Originally published Oct. 14, 2021.
My wife is a huge fan of the Harry Potter series. She’s read all of the books multiple times and attended the midnight premiere of each film. When we were dating, the films were still being released and I attended one of the midnight showings with her. The audience sometimes would laugh or cheer or sneer, and almost every time, I had no idea why. I was doing everything I could to understand the present moment, but because I had no grounding in the larger story, I couldn’t understand that one moment, even though I was paying attention! It was very frustrating!
I think this type of frustration is one of the common reasons Catholics so often struggle to read Scripture on their own. That is, without realizing it, we often struggle to understand one part of the Bible because we don’t know the rest of it.
Certainly the Church offers us a rich selection of Scripture at every Mass in the Liturgy of the Word, which typically involves an Old Testament selection, a psalm, a New Testament epistle, and of course a Gospel reading. Often, those readings fit cohesively together. But if our only experience with the Bible is through the Church’s liturgical selections for Sundays, we’re still missing a lot of the content of the Bible. Furthermore, we can hardly expect to learn the whole story merely by listening and reading along once a week. So how can we get more out of Scripture?
Tip #1: Tolle…lege. Take and read.
The first step to reading the Bible like a Catholic is…to read the Bible. Actually read it. Often. Not just at the liturgy on Sunday. This is one lesson we can learn from our Protestant brothers and sisters, who have a profound dedication to the reading of the Bible. The Bible is a Catholic book, and we should treasure it more than anyone!
But once you’ve made that initial step, how can we get more out of our reading? The Church gives us several criteria, but here are ones that I find most helpful.
Tip #2: Read the Scriptures with an eye toward the unity of the Old and New Testament.
One of my favorite lines in the Catechism of the Catholic Church captures this idea: “As an old saying put it, the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.” (CCC, 129)
This “old saying” is actually a quote from St. Augustine, and it is critical to a fruitful reading of Scripture. The Old and New Testament must be read, the Church tells us, with reference to one another. This means to adequately understand the Old Testament, we need a grounding in the basic structure and story of the New Testament. It also means that if we are to really grasp what the New Testament authors are trying to teach us, we need to have a foundation in the Old Testament.
Thus, we can no more expect to pick up Book 5 of Harry Potter and really know what’s going on without reading the other books than we can expect to hear bits and pieces of Scripture at Mass and know how it all fits together. If you don’t think there’s much to this idea, try this experiment.
First, pretend you know nothing about the Gospels or the Paschal Mystery, and open up to Genesis 22. Read it and see how different your understanding of that passage might be without a knowledge of the New Testament.
Second, reading Luke 24, the story of the Road to Emmaus. Carefully focus on how Jesus goes about explaining to the two disciples what has happened in Jerusalem.
Tip #3: Pay attention to the Tradition of the Church.
In the Church’s theological schema, the Bible is actually only one stream of Divine Revelation. The reason for this is that God can reveal himself in ways other than the written text of the Bible. God saving Israel from the Pharaoh in the Exodus is a form of Divine Revelation, as it reveals something about God, namely, that he loved Israel. The most stunning example of divine revelation is the person of Jesus Christ. The Catechism notes that Jesus is the “Father’s definitive Word.” (CCC, 73).
Thus, in addition to Scripture, we have the Tradition of the Church which we might say is the proper interpretation of Scripture. The Church, we must recall, existed prior to the New Testament, and the Apostles carried on the mission entrusted to them for many years before the New Testament was composed, and for several centuries before the canon of Scripture was authoritatively defined.
To read the Bible apart from the Tradition is to cut off an incredibly important resource for understanding the deeper meaning of the text. But what might this look like?
One great way to read Scripture with the tradition is to use good Catholic bible commentaries, which often draw our attention to how particular Saints, Fathers, and Doctors of the Church have interpreted particular passages of Scripture in their own homilies and writings. A few of my favorites are the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: New Testament, the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, and the Navarre Commentary.
Another great way to make Scripture come alive for us alongside the tradition of the Church is to read the Catechism with your Bible open. Say, for example, you want to get a good grasp of the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist. Go to that section of the Catechism and each time there is a reference to the Bible, stop and read the Bible passage. This will help you to see how the Church grounds its theology not just in the words and ideas of the Scripture.
Tip #4: Pray with Scripture
A final suggestion is that we ought to involve the Scriptures in our prayer life. This can take different forms, such as using the Gospels to meditate on the mysteries of the Rosary, or doing lectio divina, taking the Bible to the adoration chapel, etc. It’s important to remember that while we can approach the Bible as a book or series of books that we can learn with academic tools like Bible commentaries or sermons from a saint, at the end of the day Scripture is meant to reveal God and his love to us in our daily lives. We do need to try hard to study the Bible, but we shouldn’t merely study it. We need to love it, and to do that, we must pray with it. After all, the Church tells us that in Scripture, “the Father who is in heaven comes lovingly to meet his children, and talks with them” (CCC, 104).