Catholics Will Lead: Jeff Cavins on Bible in a Year and How God is Working in and through His Church

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Over 25 years ago, I took my first deep dive into studying Scripture with Dr. Scott Hahn as a freshman theology student at Franciscan University of Steubenville.  Although a cradle Catholic with 13 years of Catholic education behind me, I was astonished to find that I knew next to nothing about salvation history, and I was hungry to know more.  When I later had the chance to participate in a “Bible Timeline” workshop with a young former pastor who had just months before converted to Catholicism, I jumped at the chance.  Little did either of us know then that one day, that former pastor, Jeff Cavins, would, along with Fr. Mike Schmitz, be part of a powerful work of God called “The Bible in a Year” — a podcast that uses his Bible Timeline: The Story of Salvation to explore the story of salvation and how our personal stories fit within it.  When that podcast almost immediately hit number one in all categories on Apple Podcasts in the United States, no one was more surprised than Fr. Mike and Jeff Cavins.  On the heels of that explosive launch and a year of incredible interest in learning the Bible by Catholics all over the world, I had the chance to talk with Jeff Cavins about how it all began (and I mean from the very beginning!) what God is doing in the Church today, how knowing salvation history can deepen our prayer lives,  and some exciting announcements about the future.

Claire Dwyer: First of all, Jeff, similar to my experience as a cradle-Catholic young adult, I think that a lot of Catholics feel overwhelmed on where to start reading the Bible.  Do we start in Genesis?  We know people that flip open the Bible and pick something at random and pray, “Holy Spirit, pick a passage.”  Or the Church gives us the daily readings, too.  So how did you choose the passages for Bible in a Year and how do they help us, as Catholics, pray with the Bible?

Jeff Cavins: I think that given the social and political climate in the world now, people are really looking for two things.  They are looking for a better future and someone to trust.  And they are not finding it.  They are not finding it in politics, or television, radio, social media. And so people are really searching.  What we did with Bible in a Year was to simply present the story of salvation history in an effort to meet those needs.

This all started when I was 25 years old.  I’m very visual, and I really wanted to ‘see’ the whole story.  At that point, I’d been studying Scripture for about seven years, and I knew the individual stories pretty well, but what I lacked was the overarching story.  I thought about how I could communicate that, the idea came to me that I could create a Bible timeline chart by dividing the entire Bible into 12 color-coded periods that are major chunks of time—the early world, the Patriarchs, Isreal in Egypt, and so on.

But I was still stuck with the problem that most people experience when they start to read the Bible.  They start in January.  They are excited in January.  They are excited in February.  Then, suddenly, they quit in March.  And the reason is, they are in Leviticus and they have lost the story. 

So I was faced with the task of how do I negotiate this book?  The first thing I had to come to terms with is that it’s not actually a book.  It’s a library. It looks like a book, it feels like a book, it smells like a book.  But it’s not a book.  It’s a library.  A book is something that you open up and you start at the beginning and you go to the end and you go, Wow, is that amazing!  And that’s never going to happen with the Bible because it is organized as a library.  So you have to know which books do the moving of the story forward and which books are speaking at a particular point in the story, like the prophets, or Leviticus. 

I started to look at which of the books are narrative. You see, in the Bible, you’ve got different kinds of literature.  You’ve got narrative.  You’ve got poetry, wisdom, prophetic, apocalyptic—all kinds of different literary genres.  So I thought, I’m going to gather the books that actually tell the overarching story—there are 14 of them that will take you from Genesis to Revelation.  As I put those next to each other and lined them up, I realized that if I read four chapters a day of those 14 books, I could read the Bible’s narrative in three months.  And I thought that’s cool!  I can get my mind around that.

Claire Dwyer:  That’s doable.

Jeff Cavins: So you’ve got the 14 narrative books.  But in a Catholic Bible, you’ve got 59 other books. And so where do those books belong within the 12 periods, in the 14 narrative books?  Where would the prophets go?  And where would you put Leviticus?  Well, you would put Leviticus right in its proper place.  And that’s within Exodus 32 where you have the golden calf incident when Moses came down off the mountain and they were having a party and worshipping the golden calf!  That’s where Leviticus fits in.

And I started to get really excited.  I remember, I was sitting outside out of my Hebrew class at the University of Minnesota.  I was a young pastor at the time, 25 years old.  All of a sudden, I got this image in my head of a chart that I could create.  I went to a butcher shop and I got a big piece of white paper.  Then I went to an art store, and I got some markers and a yardstick, and I went home and I spent 48 hours creating that entire chart.  And it’s about 95% of the way it still looks today.  I was so thrilled with it and with myself!  I thought, wow — there’s the story!  It was about six feet long and two feet high, and I rolled it up and I carried it around with me for weeks.  And I when I studied, I would unroll it, put a book on each corner, and I would study by looking at the story and then studying the individual books within it. Then I got it trunked down into a little folder that I could carry with me.  I had no plans of sharing it with anybody.  It was for me. 

But as I taught from it, people saw it and wanted a copy.  When I came into the Catholic Church, I went to Franciscan University of Steubenville and I showed my chart to Scott Hahn, and he looked at it and said, “Oh, that’s great!” So that chart became the foundation of the class I taught at Franciscan University, “Introduction to Scripture” and I was also taped in a one-day seminar going through the entire story of salvation history— you were in that seminar!  I chose those 14 narrative books on a three-month reading plan because I knew that if people did that, they’d get a real feel for the basic movement of the story.  

When we decided that we’d do “The Bible in a Year,” we expanded that and filled in the blanks.  We expanded the 14 narrative books to a year, and then we put the books where they belonged within the plan.  So then it became “The Bible in a Year,” rather than the Bible in three months.

Claire Dwyer: Well that was definitely a Holy Spirit inspiration moment—you sitting outside and getting a ‘download’ from God for the timeline.  I appreciate it because I also am very visual.  That really resonates with me; it obviously resonates with most of us.

A lot of Catholics desire to read Scripture and they know that it is important to do so. Why is reading the Bible important, and how can it help us deepen our prayer life and move us along in our journey to God?

Jeff Cavins: Good question.  I personally believe that Scripture is absolutely essential to your spiritual life, to grow in a spiritual way.  The reason for that is that the Catechism says in paragraph 236 that there are two important things that we really have to get our hearts and minds around.  One is the theology of God and one is the economy of God.  And then the Catechism breaks those terms down to make them more understandable, and it says that the theology is knowing the mystery of the Trinity. I would break that down even further to say it is to know the heart of your Father. And the economy of God is not economy in the sense of the stock market or cryptocurrency, but what economy means is “the Father’s household plan.”  That’s what “economy” or “oikonomia” meant in Jesus’ day.  So when you look at knowing the heart of the Father and knowing his fatherly household plan, you can put those together and you have a foundation on which you can trust. 

And that’s exactly what people are looking for today: a brighter future and someone to trust.

In Scripture, you come to know the heart of the Father and you come to know his plan for your life. Now, that is just a foundation.  You can go deeper into knowing the heart of God and the mind of God in Jesus Christ.

I love what the Catechism says in the first paragraph—that God has a plan of sheer goodness and that plan is the idea of economy.  It is the Father’s plan for your life.  The problem is, in society today, politicians have a plan for your life.  Social activists have a plan for your life.  Television shows have a plan for your life.  Pop formators, like Oprah, have a plan for your life —complete with a book reading list.  And so the whole world is trying to sell you a plan of sheer goodness from their perspective.  

But there is only One who has the plan of sheer goodness, and it is God, and He reveals Himself in word and deed in salvation history, and He expects a response from us in word and in deed. To the extent that you know His plan, you can respond to His plan. 

You’ve heard the phrase, “get a life.”  Well, we’ve got a life now and we can live it!

I think that knowing that plan and knowing the heart of our Father is really the gateway to a deeper spiritual life and a prayer life.  Without that, you have to rest of something, and most likely it is going to be something you read or saw or participated in online or in some kind of social group.

Claire Dwyer:   That’s wonderful.  To build on that—knowing the entirety of salvation history, knowing God, knowing He has a plan, knowing this overarching story and knowing that we fit in it and that He is concerned with all of it, how does that big picture help us when we are praying with particular passages?  How does it help us pray with Scripture and meditate on Scripture — and do we have to know the big picture in order to benefit from reading it?

Jeff Cavins: To answer the end of your question first: No, you don’t have to know it to benefit from it.  One of the greatest exercises in spiritual growth is Lectio Divina.  In Lectio Divina, you can drill down in one text and you can allow God to speak to you.  But you can get more out of it if you understand that text in light of the entire text, in light of the entire book, the entire Bible.  So, one incident in the Bible— yes, you can gain an awful lot from that.  But you can really gain a lot more if you understand it within the entire context.  Knowing the entire story allows you to jump in at any point in that story and understand the significance of it within the broader picture.  That’s an advantage any way you look at it.  Most people don’t have that big picture of salvation history, but we encourage them to start.  This is a lifetime of discipline.  It’s not something you read once and then you leave the Bible and say, “well, I didn’t get it completely but at least I read it!”  It’s a lifetime endeavor of soaking yourself in scripture and allowing God to speak to you on a daily basis.  

My wife and I read Scripture today every morning.  Our day starts the same every day.  I walk downstairs and I make her some green tea and I make myself some tea and I set the teacups out on the table, I get my Bible and her Bible and set them out, and we talk and then we pray and then we read the Gospel of the day, do Lectio Divina, and then we share with each other. This lasts—and I don’t expect everyone will do this—but it lasts for about an hour and a half every morning. And now it would be weird not to do that! So Lectio Divina has been such a rich source for knowing God’s will for our life, and to have God speak to us particularly that day. 

And I find that if I can hear God’s voice in His Word, somewhere, somehow throughout the day—it shows up.  Either for me or to share with somebody else. I can’t tell you the dozens and dozens of times where, sure enough, we do Lectio Divina for that day, and what I read in the morning is the key to understanding what is happening in my life!  Which is not unlike Jesus.  The Catechism says that Jesus’ secret time in prayer was really important to Him, and it says that what He said and what He did on a daily basis was the incarnation, if you will, or the living out, of what He prayed about in secret.  So if you want to know what He prayed about in secret, when He was alone, then listen to Him and watch Him throughout the day because that’s what He got in prayer.  And I love that example because Jesus’ prayer life was so special and so dynamic that the disciples actually begged him, “Please, teach us what you are doing here!”  They didn’t just say it in a pious way– they were like, “whatever you are doing up there in the hills—you’ve got to share this with us! This is amazing stuff!”  And so he teaches them how to pray and that’s a powerful lesson for all of us on a daily basis. 

Claire Dwyer: I just brought up that passage yesterday, “Lord, teach us to pray” in a meeting.  I think that the work that we are doing in the Avila Foundation and the work that you are doing with The Bible in a Year is really a participation in that work of Christ.  It’s an honor to do that.

I also love what you said about the Gospel of the day because I agree—it is amazing how we don’t choose this passage, our Mother gives it to us—and yet by that act of obedience and following God’s reading plan, through the Church, it always seems to have exactly what I need that day.  It’s really so personal—it’s like, “How did God know that that was the Gospel I needed today?”

Jeff Cavins:  Yes.  And multiply that times millions of people around the world on that day. 

Claire Dwyer:  Exactly. And it is speaking to everybody individually in the circumstances and the sufferings and the desires of their particular hearts—because it the Bible living and it is relational and that’s made manifest in the way that the Scripture readings of the day are meant for each one of us individually.  

But– also collectively.  My observation, Jeff, and I think you’ll agree, is that the Church is on a road to Emmanus, collectively.  I remember being in Scott Hahn’s Old Testament class years ago and him saying that some people think that the second coming is right around the corner, and it is the end of the world, but he said, “I cannot believe that because we are just now beginning to really break open God’s revelation.  And if God is just now beginning to reveal deeper and deeper His truths, He is not right around the corner.  Salvation history is still unfolding.” 

That really struck me. 

And I think things like The Bible in a Year, and other things in the Church now, are part of this new movement of the Holy Spirit to really make Scripture come alive in a way that it really hasn’t before.  Do you agree that the Church is really coming to understand Scripture in a way that it hasn’t before and on a level that it hasn’t before, and if so, what do you think it is due to?

Jeff Cavins: Absolutely. I think that there is something happening that is bigger than us.  And is bigger than our efforts.  I think that what you are seeing in the country right now, whether it be The Bible in a Year, or The Great Adventure (Catholic Bible Studies), or the great work that Scott Hahn does, FOCUS, Augustine Institute, Ascension Press, Avila Foundation — all these great ministries — is the five loaves and the two fish.  What God is doing with it is truly remarkable, and that is what you just referred to as a movement of the Spirit.  The Spirit is taking this and doing things that we could not do on our own.  I mean, go figure, two guys from Minnesota aren’t doing anything remarkable at all: we are reading the Bible and talking about it, and encouraging people not to get lost in the story and how to stay on track…and (The Bible in a Year Podcast) rises to number one in the most powerful nation in the world.  It rises to number one in the midst of all the darkness, all of the sin, all of the craziness that goes on…it rises to number one and it confounds people.  That’s the work of the Holy Spirit.

Coming up in mid-December through January 9, something remarkable is going to happen.  We are going to have a big digital picture of the Bible in a Year in Times Square, right there even for the dropping of the ball for the New Year…two Catholic guys!  And this really astounds our Protestant friends who think, “This is supposed to be us!”  That’s just purely a movement of the Spirit.  Nobody can take credit for that. 

Father (Mike Schmitz) and I joke about it and when people say, “Did you expect this?”  We say, “Expect this?  We didn’t even expect to be the number one Catholic podcast!”  Had someone told us to expect us to be number one within six weeks of putting this together, we wouldn’t have done it this way—we would have been funny, and clever!  

But like you said, it’s a movement of the Holy Spirit, and I love it because it’s obvious that man can’t take credit for it.  It’s obvious that God is calling people to Himself. It’s not even our story.  It’s God’s story.  It’s salvation history.  And only He can do something like this.  

That gives me joy and hope that He is doing something in the Catholic Church and I believe with all of my heart that in the next few years it is going to be Catholics in the United States who are known for knowing the Bible.  It is going to be Catholics, more than any other denomination, who are known for knowing the story of salvation history and knowing it well.

If you would have said that 30 years ago, everyone would have laughed and said, “No way– because Catholics are the ones with the most serious problem with knowing Scripture.”  But we are turning a corner and I really believe the Catholic Church is going to be a leader.  I believe the Catholic Church is also going to be a leader in evangelization and sharing Christ with other people and knowing how to share the kerygma—the proclamation of the Gospel.

I love the way you put it earlier when you said that the daily readings are chosen by our Mother.  It’s powerful.  Our Mother, the Church, is giving us what we need on a daily basis.  We have an advantage as Catholics in that we’re not all out there doing our own thing.  We are all connected to a liturgical calendar which is the life of Jesus.  It is the life of Jesus that we are trying to be conformed to, and it is the liturgical readings that allow us to be conformed to him.

When you look at this objectively, we have an amazing advantage over all other groups in that, as you said, our Mother the Church is the one feeding us and watching over us.  

Claire Dwyer: Yes, so true.  I think you are right, we already have been given so much but the work that you are doing is really allowing Catholics to experience it in a new way and to appreciate what they haven’t appreciated before.

So, you mentioned the billboard in Times Square around the New Year which is so exciting.  Talk about powerful visuals!  I know you have some other announcements.  Can you share those?

Jeff Cavins: Sure.  Father Mike and I are committed to working on, for 2023, The Catechism in a Year. 

Claire Dwyer:  Wow – awesome.

Jeff Cavins: Yes, we’re excited about that. I think this next year of 2022 is going to be a year of deepening the Word of God and salvation history and so we have some wonderful things coming out regarding that, and then by 2023 we’ll be ready to look at the Church’s teaching in a year and it will be on the foundation of our understanding of the Word of God.

One more thing.  There’s going to be an online retreat in February with Fr. Mike and myself.  People can find out about it on ascensionpress.com.  There will be four keynote addresses, a Holy Hour, and Q&A.  People can sign up to have the first opportunity to register.  This retreat will be focused on deepening your spiritual life with Scripture. 

Claire Dwyer: Well, we’ll definitely be promoting that, because we are all about deepening the interior life at the Avila Foundation.  It has been wonderful to talk to you today and to share in this great work that God is doing, Jeff.  I really want to thank you for your ‘yes’ to Him and those small acts of obedience that have really turned into something that, as you said, is so clearly a work of God.  Thank you for participating in that work, and for all that you’ve done for the Church.

Jeff Cavins: If I have a gift, it is a gift of walking through open doors. That’s it. 

Claire Dwyer:  Well, that’s really what life is.  And sometimes we don’t even know what’s on the other side.  One step at a time!  Thank you for talking with me today.

Jeff Cavins: You’re welcome.  God bless you!

For more information on The Bible in a Year podcast and other upcoming events, see Ascenionpress.com.

 

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