This past Sunday was the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, which Pope Francis has designated as the “Sunday of the Word of God.”
For this first-time celebration, I must admit, my expectations were not high. The roll-out of this on the level of the U.S. bishops’ conference and on the local diocesan stage was dutiful but not exactly filled with excitement. On the USCCB website, the coverage looked tired; they linked to the Holy Father’s statement and old content. I received a last-minute notice from the local diocese by email; it focused on already-existing opportunities for Bible study and formation.
Pope Francis said people have been clamoring for a day to celebrate the Word. Frankly, I wasn’t hearing a clamor. More like a murmur. A woman I know, a very experienced pastoral associate, once told me “Whenever you survey a congregation they all say they want Bible study. But then you host a Bible study and they don’t come.” This has been, more or less, my experience too.
On the other hand, when Scripture is used organically and linked to our experience — as it can be in faith-sharing groups, lectio divina, lectionary-based catechesis — and when people see that it flows from the Sunday liturgy and leads us back to it, the results have been amazing.
So although it did not seem like the Sunday of the Word of God was an automatic winner, I felt it had potential. Pope Francis is offering us something concrete to remind us annually of how the Word is a source of life, and how love for the Word is a gift we can nourish within our communities. It was in this more optimistic spirit that I approached last Sunday’s liturgy.
I was not disappointed.
In fact, I was incredibly moved by how my own Sunday worshiping community chose to celebrate. Before Mass began, there was a brief, well-worded introduction alerting us to this new observance. The hymns were fabulous, and each one was chosen to both connect to the scriptures of the day and to celebrate the power of God’s Word through the Word made flesh. The presider’s opening remarks also helped us to focus on the character of this observance. They were concise, apt, enthusiastic, and well-chosen. We knew from the start why this day was important and what the focus really was.
What blew me away, however, was a liturgical action: the Gospel procession was done up in a bold manner for this occasion. It was splendid. It was magnificent. It was inspiring. The priest and ministers walked the long way around the church, carrying the gospel book aloft in all its glory. There were banners, candles, incense. The music! An outpouring of joy. I was transported by the alleluias. Then, after the reading of the gospel, the book was enthroned. The preaching that followed was powerful.
I can’t even begin tell you what an impact this had. I came away with my heart filled with gratitude for the Word and awe for how it mediates the presence of Christ, who is in our midst “still proclaiming his gospel.” I didn’t just know it; I felt it. It was made real. The desire to go out and live the Word was amplified by this powerful experience we had together. It helped me (as I hope it helped others) to deeply remember what a privilege it is to hear, to listen, and to respond from the heart.
When Pope Pius XI instituted the feast of Christ the King, he observed that liturgical feasts are of great value in engaging the heart as well as the mind, and that they reach out to everyone over time:
For people are instructed in the truths of faith, and brought to appreciate the inner joys of religion far more effectually by the annual celebration of our sacred mysteries than by any official pronouncement of the teaching of the Church. Such pronouncements usually reach only a few and the more learned among the faithful; feasts reach them all; the former speak but once, the latter speak every year – in fact, forever.Quas Primas (1925), article 21
Before this day was upon us, I was writing my column for Commonweal and I had chosen the subject of the Sunday of the Word of God. I argued that this act of leadership by Pope Francis may well be “more important than it looks.” After seeing the Sunday of the Word of God celebrated well, I am more than ever convinced that this is the case. Francis’s initiative “is a gesture with roots in Vatican II, popular movements, and the experience of how the Word can kindle light and joy among the poorest of Christ’s poor.”
It is useful to remember the important role of the Word in the Latin American experience, particularly as it is used in base communities. In the course of my research, I enjoyed finding out more about the two Argentinian missionary bishops at Vatican II who proposed the addition of an article encouraging “Bible Services” that was ultimately included in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. For most people in North America that provision in article 35.4 of the Constitution has never had much relevance, but for Latin America it has made a great difference.
The fate of the Sunday of the Word here in the U.S., of course, is still an open question. Will it flourish? Are we prepared to lean into it both liturgically and pastorally? (My community did not commission lectors or give out Bibles, either or both of which could be done, for example.) What will we do down the line to see that this initiative not only enriches and encourages the faithful who are in church, but also reaches out to the unchurched?
What was your experience this past weekend? Does it make you confident that this observance of the Sunday of the Word will take hold? What are your hopes for next year’s celebration?