One Body, Many Activities

Theology of Ministryby Thomas F. O'Meara, O.P.Paulist Press. 300p. $21.95

Sixteen years after the well received first edition of this book appeared, Thomas F. O’Meara, O.P. (the William K. Warren Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame), has updated his analysis of the source, character and locus of ministry in the church. Part systematic theology, part historical typology, part personal plea for and against aspects of the Catholic Church, this book is finally and fully tendentiousin the best sense of the word. O’Meara has a point, and he makes it with forceful passion. He sketches a new theology of ministry, based upon the charismatic bestowal of grace by the Holy Spirit on an individual for service in the community.

This graced event takes place in, because of, and for the realization of the reign of God. Authentic ministry is a participation in the continuation, through the Holy Spirit and in the body of the faithful, of the historical mission of Jesus Christ. Such participation is sanctioned by baptism into the ministry of Christ, who is priest, prophet and king. Thus, all the baptized receive this vocation to ministry through their sacramental initiation into the work of the Holy Spirit.


O’Meara posits that the ongoing changes in the churchthe decline of the number of priests in proportion to the number of the faithful, the calls for a shift from clericalism and authoritarianism to a more cooperative model and the rapid expansion of new lay ministriesare the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s will for the church is expressed both in the new demands for fuller service by the laity and in the new charisms that laity bring to the service of the community.

O’Meara’s argument grows out of a number of theological choices. First, he differentiates religion from the Reign of God. "The Kingdom of God is the bestower of ministry...[its] source, milieu and goal." Contrasted to this realm of freedom and grace are all human religions, which are sacral, cultic, magical and superstitious, for they are all an attempt to manipulate and control the divine, an effort that robs both devotees and deities of freedom. The reign of God, on the other hand, "fulfills, judges, illumines, and critiques the religions of the world."

This Barthian distinction informs a second choice that O’Meara makes: the priority, because of proximity, of the first generations of the church over all subsequent ages. "Today we experience less of the being of the church than the first churches did" because they were primalnot only chronologically close to the source but also because the Spirit appears radically and strikingly in them. O’Meara holds the first century to be normative for all subsequent generations and inculturations. At the heart of the historical evolution of the church, he sees a reduction of ministry to priesthood, and an ossifying clericalization of priesthood, such that the vast majority of Christians (Protestants as well as Catholics and Orthodox) have been rendered passive recipients of ministry rather than active ministers in and for the reign of God.

The core of the book’s argument is presented in the fourth chapter, dedicated to a systematic treatment of a ministering church. O’Meara lays out the six ideal characteristics of ministry: "(1) doing something, (2) for the advent and presence of the Kingdom, (3) in public, (4) on behalf of a Christian community, (5) as a gift received in faith, baptism and ordination, (6) and as an activity with its own limits and identity existing within a diversity of ministerial actions." In his explanation of these traits, he calls for the full recognition (some type of commissioning or ordination) for the faithful who perform these new ministries, for example, as readers, preachers or catechists. The role of ecclesial leadership in the parish is to animate and coordinate all these services, not to control or to arrogate to the pastor these varied charisms.

The author makes several good observations and asks some very interesting questions, and the book could serve as the basis for discussion among students of systematic theology of orders and ministry. Some of his points are debatable, as for example when he claims that the ministry of sacramental reconciliation, like that of the Curé d’Ars, is marginal, for it does not "confront the world with the Kingdom" but was a ministry to the grace that lies in each individual, or when he claims that the Catholic Worker movement is a ministry that is outside the church. For O’Meara, ministry takes place within the church building. The baker or the farmer can do ministry only if they preach or serve Mass. Curiously, health care is a ministry, as is peace and justice work in and for the parish. But the production of other goods and services for the common good are not. Here O’Meara differs from the theology of the apostolate of the laity from Vatican II. Rather than the evangelization of the cultural, economic, political, aesthetic and social realms, O’Meara would call the laity to service in and around the proclamation of the word and the celebration of the liturgy. Is it that his Barthian option precludes a mission to and in culture? For O’Meara, secular human activities are and should be the consequences of the Christian ethos of love, but they are not ministry.

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Beverly Winter
6 years 2 months ago
I do not agree with the author. I feel that ministry can be done by anyone, anywhere, and at any time.  Serving God is not limited to the cofines of the church.  I found this article along with the book difficult to understand.


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