South Bronx in New York – one of the toughest neighbourhoods in the city that never sleeps.

Yet it was probably the best place for us to be because many people there were poor and hungry – physically hungry but especially spiritually hungry.

We visited the Missionaries of Charity in their mother house, a five minute walk from where we lived, and volunteered in their soup kitchen a couple of days per week.

There, the Missionaries feed 40-80 homeless people everyday. We also did street evangelisation in the Bronx every week where we had so many beautiful conversations with people from every possible background.

I definitely felt more evangelised by the end than the people we went to evangelise. I especially remember one lady I spoke to who told us she was dying of cancer and that she had lost hope. She then took a Word of God from us which was about hope and trusting in God.

She started to cry and told us that we were God’s messengers sent to her and that we had given her hope. This is just one of many stories of the people who Christ touched through us in the Bronx.

We also went on various missions overseas and within the US, from running retreats in highschools, to leading ‘Mercy’ nights and parish missions.

Through daily Mass and adoration, plus retreats throughout the year, I learnt to love prayer and have a deeper love of God. You can’t go to daily Mass and have an hour of adoration everyday and not be changed.

Teresa Hodal (second right) and fellow ESM participants offer hot food to the homeless in New York.
Teresa Hodal (second right) and fellow ESM participants offer hot food to the homeless in New York.

I also learnt many new things through our intellectual formation and the classes that we received every week on various topics from Moral Theology, Scriptures, Spirituality and Art History, to name a few.

When I arrived at the beginning of the year, I didn’t know what to expect.

Looking back now on an amazing nine months I can say that ESM was an amazing opportunity to serve others and to be a witness to the Faith. It completely changed my life.

It also taught me the need and duty for every Catholic to be a missionary.

Somewhere along the way, I received more than I ever knew I could. When you get out of your comfort zone and are open to what God is asking you, many beautiful things happen.

I learnt during these nine months how wonderful it is to be Catholic. ESM taught me the importance of friendships in a way I never fully experienced before. It helped me to pray and to always incorporate God into every aspect of my day.

The motto of the school is ‘Give all, get more!’ This, I found, was so true.

Looking back I can say ESM will change your life. My life will never be the same and for that I will be eternally grateful. A year given fully to serve God through everyone you meet is abundantly rewarded. I have met Jesus this year and come to know Him like I never knew Him before.

If anyone is ever thinking of doing a mission year I would highly recommend it.


With permission. This article first appeared on www.catholicweekly.com.au

Parents are the greatest teachers

One of the greatest joys priests have in their work is being asked to baptise children.

Like most parishes, we always take time with the parents beforehand to get to know this new family in our parish, to learn how we can best serve their needs, and, obviously, help the family prepare for the baptism.

We usually go over a few areas together. We always take time to find out why the parents would like their children baptised.

We also have a look again at what baptism is: the action of God, acting through his body the Church, reaching down to save the child from the Evil One, remove the stain of original sin, and integrate them into the life of the Holy Trinity – the life of God himself! – as a member of His Body.

One thing some parents tell us they are surprised to learn is that schools, even Catholic schools, are not the principal educators of our children.

We have some truly excellent schools, and parents would have had the experience of encountering some truly marvellous teachers. But no school would suggest they are the main educators of any child.

There is a very simple reason for this: God himself made that choice. He did not entrust the child to the school, or the parish or the priests or consecrated or even the state.

While all these obviously have a responsibility to actively care for and protect children, these do not come remotely close to the centrality of parents as children’s most influential and credible teachers.

The role of the rest of us, including the school, is simply to support the parents in what is the most noble and beautiful vocation in the world.

The way we pray as Catholics reflects this reality. It’s only the parents, and no one else, who twice – in the marriage ceremony, and on the day of the baptism – commit, with God’s infinite help, to educating their children in the Catholic faith. They are the ones God has equipped to do so.

I’m not sure I can overstate this.

In our priestly work we are often accompanying parents who are going through a time of being overly critical, unhappy or anxious about their own parenting skills.

Three fundamental reminders I have always responded with are: you are infinitely loved by God, and have nothing to prove to anyone; whatever it looks like from the outside, there is no such thing as a family without major sufferings and problems; and that in entrusting any child to a parent, God not only gives all the grace needed to be the kind of parent a child needs, but also shows the confidence he has in that person to do so.

Questions are also about the elements specific to a Catholic education. As priests we feel it’s important to stress that as each child is unique, each family also needs to find the ways that best suit their situation.

Being Catholic of course means we can have recourse to certain unique resources that parents can use to help on their journey to raise and educate their children. These include:

What worked for the parent when they were growing up. What are the Catholic traditions they received which they can pass on to their own children?

To pray with them daily. Things like a Hail Mary before bed, or a decade of the rosary, singing Christian songs, grace before meals or simply naming prayer needs and saying together an Our Father for them are all opportunities for children to encounter God who is Pure Love.

Making the most of little occasions to teach them about who God and the Church are, the sacraments, and the Commandments. As Jesus says, the commandments are the foundation of our whole Christian moral life. Examples I’ve seen in families include reading from the Bible at night, accompanying children to confession, and sticking the commandments on the fridge.

Doing little things together to care for the poor, the elderly, the sick and those on the margins. Examples can include doing Project Compassion as a family, visiting isolated neighbours (or Nanna) regularly, or acts of solidarity with refugees.

Sunday Mass, where God comes to meet us in his Word, in the Church of the parish community, and above all to give himself totally to us and become part of us in Holy Communion. I’ve seen where this has been enormously helpful, especially where families are struggling or parents are fighting a sense of isolation due to suffering or social/economic/personal circumstances.

The most important of course doesn’t need to be said because it is the one thing all parents try to do: to love them. As we ourselves experienced, a child’s experience of God’s love is coloured by how our parents loved us. Prayer and the sacraments is an enormous help here: when we are finding it hard and pushed to the limits of our patience and fatigue, we can lean on this supernatural love which helps us go beyond our limits.


With permission. This article first appeared on www.catholicweekly.com.au

Path to leadership is via ‘littleness’

Character is everything: Steve Lawrence holds his latest book at the Mustard Seed Bookshop. Photo: Peter Rosengren
Character is everything: Steve Lawrence holds his latest book at the Mustard Seed Bookshop. Photo: Peter Rosengren

From footy to Faith

At six foot something, Steve Lawrence is a giant of a man. His height, combined with his sporting abilities were what saw him end up playing AFL football for Hawthorn from 1987 to 1998, including as a member of the brown and gold’s premiership-winning team of 1991.

Part of that AFL experience saw him playing against – and alongside – legends of the game. He’s the sort of bloke thousands of Aussie AFL fans would love to meet, be in the presence of and – these days – have a selfie taken with. Married to wife Annie, the couple have raised six children.

However one thing that sets the former ruckman aside is that he served as Director of the Emmanuel School of Mission in Rome from 2000 to 2003 before being drawn upon by the Archdiocese of Sydney to become Director of Evangelisation and Catechesis for World Youth Day 2008.

For this former sports star faith is his number one priority. These days he runs his own successful speaking and coaching business, Altum Leadership Group.

Cover of Make your Mark by Steven Lawrence

The clue is in the name. Altum is Latin, and means ‘high’ or ‘deep’ or both.

The concept of authenticity or true depth in leadership is what drove him to write a book on what he sees as the five key secrets of real leaders, launched in NSW at the Mustard Seed Bookshop in the heart of Sydney’s CBD last week.

True leadership, he told The Catholic Weekly, comes from winning interior battles and in small, even tiny, daily ways.

An example that clearly resonates deeply with him is Nelson Mandela, the first post-apartheid President of South Africa, whose example is explored in his book Make your Mark – 5 hidden keys to great leadership.

“Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison,” he said. “Yet he emerged to be able to unite a nation on the verge of civil war.

“[years before release] he chose to forgive, he chose not to bring about recrimination and retaliation when there was clearly the mood for it among many black Africans.”

“The only reason he was able to do that was that he chose to forgive, and that was an interior victory … that meant that when he was released from prison and became the President of South Africa he could unite the nation, both white and black, because of his interior freedom.

“We all have these interior battles we have to fight. We stumble and fall along the way and we have to win them.”

Steven Lawrence speaks at his book launch about what he sees as the five key secrets of real leaders at the Mustard Seed Bookshop in the heart of Sydney’s CBD. Photo: Charbel Azzi
Steven Lawrence speaks at his book launch about what he sees as the five key secrets of real leaders at the Mustard Seed Bookshop in the heart of Sydney’s CBD. Photo: Charbel Azzi

Failures and success of leadership fall on character

Yet if anyone walks into almost any bookshop in Australia they’ll find hundreds of titles, all claiming to reveal the secrets of true and effective leadership. Asked what makes his book different, there was a long pause.

“One of the key differences is I focus on leadership as character,” he told The Catholic Weekly.

“Other books focus on strategy and technical issues. I believe failures of leadership tend to be failures of character. So the question is: how do we draw people’s attention to this and how do we help people of character be given more responsibility?

“I conclude with an example, that most leadership is ‘tiny’, it happens at the very lowest level or smallest level.

“Everyday leadership, I think, is what people are called to live in the most simple and unexpected moments. It’s about readiness to do what’s right, readiness to step through doors that open, readiness to recognise that our life is not actually for us but for others, readiness to find collaborators who we can help become great.

“It’s in the small things that help us to become better people – that’s what leadership is about.”


With permission. This article first appeared on www.catholicweekly.com.au