My favorite definition of “minister” comes from the verb, not the noun. Emphasis is placed on the action, not the subject: “To minister” means to assist where help is needed.
This is completely different from the notion that I was raised with as a child in a Roman Catholic household headed by two parents who were “culture Catholics”—a phrase used within our faith community to describe individuals who uphold the cultural performance of Catholicism but neglect to embrace its piety or beliefs. Thus, in my childhood home, there were fifteen crosses on the walls plus five pictures and icons of Jesus, but no one could answer a single question about the Bible, liturgy, ecclesiology, the Catechism, sacraments, or pretty much anything else “Catholic” that you can imagine. That said, we were accepted as Catholic because our house contained the external, decorative trappings of the faith.
My limited knowledge of Catholicism and limited interactions with other Christian denominations and religions had me convinced that a “minister” was a Protestant church leader who formally participated in the leadership of church services and groups. A minister was inferior to a Roman Catholic priest because a priest could make the body and blood of Jesus happen. BLAM! #transubstantiationMicDrop #ohwait #CultureCatholicUpbringing #SoNoServantIsBetterThanAnother #ThankGodForGradSchool
The notion of ranked clergy was undoubtedly an unfortunate byproduct of the Roman Catholic ecclesiological structure of my beloved faith tradition. “Father” is more important than “Deacon,” and both are more important than “Sister.” But all of these were more important than “minister.” The only people lower on the ecclesial ladder than “minister” were the people of God.
Yet a shift in focus away from “minister” as person and toward “minister” as action spotlights what can be illuminated in 21st-century ministry. Greater attention and action can be placed into avenues in which assistance is being rendered where help is needed. #AVerbNotANoun
Sure, Mainline Protestants raised with “priesthood of all believers” theology might say, “Well, … yes!?!?” But as a Roman Catholic lay woman raised by culture Catholic parents, such a notion represented an epiphany for me, because it required me to see that ministry isn’t always done by ministers.
As has been explored extensively here on Bearings, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has ministered to the underdeveloped historical and social memory of our national consciousness. Slavery and its legacy have marked every generation—from Reconstruction to Jim Crow to mass incarceration. In response, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors aggregated their message of justice for Black Americans, who are disproportionately atrocified by police officers, through the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Americans of many races, ethnicities, and “shades of flesh” (as my daughter would say) have taken to public spaces with their African-American sisters and brothers, witnessing an embodied confession that the denigration and murder of Black lives is the denigration and murder of American lives.
We, as Christian people, sometimes forget who we are supposed to be in this world—that we are, as my Jesuit colleagues would insist, people for others. That is, we are all called to ministry. And this could not be more true than it is at the present historical moment.
The good news is that this ministry seems to be flourishing all around us. Increasing participation in direct action events, boycotts, and protest marches enables us to not only push for all manner of reforms, but also minister to the needs of Blacks, immigrants, Muslims, poor and middle-class families and individuals, LGBTQIA+ people, and the Earth itself. Each public demonstration calls upon its participants to be visible as they stand in solidarity with others, ever attentive to the plurality of positions within the collective. Collective action, I have come to realize, is collective ministry.
On February 16, people across the United States participated in a global day of awareness for immigrants that included both a general strike and a boycott called “A Day without Immigrants.” That day I woke up, realized the action was happening, and quickly decided it was time that I minister to my own spiritual needs.
With the support of family, friends, and colleagues, the Graduate Theological Union—which includes the Jesuit School of Theology, where I work—opened its campus to any and all people who were interested in giving public witness to the value of immigrants for our nation. In total, we were about fifty and change—small by some measures, but significant for our community.
As a Roman Catholic, it felt like the mystagogia—the period between Easter and Pentecost. Literally, from the Greek, the word means “to lead new believers through the mysteries” of the faith, often through a sharing of spiritual and pastoral experience. Nick Wagner describes it as being “initiated into that which is not yet fully revealed.” To be drawn into the free sharing of another’s lived reality, and to let their otherness and mysteriousness become a part of you, is deeply enriching and transformational. We, the Body of Christ, are to become invigorated by the questions and experiences of our newest sisters and brothers, so as to become a fuller and richer community. Their experiences become our experiences, just as ours become theirs. We minister to one another in these liminal, mystagogical spaces.
This, it seems to a reformed cultural Catholic, is at the root of 21st-century ministry: exploring the mystery of communal ministry in the most unlikely of places, with everyday ministers offering assistance wherever help is needed.