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BIBLE STUDY Jul-19-2011 (1,080 words) xxxn

Overcrowded Bible study seen as sign of growing hunger for God's word

By Laura Dodson
Catholic News Service

MELBOURNE, Fla. (CNS) -- A simple Sunday bulletin notice brought an overflow crowd to a Friday afternoon Bible study class, and a brief pulpit announcement at the weekend Masses called more than 100 participants to still another the following Wednesday evening.

At Ascension Parish in Melbourne, in the Orlando Diocese, the response to Bible study reflects what many see as a hunger for the word of God that is growing around the globe.

"So many people are intimidated reading the Bible on their own," said Father Eamon Tobin, Ascension's pastor who is writing biblical commentaries on each book of the Bible and conducting the classes.

"It is a daunting experience -- especially the Old Testament and many people are discouraged early on when they run into violence -- the challenges which Pope Benedict XVI called the 'dark passages' of Scripture; the genealogies and chapters of rules and regulations about worship," said the Irish-born Orlando diocesan priest.

"Good Bible study helps us to understand and embrace the word of God in the many ways it speaks to our daily lives."

"Catholics are hungry to know about their faith, and it's growing by leaps and bounds," said Margaret McCarty, the newly named executive director for the Lasallian Association for Mission's regional council. She was president of the now-closed Education for Parish Service. Since 1978, the program had assisted lay Catholics in learning more about their faith.

"Parishes are beginning to offer Bible studies and parishioners are flocking to them. This generation is searching for a faith," she said. "Lives are busy and fragmented despite technical connections. Having a Bible study and being able to discuss with like-minded people is the answer we're seeing in many parish programs."

The Rome-based Catholic Biblical Federation conducted a comprehensive international survey in November 2007, doing 10,400 interviews in 12 countries, including the United States and four major areas of Italy.

In every country, the Bible was seen as the "actual" or "inspired word of God" by more than 70 percent of participants who also had a Bible at home. A vast majority in every country saw the Bible's contents as "real, interesting and true," but also "difficult."

The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in the summer of 2007 indicated that of the more than 35,000 adults included in the survey, 23.9 percent were Catholic. Of that number, 21 percent said they read Scripture outside of Mass at least weekly, another 21 percent did so monthly and 63 percent pray or read Scripture with their children.

A national study of Catholic parish life conducted in 2010 by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate showed that 85 percent of responding parishes say that they have some sort of Bible study, said Mary L. Gautier, CARA senior research associate.

Among those, 44 percent say the parish places "some emphasis" on Bible study, 36 percent say the parish places "a lot of emphasis" and 5 percent say that Bible study is a "specialty of the parish," she said.

The study was carried out as part of the Cooperative Congregations Study Project, a multi-faith group of religious researchers and leaders.

Father Tobin's Bible commentaries provide the opportunity for the reader to reflect upon and discuss what spoke to them in a chapter and to respond to a question which aims at connecting the contents with their own experience. Using the example of Abraham being called to relocate as an old man, Father Tobin's question to the reader was to consider one of the most difficult transitions in his or her own life.

"An important part of the process is responding to the word," Father Tobin said. "St. James exhorts us to be 'doers of the word and not hearers only,' (James 1:22). How do the readings challenge us? It's not just intellectual discussion, but you're taking the challenge of the message into the week and we become doers, not just hearers.

"The benefits of group discussion are that we are able to see how others are hearing the message of a particular chapter or book and how it speaks to their experience. It puts it into the context of communal living."

"A lot of Catholics are looking to get into the Bible, but are afraid," said Mary Elizabeth Sperry, associate director of New American Bible utilization for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "We need to give them more access points and tools to read it. It gives me joy getting people into the text and learning what God is saying to us.

"We look at how the church has understood it and prayed it. It puts into a conversation what has been happening for 3,000 years. I'm not reading this by myself," she continued. "That's what reading in the tradition means. It's growing in our understanding of how wise and holy people in our past interpreted it. There is enormous power in that -- being part of something that's been going on for a very long time."

Jesuit Father Felix Just, director of biblical education at the Loyola Institute for Spirituality in Orange, Calif., and founder of the website http://catholic-resources.org explained the resurgence.

"The hunger is different from a normal hunger or thirst," Father Just said. "What happens with Scripture is that people realize they're not filled -- the more they read, the more they want. It's interesting. It's different -- the hunger grows even stronger once you start. As more people realize -- they have more desire to learn Scriptures in their context. They want to read the whole book."

Our Sunday Visitor has been publishing Bibles for more than 25 years. John Christiansen, marketing director, indicated a 20 percent leap in sales of The New Catholic Answer Bible from 2008-2009 and through 2010 and sales of the New American Bible increased 24 percent from 2009-2010. The New American Bible Revised Edition, known as NABRE, was just released this March.

"This is a catechetical moment," Christiansen said. "It gets people excited about Scripture again. It's nice to see the church focused on Scripture and the Mass -- the revised Roman Missal will be available in September -- at the same time and it really brings together the history, the present and the future -- how the church ties everything all together."

At the American Bible Society, communications director Geoffrey Morin, indicated that they will sell 300,000 Roman Catholic Bibles this year -- up 13 percent from last year.


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