Personal Bible Reading for Catholics:
How to Get Started
“Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ.” (St. Jerome)
Many Catholics who have a desire to read the Scriptures are nonetheless at a loss as where to start. Some, perhaps as a result of a resolution, New Years or otherwise, try to start at the book of Genesis and determine to plow on through to the book of Revelation.
Most of these people get bogged down around book of Leviticus or so when they run into the Jewish legal prescriptions, or perhaps in the book of Numbers, where they run
into a wall of statistics and census figures.
Sometimes, they will pick up a translation that may have beautiful but cumbersome language (like the King James Version) or that has a lot of technical or non- (and even anti-) Catholic footnotes and commentary. After that the Bible usually ends up gathering dust on their nightstand, a relic of good intentions fallen by the way.
I’d like to offer some recommendations on getting started with developing a personal Scripture reading habit that will help you grow spiritually with the Church, while daily experiencing “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus [our] Lord” (Philippians 3:8).
Make A Commitment
The first thing to do is to establish a firm commitment to reading a portion of the Scriptures everyday. This should be time - at least 15 minutes - specifically set aside for scripture reading that is part of your daily schedule. We make appointments and set aside time for other people and tasks, we can surely set aside a little time for God. The place should be comfortable and free from distractions, at least during that time. For example, I get up earlier than the rest of the family for my personal Scripture devotions. If you make it clear to your family and others that this time is sacrosanct, they will be more likely to respect it.
Choose an Appropriate Translation
As a visit to any bookstore will show, there are literally scores of Bible translations to choose from. These vary in quality and usefulness and some, as noted above, may even be deleterious to your faith or that of your family's. Catholics should use a Catholic translation as opposed to a Protestant one if, for no other reason, Protestant bibles lack seven books that belong in the Old Testament - the so-called “apocrypha,” properly called the deuterocanonical books.
The two most common Bible translations in use by Catholics today are the New American Bible (NAB) and the Revised Standard Version-Catholic Edition (RSV-CE). Many Catholics also use the Jerusalem Bible and the Douay-Rheims, which is based on St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate and was the Catholic Bible of choice for several hundred years. There is also the Christian Community Bible. All of these translations are approved by the Church, very readable, and each have their own advantages. The NAB is the translation usually heard in the mass readings and found in missals. It has extensive footnotes which are generally helpful, plus some maps and charts, depending on which edition you get. The NAB translation leans toward the literal; thus the language tends to be on the dry side.
The RSV-CE, on the other hand, is known not only for its superb scholarship, but for its comparatively beautiful language. The current editions of the RSV-CE (like theIgnatius Bible) tend to come with almost no footnotes, but at times this can free the reader from the distractions that footnotes can sometimes bring. I personally use the RSV-CE for my daily devotional reading, while using the NAB (Catholic Study Edition) for use in groups or for more serious study. By the way, it is not a bad idea to have more than one translation for comparative purposes. Sometimes it helps to bring out the meaning of a particular text or passage to see it in a different translation.
Decide On A Reading Plan
After making a firm commitment and choosing a bible, you should decide on a planned course of reading. There are, of course, many paths you might take. Some people decide to read through a particular book perhaps a chapter a day. Others might pick up one of those “Bible In A Year” editions. Still others will decide to just pick up their Bible everyday, let the pages fall open, and start reading whatever catches their eye. While I would not knock anyone who might choose one of these methods (as opposed to not reading the Scriptures at all), what I usually recommend to people is this: Read the Scriptures with the Church.
Reading the Scriptures with the Church means reading the Scriptures that are from the daily mass readings - the Lectionary. These readings, found in most parish bulletins, are comprised of two Scripture passages divided by a psalm. The first reading is from the Old Testament or from the New Testament epistles (or the Acts of the Apostles). The second reading, the Gospel, is taken from one of the New Testament gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. The readings follow the liturgical life of the Church (seasons, such as Lent and Advent, and Feasts, such as Easter, Pentecost, and various saint's days).
Both the daily and Sunday Mass readings follow cycles that, were a person to follow them everyday over the course of three years, would result in their having read a substantial portion of the Bible, including all the key passages. In addition, the first reading and the Gospel reading (and generally the psalm) usually relate to each other in some thematic way, especially on feast days and during Lent and Advent. The Church, our mother and teacher, thus provides us with a ready-made diet of feeding on God’s Word that, along with the sacraments, prayer and approved devotions (like the Rosary), nourishes and sustains us as children of God.
A Simple Method For Reading
Once you have decided upon a time, place and reading plan, it is time to start reading. Begin by taking a few seconds to humbly place yourself in the presence of the Lord. At least for this time, push aside the cares and concerns of the day and focus on being attentive to what God’s word might have to say to you today. When you engage in conversation with another person, especially one whom you want to know better, you try to give them your undivided attention. It is the same with your time with God.
Say a short prayer to the Holy Spirit that he might open your heart to the scriptures in a way that will benefit your mind and soul. Don’t worry about a composing an elaborate, wordy prayer: it could be as simple as “Come Holy Spirit, enlighten my mind. Teach me the ways of God that I may recognize and cooperate with his plan. I ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Read the passage once through completely to get a feel for the reading. Sometimes it’s helpful to read a few verses before and after the reading to kind of get the overall context in which it should be placed. Then go back and read the passage again, slower and more meditatively. If a passage or phrase seems to “leap out at you” (or even seems difficult or obscure), linger a few seconds and reflect briefly on it, then move on. When reading the New Testament, if it is evident that an Old Testament passage is being quoted, and if time permits, you may want to look up the cross-reference and its context (These cross-references are usually found at the bottom of the page in very small print).
As you are reading, try to apply the passage on three primary levels:
What the words and events in the passage might have meant to those who were present or to the original hearers (it helps sometimes to imagine yourself as one of the characters in the scene).
What the inspired writer was trying to convey to his readers by relating this particular passage, and what the Church is trying to teach us by presenting this reading or readings for our spiritual edification. Call this to mind especially if it is a particular feast day or other observance.
What the Holy Spirit is trying to teach you as a Catholic Christian reading this scripture today as it applies to your life in Christ.
After you have finished, take a few moments to meditate on what you have read. Turn your mind and spirit toward the Lord in thanksgiving, repentance, awe, joy or whatever response the Holy Spirit has placed in your heart from your time listening to the word of God. Close with a brief prayer to the Holy Spirit that he assist you in living according to the inspired word you have just read.
This simple method that I have recommended is a bare starting point. The important thing when you are just starting out is that you develop the habit of setting aside time for the daily prayerful reading of the Scriptures.
Many people benefit from using a daily Bible devotional that provides meditations on the Mass reading for every day. There are several fine Catholic Scripture devotional magazines available today including The Word Among Us and Living Faith.
As you grow spiritually and in familiarity with the Scriptures, you will have the desire to study God’s word in a more in-depth way. You will want to take advantages of footnotes, a Bible atlas and good Catholic commentaries. Biblical commentaries provide historical and theological background on particular passages and even verses. Two of the most readable and helpful commentaries available today are the Navarre Bible series (currently available in the entire New Testament and the Old Testament from Genesis, the Historical Books, and the Psalms), and the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, New Testament. Both of these commentaries use the RSV-CE and can be found at most Catholic bookstores. I highly recommend them both.
In addition to your daily Scripture reading, you may want to do an in-depth study of a particular book of Scripture or on a particular topic (such as Church teaching or Christian living). Fortunately, we are blessed to live in a time where there has been a blossoming of good, solid Scripture studies by interesting and knowledgeable presenters. These are available on audio-tape from a number of sources, notably St. Joseph’s Communications. You can obtain a catalogue of their tapes by visiting their website at www.saintjoe.com or by calling 1-800-526-2151.
As we read Scripture, it is important to keep in mind that any method, habits and tools we might use in reading God’s word are just that: aids to help us mine the riches of the sacred writ. “For the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)
The Bible is the inspired word of God, his gift to and through the Church to his children to aid us in holy living and in growing in knowledge and love of our Lord Jesus Christ. My prayer for you is, that through prayerful meditation on his word, you may grow in love for the One who first loved you enough to send his Son, the Word Incarnate, that we may have life, and have it abundantly