“Look up and see the fields ripe for harvest,” wrote the evangelist John (4:35). True to its title, Ripe for the Harvest focuses on educating and forming priests as evangelists, bearers of the gospel. Its sixteen chapters contain significant commentary and constructive implementation of Pope John Paul II’s Pastores Dabo Vobis (I Will Give You Shepherds) of April 7, 1992, the complete text of which is also included. In October 1990 the international Synod of Bishops convened around the topic, “The Formation of Priests in the Circumstances of the Present Day.” Some themes in particular make it clear that a changing understanding of priesthood requires a change in formational procedures.

First, there is a shift from looking at the priesthood as a state of being, the so-called “ontological” approach, to a more functional approach. In the more traditional understanding, the church was priest-centered. The priest had the power to confect the eucharist and the authority to forgive sins. He was the alter Christus, the “other Christ.” The focus was on what the priest was, not what he did. The priest’s spirituality was drawn from his office as celebrant, the orientation of his prayer in the brieviary, and the ascetical dimension of life.

In the recent, more functional understanding of priesthood, the church is people-centered, not priest-centered. Confecting the eucharist and absolving people from their sins remain crucial priestly roles, but two other elements have become focal points of what is now an ecclesial spirituality: pastoral care, including especially the spiritual and missional vocations of the laity (called re-evangelization in this document), and preaching. One author says that the spirituality of a diocesan priest is the spirituality of the word and of proclamation. One preaches in order to pray, not prays in order to preach. Thus the priest’s spirituality arises from a mutuality between ministry and spiritual life. The center of gravity for priesthood is no longer sacral but diaconal, that is, serving.

Second, using gender-based cultural categories to stimulate exploration of an emerging ministerial consciousness, Fr. Louis Cameli, former professor of spiritual theology at Mundelein Seminary, speaks of the traditional model as stereotypically masculine. The focus is on the tasks of ministry, done “by the book,” without much creativity or investment of personality. He calls it “male” because of the emphasis on authority, predictability, and productivity—sometimes without deeply internalized commitment.

Stage two he sees as the stereotypically female model. It is shaped by the frequently identified female sensibilities that include emphasis on the relational rather than the functional; emotional bonding as well as sharing convictions; teaching by induction (telling your story) rather than indoctrination; integration of the personal and the professional; and encouraging people to be in touch with their subjectivity. The process of decision-making is as important as the decisions made.

The third stage, yet in process, Cameli calls “an apostolically directed ministerial consciousness.” In brief, it is a synthesis of the relational and the functional. Cameli argues that Pope John Paul II’s Pastores Dabo Vobisrequires this synthesis. The Holy Trinity is both joined together in a bond of unity (relations) and in common mission (functions). Jesus permitted the disciples to aspire to greatness, but not at the expense of each other (relations) and only by serving (functions). Translated into contemporary imaging of the priesthood, this means that the priest shares priesthood with bishops, other priests, and the laity (relations). The pope’s exhortation confirms the ascendancy of the functional: he sees the priest as enabler and empowerer of the laity for their ministry (re-evangelization). When this is effective, the parish changes, new and diverse people join the congregation and new relational capacities are required, including the grace to confess and unlearn inhibiting factors. When the diaconal joins the sacral dimension of priestly vocation, the form of spirituality changes so as to focus on the priest in ministry rather than on the priest himself.

The priest is not described as alter Christus but as “configured to Christ,” presupposing the Christological developments of recent theological work. For example, the humanity of Jesus, especially the use of Jesus’s own humanity in ministry, provides the framework for discussion of the priest’s appreciation of his own humanity and its use in ministry. The focus is not on priesthood in itself but on the priest’s service to and among the People of God, themselves the “royal priesthood,” in 1 Peter’s phrase.

One of the finest discussions of sexuality that I have read comes out of the book’s consideration of the humanity of the priest. The two chapters especially devoted to sexuality move away from specific focus on sexual morals and on equating sexuality with genitality to an extended discussion of intimacy and the qualities of maturity needed to enjoy healthy intimacy in the priestly state of life. Included are empathetic discussions of affective sexuality, of the spirituality of pleasure, and of friendship; the discussion of celibacy is located in this context of self-giving rather than as a harsh discipline. Celibacy is portrayed as a gift of one’s self to the bride of Christ.

The expression “configured to Christ” is a most useful way of joining the sacral and diaconal, the functional and the relational. In Christ the human and divine are joined in such a way as to maintain the equality of the two.

By grace, not by nature, a priest configured to Christ by baptism is an embodiment of God’s freely given love and a free, human response. Joined in some such fashion, the sacral and diaconal find a home exactly where God intends: in a person.

The authors are strikingly attentive to the purpose of a seminary: to prepare pastors for the church. The piety they advocate is an ecclesial piety, not merely a personal piety. Leaders in theological education will appreciate the chapter on the seminary as an institution and the extensive chapter on screening students. Sample interview documents are included that both acknowledge the humanity of the seminary candidate and show a way to approach that humanity consistent with theological integrity.

While this work is written by Roman Catholics for use in Roman Catholic seminaries, it is not parochial. My suggestion is not just that this document be widely read and appreciated on its own merit but that seminary leaders discuss it in an ecumenical setting. Then we become teachers of each other as well as the beneficiaries of the gifts each is to the other.

Within the Evangelical community, two categories of persons should have special interest in Ripe for the Harvest: educators and members of governing boards.

It is timely for this audience because of the ecumenical ferment arising in dialogues between the Evangelical and the Roman Catholic communities. The theological dialogue proffered there can now be correlated with a dialogue on the spiritual formation of theological students. To discuss theological dogma ecumenically without discussing how dogma is taught, how it both forms and informs the student, is to leave out a big piece of the pie.

Moreover, in Evangelical circles there is a burgeoning interest in spiritual formation, often under the rubric of discipleship training. In my view, discipleship is outdistancing servanthood as the term of choice for the Christian life. The term “configured to Christ” is a wonderfully discerning way to describe what discipleship can mean. Ripe for the Harvest can be helpful to Evangelicals at this very point. The literature on discipleship with which I am familiar is heavy on instruction, training, evangelistic witness, and cognitive appropriation of the faith. The tradition of spiritual formation and direction in the Roman Catholic communities can make its contribution at this point. This tradition brings to mind the formative role played by the sacrament and the liturgy, less as didactic and more as adoration and eucharistic, the gifts of the mystics in fostering intimacy with God, the varied forms of prayer, from contemplation to intercession, and one could add more. The emphasis falls on being rather than doing.

The essays in Ripe for the Harvest dealing with the changing images of the priest have parallels in Protestantism. Years ago H. Richard Niebuhr argued that the role of the pastor was changing from shepherd, priest, and prophet to that of pastoral director. The pastor no longer worked in a study but in an office. Niebuhr’s designation was prophetic; these days managerial aspects of ministry are on the rise. Is CEO a worthy theological model, let alone biblical model, of the pastor?

Those who read Ripe for the Harvest will be formed as well as informed, and even if the ecumenical conversations do not happen, reading it will keep intra-Evangelical conversations from a parochialism that is inimical to theological study.

Written by C. John Weborg


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