Your Eminence, your holy graces, authorities, my dear friends,
at the beginning of this seventh General Assembly of the Catholic Biblical Federation I address you with deep feeling.
I think everyone of us would like to thank first of all Pope Benedict XVI for His message of greetings and best wishes for these days of prayer, listening, reflection, discussion and brotherliness.
I would like to give my greetings also to your Eminence Cardinal Policarpo Pengo who has welcomed us in his Diocese; through the President of the Episcopal Conference of Tanzania I would like to give my greetings to the whole church of this country.
I would like to convey my greetings to all who are taking part in this Assembly. It’s the largest General Assembly of our short history: we are 240 delegates who have come from seventy countries around the world.
Finally I would like to give my greetings to our brothers of the United Bible Society who take part in our activities.
Towards the African Synod
We chose to celebrate this Assembly in Africa. It has been a considered choice. Coming here we want to remind our African sisters and brothers of our love and friendship and also to this Continent that has opened itself to the Gospel with an extraordinary generosity.
In the message Pope Benedict XVI sent us he says: “The fact that your meeting is being in Dar-es-Salaam is an important gesture of solidarity with the Church in Africa, more so in view of next year’s special Synod for Africa”. Yes indeed, this our Assembly arises from our love for Africa.
We would like the theme for our reflections (“The Word of God as a source of reconciliation of justice and peace”) to follow closely the same theme of the second Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops which is: “The Church in Africa in the service of reconciliation, justice and peace”. Everyone of us knows the vivacity of the Catholic Church in this Continent. In the first chapter of the Lineamenta in preparation for the Synod we have a short but incisive summary of it.
This text remembers what Benedict XVI said about Africa today: “Africa is the great hope of the Church”. Moreover this document says: “The remarkable increase in Africa of the number of Catholics, priests and consecrated persons; the growing number of African missionaries in Africa and outside the continent and the creation of a continental consultation platform for them; the vitality of African liturgies and living ecclesial communities; the creation and restructuring of dioceses and ecclesiastical territories; the growing role of the Church in promoting the continent’s development, especially in education, health, the struggle for the emergence of legally constituted States throughout the African continent; and, lastly, despite her weaknesses, the great credibility which the Church continues to enjoy among the African peoples.
In many countries of Africa, only the Church functions well, enabling people to continue to live and hope in a better future. Furthermore, she provides necessary assistance, is a guarantor of living in harmony and contributes to finding ways and means to rebuild the State. However, she is also the privileged place where the subject of reconciliation and forgiveness can again begin to be treated. This situation is a cause for rejoicing in the Lord (cf. Rm 5:3-4) for the wonders he has accomplished in Africa over these past eleven years” (6).
These words summarize the great apostolic work done in the last few decades; the Acts of the Apostles tell us that “the word of God continued to increase and spread” (At 12,24): it’s the same experience that is happening in Africa now.
But at the beginning of this new millennium new and urgent commitments call African Catholicism to be more courageous and more generous so that Africa can become more and more the “Homeland of Jesus Christ”.
Moreover the Lineamenta tell us that “This new reality requires thorough study in view of a renewed evangelisation effort, which calls for a more in-depth analysis of specific topics important for the present and future of the Catholic Church on the great African continent”.
Reconciliation, justice and peace are urgent issues to face. Many African countries are afflicted by injustice, war, and ethnic conflicts that lacerate human cohabitation. Moreover often there are tragedies caused by hunger, thirst and illnesses (like HIV).
Unfortunately these terrible disasters in Africa continue to happen under the shameful indifference of the international community; the same Europe, that is linked to Africa for centuries historically and geographically, has abandoned it to its own destiny.
Moreover there is an atmosphere of resigned pessimism that can remove more and more the possibility of an “African resurrection”.
This is not the place to go into these topics that are frightful only when we enunciate them. But we have to denounce that cultural atmosphere that considers war and conflicts inescapable. Peace is viewed as impossible.
Someone can think that peace is an illusion for simple and naïve people.
Someone can think that war is “a sad choice”, but it is inescapable, it’s a necessity that belongs to history and to the evolution of mankind. We cannot take away from war, we cannot fight against it. War doesn’t scandalize any more and peace is always less popular. After all, there are many reasons that encourage wars: poverty, raw materials, arms trafficking, drug trafficking, racism, refugees, political weakness, illnesses, fanaticism, national identity, irrationality, monopolies, overexploitation of natural resources, new-slavery, problems about land, corruption, weak international help etc…
It’s a list that can continue and that explains the reason for many conflicts in Africa and other places. However these things are not the true reasons for wars and conflicts. The true reasons for wars and conflicts are not external to man, but internal and they are within our own hearts. The Gospel of Matthew says: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man unclean” (Mt 15,19).
The echo of these words is also in the constitutional text of Unesco, written in 1945, immediately after the Second World War: “That since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed… That ignorance of each other’s ways and lives has been a common cause, throughout the history of mankind, of that suspicion and mistrust between the peoples of the world through which their differences have all too often broken into war”.
So my dear friends, it is here, in the hearts of people where the mission of the Church must develop itself.
Christianity in its nature is called to transform the world. It is not possible to live our faith alongside history or, worse, outside history. There are not two histories, the history of mankind and the history of Christians. There is only one history, the history of God who wants our salvation. Christian faith, unlike other institutions, transforms the world but from the inside, from people’s hearts.
The Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I said: “The Church is not a power like those of this world; it is not its duty to take the side of some people or other people. The Church is neither revolutionary nor counter-revolutionary. It’s the Church of love. It knows that in the long run only love can transform our lives. We have to start with ourselves, otherwise revolution is only an alibi” (Dialogues, 280).
It’s from the conversion of our hearts that we can start a renewed world, a reconciled and peaceful world.
I would like to remember Archbishop Romero, killed on the altar just after his proclamation of the Gospel. His strength was only in the predication of the Gospel of love. He was winning too many hearts. That’s the reason why he was killed.
The same thing happened with my friend Father Andrea Santoro, whom I studied with: he was killed two years ago in Tribisonda, Turkey, while he was praying with the Bible in his hands. The same bullet went through his Bible and his heart; it was like a sign of unity between Bible and heart.
In his last letter, he compared Christianity to Islam and he said: “As Christians we have an advantage: we believe in a defenceless God, we believe in Christ who invites us to love our enemies, to serve so that we can be “lords” in his house; Christ invites us to become the last so that we can be the first. Our Gospel forbids hatred, anger, judgement, domination. Jesus is the lamb of God: he was killed and he gave us an example so that we have to remove pride and hatred. God attracts us with love; he doesn’t dominate with egotistical power”. This advantage can seem disadvantageous in the eyes of the world, but it is victorious in the eyes of God and it is able to conquer the world.
Dear friends, at the beginning of this millennium, in Africa and in the whole world, we need witnesses like Romero and Santoro: they were able to sow the Word of God with courage. Yes, the Gospel of love is the source of any reconciliation, any justice and peace. The Gospel of love delivers us from resignation and gives us strength to remove wars and conflicts where they start, which is the heart of people. Wars and conflicts are first of all an internal choice and only afterwards they are political choices. Wars and conflicts are spiritual illnesses: they are more than a political mistake or an economic condition.
Wars and conflicts are prepared with a widespread atmosphere of contempt and violence: many little choices of contempt and violence cause great divisions between people and take away the desire for reconciliation.
It’s the old story of the struggle between good and evil which takes place in the hearts of people. Structures of sin in our society are generated from our hearts. Each act of violence is deep-rooted in this sentence: “Save yourself!”, the sentence addressed to Jesus when he was on the cross. The seed of any conflict is living for ourselves, spending our energies only for ourselves and for our own personal and particular interests. Pope Benedict XVI, at the beginning of his ministry, wanted to talk about the love of God, about God who loves everyone of us. This is the mystery revealed by the Holy Scriptures. The God of Jesus chose to be with us, to be in dialogue with us, a dialogue of love especially with the poorest.
Yes, we could say “starting” from Africa. The word of God is the effective source of reconciliation, justice and peace.
The Synod about the Word of God in the Church
Dear friends, from Africa we understand better the value of the Synod about the Word of God.
At the end of the International Meeting for the forty years of Dei Verbum, we wrote a letter to the pope to call a Synod about the Word of God. Many other Episcopal conferences have united with us and Benedict XVI announced the celebration of this Synod. Everyone of us enjoyed this event. It’s interesting that the title chosen for the Synod answers the purpose of our Federation: “The Word of God in the life and the mission of the Church”. It’s what is written in chapter VI of Dei Verbum. The Lineamenta and the Instrumentum laboris refer explicitly to the Catholic Biblical Federation that promotes a renewed pastoral work for the Bible.
During this Assembly we’ll dedicate a special session to the Synod. Some of us will take part in it as members or as experts. Some of you took part in the preparation of the preliminary documents: so these people can offer to the Synod a contribution drawn from extraordinary apostolic work in these forty years. The Synod will be a providential event also for our Federation, not only because we’ll be able to explain our work to the whole Church in a suitable way, but above all the Synod will be a greater responsibility for every one of us.
Those who are responsible for the Synod are waiting for an original contribution from our Federation.
The general secretary of the Synod, Monsignor Nicola Eterovic, asked me to send you his greetings and best wishes for the work of these days and for what we usually do so that the Bible will be the source of our spiritual and pastoral life in our Christian communities. On behalf of this Assembly I would like to send my best wishes to Monsignor Egger, who used to be our President, who was chosen by the pope as Secretary of the Synod. His appointment is an honour for our Federation and a responsibility. He told me to send his greetings and his best wishes to you for this seventh General Assembly.
It will be appropriate to link the Lineamenta of the second special Assembly for Africa to the Instrumentum laboris for the next Synod about the Word of God. There is a strict relationship between them. One requires the other. It’s difficult to talk about the service of the Church for the reconciliation, justice and peace without discovering his source in the Word of God.
All our Churches, not only those in Africa, are called to discover again the primacy of the Word of God in our spiritual life and in our mission to the world.
This our Assembly is characterized by these two important synodal events. The work we have to do is enormous, but it is an important contribution for our Churches and in particular for Catholics in Africa, because a new and deeper knowledge of the Holy Scriptures will make our communities closer to the commandment of the Gospel to be salt and light of the world.
Survey about reading the Bible in the world
I’ve got a question: what’s the knowledge of the Bible among our faithful? I did an international survey in the last few months about “reading the Bible in the world”. It was the widest survey ever made about 14 countries around the world. We have only the results from the countries in the Northern hemisphere, from Russia to the United States of America: the results are encouraging but demanding at the same time. For example there is a widespread diffusion of the Holy Scriptures and there is a general “positive opinion” about them. Many people think that Bible should be taught at school. We can see the positive effects of the Second Vatican Council. The data show that there is no longer a difference between catholic and protestant in using the Bible. It is significant that among Catholics the fundamentalist and literal approach to the Scriptures is very low. But there is also a considerable ignorance of the Scriptures among our faithful.
Some people think the Bible is a book for priests; very few read it personally and it is hardly ever used for personal prayer. The exhortation to the lectio divina will be one of the more important tasks of the biblical apostolate. I don’t want to talk at length, but I would like to say that the majority of people, believer and not believer, thinks that the Bible is difficult. Many of them have got a Bible in their house, but few of them understand it. My dear friends, that means that it is essential to give help to read it. We could say that the Bible “alone” is not enough. Today the question made by the eunuch to the apostle Philip: “How can I understand unless someone explains it to me?” (At 8,31) is very important. Now there are many topics to talk about, like the Sunday homily and biblical courses.
It’s very important to remember that the majority of the faithful who go to Church listen to the Bible only during Mass on Sunday. On one hand it is good that there is a link between the Eucharist and Holy Scripture, but on the other hand we need to make an effort to spread the Scripture also in other moments of our life.
Our survey tells us that those who read the Bible go more often to Mass and with a greater consciousness. Listening to the Bible takes away the risk of living with individualistic religiosity and makes people more aware of the importance of the communion in the Church. There is a great thirst to know Jesus among people. That’s the reason why I think it’s essential to open a new and more generous communication of the Gospel. We need to make Jesus known, to talk about his love, his passion for the poor and the weak, his commitment to serve other people and not ourselves. Thinking of this data in this survey, I remember some words of the Gospel of John: “Open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest” (John 4,35). I ask myself: doesn’t a new season open in the biblical apostolate? Don’t we have to start this millennium with a new devotion, a true and real devotion for the Holy Scriptures?
Bible and ecumenism
Dear friends, I would like to say something about ecumenism. My words are inspired by the presence among us of some representatives of the United Bible Societies, like the General Secretary and other members. Bendict XVI in his message took some words from the unforgettable John Paul II: “How indeed can we proclaim the Gospel of reconciliation without at the same time being committed to working for reconciliation between Christians?”. There is something very important in these words for our Catholic Biblical Federation. We know that the Bible is perhaps the only field without obstacles to unite Christians. With satisfaction the Instrumentum laboris for the Synod says: “Generally speaking, it is gratifying to see the Bible being used today as a major point of encounter in prayer and dialogue between the Church and ecclesial communities. The faith that unites us and the differences in interpreting of the same Word are an invitation to rediscover together the reasons responsible for divisions. At the same time, progress done in ecumenical dialogue with the Word of God can undoubtedly lead to other benefits”.
We know the relationship between the Word of God and the Church. The story of the ecumenical movement shows that its promoters thought that going back to the Holy Scriptures is the key to overcome hundred-year old controversies; with the Bible it is possible to find a common biblical language where we can articulate the apostolic doctrines. The Holy Scripture can find a common way for us and we are aware of that: many common Declarations between Churches and Christian Communities in the last few years remembered the essential rule of the Bible to create unity. The Bible has got a unique position among Christians.
So it is very important the agreement between the Catholic Biblical Federation and the Biblical Societies for a new and more strict collaboration. We know that we have different statutes, but we can and I would say we must be united in order to spread the Bible around the world. In these days we’ll write a common text and we’ll decide the moment for a joint signature. We can consider that as one of the fruits of this seventh General Assembly and we can offer it to the Churches for the imminent celebration of the Synod of bishops in Rome.
I would like to thank you all again, especially the members of the Executive Committee, the members of the Administrative Committee and the General Secretary with the staff for your commitment in preparing this General Assembly. As I said at the beginning, this Assembly shows the long and profitable work done by the Federation. Next year we’ll remember the birth of our Federation that was founded in April 1969. Forty years have passed and we can thank God for what has been done.
The Synod about the Word of God ends a period but opens another one which needs a renewed commitment. This Assembly is an opportunity to live together a little Pentecost for Africa and for our countries.
Let Mary, the Mother of Jesus, lead us in these days and the Apostle Paul be in front of us as an example of a disciple who finds his peace only in the incessant preaching of the Gospel.