In another head turner, Pope Francis recently attracted headlines when he challenged people to “consult your bible as often as your iPhones”. If Lent is about changing our way of thinking (repentance) he certainly hit on a radical challenge.
Pope Francis is a master of using the Bible effectively. But four hundred years ago, one of Vincent de Paul’s contemporaries, St. Francis de Sales, called St. Vincent de Paul “a walking gospel.”
As we move deeper into Lent what can we learn from these two great men?
Pope Francis wakes us up to the Bible as a “dangerous book”.
In any number of places, he reminds us how in some countries people face death for the mere possession of a Bible. “There are more persecuted Christians in the world today than in the early days of the Church. And why are they persecuted? They are persecuted because they wear a cross and bear witness to Jesus. They are convicted because they own a Bible,”
It is clear that the Bible is a dangerous book in another sense. It challenges our way of thinking.
The Pope went on to ask if the Bible can ever be just a piece of literature or a collection of stories, given how many Christians are persecuted for it. He warns against skimming the Bible and not reading it properly. “Read with attention! Do not stay on the surface as if reading a comic book! Never just skim the Word of God!”
He shares his own bible reading habits. “Often I read a little and then put it away and contemplate the Lord. Not that I see the Lord, but he looks at me. He’s there. I let myself look at him. And I feel—this is not sentimentality — I feel deeply the things that the Lord tells me. Sometimes he does not speak. I then feel nothing, only emptiness, emptiness, emptiness…. But I remain patiently, and so I wait, reading and praying.”
“But it does not matter,” he said. “I’m like a son with the father, and that is what is important.”
So maybe we should consult our bibles as much as we consult our mobile phones.
Vincent – “a walking gospel”
In light of St. Francis de Sales description of Vincent it might be surprising to learn that he did not always read the Bible.
In fact, “A critical reading of Vincent’s life reveals that prior to 1617, that is, before he was 36 years old, Vincent did not use the Bible very much and we might suppose that he had little knowledge of it.”
Yet, as he grew older his life became more and more impacted by this dangerous book.
During the year 1617 Vincent experienced events that shaped his life. In January of that year, he discovered the missionary Christ in Folleville. In August of the same year, he found Christ, the servant of the poor in Chatillon. These two events likewise mark a new way of seeing the Scriptures. These two biblical texts will become the foundation of his spirituality and ministry.
1) Luke 4:18 ff.: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord. Vincent used this text eight times to define the mission of Christ and the Congregation. These words would also become the motto of the Congregation.
2) Matthew 25:40: Amen I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me. This text appears in the Rule for the Charities that he wrote and also in the Common Rule of the Congregation.
The second chapter of the Common Rules for the Missionaries contains 37 New Testament references in just 14 paragraphs. In his works there are about 400 explicit references to the Gospels and more than 1,000 allusions to Jesus’ life. The Gospel was part of his horizon.
Each day Vincent read from the New Testament and obliged his confreres to do the same: The priests and all the students are to read a chapter of the New Testament, reverencing this book as the norm of Christian holiness. For greater benefit this reading should be done kneeling, with head uncovered, and praying, at least at the end, on these three themes: 1º reverence for the truths contained in the chapter; 2º desire to have the same spirit in which Christ or the saints taught them; 3º determination to put into practice the advice or commands contained in it, as well as the examples of virtue.
One of the elderly missionaries of the Congregation noted that Vincent was very devout during the celebration of Mass, especially during the reading of the Gospel. Others noted that when he found a passage that began with the words: “Amen, amen, I say to you…,” he became more attentive to the words and his voice became more devout: “He seemed to absorb the meaning of the words of the Sacred Scripture, nurturing his soul with the substance of the text just as a child is nurtured by his mother’s milk. Thus it seemed that all his actions were filled with the spirit of Jesus Christ.”
So maybe reading the bible more often would help us become a walking gospel.
This Lent will we allow the dangerous book, the Bible, into our lives by reading it more frequently?
Will we allow what we read to shape our lives regarding the issues of our day and our lives?