Benedict M. Ashley, O.P.


It is of fundamental importance to our Province that we have a deep and clear grasp of the theology of the Ministry of the Word, since this is the theological principle which must guide us in planning our work. With fewer men, and increasing need for the Gospel, we are obliged to choose, to decide on priorities in the work we undertake. In making such decisions we have to take into consideration many factors, especially the gifts and talents and interests of the men in the Province, but more fundamentally we must consider the needs of the Church and our mission, since this will determine what kind of man we attract to the Order and what kind of formation we give him. In a few short years the personnel of the Province will be markedly different.

As I see it, the first point is to be clear about the mission of the Church today as Vatican II sees it. Here we must move from a conception of the mission of the Church as primarily "religion oriented" to a conception of the mission of the Church as primarily "world-redemption" oriented. The "religious orientation" made us think of the Church as primarily concerned with organization and administration of Catholic dioceses and parishes, whose main task was to teach the tenets and laws of the Catholic religious to the faithful, to convert others to allegiance to these, and to provide the faithful with the Sacraments. It tended always to see the Church as enclosed and contrasted to the world, viewed as its enemy. Consequently it tried whenever possible to set ups Catholic organizations parallel to secular organizations. This view defended basic Christian values, but it is now inadequate, because Vatican II has given us a deeper and truer vision of the Church's mission from Christ.

The "world-redemption" orientation sees the Church's mission as primarily directed to redeeming the values already present in the world. It is based on the conception that the Holy Spirit is at work everywhere in the world, in government, in science, in the arts, in recreation, in all aspects of secular life. Furthermore He is at work in all the world religions (not only in Christianity, although there His presence is explicit and unique), and in the great social movements of our day, in Communism, in the Peace Movement, in the Student Movement, etc. This does not mean that our times or modern movements are unequivocally good. Just as in the Church itself the work of God is mixed with human sinfulness. The Church seeks to discern the Spirit at work in the world and to respond to its authentic movement.

This world-redemptive orientation leads to think of the mission of the Church as primarily directed to the total secular life of the world community today. It seeks to study this life, to discern the work of the Spirit in it, and to ask "How can Christians who see the presence of God in the worlds, serve the world by furthering this work." It does not begin with a preconceived idea of particular ecclesiastical functions, but rather it seeks to discover the needs of the world, what is being neglected, and then to put itself at the service of these needs. Consequently it sees Church structures as flexible, changing to fit the needs of this or that period of history, this or that local condition. It even sees the Sacraments and worship and preaching not as set forms, but as ways of making explicit and visible and credible what God is doing in a particular situation. It does not see the Church, therefore, as enclosed and separated from the world with parallel structures, but as a movement, a ferment, a spirit at work in the world in cooperation with all forces for good.

We may grant that this "world-redemption" view can be exaggerated, and that it has the danger of letting the Church lose itself and its own sense of identity and mission while it is trying to redeem the world, but "unless a grain fall into the ground and die, it will bear no fruit." Obviously this Vatican II conception raises big questions about the works in our Province. First we have parishes in which for the greater part the conception is that the work of our priests is to administer the parish, to preach the Sunday sermon as an instruction on the Creed and the Commandments. to run the parish school parallel to the public school so that the children can be instructed in their "religion", to run parish organizations parallel to secular organizations, and to administer the Sacraments in their traditional form. Next we have men teaching in Catholic colleges in a parallel system to the public universities of the country. Again we have Newman Centers mainly devoted to being parishes on campus to preserve the faith of the Catholic student by adherence to explicitly Catholic activities separated from the main life of the school. The rest of our Apostolic works have a similar pattern, and our program of forming our own men is appropriate to preparing them for this type of work. Clearly our whole plan for the Province is based on a pre-Vatican II conception of the mission of the Church as "religion oriented" not "world-redemption" oriented. The exception is our two missions, which by suffering and trial have come to accept the new orientation, although before their trials both worked on the old basis and found it a failure. Already within the Province in the U.S. the signs of the same process are evident.

Let us then assume that we will accept the "world-redemption" vision of the mission of the Church. What then is our role as Dominicans in this mission? Some young men are inclined to say that each man should be allowed to seek his own role. I agree that we must be very sensitive to the work of the Spirit in each individual, this is a corollary of the "world-redemption" view; but we must also be sensitive to the work of the Spirit in our community as a whole.

Now what is the Dominican spirit and mission? We must not approach this in the abstract, but concretely and historically. The Dominican Order historically and in its recent chapter whose thinking was dominated by the French theologians of the Order under the influence of their experience in the renewal of the Church in France which in turn was fine of the dominant factors in Vatican II and which strongly influences our missions, attempted to return to the sources of our tradition. They defined the role of our Order as "the Ministry of the Word."

Traditionally the Church has three basic ministries. These are not separated by are, as it were, three dimensions to be found in every activity of the Christian. Vatican II in the Constitution on the Church strongly reaffirmed and emphasized these three ministries and showed that they are intimately inter-related. They are the "Ministry of the Word"` or "preaching", or "teaching," or "prophecy); the "Ministry of Worship" (or the "priestly ministry", "sanctifying liturgy" and the "sacraments", prayer"); and the "Ministry of Community-building" (or "kingship", "governance","shepherding", "administration and counseling", "pastoral ministry," etc.)

The third ministry is now Commonly called "pastoral". This is to get away from the conception which has so dominated the Church since Constantine, namely that the role of "shepherd" in the Church is to be conceived in terms of "government", which has led to the whole conception of the Church as an administrative organizations based on laws, and which is reflected in the fact that our typical bishop and even pastor is first of all an administrator. The Vatican II was above all pastoral. This means two things: (1) that it strongly emphasized the "Ministry of Community-Building" and gave to it this new emphasis, not on administration, but on building a living human community; (2) that it showed that the other two ministries, that of the Word and of Worship cannot be vital today unless they also take on a pastoral character by being closely related to the "Community-Building" mission of the Church. Thus we have to see the mission of the Church as directed to redeeming the world by serving the world as it seeks to built a human community in which the presence of God is recognized, and directing its ministries of Word and Worship to this same end.

In view of this, the specifically Dominican aspect appears. It is our task to ask whether or not the Church is using its gift of prophecy to build a redeemed world-community. This does not mean that we have an exclusive claim on this gift. Vatican II teaches that every member of the laity shares in the ministry of the Word, in the gift of prophecy. But the laity and the clergy although they have the gift may not be using it well. As an Order whose charism is this same gift, it is our task constantly to be aware of the working of the Spirit of prophecy throughout the world, whether in the Church, in other religions, or in social movements, and to promote and explicitate and purify this work. This does not mean that this task is exclusively Dominican. It means that we have a responsibility to find ways in which this work of prophecy is neglected and to seek to remedy the neglect as best we may.

This is what our General Chapter was trying to get at, largely in French terms. Does it mean anything to us in the U.S. and in our Province? I believe that a review of the history of our Province will show that under the guidance of the Holy Spirit we are groping to our own American understanding of this same prophetic impulse.

If we review the history of the first men of this Province, under Fathers O'Brien and Hughes, very concerned about the mission band, the founding of home missions, the founding and development of the foreign missions; then if we look to the movement under Fr. Marr to implement the ideas of Father Walter Farrell toward college teaching and the Newman apostolate and under Father Kane, Sparks and Carlson toward the development of an intellectual apostolate; and now recently under Fr. Graham of the growth of the interest in the sensitivity type retreat and the social apostolate and of our new attitudes in the foreign missions , I think we will see that with all our probings and mistakes, and with the obstacles presented by an out-dated conception of the Church, we have been moving in a consistent direction.

What is this emerging conception? The Ministry of the Word, prophecy, is that aspect of the Church's work which is theological, reflective, sapiential. It is the Church trying to understand profoundly the meaning of God's work in the world. The Church cannot build the world community unless she has vision, a discernment of the spirit. She must study, listen to, but also criticize and purify, the movements that go on in the world. She must awaken man to the signs of the time, demand that he listen to the voice of God, to hear Christ speaking in the world today. Without this, Christian worship and prayer will become distorted, and emptied of their content of faith. And without this also the social movement will become an empty humanitarianism which will turn into monstrous tyranny. If we look attentively at the U.S. today we will see the Church faltering in her mission precisely because of this lack of genuine prophecy. The bishops lack vision and understanding as to what is happening to the Church. The laity are confused and beginning to despair, and even our mast prominent leaders (take a look at the NCR) are tending to become babblers of mere novelties without depth or bitter cynics. There are men in the Province who are already deeply engaged in this work of arousing the genuine spirit of prophecy. We are being called on by the Bishops to help them in their problems. We are being asked by the laity to help them find a new vision. We are being asked by public officials and scientists to help them to find light in their work.

This is not something either merely for scholarly theologians, nor for gifted pulpit preachers. It is rather an attitude, a sensitivity of mind and heart for the fact that the Church can doing nothing without truth and meaning, whether this truth and meaning are found in intellectual terms in the universities, in terms of immediate human experience in a retreat group, or in terms of the problems of every day life in the parish.

Nevertheless, and this is my whole point, this Ministry of the Word is not doing just anything. It is a very sharp criterion by which we can set priorities in choosing the work in our Province. Let me take two very painful examples. I choose them because they are painful, but the same applies to every single thing we are doing in our province, from the house of studies to the latest social work in the ghetto.

Should we operate parishes? We have got to ask two questions: (1) Are these parishes really effective in the "world-redemptive" work of the Church today? Are they really pastoral in that sense. Do they primarily simply administer the Sacraments, or do they first of all begin with the secular life of every single human being within the parish territories and work to help those people live a life of social justice and love and find Christ at work in the world? If not, then we should profoundly reform them or abandon them. (2) Granted that the parish has this new orientation, then we must ask ourselves: Do our men in this situation contribute effectively and importantly to the advancement of prophecy in the Church? is the parish situation the best place to be to help people reflect on their lives and find the Gospel meaning in their lives? Or will be able to do this better in some other situation. If not, then let us phase out the parishes in favor of a more effective work of prophecy.

Again should we operate a high school? Again we have to ask the same two questions: (1) Is a Catholic high school as a parallel institution to the public school really needed in a Church which is directed to a world-redemptive mission, or does it lock our students up in the ghetto? If it is a place to prepare them intensively for world-mission, do they really leave it understanding that as Christians their work is to be deeply involved in the progressive social movements of our time? Are there more effective situations in which we could work to bring this about? (2) Granted that our school has been re-oriented in this "world redemptive" direction, then we have to ask: When we are teaching high school students the regular liberal arts subjects are we in and important way helping them to achieve prophetic vision? Are their other occasions and situations in which we could operate more effectively to promote prophetic vision in the Church?

I am not saying that in either case our answers will be negative. I am saying that I do not feel that we are using these criterion to set priorities. Instead we continue to think first of all in terms of preserving a ghetto Church, second we think in terms not of our specific prophetic mission but rather in terms of carrying on a work for which we were prepared and sent by obedience and with which we have grown familiar. Fundamentally we are afraid of opening ourselves up to God's mission, lest it require us to change personally.

I believe that in fact this call of God will require everyone of us to change, to be profoundly transfused individually and in our community life, but this transformation will make us alive, will make us rejoice to be alive. It is out of this profound sense that God is calling us to a specific mission that our prayer life and as individuals and communities will grow. If we are called to hear and communicate the prophetic word, we will become aware of Christ speaking in the Eucharist and the Divine Praises. From this also will grow a desire to study, because we need knowledge and deep understanding to discern the Spirit's work in the world. From it to will grow real community life. We will understand that only by mutual dialogue, and by a genuine pluralism in community will we be able to understand the Word of God as a living thing, not as a dead abstraction, as the play of opinions seeking the full understanding of God's truth. We cannot seek to serve the world-community in its pluralism and its search for truth and justice, unless we first live this intensely with each other in Christ.

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