Ozark Liturgical Conference

Published: August 2, 2014

Bishop Anthony B. Taylor delivered this keynote address in English and Spanish at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Rogers on Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014.

Bishop Taylor

Pope Francis has made the encounter with Jesus Christ in Scripture a major theme of his papacy and the foundation for the missionary transformation of the Church to which we are called today. Indeed, in his apostolic exhortation "The Joy of the Gospel," which is the theme of this Ozark Liturgical Conference, he placed Scripture at the center of the New Evangelization, which starts with the Church itself. Pope Francis writes:

"Not only the homily has to be nourished by the word of God. All evangelization is based on that word, listened to, meditated upon, lived, celebrated (in the liturgy) and witnessed to. The Sacred Scriptures are the very source of evangelization. Consequently we need to be constantly trained in hearing the word. The Church does not evangelize unless she constantly lets herself be evangelized. It is indispensable that the word of God 'be ever more fully at the heart of every ecclesial activity' (Verbum Domini 1). God's word, listened to and celebrated, above all in the Eucharist, nourishes and inwardly strengthens Christians, enabling them to offer an authentic witness to the Gospel in daily life. We have long since moved beyond the old contraposition between word and sacrament (between Scripture and liturgy). The preaching of the word, living and effective, prepares for the reception of the sacrament, and in the sacrament that word attains its maximum efficacy (Evangelii Gaudium 174)."

In producing "The Joy of the Gospel," Pope Francis was building on the work of the 2008 Synod of Bishops and the 2007 General Conference of Latin American bishops held at Aparecida, Brazil — whose concluding document he and his committee produced. The synod called for bishops to allow Scripture to inspire all pastoral work (proposition 30), but Aparecida went even further. It established a plan for forming missionary disciples built on the "Biblical animation of all pastoral life and ministry of the people of God." Aparecida says:   

Hence also Pope Francis' insistence that "the joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness."

... The disciples of Jesus yearn to be nourished with the bread of the word: 1.) They want to have access to a proper interpretation of the biblical texts; 2.) to use them to dialogue with Jesus; and 3.) so that they may be the soul of evangelization itself and the proclamation of Jesus to all. Hence, the importance of a "biblical ministry" understood as a biblical animation of all pastoral life and ministry, that it serve as 1.) a school of interpretation or knowledge of the Word, 2.) of communion with Jesus, or prayer with the Word, and 3.) of inculturated evangelization or proclamation of the Word. This demands that bishops, priests, deacons, and lay ministers of the word approach Sacred Scripture in a way that is not merely intellectual and instrumental, but with a heart "hungry to hear the Word of the Lord" (Am 8:11) (Aparecida Document, 248 — my translation and format).

The Biblical Animation of the Pastoral Life and Ministry of the People of God

So what is this biblical animation of all pastoral life and ministry of the people of God? Well if pastoral life is a tree, its biblical animation is not one of the branches of that tree parallel to all the other branches of pastoral activity — be it the liturgy, music, religious education, youth ministry or anything else. Rather it is the sap that flows throughout the entire tree, giving life to every one of the branches and thus animating all of pastoral life and ministry. So:

  1. It is not an adult education course on Scripture, though as we will see, such courses are an important part of its implementation.
  2. It is not a Scripture component added on to existing programs.
  3. It is not a preliminary task with which to begin meetings — a pious exercise which you have to get out of the way before getting down to the real business of the gathering.

Rather, it involves grounding everything we do in the Gospel — with joy — in line with St. Paul's teaching in 2 Tim 3:16-17: "All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work." For Catholics this is a big change in how we understand the relationship between Scripture and the life and mission of the Church.  

Pope Francis emphasizes that the most fundamental task of the Church is the proclamation of the kerygma: the death and resurrection of Jesus, which sets us free from the power of sin and death, and gives us a share in his victory. This proclamation of the Gospel invites us to a personal encounter with the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus Christ, which in turn fills us with joy and so produces in us an irrepressible passion to share this gift with others in everything we do.

This leads to a Church that is permanently in a state of mission and Church structures that are mission-oriented. Meaning for our purposes today: liturgy that fosters an encounter with Jesus, is rooted in the Gospel and is mission oriented; and music that fosters an encounter with Jesus, is rooted in the Gospel and is mission oriented. And for that matter, religious education that fosters an encounter with Jesus, is rooted in the Gospel and is mission oriented; youth ministry that fosters an encounter with Jesus, is rooted in the Gospel and is mission oriented; and so on. The joy of the Gospel, the joy of this encounter with Jesus, permeating everything we do!

To put this in context, let's remember that before Vatican II, what was called the "biblical movement" was mainly about getting Catholics to become better acquainted with the Bible. At that time most Catholics thought of the Bible as Protestant territory and so focused instead on private devotions instead of the Bible. After Vatican II, the "biblical movement" took concrete shape in the form of specific programs of study — like our wonderful Little Rock Scripture Study — though, at that time, undertaken as just one among many other worthwhile pastoral initiatives, including family life ministry, youth ministry and social justice ministry.

Our diocese developed distinct offices to promote each of these areas of ecclesial life. But this created a distortion because Dei Verbum — Vatican II's great Constitution on Divine Revelation — did not envision biblical ministry as just one program or ministry among others. It said that "all the preaching of the Church, as all the Christian religion, must be nourished and guided by Sacred Scripture" (DV 21). Scripture is the sap that feeds the entire tree. 

So what is going on is that Pope Francis is calling us to think about Scripture differently. The reason the Latin American bishops emphasize that it is the biblical animation of the pastoral life and ministry of the people of God is that this is not just for biblical specialists or trained liturgists. It is the vocation of all of us by virtue of our baptism, and it all begins with a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, who is the source of our joy as he connects with the deepest longings of our hearts.

Think of Nicodemus and his longing for eternal life (John 3:1-21); the Samaritan woman and her longing for true worship (John 4:1-42); the man born blind and his longing for inner light (John 9) and Zacchaeus and his longing for a different life (Luke 19:1-10). Aparecida reminds us that each of them brought their real self, warts and all — and their deepest longings — to Jesus, and were re-created because "they opened themselves to experience the mercy of the Father who offers himself through his word of truth and life. They did not open their hearts to something about the Messiah, but rather to the Messiah himself"(DA 249).

That's what should occur in our liturgies! This encounter with the Lord sets us on the road 1.) to becoming disciples, 2.) to a life in communion with fellow believers, and 3.) to giving witness to the Kingdom of God and its transformation of society. Hence the centrality of that personal encounter with Jesus. The catechism is a useful tool at the service of our faith, but we aren't saved by what we know; we are saved by who we know. So our focus should be on getting to know Jesus, source of our joy.

The Church in Latin America has developed a structure to foster the mission-oriented biblical animation of all the pastoral life and ministry of the people of God centered on three "schools" of formation. Formation in all three of these areas provides a solid foundation for all the rest of the pastoral life and ministry of the People of God. The three schools are:

  1. The School of Interpretation — which includes a.) translation and exegesis to help us hear the Word of God more clearly, and b.) interpretation and application, to help us understand it's meaning for our own life more fully.
  2. The School of Communion and Prayer — to form us in Christian holiness by intensifying our bonds through prayer.
  3. The School of Inculturated Evangelization — to equip us to become missionary disciples, witnessing to the joy of the Gospel which we have experienced.

The School of Interpretation

The School of Interpretation has two components: Translation and Exegesis — to help us understand what the text actually says, taking into account the way it communicates the Word of God in terms of the historical, literary and religious context of its original human authors, and Interpretation and Application — to help us discover what the text means for today, taking into account our own lived reality. This is an even more difficult task than it was just a few decades ago, given the dramatic social changes world-wide that distance us even further from the world of the Bible. Let me give you two examples: 

1.) No Objective Truth — For large sectors of society there are no longer any universally accepted objective truths: for most people, all truth is now subjective and relative — "whatever suits me." For them, there is no "Good News" beyond themselves. Scripture says: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom," but most people today have no fear of the Lord because what Lord is there to fear when people feel free to remake religion according to their own preferences and to validate their own tendencies?

And there is not even the beginning of wisdom when people feel free to remake God in their own image and likeness. And so with so many religions out there and new spiritualities entering the marketplace all the time, many otherwise faithful Catholics who have been seduced by the joyless relativism that now pervades our culture to the point that they now think deep down that despite their own attachment to Catholicism, it is arrogant for us to act like our religion is better than any other.

No wonder so many of their kids don't stay in a Church whose teaching they find challenging, especially if it doesn't really matter what you believe, so long as you believe in something? This has major implications for the liturgy! For many such people religion is no longer a source of joy. It has merely become a useful tool for living, helpful for raising kids in a way that will keep them out of trouble — rather than a place where they really expect to encounter God. So they think the Mass is about them: Sunday morning entertainment intended to help them feel good about themselves — rather than a place to go to seek forgiveness and recommit themselves to live for others as missionary disciples.

2.) Individualism — For large sectors of society, the fundamental cell of society is now the individual, not the family. People think: "I am entitled to be happy," no matter what their decisions do to the children (for instance abortion or, less drastically, divorce) and no matter what their pursuit of their own selfish interests does to the common good. And of course this attitude of entitlement produces everything but happiness.

Indeed, it has produced great insecurity in our society and a profound crisis of identity: there is no longer a shared sense of the ultimate meaning and purpose of life. Why live for something bigger that oneself if there is nothing bigger than oneself to live for? The resulting despair leads to many social ills, starting most obviously with the drug culture, the breakdown of marriage, sexual promiscuity, skyrocketing suicide rates, and so on.

And yet God has placed the desire for meaning and purpose deep within the human soul, and so long as we live without meaning and purpose our lives remain disoriented and out of control. People have become convinced that life is a zero-sum game, and so if other people benefit (for instance on the topic of immigration or health care) it will of necessity be at our expense. Paranoid Americans no longer believe in an all-powerful God capable of creating win-win situations to benefit everyone. 

This is the lived reality that has to be taken into account as we try to discover the Gospel has to say to us today: 1.) about our true self, and 2.) about the true meaning of life ... and it does so by facilitating an encounter with the risen Lord, who is the source of our joy.  

We have some excellent Scripture study programs in many of our parishes here in Arkansas, especially our world-famous Little Rock Scripture Study, which I recommend highly. For these to serve most effectively as a school of interpretation at the service of the biblical animation of the pastoral life and ministry of the people of God, we need to remember that our primary purpose in studying the Bible is to encounter Jesus in an ever more personal, profound and powerful way ... with the heart as much as with the head. That is the foundation for everything that follows.

The School of Communion and Prayer 

The School of Communion and Prayer is the area of formation that most closely relates to the liturgy, the role of which is to promote communion with God and with each other, and we live in a society in which the joy of this communion is needed more than ever.  

Look at the world today: Never before have we had so many means of communication, and never before have so many people felt so alone. Many in our society have traded real interpersonal relations for a far-flung network of internet "friends" who sometimes are not even really "acquaintances" since they have never actually met them. Such friends are often really just objects of consumption, to whom we have no real commitment since we can de-friend them at any time by just pressing a button — and then people wonder why their lives are so empty!

By contrast, losing a real friend is so wrenching that you never really get over it. This has to be taken into account as we try to discover what the joy of the Gospel has to say to us today. This is another area where the liturgy and liturgical music can make a major contribution to the New Evangelization to which we are all called. Here is an opportunity to look at the lyrics of our hymns, for instance. Do they pander to individualism focused on the self, merely producing feel-good sentimentality, or do they serve to build bridges within society and foster communion within the community? Do they comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable? Or do they comfort the comfortable and forget about the afflicted?

The School of Inculturated Evangelization

The School of Inculturated Evangelization is the area of formation that equips us to go forth as missionary disciples to proclaim the Gospel in a way that fills people in today's globalized and very secular society with joy. The globalization of society which affects all of us doesn't just involve the economy, world markets and electronic communication, though this is what we mostly hear about on TV. More significant is the way that globalization has changed the way we think about ourselves and about God — one major consequence of which is the relativism, about which I have already spoken.

These days everything is relative, and so there are now very few universally held moral standards of behavior. Now you can justify just about whatever you want.  The same is true for the impact of secularism, which leads to a way of thinking and acting in which God — and his plan of salvation — is considered irrelevant. No "fear of the Lord," about which I have also spoken. This strips the most vital and intimate realities of life of their joy and their deeper significance: creating a division between sex and procreation, between power and service, between service and the common good, between ethics and sacrifice, between well-being and pain and the cross, between the ends and the means.

The biblical animation of the pastoral life and ministry of the people of God aspires to form missionary disciples who are filled with joy and absolutely convinced about God and his plan of salvation — convinced, at a minimum, that living without God is not the same as living with him. A disciple hears the living word in community — including in the liturgy, which has access to our affect as well as our intellect — in such a way that like a "two-edged sword" it penetrates the deepest parts of our being, our thoughts and the intentions of our heart (Heb. 4:12).

When the Gospel really penetrates our life, it sets in motion a process of personal conversion, wherein we become courageous witnesses to "what the Lord has done in me" (Mark 5:19). Notice that to be a Christian and to be a joy-filled missionary amount to the same thing because our life has been transformed. And thus in view of our very identity as missionaries of the Good News, we are called to nurture ourselves continually on the Word of God in order to remain faithful servants of Jesus. This means that our work of evangelization is not just about revitalizing the faith of routine believers — to whom we have access in the liturgy, and don't get me wrong, this is much needed! — but also to then send us forth following the liturgy to announce Christ in those environments where he is, in practical terms, unknown.


In conclusion I would like to emphasize that while the School of Communion and Prayer is the area of formation that most closely relates to the overall focus of a liturgical conference like this, you need to be formed in all three schools in order to have a solid foundation for your liturgical ministry and indeed for your own spiritual life — hence my emphasis also on the Schools of Interpretation and Inculturated Evangelization. Hence also Pope Francis' insistence that "the joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ, joy is constantly born anew" (EG 1).