Brother André becomes Holy Cross Congregation’s first Saint

By Tania Mann

They gave the newborn Joseph Alfred Bessette no more than a day to live. They were wrong. Instead, Brother André – as he was later called – would persevere until age 91, continually beating the odds and giving hope to others that miracles really do happen.

An orphan from age 12 who was frequently ill and barely literate, Br. André’s life was riddled with suffering. But in the nearly 40 years of his work in the Holy Cross Congregation as a doorman, he found meaning and healing in Christ and helped those he encountered to do the same.

“When I joined this community, the superiors showed me the door”, Br. André is known to have said kiddingly of his job as the porter at Notre Dame College in Montreal. Joking aside, however, the Holy Cross Congregation had in fact once turned André away, thinking his poor health would impede his ministry. Rather his humble work of hospitality carved a path of holiness that has now extended all the way to Rome. On Sunday, 17 October, Br. André became the Congregation’s first Saint.

Photo by Steven Scardina

Fr Edwin Obermiller, CSC, Assistant Provincial of the Indiana Province, was one among the thousands of pilgrims who travelled from across the globe to Rome for Br. André’s Canonization. After the ceremony on Sunday, he said: “My experience today took me back to the heart of why I became a Holy Cross religious: that sense of hospitality and care for those among us, especially for those who are in need of not only physical but also emotional and spiritual healing”.

The Holy Cross Congregation was established in 1837 by Fr Basil Anthony Moreau, who Benedict XVI beatified in 2007. Today the legacy of both Bl. Moreau and St Bessette lives on through the Congregation’s presence in 16 different countries.

The Order runs several universities in the United States, for example, including the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Indiana. In his homily during Opening Mass this fall, the institution’s President, Fr John Jenkins, CSC, emphasized a need to learn from Br. André’s example: “André has something to teach us”, Jenkins said. “He did not make great plans, but simply watched the door, and waited… He saw each visitor as a call from God to respond with compassion, attentiveness, and faith. And, remarkably, miraculous healings occurred”.

Indeed, André came to be known in his day as the “Miracle Man of Montreal” – a nickname to which he objected. He pointed instead to St Joseph, the patron of the Holy Cross Congregation.

In addition to fervently encouraging prayer for Joseph’s intercession, the doorkeeper also emphasized a view of the Lord as one who is near to us and always listening. He was known to say, for example, that “when you say to God, ‘Our Father’, he has his ear right next to your lips”.

This intimate relationship was what bolstered André’s faith in God’s aid. “André’s own innate trust in Divine Providence” – explained Fr Andrew Gawrych, CSC, Associate Director of the Office of Vocations in Indiana and the Eastern Provinces — “was so nurtured in Holy Cross that it empowered him to persevere in building St Joseph’s Oratory despite all the setbacks, famously asking for a statue of Jesus’ foster-father to be placed inside the unfinished shrine so the Saint himself might do the final fundraising. And he did!”.

Br. André was to work 16-hour days in the Oratory as its guardian, welcoming the pilgrims who flocked there and praying with them for healing. Often, those prayers were said to be miraculously answered. Today, St Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal is the third-largest basilica of its kind in the world and draws close to 2 million visitors a year.

Photo by Steven Scardina

Aside from running the Oratory and several top-tier universities, the Holy Cross Congregation is also dedicated to serving the poor. One of their best known efforts in this vein is André House, which serves the poor and homeless Arizona, U.S.A. Gawrych, who was recently stationed there, described the House as one way that André’s charism “continues to flourish in the community’s ministry today”.

With André’s official recognition as a Saint comes an invitation to the universal Church to participate in carrying on his legacy. It is a call to “search for God with simplicity, in order to discover him always present at the core of our lives”. as the Holy Father said in Sunday’s Canonization Mass Homily.

“Canonization allows people to see that they can make a difference in the world,” said Obermiller. “We begin to realize the capacity we each have to effect change in the world. Looking to St André, who didn’t even have a sixth-grade education, we can start to imagine the kind of potential we have to give back to the Church – to show the face of Jesus to others, in compassion, understanding and support”.

© L’Osservatore Romano English edition 10/20/2010


To seek wisdom is to seek Christ

The following piece was written to accompany the Pope’s Homily to Rome’s university students.

“We students have to seek the Face of God in everything we study”. With these words Emanuele Raimondo, a law student in Rome, took up a central theme of Benedict XVI’s Homily to students on 17 December. “It is our vocation to search for wisdom, that is, for God”, Raimondo continued. The academic’s role is then to help reveal the Face of Christ to others in “intellectual charity”, illuminating it by the diverse knowledge discovered through study, said the Pope. Rome’s academic community came together for Vespers in St Peter’s on the third Thursday of Advent, meaning that it was also the only night of the year in which the “O Antiphon” invoking Christ as Sapientia – Wisdom – is sung.

When considered together with the Nativity scene in Bethlehem, the Pope said, this invocation points to the “provocative” paradox of Wisdom seen from a Christian perspective. From “the mouth of the Most High”, Wisdom “comes to lie in swaddling cloths in a manger”, the Holy Father explained.

This identification of Wisdom with the Baby Jesus struck a chord with students: “In today’s society when one thinks of wisdom, so often the last thing to come to mind is humility”, said Emanuele Vincent, who also studies law in Rome. “The way the Pope brought the two together was truly beautiful”.

Contrary to what many may think, Benedict XVI said, drawing near to Christ in the manger is not an obstacle to successful academic study. “Education is a way for me to express and share my faith”, said Jenna Hensby, a nursing student from Sydney. “Rather than a stumbling block, it’s actually a platform”.

Hensby participated in the Celebration as a member of the delegation that had come from Australia to pass on the Icon of Mary, Sedes Sapientiae, to a delegation from Africa, its next destination.

The handing over took place at the conclusion of Vespers, a “small symbol of an immense project: that of creating a new bridge of knowledge between Rome and Africa”, said motor sciences student Angela Tozzi, representing Rome’s university students in an address to the Pope. “Remembering that Mary walks with us in our university hallways calls us to place our talents at the service of humanity… to build a new civilization founded on love”.

At the end of the ceremony, the organ’s chords faded into the rhythm of African drums and song, symbolizing the progression of the pilgrimage. Afterwards Christine Tesch, who studies business in Brisbane, expressed the Australian delegation’s hope for the Icon’s journey in Africa: that it might serve as an inspiration in the development of both its “Catholic faith, which is so young and vibrant, and its growing education system”.

The gathering was therefore a chance for the young students to recognize the interrelatedness of a worldwide academic community of the faithful. It also shed light on John Paul II’s original sentiments in commissioning the Icon, as expressed at its presentation: “Every day you are committed to proclaiming, defending and spreading the truth…. Even in research on areas of life which seem quite far from faith, there is a hidden desire for truth and meaning” (Homily to University Teachers, 10 September 2000; L’Osservatore Romano English edition, 13 September, p. 1).

For Benedict XVI, it was an opportunity to invite his fellow academics to draw near to that Grotto in Bethlehem, in which lies the only answer to “the Christian paradox”: that with a “Love that infinitely exceeds human and historical dimensions”, the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14).


© L’Osservatore Romano English edition

Unveiling the paradox of Christ’s love

“The birth of Jesus Christ in that stable in Bethlehem is where all my questions begin to be answered”.  The late Cardinal Basil Hume, Archbishop of Westminster, wrote these words when nearing the end of his life. “If I want to look on the face of utter love, if I want to see what the lover will do for the beloved, I have to take myself with faith to the crib and look at the image of the Child lying in the manger”, he added (1).

Looking at the scene of Christ’s birth – this is exactly what Benedict XVI invited the faithful to do when he blessed the Bambinelli that children had brought to the Angelus Reflection in St Peter’s Square on Sunday, 13 December.  He asked the “little ones” and their families to open their eyes to the mystery of this familiar scene of the Child Jesus and his Holy Family in the stable. In Italy the presepe, or nativity scene, remains the focus of Christmas decorations, with elaborate displays adorning piazzas and churches throughout the country.

As the Pope recalled, the tradition of the nativity scene began when St Francis of Assisi organized a re-enactment of the night of Christ’s birth in a mountainside cave in the small Italian village of Greccio:

“I want to do something that will recall the memory of that Child who was born in Bethlehem, to see with bodily eyes the inconveniences of his infancy”, St Francis explained during preparation for that first live nativity scene in 1223, as Thomas of Celano recorded in his biography of the Saint.

In that time, Thomas writes, “in the hearts of many the Child Jesus really had been forgotten, but, by his grace and through his servant Francis, he had been brought back to life”. What Francis most wanted to show the people, the Holy Father said on Sunday,  was that because of his love for us the Son of God emptied himself completely and came down to earth as a tiny baby.

The depth and nature of this love is a mystery that – while remaining hidden to many, past and present – has been revealed to the “little ones”.  Understanding the profound importance of this mystery and realizing what kind of person might begin to grasp it are both topics on which the Pope has consistently reflected, especially since the beginning of the new Liturgical Year.

“He concealed the great mystery of the Son… from the wise and the learned, from those who did not recognize him. Instead he revealed it to the children”, the Holy Father said. In order for our eyes to be opened, we need the grace to become small, he said. This is not to say, however, that the “becoming little” that is necessary for a deeper understanding of the faith means an abandonment of reason or a reversion to ignorance (2).

Instead, this process of becoming small involves the acknowledgement and consequent renouncement of the kind of foolishness that often leads to blind pride. All too often, people tend to think they “know everything” and see their own methods as “above God”.  In order to look at the Christ Child and truly see what lies there before him a man must open himself in humility, recognizing how little he is in comparison to the greatness of God. It is “precisely by accepting his own smallness… that he arrives at the truth” (3).

So we are to look to children for inspiration, the Pope says. A large part of what makes them worthy role models seems to be their ceaseless wonder at the world. “God speaks very gently to children, often without words…. Creation provides the vocabulary – leaves, clouds, flowing water, a shaft of light. It is a secret language, not to be found in books” (4).

Indeed, seeing God in nature is often how mankind has come to experience this same mystery whose truth is revealed in Christ.  In every age the beauty of Creation has brought Christians and non-Christians to catch a glimpse of that mystery.  One might begin with St Francis, so well known for his exuberant praise of God’s handiwork, as expressed in his Canticle of the Sun. But someone like Albert Einstein, for example, found transcendent meaning in Creation as well. His religion consisted in “a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind”, he said. And he also had an appreciation for the importance of being like children: “People do not grow old no matter how long we live. We never cease to stand like curious children before the great Mystery into which we were born”.

The greatest minds – from theologians to philosophers to scientists – have often concluded their life’s work with a sense that  what they know is, in the grand scheme of things, not much at all. St Thomas Aquinas is a prime example. His thought remains to this day an invaluable foundation upon which a considerable part of Catholic Doctrine firmly stands. Having produced a large body of theological and philosophical work, St Thomas reached a point late in his life when he decided to stop writing. This was prompted by a realization, as he described it, that all he had written seemed to him to be mere “straw”.

But the Baby Jesus was not to become a Man who spoke of his utter lack of wisdom. Instead, “slowly he grew to man’s estate, increasing in wisdom and grace before God and man, adding to the fruits of his knowledge by experience… growing conscious of the outward fabric of the universe which his own hands upheld”, writes English Dominican Bede Jarrett (5).

It is only with the realization of Jesus’ true identity, then, that the extent of his humility can even begin to be perceived. And it is this realization that lies at the very core of the mystery of the faith: “that at a given moment in history the Trinitarian God entered our history, as a man like us” (6).

Thus the Holy Father has asserted time and again that Christianity is no myth: “the Gospel is not a legend but the account of a true story…. Jesus of Nazareth is a historical figure” (7). By coming down to earth, God revealed a great deal of the mystery of his love.  But in illuminating this mystery, “he cannot help blinding me even while he enlightens me, not because of his limitations, but of mine…. In other words, just because God is infinite and I am finite, it is to be expected that everything that he tells me of himself, while increasing light, will increase darkness at the same time. In those countries where the sun is brightest, there are the deepest shadows; the very brilliance of the sun adds to the blackness of the shadow that it casts” (8).

An awareness of Jesus’ identity and his humility unveils what seem at first to be contradictions. The paradox of his life emerges – a life begun on a bed of hay and finished on a wooden cross. If Christ is truly King, why would he lower himself to that kind of existence? Why would he choose to place himself in such poor circumstances? A helpless child might be considered the very epitome of vulnerability.  But then, “to love at all is to be vulnerable”, as C.S. Lewis writes (9).

Christ knows the human condition inside out, but instead of exploiting humanity for its frailty, he chose to share in its trials. It was this loving desire that led him to dwell among us: “In becoming Man, the Lord himself wanted to love us with a heart of flesh!”, the Pope explained (10).

The moment in which that heart of flesh started beating, the course of human history was drastically changed.  Christ’s entrance into the world would bring a new intimacy to mankind’s relationship with its Creator, one that did not end when he ascended into Heaven. He is still present today: “God is here, he has not withdrawn from the world” the Pope said, explaining that this phrase constituted “the essential meaning of the word adventus” for Early Christians (11). He described the Advent Season as a chance to “pause in silence to understand a presence. It is an invitation to understand that the individual events of the day are hints that God is giving us”, signs of his love (12).

Yet Advent is also a time of anticipation. “The Lord is at hand!”, we heard during Sunday’s Liturgy in the Letter of St Paul – notably the very same “great scholar” who had become a “little one” and was hence able to perceive “the folly of God as wisdom” (13).This anticipation is expressed, for example, in the way that in Italy traditionally the Infant Jesus is not placed in the manger until Christmas. The tension between this sense of expectation and the divine presence that can be experienced today is in itself symbolic of the Christian journey.

The balance between them was illustrated poignantly in St Peter’s Square on Sunday. There in the centre of the piazza was the large, covered manger scene, soon to be unveiled.  But from the Square filled with the faithful, Baby Jesus figurines in hand, one could see the Virgin holding a newborn Child just to the right of the Basilica. Upon the mosaic, a work commissioned by Pope John Paul II,  are written the words: Totus Tuus – totally yours. Parallel to Mary and Jesus stood the Holy Father at his window, reminding the faithful that “the crib is a school of life, where we can learn the secret of true joy”. This consists “in giving oneself as a gift for others and in loving one another” as God loved humanity – completely.

For Christians, it is a joy rooted firmly in hope. Christ did not come only to share in the human condition, he came to sanctify it, to lift it to himself:  “Christ’s nativity places ‘in our hands’ the potential of personal participation in God’s sacred life and love in an endless progression” (14).  The sense of anticipation that comes with Advent is in fact reminiscent of humanity’s insatiable longing for union with its Creator, its waiting to return home to him.

This same Creator made himself a humble servant out of love for his creatures. It is the Christ Child, both vulnerable Infant and Almighty God, both ever present and near at hand, who makes possible “the hope of our salvation”. Such is the message that Benedict XVI has continually sought to convey. Thus whoever can look – through the eyes of a “little one” – at the nativity scene, welcoming the Baby within as the centre of their lives, will find both “the source of true joy” and “the heart of the world” (15).


1)    Cardinal Basil Hume, Mystery of the Incarnation, (London: Dartman, Longman and Todd, 1999), p. 10.

2)    Cf. Benedict XVI, Homily During Mass for the Members of the International Theological Commission, 1 December 2009; L’Osservatore Romano English edition [ORE], 9 December, p. 6.

3)    Ibid.

4)    Text of a French catechetical document as cited by Cardinal Hume in his above-referenced work, p. 60.

5)    “Jesus Christ”, Bede Jarrett Anthology, ed. Jordan Aumann, OP, (London: Aquin Press, 1961), p. 35.

6)    Benedict XVI, Homily During Mass for Members of the International Theological Commission; ORE, 9 December 2009, p. 6.

7)    Angelus Reflection, 6 December 2009; ORE, 9 December, p. 1.

Note: This latter description can be dangerous when taken alone, however. Many academics have reduced the “great mystery of Jesus, the Son made Man” into a historical Jesus, “a tragic figure; a ghost, not of flesh and blood; a man who stays in the tomb” (Homily, Mass for Members of the International Theological Commission).

8)    Bede Jarrett, OP “Faith”, Bede Jarrett Anthology, p. 296.

9)    The Four Loves (London: Harcourt Brace, 1960), p. 111.

10)  General Audience Catechesis, 2 December 2009; ORE, 9 December, p. 16.

11)   Homily During First Vespers for the Beginning of Advent, 28 November 2009; ORE, 2 December, p. 7.

12)   Cf. ibid.

13)   Benedict XVI, Homily During Mass for Members of the International Theological Commission; ORE, 9 December 2009, p. 6.

14)   Bartholomew I, Patriarchal Proclamation Upon the Feast of Christmas 2008.

15)   Benedict XVI, Angelus Reflection, 13 December 2009.

– – – –


© L’Osservatore Romano English edition

Meeting Michelangelo

I met Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. There he pointed out to me why the Jesus of The Last Judgment was the best part of the whole Chapel, all of  which was of course “bellissima”: “It’s in the way he’s holding up his hand – he’s giving us a special sort of greeting”, he said.

Detail, Jesus in Michelangelo's The Last Judgment

A small, curly-haired boy of about six, Michelangelo was paying his first visit to the Vatican Museums, or the “Michelangelo Museum”, as he called it. He said that he was happy to be there at last, because, as his mother explained, it is usually too crowded and hot for the family to make the trip. But this evening was an opportunity to visit it without the usual inconveniences of a tourist-packed museum, for the first ever nighttime opening of the Vatican Museums in their five-century-long history.

It was a night to give the Museums back to the people of Rome, according to Prof. Antonio Paolucci, Director of the Vatican Museums. And indeed many Italian families with children, as well as other Romans and pilgrims from all walks of life, attended the historic event on Friday evening, 24 July.

Mothers explained the paintings to their little ones whilst elderly couples strolled along, taking it all in. Many paused at the arched windows to admire the view of the subtly illuminated gardens and of St Peter’s dome at dusk. One woman enjoying the evening breeze at a large window even removed her heels, in a simple gesture that hinted at the true sense of the evening – to make the Romans feel at home amid their own city’s world-renowned cultural heritage.

Paolucci inaugurated the evening by accompanying Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, newly appointed General Secretary of the Governorate of Vatican City State, and Mauro Cutrufo, Vice-Mayor of Rome, through the first leg of the tour. The Director proudly pointed out the highlights to his special guests, inviting them to look more closely and even encouraging them to touch certain statues.

Visitors were offered a special itinerary that included the Octagonal Court, the Upper Galleries of the Vatican Museums – displaying Candelabras, Tapestries and Maps – the Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael rooms), the Sistine Chapel and the Galleries of the Apostolic Library.

That evening, one entered the Octagonal Court to strains of Renaissance dance music played on authentic wooden instruments from the same period. In their playful renditions – resounding throughout the courtyard against the basso continuo of the fountain’s rushing water – the two musicians, Tullio Visioli and Fabio Refrigeri, recreated the atmosphere of the Papal Courts of the past. It was in this evocative setting that Prof. Paolucci commented to Archbishop Viganò on the beauty of the “museographic composition – embracing sky, statues and music”.

Octagonal Court, Vatican Museums

Inside, the sculpted detail of the men and women immortalized in marble emerged with new clarity in the marked shadows. Their faces, lining the Museum’s impressive corridors, seemed to take on an almost suspicious air in the evening light, as if to wonder what the visitors were doing there after hours.

There was in fact something about walking through the halls in semi-darkness that almost felt like sneaking around in a secret, forbidden place. Paolucci had indeed wanted to let the public in on this “secret” for some years now, so as to make them aware of the immense beauty of the “culture on their doorstep”, he said.

“It often happens that citizens of cities like Paris, Rome and Florence feel deprived of their museums”, said Paolucci. There has been a worldwide movement to make the museums of these famed cities more readily accessible for their respective citizens, he explained.

The response was overwhelming. Over 2,600 people entered the Museums in the first 40 minutes. Those who bought tickets online beforehand numbered about 4,000, and more than 3,000 reservations were booked through the Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi, which had joined in the initiative.

The prospect of opening the Museums in the evening is also practical, as explained Fr Bruno Silvestrini, an Augustinian friar and parish priest of St Anna’s Church which stands just inside the Vatican City walls. “For all those who work, it’s a chance to be able to see the Museums peacefully and in new colours”, he said, having been pulled momentarily from his animated explanation of the surrounding artwork to a group of his colleagues from the Vatican. “This is so beautiful, especially during the summer period, when the light of dusk is still streaming in”, he said. “Everything is illuminated in a different way; it allows the visitor to discover these works of art in a new light. I think that it must definitely be repeated”.

Indeed the common sentiment at Friday’s event was the hope that it would continue in the future, and Paolucci expressed every intention of making it a regular occurrence from this September onwards. Plans are also underway for similar events to take place throughout the city of Rome to include weekend nighttime openings of sites such as the Colosseum, the Forums, the Capitoline Museums and the Ara Pacis Museum.

Mr Enzo Mattina was quick to point out however that, more than these, the Vatican Museums are what draw visitors to contemplate the religious elements of Roman culture. Originally from Naples but a resident of Rome for about 40 years, the elderly Mattina could be found that night strolling arm in arm with his sister, Elena.

“We were captivated”, he said of the guided tour given by the Museums that they had taken. “Italians travel around the world, but they also need to realize what’s sitting right here in front of them”, he continued. “Trying to speak about the art in the Museums would be ridiculous. No description would suffice. There are no words”.

The Libyan Sibyl, Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo

Thus the historic nighttime opening resulted in what might even be called an indescribably memorable evening for visitors of all ages. As the end drew near, Paolucci, now free of the press, took in the scene of enchanted visitors on an adjoining candlelit terrace. From it the imposing, illuminated cupola of St Peter’s – yet another of Michelangelo’s masterpieces – glowed like a moon over water.

Perhaps the great artist’s legacy will inspire another. Because little Michelangelo told me when we met: “My teacher said that I’m very good at drawing and that I too could become an artist someday”.

“Do you think you’ll be remembered in the same way this Michelangelo is now?” I asked as we gazed up at The Creation of Adam. He responded confidently and thoughtfully: “Yes, I really think so!”.


Copyright (c) L’Osservatore Romano English edition

Finding the Word in the word

When the words upon a page of Scripture transform our hearts, our souls, and our minds, they become the Word made flesh in our world today. This is the message that emerged from the Synod of Bishops on the theme, “The Word of God in the life and mission of the Church.”

The synod met from October 5-26 in the Vatican. Gathered together in the Synod Hall—often deemed a modern-day “Upper Room”—Church leaders shared firsthand accounts of the use of Scripture throughout the world and sought to discern concrete ways of renewing the universal Church.

Throughout the three weeks of the synod, Pope Benedict XVI’s words brought the Bible to life, conveying the profound significance and timeliness of this year’s theme to those both inside Vatican City walls and beyond them.

In his contribution to the Synod Hall discussion, Pope Benedict XVI touched on topics from his recent book, Jesus of Nazareth, as he discussed the necessary elements of a correct approach to reading and interpreting Scripture.

Citing heavily from Vatican II’s Dei Verbum, n. 11, the Holy Father outlined what methodologies are necessary for the Scriptures to reveal their true meaning.

This discourse put in more technical terms the message he emphatically conveyed throughout the synod and in the weeks previous, stressing the need to see Christ the Word in both a historical and a spiritual light.

While applauding the high standard of current historical-critical scriptural scholarship, the Pope expressed disappointment in the lack of truly theological exegesis today. Consequently, the Bible is being analyzed as if it were a history book.

On the one hand, its pages do convey historical fact: “The history of salvation is not mythology, but rather true history, and is therefore to be studied alongside serious historical research methods,” the Pope said.

However, Christ was not only human; he was divine, too. And as such, as more than a historical figure, the reality of his identity as God made man must also be taken into account. This involves reading Scripture “in the same spirit in which it was written,” as Dei Verbum declared.

Any one Bible passage must be seen in the context of the whole of Revelation as handed down to us in Scripture and through tradition.

This is no simple task. “Just reading” the Bible does not mean we come to “find the Word in the words,” as Benedict said in his opening address to the Synod of Bishops. We must strive to seek that Word through a multi-dimensional approach.

When the reading of Scripture fails to acknowledge divine action within its pages, God goes absent from human history: secularism and science replace faith and Revelation. We trust only the former two to be objectively true and lose sight of the truth Scripture conveys.

Thus what may first appear as a purely academic issue regarding exegetical methods is reflected in our society’s perspective on life’s priorities, in a skewed concept of reality. And the danger of that view is all too evident with the current financial crisis.

“We can see this now with the fall of large banks: this money disappears, it is nothing…. The one who builds his life on these realities, on matter, on success, on appearances, builds upon sand,” the Pope said. Continuing, he declared the Word of God as the permanent “foundation of all reality.”

Instead of hungering for success or money, true substance is found in the Word’s meaning for us today. “The Church’s principal task, at the start of this new millennium, is above all to nourish ourselves on the Word of God, in order to make new evangelization more effective,” Benedict said in his homily at the synod’s conclusion.

Evangelization means putting the first and greatest commandment into practice — loving God and neighbor — as the text from Matthew’s Gospel on which the Holy Father’s homily was based clearly teaches (Matt. 22:34-40).

Translating the Word into acts of love is the “only way to make the Gospel announcement credible, despite the human weaknesses that mark individuals.” More than anything, this requires an increasingly intimate knowledge of Christ, sought with humility, Pope Benedict said.

He said that the most important place to take in the Word through Scripture is the Mass. Here we realize that the Bible is “a book of the people and for the people, an inheritance, a testament handed over to readers so that they can put into practice in their own lives the history of salvation witnessed in the text.”

The role of the homily is then extremely important in the way we encounter the Word on a regular basis. Indeed, Pope Benedict pinpointed homilies during his synodal address as another aspect of Church life affected by the current unbalanced state of scriptural study, and their improvement was one of this 12th General Assembly’s main themes. When using “mainstream” historical analyses of the Bible for their preparation, priests come away perplexed, because the soul of Scripture is lost, the Pope said.

The proper formation of priests becomes increasingly crucial within the context of the current movement to encourage Catholics to read the Bible on their own. The Pope has continually recommended prayerful reading of Scripture, or Lectio Divina (Latin for “divine reading”).

The will to explore the Bible’s pages is there, it seems. In a survey conducted by the Catholic Biblical Federation this year, covering 16 countries, the majority of those interviewed think of the Bible with great respect, have a copy in their homes, and consider its words to hold significant meaning for their lives, Italian Bishop Vincenzo Paglia reported to the synodal assembly.

But the majority of survey participants — believers and nonbelievers alike — find the Bible difficult to understand without assistance. (This is without taking into account the fundamental obstacle of language for many, since the same survey found that the Bible has yet to be translated into over 4,000 of the world’s languages.)

It is therefore important that a personal conversation with God through the Scriptures unfold under careful guidance. The responsibility falls to pastors to lead the faithful in this endeavor, and the best methods for doing so were discussed at length by the bishops during these weeks.

Traditionally, the idea of reading Scripture on their own is somewhat novel for Catholics, for whom its communal nature has been emphasized in a coming together as one body in Christ to listen to the Word and hear it broken down in the homily. Individual Bible study, instead, is often considered a predominantly Protestant practice.

Not to be forgotten are the roots of the Lectio Divina that the Pope desires so strongly to renew, which extend deep into ancient monastic tradition.

The difference between the Protestant and Catholic approaches to Scripture is real, however, and it was addressed by Korean Bishop Vincent Ri Pyung-Ho, who spoke of Protestants’ tendency to memorize Bible passages. Protestants quote the Bible, whereas Catholics speak of abstract biblical themes, he said.

But when we read that “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19), we realize that internalizing Scripture can also be considered Catholic in its striving after Mary’s example. Through her intimate relationship with both the Son of God and the Scriptures, “she made her heart into a library of the Word,” said Bishop Ri Pyung-Ho.

Indeed, Pope Benedict, in line with his predecessor John Paul II, consistently steers our eyes toward Mary as our model. During the synod, he demonstrated this clearly with a visit to Pompeii, where he entrusted the assembly to her care. There he continued in his strong encouragement to pray the rosary, led its recitation, and gave a meditation on its meaning.

While it is often prayed communally, the rosary can certainly be a means of incorporating Scripture into personal prayer as well. As the Pope pointed out, the rosary is “completely interwoven with scriptural elements,” as it entails contemplating the Gospel mysteries. The thoughts of those who pray it remain “anchored to Scripture.”

For example, we should ideally use words taken from the Bible when enunciating each mystery. Then there are the prayers themselves: the Our Father comes straight from the Gospel, as does the first half of the Hail Mary. The second half constitutes our own supplications, involving us personally and communally.

“The rosary must always emerge from the silence of the heart as a response to the Word, after the model of Mary’s prayer,” the Pope said during his meditation.

The rosary and Lectio Divina then become integral parts of our dialogue with God, as we use human words to move towards the Word of God. Each is an example of how the Catholic Church can progress into the future while remaining profoundly rooted in tradition.

Since love of God is inextricably linked to love of neighbor, relationship with God then leads naturally to seeking dialogue with others. This was witnessed by those who took in the historic scene of the Holy Father walking side by side with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in the Sistine Chapel.

There, Bartholomew I gave the first address by an Eastern Church leader to the Synod of Bishops. Quoting the Church Fathers extensively and eloquently, he emphasized the fundamental need to take God’s Word beyond the church walls and into every aspect of our lives.

“If we claim to retain the sacrament of the altar, we cannot forgo or forget the sacrament of the neighbor — a fundamental condition for realizing God’s Word in the world within the life and mission of the Church.”

Thoughtful dialogue is therefore necessary among Christ’s followers, transcending political and religious differences “in order to transform the entire visible world for the glory of the invisible God.”

Pope Benedict was deeply moved in his spontaneous response to Bartholomew, deeming the occasion a true experience of “synod,” (a word whose Greek roots signify “walking a path together”), and calling the patriarch’s words “strongly contextualized in our time.”

Days after this encounter, the Holy Father touched again on the theme of dialogue’s essential nature as he brought the synod to a close within St. Peter’s Basilica:

Scripture and liturgy converge, therefore, with the single aim of bringing the people to dialogue with the Lord and to obedience to the will of the Lord. The word issued from the mouth of God and witnessed in the Scriptures returns to him in the form of a prayerful response, a response that is lived, a response that wells up from love.

In this seeking to live our lives in conversation with God, the Pope’s guiding words lead us along the path toward the fullness of truth in the faith handed down to us through the Church. Whether through listening to Scripture and its interpretation as a community or endeavoring to take a guided step toward the Word through individual prayer, our destination remains that same unshakeable truth, found in Christ alone.

11/2008, Web exclusive

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