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.”
I wonder, however, if another reason might be that we’ve tacitly reduced Francis to a political figure whose role is limited to moral and organizational leadership. As important as such leadership is, the pope has a prior claim to an even more important role: to help us grow in our relationship with God. Engagement with the scriptures is essential to this project. Toward this end, I think that the Sunday of the Word of God is actually more important than it looks.
North American Catholics who lived through the Council know that an explosion of interest in the scriptures followed it, but that passion gradually faded. In Latin America, however, Scripture reading became an integral part of the daily life of the Christian base communities and achieved lasting significance as a lay phenomenon. Indeed, it was at the request of two missionary bishops from Argentina, Jorge Kemerer and Alberto Devoto, that the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy included a warm recommendation of “Bible services” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 35.4).
Kemerer was the first bishop of Posadas, a remote community first evangelized by Jesuits in the seventeenth century (the so-called Reductions of the Guarani in the Jesuit Province of Paraguay were made famous to a U.S. audience through the 1986 film The Mission). Priests were so few that Kemerer wrote a guidebook for Celebrations of the Word in the absence of a priest soon after he arrived in 1957. Devoto, the bishop of Goya, was also a groundbreaking figure who chose to live in poverty, close to his people. A major influence in the Third World Priests movement, and an inspirer of liberation theology, his desire to share God’s Word was part of a living faith. According to writer Marguerite Feitlowitz, to this day peasants keep pictures of him on altars at home, and refuse to believe he’s dead. “No, he’s a saint,” they say.
Now here comes another Argentinian, sure that the Word will help us. Francis’s proposal is a gesture with roots in Vatican II, popular movements, and the experience of how the Word can kindle light and joy among the poorest of Christ’s poor. He could have produced a teaching statement, but instead he decided to inaugurate a liturgical observance—a wise choice, perhaps, because even if we missed it this time around, there’s always next year.