Excerpted from the August 2000 issue of U.S. Catholic.

Gary Hoffman's passion for the Bible caused him to wind up in prison.

"I remember several times when we would hold Bible study sessions in our home," says Hoffman, a deacon at St. John the Baptist parish in Excelsior, Minn. "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.

"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!" Inspired by such enthusiasm, Hoffman began a Scripture-reading program for inmates at a nearby prison.

Is becoming knowledgeable about the Bible really a priority for Catholics? When Hoffman began an intensive Bible-study program four years ago, some 35 people were involved; four years later, as he is finishing up the program, the group is down to only 12. This in a parish of nearly 600 families. The story of low numbers is the same at many U.S. Catholic parishes--if they even have Bible-study groups.

Many, however, see Catholic involvement with the Bible the way investors look at a start-up company: It's a venture with tremendous growth potential. Kay Murdy, one of the founders of the Catholic Bible Institute in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, sums it up: "As Catholics, we haven't always been exposed to the Bible, but that's changing.

"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," says Murdy.

"Generally, Catholics were not brought up with Scripture," says Steve 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."

According to Roy Dick, a religious-education coordinator at Guardian Angels church in Oakdale, Minn., "a primary thing driving people to come to our Bible programs is that people feel that the Bible got neglected when they were children. They feel they got shortchanged as Catholics, and that there is a lot of richness in the Bible. They want to capture some of that richness they felt they missed."

What Mueller, Dick, and others believe turned the tide was the Second Vatican Council. Better popular translations of the Bible made it more readable, but Catholics also began hearing more both of the Old and New Testaments at Mass, Mueller says. Preaching became focused on breaking open those Scripture passages and helping the people in the pew understand how they might apply the biblical lessons to their own lives.

"Before Vatican II, Catholics were not encouraged to read the Bible," says Abbot Gregory Polan, O.S.B., a Scripture scholar at Conception Abbey in northwest Missouri. "Today, developing a spirituality of the Bible is an aspect of Catholic life that is just growing and growing and growing. Yes, there are many Catholics who don't easily read the Bible. But there are many who do."

Count Delores Frerich among those.

The Hereford, Texas, mother of five and grandmother of 11 has been part of a Bible-study group at Immaculate Conception Parish in nearby Vega, Texas, for 10 years.

"Our group started after we did Renew (the Paulist fathers' parish-renewal program) in our parish," Frerich explained. "We felt like we needed more adult education. We wanted to learn more about our religion. It seems like the church uses the Bible more nowadays, and we felt we could understand more if we knew more about the Bible."

What started as a group of eight has grown to 15 women who meet on Wednesday evenings at 5:15 in the parish hall. They take turns leading the sessions.

"I think it's brought us closer to God and closer to each other," Frerich says. "Before, we used to keep things to ourselves. Now we share our problems. Ten years ago, I prayed once in a while. This involvement with the Bible has helped me turn to God almost every day."

Frerich says she has seen how at least two non-Catholics have been attracted to the church by one of the members of her Bible-study group. She has also watched as participation in the Bible-study group brought another woman back to church.

Kay Murdy of Los Angeles and her friend Dorothy King used to go all over the area taking Scripture courses. Their hunger to know more eventually led to a partnership between the archdiocesan Office of Religious Education and Loyola-Marymount University to develop a three-year course that met the need for Catholics to delve more deeply into the Bible--and to train facilitators to help them do that.

The Catholic Bible Institute, now in its sixth year, trains an average of 125 people annually who meet one Saturday a month, September through May.

"We had great presenters each month--Bible scholars like Fathers Eugene LaVerdiere, (the late) Raymond Brown, and Lawrence Boadt," Murdy says.

Participants study, share, and pray in those sessions. Each month, they are required to write a paper. The first year's focus is the Old Testament, the second covers the New Testament, and the third year is a practicum in which participants learn how to lead small-group sessions, keep a group on track, and actually plan a Bible-study program and have it analyzed by experts.

While Los Angeles and its Catholic Bible Institute have created a certificate program for Bible study leaders, the Archdiocese of Denver, Colo., has the even more strenuous Denver Catholic Biblical School. Asked by her archbishop to create a solid Bible-education program, Sister Macrina Scott, O.S.F., devised a four-year course. She expected that 25 to 30 people might be interested.

"In the first year, she had over 600 applicants," Mueller says. "She accepted 160 in the first year, and since 1982, when the program opened, she has added a teacher every year. This is about the 17th year, and they have 500 people a year going through the course."

"It's so thorough in its approach," says Deacon Gary Hoffman, a Denver graduate. "People walk away with such a clear understanding."

Religious-education coordinator Roy Dick says his goal is not to get Catholics to be able to quote the Bible the way some fundamentalists do. "That's all fine and good," he says, but "I'd rather see us try to live out the Gospel message around the supper table and with our neighbors and in our workplaces."

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