e-mail us


Bonaventure House in Chicago illustrates new model of personal ministry

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Alexian Brothers Bonaventure House would seem an unlikely place to find a model of pastoral ministry. It’s a residential facility for 34 people with AIDS, founded by the Alexian Brothers and the Chicago archdiocese in 1989. It has provided care for over 300 sick people without resorting to lifeboat-drill ministry.

Looking around at Bonaventure House, one can glimpse snatches of what ministry means today, at least as it’s understood by people on the receiving end -- caring, loving service without any concern about canonical status or clerical rank. The new model of Catholic ministry bubbling up from such places is a humbler, more people-oriented approach, and that can be a sore spot for priests clinging to a different set of expectations.

The house is a place where the architecture and art of ministry come together. It is a place where healers are healed themselves, where priest and prostitute can spread the gospel together because people genuinely belong to each other in the mystical body.

“There is a lot of risk here,” Tim McCormick, CEO of Bonaventure House and its sister facility, The Harbor Center for Assisted Living in Waukegan, Ill., said. “By rights, there should be a riot here. We’re so diverse. But we soon discover that we aren’t that different. For example, we have some wealthy people who volunteer here, and they are healed by our residents.

“Instead of trying to do ministry,” McCormick continued, “we try to discover it. We discover the mystery of how we belong to each other. We don’t try to bless something that’s already sacred.”

McCormick was still glowing from a scene he had witnessed during a Christmas party at the Harbor Center the day before. A wealthy woman had just bestowed her warm coat on a resident. The AIDS patient, a former prostitute and recovering drug addict, began to cry. “She put her arms around the wealthy woman and cried,” McCormick said. “Then, the woman began to cry, too.

“It’s that way with the priests who come here to say Mass,” he added. “The crowds are small. Most of our people aren’t Catholic. It’s hardly worth the priest’s effort. But he is healed and strengthened. And he carries something away with him.”

Circus tent theory

Tim McCormick believes that the role of a good parish is to put up a circus tent and allow things to happen. “Just send in the clowns,” he adds. “I guess that 99 percent of our residents are not formally religious, but spirituality is flourishing here. That’s why we must not say priest; we must learn to say us.”

The ministry at Bonaventure House is distinctly one-on-one, a model becoming common in parishes. The service is very individual and personal, with few qualifying questions asked. Example: Not long ago a dying resident was asked what he needed most. “Frog legs,” the man said. “I’d love some frog legs.” McCormick found the restaurant and returned with the treat. The man ate all he could but left the rest unfinished.

The next day, still unable to eat, the man whispered, “I just want to smell them.” He died shortly after. For McCormick, the frog legs represented a kind of Eucharist.

Tim McCormick is a resigned priest and former pastor. He sees the burnout of his fellow priests in parish ministry as they attempt to invoke a model so administrative their priesthood becomes part of the barrier.

“Ministry happens in unexpected places with unexpected people,” he said. “We must risk failure. We can’t do this at arm’s length. The church’s real role is to allow this to happen. We can’t succeed with an administrative model. It must be a relational one in which each person gives to the other.”

Just a few examples

Bonaventure House is just one inspiring example of this relational model. Here are some others, all drawn from real life:

* Fr. Jarlath Fallon -- a pseudonym -- hobbled into Mary Gaffney’s wake just as others were leaving. He was bent over a cane and quite tentative. “I’m nearly 80,” he said, “and I’ve had diabetes for 40 years. I guess they’ll chop my legs off one of these days.” Fallon was there to pay his respects to Mary. She was his parishioner more than 40 years, a husband and eight children ago. Jarlath Fallon, ordained 55 years, was still ministering to Mary and her family. It’s well he came. Mary’s pastor wasn’t there and his associate absented himself from the wake and the funeral because he felt a cold coming on.

* Vince Myers came home from the barber shop after a trim so that he’d look presentable at his wife’s wake. Virginia had been ill for months and, with nine kids to look after, the house had gotten a bit tacky. When he entered the kitchen, he found his pastor and associate pastor washing the floor.

* When the teenager who cleaned floors in his parish told the associate pastor that he wouldn’t be attending his school prom because he didn’t have a pair of black shoes, the curate took off his own shoes and handed them to the kid.

Ministry, at least of the relational sort, is like that. The need for this kind of personal ministry is increasing at the same time the number of ordained priests is dwindling.

In Steubenville, Ohio, for example, a diocese of 46,000 Catholics, there are 61 priests working in 73 parishes and a few missions. Seven are over 70 and 10 more will reach that age during 1999. Within the next decade, 29 will be over retirement age and 28 more will be 60 or over. The youngest priest is 37. Factor in those who will die prematurely, retire early or resign from the priesthood, and it’s a crisis.

The priesthood also suffers from the usual percentage -- 13 percent according to one expert -- common to all professions: those who are barely or only marginally ministering. It puts a massive dent into present conceptions of ministry.

Those priests who remain and who stay engaged are caught between the relational model of ministry that people expect and the more class- and status-conscious model they imbibed in seminary. Many in the new breed of priests turn away from a conception of ministry as personal service because they do not view it as the highest and best use of their talents.

Some years ago, one of those endless studies on priesthood compared them with other jobs in an interest inventory. The priest -- read “sacred minister” -- emerged in the same box as a Sears floor walker. Some priests were offended that their role would be equated with that of a floor walker, but in the view of the laity the comparison was flattering, since both groups were admired for their people skills -- friendly, trustworthy, kind, caring.

Finding the balance

Today, a disturbing number of priests decline to do wakes, hospital or home visits or to visit the parish school. They are reluctant to work the curb before or after Mass or to offer a prayer at a local supermarket opening. They run the risk of losing the relational image that comes with just showing up. When they fail to delegate these responsibilities to others, their image is further reduced. Even the best of them must strive to discover that delicate balance between becoming full of too many people’s lives and too full of their own.

Some historical perspective may help. The word ministry derives from the Latin ministerium, which means “service.” Ministry is the work of those gifted with charisms and appointed by the church to act in the name of Christ and the church. The term now embraces any of the baptized who perform works of service in the church.

During the early centuries, the office of bishop simply didn’t exist, but gradually he became a pivotal figure in the larger communities, even as the office of presbyter evolved into that of priest. By the Middle Ages, theologians and canon lawyers had begun to divide the church into clergy and laity. With it came the division of the power of orders, with priests empowered to forgive sins and to celebrate the Eucharist. Later, the Council of Trent would defend the hierarchical structure, in part to protect the priests from interference by the nobility who wanted to appoint bishops and pastors.

In time, the pyramid structure with pope as absolute monarch evolved. Eventually, the power that came with ordination was joined by the power of jurisdiction. The laity, especially women, were lost at the bottom. Virtually all ministry was in the anointed hands of the clergy.

Vatican II tried mightily to reinstate ministry as that of service rather than status. The church itself was no longer to be identified exclusively with the hierarchy. “Everything which has been said so far concerning the People of God applies equally to the laity, religious and clergy,” the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” proclaimed. But the term “sacred power” still clings. The church continues to preach the distinction between the “common priesthood” of the faithful and the “hierarchical priesthood” of the clergy -- and that is why parishes continue to close and many priests no longer show up at wakes.

The “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” states that the priest “molds and rules the priestly people” and that he “acts in the person of Christ” as he “brings about the eucharistic sacrifice and offers it to God in the name of all the people.”

“Pastors also know that they themselves were not meant by Christ to shoulder alone the entire mission of the church toward the world,” according to the Dogmatic Constitution. It added that ordained ministries were not invoked to dominate other ministries but rather to integrate and coordinate them. However, clergy have largely continued to occupy the corner office and get the privileged parking spots.

All those ministries

It is true that, in some cases, the word ministry has been stretched to cover virtually every activity connected with a parish. “Youth minister” may be a good fit but “parking minister” may run the risk of trivializing the meaning, especially when parking ministers are installed during artificial discernment and empowerment liturgies.

Fr. “Joe McGonagle” may be a good example of a pastor who shares ministry with his people and the community. When Bernice and Bill came to him seeking help on a thorny issue, McGonagle met them in the parish center armed with a weighty three-ring binder. He listened; asked some questions, then opened his binder, which was a directory of virtually every agency in the area.

There was a time when the parish priest was the best educated and, by reason of his priestly status, most respected minister in the parish community. Today, the wise pastor looks to his binder for healers within the community who could far better serve the parishioner. In more affluent parishes such ministers might be on staff, thus increasing the bonds between parishioner and parish.

The new lay-dominated ministries work well in large, well-funded parishes. NCR easily found a half-dozen megaparishes, each with no more than two priests (one had only one) and with staffs of over 20, most of whom were female. With budgets well in excess of $1 million and staffs with advanced degrees in divinity, scripture, social work or psychology, these parishes were ministering in a bewildering variety of ways. The priests emerged as likable, pastoral, avuncular figures, not overly stressed (although one had presided at seven Masses over the weekend).

The picture was darker at smaller and poorer parishes, which had one priest living alone and a staff of only three to five. One pastor said: “I can’t afford a janitor, let alone a full-time associate pastor or pastoral associate.” Another pastor in southwestern Illinois has five parishes and only one lay associate but manages with a good car, fax and cellular phone and the fact that two of his parishes haven’t had a wedding or funeral in years.

We stand today in an in-between time, as one concept of ministry gradually displaces another. Both have, of course, always been around, but it’s a question of which one waxes and which wanes.

Because of the transition we’re living through, Catholic ministries today are a remarkably mixed bag. Some are so tied to the institution that only the pastor has the key to the meeting room. Others gather in the corner of a local bar and discuss lay spirituality, or in a family room listening to a woman breaking open the scriptures that she cannot announce in church.

It appears that, like Bonaventure House, the new model includes trying and failing. It does not regard relapse as failure but rather as part of the cure. It does not become a model for announcing orders but rather for listening.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago where he is a bingo minister at St. Interdict’s Parish. You can reach him at unsworth@megsi.net

National Catholic Reporter, January 22, 1999