Question: Why aren't there any Bibles in the pews in your church? How can you be Christians without preaching the word of God?
Answer: The word of God, the Sacred Scripture, is an extremely important part of Catholicism. We do believe that there are some important religious truths that are contained in the oral tradition of the Church as well, so Catholics speak of the two sources of revelation as "Scripture and Tradition." But, nonetheless, the written Books of the Bible are of inestimable importance to us. It was the Catholic Church that translated the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New Testament into Latin so it could be read by the literate people of Europe. Until a few centuries ago, those who could read were able to read in Latin. Latin was the vernacular of third or fourth century Christendom. Yet, English language translations go back at least to the seventh century; perhaps earlier in other languages.
The Bibles that we have today would not exist at all if the written word of God had not been laboriously preserved by the Catholic Church. There were no printed books until the 15th century (and the first major book printing was none other than the Bible). The original New Testament writings were written on papyrus, which was very fragile. The scribes -- mostly monks -- who copied the scriptures, first had to make the ink and parchment or vellum sheets that they would write upon. Then they would hand copy an existing manuscript. Most people find the Bible a bit daunting to read -- imagine having to write out a copy for yourself longhand!1
The enormous difficulties of producing books made them extremely expensive. Monasteries, churches, and the few private persons who owned books kept them carefully guarded. In some cases, somewhat like the directory in a public telephone booth, books were chained to their reading desk so that they would not disappear.
A great deal of the public worship of the Church is material taken from the Scriptures. Recited over the period of a year, the Mass and the Office contain most of the text of the Bible. Readers of this Parish Bulletin are accustomed to seeing a course of scripture readings for each month for the year. These are the readings from the Office (not including the Psalms which are recited in their entirety each week). Additionally, there are two or more scripture readings and a number of chants (usually) from the Psalms assigned to each Mass.
For convenience sake, and because of the difficulty of making copies, the Church created service books like sacramentaries, graduals, psalters, lectionaries, and antiphoners, each containing only the parts of the Mass or Office that the particular user was expected to recite. For example, a sacramentary would contain the canon and prayers recited by the priest at the altar, but the daily scripture readings would be in another book to be read at the lectern. A third book, the gradual book, would be used by those who sung the Psalms and other chants. Only as printing became available were complete missals produced for the Mass, and complete breviaries for those who say the Office. Even still, it is common for choirs to work with sheet music not contained in any liturgical book.
While we may "package" the Scriptures a little bit differently to make them easier to use in public worship, it is completely wrong to say that Catholics do not hear the word of God in their churches. To encourage us to read the Scriptures, the Church grants an plenary indulgence to those who spend a half hour or more reading the Bible.2
Finally, we conduct a study group on Wednesday nights for those who would like to make a more in death reading of the Bible. Speak to Father if you would like to attend.
1. Those interested in the history of the Bible would do well to read The Rt. Rev. Henry G. Graham, Where We Got the Bible (Rockford IL: TAN Books & Publishers, 1911).
2. Enchiridion, 50.