By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
So far in the Synod of Bishops on the Bible, all sorts of arguments have been advanced as to why promotion of scripture is important: Because it’s the living Word of God, because it’s a touchstone of Christian identity, because it provides natural common ground within the divided Christian family.
Quietly, however, another argument of a far more practical order has arisen. In many parts of the world, there simply aren’t enough priests to make the Eucharist available on a regular basis, and therefore Liturgies of the Word, focused on the Bible, become the crucible in which day-to-day, week-to-week Catholic life is actually forged.
To be sure, no one has exalted priestless communities as an ideal. Instead, several speakers have pointed to them as a fact of life which makes the encounter with scripture all the more crucial.
Unsurprisingly, this point has surfaced from the developing world, where priest shortages tend to be especially acute. Globally speaking, the priest-to-person ratio of approximately 1-1,300 in the United States and Europe makes those regions relatively priest-rich. The ratio in sub-sahran Africa, based on statistics drawn from the Vatican’s Annuario, is roughly 1-4,800. In Latin America it’s 1-7,100, and in Southeast Asia it’s 1-5,300.
So far in the synod, the point has been raised by bishops from Africa and Latin America.
On Thursday, Archbishop Geraldo Lyrio Rocha of Mariana, Brazil, offered what several participants later described as a “shocking” statistic: Approximately 70 percent of all church communities in Brazil, Lyrio Rocha said, are “deprived of the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist.”
In that situation, Lyrio Rocha said, “the celebration of the Word of God becomes a privileged place for the encounter with Jesus Christ, the center and the fullness of all Scripture and every liturgical celebration.”
On Friday, Bishop Miguel Sebastián Martínez of Chad said his country faces a similar reality.
“Christians meet on Sundays,” he said, “but many of them only for the celebration of the Word, because we do not have enough priests.”
Sebastián Martínez said that in the context of a war that has been raging in Chad for over forty years, the Bible nourishes a strong commitment to peace, forged above all in ecclesical base communities – small groups of believers who come together to read the Bible and to apply it to their social situation.
“Our country is an impoverished country, despite our natural riches, and because of thois we commit [ourselves] to integral human development,” Sebastián Martínez said.
Bishop Joseph Zuza of Malawi put the reality of the priest shortage in stark terms.
“On behalf of the Episcopal Conference of Malawi,” he told the synod on Friday, “I would like to say that most of our small Christian communities depend and live on the Word of God since they have the Eucharist only once a month, and some may not have the Eucharist even once in three months or more.”
“They live on the Word of God,” Zuza repeated.
For a portion of the world’s Catholic population, in other words, the Word is not one among several streams feeding Catholic life on a regular basis. In a certain sense, it’s all they’ve got.