In the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s new Arise podcast series, Father Richard Owens, O.F.M. Cap., Father Eric Banecker, and Gina Christian present the truth, beauty, and goodness of the Catholic faith to Catholics, fellow Christians, and all those who seek something more.
Renowned Bible teacher, author and speaker Jeff Cavins shares with the Arise team why it’s vital to create a “culture of Scripture” in order to face not only a pandemic and a time of social unrest, but life itself.
Father Richard Owens: Welcome to the Arise podcast. This is Capuchin Father Richard Owens.
Father Eric Banecker: This is Father Eric Banecker.
Gina Christian: I’m Gina Christian.
Father Richard Owens: Where we explore Catholic life in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and reflect on the word of God as it speaks to us in our own day.
Father Eric Banecker: Our guest today has been at the forefront of the new evangelization for decades. He’s an evangelist, author and biblical scholar, perhaps his most influential project is “The Great Adventure Bible Timeline” produced by Ascension Press. It’s also been featured on EWTN. Jeff Cavins, welcome to the Arise podcast.
Jeff Cavins: It’s good to be with you, Father Eric.
Father Eric Banecker: Jeff, we are in obviously unique times in the life of the church, but anyone with a little bit of church history, a little bit of Bible history knows that it’s not unprecedented either. How have these strange days been for you and how have you experienced them?
Jeff Cavins: Well, good question. When I first realized that we were going to be in quarantine we were at the beginning of Lent and so our lives hopefully had changed a bit in terms of our expectations of that 40-day adventure of Lent. My wife and I were down in Louisiana at the time, visiting some friends and speaking. We realized that we needed to come back up to Minnesota to be with our family to help lead in because we didn’t know if this is going to be a month or two months or three months or a year.
At the very beginning of it, Father, I know enough about the history of the Bible to know that when you have a famine, it’s a time of trial. Jesus in the wilderness for 40 days is a time of trial, so I set my heart on, “What do I want to accomplish if this is what we think is going to be?” Which it ended up being, which is a long quarantine. I told my wife, I said, “I want this to count.” My biggest fear is that at the end of this pandemic I will be the same as I was at the beginning.
That was my biggest fear and so I started off on … I can talk about it now because I’m not in the middle of it, but a three-week liquid fast and substituted food for reading scripture and prayer. That led into just eating vegetables and fruit, and so for the last three months, that’s all I’ve had. In the meantime, my hunger for the word of God has increased fivefold and my prayer life and my intimacy with Christ as a disciple, as well as my relationship with my family has all skyrocketed.
I know that a lot of people are struggling during this period, but for me, it’s been a time of renewal with the Lord, and particularly the scripture. I think that one of the reasons, father, was that I couldn’t receive the Eucharist during that time. As the Catechism says that we venerate the word of God in the same way we venerate the Eucharist, I just started eating and feasting on the word of God. I lost 25 pounds and gained 25 spiritual pounds during the period.
Father Eric Banecker: Wow. Wow. You did not let it go to waste then, that’s wonderful.
Jeff Cavins: No.
Father Eric Banecker: That’s wonderful.
Jeff Cavins: No, because my wife and I were saying that we may never … which we don’t really want, but we may never have this experience again or this opportunity again.
Father Eric Banecker: Yeah. Tell me, my experience as a priest and a parish priest here in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and talking to other priests, talking to the Archbishop even, there really does seem to have been a hunger for the word of God that became very apparent, as you say, during that lockdown phase when people weren’t able to receive holy Communion in most cases. I was doing a Zoom meeting on Sunday mornings at 10:30 and we’d have some weeks, 60/70 people coming in from all over the country to participate.
It was just like a reflection on the Sunday readings. A lot of people were listening to homilies from so many different people on the Sunday readings. Where do you think that hunger is from? Obviously, we know where it’s from. It’s from the Holy Spirit, but did it surprise you in some ways how prominent the word of God was in that famine time?
Jeff Cavins: Yeah. I don’t know that it surprised me, it more encouraged me and pointed to some things that I already knew, which is that people are desperately looking for spiritual food in their life. They hunger after God, and as Catholics, the closest that we can come to actually hearing from God is scripture. I think that a lot of people were on automatic pilot before the pandemic. Once this hit, they realized that they really needed to hear from God. I’ve heard a lot of people who have adopted lectio divina as a way of spiritual communion with the Lord.
I think that a lot of people have taken this as an opportunity to introduce their loved ones to Scripture, reading the Bible to their children. On Sunday, really listening to the Scripture and trying to hear the Bible as it relates to the pandemic. For example, a few weeks ago, we read about how Jesus breathed on the disciples and everybody looks at each other says, “Oh, you can’t do that now. You are not allowed to breathe on each other.” There’s the juxtaposition of breathing on each other with COVID-19 and Jesus breathing on the disciples and He gives them life. We’re reading it and listening in light of the COVID-19 and we’re finding new insights. That’s kind of exciting.
Father Eric Banecker: I think there’s a lot of people out there, Jeff, who say, “So look, I get it. I’m Catholic. I have a devotion to the Eucharist. I have a devotion to the Blessed Mother, the saints. I get it. We’re supposed to have a real devotion to the word of God and sacred Scripture.” If they were to say to you, “How do you integrate scripture into your life in a concrete way?” What are the … Forgive me for saying, what are the things you do —
Jeff Cavins: Sure. No. That’s —
Father Eric Banecker: … to integrate great Scripture into your life?
Jeff Cavins: No. It’s a very good question. In my office here, I probably have 25 different copies of Scripture, including of course The Great Adventure Bible, which just came out. That’s something that we are really promoting because it teaches people how to read the Bible in chronological order. I can tell you the process that I go through. My wife and I meet first thing in the morning and we have the Bible and we read the gospel of the day and the Old Testament reading of the day. Unless it’s a feast day, then you have, for example, Peter and Paul, you have Acts 12 instead of the Old Testament.
We do lectio divina in the morning. We’re trying to listen to what God is saying to us. We discuss it with each other, literally every single morning. We don’t miss. From that point on throughout the day, I carry with me a copy of the Bible in my briefcase or in the car. I always have a copy with me, always. I take every opportunity I can like sitting in a doctor’s appointment waiting room, or I am waiting for my wife in the store, she’s shopping or grocery shopping or whatever it might be. I can open the Bible and read it.
I’m constantly fed and asking the Lord to lead me and guide me. I have a number of Bibles that I use. Also, during this pandemic, I have met with my grandsons. I have two grandsons and a granddaughter, and I have met with them at least twice a week. They love meeting with me because I’ve given them a Bible and they come with their little Bibles and we read together and I let them hold my Bible. I read to them. One of them can read for himself. The other one can’t read yet. They’re starting to grow up knowing that Papa always has a Bible and talks about Jesus.
That’s the culture. This is a message I would have for Catholics, all of us, is that it’s great to read the Bible. What we need to do as parents and grandparents is we need to build a culture of Scripture for our children, evangelicals and fundamentalists and non-denominational Christians all do that intuitively because that’s all they have in terms of the sacramental, is the Scripture. We do have the living word of God, Jesus and the Eucharist. I think that building a culture of Bible reading and Bible study and meditation, lectio divina, is something that is critically important.
Now, Father, we’ve realized that if suddenly our churches are closed or God forbid torn down, destroyed, whatever, I mean, at this point I think anything can happen in the world, what do we have? Well, we’ve got the word of God to turn to and one another. I think that before a pandemic is the time to establish habits and establish a foundation because a lot of people who don’t have the habit of reading Scripture were quite lost during the pandemic.
Father Eric Banecker: This is a point that some people have very strong opinions on one way or another. Do you write notes in your Bible or no?
Jeff Cavins: Oh, yes. In fact, I have a podcast where I talk about how to write it. It’s funny you ask that because this is completely unrehearsed, but I am in the midst of this last week of developing a marking system for people to write in their Bible with colored pencils and also certain pens that don’t bleed through the special Bible paper. If you look at my Bible, I have three of them. They’re so written in. One of them was rebound twice and so written in, you can hardly make sense of some of the pages and that’s why I had to go onto another Bible.
You know what it is, and I’m looking on my desk right now, I’ve got one, two, three Bibles that are new, that I have not written in. The hardest thing is the first time you write in it, you don’t want to make a mistake, but trust me, relax, you are going to make plenty of mistakes. You’re going to highlight the wrong verse occasionally, or you’re going to write something in the column and it wasn’t the best penmanship, so what? Get a Bible that you can live in.
I’m looking right now at a pile of colored pencils, pens, and I think that that’s part of making it real. For example, I can tell you what Genesis 1 and 2 looks like in my Bible. I can tell you what 1st Corinthians 13 looks like. I know where in the page all of that is and the notes that I have. I can pick up the Book of Acts and I can go through all eight kerygmatic messages. The proclamation of the Gospel. They’re all underlined, highlighted. I can teach from my Bible with the notes that I have in the side column.
I’ve proposed this to people that they get an extra Bible. You can get an extra Bible and for your grandson highlight certain verses that you’re praying for your grandson. Make a note of it in the side column, in the margin and then when they become 18 years old, turn 18 or so, give them the Bible. For 10 years you have been praying for them, underlining scripture for them, what a gift to give them? That gets back to a well-worn Bible is typically a more fruitful life.
Father Eric Banecker: I think what we’ve all discovered in these past few months is really obviously the blessing of technology. The fact that we’re able to do this, we’re in different time zones and we’re having this conversation, but also the limits. I think there are a lot of people who say that, “I just can’t read on a device. Whenever I read something I need to have a hard copy.” If that’s true of a William Faulkner novel, I feel like there’s a lot of people out there who would say the same thing about the Bible. Do you agree with that sentiment?
Jeff Cavins: Oh, yeah. I’m a little bit in awe because of the questions you’re asking me are the very things I’ve been talking about a lot. You and I have not spoken to each other —
Father Eric Banecker: No.
Jeff Cavins: — about this. No. I agree with you. In fact, I agree so much that I have a good friend, Hans Plath, who he does surveys around the country. He’s very good. He does them for major corporations and he tries to find out what’s happening out there and the thought of culture. He was doing a special in-depth survey with millennials, Catholic millennials, on a number of topics. I met with him and I said, “I have a hypothesis and I would like you to add it to your study if you could.” He said, “Sure.”
I said, “My hypothesis is, is that when it comes to millennials, when it comes to Bible study or devotion, they will prefer a paper copy and a very nice paper copy of the Bible versus an app on their smartphone.” He says, “Oh, that’s interesting.” He did the survey nationwide, and then he got back to me after about four months or so and he said, “Jeff.” He said, “I got the results back.” I said, “What is that?” He said, “You were right in spades.” He said it’s over 95% of young millennials would rather have a paper Bible for study and devotion.
If they want to quickly look up something like the Gospel of the day, they’ll use their smartphone. I think the reason for that, father, is that we’re an incarnational people and when you can have a Bible in your hands then it becomes personal, that Bible ages with you. I don’t know exactly how to articulate it to you, but I do know that people love things that age. It tells their story, and that’s why the Bible becomes an heirloom that is passed on to the next generation. Right behind me are two Bibles from my Grandpa Cavins.
I still have the bulletin in the same place as from the day he died, in there. I go back to that Bible and I see what was important to my grandfather and the notes that he took. That is really, really, really powerful. Yeah. I think that people do prefer a physical Bible and they don’t want the Bible to be right next to Twitter and Facebook and Snapchat. There’s something different about it. It’s like making tea in the morning with my wife. It’s a process. I have to take time. I’ve got to open the word of God, read, make some notes.
Maybe I have a journal that I keep with it. It’s a very intimate process that people are desiring. I think that’s why paper stocks like stationary are going up fast, because people want to get back to … When was the last time you got a personal handwritten letter from someone? That’s pretty, pretty unusual.
Father Eric Banecker: It is. It’s very meaningful. Since the Second Vatican Council, I do think the church has come a long way. Obviously, the entire liturgy is scriptural, but making use of the Bible in daily life and in life of the church I think has become very prominent in the last 50 years and which is an awesome thing. One of the places I sense that we’re still, in some ways, far behind some of our Protestant brothers and sisters, and you can comment on this, is someone told me about a Protestant church not far from where I’m stationed, where their youth group in normal times, obviously, they meet.
Father Eric Banecker: They’re doing 2nd Kings right now. I thought to myself, “Oh, I didn’t get to 2nd Kings until like my fourth year in the seminary and yet here are these kids.” The use of the Bible in formation of young people, particularly moral formation, because I think there’s something about the stories that come alive much more effectively than some of the way that we do moral formation right now. Can you comment on that at all?
Jeff Cavins: Yeah. The Scriptures definitely speak to the moral aspect. In fact, that is one complete segment of how we interpret Scripture. The church teaches us that when we open the Bible, we, first of all, look at the literal sense. That doesn’t mean what does it literally mean? It means what was the intent of the author? What was the literature as far as genre, the audience, the language, the background of that author and the customs of the day? That’s the first thing that we do.
Then we look at the spiritual sense of the Scripture, and we start to see the anagogical sense, how it relates to the future and also the moral sense, how it relates to us, the allegorical sense, how it relates to Christ. Those are the three things we look for. How does this 2nd Kings episode here of Naaman, for example, and being cleansed in the river, the Jordan, how does that relate to Jesus? How does it relate to the moral sense that is my life and my conduct? Then how does it relate to the future? The anagogical sense.
You have a whole section out of the three that is really, I’m going to read this Old Testament 2nd Kings to find out what is required of me? What about my own life and my own conduct? It’s a very, very important feature in studying the Bible. I think that young people are tapping into that now. There was a time, Father, where people didn’t know how to approach the Bible in the Catholic Church. In fact, they were afraid I’m going to ruin it, or I’m going to come up with the wrong interpretation.
I think that’s falling away and people are looking at it as more of what it is, which is a love letter from their Father in heaven to help them become like Him. It’s not just for the scholarly community. It’s for everybody. We just need to give them some guidance on how to read it, number one, which is what I’ve dedicated my life to. I didn’t know that at the beginning, but that’s what it has become. Then how to interpret that in terms of how it relates to Christ, my own moral life, and then the future.
Father Eric Banecker: Small groups have become a major aspect of Catholic life in a lot of places in the last, maybe 20, 30 years. How can a small group effectively make use of scripture?
Jeff Cavins: Well, that’s a good question. Over the last close to 20 years now, we have been developing Bible studies with The Great Adventure for the purpose of small group. The way that it works typically and then I think this could work in any Bible study, it doesn’t have to be The Great Adventure. It could be anyone. The people will read scripture on their own first and they will wrestle with it. We give them guidelines on that and show them how to wrestle with it. We write the Bible studies in such a way that it’s just on the edge of, “Oh, this is hard.”
That stretches people a little bit. We let them know that you’re not going to know all the answers. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” We try to make these inductive studies easy for people to go through, but they do have to wrestle with it. They write down their thoughts in the workbook and then they come together and they hear a lecture like from myself or Dr. Edward Sri or Thomas Smith. They hear that lecture, so they’ve heard it again now. Then they get together in their small group and they discuss, and so it’s the third time that they do it.
It’s really in the small group where you hear from your brothers and sisters in Christ, their interpretation or their angle as to what this scripture meant to them, because the scripture is so multifaceted in its depth and speaking to the audience, that you could read Psalm 23 to 15 people or 12 people in a small group, and you could get 12 different insights as to what it meant. Biblical interpretation is not just a private sport, so to speak. It is the body of Christ. Peter talks about this.
I can go sit in a small group, Father, with people who’ve only been studying the Bible for less than a year. I’ve been studying the Bible for almost 43, 44 years now and I can get in that group with people that have been studying less than a year, and I can learn something. I really can learn something. You’d be surprised at how many times I hear a babe in the Lord, a new Christian in faith. They say something and I go, “Oh man, that’s good.” I write it down and it ends up in a podcast.
That’s the value of coming together with people, is that I have something to give, and I have something to receive in the body of Christ.
Father Eric Banecker: In the Rule of Benedict, St. Benedict writes that the abbot on very difficult issues should consult the youngest monk in the house from time to time, because the —
Jeff Cavins: Yeah. Right. That’s good. I like that.
Father Eric Banecker: A certain wisdom. Jeff, as we wrap up, obviously as we’ve talked about a little bit, these are very odd and difficult times for a lot of people in so many different aspects of life, whether it’s workplace, economic, the unrest with regard to racial justice in our country, and of course the pandemic, which is hovering over it all. What image or word of Scripture have you been offering to people? As I’m sure you already have been doing this, word of hope for us at this time.
Jeff Cavins: Well, the one story that immediately comes to mind as you ask that question, is that in Israel’s history in 587 BC, they were destroyed. Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, Nebuchadnezzar. They were in captivity for 70 years at that point. Then Cyrus, the king of Persia after 70 years allowed them to return to the Holy Land and to rebuild. There were three waves in that coming back and rebuilding. The first was Zerubbabel who came back and he rebuilt the Temple. The second wave was Ezra who came back and taught the word of God.
The third was Nehemiah who built up the walls around Jerusalem. Now, those three things correspond with three aspects of the Catholic life. The temple would correspond with the sacramental life, the sacrifice, the Eucharist, Mass and all of the sacraments. The second is Ezra with the word of God. There you have the two major components of the mass. You have the sacrament of the Eucharist, and you have the word of God. The third is Nehemiah rebuilding the wall. In antiquity, you weren’t considered seriously a city or a people until you had a wall around the city.
As the body of Christ, we live among this communion of saints with people who are alive today, but also those who have gone before us. That really speaks to the community that we live in. To wrap that up, you have sacraments, the word of God and the community. Don’t lose contact with the Eucharist as much as possible and the sacraments in general. If you have an opportunity, indulge, go after it. Second of all, the word of God for instruction and correction in your life. Number three, don’t lose touch with the body of Christ.
During a time like this, call your friends. Get together and you pay attention to the rules of the state and so forth about six feet and wear masks or whatever it is, but get together. That’s what Emily and I have done. We’ve reached out to our essential friends and we said, “Let’s get together.” About what? I don’t know. Let’s just get together. We get together with a handful of people that we need to stay in contact. One thing you hear when you get together is everyone says, “This is great to be able to get together. I miss this.”
Those are the three things I would say from Scripture that it’s like the rise of a phoenix. It’s a community that’s been devastated. How do we rebuild sacraments, the word of God and the communion of saints with one another?
Father Eric Banecker: Well, I’ve been taking notes because I’m very uplifted. That’s a wonderful insight, Jeff.
Jeff Cavins: Good homily.
Father Eric Banecker: Yeah. Absolutely. It is. Well, Jeff Cavins, thank you so much for your generosity and your willingness to come on and share some of your very beautiful and profound insights, which are very clearly an expression of your intimacy with the Lord and through the word of God. Thank you very much for joining us today.
Jeff Cavins: Thank you, Father. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you.
Gina Christian: You’ve been listening to the Arise podcast with Capuchin Father Richard Owens and Father Eric Banecker. I’m Gina Christian, and for more resources and information on the Arise project, visit archphila.org/arise. Thanks for listening.
This podcast has been a production of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Our engineers are Jhoselyn Martinez and Gina Christian. Music by Johnny Markin taken from the Instrumental Acoustic Hymns Project owned by Essential Christian under the imprint Elevation with an arrangement copyrighted by Music Services. For more information on The Arise Project, visit archphila.org/arise.
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