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Pastoral Ministry: Overview and Perspective by Agnes Cunningham, from 'Women in Ministry: A Sisters' View', National Assembly of Women Religious, Chicago, 1972

Pastoral Ministry: Overview and Perspective

by Agnes Cunningham,

from Women in Ministry: A Sisters' View, National Assembly of Women Religious, Chicago, 1972, pp. 65-81

CUNNINGHAM, S. Agnes SSCM. STD, Lyons, 1968; MA, Marquette 1963. Faculty member of St. Mary of the Lakes Seminary, Mundeiein, 1L since 1967; secretary, Catholic Theological Society of America; only women member of CTA Committee which prepared document on Permanent Diaconate. Has contributed to: Conci1ium, Convergences, La Femme.

The title of this article immediately provokes at least three questions: 1. What is meant in this context by “pastoral ministry”? 2. What is the purpose of attempting an “overview” and seeking a “perspective” of this phenomenon? 3. What can such considerations contribute to the broader questions of ministry—specifically, to women in ministry? What does all this have to do with religious women?

During the past five years religious life in the United States (1) has been sharply characterized by an increased expansion and diversification of activities in what is known as “the apostolate.” In the beginning it seemed as if some justification were needed to support the change from modes of apostolic activity which had come to be expected from religious women to those which seemed unfamiliar if not (in the minds of some) unsuited to the “religious” way of life. In defense of the new activities, several arguments arose. There was the need for “adaptation” in response to the call for aggiornamento launched by the Second Council of the Vatican. There was the invocation of a return to the sources and initial raison d’etre of each religious order, congregation or institute. There was the discernment of relationship between the charism of a founder/foundress and the corporate charism of the group which developed historically in the wake of his/ her inspiration, as well as the relationship of both of these gifts to the charism of each individual actual member.

Whatever the explanation, it cannot be denied that there seems to have been a felt need on the part of women religious to “justify” or, perhaps more correctly, authenticate the emerging pattern of their involvement in apostolic areas into which they have recently begun to move. As the nature and scope of the multiple new activities open to religious women become more clearly defined, it also becomes more possible to deal with the questions attached to this phenomenon in a more realistic manner. For this reason, it is necessary to examine the significance and the implications of what is now called “pastoral ministry.”

The purpose of this overview and perspective is to explore the meaning of the term “pastoral ministry”: to probe the rationale for which the term is applied to specific activities, and to question the relationship between pastoral ministry as it seems to be emerging in the Church today and the role of women in ministry as that question evolves in theological discussion.

Historical Overview

The term “pastoral ministry,” in the sense in which it is currently understood, is of recent development in the Catholic Church. In the practical order the term seems closely related to what the French call, “une pastorale d’ensemble” (2). In its present mode, it is a phenomenon predominantly, though not exclusively, peculiar to the American Church in the Seventies. It seems to hold promise for years to come.

The earliest instances of the concept of “pastoral” in Christian tradition can be traced to the revelation of God as shepherd (pastor) of His people. Thus, following the metaphor of the shepherd both as leader and as companion (3), the “flock” is not some unthinking mass or herd but a community capable of response to an authority of devotedness and love. In the Ancient East the role of the pastor was seen as a process of drawing together in unity and of providing care for the young and helpless.

In the Old Testament, a constant recurrence of the “shepherd” theme can be found in terms of the salvation of Israel (4). This is so, in spite of the limited number of texts in which God specifically is called “Shepherd.” Nevertheless, the pastoral care of providing understanding and wisdom is given by the faithful shepherd who continues to direct his flock toward the day of the coming of the Messiah.

Jesus himself is the “good Shepherd” of the New Testament (6). With merciful concern, he leads his flock to living waters (7). Jesus fulfills in his person the prophetic expectations of the Good Shepherd and institutes for certain of his followers a pastoral office in the believing community. Following this commission, the lost sheep is to be sought and found (8) and the entire flock is to be served “from the heart.” In the gospel according to John, where the Shepherd metaphor is most fully developed, there are clearly Eucharistic overtones to the pastoral care of those who are to be nourished and fed as they are brought together in unity (10).

Historically, the role of the pastor has developed in the Christian Church in terms of a ministry of care for the believing community. While an over-emphasis of the metaphor has brought about rejection of the idea of the people of God as a “flock” of “sheep,” there remains a deep-lying conviction that some members of the ekklesia are called and gifted to be “pastors” for a work of ministerial service and pastoral care. The terms pastor/pastoral and minister/ministry have evolved together. This does not imply that a new concept of “pastoral ministry” has necessarily emerged in distinction from the separate underlying meanings attached to the several words.

Thus, for example, an attempt to seek out the concept of ministry takes us back to the Old Testament notions of the councilor, the court assistant, the sacred minister (11). Angels stand before the throne of Yahweh as ministers (12). The ebed Yahweh, too, was a servant, hence a “minister.”

In the New Testament ministry (diakonia) is understood as service. The office of ministry exists in and for the community (13. Authority to govern is given as a pastoral office in view of salvation (14). Thus, there is recognition of the relationship between ministry and apostolate (15). In the Pauline writings (16), a diversity of ministries is acknowledged as given by the Spirit for the sake of the whole body.

This brief review of the biblical concepts of pastor/pastoral, minister/ministry is far from complete. A fuller examination of the texts, their interpretation and their influence on ecclesial orders in the course of history lies beyond the limits of this discussion. However, even this hasty overview points to the fact that it was in terms of ecclesial orders, liturgical worship and sacramental life that an understanding of the role of the “pastor” and the “minister” has prevailed in Christian tradition. Ecclesiastical language has specified the understanding in terms of the clergy and the hierarchy. Ecclesiastical practice has, until recently, determined the scope and the nature ministry exercised by the pastors of the Church.

Theological Perspective

The Second Council of the Vatican Initiated a project of ecclesial renewal that was both ambitious and realistic. The ambition consisted in a vision of the Church that would truly appear to all mankind as the “Bride of Christ,” spotless and without wrinkle (17). The realism lay in the recognition that a new theology of Church was to emerge from the life-experience of Christians, in response to the desires, hopes and aspirations of all mankind. Life was to provide the elements of theology.

In addition to these religious notes, there was soon discovered a new category which promised possibilities for theological speculation and reflection. This was the category of “signs of the times” (18). Among these signs could be counted the character of “modern man,” with his rejection of need for redemption; the situation of the contemporary world-society, where dehumanization frequently prevails; the development of new techniques and methods of communications. There were others, of course. One “sign of the times” which is pertinent to the topic of this paper is that of the actual pastoral services of women, both religious and lay, throughout the Church in our day.

The impact of Vatican II was felt not only in Catholicism but, to some extent, among all persons throughout the world. Other Christian confessions engaged in ecumenical dialogue were especially touched by the concerns of Rome. As theologians understood the task of reflection and debate in the post-conci1iar world, they discovered a growing ferment regarding one topic of increasing importance to all Christians: the subject of ministry. This question is asked in various ways: “What is the present situation of the traditional ministries in the Christian community? What are the possibilities of new forms of ministry for the future? Are new and changing ministries to be limited to men?” (19)

In an attempt to answer these queries, some effort must be made to discern the future direction which ministry will take. It is in this attempt that a discussion of pastoral ministry in the life of religious women is especially pertinent and important.

The current theological searchings for a theology of ministry in terms of developments in ecclesiology and ecumenism cannot be pursued in total independence of the search for a pastoral dimension in theology. Ministry, we are told by the theologians, must be explored in the light of the fact that there are many ministries in the Church. The nature, role and function of the ecclesial minister must be considered in relation to Christ, the priest, who is also king and prophet; who is, at one and the same time, God and man.

The search for a pastoral dimension in theology derives" from the experience of those who are convinced that the authentification of what is learned in theological study must carry into the realm of Christian living in contemporary human society.

The on-going pursuit for an appropriate theological discussion concerning ministry/ministries increasingly incorporates elements from the domain of experience. So, too, the effort toward an effective, ministerial service is found to be furthered by the integration of solid theological teaching and insights derived from reflection on the actual pastoral situation.

Out of the interaction between ministry and theology both fact and intuition have emerged, suggesting that the domain of ministerial service in the Church need not be as restricted, either in theory or in practice, as it has been in the past several hundred years. An historical study of ministry, with attention to the early centuries of the Christian era, leads to verification of this idea. The question of the role of women in the Church and of women in ministry naturally presents itself in this context.

As frequently happens in the history of the Church and in human society, a phenomenon of fact anticipates determination of legislation in societal behavior in evolution and progress. In other words, movement at the “grass roots” often accompanies, when it does not clearly precede, articulation of a situation in legitimatized acceptance. In his discussion of authentic ecclesial reform, Congar (20) describes the “legitimate” via facti that preserves fidelity to the spirit of a law because it is fidelity to the reality of the ekklesia. Here, we have an instance of the dialectic between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Here, too, is a recall of Newman’s defense of the role of the laity in the development of doctrine. Finally, we must be ready to acknowledge in such movements the activity of the Spirit, which Vatican II so clearly affirmed as present in the whole people of God.

The present development of pastoral ministry among religious women can best be understood in the light of these reflections. As a phenomenon that is rapidly developing across the country, this movement must be acknowledged as pastoral, as ministerial and as appropriate to the role of religious women in the Church. For each of these points, the activities speak for themselves.

Pastoral ministry is, in the first place, truly pastoral, if we speak in ecclesiastical terms. In other words, an examination of the activities comprised by the phrase “pastoral ministry” shows that such activities tend to take place within the already existing ecclesiastical structures. The parish or diocese is the structure most immediately accessible to those seeking a locus for pastoral ministry. Both the diocese and the parish are proving to be the structures within which religious women can exercise pastoral ministry.

There are definite advantages to this mode of operation. To quote Congar (21) once more, the work of authentic reform must realistically deal with the actual, historical Church. The prophet who calls for renewal must be able to set aside “his project” in favor of a program that takes the Church—in response to the prophetic word—from an already existing situation toward one that assures both authentic renewal and deepened ecclesial unity.

The integration of women in responsible, pastoral roles within the traditional, well-known structures of parochial life provides an avenue which opens toward the development of new forms of Christian community where there is need and readiness for these. The presence of women in functions of pastoral ministry formerly exercised only by men can contribute to a revitalization of structures that, at times, seem more outmoded than they actually are. The willingness of contemporary religious women to exercise pastoral ministry within ecclesiastical structures is an affirmation of a deep, if often implicit, conviction that Church-as-institution need not stand very far removed from Church-as-mystery of salvation.

From another point of view, pastoral ministry is truly ministry if we speak in ecclesial terms. The New Testament (22) bears witness to the multiplicity and diversity of ministries in the Christian community. These gifts are given for the sake of the whole community of believers. Clement of Rome, later (23), reminds the early Christians that determined functions exist in the believing community: episcopoi, presbyteroi, diakonoi, laicoi; the Christian knows what duties and responsibilities accompany each respective order. Within the scope of activities proper to one who holds the Church as Sacrament, many ministeries can be recognized. Thus it was in the beginnings of Christianity, where “ministry” and “service” became synonymous. Service to the com-munity of whatever nature was a “ministry” to the degree that ekklesia was affirmed.

As an activity open to the apostolic involvement of religious women, pastoral ministry stands appropriately in the tradition of an understanding of the role of women in the Church taken at its best. In spite of the evidence of discrimination against or suppression of women in Roman Catholicism (24), a careful reading of the New Testament, a study of documents from early Christian literature, a survey of the relationship between the Christian concept of the human person and societal evolution or between the status of women in ecclesial society and that of women in the civic, political and economic order point to the fact that women did exercise varieties of ministry in the Church. More than that, they were expected to do so. One of the earliest services which the Christian community came to look for from women was the ministry of agape, a service of care and concern, of love and creation of unity in the primary group of which each woman was member. In time, the “institutionalization” of more specific ministries, the development of monasticism and the clarification of diaconal roles in liturgical worship brought influences of varying strengths to women’s position in the church. Nonetheless, the testimony is there for our understanding and encouragement. As ministers of the community, both women in the early ages of the Christian Church and those engaged in pastoral ministry today share a common service.

Practical Implications and Possibilities

It would be presumptuous and naive to attempt to describe in precise detail the ramifications of pastoral ministry at this time. With every day new situations are being discerned and ininitiated under this heading. Every theological or religious journal announces a variety of institute offerings for those interested or engaged in “pastoral ministry.” To give a name to the diversity of activities would be to limit prematurely the scope of opportunity now available for exploration and experimentation. One thing, however, seems certain: pastoral ministry in one way or another is “parish” ministry. As the forms of parish life adjust and change, therefore, the needs for service appropriate to this community, with these characteristics, grappling with these problems can be recognized and met. For the time being, we might be content to accept as a working “definition” of pastoral ministry: that situation which accommodates the collaboration in equality and complementarity of dedicated men and women within the ecclesiastical structure of parish life in response to the needs of the people of God.

Such a definition would allow for several variables. In the first place, pastoral ministry is spoken of in terms of a “situation,” This frees those engaged in this endeavor from pre-conceived notions of role or function which might be appropriate in one instance but not in another. Secondly, the role of women in ministry at the parochial level is rightly considered in terms of an equality that recognizes the possibility of complementarity, through differentiation and duality, rather than the obligation of striving for identity, through restitution for discrimination. Furthermore, women are not envisioned in isolation, but in-relation-to that other representative of the human race, man, with whose cooperation both Universe and Kingdom are to be built. Finally, allowance for growth and development in Christian community is provided as the “ecclesiastical structure of parish life” does, indeed, become a response to the needs of the people of God.

As women religious, then, take up the service of pastoral ministry, as associate pastors, parish coordinators, adult education directors, responsible for catechetical, liturgical and spiritual renewal in a parish community, how is their activity to be evaluated? How is the phenomenon of pastoral ministry to be assessed? Because the movement at the grassroots has already out-distanced theological reflection or ecclesiastical discipline regarding this phenomenon, clear-cut norms for pastoral ministry are not yet available. It is possible, however, to examine the movement in relation to the broader question of the role of women in the Church with focus on the aspect of women in ministry. What does the question of pastoral ministry have to say to these questions?

The first point of significance regarding women in pastoral ministry is that ecclesial and even ecclesiastical recognition is accorded women in such ministerial roles. In other words, the frequently repeated (of late) plea for recognition by the Church of ministerial service actually performed by women in many places is heeded in the domain of pastoral ministry. This is especially so when official parochial or diocesan status is granted the women parish minister in a title such as “associate pastor.”

The second point in favor of pastoral ministry for women is that an avenue of collaboration between religious and lay women is now eminently accessible. It is true that the majority of women engaged in pastoral ministry are religious women. There is nothing that indicates this need be so. Christian women, of whatever state of life, have much to share in terms of faith-experience, mutual support, diversified expertise, complementary roles of Christian living. Pastoral ministry provides a privileged forum wherein Christian women — religious and lay — can learn to collaborate for the sake of the Kingdom with Christian men — clerics, religious, lay.

The exercise of pastoral ministry provides a unique opportunity for the continuity of those services for which women were especially appreciated in the early Church: ministries that are prophetic, catechetical or liturgical in character. In her proclamation of the Good News in Jesus Christ or of the Word of God itself, the woman minister shares in that prophetic role which consists essentially in a call to fidelity in terms of covenant relationship between God and His people. This role calls for the ability to discern the Spirit at work in the life and times of human beings, to read the “signs of the times,” to bring to bear on contemporary human society the light of the Gospel and the ideal of Gospel-living. The occasions for catechetical ministry are multiple, in this age of renewal in religious instruction, stress on adult education and efforts to proclaim the message of revelation in a manner suited to the men of this age. Pastoral ministry in the dimension of liturgical functions varies according to what is possible and practicable from one locale to another, as communities are prepared and educated to renewal in worship and prayer. Pastoral ministry as prophetic, catechetical and liturgical approaches the style of service associated in the early centuries of Christianity with the role of the woman deacon.

Women in pastoral ministry are advantageously placed to foster the growth in consciousness of those many Christian women who neither discern a call nor acknowledge within themselves the charism for a service in the Church beyond the limits (and extents) of their own family, be that lay or religious. Theirs is a ministry of agape, corresponding to the role to which all Christian women are called. With increasing awareness, these women must find the means to “reconcile mankind with life,” to use the words of Paul VI at the close of Vatican II. In witness to the charism of Christian marriage or to that of fraternal love for the sake of the Kingdom, these women can be encouraged to find significance in a life which they want to have meaning for themselves. Pastoral ministry, then, can become a function of spiritual leadership toward other women in their quest to hear and respond to the Gospel in their daily life situation.

This concept of spiritual leadership as one aspect of pastoral ministry for women calls for extensive exploration. In the early Christian community, the woman deacon prepared women, children and young boys for baptism through instruction and spiritual direction. She fulfilled the same ministry in the post-baptismal period. The role of spiritual direction was not unknown to her. The contribution of women to the growth and development of the prayer movements found in the believing community at the present time are closely linked to this spiritual ministry. Women in pastoral ministry ought to be called on for spiritual retreats, days of renewal or recollection; they ought to be available as resource persons on prayer and spirituality. In their own persons, they must be able to witness to the Church as ecclesia orans, an aspect symbolized especially by the woman at prayer in the primitive Church. It is clear that women in pastoral ministry have already moved further, without explicitation of their role and function, than women seeking ordination, in spite of the extended theological discussions devoted for some time to the question of women and diaconate or, less frequently, women and priesthood. The actual presence of the woman in a role of pastoral ministry will do much to dispel prejudices stemming primarily from sociological or psychological convictions. In a less emotionally-charged atmosphere, a clarification of the question of women in ordained ministry may be more profitably pursued. Again, as Christians become accustomed to the association and collaboration in parish or team ministry between men and women, the concept of a woman in diaconate or priesthood may take on a new perspective in the eyes of those considering the possibilities. Women themselves may come to realize that the distinctions between “deaconess” and “woman deacon,” between the “liturgical” deacon (leitourgos) and the “servant” deacon (diakonos) are more than semantic. It is even possible that women themselves may come to perceive the inappropriateness or unnecessity of admission to a “reserved” ecclesiastical order for the exercise of “official” ecclesial ministry.

All of this, however, is to some extent still in the future, albeit, a gradually more immediate future. For the moment, the challenge and the possibility are with us: women in pastoral ministry. Their present task is to achieve adequate theological competence to fit them for a ministry of responsible service. They must possess sufficient liturgical expertise to be effective in programs of worship and prayer renewal. The intentionality of their service must be directed by a profound fidelity to the historical reality of the Church as institution, as well as to the mystery of the Church in relation to Jesus Christ.

Having realized this, religious women will not have resolved the entire problematic of their commitment to pastoral ministry. Questions regarding the future of religious life, the renewal of orders and congregations in relation to the ekklesia, the differentiation of one charism from another, canonicity, sacramentality — these will still have to be considered. Perhaps the most significant point to be made is that, even as these words are being written, the task has already begun.


1. The present discussion is limited to the American scene and is primarily concerned with the situation of religious women in the Catholic Church. This does not mean to imply that the phenomenon described is exclusive either to the United States or to other Christians.

2. This phrase does not lend easily to translation, given its cultural overtones. It refers to a pastoral ministry which partakes of the essential and universal mission of the Church in a given milieu through appropriate, adapted, apostolic service.

3. Cf. “Pasteur & Troupeau’ in Vocabulaire de Theologie Biblique , ed. X. Leon-Dufour. Paris: Cerf, 1962; cols. 760-764.

4. Cf. 1 Sam. 17:34-37; Ps. 95:7; Ps. 18:52; Is. 40:11; Is. 49:10; Jach. 10:8; Ps. 23:1-4.

5. Cf. Gen. 49:24; 48:15.

6. This theme is dominant in the Synoptics and the Fourth Gospel.

7. Jn. 4.

8. Mt. 18:12ff.

9. 1 Pet. 5:lff.

10. Jn. 10:3,9,11 Jl6.

11. Is. 61:6.

12. Ps. 103:21.

13. Rahner-Vorgrimler. Theological Dictionary. New York: Herder and Herder, 1965; p. 322.

14. Ibid., p. 338.

15. Mt. 10:42ff; Acts 1:17-25; Rom. 1:1; 1 Tim. 1:12.

16. Cf. esp., 1 Cor. 12:5.

17. Eph. 5:26,27.

18. Gaudium et Spes. 4.

19. Statement of Cardinal George B. Flahiff of Winnepeg at the Synod of Bishops, October 11, 1971.

20. Y. M-J. Congar, o.p., Vraie et fausse reforme dans 1’ Eglise. Paris: Editions du Cerf, Collection: Unam Sanctam, 20; pp. 320ff.

21. Ibid., esp. pp. 248ff.

22. 1 Cor. 12.

23. First Epistle to the Corinthians, 40, 1. Excerpts in, The Faith of the Early Fathers, trans. W. A. Jurgens. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1970; pp. 6-12.

24. Mary Daly, The Church and the Second Sex, Harper and Row, New York, 1968.

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