A lector reads during the celebration of the opening Mass for Sydney members of the first assembly of the Plenary Council in Sydney Oct. 3, 2021. The Oct. 3-10 assembly brought together — both online and in person — some 278 bishops, priests, members of religious orders and laypeople for prayer, reflection and discussion. CNS photo / Courtesy Australian Bishops Conference

Celebrating the Sunday of the Word of God in Parishes

Finding ways to promote sacred Scripture

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On Sept. 30, 2019, Pope Francis issued motu proprio the announcement that he desired a specific Sunday of the year be devoted to the celebration, reflection and dissemination of the Word of God. This non-liturgical designation is now annually assigned to the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time as the Sunday of the Word of God. I say “non-liturgical” because, in establishing this particular day, it is clear that the mind of the pope was not to create a new feast day, but rather a day that would be marked by a more pragmatic purpose — namely, to restore devotion to sacred Scripture among the Catholic faithful.

We can see similar designations on other Sundays of the year such as Divine Mercy Sunday, which was established by Pope St. John Paul II to promote the particular spiritual devotion brought about through the writings and private revelations of St. Faustina Kowalska. Similarly, there are many communities who make use of Good Shepherd Sunday to promote priestly vocations, perhaps by inviting the vocations director to speak or simply by focusing the homily of that Sunday on the importance of parishes raising up vocations from among their own families.

By establishing the Sunday of the Word of God, Pope Francis is encouraging parishes, in particular, to find ways to promote devotion to sacred Scripture. The hope is that we can do something concrete so that the faithful can find a new love for the Bible and give Scripture the place it deserves in our spiritual lives.

In the United States especially, Catholics have been seen by other Christian communities as people who do not accept biblical teaching or appreciate the place of Scripture in our lives; in some ways, this stereotype may be deserved. Some Catholics even find a joke in making comments like, “I am a Catholic, so I do not know Scripture.”

I often tell people in my home state of Mississippi that even though we live in the Bible Belt, we do not need to let non-Catholic communities claim ownership of the Bible. Scripture, after all, really is “ours” (so to say). The inheritance we have in Scripture is an inheritance of the Church and of her careful ministry to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the centuries. If anything, Catholics need to be the ones with the stereotype of knowing Scripture, because it was the Church who gave sacred Scripture to the world.

If Pope Francis’ intention with the Sunday of the Word of God is to be fully realized, pastors and parish staff need to think creatively of ways they can literally give Scripture to their parishioners. In our part of the world, it is not uncommon for families to own a Bible, so the recommendation of the pope to pass out Bibles in churches may not be as necessary for us, but we need to find ways to give the Catholic faithful access to Scripture again, even and perhaps most especially those who already have a Bible in their house.

The Sunday Mass

This can start with our own celebration of Scripture in the Sunday Mass. Parishes today have a strong tendency to promote the participation of several people to proclaim sacred Scripture in the Mass, and this comes from a good desire to have concrete involvement from the faithful during parish Masses. At the same time, the involvement of so many different people as lay leaders can lead to difficulties when it comes to ensuring Scripture is not merely read at Mass, but effectively proclaimed.

For example, some parishes and schools will ask elementary-aged children to read Scripture at Mass. Some places even have the practice of dividing readings into sections so that multiple children can take turns reading and more children can be involved. While the involvement of children in the liturgy is often beautiful, especially to their parents and siblings, if the goal in our liturgical planning is simply the external involvement of several readers at Mass, we might fail to consider the quality of the reading.

Ensuring that people present at Mass can adequately hear and understand the readings should be our primary concern. This requires that those selected to proclaim the readings from the Lectionary are not only eager, but also qualified, are good speakers and are given adequate opportunities for preparation. All readers (children and adults) should have adequate support in the preparation and be able to speak clearly and distinctly so that those listening can comprehend what is being proclaimed.

For the Sunday of the Word of God, the readers chosen must be effective readers, especially so the faithful will be able to notice the connections the homilist will later make to these readings in his preaching. The homilist should take into account in his preparation that the intention of the pope on this Sunday is so that the faithful will be edified in their knowledge and love of Scripture.

In Year C, this is not a difficult point to make, since the Gospel passage offered is Our Lord’s first sermon: “This scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21). The second reading in Year A offers an opportunity for reflection on St. Paul’s mission to “preach the gospel … so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning” (1 Cor 1:17). The readings of Year B contain the call of the prophet Jonah (cf. Jon 3:1-5, 10). Homilists could consider the way that the Gospel message is meant to convict us and bring about real change in our way of life.

Enthroning the Word

In his motu proprio, Pope Francis offers a concrete recommendation that parishes enthrone a copy of sacred Scripture. Some parishes already have the practice of enthroning the Book of the Gospels every Sunday after the reading of the Gospel passage.

That is not the practice in my parish, so for the celebration of the Sunday of the Word of God for the past two years, I have made use of a large decorative family Bible and enthroned it in a side shrine of the church building as a way of showing families the importance their family Bible should have in the home.

When the Sunday Mass is concluded, the faithful need to be able to take some practice home with them if the pope’s vision is to take effect. One recommendation could be for the homilist to challenge parishioners to read some passage or book of the Bible over a period of time. This could be connected with a different ministry or opportunity in the parish.

For example, in my parish, I offer a Wednesday night adult catechesis course, which I teach myself. Following our first celebration of the Sunday of the Word of God, I decided to focus our Wednesday catechesis over the next few months on a survey of the history of biblical Israel. The challenge given on the first Sunday was for parishioners to read Genesis 1-9 during the week (with the Wednesday course focusing on the themes from those chapters). We continued this with major sections of the Old Testament until the start of the Easter season.

The goal of an initiative such as this is, naturally, to get parishioners to open their Bibles up at home and read — even better if they can read as a family. Pastors could consider several practices to recommend to families in connection to the Sunday of the Word of God. Last year, I focused my homily for this Sunday on ways that Scripture could be utilized in domestic prayer.

One idea is for families to take a few minutes before supper during the week to read the readings of the next Sunday. I gave a suggested outline in our parish bulletin, taking into account nights that families may not have a chance to eat together because of school events or sports. There are four readings for a Sunday Mass. One reading could be read a night for four nights of the week. My suggestion was to use Monday-Thursday nights for these readings. Friday nights (at least in the fall) are taken up with high school football and weekends are usually impeded with social events.

Encouraging Scripture Reading

Suggestions such as this are not intended to only be used once — that is, only on the Sunday of the Word of God. Rather, parishes should make use of this particular Sunday to encourage practices such as these. Though we shouldn’t invite guest speakers during the Mass itself, it might also be helpful to invite one or two members of the parish to share before Mass some point about their experience of studying or sharing Scripture as a family. This could also be done as part of some event or class during the week following the Sunday itself.

Parishes could also offer literature on how to study Scripture using lectio divina or perhaps offer the same in the form of a workshop on the afternoon of the Sunday itself. Pastors could also inform members of the various publications the parish makes available for parishioners to take home, which may include copies of the Sunday or daily readings along with meditations. In my parish, I make printed copies of my Sunday homilies available the following week, which include citations to Scripture referenced within the homily.

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Resources

The U.S. bishops offer catechetical, ecumenical, liturgical and prayer materials on the usccb.org website and searching “Word of God Resources.”

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There are, of course, a host of other creative ways parishes could make use of the Sunday of the Word of God to encourage devotion to sacred Scripture. In all these considerations, however, the chief aim of this Sunday is that parishes can produce some lasting impact in the hearts of the faithful.

Priests will need to think more creatively than just writing a Sunday homily. Providing practical suggestions to the faithful that they can take home with them, especially if some level of accountability is available — for example, Bible studies, suggested benchmarks — will prove more effective for long-term improvement.

FATHER AARON WILLIAMS is a priest of the Diocese of Jackson, Mississippi.

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Enthronement of the Word

“This Sunday of the Word of God will thus be a fitting part of that time of the year when we are encouraged to strengthen our bonds with the Jewish people and to pray for Christian unity. This is more than a temporal coincidence: the celebration of the Sunday of the Word of God has ecumenical value, since the Scriptures point out, for those who listen, the path to authentic and firm unity.

“The various communities will find their own ways to mark this Sunday with a certain solemnity. It is important, however, that in the Eucharistic celebration the sacred text be enthroned, in order to focus the attention of the assembly on the normative value of God’s word. On this Sunday, it would be particularly appropriate to highlight the proclamation of the word of the Lord and to emphasize in the homily the honor that it is due. Bishops could celebrate the Rite of Installation of Lectors or a similar commissioning of readers, in order to bring out the importance of the proclamation of God’s word in the liturgy. In this regard, renewed efforts should be made to provide members of the faithful with the training needed to be genuine proclaimers of the word, as is already the practice in the case of acolytes or extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. Pastors can also find ways of giving a Bible, or one of its books, to the entire assembly as a way of showing the importance of learning how to read, appreciate and pray daily with sacred Scripture, especially through the practice of lectio divina.”

Aperuit Illis, No. 3

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