I went to a Catholic school where everyone went to daily Mass. As the priest read the appointed Scriptures in Latin, we did our best to follow the English translation in the Saint Joseph Daily Missal.
Back then, we did not read the Bible in class or at home, since the Second Vatican Council’s Dei verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, had not yet been written. We were at the end of a long period during which the church hesitated to make Scripture available to the faithful in their own language for fear they might misinterpret what they read.
But we did talk about the stories we heard in the readings at Mass, stories retold to us in the textbook Salvation History. We knew about Abraham and saw illustrations of poor Isaac all bound up on the altar of sacrifice. We knew about Babel and about the ark, too, and we sang the Grail translation of the psalms. We knew what happened at Cana and why Jesus was a better than ideal party guest. We knew what made the good Samaritan good and the difference between the wise and foolish maidens. Such a knowledge of Scripture was our cultural patrimony. Knowing the stories helped us understand God’s work in our own lives. Discussing the stories helped us understand truth, myth, and metaphor. Scripture gave us a common vocabulary and shared points of reference.
The college students I teach today are no less bright than we were, but they are largely ignorant of Scripture. At the beginning of a recent semester, a student told me there were five Gospels, though he couldn’t name one. When I asked one of my classes what happened at Cana, only two of the twenty-four students had heard of the story—and even those two couldn’t say anything about it.
Many of these students have grown up as Catholics. They have gone to Mass, heard the readings, and received some kind of religious instruction. Some people blame Catholic colleges for their students’ lack of religious formation, but when an eighteen-year-old freshman doesn’t know the difference between a Bible and a basilica, that’s either a familial or a parochial problem. Never before has it been so easy for lay Catholics to read and study Scripture, and yet Catholic children are now less familiar with the Bible than Catholic children were before Vatican II.
I tell my students the story of the wedding feast at Cana the way the nuns told it to me. We all struggle with Jesus’ response to his mother’s request: “Woman, how does your concern affect me?” Hard to imagine speaking to one’s own mother that way, we agree. But Mary, overlooking the apparent impertinence, tells the servers, “Do whatever he tells you.” I tell my students about the six stone water jugs and Jesus’ command to fill them, about his instruction to draw some out and take it to the headwaiter. “And what did the headwaiter say?” I ask. “Why are you giving me dishwater to drink?” a student guesses. No one else speaks.
All books teach us, but the Bible does more than that. Its sacred stories bind us together as a people. The psalms cheer us; the lamentations give us words for our griefs; the songs lift our hearts. What happens when young Catholics lose touch with this shared cultural and spiritual tradition? I put this question to some of my students recently. They acknowledged the loss but did not mourn it. One of them even suggested that they are drawn together precisely by having no shared roots and stories. Bound together by not having much in common? How can that be?
This is about more than cultural literacy and religious awareness. This is about our self-understanding as Catholic Christians. If we do not know these stories and claim them as our own, if they are not as familiar to us as the air we breathe, we may become like the prodigal who “squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation” (Luke 15:13). The good news of the gospel is a story, one whose significance depends on all the stories that come before it, beginning with Adam and Eve. It is Scripture that makes many of the church’s rites and rules intelligible and compelling. If we forget the Bible, how will we recognize ourselves as Christians?