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4oth Anniversary of the
Catholic Biblical Federation
Your Eminence, dear Bishops, Sisters and Brothers,
I am writing this letter to you as a Divine Word Missionary who has been involved in the biblical-pastoral ministry since 1968 and served the Catholic Biblical Federation for twenty years.
April 16th is the foundation day of the Catholic Biblical Federation. On that day in 1969, the participants in the foundational meeting – still prepared by Cardinal Bea and organized by his successor Cardinal Willebrands – were met in Audience by Pope Paul VI.
It has been customary also in the Federation to look back on certain occasions, especially at celebrative moments to recall its origins and assess its developments. This was the case during the 2nd Plenary Assembly of the Federation in Malta in 1978, “the island of St. Paul” where the first President, Cardinal König, gave his memorable speech, and the 25th anniversary of the Federation celebrated by the Executive Committee, Administrative Board and Coordinators in Stuttgart, with the presence of Cardinal Willebrands and the Bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart, now Cardinal Kasper.
I myself was not present and have not been involved in the very beginning of the Federation. My acquaintance with it goes back to my first visit to the Federation’s General Secretariat in September 1977 and my participation the 2nd Plenary Assembly of Malta in 1978 where I came to know many of the founding fathers and co-workers of the first hours. From 1984 to 2000 I served as General Secretary, longer than the first four General Secretaries together, and from 2001-2005 as Coordinator in Rome. Because of my participation in all the Plenary Assemblies except the last one and the organization of two of them (Bogotá and Hong Kong), I do possess a familiarity with the Federation that few – even of the present officers – can boast of.
My training does not lie in the field of history, but in the field of Scripture (with a doctorate from the Pontifical Biblical Institute) and my experience, besides teaching in an Interdiocesan Seminary and a Catechetical Institute, is that of the biblical-pastoral ministry in the Philippines, especially through the foundation of John Paul I Biblical Center, the first of a dozen Regional Biblical Centers in that country. One day a qualified historian may write the history of the first forty (and hopefully many more) years; but I feel urged to share these historical reminiscences and critical reflections in homage to the many dedicated co-workers who over the years have made the Federation what it is now. I feel this obligation also and especially to many confreres – who, trying to live up to our programmatic name “Society of the Divine Word” have been more than others and from the very beginning – not as late-comers – involved in the Catholic Biblical Federation, several of them in responsible positions. In addition, the financial support of the Federation through the SVD has been considerable.
The following are some relevant facts and aspects which have been significant in the history of the Federation and which, I feel, should be recalled at this moment.
1. The Catholic Biblical Federation and the Holy See
The Federation has always considered Cardinal Bea as its founding father par excellence. He was mandated by Pope Paul VI to find out how the directives of the Second Vatican Council concerning Sacred Scripture in the Life of the Church, especially DEI VERBUM ch. VI, could be implemented. He did not create a Vatican institution but favored an association of already existing and to-be-created biblical-pastoral institutions of the local Churches. At times the question has been raised whether a Vatican institution could not serve the biblical-pastoral ministry more effectively. But the answer has always been that the biblical apostolate or biblical-pastoral ministry is something concrete and has to be done always “in context”. Thus, the Federation has preferred – and so far fared very well with it – that the Federation as a Catholic institution is governed by canon law and has a liaison office at the Vatican. In 1984, Bishop Alberto Ablondi, the new President of the Federation, and I paid courtesy visits at most of the Vatican dicasteries. We came to the conclusion that the link with the Council for Unity was providential and for the Federation most profitable. As General Secretary, during my many visits in Rome, I very often visited to office of the PCPCU and received guidance and encouragement from Cardinal Willebrands and especially Mons. Duprey.
2. The Federation and the local Churches
In his commentary on DEI VERBUM Professor Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) underlined how the Constitution DEI VERBUM, especially chapter VI, owed much to the biblical movement that had sprung up at the beginning of the 20th century. Already in 1950, Canon Pius Parsch, the promoter of the biblical and liturgical movements in Austria, suggested an association of already existing biblical associations – for mutual help and encouragement. The precious experience of one association should be placed at the disposal and for the benefit of the others. This principle was upheld at the time of the foundation of the Federation – instead of receiving directives “from above”. Thus, strong promoters of this concept of a Federation were Mons. Otto Knoch, the director of the Catholic Biblical Association of Germany, and Fr. Lau Verbeek, in charge of the Catholic Bible Foundation of the Netherlands,.
3. The United Bible Societies and the Catholic Biblical Federation
The Second Vatican Council made interconfessional collaboration in the area of the Bible possible and even desirable (DV 22). Already in 1946 the United Bible Societies / Alliance Biblique Universelle had come into existence, a association of Bible Societies of Protestant origin whose original purpose was the translation, production and distribution of the Bible. Considering the fact, that the Bible did not yet exist in many languages, collaboration in this field was warmly welcome, especially and understandably by the Secretariat / Council for Christian Unity. In fact, the Bible Societies suggested that Catholics should simply join the Bible Societies; there would be no need for a “parallel” Catholic organization. The majority of the founding fathers, however, held a different opinion. Biblical apostolate or biblical-pastoral ministry in their understanding was not limited to producing the Bible; it went further to helping Christians to come in contact with the Bible, personally and commonly, and use it responsibly and fruitfully. Hence, in this Catholic understanding “Bible work” was concerned not only with the book, but principally with the proper reading (or the reader) of the book. – Unfortunately, the recent Synod on the Word of God in the Life of the Church – for which the Federation had been lobbying since the Plenary Assembly of Bangalore in 1984 – in the proposals sumitted to the Holy Father, mentions the Federation only in connection with collaboration of the Bible Societies. Some of the founding fathers might have considered this as a betrayal of the original idea and identity of the Federation.
4. The problematic financial situation of the Federation
In his speech at the 2nd Plenary Assembly in Malta, the outgoing President Cardinal König referred to the precarious situation of the Federation at the time of the 1st PA in Vienna in 1972. This was mainly due to its uncertain financial foundation. In the first three years of its existence the office of the Federation in Rome had to be moved twice. Fr. Christian Reusch, SVD, the first treasurer of the Federation, – who, incidentally had been in contact with Cardinal Bea since 1967 – contacted some of the Catholic funding agencies in Germany for support. They expressed their willingness to sustain this fledgling organization – under the condition that it would be moved away from Italy, where frequent strikes – affecting both rail and mail, the only means of communication before the arrival of fax and Internet – made effective communication very difficult. Among the various possibilities, the offer of office space at Katholisches Bibelwerk in Stuttgart was accepted – till, because of the growth of the Federation, a bigger office was needed and acquired for an affordable price.
The transfer of the office for financial reasons had other implications. For the sake and benefit of the funding agencies and of a hoped-for large group of benefactors, to make them benefit of tax reductions on account of their donations, the Federation had to be registered in Germany as a non-profit organization. In order to achieve this, the Federation was bound by the laws governing such organizations in Germany. Concretely, it needed an Administrative Board – with a Chairman resident in Germany – which would meet twice a year. For convenience sake, i.e., for saving on travelling expenses, the majority of the Board members were from Germany; but over the years there were always others – from France, Belgium (both Flemish and Francophone), and the Netherlands; once the Chairman was from Colombia who at that time was a staff member of ADVENIAT. – According to German law, the Administrative Board held the responsibility for all legal and financial matters.
5. The Constitution of the Federation between canon law and civil law
The Federation, as an international Catholic organization, but registered for survival (i.e. for financial reasons) needs its Constitution to abide both by canon law and German law. And the only competent authority for changing the Constitution is the Plenary Assembly which meets every six years. Ever since the transfer of the office to Stuttgart, each Plenary Assembly – except the last two in Lebanon and Tanzania – dealt with the Constitution which required a very painstaking and expert preparatory work. For several years, a huge amount of that work was done by Fr. Geoffrey King, SJ, who – though he presented himself as a pastoral theologian – had to his credit a doctorate in canon law. After the Plenary Assembly of 1996 the up-dated Constitution was approved by the Holy See. From the fact that during the last two Plenary Assemblies the Constitution did not come up for discussion and amendment, one can only draw the conclusion that no need was seen for this. Very concretely, during all the years of my experience with the Federation, a tension between canon law and civil law was never an issue. Thus, it is all the more surprising that now the need is being seen to have the Constitution up-dated by the Vatican in order to minimize the elements of civil law.
6. Elements of growth
Looking back at the past 40 years one cannot help but noticing several elements of growth in the Federation: numerical growth which can be shown by statistics; growth in the self-understanding of the Federation which can be ascertained by the mottos and thrusts of the different Plenary Assemblies; growth in awareness – which can be seen in the many issues that were discussed at the Synod, issues to which members of the Federation had committed themselves over the years (without having been mentioned in the Synod proposals except in the issue of collaboration with the Bible Societies). One element of growth that may be easily overlooked or at this stage taken for granted is that of “regionalization”. Until the Plenary Assembly of Bangalore (1984), the Federation only knew of Plenary Assemblies. Already in 1985 three regional assemblies took place: in Hong Kong for Asia, in Bogota for Latin America and on Cyprus for the Middle (or: Near) East. And this has become a tradition. Here, “in context” a fruitful pastoral exchange can take place, not in mammoth meetings in which only people take place who can afford it and have often very little to contribute from their experience. As a logical consequence of the regional and sub-regional meetings, during the Plenary Assembly of Bogota (1990) the “institution” of regional and sub-regional coordinators was created. These are the people who are closely in touch with the members in their respective areas – much more than the EC members of their respective areas and the General Secretary can be. It is unfortunate that the importance of these coordinators has not been given sufficient recognition and importance.
7. Last, but not least
During the Malta Plenary Assembly (1978), Cardinal König left the Federation with an important and precious thought: the members are the Federation, the officers are and are to be at the service of the members. Yes, the Federation as an organization is for service, not for self-service. The Federation is made up of people who take the Bible seriously, people who try to live up to their own mottos, who live what they preach. If not, it has no reason for existence!
Your Eminence, dear sisters and brothers, though I have no longer any office in the Federation, but because of my many years of experience I felt I could speak with some boldness – parrhesia. When I took over as General Secretary during the 3rd Plenary Assembly in Bangalore – together with unforgettable Bishop Ablondi as President – the motto was at that time: “Would that all (of God’s) people were prophets”. May the motto of last year’s Plenary Assembly – “Word of God – Source of Reconciliation, Justice and Peace“ be the guiding principle for the Federation at its 40th anniversary and for many years to come.
Yours in the Divine Word,
Fr. Ludger Feldkämper, SVD