Pope Francis has been acclaimed by the world largely for his moral leadership. Welcoming migrants and refugees, caring for the earth, prioritizing engagement with the poor, and listening to victims of abuse have been hallmarks of his pontificate. His institutional leadership as a reforming pope has also met with applause, as he has taken on the task of patiently working out knotty financial and organizational problems in the church.
He has been given less credit, however, for his specifically religious leadership. A perfect example of this has been the dull thud with which the announcement of the new “Sunday of the Word of God” (the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time) landed when it came out in September. Contrary to the wonderment that greeted so many of his other plans, his initiative on a religious topic of relevance to every believer got lackluster treatment. There were dutiful acknowledgements but hardly an enthusiastic response. Most Catholics I know didn’t even hear about it.
Yet how lovely this day could be: a shot in the arm for religious devotion, spiritual growth, and theological literacy, and a dose of fresh energy for ecumenism. What Francis proposed is that the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time will be observed henceforth as a day on which to renew our love and gratitude for the Word of God. It includes a call to “enthrone the Word” during the liturgy, to give out Bibles, and to promote reading and reflection on sacred Scripture by people in all walks of life. Such an observance could enhance the Eucharist, and help us to better realize the hopes of the Second Vatican Council that the Word would stand at the heart of prayer, catechesis, and preaching, becoming “the soul of sacred theology” (Dei verbum 24).
So why such a weak response? Part of the reason is surely that controversy drives media coverage, and this isn’t controversial. Popes since Pius XII have been recommending that the lay faithful read the scriptures. Also, Vatican II furthered commitment to the Word in the everyday life of Catholics in all sorts of ways, from the expansion of the lectionary to Bible study to the singing of psalms and scriptural songs. Perhaps we feel we’ve already “been there, done that.”