Every now and then, Father Paul Bonacci has found that the Sunday readings alone aren’t quite enough biblical material to drive home his desired message.
"In preaching there’s so many times I want to say, ‘Now, look at the next three verses,’" said Father Bonacci, who serves as pastor of Schuyler Catholic Community.
Of course, that doesn’t work unless his congregants are carrying Bibles — so, Father Bonacci got busy on providing that opportunity.
For the Advent season of 2008, the Schuyler cluster committed to purchasing 400 New American Bibles and making them available at no charge to parishioners. These Bibles feature footnotes and cross-references that link with the lectionary, allowing for deeper exploration of biblical points raised during homilies by Father Bonacci and the three parish deacons — Dave LaFortune, Dan Pavlina and Rick Roy.
The initiative originally was meant as a short-term venture in keeping with the diocesan Spirit Alive! spiritual renewal, which calls for greater reading of Scripture. Yet the Bible reading proved so popular that it extended past the Christmas season and continues today at all three of Schuyler’s weekend Masses — 8 and 10 a.m. on Sundays at St. Mary of the Lake Church in Watkins Glen, and 5 p.m. on Saturdays at St. Benedict in Odessa. Father Bonacci said he expects it to extend at least until this coming Advent and hopefully beyond.
An example of this effort in action occurred April 26, when the second reading — from I John 2 — said, in part: "But if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one." During his homily Father Bonacci directed attendees to turn their Bibles from that passage to the Gospel of John, 14:16, which states: "And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always." The accompanying footnote explores different meanings of the word "advocate" and points out that Jesus fills that role in a unique way by being an intercessor for humanity in heaven.
As time has gone on, Deacon LaFortune has observed a successful adjustment on the part of parishioners.
"For the majority of the people who are coming, it’s almost like a revolutionary idea to them. But they take (their Bible) home and study it, and that’s where the benefits are. Now they’re getting encouraged to do that," said Deacon LaFortune, the cluster’s pastoral associate (he will become pastoral administrator at St. Mary Parish in Bath in late June.) "I think they’ve really learned how to read the Bible, looking at the footnotes and scriptural references and seeing how it all ties together. People have been really excited. They’ve commented on how much they’re learning."
Not all people bring their Bible each week, "but they’re paying close attention. Then they’ll go home and look up the footnotes," Deacon Pavlina said.
He noted that this new Sunday custom has sparked a rise in attendance at other scriptural initiatives offered by the parish, such as a monthly Bible study led by Father Bonacci and a series on the Gospel of Mark that Deacons Pavlina and LaFortune have conducted in conjunction with the spiritual renewal.
Father Bonacci observed that bringing one’s own reading material to church is a foreign concept to most present-day parishioners. Yet he pointed out that his mother, for one, regularly transported her St. Joseph Sunday Missal and prayer cards to liturgies.
"Think of your parents, your grandparents. We have a history of bringing something to Mass with us. It’s only been during my lifetime the church started providing the Word and the prayers," Father Bonacci said.
This initiative has required adjustment not only on the part of congregants, but the homilists as well. They acknowledged that, initially, they were a bit overenthusiastic with applying multiple Scripture excerpts.
"A lot of references sometimes clouded the message," Deacon Pavlina remarked.
"We were flipping all over the place and giving them too much information. We tried to do too much, and we have learned that less is more. Rather than cover all three readings, you cover that one kernel you want to focus on," Deacon LaFortune said.
Father Bonacci added that he has learned to pause and allow sufficient time for people to find the Bible passage, and only begin speaking again "as soon as I stop hearing the rustling of pages."