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Unlocking the Word of God
By Susan Hines-Brigger
This month, bishops from around the world will gather in Rome to discuss Scripture in the life and mission of the Church. Archbishop Donald Wuerl explains what they’ll be doing.



"THE WORD OF GOD in the Life and Mission of the Church”: That’s what approximately 250 bishops from around the world are going to be discussing at the Vatican October 5-26.

Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., is one of four bishops from the United States who will be attending the synod. The other U.S. bishops attending are Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB); Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, USCCB vice president; and Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Houston. Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia and Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Washington, were named alternate delegates.

U.S. Cardinal William Levada, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was appointed as one of three delegate presidents for the synod. In that role, he will take turns presiding over the synod’s daily sessions.

St. Anthony Messenger spoke with Archbishop Wuerl by phone in late June about what actually takes place during a synod and what it means for the average Catholic. This is the fourth synod Archbishop Wuerl has attended. He participated in the 1990 Synod on Formation of Priests in the Circumstances of the Present Day, the Synod for the Americas in 1997 and the Synod on the Eucharist in 2005. He calls them all “extraordinary experiences and very, very spiritual moments.”

This synod, Archbishop Wuerl says, is a natural follow-up to the previous one on the Eucharist.

“It just seems so logical and natural for the synod that would follow on the Eucharist to be the Word of God. And in fact, in announcing that topic, the Holy Father said as much. He said that the presumption is going to be that we’re building on the Synod on the Eucharist.”

But what exactly is the purpose of holding these synods? Synods were started in 1965 by Pope Paul VI as a way to continue the collegiality established during the Second Vatican Council.

Synod participants—which include bishops representing episcopal conferences, patriarchs and metropolitans of Eastern Catholic Churches, members appointed by the pope and heads of the Holy See’s major offices—are chosen by their brother bishops. The goal, says Archbishop Wuerl, is to “bring a number of bishops from around the world who would be reflective of the Church Universal.” There are also male and female observers, ecumenical delegates, experts and staff members.

The meetings were originally a month long, and had more than one topic for the bishops to discuss. Prior to 2005’s Synod on the Eucharist, however, Pope Benedict XVI cut the length of the synods down to three weeks. He also expanded the amount of discussion time within that three-week period.

In early June, the Instrumentum Laboris, or working document, was released to synod participants. It was developed from responses to a questionnaire sent to dioceses last year, and will serve as the discussion guide for the synod.

The document said the overall goal of the synod is to promote a greater access to Scripture and a better understanding of it among Catholics. It also pointed out that most Catholics don’t have the tools needed to understand the Bible and its passages, particularly those of the Old Testament.

In presenting the working document, Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, the secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, said that the topic plays off both the previous synod on the Eucharist and the year of St. Paul, which began on June 28.

Of the latter, Archbishop Eterovic said, “The memory of St. Paul, apostle of the gentiles, will not fail to arouse a renewed missionary drive in the Church, for the benefit of all humanity. The center of such dynamism remains the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist.”

Once the synod actually begins, says Archbishop Wuerl, the bishops each have an opportunity to present what they think should be said about the topic and how the topic affects their local church. Then they gather in smaller language groups (Latin, English, French, German, Italian and Spanish with Portuguese) where they discuss the points they would like to make. After presenting these points to the entire assembly, they once again divide into language groups where they identify the priority statements that reflect the mind of the Church on this topic. These are then presented to the whole assembly, revised as necessary and voted on.

That process, says the archbishop, is the synod’s most rewarding and challenging work.

“The most challenging part of the synod is when you get down to the last days and you’re trying to pull together all the thoughts so that you actually have what they call propositions. But certainly one of the most rewarding parts is the discussion itself.”

And that’s when the pope takes over. Synod participants turn over the fruits of their discussions to the pope, and he begins crafting an apostolic exhortation based on the points raised by the bishops during the synod.


Why Catholics Should Care

For many Catholics, the concept of a synod may be a rather foreign one. But Archbishop Wuerl believes that Catholics should care and be interested because the topic is so central to our faith.

“The Word of God is spoken to us in God’s revelation, in the mighty deeds in the Old Testament, in the prophets through the voice of the law, but spoken to us in the fullest manner in Jesus Christ. It is supposed to be the determining guide for our lives.

“Jesus is the Word Incarnate. And that Word continues to be spoken in the Church today. It’s spoken in the Church today in the liturgy, in the sacraments, in the proclamation of the Scriptures; it’s spoken in the effort of the Church to live out the faith. We see it spoken in the examples and lives of saints, in the lives of all those who try to do God’s will. Well, if the Word of God permeates the whole fabric of the Church, shouldn’t we want to know as much about it as we can?” he asks.

Earlier this year, Archbishop Wuerl played host to Pope Benedict XVI when he visited Washington, D.C., as part of his first visit to the United States.

Archbishop Wuerl says the visit was a confirmation of the faith for American Catholics. “I think the pope made it so clear that he had come to confirm us, all of us, in our faith. And then he did what is also his responsibility: He challenged us to live out that faith as fully as we can. And I found that to be a very, very uplifting experience.”

Archbishop Wuerl says that during the visit the pope also reconfirmed what synod participants will be discussing. “Pope Benedict began his homily at Washington Nationals Park by saying, ‘In the exercise of my ministry as the Successor of Peter, I have come to America to confirm you, my brothers and sisters, in the faith of the apostles.’ That’s what we do when we turn to the Church, we turn to our parish, our pastors, we turn to the teaching Church to understand the meaning of the Scriptures so that in continuity with the faith of the apostles we understand the true meaning of those words.”

But that’s not the only reason Catholics should care, he says. “Today, we live in an era where evangelization is so important. And we keep talking about the new evangelization bringing people back to the faith who have drifted away and opening up the hearts of people to the meaning of the gospel. Knowing the Word and being immersed in it is very important.

“And there is another point as well. In the age of ecumenism we need to be very familiar with our faith and we need to be very comfortable with the written Word of God, the Scriptures, when we are discussing with other faith communities what it is that God asks of us and what it is God calls us to be. So I would say for all of those reasons, Catholics should be interested in what will be going on at the synod.”

What this synod will not be doing, says Archbishop Wuerl, is looking at Scripture “as an object of academic study.” Instead, he says, “What it’s going to be looking at is how the Word of God touches the believer spiritually. How does the Word of God permeate the ministry of the Church pastorally? How does the Word of God give life to the faithful?”

And that, he says, is the part that is most attractive to him. “We’re going to be asked to look at the Word of God in its widest context, not just the pages of sacred Scripture but the whole idea of the Word of God made flesh, come among us, incarnate in his Church, heard in the proclamation of the Word made visible in the celebration of the sacraments, and verified in the lives of faithful people.

“We’re going to look at that and we’re going to see how one lives the Word of God. How does that Scripture actually touch each of us, transform us and help us to be closer to Christ? This is a pastoral synod and that’s probably the most exciting part about it. It’s not an academic study; it’s a pastoral and spiritual exercise.”

It may seem as if Catholics don’t embrace Scripture as much as other religions, but Archbishop Wuerl believes we come at it in a different way than other religions.

“We Catholics are comfortable with a lot of Scripture, but we access it usually through the liturgy. We hear the Scriptures Sunday after Sunday and, if one goes to Mass on a daily basis, day after day. Using the three-year cycle, at Sunday Mass you hear an enormous amount of Scripture.”

He also believes that being comfortable with Scripture can offer a wonderful ecumenical tool.

So how can Catholics take the message of the synod and bring it into their own lives?

Archbishop Wuerl says one of the easiest ways to connect with the Word of God “is what is called lectio divina, the quiet, prayerful reading of Scripture. Scriptures are meant to be with us, to be guides—the Word of God speaking to us. The one way we can take that Scripture with us everywhere we go is to choose each day to read one small part of a Gospel and then keep that thought with us and reflect on it and go back to it over and over in the course of the day. It’s an absolute gold mine of spirituality.”

For those who may be intimidated by the thought of reflecting on Scripture, he offers this bit of consolation and advice:

“When one is reading the Scriptures, we’re really not supposed to be in a position of trying to figure it out all by ourselves and determining what it means all by ourselves. We have a 2,000-year lived tradition to help us do that. That is one of the reasons why parishes offer study programs in Scripture. In Scripture or Bible study groups we can come together in the continuity of the Church. We can come together in the living context of God’s Word and come to understand what exactly this Word means and how it has been understood since the days of the apostles.”

But the best way to experience Scripture, the archbishop emphasizes, is through the liturgy “because in the celebration of the liturgy not only is the Word proclaimed, in the celebration of the Eucharist, the Word is sacramentally present. Christ is with us. And so the most powerful expression of God’s Word is always the celebration of the liturgy, the proclamation of the Word and the celebration of the Eucharist.”

The working document for the synod is available at

During the synod, Archbishop Wuerl will write an online column at Other news about the synod is available through the same link.

On the first night of the world Synod of Bishops on the Bible, Pope Benedict XVI will be the first reader for Italian state television’s Bible-reading marathon, reported Catholic News Service. The pope will read from the Book of Genesis. Immediately following his reading, Rome’s Chief Rabbi Riccardo di Segni will read the same text in Hebrew.

“The Bible, Day and Night” begins October 5 and will include about 1,200 people who will read from the Bible for between four and eight minutes until all 73 books of the Catholic edition of the Bible have been read. The pope’s reading will be broadcast on RaiUno, the flagship station of RAI, the state-owned broadcasting company. Most of the other readings will be broadcast on RaiEdu, a satellite channel.

Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, said at a July 3 press conference that the pope does not normally get involved in such events, but that he signed on when he learned that it would involve “simply reading the texts, therefore a pure proclamation of the Word.”

Even though the event coincides with the synod and was organized with Vatican assistance, RAI said that Italy’s Protestant, Orthodox and Jewish communities are also involved and will have representatives among the readers.

Susan Hines-Brigger is an assistant editor of this magazine.

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