VERBUM DOMINI IN OUR WORLD TODAY
Archbishop Charles Bo, SDB
Archbishop of Yangon – Myanmar
It is a great honor to address this august assembly, consisting of eminent scholars, practitioners of the Word. I have neither the boast of scripture scholar nor the gift of an evangelical preacher. I am not the wise man from the East, I am a shepherd, in many ways, whose knowledge of the ‘word that become flesh’ is not laudatory as the scholars assembled here. I am a pastor from a country till recently closed to the world. I am aware there are biblical scholars here, bishops who have done studies in depth on Verbum Domini and other papal document.
So your indulgence in inviting me to deliver this key note address is an affectionate honor you bestow on the people of Myanmar, whose long night of silent tears is slowly breaking into new dawn. In that way, we are a people who Isaiah praised as the people ‘who walked in the darkness and awaiting to see the light’. I owe a debt of gratitude to the organizers, for this honor and friendship.
Let me begin with a little story:
The Grain of Rice
Once there was a good king who ruled wisely and who ruled well. He was loved by all the people of his kingdom. One day the king called his four daughters together and told them that he was leaving on a long journey. “I wish to learn more about God. I am going to a far off monastery to spend a long time in prayer. In my absence I am leaving the four of you in charge of my kingdom.”
“Oh, Father,” they cried, “don’t leave us. We will never be able to rule the kingdom without you.”
The king smiled. “You’ll do well in my absence,” he said. “Now before I leave, I wish to give each of you a gift. It is my prayer that this gift will help you learn how to rule.” The king placed a single grain of rice in each daughter’s hand. Then he left on his journey.
The oldest daughter immediately went to her room. She tied a long golden thread around the grain of rice and placed it in a beautiful crystal box. Every day she picked up the box and looked at it.
The second daughter also went to her room, where she placed the grain of rice in a wooden box and put it in a secure spot under her bed.
The third daughter, a very pragmatic young woman, looked at the grain of rice and thought, “This grain of rice is no different from any other grain of rice.” She simply threw the grain of rice away.
The youngest daughter took her grain of rice to her room and wondered about the significance of the gift. She wondered for a week, then a month. When nearly a year passed, she understood the meaning of the gift.
Months turned into years, and the four daughters ruled their father’s kingdom. And then one day, the king returned. His beard was full and his eyes sparkled with illumination gained through years of prayer. The king greeted each of his daughters, then asked to see the gifts he had left with them.
The oldest daughter rushed to her room and brought back the crystal box. “Father,” she began, “I carefully tied a golden thread around the grain of rice and have kept it near my bed where I have looked at it every day since you left.”
Bowing to his daughter, the king accepted the box and said, “Thank you.”
Next, the second daughter presented her father with a wooden box containing the grain of rice. “All these years I’ve kept the rice secure under my bed,” she said. “Here it is.”
Again the father bowed to his daughter, accepted the box, and said, “Thank you.”
The third daughter rushed into the kitchen, found a grain of rice, ran back and said, “Father, here is my grain of rice.”
Smiling, the king accepted the grain of rice, bowed, and said, “Thank you.”
Finally the youngest daughter stepped before her father and said, “I do not have the grain of rice that you gave me,” she said.
“Well, what have you done with it?” the king inquired.
“Father, I thought about that grain of rice for nearly a year before I discovered the meaning of the gift. I realized that the grain of rice was a seed. So I planted it in the ground. Soon it grew, and from it I harvested other seeds. I then planted all those seeds, and again I harvested the crop. Father, I’ve continued to do this. Come outside, look at the results.”
The king followed his daughter where he looked out at an enormous crop of rice stretching as far as the eye could see. There was enough rice to feed the entire nation.
Stepping before his daughter, the king took off his golden crown and placed it on her head. “You have learned the meaning of how to rule,” he said softly.
From that day on, the youngest daughter ruled the kingdom. She ruled long, wisely and well.
I have organized my simple talk into just three major sections:
- The context with special reference to the Holy Father’s intention of year of Faith and New Evangelization that has to be taken to the modern man and woman in their context,
- The opportunities a new world offers and
- The challenges ahead.
Some of these themes are known to you all. My attempt is to initiate reflection on some of the urgent needs of the world to which the Word of God can be great answer.
His Presence Among Us today:
I strongly feel the presence of the Lord Jesus amidst us in this conference. I wish to greet you in the words our Lord used when he entered the house of Zacchaeus. “Blessings have come to this house” (Lk 19:9) We start with that prayer for blessings and salvation in the name of Jesus. We are gathered in the house of the Lord – believing strongly ‘the word becomes Flesh amidst us’. (John 1:14)This is a sacred moment and sacred Place. We gather with the same feeling that the psalmist felt ‘Come within his gates giving thanks, to his courts singing praise, give thanks to him and bless his name! (Ps: 100:4). As the Acts of the Apostles gathered in one place (Acts 2: 1-4) we pray for the pouring of spirit in these days. We pray of fulfillment of his promise “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am amidst them. (Mathew 18:20). Ours is a faith Journey of the disciples of Emmaus, whose little faith and doubt, ended with a magnificent prayer: stay with us Lord. (Lk 24:29). May His Spirit Animate us.
The Logo – its relevance and the Challenge
The beautifully designed logo of this conference tells it all – Verbum Domini, the Word of the Lord is for us engraved in the Holy Book, the Sacred Scriptures which always gets a prominent place in our churches, homes, and above all, in our hearts. The world is our planet earth. The workshop is for South East Asia as partly seen on the logo. The focus is on West Java with the yellow color. Bandung, the venue is situated there. The figure on the left depicts the “Rishi” priest or holy man in the Mahabharata or Ramayana story. The “wayang” is a very old tradition from Hindu times. It is performed by people or by puppets made of clay or leather. The figure here is made of leather. The arms are moveable by sticks, controlled by the puppeteer, one who tells the story. The Rishi brings us to prayer, to worship, to communication with God. The Word invites us first of all to listen to the Word in prayer. The boy on the left is playing the angklung, a traditional bamboo instrument. It brings us to everyday life where the Word has to take root, become flesh and bones, speak to us in joy and sorrow, in sickness and in health.
1. The context of our Gathering today:
We are gathering in the largest Muslim Country in the world. Their faith their adherence to the Book has always inspired us. We, the Jews, the Christians and Muslims are the sons of Abraham, children of the covenant. Faith is an integral part of a Muslim’s life. Parts of Koran are shared with the Christian tradition. Isau as Jesus, Miriam as Mary, Ibrahim as Abraham, we share the same faith journey. Let this fellowship be mutually enriching. Indonesian Christians have redefined their faith and exemplary Christian life amidst their Muslim brethren, promoting understanding and mutual admiration. Vatican II realized the special relationship we enjoy with Muslims: “The plan of Salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place among whom are Muslims, these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the One, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day” (The Dogmatic Constitution on the church Lumen Gentium (LG 16). We come as brothers and fellow pilgrims in our sacred journey.
This is the year of Faith, the year of New Evangelization. The clarion call to all Christians to understand the Word of God and proclaim gains a new urgency with this initiative. It started with the Second Vatican Council, re affirmed in the Encyclical Evangeli Nuntianti and popularized by the Pope John Paul II. The present Holy Father, in his erudite wisdom has called for the whole church to take the word and proclaim it. So there is a renewed urgency and a relevance to our gathering today.
Christ himself is the gift from the father. He is the word that became flesh. He brought the good news and collected a group of disciples. The call to proclaim the word was given by our Lord Jesus Christ himself:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age. (Mt. 28: 19-20)
This word is a message revealed through Jesus himself to all of us.
Now I want to make it quite clear to you, brothers, about the gospel that was preached by me, that it was no human message. It was not from any human being that I received it, and I was not taught it, but it came to me through a revelation of Jesus Christ. (Gal 1: 11-12)
St Paul brought the urgency of the Gospel as he strongly affirmed, proclamation as an obligation to every follower of Christ. “Woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel (1Cor 9:16)” Know the Bible, know Christ and proclaim him. That is the command for all of us this year.
The mandate from the Church:
Vatican II reemphasized the mission of the Word to the Ad Gentes. Pope Paul VI inspired the Catholic community with his Evangeli Nuntiati: “The Task of Evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church” Pope John Paul while introducing the phrase ‘New Evangelization’
“Evangelization is Fundamental to the Church Mission and has its origin in Trinity itself. It is always focused on faith in and personal encounter with Christ and these results in the profound experience of Conversion. Evangelization is the task of the entire church and is concretely located in the activity of the local Church “(John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio)
2. The challenges from the Modern World
The topic given to me is: Verbum Domini in Our World Today. The innocent looking topic masks many challenges. The pivotal challenge is “which world?” Pope John Paul II identified three kinds of world – with reference to the message of Christ.
- The world where Christ message is still not known – Ad Gentes,
- The world that has known Christ well and made his teachings a way of life. The need for these ‘Evangelized becoming Evangelizers’
- The world where Christian has been diluted by onslaught of secularism and relativism where the baptized do not practice Christianity in their private and public life. Christianity faces herculean challenges in this century.
For the last five decades, the world has achieved much. It has wired itself into a virtual world through the internet and social networking. While technology has been galloping at a searing rapidity, in moral and spiritual sphere, humanity is on a slippery rock. Transcendence and the sense of God is compromised with reductionist ideologies like post modernism – euphemism for existential confusion. It is through this man made darkness at the noon time, Christ message has to pierce. Some of the main challenges we face today are:
1. Ethical relativism and the Word of God the “tyranny of relativism” as our Holy Father has termed has commoditized and trivialized every sacred symbols and systems of the past. Family, the cradle of human civilization lies in ruins in many countries. John’s Gospel opens up with beautiful asserting that ‘word becomes flesh”. The human body is sacred. St Paul reminds us.”Your body is the Temple of the holy Spirit” (I Cor 6:19) The sanctity of union of man and woman is threatened by western concepts of same sex marriages, abortions and genetic manipulations. It is a travesty of human existence that in countries like Japan there are more pets than children. The moral compass that guided the human journey for centuries is lost in the pursuit of hedonism without any responsibility. The first chapters of Genesis open with the beautiful concept of man and woman being created in God’s image. (Gen 1:26). Today that Human body is a marketable commodity, a conduit to reckless enjoyment and exploitation. The modern forms of slavery, human trafficking, sex trade and other existential threats are accepted as ‘freedoms’. Europe leads the way in all this, provoking the Holy Father to urge its return to its Christian roots. In a Globalizing world we in the east are not immune from this, especially our youth are directly exposed to these dangers. Christ incarnation is a historical evidence of sanctification of human body. His establishment of the Eucharist ‘this is my body’, his death on the Cross are enduring affirmation of the sanctity of the human person, who are saved by his precious blood from eternal damnation of death. The human family has indebtedness to Jesus. The world is his body. “All of you are Christ Body, each one is part of it” says the Apostle. (1 Cor 12: 27). Survival of humanity depends on the return to Gospel Values of respect for Life.
2. A Christianity without the Bible as the Centre of Life: The Use of Bible in the life of the Catholics is sadly inadequate. Vatican Ecclesiology gave a three dimension to Christian life with three Ws : Word, worship and Witness. While the Catholics have taken commendable steps in worship and Witness too, Catholic faith is not marked by its fervor for the Word. After fifty years of Vatican II, the Word of God as in the Bible remains a strange book to many Catholics. The Bible is the fountain of our faith, the inspiration and the guide in our life journey. With the new Evangelization, all especially the laity are expected to play a major role in the spread of the Good news.
3. The Word of God and the problem of Poverty and Starvation: Word is broken and bread is broken in every Mass. Every day, Eucharist bread is broken with the compelling words: Take and Eat! But we are painfully aware we break bread in an unjust world where millions do not have anything to take and eat. Every day 30000 children die of Starvation (UNICEF 2001). That amounts to 10 million children every year, 1800 children every hour and 20 Children every minute! The Market Economy has unsettled agriculture, the very soul of millions of our people. Urbanization has brought in slums with squalor and inhuman existence in many of our East Asian Countries. What is the ‘word of God’ for these suffering people? Bible’s strong identification with the poor, as in Exodus, (EX 3:6-8) as in the life of Jesus, (Mt 25: 31-40, Lk 4: 16-18) is a timeless message. Once again Genesis portrays God as a generous father creating the world and giving it as a gift to all humankind for a happy life. Poverty has increased in the last two decades, disturbing the rural communities and breaking them into pieces. The widespread problem of maids without justice, the factory girls in China and unsafe migration of our youth in other countries pose a fundamental problem to the Church. One of the methods of new Evangelization to be present among the poor, in upholding their dignity, helping in their human development. Paul VI has impressed upon the church ‘the intimate relationship between evangelization and human promotion, development, liberation that is anthropological, theological and evangelical ( EN 31). Pope John Paul II considers human development is one of the paths of Mission (RM). Our Holy Father Benedict implores that human development and promotion of justice are integral of evangelization. (Caritas in Veritate 15).
4. Harmony among Cultures and the Word of God: Soon after the Sep 11th attack it is customary to talk of ‘clash’ among various peoples. After a century of clash of ‘classes’ under Marxian analysis, certain sections of intellectuals and countries mainstream a concept of ‘conflict among cultures’. The quest for God and ultimate meaning must have united the humanity towards peace and reconciliation. Unfortunately mutual suspicion has sent wrong signals to those who do not believe in God and His redeeming message. The neo liberal economy which has sent millions to poverty has a hidden agenda in creating and maintaining conflicts among religions. Many of the Western Economies just melted away in the human greed. In this milieu of excessive greed, there is a genuine search for God and imperishable values. “God is back’ is the realization in societies that sought solace in consumerism. The challenge is to the Church to present a “message credible and understood by the modern man”.
5. A creation Groaning under Human Greed: A recent study gave us shocking news, that most of the countries will go to war in future over drinking water. The world is spending more of its natural resources like water than it can reproduce. Water a great gift of the creator is already privatized. Millions of acres of forest disappear, the ozone turbulence, global warming and sea rising are some of the news we watch with great concern every day. The concept of Evolution that negates God’s Creation has facilitated wanton destruction of nature. Once again the poor are the victims.
3. Opportunties for Word of God confronted with the modern world
· Guidance from New Evangelization: The instruction in the New Evangelization movement has given fourfold approach. Each country called upon to come out a plan of action, with active participation of the laity ‘the evangelized becoming the evangelizers”
1. Proclamation that comes through a deep encounter with Jesus
2. Preaching through Good deeds apart from direct proclamation
3. Being present among the Non Christians through Direct Service
4. Dialogue with other Cultures – learning from them and enriching them
- The Word of God that is simple and consoling: The Holy Father has consistently impressed on the Universal Church to make available the teachings of the Gospel to the faithful ‘with a new vigor, a new method and a new Mode”. The power of the Bible is winning millions in many countries. The ability to make the Gospel attractive to a new Generation. Evangelical preachers whose capacity for using the Bible is well known are attracting thousands with the power of the Bible. Often they make the truth simple (or simplistic!) and attractive. Catholic Church has still wake up to the power of the Word of God. Biblical instruction needs a more simple, hearer friendly approach. After all our Lord was the great communicator, communicating sublime values in simple stories.
- A Word of God that identifies with the victim: Jesus was the lamb of God, sacrificed his life for the victims – of spiritual darkness and human evil. He has identified himself with the suffering humanity. Church has a great opportunity in reaching out to those in the margin, with the message of the Gospel, through human development, proclamation of Jesus message. Gospel was preached by poor apostles to the poor people. Apostles were oppressed and they carried the message to the oppressed people. Thousands and millions need the consoling message of the Gospel
- A word of God that promotes life: An acute culture of death has brought in abortion, death penalty and destruction of nature. Rich and powerful nations have been challenging the church teaching on sanctity of life, pro life. One of the urgent needs is to affirm the dignity of life, especially when it is least powerful in the womb of the mother. Every child comes with the message that God is yet not tired of man.
- A word of God that is seen in Action: St James in his path breaking epistle and Faith in action asks the pertinent question: “My brothers, what good is it for someone to say that he has faith if his actions do not prove it?” Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Evangeli Nuntiati has said, “The modern man has great confidence in the words of anyone whose words are followed by action”. The new Evangelization has insisted on the need for ‘preaching without words” following the example of St Francis of Assisi who said, “Proclaim the Good new Always, use words… if needed!”
- A word of God that is in Dialogue with Culture, poverty and major religions: Finally the Federation of Asian Bishops Conference (FABC) has indicated the need for triple dialogue as spreading the word of God: Dialogue with the Culture, with poverty and other cultures.
Conclusion: These are the challenging times to be Christians. The first Christians lived in more challenging times, yet they lighted the world with an inner fire that lighted thousand fires of faith. Peter’s word to the lame man at the temple gate: I have neither nor silver, receive what I have: In the name of Jesus, get up and walk”. The world needs in of that kind of faith to help it to get up and walk in freedom and faith. I wish this conference will help us to be animated by the Spirit and help all of us to become the frontline messengers of Christ’s redeeming message.