September 3, 1943 – The Allies land at Salerno to liberate Italy from its Fascist regime.
September 9, 1943 – I enter the minor seminary of the Franciscan friars at Graymoor, N.Y.
September 30, 1943 – Pope Pius XII promulgates his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu.
February 22, 2012 – The Gospel for this Sunday tells of stretcher-bearers breaking through a roof to lower a paralytic to where Jesus is teaching and healing.
That encyclical of Pius XII is the Magna Carta of Catholic biblical scholarship. After centuries of reading Scripture off the surface of the page the Pope ordered scholars to embrace modern methods of releasing the original sense of the writers which may have been lost over time - the Bible being well close to 3000 years old. So listen to what he has to say: Let the interpreter with all care and without neglecting any light derived from recent research, endeavor to determine the peculiar character and circumstances of the sacred writer, the age in which he lived, the sources written or oral to which he had recourse and the forms of expression he employed . . . What is the literal sense of a passage is not always as obvious in the speeches and writings of the ancient authors of the East . . . The interpreter must, as it were, go back wholly in spirit to those remote centuries of the East and with the aid of history, archaeology, ethnology, and other sciences, accurately determine what modes of writing . . . the authors of that ancient period would be likely to use, and in fact did use. For the ancient peoples of the East, in order to express their ideas, did not always employ those forms or kinds of speech, which we use today.
Supported by this encouragement Catholic biblical scholars ever since have raised to consciousness so much of the Bible that was obscure in prior times – with the result that our appreciation of our heritage can come alive with new insights regarding old beliefs.
Not that the early Church was not aware of the depths of Scripture. Why just the other day the official prayer book of the Church cited the 4th century St. Ephrem: Lord, who can comprehend even one of your words? We lose more of it than we grasp, like those who drink from a living spring . . . Within it he has buried many treasures . . . And so whenever anyone discovers some part of the treasure, he should not think that he has exhausted God’s word . . . So let this spring quench your thirst, and not your (limited) thirst the spring.
Today’s Gospel reading supports such an effort on your part. The four stretcher-bearers couldn’t get close to Jesus with their paralyzed friend. He was surrounded by mere onlookers and then by scribes with only a legalist sense of Scripture. So what did they do? They went up to the roof of the house, dug out the ceiling, and lowered their friend into the direct presence of Jesus – who healed him of both his sins and his paralysis!
Which is what Pope Pius was asking Catholic scholars to do: dig down deeper into Scripture and thereby bring paralyzed people closer to Christ. As for my own inclusion in the dated events of September 1943 – little did I know then that one day I would be sent on to study Scripture in the manner decreed by Pope Pius XII and find my own assisted way down into the depths of that house where Jesus awaits to heal us all. In closing let me ask: when did you last give some serious time to a course on Scripture?