13 Popes Speak on Scripture

Popes across the ages have repeated with St. Peter, Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life (John 6:68). Recognizing its value, holy popes have thus summoned the faithful to drink from the wellsprings of Scripture. They  illumine the sacred pages from diverse perspectives: some to affirm its divine origin, (St. Peter, St. Clement, Pope Leo XIII), others to reveal its uniqueness in understanding God’s plan and thoughts, (St. Gregory, Ven. Pope Pius XII), and still others to highlight the merits of lectio divina (Pope Benedict, Pope Francis).

1. Pope St. Peter (c. 1 AD – 67)
We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.  First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.1

2. Pope St. Clement I (c. 35 – 99)

You know, beloved, you know full well the Holy Scriptures, and have thoroughly searched into the oracles of God; call them therefore to your remembrance. Thus, has the humility and godly fear of these great and excellent men recorded in the Scriptures made not only us, but also the generations before us better through obedience, even as many as have received His holy oracles with fear and truth. Look into the Holy Scriptures, which are the true words of the Holy Spirit. You know that there is nothing unjust or counterfeit written in them. 2

3. Pope Leo the Great (c. 400 – November 10, 461)

Because nothing but true faith and quiet humility attains to the understanding of the mystery of man’s salvation, let them believe what they read in the Gospel, what they confess in the Creed, and not mix themselves up with unsound doctrines.

We have indeed frequently, God’s Spirit instructing us, steadied the brethren’s hearts when they were tottering on the slippery places of doubtful questions, by formulating an answer either out of the teaching of the Holy Scriptures or from the rules of the Fathers.3

4. Pope St. Gregory the Great (c. 540 – 12 March 604)

The Emperor of heaven, the Lord of men and of angels, has sent you His epistles for your life’s advantage – and yet you neglect to read them eagerly. Study them, I beg you, and meditate daily on the words of your Creator. Learn the heart of God from the words of God, that you may sigh more eagerly for things eternal, that your soul may be kindled with greater longings for heavenly joys.4

5. Pope Leo XIII (1810 – 20 July 1903)

Among the reasons for which the Holy Scripture is so worthy of commendation – in addition to its own excellence and to the homage which we owe to God’s Word – the chief of all is, the innumerable benefits of which it is the source, according to the infallible testimony of the Holy Spirit Himself, who says: All Scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice, that the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work (2 Tim 3:16).

Sacred Scripture is not like other books. Dictated by the Holy Spirit, it contains things of the deepest significance, which in many instances are most difficult and obscure. To understand and explain such things there is always required the coming of the same Holy Spirit, that is to say, His light and His grace.

(By reading the Scriptures) the intelligence which is once admitted to these sacred studies, and thereby illuminated and strengthened…at the same time the heart will grow warm, and will strive with ardent longing to advance in virtue and in divine love. Blessed are they who examine His testimonies; they shall seek Him with their whole heart (Psalm 119:2).5

6. St. Pius X (1835 – August 20, 1914)

Since we desire to renew all things in Christ, nothing would please us more than to see our beloved children form the habit of reading the Gospels – not merely from time to time, but every day. For in them, above all, we learn how all things can and must be renewed in Christ.6

Everyone knows the great influence that the voice of a friend exerts, who gives candid advice, assists by his counsel, corrects, encourages and leads one away from error. Blessed is the man who has found a true friend (Sir 25:12), he that has found him has found a treasure (Sir 6:14) We then should count pious books among our true friends…They arouse the heavenly voices that were stifled in our souls; they rid our resolutions of listlessness; they disturb our deceitful complacency; they show the true nature of less worthy affections to which we have sought to close our eyes; they bring to light the many dangers that beset the path of the imprudent. They render all these services with such kindly discretion that they prove themselves not only our friends, but also the very best of friends. They are always at hand, constantly beside us to assist us in the needs of our souls; their voice is never harsh, their advice is never self-seeking, their words are never timid or deceitful.7

7. Pope Benedict XV (1854 –January 22, 1922)

We learn, then, from St. Jerome’s example and teaching, the qualities required in one who would devote himself to Biblical study. But what, in his view, is the goal of such study? First, that from the Bible’s pages we learn spiritual perfection. Meditating as he did day and night on the Law of the Lord and on His Scriptures, Jerome himself found there the bread that cometh down from heaven, the manna containing all delights (cf. Ps. 1:2, Wis. 16:20). And we certainly cannot do without that bread. How can a cleric teach others the way of salvation if through neglect of meditation on God’s word he fails to teach himself? What confidence can he have that, when ministering to others, he is really “a leader of the blind, a light to them that are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, having the form of knowledge and of truth in the law,” if he is unwilling to study the said Law and thus shuts the door on any divine illumination on it?

Our one desire for all the Church’s children is that, being saturated with the Bible, they may arrive at the all-surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ.8

8. Pope Pius XII (1876 – 9 October 1958)

Let priests therefore, who are bound by their office to procure the eternal salvation of the faithful, after they themselves have perused the sacred pages by diligent study and made them their own by prayer and meditations, assiduously distribute the heavenly treasures of the divine Lord by sermons, homilies and exhortations. Let them confirm the Christian doctrine by sentences from the Sacred Books and illustrate it by outstanding examples from sacred history and in particular from the Gospel of Christ Our Lord.

There [in Scripture], those who are wearied and oppressed by adversities and afflictions will find true consolation and divine strength to suffer and bear with patience; there, that is in the Holy Gospels, Christ, the highest and greatest  example of justice, charity  and mercy, is present to all.9

9. Pope Saint John XXIII (1881 – 3 June 1963)

[My] second thought is an invitation to enjoy the substantial pleasures afforded by Sacred Scripture…This is the substantial nourishment, which the Divine Book alone can give you. This is the reason for the exhortation: Take the scroll and eat it (Rev 10:9). The Divine Book can open up before you the horizons of a profound and generous spiritual life, and show you the devotions which have always been the mark of a good priest, anytime and anywhere: the Eucharist, the Sacred Heart, the Most Precious Blood, the Blessed Virgin, and, lastly, the saints of the Old and New Testaments. The Sacred Scriptures form an orderly and admirable unit, which must be first absorbed by your minds, to enable you to educate God’s people for the heights of piety, and the Christian conduct of life.

The Psalter is an invaluable source of prayer; in the near future, you will have to become familiar with it, and make it the thought of your thoughts, and the living substance of your consecrated life. We want you to be conversant with the Psalter right now: you must, therefore, study it and know it both as a whole and in its individual parts. Meditate upon different psalms, in order to discover the hidden beauty of each, and thus acquire a real sensus Dei and sensus Ecclesiae. Rest in the psalms, and rise from them to the contemplation of heavenly things, and learn from them to appreciate the things of the world, such as culture, history, and the daily occurrences of your personal life, with moderation and perspective.10

10. Pope St. Paul VI (1897 – 6 August 1978)

It is most suggestive to reflect on God’s choice of a book as a means of communicating with men, so as to invite and admit them to enter into communion with himself (Dei Verbum, 2), to make known to them, or recall to them over the course of centuries, his plan of love for his chosen people and for mankind. The Bible achieves perfectly, we could say, the noblest goal that a book has ever been able to set for itself: to bring man into contact with his Creator. And it does this, century after century, with a freshness that never grows old, and with a variety that enchants minds and hearts.11

11. Pope St. John Paul II  (1920 – 2 April 2005)

The priest himself ought first of all to develop a great personal familiarity with the word of God. Knowledge of its linguistic or exegetical aspects, though certainly necessary, is not enough. He needs to approach the word with a docile and prayerful heart so that it may deeply penetrate his thoughts and feelings and bring about a new outlook in him the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16) – such that his words and his choices and attitudes may become ever more a reflection, a proclamation and a witness to the Gospel. Only if he abides in the word will the priest become a perfect disciple of the Lord. Only then will he know the truth and be set truly free, overcoming every conditioning which is contrary or foreign to the Gospel (cf. Jn. 8:31-32). 12

The contemplation of Christ’s face cannot fail to be inspired by all that we are told about him in Sacred Scripture, which from beginning to end is permeated by his mystery, prefigured in a veiled way in the Old Testament and revealed fully in the New, so that Saint Jerome can vigorously affirm: “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”

Remaining firmly anchored in Scripture, we open ourselves to the action of the Spirit from whom the sacred texts derive their origin, as well as to the witness of the Apostles, who had a first-hand experience of Christ, the Word of life: they saw him with their eyes, heard him with their ears, and touched him with their hands. What we receive from them is a vision of faith based on precise historical testimony: a true testimony, which the Gospels, despite their complex redaction and primarily catechetical purpose, pass on to us in an entirely trustworthy way.13

12. Pope Benedict XVI (1927 – present)

My dear young friends, meditate often on the word of God, and allow the Holy Spirit to be your teacher. You will then discover that God’s way of thinking is not the same as that of humankind’s. You will find yourselves led to contemplate the real God and to read the events of history through his eyes. You will savor in fullness the joy that is born of truth. On life’s journey, which is neither easy nor free of deceptions, you will meet difficulties and suffering and at times you will be tempted to exclaim with the psalmist: I am severely afflicted (Ps 119:107). Do not forget to add as the psalmist did: give me life, O Lord, according to your word… I hold my life in my hand continually, but I do not forget your law (ibid. vv. 107; 109). The loving presence of God, through his word, is the lamp that dispels the darkness of fear and lights up the path even when times are most difficult.14

My dear young friends, I urge you to become familiar with the Bible, and to have it at hand so that it can be your compass pointing out the road to follow. By reading it, you will learn to know Christ. Note what Saint Jerome said in this regard: “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ” (PL 24,17; cf Dei Verbum, 25). A time-honored way to study and savor the word of God is lectio divina, which constitutes a real and veritable spiritual journey marked out in stages. After the lectio, which consists of reading and rereading a passage from Sacred Scripture and taking in the main elements, we proceed to meditatio. This is a moment of interior reflection in which the soul turns to God and tries to understand what his word is saying to us today. Then comes oratio in which we linger to talk with God directly. Finally we come to contemplatio. This helps us to keep our hearts attentive to the presence of Christ whose word is a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts (2 Pet 1:19). Reading, study and meditation of the Word should then flow into a life of consistent fidelity to Christ and his teachings.15

13. Pope Francis (1936-present)

There is one particular way of listening to what the Lord wishes to tell us in his word and of letting ourselves be transformed by the Spirit. It is what we call lectio divina. It consists of reading God’s word in a moment of prayer and allowing it to enlighten and renew us. This prayerful reading of the Bible is not something separate from the study undertaken by the preacher to ascertain the central message of the text; on the contrary, it should begin with that study and then go on to discern how that same message speaks to his own life. The spiritual reading of a text must start with its literal sense. Otherwise, we can easily make the text say what we think is convenient, useful for confirming us in our previous decisions, suited to our own patterns of thought. Ultimately, this would be tantamount to using something sacred for our own benefit and then passing on this confusion to God’s people. We must never forget that sometimes even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14).

In the presence of God, during a recollected reading of the text, it is good to ask, for example: “Lord, what does this text say to me? What is it about my life that you want to change by this text? What troubles me about this text? Why am I not interested in this? Or perhaps: What do I find pleasant in this text? What is it about this word that moves me? What attracts me? Why does it attract me?”

When we make an effort to listen to the Lord, temptations usually arise. One of them is simply to feel troubled or burdened, and to turn away. Another common temptation is to think about what the text means for other people, and so avoid applying it to our own life. It can also happen that we look for excuses to water down the clear meaning of the text. Or we can wonder if God is demanding too much of us, asking for a decision which we are not yet prepared to make. This leads many people to stop taking pleasure in the encounter with God’s word; but this would mean forgetting that no one is more patient than God our Father, that no one is more understanding and willing to wait. He always invites us to take a step forward, but does not demand a full response if we are not yet ready. He simply asks that we sincerely look at our life and present ourselves honestly before him, and that we be willing to continue to grow, asking from him what we ourselves cannot as yet achieve.16

Footnotes

  1. 2 Peter 2:19-21
  2. Pope St. Clement’s letter to the Corinthians, n. 22, 9, 20
  3. Letters of Pope St. Leo, n.120, 126, 
  4. Letters V. 46
  5. Encyclical, Providentissimus Deus, Nov. 18, 1893
  6. Papal document of 1907
  7. Apostolic Exhortation, Haerent Animo given by Pope St. Pius X on August 4, 1908
  8. Encyclical, Spiritus Paraclitus (n. 47, 69), Sept. 15, 1920
  9. Encyclical, Divino Afflante Spiritu, September 30, 1943, n. 50, 58,
  10. Address to the Seminarians of Rome, January 28, 1960
  11. Address inaugurating an exhibition of rare biblical artifacts at the Vatican, 25 March 1972
  12. From the apostolic exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis, n.26 , March 25, 1992
  13. From the apostolic letter, Novo Milennio Ineunte, Jan. 6, 2001
  14. From an audience at the Vatican, February 22, 2006
  15. World Youth Day, April 9, 2006
  16. Apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, n. 152-153

Photo credits for Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, Francis

 

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