Review: 'A Step Along the Way,' by Stephen J. Pope

A Step Along the Wayby Stephen J. Pope

Orbis Books. 224p $25

Studies in positive psychology confirm that a life of service creates a more lasting sense of well-being than the “good life” of comfort and pleasure. Given the pivotal place of service in the New Testament, contemporary Christians might wish to reflect on how their faith, their community life and their openness to the Spirit’s grace can enrich human service and give new meaning to Christian life. This is the focus of Stephen Pope’s fine book on models of Christian service. He identifies his intended audience as believing Christians whose faith is a motivation for responsible action. Without underestimating the selfless dedication of many nonbelievers in their service to humanity, the author contends that “something is lost if we avoid religion.” He prefers to reflect on “the richness and complexity communicated in religious symbols, stories, and practices.”

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Pope is a professor of theology at Boston College, but his book is not a comprehensive theology of service nor a comparison with how other religious traditions address the subject. His intention is not to win converts or defend the faith, but to profile six different lives and suggest that each represents a key feature of Christian service: stewardship, hospitality, compassion, advocacy, solidarity and witness.

The majority of Pope’s chosen subjects are emblematic figures of the model they represent. Dorothy Stang, of the Sisters of Notre Dame, represents stewardship, taking care of what has been entrusted to us. For nearly 40 years, she immersed herself in poor communities of rural Brazil, blending creation spirituality and liberation theology as tools for social justice and ecology. The openness and generosity of Dorothy Day represent the model of hospitality. Mother Teresa’s life of service to the suffering poor represents the model of compassion. Martin Luther King Jr. represents advocacy in his tireless struggle against racism and war. Bishop Oscar Romero`s loyalty to the oppressed of El Salvador is a model of solidarity. Pierre Claverie, O.P., represents the model of witness. Born and raised in Algeria, in an isolated French-speaking community, Claverie gradually became aware of the “colonial bubble” in which he had lived. His transformation led him to the Dominican friars; later he was named bishop of Oran, Algeria. He dreamed of an inclusive society where Christians and Muslims could be friends, based on respect, openness, objectivity and truthfulness. He was convinced that dialogue could “disarm the fanaticism, both our own and that of the other.”

As often happens with Christian service, models tend to intertwine. There is advocacy in stewardship, compassion in hospitality. Faith is the underpinning of all the models, a faith based on trust, discernment, attention to mind and heart and concrete action. Four of the six lives suggested by the author gave “the ultimate testimony to the power of their faith—a willingness to die rather than to abandon the truth to which they had devoted their lives.” Within their particular model of service, each exemplifies what it means to be a witness.

Stephen Pope’s book is impressive for its systematic organization. After defining his theme and purpose, he introduces the “six exemplars or role models of Christian service.” In the biographical sketches of these lives, Pope takes pains to avoid presenting them as heroes or saints but rather as humans, touched by some important personal experience that sent their lives in a new direction.

The second half of the book is a more detailed study of each of the six models of Christian service. The author looks at the biblical roots of each model, adds a theological reflection and ascribes a moral virtue to each model. He suggests temperance as the moral virtue linked to stewardship and generosity as a virtue linked to hospitality. He then proposes how we might grow in that virtue and outlines the temptations associated with each model. Advocacy’s moral virtue is courage; misdirected advocacy can easily become fanaticism.

Before concluding his study Pope devotes a chapter to evaluating the models. While being essentially complementary, one model of service might cause conflict with another: “Solidarity within our community might be at odds with challenging the choices of some of its members.” He also notes the thorny issue of interpretation of service: a Christian who defends the just war theory will find little inspiration in the nonviolent service of Dorothy Day or Martin Luther King Jr. Those who continue to accuse Bishop Oscar Romero of being the cause of El Salvador’s past war and division will be hard-pressed to see him as a model of Christian solidarity. Pope recognizes that our interpretation of service “is inevitably shaped by the larger religious and political framework within which we act.” He suggests that gender, politics and theology are areas of “strong impact” when thinking about service today.

Pope places compassion as the paradigmatic form of service, with love as its unifying virtue. All the models of Christian service and the virtues that support them find a personal expression in the community of faith, whose responsibility it is to clarify political decisions in terms of justice, human rights and the common good. Service, in its most excellent form as witness, mirrors God’s compassion and love.

Service is an essential part of Christianity. Without it our faith is dead. The six models of Christian service that Pope presents are “a kind of inventory of values.” Committed Christians will find them to be a helpful gauge in personalizing their service, incorporating new challenges and growing in faith.

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