Biblical Apostolate in Southeast Asia in the Light of Dei Verbum

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2010 »Volume 47 2010 Number 2 »Biblical Apostolate In Southeast Asia In The Light Of Dei Verbum

M. Emmanuel Gunanto, OSU


Dei Verbum, the Cradle of the Biblical Apostolate

Imagine Pope John XXIII coming to life today, in 2010, almost 45 years after the launching of Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Word of God.  He would not believe his eyes seeing so many Bible lovers among the people of God.  Yes, he would see many things that he would never have dreamt of in his life:  lay people who daily read the Bible, Bible sharing groups that gather every week to share the Word of God, numerous interconfessional Bible translations, national Bible month, Bible camps for youth, biblical centers running Bible courses and biblical animation, publishing books on the Bible and other aids to help the people of God read this ancient book.

Pope John XXIII may be very surprised, but proud also that the development of the biblical apostolate was an outcome of his initiative to convoke all the bishops of the whole world for the Vatican II Council which gave birth to this revolutionary Constitution on Divine Revelation, although it was published only two years after his death.  One of the most important achievements of the Council is the rediscovery of the central significance of the Sacred Scriptures for the life of the Church and all believers.  This is clearly expressed in Chapter VI ofDei Verbum, “Sacred Scriptures in the Life of the Church.” This brief but compact chapter has been the starting point for a new impetus in the Church:  the biblical apostolate.  In contrast with the first five chapters which are more theological, Chapter VI is more practical.  It deals with how the Bible functions in the life of the faithful, how the Word of God contained in the book can be read, reflected, and meditated on.  The Bible printed in small size, even available in electronic notebooks, can be carried everywhere and give easy access to the Word of God.

From the ‘word’ to the ‘Word’ (DV, 21)

The Bible is not an ordinary book.  It is difficult to read and more so for our people today who are used to things made easy for them, and reluctant to make extra efforts because life is so hard.  DV, 21 proposes four points that could serve as “appetizers” for those who want to make the Scriptures their daily nourishment.

1. “The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord.”  The table of the Word and the table of the bread are placed on the same level.  Both are offered to the faithful as the bread of life.  This truth is mentioned again in DV, 26 to mark its importance.

 In Southeast Asia much attention is given to the Liturgy of the Word in the eucharist, especially because this part allows the active participation of the laity.  Reading contests are held on many occasions to ensure that the Word is communicated correctly, clearly, and beautifully.  Likewise much care is given to the singing of the responsorial psalm after the reading.

Due to the lack of priests, our faithful in remote places cannot have Mass every Sunday.  Lay people have been trained to lead the celebration of the Word for the faithful.  They are also trained in giving homilies.

Communicating the Word is not purely technical.  Biblical retreats, recollections, and animations are frequently given by our biblical centers to ensure that the proclamation by our biblical ministers comes from within, from a person who has been listening to the Word, touched, and transformed by it.

2. “Sacred Scripture, together with sacred tradition, is venerated as the supreme rule of faith.”  ‘Rule’ is taken here to mean giving direction to the life of the faithful, which according to Dei Verbum is given by the Holy Spirit, whose voice can be heard through the words of the Scriptures.  Therefore, silence gets an important place in reading the Bible, both in personal and group reading.  Silence allows us to hear the Spirit of Jesus speaking through the words of the prophets and the apostles.  Asian people are known as prayerful and contemplative people.  But silence is hard to find and create in the busy world of today.  The biblical apostolate in Southeast Asia is challenged to make people reappreciate the value of silence in listening to the Word.

Our faithful, who have become more aware of Scriptures as the supreme rule of faith, expect their pastors to be more biblical in their homilies, to make the readings more understandable and applicable for our time.  Many of our homilies are too dogmatic or moralistic.  Church renewal in Southeast Asia does not only come from the grassroots, but needs the impetus from the leaders as well.  Quite a number of our faithful join other denominations because there they can hear more of the Bible than in our Catholic Church!

3. “In the sacred books the Father who is in heaven meets his children with great love and speaks with them.”  Lectio Divina has become one of the priorities in our biblical apostolate:  reading the Bible prayerfully to reach the ultimate aim of every Bible reading, i.e., coming to a personal encounter with God, to be transformed into a new man or woman, and together build a more human/divine world with God.  Here is an illustration:  During a Bible sharing in a small village an old farmer suddenly exclaimed, “The Book can talk to me!”  That simple man made an important discovery.  The Bible is not an ordinary book.  Reading it, the words become alive, the words of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit address the reader personally, inviting him or her to a living dialogue that eventually leads to transformation.

4. "The force and power in the word of God is so great, that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength and faith for her sons, the food of the soul.”  Except in the Philippines where 85% of its population are Catholic, in all other Southeast Asian countries, Catholics are a minority of about 3%.  All experience some kind of oppression or persecution socially and/or politically.  Some time ago, Bibles in Malay (Indonesian) were banned from Malaysia because of the use of the word “Allah” for God, which is considered exclusively Moslem.  In Indonesia, it is very hard to get permission to build a church.  Once permission is granted and the building half or almost finished, it often happens that it is demolished or burned down, sometimes by force.  This situation is a drawback for a number of people to maintain their faith.  Others are encouraged to seek strength in the living Word.  The late Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan from Vietnam relates in his book how the eucharist and the Word of God sustained him during the 13 years of imprisonment by the Communists.

Many people in Southeast Asia live in poverty.  Here is an example of how people can cope with their poverty and draw strength from the Word.  My friend Peter is a train conductor.  He starts work at 7 a.m.  Every morning at 2 a.m., he wakes up to read and meditate on the Word of God.  From his salary, which is hardly enough to feed his family with four children, he has to pay five million rupiahs, ten times his monthly earnings to pay the tuition fee of his eldest son.  He shared the following with me:  “Nothing is impossible for our powerful God.  I try to keep hope alive.  I remember the prophet Elijah.  It had not rained for three years.  He saw a cloud, only as big as a hand.  Yet he believed it was about to rain.  I have to be optimistic like this great prophet.  Above all, Jesus is our hope.  He will not abandon those who are his.”  This good man not only reads and prays the Bible, he also fasts.  And behold, God sent his angel Raphael in answer to his faith.  The number of people who read the Bible daily are still small, but growing.  Daily reflections on the readings of the Mass are also a great help, and a number of our biblical centers give this kind of service.

Nowadays many people have cell phones.  It is no longer considered a luxury device.  Sending inspiring Bible verses by text message has become a new form of biblical apostolate among our laity.

New Translations (DV, 22)

To ensure easy access to the Scriptures, many efforts have been made to translate the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek into the vernacular languages.  After being separated for ages, the Church encourages the faithful to cooperate with the separated brothers and sisters also to make it possible for the people to read the Bible in their own language.  Publishing the ecumenical Bible has the advantage of cooperating with other denominations on a common basis, leading to unity.  Moreover, the production cost becomes much less.  However, there are problems with the introductions and footnotes and the deuterocanonical books.  The Indonesian ecumenical Bible for Catholics has the deuterocanonicals separately printed and inserted between the Old and the New Testament.

Indonesia.  Three years after the promulgation of Dei Verbum, the Indonesian Catholic Church started to work on an ecumenical Bible.  In 1975, ten years after Dei Verbum, the new translation of the Deuterocanonicals was published.  In 1987 the ecumenical “Good News Bible” in everyday language followed, and seven years later the ecumenical “Good News for Children” was launched.  The Catholic Bible Association still cooperates with the Indonesian Bible Society in publishing the Bible in many tribal languages and renewing the existing ones.  The Catholic Bible with footnotes from the Jerusalem Bible and the Christian Community Bible which is very popular in the Philippines are also available in Indonesia.

Philippines.  In the Philippines the Episcopal Commission for the Biblical Apostolate (ECBA-CBCP) has been working and networking with the Philippine Bible Society in publishing Community Bibles in different local languages.  Catholics and Protestants alike are working hand in hand harmoniously to make the Bible accessible to all Filipinos.  They aim at achieving the widest possible effective and meaningful distribution of the Sacred Scriptures:

  • in languages and media to meet the needs of the people;
  • in translations faithful to the Scripture text in the original language to effectively communicate the biblical message;
  • at an affordable price.

The Biblical Apostolate in the Philippines envisions:

  • a Bible for every home in the major language of their locality;
  • a New Testament for every literate Christian;
  • a Scripture portion for everyone

There are now 12 Bible Centers and Institutes comprising the Catholic Biblical Federation (CBF) making the Bible accessible not only for the Philippine people, but also for the numerous overseas workers spread all over the world.

Myanmar.  Until 2005 the 100 year-old Protestant Burmese Bible was used. The Catholic translation was limited to the Sunday readings.  In 2005 the New Testament and Deuterocanonicals were published and in 2007 the complete Bible, thanks to the financial help from KIN (Kirche im Not), Missio, and some personal friends.

Thailand.  The complete Thai Bible was printed in 2006, now also available in CD rom.  The New Testament has been translated in two tribal languages.

Cambodia.  Catholics are few, about 10,000 Cambodians and 20,000 Vietnamese.  The ecumenical translation is being used, the New Testament since 1993, and the complete Bible since 1998.

Malaysia.  The Bible Societies of Malaysia have printed the Bible in Malay, and the Catholics have been asked to supply the Deuterocanocicals.  The Bible in the Indonesian language is also widely used.

Vietnam.  There are about 6 million Catholics out of a population of 82 million (more than 8%).  In the past, the Catholic and Protestant Church initiated an ecumenical translation of the Bible.  After events that happened in 1975, each Church worked separately.  In recent years more than 20,000 copies of the complete Bible and 45,000 New Testaments have been printed.

The Biblical Apostolate and Biblical Scholars (DV, 23, 24)

Dei Verbum, 23 and 24 discuss the task of Catholic exegetes and other students of theology to cooperate and use appropriate means to enable ministers of the Word provide the nourishment of the Scriptures for the people of God.

Biblical scholars communicate their findings to the people of God through:

  • Conducting bible courses or training ministers of the Word, catechists, facilitators;
  • Providing books for a better understanding of the Bible, like bible dictionaries, introductions to the books of the Bible, simple exegesis, and background and history of the bible.

Bible courses in Southeast Asia vary from short courses for a weekend to longer ones.  The topics also vary from a certain biblical themes like “The Kingdom of God,” or a certain book, like the “Acts of the Apostles.”  Some give a more general approach to the Bible without going too much into details, like “An Introduction to the Old Testament.”  Such courses may introduce Church documents like Dei Verbum,Evangelii Nuntiandi, “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church,” or helpful methods like “The fourfold method” or “The Asian Approach to the Bible.”  A three months training for biblical pastoral ministers has recently been held from January to April 2010 by the East Asian Pastoral Institute in Quezon City, Philippines with 70 participants from Asia-Oceania.

The problem is to find good lecturers who are willing to teach the laity.  Many Bible scholars have an overloaded schedule lecturing at several seminaries.  Others are very learned in biblical theology and exegesis, but not acquainted with the biblical pastoral approach.  Their lectures are not well understood; on the contrary, they cause much confusion in the heads of the laity.

The bishops are well aware of this problem.  Therefore, the Second Bishops’ Institute for the Biblical Apostolate” (BIBA II) of the FABC held in Plentong, Malaysia, March 1-6, 1999 took up the theme:  “Church Documents and Biblical Apostolate Formation in the Seminary.”

In the Statement and Propositions two topics came to the fore:

1.   Seminary formation in the biblical apostolate:

  • A comprehensive formation in the Bible to be given in the seminary in which the Bible is taught and lived as the Word of God and source of life to lead students to an encounter with Christ and motivate them to share him with others.
  • A Formation Institute for Seminary Faculty to be set up in Asia where among other matters pertaining formation, the centrality of the Word of God to the life of the seminarians and their ministry is fostered through:

a. Scripture lectures in actualizing and inculturating God’s Word;
b. Theology lectures in appreciating the Bible better as the “soul” of theology;
c. Spiritual directors in helping seminarians develop a sound biblical spirituality.

2.   The formation of lay animators in the biblical apostolate:  “The pressing task of the new evangelization takes place through giving the Bible anew to all the people of God.”

At the Penang Seminary in Malaysia, the Biblical Apostolate is an experience for the graduating students.  In Kuching it comes during the pastoral immersion of seminarians.  Here is a sharing from Vietnam:  “In the Major Seminaries we help the seminarians to share God’s Word in small groups, a kind of prayer time and at the same time, a preparation for their future ministry.  We help them in confronting their lives and the social context under the light of God’s Word.”  In one seminary in Indonesia, weekly Bible sharing with a lay woman as facilitator allows the seminarians to taste one form of the biblical apostolate.

Frequent Reading towards an Excellent Knowledge of Jesus Christ (DV, 25)

After the exhortation to translate the Bible in modern languages (#22) and the appeal to exegetes and theologians to support the biblical apostolate (#23 and #24), Dei Verbum comes to a most daring and revolutionary statement, turning upside down the policy of the Counter-Reformation by appealing to the faithful for a frequent reading of the divine Scriptures.  After being cautioned for centuries in using the Bible for personal reading for fear of misinterpretation, the faithful are now encouraged to read the bible every day for their spiritual nourishment.  What other reason could be given to the laity to start this new habit than the one given by St. Jerome:  “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”  The faithful are reminded to read the Scriptures prayerfully, because in the sacred reading we encounter God.

In Southeast Asia almost every diocese has a Commission for the Biblical Apostolate, and in every parish there is a section to promote the biblical apostolate. The Catholic Biblical Federation (CBF) has 25 members in seven countries:  Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia (Singapore and Brunei included), Indonesia, and the Philippines, all promoting the biblical apostolate.  Nowadays not only the Protestants, but our Catholic brothers, sisters, and children also bring the Bible to the church and are familiar with it through Bible quizzes frequently held on various occasions.  On weddings, wedding anniversaries, and birthdays people use to give the Bible as a present.  In wedding masses, the parents of the bride or bridegroom present the Bible to the couple saying, “Receive the Word of God.  Make this your book of life.”  Yes, the Bible finds a home in every family.  Families are encouraged to enthrone the Bible in their homes and read from it as a family.  Thailand reports:  “We prepare Gospel texts from the daily Mass accompanied by a short and simple commentary for the families to read during the evening prayer at home.”

Bible reading in the family implants the biblical spirit in the members.  Here is an example:  I was visiting a very sick person with Lisa when her cell phone rang.  “Mama, please come home.  Our store has been plundered.”  I went with her to their store selling car spare parts.  Her husband and two children were already there.  I thought Lisa would start lamenting seeing the mess and the almost empty shelves.  But they were all calm. “Let us pray,” invited the mother.  And the family prayed before the open Bible.  “Lord God, we thank you that we are still alive, and that we have one another …. Look, Lord, we have been robbed.  This is a big loss.  But we have you, and nobody can take you away from us.  Protect us from further harm.  We pray for the robbers.  We forgive them; please forgive them too, and may they be converted…..”  This is the fruit of their reading and praying the Bible together as a family.

People will not automatically read the Bible, even if they have one for personal use.  The Basic Bible Seminar manual first published by John Paul I Biblical Center in Vigan, Philippines, now translated in many languages, is a great help to get acquainted with the Bible and Bible sharing.  This seminar is used in many of our countries.  In Myanmar it has even become a kind of national project, involving many priests, religious, seminarians, and lay as the core team to conduct Bible seminars in the most remote places.

Lectio Divina is becoming more and more popular among the laity.  Many people learn and practice it in groups or in personal prayer to encounter the Risen Lord through reading and praying with the Word.  Short introductions to daily Bible reading are very much appreciated to make the faithful discover that “my life is in the Bible, and the Bible is in my life.”

 “Bibliodrama” as Lectio Divina on stage, has been introduced to Southeast Asia in 1998 during the second CBF-Southeast Asian workshop in Manila.  For the past twelve years of bibliodrama experience, the biblical apostolate in Southeast Asia has been strengthened in its biblical pastoral formation.  It allows the participant who reads, meditates on and lives the Bible to enter deeply into the Bible story, and into his or her own life story and to be transformed by the power of the Word.  Bibliodrama is now booming in the Philippines and there are formation teams that facilitate bibliodrama workshops in the country as well as abroad.  Bibliodrama Indonesia was finally born in November 2008 after 25 participants graduated from the first Advance Bibliodrama Facil-itators’ Workshop in Bandung.

Other programs are used to help people know, love and live the Bible, like “The Bible in 100 Weeks” by Marcel le Dorze, first used in Japan and now in Indonesia and Malaysia.  It is a pastoral study of the whole Bible.  The “Bible from Scratch” is popular in Singapore.  Many other Bible centers draw up their own programs, mostly thematic, e.g., “The Parables.”  The beginnings may be small.  Read-ing the Bible an hour a day may seem very long for beginners.  We can learn from Thailand where they have a group of “Bible Lovers”—people who are committed to read the Bible 10 minutes a day.  The readers also include non-Christians.  They started with a group of one thousand and the number keeps growing.

Biblical recollections and retreats are now more and more felt as a need by the laity and our Bible centers provide those needs.

The biblical apostolate is not only a parish activity, but also part of the school or college program.  One example is the Divine Word College in Vigan, Philippines.  Here the faculty, personnel, students, and the whole academic community of more than three thousand have become witness to the Word.  This is due to the president of the college who endeavors to make the biblical apostolate a priority among the diverse programs of the institution.  The Bible has become the center of the life and mission of the college.  It is enthroned in all offices and classrooms.  All the meetings of the administration, faculty, student organizations start with Bible reading and reflection.  The Bible is read at the beginning of every college activity, even before flag ceremonies.  God’s Word has become a lamp for their feet and a light for their path.

Nobody is excluded from reading the Bible, not even the blind, because it is they who see.  Vietnam produces many Bibles in Braille for the blind brothers and sisters.

That the Word of God May Be Spread

Chapter VI of Dei Verbum has been the starting point of the biblical apostolate which is still growing.  Many concrete forms of the biblical pastoral ministry have been accomplished in these 45 years.  The biblical apostolate has formed and transformed the people of God.  Priests give better homilies; people are more attentive to the readings in Mass.  They experience the presence of the Lord in their lives.  The Word helps the faithful to discover the meaning of their life and suffering.  It gives strength to accept and forgive.  It helps groups to work together for a better world:  where there is more peace, more love.  They understand that change has to start from each one personally.  We still have a long way to go.

A small illustration:  Mary, my friend, wanted to make some asparagus soup for the family.  To her anger and dismay she found out that her maid had thrown away the bunch of asparagus she kept in the refrigerator.  She scolded the maid, saying that she could leave if she did not like to work for her.  Then Mary made fried noodles instead.   The dish looked very delicious.  “I will not share it with the maid,” she thought grudgingly.  “She does not deserve it!”  But then she remembered Jesus’ words:  “Whatever you do for the least of my brothers you do unto me.”  The least… must be the maid.  So she took a bowl, filled it with some of the delicious noodles.  “For you, Jesus,” she whispered, and gave it to the maid.  Her anger imme-diately cooled down. Change starts from the individual and with small things.

What are the decisive factors that enhance the biblical apostolate so that more and more people can be nourished by the Word?  More Bibles at a reasonable price?  More handbooks of the Bible?  More cadre training?  According to Dr. Martin Harun, OFM, a former director of the Indonesian Catholic Bible Association, all those are necessary and helpful means.  But “people will be drawn to read and persevere only when they experience that the Bible is meaningful for their lives.  What is most needed now is to develop the ability to read the ancient texts in the present life context, and to read the present reality in the light of the Scriptures.  Not the number of readers, but the quality of the reader is the key to the biblical apostolate.”




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