CHALLENGES AND PERSPECTIVES
IN THE IMPLEMENTATION OF DEI VERBUM
IN SOUTHEAST ASIA
Sr. Emma Gunanto, OSU
(September 14-18, 2005, Rome, Italy)
DEI VERBUM, the Cradle of the Biblical Apostolate
Imagine Pope John XXIII coming to life today, in 2005, to visit our parishes throughout Southeast Asia. He would not believe his eyes seeing so many bible lovers among the people of God.
Yes, he would see many things that he never dreamt of in his life: lay people who daily read the bible, bible sharing groups who gather every week to share the Word of God, numerous interconfessional bible translations, national bible month, bible camps for youth, biblical centers, members of the Catholic Biblical Federation, running bible courses and biblical animations, publishing books on the bible and other aids to help the people of God read this ancient book, etc. etc.
Pope John XXIII may be very surprised, but proud also that the development of the biblical apostolate was an outcome of his initiative to invoke all the bishops of the whole world for the Vatican II Council which gave birth to the Constitution on Divine Revelation, the DEI VERBUM, although it was finished only two years after his death.
One of the most important achievement of the Council is the rediscovery of the central significance of the Sacred Scriptures for the life of the Church and all believers. The need for a biblical animation of the pastoral life of the Church comes to expression in the 16 official documents of the Council, but most of all in DEI VERBUM especially in Chapter VI, “Sacred Scripture in the Life of the Church”. This brief but compact chapter has been the starting point for a new impetus in the Church, the biblical apostolate.
In contrast wih the first five chapters which are more theological, chapter VI is more practical, It deals with how the bible functions in the daily life of the faithful, how the Word of God contained in the book can be read, reflected and meditated. The bible printed in small size, even available in electronic notebook, can be carried everywhere and give easy access to the Word of God.
From the “word” to the “Word” (# 21)
The Bible is not an ordinary book. It is difficult to read and extra difficult for our people today who are reluctant to make efforts, because life is already so hard.
# 21 proposes four points that serve as “appetizers” for those who want to make the Scriptures their daily “nourishment”:
1. The Church venerates divine scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord. The table of the word and the table of the bread are placed at the same level. Both are offered to the faithful as the bread of life. This truth is mentioned again at the end of the chapter, in #26 to mark its importance. The equal veneration given to both is actually not new, but was already there in the time of St. Francis of Assisi. After the contra-reformation the awareness vanished only to be roused again by Vatican II.
In our countries much attention is given to the Liturgy of the Word in the Eucharist, especially because this part allows the active participation of the laity. Reading contests are held on many occasions to ensure that the Word is communicated correctly, beautifully and clearly. Likewise much care is given to the singing of the responsorial psalm after the reading.
2. Sacred Scripture is venerated as the supreme rule of faith, together with sacred tradition. ‘Rule’ here does not mean ‘norm’ to discern right from wrong. It has a more positive meaning: giving direction to the life of the faithful, which according to Dei Verbum is given by the Holy Spirit, whose voice can be heard through the words of the Scriptures. Therefore “silence” gets an important place in reading the Scriptures, both personal and group reading. Silence allows us to hear the Spirit of Jesus speaking through the words of the prophets and apostles. Although Asian people are known as ‘prayerful and contemplative’ people, silence is becoming more and more a challenge in our busy world.
Another consequence is that all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by sacred scripture. It is to be regretted that in our countries not all preachers base their preaching on the scriptures. As a consequence of this, people get bored and sleep during Mass. Worst of all, a number of catholics who have just ‘fallen in love’ with the bible leave the Church and join other denominations or sects where the preachers present nothing else than the bible in a very attractive way.
3. In the sacred books the Father who is in heaven meets his children with great love and speaks with them. Lectio Divina is considered an important part of our biblical apostolate, It allows us to read the bible prayerfully and reach the ultimate aim of every bible reading: to come to a personal encounter with God, to be transformed into a new man or woman and together build a more human /divine world with Him. During a bible sharing in a remote village, a man suddenly exclaimed, “The book can talk to me!” Suddenly he grasped this truth in his own simple way.
4. The power of the of the Word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength and faith for her sons, the food of the soul. Except in the Philippines with 85% catholics, in all other Southeast Asian countries Catholics are a minority of about 3% of the population. All experience some kind of oppression or persecution socially and/or politically. This situation is a drawback for a number of people to maintain their faith. Others are encouraged to seek strength in the Living Word. The late Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan from Vietnam relates in his book how the Eucharist and the Word of God sustained him during the 13 years he was imprisoned by the communists.
Many people in our Southeast Asian countries live in poverty. My friend is a train conductor. He has to pay 5 million rupiahs, ten times his salary, for the last semester of his son in the university. “Nothing is impossible for our powerful God. I have to keep hope. I remember the prophet Elija. It had not rained for three years. He saw a cloud, only as big as a hand. Yet he believed it was about to rain. I have to be optimistic like this great prophet.” This friend of mine not only reads and prays the bible, he also fasts. And yes, again God sent his angel Raphael in answer to his faith. The number of people who read the bible daily as food of the soul is still small, but growing. The Charismatic movement with their “New Life Seminar” has contributed much to this by arousing in people the love and hunger for the Word.
New Translations (# 22)
To ensure easy access to the scriptures, many efforts have been made to translate the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek into the vernacular languages. After being seperated for ages, the Church encourages the faithful to cooperate with the separated brothers as well to make it possible for the people to read the bible in their own languages.
Only three years after the promulgation of DEI VERBUM, the Indonesian Catholic Church as the first in the world decided to work on an ecumenical bible. In 1975, ten years after DEI VERBUM, the “New Translation” with the Deuterocanonicals was published. In 1987 the ecumenical “Today’s Indonesian Version” followed, and some time later a bible for children “My First Bible”. The Catholic Bible Association still cooperates with the Indonesian Bible Society in publishing the bible in many tribal languages and renewing the existing ones.The Catholic Bible with footnotes from the Jerusalem Bible and the Christian Community Bible are also available in Indonesian.
In the Philippines
The Episcopal Commission for the Biblical Apostolate (ECBA-CBCP) has been working and networking with the Philippine Bible Society in publishing recently the BEC Bibles in different local languages. Catholics and Protestants alike are working together hand in hand harmoniously to make the Bible accessible to all Filipinos.
The Philippine Bible Society (PBS) exists for the purpose of achieving the widest possible effective and meaningful distribution of the Sacred Scripture:
in languages and media to meet the needs of our people,
in translations that are faithful to the Scripture texts in the original langnuage and which is effectively communicate the biblical message,
at prices people can afford,
Giving opportunity to everyone to pray, to give, to volunteer, and helping them to interact with the Word of God. The PBS in cooperation with the Episcopal Commission for the Biblical Apostolate envisions:
a Bible for every home in the major language of their locality,
a New Testament for every literate Christian;
a Scripture portion for everyone.
Through these Scripture materials in various formats and media, Filipinos may come to the knowledge and understanding of God, and live meaningful, transformed lives.
There are now ten (10) Regional Biblical Centers all over the Philippines that are engaged in Biblical Pastoral Ministry making the Bible accessible to all not only in the Philippines but to all Filipinos all over the world.
In Myanmar we used the Protestant Burmese bible which is a hundred years old and in some places are prejudiced against Catholics. The Catholic translation is limited to Sunday readings. By November 2005 the New Testament and Deuterocanonicals will be printed locally, whereas the complete bible will be ready by 2007 and printed in China where they have better paper and technology. Some financial help is given by KIN, Missio and a few personal friends.
In Thailand the Thai ecumenical bible is used. These past years the biblical commission worked very hard on the Catholic bible, which is almost finished now. The New Testament is available in two tribal languages.
In Cambodia there are very few Catholics, about 10.000 Cambodians and 20.000 Vietnamese. The ecumenical bible translation is used, the New Testament since 1993, and the complete bible since 1998. Bible reading is not yet common among Catholics; most of the clergy does not promote the biblical apostolate.
The Bible Societies of Malaysia have printed the Bible in Malay and the Catholics have been asked to supply the Deuterocanonicals.
In Vietnam there are about 6 million Catholics out of a population of 82 million (more than 8%). In the past, the Catholic and the Protestant Church initiated an ecumenical translation of the Bible. However, the work could not be continued because of the events that happened in 1975. After that, each Church worked separately. Since then the Catholics have published 20.000 copies of the complete bible with short introduction and commentaries; 3000 copies of the Old Testament and 65.000 copies of the New Testament, each with detailed introduction and commentary.
Publishing the ecumenical bible has the advantage of cooperating with our seperate brothers and sisters on a commom basis, leading to unity. Also the production cost of the bible becomes much less. But there are problems with the deuterocanonical books and the introductions and footnotes. The Indonesian ecumenical bible for Catholics has the Deutero-canonicals seperately printed and inserted between the Old and the New Testament. When it comes to footnotes, however, there is no compromise and the Catholics have to make their own bible with footnotes.
The distribution of the bible is of no less importance for the easy access to sacred scriptures. The bible is still beyond the reach of the middle class down. On special occasions like Christmas, Easter, Bible month, the faithful collect second hand bibles or money to buy bibles for their poor brothers and sisters in remote places or islands.
Biblical scholars and the biblical apostolate (# 23 and # 24)
The following two paragraphs discuss the task of catholic exegetes and other students of sacred theology to cooperate and use appropriate means to enable ministers of the Word provide the nourishment of the scriptures for the people of God. There are various ways biblical scholars can communicate their findings to the people of God:
1. Conducting Bible courses or training to ministers of the word, catechists, facilitators.
2. Providing books that are helpful to better understand the bible, e.g. bible dictionaries, introductions to the books of the bible, simple exegesis, background of the bible, history of the bible.
Bible courses in Southeast Asia vary from short courses for the weekend, to longer ones for one, two or three months or even three year courses. The topics also vary from a certain biblical theme like “The Christian Hope”, a certain book, like the Acts of the Apostles in 4 months. Three year courses may discuss the entire bible like “The Bible in a hundred weeks”, or a more general approach to the Bible, without going too much into detail, like “An introduction to the Old Testament”. In such couses the study of church documents like Dei Verbum”, “Evangelii Nuntiandi”, “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church”, “the fourfold method”, “The Asian Approach to the Bible” are introduced.
The problem is to find good teachers who are also willing to teach the laity. Many bible scholars have an overloaded schedule and even teach at several seminaries. Others are very learned in biblical theology and exegesis, but not acquainted with the biblical pastoral approach. If these professors face the laity, they are at a loss. That was precisely the theme of “The Second Bishop’s Institute for the Biblical Apostolate” (BIBA II), held in Plentong, Malaysia, March 1-6, 1999. In the Statement and Propositions two topics came to the fore:
1. Seminary Formation in the Biblical apostolate, comprising not only seminarians, but also priests: In general, priests who have finished their Licentiate or Doctorate are immediately assigned to the seminary as formators without adequate forfation for seminary work. This has a serious drawback, specially with regard to forming seminarians in genuine biblical spirituality….
2. Formation of Lay Animators in the Biblical Apostolate. “The pressing task of the new evangelization takes place through giving the Bible anew to all the people of God.”
In most of our seminaries the Biblical Aposatolate is not or not yet an integral part of the curriculum. At the Penang Seminary the Bible Apostolate is an experience for the final year students. In Kuching it comes during the pastoral immersion of seminarians. And in Singapore somehow pastoral work does involve the bible apostolate to some extent. In one Seminary in Indonesia the weekly bible sharing with a lay woman allows the students ‘to taste’ one form of the biblical apostolate
Frequent reading to come to an excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ (# 25)
After translating the bible in modern languages (# 22) and efforts have been made by exegetes and theologians to support the biblical apostolate (# 23 and # 24) Dei Verbum comes to a most daring and revolutionary statement, turning upside down the policy of the contra reformation by appealing to the faithful for a frequent reading of the divine scriptures. After being prohibited for centuries to read the bible, the faithful must be given a strong motivation to start reading it now. What other reason could be given than the one given by
St. Jerome, “Ignorance of the scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” The faithful are reminded to read the scriptures prayerfully, for in the sacred reading we encounter God.
This appeal of Dei Verbum can be widely seen in the life of our churches in Southeast Asia after the Council. Many religious and lay people have their own bible and read it regularly both personal, in the family or in groups. It has become a custom in many places that during wedding Mass one of the parents hands the bible to the bride and bridegroom and asks them to make it their book of life. Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, “The family that prays together, stays together.” Year after year we encourage Catholic families to read the bible and pray together. In many families there is an enthroned bible in the sitting room.
Once, when I was visiting a sick person accompanied by woman, her handphone rang. “Mama, our store has been plundered.” We said goodbye and went to the store. Her husband was already there, and their two children. I thought they would start lamenting seeing the almost empty shelves. But nothing of that. “Let us pray,” said the mother very calmly. They sat in a circle and started to thank and praise the Lord because they were still healthy and well, and because they had one another. They also prayed for the conversion of the plunderers. I got a living example of what can happen if a family prays the bible together.
People will not automatically read the bible even if they have one for personal use. The BASIC BIBLE SEMINAR first published by John Paul I Biblical Center in Vigan, now translated in many languages is a great help to get acquainted with the bible and bible sharing. Many people learn and practice lectio divina to encounter the risen Lord through reading and praying with the Word. Short introductions to daily bible reading are also helpful to make them discover that “My life is in the bible and the bible is in my life.”
In 1999 we introduced Bibliodrama to Southeast Asia. The first workshops and facilitators workshop was held in the Philippines. Now we have our own Filipino teams who can conduct bibliodrama workshops and facilitators workshops.
In Thailand there is a group of bible lovers who are committed to read the bible ten minutes a day. They number more than a thousand, and the number is still growing because they will also include the youth. More and more Catholics in schools, hospitals, offices and even restaurants start the day with a prayer services where the Word is read, meditated, shared, and prayed with.
In colleges also the biblical apostolate is one of the activities – where the Faculty, Personnel, Students and the whole academic community of more than three thousand has become Witness to the Word! This is true with the Divine Word College of Vigan in the Philippines for example, the director of the John Paul I Biblical Center who is at the same time the president of the College endeavored the Biblical Apostolate as a priority among the diverse programs of the institution. The Bible has become the center of the life and mission of the college. The Bible is enthroned in all offices and classrooms, all meetings of the administration, faculty, student organizations starts with a bible reading and reflections. The bible is read before any activity of the college begins, even before flag ceremonies. “God’s Word” has become the lamp to their feet and the light to their path.
Bible and inculturation: Many efforts are being made to join bible and life like drama, dances, biblical songs. In west Java we have the CALUNG, a means of story telling, using bamboo instruments alternated with short songs and anecdotes. The calung has been used as a powerful instrument to communicate gospel values.
Nobody is excluded from reading the bible, neither the blind, because it is they who see. Vietnam also produces Braille Bible for the blind: the four Gospels and the the Psalms.
That the Word of God may spread rapidly and be glorified
Chapter VI of Dei Verbum has been the starting point of a movement of the biblical apostolate which is still growing. Many concrete forms of the biblical pastoral ministry have been accomplished in these forty years. What are the decisive factors to enhance the biblical apostolate so that more and more people can be nourished by the Word? More bibles at a reasonable price? More handbooks that clarify the text? Or more cadre training? According to Dr. Martin Harun OFM all those are necessary and helpful means. “People will be drawn to read and persevere only if they experience the bible is meaningful for them. What is most needed now is to develop the ability to read the ancient texts in the present life context and to read the present reality in the light of the sciptures. Not the number of readers, but the quality of the reader is the key to the biblical apostolate.”
Sr. Emma Gunanto, OSU
CBF – Southeast Asia