Oprah isn't the only one attracting people to book clubs. Through parish Bible study groups, Catholics are growing in understanding of scripture, enlivening their faith, and getting closer to God and one another.
Gary Hoffman's passion for the Bible has caused him to wind up in prison. "When you begin to reflect on scripture, it calls you deeper and deeper," he says. "I remember several times when we would hold Bible study sessions in our home. They were supposed to go for an hour and a half or two, but then people would start reflecting on how a passage applied to their own spiritual journey, and they'd really get into it. It would go on and on into the night.
"There were several times when this happened, and it would really be getting late, and I'd say, `Look, my wife and I are going to bed. You people are welcome to stay here and continue this discussion, but I've got to get up for work tomorrow.' And they would stay and keep talking! That's part of the enthusiasm that people get when they begin to get into scripture."
Hoffman wound up in prison--if only just visiting--because he and the people with whom he studied the Bible felt called, once they got deeply into the Bible, to action.
"You cannot study scripture without realizing you are being called to be more active in your faith," says Hoffman, a permanent deacon in suburban Minneapolis who got involved in prison ministry.
But how many Catholics can say they really understand scripture and feel comfortable discussing the Bible, say with Protestant friends? How many Catholics are even attempting to better understand the inspired word of God by taking part in Bible study or scripture reflection groups? Is becoming more knowledgeable or comfortable with the Bible a priority for Catholics?
Deacon Hoffman's situation at St. John the Baptist Parish in Excelsior, Minnesota gives an anecdotal answer to questions like these. When Hoffman began an intensive Bible study program four years ago, some 35 folks were involved; four years later, as he is finishing up the program, the group is down to 12. This in a parish of nearly 600 families. Californian Leaette Boyles has 40 or 50 people participating in the two Bible study groups she leads in her parish of 4,000 families in suburban Los Angeles. The story is the same at many U.S. Catholic parishes--if they even have Bible study groups.
The numbers don't disappoint Hoffman or Boyles or others involved in Bible study programs in parishes across the country. Father Bill Martin felt he had "a pretty good response" when 20 to 30 people "kept coming back" for his first try at a scripture series at his new parish, Guardian Angels in Oakdale, Minnesota. "Would I like to have had a thousand people there? Sure," Martin says. "But from the things I learned doing this session, hopefully we'll have more when we do one this fall."
Many see Catholics and Bible study today the way investors look at a start-up company: It's a venture with tremendous growth potential. Kay Murdy, for example, one of the founders of the Catholic Bible Institute in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, views Bible study as being in its infancy. "As Catholics we haven't always been exposed to the Bible, but that's changing," says Murdy. "I think once people are exposed to the Bible in a pastoral way--as having applications for your life, for your prayer life--they develop their own hunger and thirst for the Bible."
Steve Mueller says there is a reason Catholic appreciation of the Bible is still limited.
"Generally, Catholics were not brought up with scripture," says Mueller, author of The Seeker's Guide to Reading the Bible: A Catholic Perspective (Loyola Press, 1999). "Especially older Catholics were told the Bible really wasn't our book. If we wanted to know about spirituality we were told to read the Catholic spiritual writers."
Boyles confirms that attitude. …