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Spring Books

Revised book on ministry is prophetic, even timelier

By Thomas F. O’Meara, OP
Paulist Press, 300 pages, paperback, $21.95


The remarkable achievement of Thomas O’Meara’s Theology of Ministry, first published in 1983, is that it became a standard text in many seminaries and new lay ministry programs at a time when ministry in the church was evolving and expanding so rapidly that even official church policy adopted a wait-and-see stance until the dust had subsided.

O’Meara’s original study served its many audiences successfully by describing and explaining the sudden expansion of ministry following the Second Vatican Council within a reliably orthodox and realistically flexible framework of historical and theological analysis.

The text proved acceptable to bishops and accessible to thousands of women and men entering training programs for full time, part-time, ordained and non-ordained ecclesial ministry.

Now, with U.S. Catholic bishops continuing their discussion of so-called lay ministry, a revised and expanded edition of Theology of Ministry demonstrates again just how a theologian can serve ecclesial leaders as they struggle to shape and direct new energies and needs in the life of the church.

The growth of new ministries following Vatican II was, most theologians and bishops now agree, the result of a dramatic shift in ecclesiology by the council that acknowledged the presence of ministerial charisms in all baptized members of the church, not just the hierarchy and ordained clergy.

These 30 years later, the bishops are still exploring how to institutionalize the new ministries that appeared as the global expression of this fundamental shift. The U.S. Catholic population is projected to grow 65 percent by 2005, even as the number of diocesan clergy falls by 40 percent. The hard demographics of change add urgency to the bishops’ task and sharpen questions of who will preside, be ordained and minister in thousands of parishes across the country as the church in the United States enters a new millennium.

The evolution from solo parish priest to large ministry teams forming concentric circles around church leadership is sure to continue, O’Meara writes, noting that the stress on the current generation of pastors has earned them the title of “the unsung hero[es] of the postconciliar period.”

At the same time the urgent focus in ministry is now on affirming and configuring the only model that will accommodate the needs and aspirations of an expanding and diverse Catholic population — a model that formally recognizes baptism as the basis for all service in the church, and finds new forms for different charisms to function in the community as needed.

Transition forces us to distinguish essentials from historically conditioned models of ministry. O’Meara demonstrates this by building a working definition of ministry that can be analyzed against the historical continuum: “Christian ministry is the public activity of a baptized follower of Jesus Christ flowing from the Spirit’s charism and an individual personality on behalf of a Christian community to proclaim, serve and realize the kingdom of God.”

This definition proves a useful measure for viewing church history because it reflects both the long, dialectically rich development of ministry in the past 2,000 years, while also illuminating the “primal” model of ministry from the New Testament and patristic periods revived by Vatican II.

The idea of historical development itself, together with Karl Rahner’s insight that grace always intersects human culture as an essential expression of God’s incarnation in the world in Jesus and the Spirit, completes the frame of analysis. The church, whose whole mission is to proclaim the salvific initiative of God in Christ, is relevant or irrelevant to the extent that it adapts itself to the Spirit in each age.

Theology of Ministry is an exercise in the kind of collegiality characteristic of Vatican II. Its longer chapters outlining church history, exploring the trajectories of concepts like clergy, laity, charism, women in ministry, papal primacy, bishop, priest and deacon, are obviously the fruit of years of classroom interaction and the incorporation of the best voices in biblical, patristic and theological research. O’Meara, who teaches at Notre Dame and is past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, has convened a large community of faith to reflect on ministry during what he describes as “one of the deepest upheavals in church structure in Christian history.”

In revising the book, O’Meara has added an examination of Christian vocation that inspires as much as it informs, and his chapter on spirituality for ministers could serve as a manual for diocesan personnel directors and the vocations and formation directors of any religious community. It is excellent.

At a time when cultural crises and some high-level resistance to change seem to cast long shadows over the future of ministry for many Catholics, O’Meara offers a positive vision based on the big picture and long view of history and a simple affirmation that the Spirit is always at work and the Kingdom of God is always at hand.

Theology of Ministry is an antidote to pessimism, a corrective to absolutism and a solid course in ecclesiology based on the best current scholarship, including the documents on ministry available through the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Even after 15 years, Theology of Ministry seems prophetic and even timelier as the questions it addresses so clearly move toward official reconfiguration. May every bishop, pastor and deacon have a copy at hand, and may anyone who seeks his or her place in ministry benefit from this important book.

Pat Marrin is editor of Celebration: An Ecumenical Resource, NCR’s sister publication.

National Catholic Reporter, February 4, 2000