Diverse ministries conference held at Mepkin Abbey

By Nancy Schwerin

MONCKS CORNER — Considering the future of the church is a dubious undertaking. Left, right, and the wavering — everyone has their own view.

A group of 50 men and women tackled the cause of diverse ministries in an ever-changing church at a conference at Mepkin Abbey, July 11-13.

The meeting was sponsored by Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary, which hosted a second meeting on their campus. The endeavor began a year ago when the school brought together 10 theologians, who gathered to hash out ideas and theories and write papers on the various topics. At this summer’s meetings, the theologians brought their ideas to willing participants at Mepkin and Saint John’s.

To understand the future, we must first look at the past. In this lies the source of much discord of today. Interpretations of the history of the church, back to its earliest days, lead to numerous conclusions and possibilities.

Michael Downey, a professor of systematic theology and spirituality at St. John’s Seminary, Camarillo, Calif., presented the opening session. He said that the most important “skill” of a minister is knowledge. He suggested that theological and spiritual training should be a requirement.

Ministers should form “a habit of knowing and loving the tradition so that it can be effectively passed on and so that others might live fruitfully within it,” said Downey, who is the cardinal’s theologian in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

In recent years, Downey has been a presenter at conferences for clergy and the laity. He found both groups were trying to carve a niche for themselves in the life of the church. He offered that finding a common spirituality would better serve the growing needs of the church.

Downey wrote in his paper, “Ministerial Identity: A Question of Common Foundations,” “All ministers, ordained and nonordained, are first and finally members of God’s holy people, who are consecrated for mission and whose mission is consecration of the world through Christ in the gift of the Spirit to the glory of God the Father.”

Ministers can get caught up in learning skills rather than living the life of a minister, said Downey. The life of a minister should be an example for others by living the Word, bringing the liturgy to life, and understanding their … call to service.

Jesuit Father Thomas Rausch, chair of the department of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, discussed the history of ministry, where it is at today and the possible changes for the future. He said the focus on the laity was the Second Vatican Council’s most important achievement. He addressed postconciliar church documents and thoughts from the laity on the future of ministry.

Franciscan Father Kenan Osbourne, professor emeritus at Franciscan School of Theology and the Graduate Theology Union in Berkeley, Calif., discussed the history of the Catholic Church’s hierarchical structure and presented the most controversial subjects, which included widening the pool of priestly candidates and changes in the church’s leadership.

Aurelie Hagstrom, chair of the department of theology and philosophy at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Ill., traced the secular nature of the laity through church documents. In her paper, she states, “… in the ongoing attempt to formulate a theology of ecclesial lay ministry it is possible to remain grounded in the magisterial texts on the theology of the laity while also moving forward in interpreting [the] secular … of lay ministry. The activity of the Holy Spirit in the dramatic increase in lay ministries could also prompt the Church to reconsider secular character in the context of the inner life and communion of the church. In this way, ecclesial lay ministry would not be seen as an abandonment of the proper identity of the laity. On the contrary, it would be viewed as a manifestation of the dignity and responsibility of the laity who are called to be full sharers in the life and mission of the church.”

Benedictine Father R. Kevin Seasoltz, a monk of Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville and general editor of the liturgical journal “Worship,” discussed the history of religious orders to help form an identity for today’s religious sisters and brothers.

He states in his paper, “The ultimate basis of unity in a religious institute lies not primarily in its work or ministry but rather in the religious ideals, the prayer, and the Christian community to which it is committed.”

Father Seasoltz emphasized the importance of religious orders maintaining a strong community base in ideal and practice for the future of religious life in the world.

The 50 men and women at Mepkin Abbey are bravely facing the future of their beloved church. They are seeking to understand — gain knowledge — so that they can move confidently forward, always bearing hope.

In his presentation, Downey compared the church to the disciples on the road to Emmaus.

“Like them, we are on the road, in the midst of a journey, and, like them, we have expectations that may not have been met. … we come to realize that the gift of Christ’s presence, the power of the Spirit, is ours to receive.”