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A New Look at Orders: Ministry for the Many by Thomas F. O'Meara, O.P. from 'Women and Orders'

A New Look at Orders: Ministry for the Many

by Thomas F. O’Meara, O.P.

from Women and Orders, pp 75-85, edited by Robert J.Heyer. Paulist Press, 1974.

Ten years ago Vatican II began issuing documents which would extensively change the life of Catholics and their parishes throughout the world. The first to appear was concerned with liturgy, with congregational participation and with the replacement of Latin. Nevertheless the decrees of the council never became guidelines for the next 40 or 400 years. They have been supplemented, replaced; change has followed change. The message of the council was that change was possible, that diversity and newness were necessary.

We live in the midst of change. We search, some halfheartedly and fearfully, for ways of fashioning a Christian community (the goal of parish and of diocese) which will be faithful to the Gospel and be comforting to our threatened lives. Some of the ideas and practices even of Vatican II lie far in the past, although the momentum is still present in the struggles of the Church. Living after the turbulent 1960s and amid the uncertain 1970s suggests so many things to be done, so many opportunities to be tested, so many agonies to be faced and consoled.

Church-liturgy-parish-priest-sister. Perhaps nowhere have we witnessed more marked yet subtle change than in the area of parish organization and parish staff. Changes in style and life-style, in garb and status are only signs of deeper alterations. Vatican II did not decree all of this change. What has been happening in many parishes and dioceses is the expansion and diversification of the ministry. More people, different kinds of people have been brought into the work of the parish: married deacons, religious education coordinators. Where once the diocese had only a few canon lawyers in its chancery, now there are extensive offices for urban affairs, religious education, social action, peace and justice, diocesan planning, renewal and continuing education. The ministry has expanded.

Can the ministry change, expand? Isn’t there only the episcopacy and the priesthood instituted by Christ? And why do we refer to this as ministry (a Protestant word) rather than as priesthood?

The “ministry” is the word the early Christians used for their many activities as Christians; it is related to “deacon.” The priesthood is one ministry with its limited role and goals; being a bishop or a deacon are other ways of bringing to life the service of the community. What is this service which the community needs and offers to the world? People today like to argue over whether it is liturgy and Christian education (inner-parochial) or social action (extra-parochial, into the world). The ministry must develop both. The Christian community has two sides, neither of which can be neglected: one nourishes the local community through preaching the Word, celebrating the sacraments, educating women and men toward mature faith. But the community has (in fact, is) a missionary call proclaiming the presence and coming of the kingdom of God amidst our world. The ministry, then, has a large task. Yet, ministers need not be alone, for in fact ministry is not simply the task for ordained, celibate men but, first, the part of the life of the entire community challenging each member.

Roles and assignments expand to meet needs. The past decade since Vatican II has helped us see the wider realm of action for the Christian communities we call “parishes.” Slowly, we have seen ministry expand and diversify. Dioceses have now ordained 10 to 100 married men as deacons. Being a deacon, like being a priest (or as the new ordination rite says, “presbyter”), is a way of expanding the ministry of the bishop, the leader and coordinator of the diocesan Church. Tens of thousands of sisters who had carried on the great American ministry of total religious education frequently chose to move out of the school system and into newer areas of justice and peace, or adult religious education, or hospital ministry.

Perhaps your parish has a religious educator, with graduate degrees in education and theology, who is a layman, or a full-time director of the liturgies in the parish. All of this is ministry. It is expanding and diversifying.

There never really was only one ministry. The priesthood once gave the impression of a monopoly. The bishop was seen as only a special priest. The sisters were trained for the ministry, worked in it selflessly, were visible publicly as ministers - but were unrecognized by the Church as such.

One or Many Ministries?

Ministry in the New Testament has many characteristics. Three are especially relevant: (1) all Christian members in a community have by baptism a ministry; (2) ministry can have a wide diversification, serving others within the community and through the community serving the world; (3) ministry is public action. The New Testament exegete Ernst Käsemann writes:

For Paul, unity in the body of Christ does not mean the sameness of all the members; it means the solidarity which can endure the strain of the differences - the different gifts and different weaknesses of the different members . . . . A member of the Christian community does not represent a static order, although most Christians assume that this is the case. He is constantly representing others and is in confrontation with them. Everyone has his own gifts and his own duty; everyone is irreplaceable in the service assigned to him and unmistakable in his particular capacities and weaknesses. That is why the apostle is always repeating the watchword, “Everyone according to the gifts which God has given him, everyone according to his calling.”

Every baptized believer in the ecclesia has a call to ministry, something to do for the kingdom. Baptism is not an initiation into a frozen state of life where prudent virtue is guarded like a candle in a storm. Baptism implies a general discipleship and servanthood. Naturally there are levels of ministry and office. Apostle, presbyter, bishop, deacon bear an intensity of public and professional ministry in the New Testament, but they do not separate themselves into a priestly caste who alone possess ministry, active service.

There can be many ministries. Today we have only one or two publicly recognized ministries, the priesthood, diaconate. The vast majority of Christians are involved in no ministry. The revolution in the parish is most marked by the parish’s introduction of Christians beyond clerics into the ministry and by its grass-roots creation of new ministries, especially in education. The triad - bishop, priest and deacon - is one way of realizing leadership in the Church, but it does not claim to exhaust ministry. Ministry is free to realize itself in different ways so that it can meet the needs of the times.

Ministry is action. Now the Christian is a servant but a servant characterized by effort rather than by lowly condition or humble waiting. St. Paul writes to the Ephesians a description of Christian community realized in ministries:

And to some, his gift was that they should be apostles; to some prophets; to some, evangelists; to some, pastors and teachers; so that the saints together make a unity in the work of service,building up the body of Christ. In this way we are all to come to unity in our faith and in our knowledge of the Son of God, until we become the perfect Man, fully mature with the fullness of Christ himself (4:11-14).

This view of ministry-in-community comes from a time Christians accept as the fruitful beginning of the revelation and Church of Jesus Christ. Certainly Ephesians involves action. A prophet speaks openly and publicly the presence and future of Jesus Christ; an evangelist announces for the community good news; a pastor and a teacher actually do what their titles state.

The Word of God is heard but also done. John has the remarkable phrase that we should “do the truth” (3:21). Previously, action was translated into the practice, mainly interior, of private virtues. The New Testament is not content with private religion. With its anger toward interior self-justification and external phariseeism, the new covenant insists upon faith and action being inseparable. Faith involves public action because our lives are public. Ministry incarnates faith through private charity into the sphere of the local community, the communities of man, the kingdom.

Ministry or Life-style?

The way you live is not the same as what you do. Life-style is not identical with ministry. Now only Christians who enter into the life-style of celibacy have access to ministry (the permanent diaconate is a hesitant exception to this forecasting further changes). In the era of monastic prominence, the Church had compelled even the “clergy-in-the-world,” the diocesan priests to enter celibacy. The one ministry was then placed behind a single lifestyle.

More and more we are going to see a reverse. Instead of life-style controlling ministry, a variety of people with different life-styles will be interested in a variety of ministries. Will the official Church be able to face this situation? Until recently, in the atmosphere of a celibate community, young men were trained to a combination of state of life (and status) and the monoform ministry. Women entering a convent were, similarly, entering a schizophrenic world where structures of contemplative monasticism were ineptly linked to the most strenuous activity. The local community has had no voice, no opportunity to discern talent and charism. This may be reversed. A life-style will be chosen because it serves a ministry, or because it serves the spiritual development of the minister. There will be more give-and-take between the two.

Life-style is something different from ministry. Belonging to a celibate community is a charism, complicated because it has relationships to the individual’s spiritual growth, to the health and work of the members of the community, to the world as sign and leaven. Marriage is also a charism. Charism is not the same as ministry. A person interested in ministry is influenced by two separate but related spiritual forces: the call to ecclesial discipleship and the charism of a life-style. The life-style need not always precede and dominate as it has in the past. Ministry channels charisms into concrete service.

The early Christians consciously disassociated themselves from the Jewish and Greek priesthoods. Why? Because these words were heavy with sacral status; a sacral state emphasized class, control, externals. The Christians created their own words, making everyday verbs into nouns. A bishop is an overseer; a deacon serves other people or waits on tables; an evangelizer announces good things; an interpreter discerns. The English language and Latin theology have over the centuries resacralized these words. Bishops and priests came to represent cultic figures in a special state. With some notable and irritating exceptions they are not often found where the action is.

Ministerial action involves the public sphere. As long as most Christians are merely “the laity,” American faith is interiorized and separated from the public sphere. Evangelization about the Gospel and social issues is relegated to private judgment. Should public prophecy, i.e., the announcement of the Gospel, confront some of our penal systems with the dignity of the new man? Christian “doing” must be more than the charitable imitation of middleclass life. Ministry means action within the community and out of the community for others. If this is true, ministry is as central as private Christian commitment, as central as life-style. Private virtue is not the touchstone of faith, nor is one particular life-style, e.g., celibacy, a necessary condition for what is the easy burden of every believer.

What Is Ordination?

There is confusion over the act of ordination. We are grasping that ministry has several forms, but the ceremony of ordination seems reserved to the young man entering the male priesthood. This is not so. What is ordination? It is the public, liturgical action of the community represented by its leaders commissioning a chosen and trained person to carry on a part-time or full-time Christian service. Ordination to the diaconate even now is not the same as ordination to the priesthood, or to the office of bishop. There is an ordination, a communal commissioning, an ordination ceremony for each major form of ministry. Sacraments are important because they make visual our belief and hope in the power of the Spirit being present to us. If sacraments are important then we should enter the liturgical, communal, sacramental sphere whenever we can. The diversity of ministries should lead to community celebrations as ministers are added to the diocesan and parish staffs.

Women in the Ministry? Married Priests?

These questions are already answered. Women are in the ministry, by the thousands, but the hierarchical Church is slow in recognizing them. Married men and women are in the ministries of diaconate, religious education and social action, but the Church recognizes only the male deacons. What is happening is that the ministry is diversifying faster at the American parochial level than the universal Church can easily grasp. So we have a gap between the real presence of ministers and the public recognition (ordination) of these men and women. For that is what ordination is, not ordination to one particular order, the male, celibate priesthood, but the public, liturgical commissioning by the Church of someone ready and trained to act in a particular ministry. Just as there are many ministries, so there can be several ordinations for diverse ministries (we already know that from the episcopacy and diaconate, both different from the priesthood).

Whether women or married men will be selected by the local and universal Church for the ministry of bishop or parochial coordinator (pastor), this question receives the notoriety, but it is only a limited aspect of the issue. The major issue is clear; the breakthrough is accomplished. The parish and diocesan ministry is no longer limited to priests and bishop, but is being diversified - in order to discover the fullness of Christian life-in-community and to face the awesomeness of life in our world.

Toward the End of the Century

From 1963 to 1973 - from Selma to Watergate. It is hard to be an adult in America today where money, meat and gasoline are disappearing. It is even harder to be an adult believer, for as the demands of fidelity to the letter of the Sermon on the Mount increase, the dark clouds surrounding our faith moving through the future lower. We will survive only if we find in our parishes real community, the important communion of people which Jesus intended when he called into existence the “ecclesia.” We will be supported and will be able to support others near and far through that community only if we rediscover the universality and diversity of ministry. We are all ministers. In the sense of people who do nothing or know nothing, there can be no “laity.” But we are not all the same ministers, not even the pastor or the bishop. The coordinator of the difficult and vast field of religious education - that is one ministry. The liturgy or the voice of social justice - that can be another. The pastor and the deacon - they are also distinct and different. This diversity gives us life, fashions and directs vital community, and thereby helps us all to reach not only the end of the century, but the end of the world where Christ, the counter-image of the Church, awaits.

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