• Readings for today's Mass

How is Church Ministry Changing?

Summary of main ideas

One of the most obvious changes in the Church in recent times is the way the baptised ("the laity') are increasingly responsible for the life of our parishes. This is not a temporary measure, to make up for the fall off in the number of priests. History shows that it is a recovery if what was taken for granted in the Church of the first centuries, when – under the pastoral authority of the ordained – the baptised shared in responsibility for all aspects of the Church's life. The situation we have taken for granted – in which all initiatives have been in the hands of the clergy – developed in the 6th century. It was a result of great changes that took place in the Church's life, after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and the barbarian peoples of Europe embraced the faith in large numbers. It was impossible for the clergy to maintain the collaborative relationship with the faithful that had been taken for granted in the small communities of the early centuries - as a result they assumed responsibility for all initiatives in the Church's life, and the baptised were reduced to a purely passive role.

The radical nature of this change – which took place over a few generations – was not recognised at the time. And the situation that it produced continued until the 20th century.

The situation that was now taken for granted influenced interpretation of the priesthood of the ordained in the classical theology in the middle ages. It came to be understood exclusively in terms of the special sacramental "powers" given at ordination. This understanding took no account of the relationship the ordained had – as pastors called to preside over the Church's life – to the baptised, and their sharing in Christ's priesthood.

In the 20th century, theology recovered a more balanced view of the priesthood of the ordained, and its relationship to the sharing in Christ's life of the baptised. Leading theologians are in agreement that the gift of the Spirit given to the Church through ordination must be understood as essentially related to the life of the whole Church "in Christ". Already taught by Pius XII, and clearly affirmed by Vatican II, this understanding has been strongly emphasised by John Paul II, whose teaching makes it clear that sharing in all aspects of the Church's life in Christ – Priest, Prophet and Pastor – is a birthright of all the baptised.

This balanced view takes for granted that the gift of the Spirit received in ordination is essential to the life of the Church. This gift must be exercised in a truly collaborative style of ministry and leadership. The working relationship between the ordained and the baptised that prevailed for over a thousand years before Vatican II has profoundly influenced the outlooks of both groups. We must be sensitive to this as we find again the collaborative relationship which was taken for granted in the Church of the first centuries.