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Before reading this chapter, scribble a definition of ministry on a piece of paper. The exercise will show that it's not so easy as it appears on the surface. Ministry encompasses a myriad of functions, but its whole is more than the sum of these functions. (If you write your definition now, you'll be able to check after finishing the chapter to see if it took everything important into account.)
Clear-cut definitions of ministry are indeed hard to find. In Bernard Cooke's major work, Ministry to Word and Sacraments (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1976), which is more than six hundred double-columned pages, there is no definition of ministry. Instead there's a complete and detailed description of some of its functions: formation of community, proclamation of God's word, service to God's people, service to God's judgment, and celebration of the sacraments.
Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., in his first book on the subject, Ministry: Leadership in the Community of Jesus Christ (New York: Crossroad/ Continuum, 1981), also provided no explicit definition as such, although he occasionally came close. "Ministry in the church is not a status or state but a service, a function within the 'community of God' and therefore a 'gift of the Holy Spirit"' (p. 37). In a sequel, The Church With a Human Face: A New and Expanded Theology of Ministry (New York: Crossroad/ Continuum, 1985), ministry comes to mean for Schillebeeckx both "the specific crystallization of a universal charisma of the spirit" and "a gift of the Spirit reserved for certain Christians with a function in the church" (p.81).
Although Father Schillebeeckx has not given us a useful definition, he has made two important points: (1) ministry is both universal and particular, and (2) ministry is a function, not a state. Both distinctions are crucial--the second even more so than the first. One doesn't become a minister to become a minister, that is, to enter the ministerial state. One becomes a minister to do ministry, that is, to fulfill the function of a minister.
This is not to say that external activity is more important than internal, or spiritual, dispositions. Of course, one must be an authentic Christian before one can effectively do Christian ministry. The more authentically Christian one is, the more effective one's ministry.
Yves Congar, O.P., perhaps this century's greatest ecclesiologist, speaks of various levels of ministry. He suggests that there are three levels. The first is general ministry, rooted in the gifts of the Holy Spirit and expressed in various occasional, spontaneous, and passing services--for example, parents catechizing their children, a married couple giving advice to others who might be having difficulty in marriage, individuals visiting the sick and imprisoned or leading Bible study groups. The second is publicly recognized ministries more directly related to the needs and habitual activities of the Church--for example, permanent catechists, lectors, eucharistic ministers, choir directors. And the third level is ordained ministries, which are, for Congar, public offices whose base is sacramental--for example, diaconate, presbyterate, and episcopate.
Yet another Dominican theologian (and a colleague of mine at the University of Notre Dame), Father Thomas F. O'Meara, offers a readily discoverable definition in his book, Theology of Ministry (New York: Paulist Press, 1983). 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 witness to, serve and realize the kingdom of God" (p. 142).
Ministry, according to Father O'Meara, has six characteristics: (1) doing something; (2) for the advent of the kingdom; (3) in public; (4) on behalf of a Christian community; (5) which is a gift received in faith, baptism, and ordination; and (6) which is an activity with its own limits and identity within a diversity of ministerial actions (Theology of Ministry, p. 136).
These attempts at definition by important Catholic theologians overlap in significant ways with similar efforts by theologians of other Christian traditions and by various ecumenical consultations. The Lutheran-Catholic dialogue in the United States, for example, makes a distinction between lowercase and uppercase ministry. Ministry with a lowercase m belongs to every baptized Christian and involves the task of proclaiming the gospel to all, believers and nonbelievers alike. Each of us shares in this ministry insofar as we belong to the priestly people that is the Church. Ministry (with a capital M) is a particular form of service within and for the sake of the Church in its mission to the world. It is a ministry of proclaiming the gospel, celebrating the sacraments, caring for the faithful, witnessing, and serving. It stands with the People of God under Christ but also speaks in Christ's name to his people. (See the suggested readings at the end of this chapter for information on Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue: Eucharist and Ministry.)
The so-called Lima statement, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (Faith and Order Paper No. 111, World Council of Churches, 1982), makes a similar distinction between a general ministry, which is rooted in the gifts of the Holy Spirit and bestowed on every member of the Church, and ordained ministry, about which there is, of course, disagreement. According to the Lima document, the word ministry in its broadest sense "denotes the service to which the whole people of God is called, whether as individuals, as a total community, or as the universal Church." The words ministry or ministries "can also denote the particular institutional forms which this service may take" (II, 7, b, p. 21). The term ordained ministry, on the other hand, "refers to persons who have received a charism and whom the church appoints for service by ordination through the invocation of the Spirit and the laying on of hands" (II, 7, c, p. 21).