As Pope Francis continues to lead the Church back to essentials, one might ask: what is more essential to learning about Jesus Christ and the often-unrecognized trajectory of salvation history? Beyond the three-year series of readings in the lectionary, how can a modern yet genuinely Catholic understanding of the Bible be brought to everyone in the Church? To learn more about this topic, I interviewed Carol Kloss, scripture scholar and pioneer in implementing programs of Bible study called “Scripture Schools.”
Carol Kloss grew up in the ‘60s, during Vatican II and its implementation. Her neighborhood on the northwest side of Chicago was solidly Catholic, her parish unique: adjacent to a monastery with a swimming pool and apple orchard, a grade school with over 1,000 students, activities every night of the week, a credit union on site, and a bowling alley with 4 lanes and a bar where (male) parishioners could spend time after work.
After high school, she attended the University of Chicago and graduated with a major in Art History. Later on, a U.S. Army specialist, she learned Russian language and culture, and later worked as a human resources director in the U.S. Air Force. Kloss lived in different parts of the country and furthered her academic studies in a doctoral program in finance.
“Like many Catholics,” Kloss said, “I dropped away from the Church as a young adult. In my 30s, while going from one place to another on a college campus in Fort Collins, Colorado, a man with a box of these little Bibles handed one to me. Several years later, I actually opened the Bible – miniscule print and all – and read some of the psalms and the Gospel of St. John. I thought about half of the psalms had something good to say, and I had a sense there was a lot more to the Gospel than I could understand. I went to a parish for the first time in a long time and asked the Director of Adult Faith Formation where I could study the Bible. He told me about the Denver Catholic Biblical School.”
During the next decade, Kloss devoted her time to academic studies and then teaching about the Bible. Later, while working for the Archdiocese of Chicago, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops requested that Kloss author a study on the best practices involved in establishing scripture schools in dioceses and parishes across the United States. Here are her thoughts on her own faith journey and ministry as a scripture scholar.
What was your path, from Fort Collins to becoming a scripture scholar?
When I moved to Denver, I enrolled in the Catholic Biblical School, a four-year weekly faith and learning program covering all 73 books of the Catholic Bible. At the end of each year, I wasn’t sure if I would continue, but I always did. By the time I completed the program, I knew I wanted (and needed) more study. I never thought of ‘doing anything’ with this study; all I knew by then is that these texts are indeed revelatory of God at many levels, and in many ways I felt compelled to study them as much as I could. (This program was authored by Macrina Scott, O.F.M. as the Catholic Biblical School Program, published by Paulist Press. There is also a good summary of the current Denver Program.)
When the time was right for my family, we moved to Chicago so I could attend Catholic Theological Union for graduate study of the Bible. I received a Master of Arts in Theology/Biblical Studies, and was given wonderful instruction and insight from many top Catholic biblical scholars working within a faith community designed to prepare future ministers for the Church.
I had never thought of myself as a minister, but by the end of the second year of my three-year program I realized sharing what I’d learned should indeed be a ministry within the Church. Providentially, at that time the Archdiocese of Chicago asked me to teach in the Chicago Catholic Scripture School using the same curriculum I’d learned in Denver. I was later hired to run the Scripture School in the Archdiocese and expanded the program to several class sites in the Chicago area. At the request of the Diocese of Joliet, I began a similar program, the Biblical Institute of the Diocese of Joliet (a neighboring diocese) when I left Chicago.
Who attends scripture schools?
In the Chicago Catholic Scripture School and its Spanish-speaking program, Escuela Bîblica, many students came to us because they wanted more from their Bible study: more depth and a more systematic approach than they find in the average parish Bible study group; more time to study each book than is available in ministry education; and more Scripture-centered faith formation than can be found in university courses. Over half of the students worked in various parish ministries. Catechists, directors of religious education, youth ministers, deacons, lectors, ministers of care, pastoral associates, Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) team members, and adult faith formation team leaders have realized that the quality of their contribution to parish life requires a solid understanding of the Catholic approach to all 73 books of the Bible.
How is a scripture school organized? What are time commitments for students? Do these programs take more than one year?
The Chicago program became a four-year program in which students study and pray every biblical book, learning the Bible as a whole and in its parts. They meet weekly or bi-weekly from mid-September to mid-May in sessions that open with student-led prayer based on scripture, continue with small group discussion of homework questions, and conclude with questions for the instructor on the next session’s assignment.
The lecture gives students the basic biblical scholarship necessary to understand the Bible as contemporary Catholic readers and experience the text though the lens of faith. The communal prayer, homework, and small group discussions promote the growth and deepening of each student’s faith experience, both individually and as a part of a Catholic faith community centered on Scripture.
Using the Paulist Press program, students learn to use basic biblical reference tools such as dictionaries, atlases, and commentaries. Students use the Catholic Study Bible by Oxford Press, developed by Dr. John Collins (Yale), and Donald Senior, C.P. (one of my teachers at CTU). The four years of study permit a broader encounter with the Old Testament books, which is often revelatory for students and provides insights for them on the fundamental connections between the testaments. A scripture school relies on its instructors – committed disciples of Christ who have advanced degrees in biblical studies, experience in teaching adults, and a passion for Scripture – to bring the curricula to life, communicate their own Catholic faith, and help form the faith of the group.
What are benefits to the Church of having scripture schools?
The standardized curriculum, formation, and quality control of instruction that a diocesan-level school ensures raises the level of biblical knowledge communicated in parish ministries. These may include: a catechist who can inspire children to seek God by telling stories of Moses, Isaiah, and Mary; RCIA leaders who can answer challenging questions asked by adults on Genesis and Revelation; a Bible study facilitator who has the background to effectively lead a group. All of these people represent the here-and-now as well as the future of the Church.
Can knowledge learned in Scripture School act as leaven within elementary and high school religious education?
My expertise is in adult education and faith formation, but I do have some knowledge of how Scripture is presented in catechetical curricula for children and teens. It’s integrated into every theological topic when background and context are needed by the catechist. Religious Education (RE) is the new Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) – students in every grade read and learn basic biblical scholarship about the weekly Gospel selections. All Catholic religious education materials now routinely incorporate Scripture texts and background into every aspect of their program. Loyola Press, a Jesuit ministry, offers rich RE materials, even for students with special needs.
Many parishes used DVD programs with highly structured materials for reflection. Would having a parish-level Scripture School add more depth to these topics?
Unfortunately, a Scripture School program with a live instructor is often not practical at the parish level. Individual parishes may not have the number of participants nor the finances necessary to support a long-term program. Regional diocesan classes collect many students in a central location. In the Chicago archdiocese, there can be as many as seven cohorts running simultaneously; other dioceses, such as Los Angeles, usually hold them less frequently. Diocesan personnel manage all aspects of the school, removing the burden from overworked parish staff. Diocesan media and resources are used to market the classes, increasing the number of potential students.
What does the Universal Church have to say about direct study of the Bible by Catholics?
During the latter half of the 20th century, a number of documents strongly supporting Bible study in the laity have been issued. One of these, Divino Afflante Spiritu, was pioneering for Catholic biblical scholars in universities, and paragraphs 49-52 (on lay study and reading of the Bible) were revolutionary for their time. In the Vatican II document Dei Verbum, all of Chapter Six (“Sacred Scripture in the Life of the Church”) encourages everyone to read scripture directly. In a more recent Church document, Verbum Domini, further encouragement aimed at the laity and scripture is given in paragraph 75.
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“As you can tell from my answers,” Kloss said, “my long-term and continuing encounter changed my life geographically, financially, professionally, and – most of all – spiritually. I have met God’s love, compassion, faithfulness, demands, power, awesomeness, and sense of justice everywhere in Scripture. The living God is there!
“In the course of my ten years teaching adult Catholics the Bible, I’ve seen people come wholeheartedly back to the Church, deepen their experience of the Mass, become Scripture resources for their families, become fruitful members of their parish communities, and begin leading parish Bible studies and prayer groups. In other words, they’ve become more secure in their faith and in their relationship with God, and they feel compelled to share that foundation. As they do that, they power the Church from the ground level.”
Father Henry Wansbrough, translator of the New Jerusalem Bible and former Master of St. Benet’s Hall, Oxford (with whom I have studied the Bible), said: “What an inspiring interview with Carol Kloss! The strength and confidence of the Church in the States is very inspiring. At Oxford, we have had a stream of really strong, confident, and generous Catholics from the U.S., both monks and lay people. It is lovely to see such growth in reliance on the Bible.”
William Van Ornumis professor of psychology at Marist College and director of research and development/grants at American Mental Health Foundation in New York City. He studied theology and scripture at DePaul University.