Catholic Youth and the Bible: Moving from Biblical Literacy to Biblical Spirituality

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Brian Singer-Towns explains the "ABCs" of biblical literacy: access, big picture, and context. But he also argues that Catholic high schools should go beyond fostering biblical literacy; biblical spirituality is just as important, he says, and he briefly offers some practical approaches for doing that.

Developing one's biblical literacy

As a college student back in the mid-seventies, I was invited to be part of an ecumenical student Bible study. Born and raised Catholic, I don't think I had cracked open a Bible more than two or three times as a teenager. However, I attended Mass regularly and during high school was even a lector in my small country parish. In this Bible study, my Protestant friends had to show me how to look up chapter and verse, which books were in the Old Testament and which were in the New Testament, and how to use the cross references at the bottom of the Bible's pages.

In many respects you could say I was functionally biblically illiterate.

I had little knowledge or experience of using the Bible itself. Even more telling, though, was my lack of biblical spirituality. Despite my hearing the lectionary readings week after week, the values I held were the values of the popular culture; they were materialistic, self-absorbed, and shallow. My involvement in the Bible study group and my own personal reading of the Scriptures were key elements leading to my conversion to a Gospel-centered way of life. But it took involvement with a group outside the Catholic church to foster this growth.

We have ample evidence that biblical literacy among Catholic youth today isn't much different from my experience of twenty-five years ago. Most Catholic teens cannot name the four Gospels. The explosion of interest in the Scriptures by adult Catholics since the Second Vatican Council has by and large not really reached Catholic youth. For example, in a recent Gallup study, only 20 percent of Catholic youth, compared to 60 percent of Christian youth from other denominations, claimed to have ever read the Bible on their own.

Those of us ministering to Catholic young people must become more intentional in fostering biblical literacy and biblical spirituality. We are supported in this by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), who in 1996 surveyed the religious attitudes and practices of youth involved in Catholic youth ministry programs. One of the major recommendations of their study is this:

"Catholic youth ministry needs to be more persuasive in helping participants understand that reading the Bible is important for growing in their faith." (Froehle, New Directions in Youth Ministry, p. 16).

Although youth in Catholic schools are probably more familiar with the Bible than those in parish pro-grams, I think the bishops' recommendation applies to all of us who minister to Catholic youth.

In this article I will explore the issues involved in fostering biblical literacy and biblical spirituality among Catholic youth. We at Saint Mary's Press hope that these reflections will inspire discussions in your school communities.

The ABCs of Biblical Literacy

If we intend to affect the faith development of our young people, our ultimate goal must be to foster biblical spirituality in them, not just biblical literacy. However, biblical literacy is important because it contributes to that goal, though it is not an end in itself.

I call my guiding vision for biblical literacy the ABCs of biblical literacy. The ABCs stand for access, big picture, and context. Let me share this vision with you briefly and ask that you relate it to your own guiding vision or that of your school.


Biblically literate Catholic youth should have quick and easy access to the Bible text. They must be able to find a passage by themselves. They must be familiar with the names and general order of the Bible's books. They should know the major sections of the Bible (the Pentateuch, Historical books, Wisdom books, etc.).

Big Picture

To really appreciate the meaning of the individual books in the library that we call the Bible, one needs to be familiar with the overall biblical narrative, which we call salvation history. To know how each book's story fits into that history is the mark of a truly biblically literate person. This familiarity does not come easily, but many resources and creative techniques can help teach it. It is a knowledge that grows with repetition and review.


It is very possible for someone to have access to the biblical text, be familiar with the big picture of the biblical narrative, and still misinterpret God's revelation in the Bible. Biblical fundamentalism is the prime example of such misinterpretation. Biblical fundamentalists have not learned to put the Bible's stories and teachings in their proper context. To help Catholic young people avoid biblical fundamentalism, we must teach them to ask the following contextual questions when reading any biblical book or passage:

  • What is the literary genre of this book or passage?
  • What historical or cultural situation was the author of this book or passage addressing?
  • How does this story fit with the rest of the Bible's message or teaching?
  • How does the church understand or interpret this book or passage?

In many ways Catholic high school theology courses are doing a wonderful job with the ABCs of biblical literacy. I have direct evidence of this from my own son and his friends. After taking a course on the Old Testament, they challenged me to a Bible fact competition. Displaying a wealth of biblical knowledge, they even managed occasionally to stump the "old man" (I take it as an affectionate term). I was excited and pleased to see them learning so much.

The challenge for Catholic schools is to keep our efforts at biblical literacy ongoing and not just part of one or two semesters of theology. I would suggest that for every theology course there be a Scripture component requiring Scripture study and reflection. I would further suggest that students be required to read whole books of the Bible, not just in their theology courses but integrated throughout the whole curriculum. Why not read the novelettes of Judith, Tobit, and Esther as part of the English curriculum? How about 1 and 2 Maccabees (books found only in Catholic Bibles) while studying the Greek and Roman Empires in world history?

Biblical Spirituality

"One of the great achievements of the Second Vatican Council was its emphasis upon the Word of God as central to Catholic faith and practice. Indeed, contemporary Catholic spirituality is at once a liturgical and biblical spirituality."

--Cardinal Roger Mahoney, Archbishop of Los Angeles

Biblical literacy is only the means to an end. And that end is fostering biblical spirituality. People with a biblical spirituality embrace Gospel values and lives them out in decisions both large and small. They strive to be faithful to God's call, both individually and communally. Such people are in many ways countercultural, as they struggle to live out Jesus' challenges to forgive "seventy-seven times" (Matt. 18:22), to "love [one's] neighbor as [oneself]" (Mark 12:31), and to "take up their cross daily and follow me" (Luke 9:23).

Catholic schools have done a good job of educating for biblical literacy. But that by itself is not enough. Knowing about the Bible is only one part of a holistic approach needed to foster biblical spirituality. We must also encourage students to pray with the Bible and to live out the Bible's challenge. As whole people, our minds, hearts, and wills are organically connected. We must find ways to touch our young people's hearts and wills with God's word as well as educate their minds. This holistic approach is the sign of a community that is fostering biblical spirituality.

What can schools do to encourage biblical spirituality? Let me offer a few ideas to spark your own creativity. Many of these are borrowed from other Christians who have more practice at this than we Catholics. The first constellation of ideas has to do with infusing the school with biblical images and references. This could be as simple as putting a biblical quote of the week on your school bulletin boards or web site. If you start the school day with a short prayer, be sure it frequently contains a biblical quote or story. Classrooms should also contain biblical quotes or artwork as part of the decor. What math lab would be complete without "Correct me, O Lord, but in just measure; / not in your anger, or you will bring me to nothing"? (Jer. 10:24, emphasis added). Prayer services and retreats should highlight biblical themes, encourage biblical values, and teach biblical lifestyle choices.

Another constellation of ideas revolves around encouraging students to read and reflect on the Bible. It is especially important that they read whole books; after all, that is how the authors intended them to be read! Some schools give every incoming student his or her own personal Bible to foster Bible reading. If this is done in a special retreat or prayer service, it will underscore the importance of the Scriptures in the life of the school. Some schools even create plans for which books of the Bible will be read in each theology and language arts class, ensuring that the students will have read a significant part of the Bible before graduation. Perhaps even give some thought to making the Bible itself the primary text for your Scripture courses.

I would urge you to consider sponsoring some faculty- or student-led Scripture study or sharing groups in the school. Many young people are eager for this experience--not all, to be sure, but enough to justify the effort. Such groups could use the lectionary or engage in topical study or book study. The crucial goal is that they make the tie between God's word and their own lives. (Interestingly, the ancient prayer form of lectio divina--literally, "divine reading"--is making a comeback, with many Protestant churches teaching this form of Scripture meditation to eager groups of youth.)

In making these suggestions, I am not advocating that biblical spirituality is the only part of our spiritual tradition that we need to expose young people to. But a growing consensus in the church--among both the leaders and the community at large--is that biblical spirituality is a part of our tradition that needs greater attention in our ministry with young people. Fostering biblical spirituality is an integral component of building faith communities in our schools. It is an exciting challenge that Catholic schools have unique opportunities to respond to.



Copyright © 2018 Saint Mary's Press. Permission is granted for this article to be freely used for classroom or campus ministry purposes; however, it may not be republished in any form without the explicit permission of Saint Mary's Press.

Published January 1, 2000.