Bible study: it's not just for Protestants anymore

By Bob Zyskowski| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Scripture and Theology

Gary Hoffman's passion for the Bible has caused him to wind up in prison. "When you begin to reflect on scripture, it calls you deeper and deeper," he says. "I remember several times when we would hold Bible study sessions in our home. They were supposed to go for an hour and a half or two, but then people would start reflecting on how a passage applied to their own spiritual journey, and they'd really get into it. It would go on and on into the night.

"There were several times when this happened, and it would really be getting late, and I'd say, 'Look, my wife and I are going to bed. You people are welcome to stay here and continue this discussion, but I've got to get up for work tomorrow.' And they would stay and keep talking! That's part of the enthusiasm that people get when they begin to get into scripture."

Hoffman wound up in prison-if only just visiting-because he and the people with whom he studied the Bible felt called, once they got deeply into the Bible, to action.

"You cannot study scripture without realizing you are being called to be more active in your faith," says Hoffman, a permanent deacon in suburban Minneapolis who got involved in prison ministry.

But how many Catholics can say they really understand scripture and feel comfortable discussing the Bible, say with Protestant friends? How many Catholics are even attempting to better understand the inspired word of God by taking part in Bible study or scripture reflection groups? Is becoming more knowledgeable or comfortable with the Bible a priority for Catholics?

Deacon Hoffman's situation at St. John the Baptist Parish in Excelsior, Minnesota gives an anecdotal answer to questions like these. When Hoffman began an intensive Bible study program four years ago, some 35 folks were involved; four years later, as he is finishing up the program, the group is down to 12. This in a parish of nearly 600 families. Californian Leaette Boyles has 40 or 50 people participating in the two Bible study groups she leads in her parish of 4,000 families in suburban Los Angeles. The story is the same at many U.S. Catholic parishes-if they even have Bible study groups.

The numbers don't disappoint Hoffman or Boyles or others involved in Bible study programs in parishes across the country. Father Bill Martin felt he had "a pretty good response" when 20 to 30 people "kept coming back" for his first try at a scripture series at his new parish, Guardian Angels in Oakdale, Minnesota. "Would I like to have had a thousand people there? Sure," Martin says. "But from the things I learned doing this session, hopefully we'll have more when we do one this fall."

Scripture.com
Many see Catholics and Bible study today the way investors look at a start-up company: It's a venture with tremendous growth potential. Kay Murdy, for example, one of the founders of the Catholic Bible Institute in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, views Bible study as being in its infancy. "As Catholics we haven't always been exposed to the Bible, but that's changing," says Murdy.

"I think once people are exposed to the Bible in a pastoral way-as having applications for your life, for your prayer life-they develop their own hunger and thirst for the Bible."

Steve Mueller says there is a reason Catholic appreciation of the Bible is still limited.

"Generally, Catholics were not brought up with scripture," says Mueller, author of The Seeker's Guide to Reading the Bible: A Catholic Perspective (Loyola Press, 1999). "Especially older Catholics were told the Bible really wasn't our book. If we wanted to know about spirituality we were told to read the Catholic spiritual writers."

Boyles confirms that attitude. "My mother-in-law's Bible says right in the beginning, 'Not to be read without the presence of a priest.'"

Catholics are breaking out of that tradition, according to Roy Dick, a religious education coordinator at Guardian Angels in Oakdale, Minnesota who runs several Bible study programs there. "A primary thing driving people to come to our Bible programs is that people feel that the Bible got neglected when they were children," Dick says. "They feel they got shortchanged as Catholics, and that there is a lot of richness in the Bible. They want to capture some of that richness they felt they missed."

What Mueller, Dick, and others feel turned the tide and opened up the world of scripture to Catholics was the Second Vatican Council. Better popular translations of the Bible made it more readable, but Catholics also became exposed to more of scripture at weekend liturgies with the advent of the three-cycle lectionary that came as a fruit of the council's liturgical reforms.

Catholics began hearing more both of the Old and New Testaments at Mass, Mueller says, and preaching became focused on breaking open those scripture passages and helping the people in the pew understand how they might apply the biblical lessons to their own lives.

Abbot Gregory Polan, O.S.B., a scripture scholar from Conception Abbey in Missouri, sees that weekly exposure is having its effect on people.

"The truth of the situation is that Catholics are becoming more and more aware of the richness of the Bible," he says. "It's taking a whole generation for this to take root, but I think in a number of ways we're moving.

"There have been so many indications that before Vatican II Catholics were not encouraged to read the Bible. Today, developing a spirituality of the Bible is an aspect of Catholic life that is just growing and growing and growing. It's not that uncommon for parishes to have one or more Bible study sessions each week. Yes, there are many Catholics who don't easily read the Bible. But there are many who do."

Count Delores Frerich among those.

The Hereford, Texas mother of five and grandmother of 11 has been part of a Bible study group at Immaculate Conception Parish in nearby Vega, Texas for 10 years now. She knows it has changed her life and the lives of others in the group.

"Our group started after we did Renew [the Paulist Fathers' parish renewal program] in our parish," Frerich explained. "We felt like we needed more adult education. We wanted to learn more about our religion. It seems like the church uses the Bible more nowadays, and we felt we could understand more if we knew more about the Bible."

What started as a group of eight has grown to 15 women who meet on Wednesday evenings at 5:15 in the parish hall. They use the Little Rock Scripture Series (see box on previous page) and take turns leading the sessions.

"Over the years, we kind of have a little bond going that ties us to one another," Frerich says. "I think it's brought us closer to God and closer to each other. Before we used to keep things to ourselves. Now we share our problems. Ten years ago I prayed once in a while. This involvement with the Bible has helped me turn to God almost every day."

Frerich says she has seen how at least two non-Catholics have been attracted to the church by one of the members of her Bible study group. She has also watched as participation in the Bible study group brought another woman back to church. "I think it's helped our parish a lot," Frerich says. Now she's also become involved in teaching religion to young people at Immaculate Conception.

"I wouldn't have done this before I started learning more about the Bible," Frerich says. "I didn't think I was qualified to teach religion before. Now I feel I have something to offer."

How it's done
Dan Beshara is another Catholic who is sold on the Little Rock Scripture Series. Although developed by his home archdiocese, it has spread across the country to be used by some 7,000 parishes.

"I like the focus on a particular book of the Bible in the Little Rock material," says Beshara, a member of St. Bernard Parish in Bella Vista, Arkansas, "and with the booklet you get with each series, you get a commentary to read and discussion questions you can write your own response to in order to prepare for the group session."

While Delores Frerich's group in Texas uses just the booklet, Beshara's Bible study group uses the 20-30 minute video lecture that teaches about a particular passage to work in concert with the group discussion of each week's questions.

"The videos are just excellent," Beshara says. "I always gain new insights. And I find it's enriching to hear what other people have been prompted to think about after reflecting on scripture. I like the group contact. I like it all!"

With six or eight groups of 10 or 12 people each going all the time, St. Bernard has made Bible study a regular part of its adult faith formation effort, Beshara says.

While some see Bible study as in its infancy among Catholics, it could be argued that the Little Rock Scripture Series has matured nicely to middle age.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the program, and sales of booklets have been averaging about 100,000 for the past five years or so. The Little Rock series also has branched out to open the Bible to a wider audience. Along with Spanish-language versions of its courses, it also has a young adult version and video-based courses that require le ss reading.

"I think it's the format of the series that makes it successful," says Lillian Hess, producer of the audiovisual lectures for the Little Rock Scripture Series. "It includes individual study and reading of the Bible. The study guide has questions to reflect upon in prayer and a commentary to help that reflection.

"The material is divided up so that there is an assignment each day to encourage daily reading of the Bible and reflection."

Participants meet weekly in groups of eight to 12 or more with a trained leader who facilitates a discussion of responses to the questions from the study guide that they've answered during the week. A brief lecture-either an audio or video version or one presented by a local speaker-develops and clarifies the theme of the week. Prayer is also a regular part of each week's session.

Lea Boyles is another fan. "I use the Little Rock series when I'm first starting out with a group," says Boyles, who leads two groups at St. Margaret Mary Parish in Lomita, California. "They have a very good commentary to study from and a very good program guide for the leader that gives you a structure to follow, which really helps a lot.

"The video lecture series is one we often use because the videos are so interesting and so good. They're kind of entertaining, not so difficult, and yet instructional. The people who are at the beginner's stage of Bible study are not expecting to do a lot of homework. A lot don't even have a Bible."

Boyles also recommends the Paulist Fathers' Share the Word program, which is contained in a handy, easy-to-follow small magazine format that breaks the liturgical year into seven sections.

"That's a good, simple Bible study," she says. "It's lectionary based, and that's a real good place to start, because you're going to hear those readings on Sundays. You read them, discuss them, then you hear that same word proclaimed and broken open by the homilist."

Boyles, however, only feels comfortable in leading her parish Bible study groups, she says, because she has been trained-and trained thoroughly-through the Catholic Bible Institute, a three-year program developed in Los Angeles.

Boot camp for Bible leaders
Kay Murdy and Dorothy King used to go all over the Los Angeles area taking scripture courses. Their hunger to know more eventually led to a partnership between the archdiocesan Office of Religious Education and Loyola-Marymount University to develop a course that met the need for Catholics to delve more deeply into the Bible-and to train facilitators to help them do that.

The Catholic Bible Institute (CBI), now in its sixth year, trains an average of 125 people annually who meet one Saturday a month, September through May.

"We had great presenters each month-Bible scholars like Fathers Eugene LaVerdiere, [the late] Raymond Brown, and Lawrence Boadt," Murdy says.

Participants study, share, and pray in those sessions. Each month they are required to write a paper. The first year's focus is the Hebrew Testament-more commonly known to Christians as the Old Testament-the second covers the New Testament, and the third year is a practicum in which participants learn how to lead small-group sessions, keep a group on track, and actually plan a Bible study program and have it analyzed by experts.

Boyles found CBI invaluable. She went into the classes with the intent to explore and learn about the Bible. She wound up as a leader of Bible study in her parish.

"It changed my whole perspective on myself and my relationship with God. Now I'm also able to bring that knowledge that I gained back to our parishes. I think there should be a Catholic Bible Institute in every diocese," Boyles says. "It's made such a change in me. I'm not holy or anything, but, well, it's more like it gives you confidence in your creator and your religion-it gives you that courage of your convictions."

While Los Angeles and its Catholic Bible Institute have added a measure of academic scholarship and created a certificate program for Bible study leaders, the Archdiocese of Denver has raised the ante with an even more strenuous academic program with the Denver Catholic Bible School. Asked by her archbishop to create a solid Bible education program, Franciscan Sister Macrina Scott devised a four-year course. She expected 25-30 people might be interested, according to spokesperson Steve Mueller, who has taught in the program.

"In the first year she had over 600 applicants," Mueller says. "She accepted 160 in the first year, and since 1982, when the program opened, she has added a teacher every year. This is about the 17th year, and they have 500 people a year going through the course."

What's more, the course has spread to other dioceses and other parts of the country, despite its rigorous demands and time commitment.

Minnesota Deacon Gary Hoffman tells people that if they take this course and stay with it, it is the equivalent of 24 to 26 college credits over the course of four years. In the Denver program, classes meet each week September through May, three academic quarters of 10 sessions each.

"It's easy enough to put in eight hours of study each week if you're going to do the reading and the questions and put some thought into it," Hoffman says.

What differentiates the Denver Bible School program from others is that it is very academic. While Hoffman had done scripture reflection in the past, Denver's is a scripture study course.

"It's so thorough in its approach," he adds. "People walk away with such a clear understanding."

Getting participants to offer their answers to the study questions was onlyslightly challenging at first, Hoffman explains. "People were a little apprehensive. Now my crew has no trouble sharing."

Hoffman says folks who just completed the four-year course alongside him this spring often remark that once they better understood the Sunday scripture readings, they began to understand what they were called to do once the Word was broken open by the preacher. That's an important factor for Hoffman: that the knowledge gained be balanced by a call to action.

A regular question each week asks participants in the Denver course to point out which passage in the week's reading was most important to them-and what this is calling them to do in their life. "We have to constantly be asking that question."

Around the table
Religious education coordinator Roy Dick last year ran an introduction to the Bible course with both a morning and an evening group. He also meets one morning a month at Panera Bread, a local bakery/coffee shop, with another small group for a prayer breakfast and Bible study session.

"It works out to be mutually beneficial," Dick says. "We buy their coffee and donuts and they provide a nice environment for us to meet."

While he has used some of the Little Rock Scripture Series videos for the introduction course, he says he is moved by another resource, Sources of Strength, former President Jimmy Carter's favorite meditations on the Bible. "It's a real source of inspiration," Dick notes.

It bothers him, though, that for his parish of 3,000 families so few adults take advantage of the opportunity to enrich their faith lives. "We adults are willing to do anything for our kids for their faith development, but too few of us are willing to do anything for ourselves."

"We are all trying to figure out who our God is and what our relationship with God is. Studying the Bible is an opportunity to enrich the relationship we have to God and with each other. The more we study it, the more we incorporate it into everyday lives."

Dick says his goal is not to get Catholics to be able to quote the Bible the way some fundamentalists do. "That's all fine and good," he says, but "I'd rather see us try to live out the gospel message around the supper table and with our neighbors and in our workplaces."