“Okay, take out your Bibles,” a speaker at a Catholic conference directed the audience and then paused. “oh, wait,” he said. “never mind. I forgot you are all Catholic.” The audience laughed. Reading the Bible was not our strong suit; not even among Catholics at a religious conference.
But that story happened 20 years ago. Since then, Catholics stopped laughing and started opening their Bibles. It’s been a trend reflected in increased sales of Bibles and a growth of Catholic Bible studies.
At Ascension Press, publisher of books and parish programs, John Harden, product manager, said that they cannot even keep their newest Bible, The Great Adventure Bible, in stock. After just three months, the first three press runs have sold out, with more than 100,000 now in print. It is based on The Bible Timeline learning system developed by theologian and Bible instructor, Jeff Cavins, with charts showing how the 73 books of the Bible fit within one overarching chronological narrative of God’s loving plan for humanity through salvation history.
“This is a game changer,” Harden said. For him, the Bible itself was a game changer 18 years ago while attending Benedictine College. “I did not see it as relevant in the modern world or even understand what it meant to say it’s the ‘Word of God.’” He credits reading and learning about the Bible with an encounter with Christ and making Him the center of his life.
Scripture Studies Grow
Gail Buckley Barringer, a Methodist convert, also credits the Bible with her conversion to the Catholic Church 25 years ago. “As a Protestant, there were a lot of gaps—questions that Scripture didn’t explain,” she said. “By reading it in light of Catholic teaching and apostolic and oral tradition, everything came together. For example, in John 6 on the Eucharist, Jesus keeps saying: truly, truly my flesh is real food. No Protestant commentary makes sense of that, but when I learned that the Catholic Church teaches that Jesus gave us His Body and Blood, it made sense to me that He said it over and over.”
After becoming Catholic, Barringer attended a Protestant Bible study for three years—the only option then in North Carolina. At the time, there was only one small company publishing Catholic study materials. She created a Catholic Scripture study in 2003 and founded the Catholic Scripture Study International which now publishes more than 30 Bible study programs. And in 2011, St. Benedict Press/TAN books published an apologetics Bible she put together with a host of well-known Catholic Bible scholars which includes articles, faith facts, a section on apologetics, a topical index, and study materials.
The landscape has changed dramatically since Barringer first looked for a Catholic Bible study. Today, there are hundreds of them supplying a growing demand.
Jeff Cavins was also in the vanguard of teaching Catholic Scripture studies. After 12 years as a Protestant pastor, he returned to the Catholic faith in 1995, wanting to ignite the same love for Scripture in Catholics he had witnessed among born-again Christians.
“After Bible college, I knew the individual stories, but I wanted to wrap my mind around the whole story,” Cavins explained. When the idea came to him in 1985 to create a color-coded chronological chart based on mnemonics (“memory devices”) to make it easy to understand and remember, he spent the next 48 hours in a whirlwind of activity, not even stopping for sleep. He kept it at his desk for personal use, but whenever staff or other pastors became aware of it, they asked for copies.
“I realized that I had stumbled on a key that got people excited,” Cavins said. He returned to the Church in 1995, and the next year introduced his Great Adventure Bible Timeline to Franciscan University of Steubenville where he taught. That same year, fellow professor Dr. Scott Hahn teamed up with him to film “Our Father’s Plan,” a 13-week series for EWTN Television based on the timeline.
A Wider Catholic Audience
In 2003, while speaking at a conference using his Bible timeline, Matthew Pinto was in the audience, filling his notebook with notes. “Oh my gosh, this could change the Church,” Pinto told him after the talk. As the president and founder of Ascension Press, Pinto, who is also a Legate in the Philadelphia Chapter, had the wherewithal to make Cavin’s Bible instruction accessible on a large scale. Since then, The Great Adventure Bible study program has helped millions of people read and understand the Bible.
“Being in the faith formation ministry, I knew that Scripture was important,” Pinto explained. “There is something in the very DNA written into Scripture that brings about transformation in our hearts and minds.” Catholics often feel intimidated by the Bible, according to him. “But a Catholic literate in the Bible is both an excited Catholic and a contagious Catholic.”
Within the last five years, Pinto said that he has witnessed a push towards evangelization outreach in the Church, as people live as intentional disciples. “They need the practical tool of Scripture to help them on the journey because it is the journey,” he said. “I want people to experience what I have experienced through the Bible. In fact, we are all living the salvation history story right now –from Creation and Adam and Eve, all the way to me sitting in my office today.”
Keys For Catholics
According to Cavins, the biggest mistake Catholics make regarding the Bible is fearing they will misinterpret it. “The Church gives us wonderful guidelines, in the Catechism,” he said. “so, we don’t need to be afraid.”
He pointed out that we can get personal guidance from God using Scripture especially through using the four steps of Lectio Divina: to read, meditate, pray, and contemplate passages. “It’s also a marvelous source for coming to know the theology and the economy of God,” he said. “The economy of God means getting to know the heart of the Father and His plan for your life. Scripture gives us a foundation on which we can trust God.”
Although there are many options today for individual and parish Bible study programs, is it okay to attend a Protestant one if there is not a Catholic one available? According to Cavins, engaging in God’s Word is always profitable, but we need to understand that Protestants and Catholics have different world views. Protestants believe in sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”) — as the only divine means of revelation — while Catholics understand divine revelation includes both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture.
“Be on guard for others narrowing the scope of revelation through Protestant interpretation,” Cavins said. He suggests engaging them by asking, where did you find that in the Bible, or who told you it only had to be in the Bible?
“I tell people in my classes, that we did not make that up,” Cavins explained. “The Jews believed in both written and oral tradition taught by the elders; it’s always been that way.” And when in doubt on something, Cavins said to consult the Catechism of the Catholic Church for the certitude of reading the Bible in union with the Church.
Wherever a person is on his faith journey, Cavins encourages Catholics to simply “jump in” and read the Bible. “God wants you to know Him even more than you want to know Him,” he said. “The only way our life makes sense is in relationship with God’s stories. You’ll find your story in His story.
PATTI ARMSTRONG is a Legatus magazine contributing writer.