Community Dedicated Ministry: Teresa Mee
Community Dedicated Ministry
I sometimes wonder why, in our public prayer and through Religious periodicals, we are seeking to promote Religious Life as a form of dedicated Christian ministry without at the same time seeking to promote the other forms of dedicated Christian ministry in the Church.
Ministry based in the following of the historic Jesus, the Christ among us
Whatever its form, Christian ministry has meaning only when lived out in communion with the living Christ among us, and inspired by his way of life and ministry. In the light of how Jesus, in his day and place, lived his mission and practised his ministry, I wish to take a brief look at the forms of mission and dedicated ministry congruent with, alternative to, or subsequent to that of Apostolic Religious Life
For Jesus, the fundamental basis of his way of life and ministry was his contemplative awareness of being ‘one with the Father’. Sent on mission by the Father, Jesus was both inspired and empowered by the Spirit of God. As we know from his life, periodic phases of being ‘led by the Spirit into the wilderness’ or up a mountain were essential to this awareness of self and mission, to find time and place to be alone, to go deep down into himself where he found his Source. ‘I live by the Father and the Father lives in me’. His mission from the Father was to bring all peoples into this oneness, ‘You in me and I in you, that they may be one in us’. Whether as lived by apostolic Religious, or in whatever other form, this going deep down into self to find the Source would be the fundamental basis of any dedicated Christian Ministry.
Form of the Ministry of Jesus
Inspired and empowered by God, He was in close touch with the Jewish Religious Institution, the Temple clergy and the synagogue, so he must have worshipped with them as well as teaching, while respecting their official office and calling. But our alarm bells go off when we begin to reflect on how he publicly challenged and condemned their lifestyle and value system that stood in opposition to their mission and ministry – their addiction to personal power, their contempt for the prophets in their midst, for women, and for the various groups their religious beliefs led them to marginalise.
His was a spiritual ministry addressing the human situation, directed primarily to the marginalised of society, the poor, despised tax collectors, lepers, sinners. Unlike the Temple clergy, He preached and exemplified a way of life as summarised in the Beatitudes, the first of which he demonstrated in his option for the poor and marginalised. “Blessed are you poor… ”. Could he, or in what sense could he have been classified as poor?
He moved around among the people, sharing and observing their way of life whether as farmers, fisher folk, beggars, clergy, revenue collectors, double dealing merchants, sexual abusers or prostitutes. He knew them from close up and related to them. He celebrated life with the people. It’s amazing how much of his ministry happened at table, where he ate and drank, enjoyed himself and disputed with people of all levels of life and education and communicated the Good News.
He was more closely in touch with a specific group of people he had gathered as disciples and co-workers, his immediate community with whom he shared his ministry.
Presumably he and his community of disciples also earned their livelihood and it looks as if this was through fishing on the Lake of Galilee where we find them at various intervals. Like a good fisherman, Jesus knew how to spot the harvest areas, ‘Throw out your nets on the other side.’ Was it he who had caught the fish he was cooking for breakfast by the side of the lake? The group coming back from a night’s fishing were surprised, not to see him fishing or cooking, but to see him there at all. This was after his resurrection. Ministry involving an option for the poor and marginalised would, at least in his day, require earning one’s living.
Community Ministry of Apostolic Religious
Community ministry in the past as a way of following in the footsteps of Jesus was largely institution based, centred mainly on educational and medical service through boarding and day schools and hospitals in Ireland and abroad. Based in contemplation and permanent dedication to the mission of the particular Institute, it provided through communal living and lifestyle a public recognisable symbol of a dedicated way of life. The power of such a life of commitment to community ministry is reflected in the great service of education, health care and evangelisation that Apostolic Religious have provided over two centuries across the five continents through their networks of schools and hospitals.
The more I think of this from my memory of early life as a Religious, the more I ask myself what was it that attracted me to join, and held me there. I think it was primarily the ethos of the group, an otherworldliness arising from the priority and space given to silence and contemplative prayer. There was a culture of respect for each other in the group. We never discussed others in their absence, positively or negatively. There was a sense of rising above the gossip level and above the challenges and problems into a freedom zone. This in turn gave a sense of inner freedom and of mutual and self respect, a sense of dignity.
And there was a strong sense of travelling lightly, not held down by competitive urge. The Body had a personality within which the individual personality developed. However, I would say that some of the unchanging Rules and Customs we had so faithfully adhered to within a changing society and culture became hindrances to the mission over time. The Second Vatican Council finally freed us to engage in discerning ways forward to adapt to the changing context of our life and mission. That discernment continues.
Community Ministry of Christian Movements
In this new quantum scientific global and cyberspace Age of accelerating change, both positive and negative, in our living, communicating, travelling, engaging in industrial development and waging of war, the creative Spirit of God is at work in our world, challenging us to listen and see.
We are looking at the emergence of many new community ministry groups within and beyond the Church, some of them initiated by Religious. The range of vision and dedicated ministry of new groups covers the whole spectrum of global needs from active resistance to the proliferation of atomic and chemical weapons, global sex trafficking of children and exploitation of peoples of the developing world, to outreach to all categories of marginalised people, development education, work for justice, reconciliation between groups and nations, Church reform and renewal. To what extent can these new groups be described as Christian Faith groups engaged in community ministry?
Members across the board would say, to the extent that they develop a Christian culture and ethos based in the practice of contemplation, have a strong sense of Christian community, whether living communally or not, open to those on the margins of society or institutional Church. Reflecting on a few examples among many, we can see something of the variety and richness of community ministry groups.
The international faith based Catholic Worker Movement is one such example. Founded in New York by Dorothy Day in 1933 “to live in accordance with the justice and charity of Jesus Christ”, the Movement is structured around upwards of 213 Catholic Worker autonomous open residential communities inserted within the society, each with a specific ministry. They are dedicated to the work of social justice in ways suited to the local region while providing hospitality towards those on the margins of society. Some communities also campaign for equal distribution of the world’s wealth in parallel with groups such as OXFAM, Fairtrade, African Faith and Justice Network. Others of their communities engage in peaceful resistance to global violence including the on-going development and proliferation of nuclear armaments. One community publishes their weekly Catholic Worker Newspaper. These autonomous Catholic Worker communities assemble periodically as a Body to support and enrich each other in sharing on their mission and ministries and in their networking with parallel groups. They maintain a Gospel simplicity of lifestyle, and like the community of Jesus and his disciples, they travel light.
New Monasticism, an international Movement, is like an evolved form of the older monastic Orders. The aim is to deepen individuals’ communion with God and humankind, at the same time as sustaining them in their work for social justice in the world. Community life takes the form of communities of individuals linked together through the internet and regular meetings for prayer, liturgical celebration and sharing on life and ministry, some living in community, others not, depending on circumstances. The Dublin group meets weekly in the Lantern Centre on Synge Street.
We are Church, one of the many international faith Movements in the Catholic Church committed to reform and renewal in the spirit of Vatican II was founded in Rome in 1996. It has communities worldwide in twenty eight countries including Ireland and is in on-going communication with other Church renewal Movements.
We are Church Ireland, emerging from a period of hibernation, is working to develop a strong faith/contemplative base through study, communal prayer and reflection and from time to time, creative public liturgical celebration. Currently organising in area groups for ease of regular assembly, and in focus groups to cover the broad spectrum of its ministries within the Church, the Movement is beginning to engage in the public forum on issues of Church and Society.
I believe that the multitude of Christian Faith Communities in our midst is at the heart of the survival and journey forward of the Church. But we as Church need to listen to the prophetic communities and individuals through whom the Spirit is speaking to our divided Church within a rapidly changing society desperately in need of direction.
Teresa Mee shcj