Since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and the restructuring of the Liturgy of the Word within Mass, lectors and readers have concluded their Scripture Readings at Mass with the phrase “This is the Word of the Lord,” more recently shortened to simply “The Word of the Lord.”  Once that statement is made, the congregation responds, “Thanks be to God!”  In the case of the Gospel, the deacon or priest proclaims “The Gospel of the Lord” to which the faithful respond, “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ!”

Like many things we say and do repeatedly and often, this liturgical exchange has become routine, perhaps to the point where we do not think much about it.  And, yet, this is really a very profound and important dialogue.  What are we expressing with these words?  Well, we believe that the Holy Scriptures – both Old and New Testaments – are God’s Word, formulated by the various sacred human authors but truly inspired by God as his divine message to us.  What the Church offers to the faithful in each Reading selected for every Mass is an exposure to the written Word of God, proclaimed by readers who are designated by the Church for that sacred purpose.

Although the Bible remains the most widely published book in human history, for some Catholic Christians, the Readings at Sunday or daily Mass are among the few times that they hear or encounter God’s Word.  What “word/words” could be more important for the faithful to hear or read?  Sometimes, however, the Scripture passages proclaimed at Mass seem to go in one ear and out the other with little impact.  This is not an intentional occurrence, I am quite sure.  Things easily distract us.  Our minds are preoccupied with other circumstances in our life.  We might be sleepy or simply inattentive or easily forgetful.  Ask yourself later in the day after going to Mass, what was today’s First Reading?  Who was the author of today’s Gospel; what was it about?

On Sept. 30 of this past year, Our Holy Father Pope Francis issued an apostolic letter “Aperuit illis” (translated, “he opened to them,” a reference to the Risen Lord’s teaching his disciples about the Scriptures before his Ascension).  He wrote:

          “… to set aside moments to reflect upon the great importance of the word of God for everyday living … to make the sacred Scripture more accessible to believers, to increase their gratitude for so great a gift, and to help them to strive daily to embody and bear witness to its teachings … I hereby declare that the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time [this year, 2020, that Sunday falls on Jan. 26] is to be devoted to the celebration, study and dissemination of the word of God.”

When first announced, some Catholics responded to his declaration that Pope Francis was “championing the obvious.” Really?  Most Catholic family homes have a copy of the Bible.  But how often do we read it?  Other than scriptural references that we may have memorized in Catholic school or religious education classes or some “Bible stories,” how familiar are we, as Catholics, with scriptural texts? Maybe the Holy Father is making a good point worth our consideration and even more so, worth our effort.  After all, this is “The Word of the Lord!”

Growing up Catholic, I was always amazed at how so many people of other Christian or Jewish faiths were able to quote the Bible, chapter and verse.  That was part of their religious traditions and heritage but, frankly, not so much ours.  Since the Second Vatican Council, there has been an awakening of the importance for Catholics of reading the sacred Scriptures and reflecting on them “for the life of the Church” (Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum, VI).  Not only as a spiritual good in and of itself but also, as Pope Francis has pointed out, “to strengthen our bonds with the Jewish people and to pray for Christian unity.”  He continued to explain:

            “A profound bond links sacred Scripture and the faith of believers.  Since faith comes from hearing and what is heard is based on the word of Christ (cf. Rom 10:17), believers are bound to listen attentively to the Word of the Lord, both in the celebration of the liturgy and in their personal prayer and reflection.”

Both the Old Testament and the New Testament are integrally related to one another, comprising the whole history of our salvation.  As the people of God “saved by him,” it is essential for the deepening of our faith to be as familiar as possible with the story.

Deacons and priests are especially blessed with the sacred obligation, assumed at their ordination, of sanctifying their day by praying the “Liturgy of Hours,” also called the “Divine Office” or “duty.”  These prayers are largely scriptural in nature and, when read faithfully in the four-week cycle, immerse the ordained reader in the Word of God.  Members of religious orders also follow this biblically-based cycle of prayers but it is not restricted to clergy or religious.  In fact, the lay faithful in some parishes have begun to pray parts of the Liturgy of Hours together for their own spiritual nourishment, “to grow in love and faithful witness.”  

Yes, Pope Francis is on to something very important and spiritually beneficial here.  Our faith can only be strengthened if it is rooted in the Word of God.  Mass is composed of two really inseparable parts: the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  To “consume” God’s Word is the best way to prepare ourselves to “consume” his precious Body and Blood.  In the Liturgy of the Word, the Lord is both the “Messenger” and the “Message.”  He speaks the Word and is, himself, the Word he speaks.  In the Liturgy of the Eucharist, he is both the “One Sacrificing” and the “Sacrifice” itself.  He is the “Giver” and the “Gift.”  Thanks be to God!

Like feast days we celebrate individually throughout the liturgical year, the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time – now to be the Sunday of the Word of God – is one day.  Its motivation, however, is an invitation and inspiration for every day throughout the year. A prominent, visible placement of the Scriptures in our parish churches; a deliberate effort to be carefully attentive to the Readings at Mass; a thoughtful, well-prepared – and well-delivered – homily; perhaps more frequently planned parish celebrations or “Services of the Word” outside of Mass; offering parish programs for Bible Study; more emphasis on the sacred Scriptures in our Catholic schools and religious education courses; and, of course, regular personal reading of the Bible at home or combined with times for Eucharistic adoration in Church – these are some ways that the Word of God can become a more significant support for a life of faith, as Pope Francis is trying to establish.

Pope Francis concluded his letter with this prayer:

         "May the Sunday of the Word of God help his people to grow in religious and intimate familiarity with sacred Scriptures.  For as the sacred author taught of old: ‘This word is very near to you: it is in your mouth and in your heart for your observance’ (Deut. 30:14).”               

“The Word of the Lord!” As Catholics, let us all respond with open minds and hearts to this great gift, “Thanks be to God!”