The teaching of Pope Francis takes up and relaunches the vision of Vatican Council II on the Church and her relationship with the world. He insists much on a fraternal Church, “going forth” to be with the last, the excluded; a missionary disciple Church who puts herself at the service of the needy. In brief, a “ministerial Church”. We are invited to rediscover the authentic meaning of ministry, namely, “service”. But it should not be taken for granted: etymologically, ministry can also mean “office”, therefore it can assume an administrative and power overtones. Thus, before Vatican II, a decidedly clerical perspective prevailed, in which the real ministers were the priests and bishops, on whom coadjutors depend. The minister had to be different, put aside, separate. Ministry was first of all a service to a religion cantered on the rite, the laws and the rubrics. All that led to emphasize external aspects, such as vestments and symbols, while holiness was often associated with the observance of tradition. It was a service of the religious structure rather than of people and was unilaterally focused on individual sin and individual conversion. The community was the object of the minister’s zeal, therefore fundamentally passive and dependent on the minister.

A “new” ecclesiology

The ecclesiology of the Council clearly goes beyond this perspective. It envisages that every baptized person is called to a ministerial service, inasmuch as the subject is the Church as the “people of God”, which as a Christian community confers on each one a mandate to minister by virtue of baptism and confirmation. All ministries are a participation in the ministry of Christ, and thus every ministry and every minister have equal dignity. The ministry presupposes closeness and insertion among the people, sharing, collaboration. At the centre there is not so much the ecclesiastical structure, but the people with their “joys and hopes”, their “griefs and anxieties” (Gaudium et spes 1), with their human and social needs and aspirations. It therefore requires a church “that goes forth”, as Pope Francis insists, which is capable of reaching out to the existential peripheries of our time.

This passage is the natural consequence of the fact that the Church “is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race ” (Lumen gentium 1)1 . The Church is therefore a “mystery”, that is, a reality permeated by the presence of God. The union with God and the unity of the whole human race are two sides of the same coin: it is because of her union with God that the Church participates in God’s initiative to bring about the Kingdom of God for all humanity2. In the ministerial vision, the minister is the facilitator of the activity of the community which must be a sacrament of salvation for all people, Christians and non-Christians, for the cosmos and the environment.

The Christian community is a sacrament of social transformation in view of the Kingdom, subject of transformation and in transformation. Passiveness for the community is a state of mortal sin, in the sense that it endorses the processes that are leading to the destruction of peoples and the environment. Today social conversion and social sin are forcefully entering into the new ministerial vision. Therefore, ministers are at the service of making the community active and dynamic in order to transform today’s world according to God’s plan3, helping themselves with the indications of the Church’s social teaching for human rights, the common good, social justice, and the safeguarding of creation.

Ministerial way as a style, as a way of being Church

As a “sacrament”, the Church is not only an instrument, but also a sign of communion with God and the unity of the whole human family. She bears witness to this with her life of faith and in her relationships, within herself and with the world. The ministerial approach is not only about “services”, but also about a “style” of being a missionary Church. The paradigm of this style is found in the Acts of the Apostles. At the beginning, in Acts 1:8, we see the formation of the Christian community, receiving the Spirit and being called to witness to Jesus to the ends of the earth: a missionary community! But with what style does the community live this mandate? We see it in Acts 2:42-47:

42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds[j] to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

This passage presents the community of Jerusalem, a “paradigm”4 to be inspired by, not an ideal community, but a real community that is then idealised, building on the characteristics that define or qualify it:

= all believers were together, persevering in communion, in fraternity (koinonia),

= persevering in breaking bread together and prayer (leitourgya),

= and taking care of those in need (diakonia),

= while wonders and signs were happening through the work of the apostles, a testimony of the resurrection of Jesus and of the life in fullness that he granted (martyria).

These are 4 characteristics that define the ministerial style. They are 4 intertwined dimensions that are interdependent and are the meeting place of two realities: a charismatic aspect from above, Spirit and Word, and, from below, the reality of humanity, commitment and competence.

In regard to the community, the role of the apostles – who have been with Jesus from the beginning and who are witnesses of his resurrection – is to teach the Word of Jesus’ preaching, transmitted, preserved and then put in writing to be proclaimed as the living Word. So much so that when the community becomes larger and more complex, there arises the need to have deacons to serve the needy so that they can dedicate themselves to the Word and prayer (Acts 6:1-7).

As a result, everyday those who were saved joined “those who were together” (epì to autò), that is, the community: the church grows out of attraction, not out of proselytising.

The same paradigm appears in another description of the community of Jerusalem (Acts 4:32-35), which stresses on koinonia, meaning union (one heart and one soul), both as synodality and solidarity (diakonia) at the service of those in need. The apostles gave with great strength witness to the resurrection (martyria): it is the image of a community determined to announce with gestures and words the resurrection of Jesus. The third summary depicting the face of the Christian community (Acts 5:12-16), underscores once again the transformative character (wonders, liberation from impure spirits and healings) of the Kingdom present among them.

“Already, and not yet”

Basically, there is an eschatological element in the Church’s mission, since it will be fully achieved in the future world. However, as Gaudium et spes (GS) explains, here and now the Church, “which is both a visible society and a spiritual community”, walks together with all humanity and experiences the same earthly destiny with the world; she is like “the leaven and almost the soul of human society, destined to be renewed in Christ and to become the family of God” (GS 40). In a condition of reciprocity and exchange with human society, the Church contributes to the humanization of the world, with active involvement in promoting human dignity, social justice, the common good and integral ecology.

What does all this show us? A ministerial Church, which means: having an evangelical style of life, a style of communion; living relationships that generate life, with a spirit of service, which is expressed in a plurality of services, according to the needs that emerge, and which presuppose participation, shared responsibilities in a synodal spirit. It is a community that experiences the Kingdom and bears witness to it. A community that bears fruit and celebrates new life.

The subjectivity of the “people of God”

Through baptism and confirmation, the faithful gain access to God’s presence in their lives and in the world. As sons and daughters of God, they gain access to God Abba, Father, and are regenerated into a new, transforming relationship with God and the human community. But the moment of full enabling is confirmation, the sacrament that confers a mission, the mandate to fulfill God’s plan, through communion, prayer, witness and service. Through these sacraments the faithful become part of the Body of Christ, the Church, and therefore participate in its priestly, prophetic and kingly mission:

= Participation in the priestly dimension5: the faithful have direct access to God, the Father, and can make his presence felt. They can also mediate God’s regenerating presence in all situations of life, especially among the poor or where human dignity is degraded, where there is exploitation and suffering. The faithful are at the service of an encounter that generates life, of dialogue with humanity: life in its fullness is a gift from God, but their collaboration is also required to experience and recognize God’s presence in their situation and to access it.

= Participation in the prophetic dimension6: this aspect concerns the reading and interpretation of trends, attitudes, facts of life according to God’s vision or plan, reading the signs of the times and places. It is about the relationship between faith and social life, the awakening of consciences, socio-cultural awareness, the growth of a sense of civic responsibility. Today, this also requires skills in the humanities and social sciences, but then there is the need for the ability to make discernment in a perspective of faith, listening to the Word, enlightened by the Spirit and consciously aware also through the social teaching of the Church.

= Participation in the kingly dimension7: through baptism, the faithful are delivered from sin and the Kingdom comes to them like a growing seed. The kingly ministry has to do with the growth of God’s Kingdom in the world, which is visible in the emergence of truth and life, justice and peace, in the liberation of all creation. All the baptized and baptized are called to this task of liberation, of promoting human and peoples’ dignity and integral ecology, beginning with:

– their professional competence, human and technical formation, and civic responsibility;

– the grace of Christ, light of the world, the Creator’s plan;

– social and economic justice

– permeate cultures and human activities with authentic human values;

– exercise authority as a service, not as domination over others.

What are ministries?

The Church’s mission derives from her identity and the ministries – or pastoral services – in the Church are practical tools to carry it forward. But what activities or works can be called ministries and what cannot?

O’Meara (1999, 139-149) argues that every time we give a precise, detailed definition, we end up excluding aspects that deserve to be included in the concept we are trying to clarify. However, because of the need for a shared understanding, we have to accept this limitation. So O’Meara proposes six characteristics that help us to recognise a truly ministerial action, which are:

1. Doing something: a ministry is a concrete doing;

2. For the coming and presence of the Kingdom: a deed that is ordered to communion with God and to the unity of the human race. “The ministry – explains O’Meara (1999, 142) – makes the Kingdom explicit, turning its ambiguous presence into sacrament, word or action”.

3. In public: it is a deed that communicates its message clearly, that is visible and explicit in words and deeds. There is a difference between the loving care of a person of good will and the same action taken by religious women. In the first case, we see a fundamental gesture of charity, in the second an expression of Christian ministry because the motivation of the nuns’ faith is explicit and therefore it is a public action, not a private one. On the other hand, an honest, welcoming, gentle bank clerk can also show Christian values with his attitudes. But unless he is asked to give reasons for his way of being and behaving, Christian life in itself is not an explicit witness to the faith that motivates it. Although Christian life provides the energy, motivation and foundation of ministry, it is not exactly “ministry” in itself. So going back to the previous case, if the banker worked as an accountant in a team engaged in a Christian community project to promote, for example, human rights, or peace and reconciliation, he would participate fully in the team’s ministerial activity, even without being involved in the field work, because his work is an integral part of rebuilding a reconciled community. As O’Meara further explains (1999, 145)

Christian life is not the same as ministry. It is certainly the backdrop to ministry, but it is wider than church ministry. If aspects of evangelical life such as justice, courage, and temperance flow from commitment to faith in the Gospel and are requirements for being a true Christian, they do not inevitably comprise ministry. Ministry brings something specific: namely, public voice and action directly for the kingdom.

4. On behalf of a Christian community: the Christian community has a mandate to live according to the vision of the Kingdom and to promote it. This calls for a commitment to build a more humane society and to denounce and oppose social evils. This is why O’Meara (1999, 146) says that ministry begins with the Christian community, comes from the community and nourishes and expands the community. The complexity of society and the different situations that need to be redressed inevitably require a plurality of ministries. Some of these will animate and support the Christian community; others will reach out to the society as a whole, in dialogue with other institutions, groups and people. A plurality of ministries requires a plurality of ministers, who will not work in their own name. The service they render is an expression of the faith and commitment of the Christian community as a whole. That is why the community invites its members, recognizes them and gives them a mandate. Evangelii gaudium (EG 24) reminds us of the vocation of this community: it is to be missionary, an outgoing church that takes the initiative to meet the geographical and existential peripheries, and is involved in the life of the excluded, marginalized; it accompanies them along the path of regeneration, a witness that announces the Kingdom. It bears fruit, because it is the Spirit who is the protagonist of the mission, the community discerns its signs and action in history, and it follows it, collaborates with what the Lord is already doing and therefore can celebrate, give thanks for the Kingdom that is already present.

5. A gift of the Spirit: A gift received in faith through baptism and confirmation. The Spirit of the Risen Christ is the soul of ministerial action: his presence invites us to serve for the Kingdom, inspires discernment and enables us to act with different spiritual gifts (1Cor 12, 4 and 11). According to Paul, these special abilities are in themselves an expression of the Spirit and are given for the common good, for service, and not for the benefit of those who receive them.

6. Diverse services: these are the result of different gifts that meet different needs in the Church and in society. From a ministerial perspective, there are both human talents and spiritual gifts which are placed at the service of the common good and which are an expression of the union of the faithful with God in Christ. Paul used the analogy of the Body of Christ, in which different people are united in different functions. This image rejects the idea that some charisms and ministries are essentially superior to others because all are necessary for the body to be functional and to work harmoniously.

In conclusion, O’Meara (1999, 150) tries to give a definition of Christian ministry, which sounds like this:

Ministry is the public activity of a baptised follower of Jesus Christ flowing from the Spirit’s charism and an individual personality on behalf of a Christian community to proclaim, serve, and realize the kingdom of God.

Another definition – very similar in content and perspective – is given by McBrien (1989, 848) who states:

Ministry is a service publicly or at least explicitly designated by the Church to assist in the fulfilment of its mission.

This involves a call from the church, a public or explicit mandate (not necessarily sacramental or liturgical) and the continuation of Christ’s mission in the church and the world.


McBrien, R.P. (1987). Ministry. A Theological, Pastoral Book. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.

McBrien, R.P. (1989). Catholicism. Ristampa. London: Geoffrey Chapman 1981, 657-659; 667-675; 842-848.

O’Meara, T.F. (1999). Theology of Ministry. Revised ed. New York: Paulist Press, 139-167; 182-198.

1 God is present in the Church and also works through it in history. He takes the initiative to transform the world by sending the Word and the Spirit and the Church participates as an instrument in this movement. The Word, which presents the vision of God, reaches the world through the Christian community, which proclaims the Word of the Father and makes it alive, relevant and understandable. The Spirit helps the faithful to understand the Word and to put into practice what they have understood. And the Church, through the sacraments, is an important channel for the coming of the Spirit in the faithful. Another way in which the Spirit works in the world is through the various services rendered by the community in the community and in the world. The Spirit is present, sustains and works through the faithful who respond to people’s needs, so that the result of their service does not depend only on what they do.

John Paul II in Redemptoris missio (14-15) presents the characteristics and needs of the Kingdom of God, stressing that “the nature of the kingdom is the communion of all human beings among themselves and with God. The kingdom concerns everyone: people, society, the whole world. Working for the Kingdom means recognizing and fostering divine dynamism, which is present in human history and transforms it. Building the kingdom means working for the liberation from evil in all its forms. In short, the kingdom of God is the manifestation and implementation of his plan of salvation in all its fullness”.

Lumen gentium la Chiesa is a mission of proclamation and evocation of the Kingdom of God among all peoples. Indeed, the Dogmatic Constitution presents the Church as “the people of God”, consecrated with a messianic task: she is sustained and enabled by the Spirit for a mission of liberation (cf. Lk 4:16-22), to serve the Kingdom of God, guiding people towards salvation.

2 John Paul II in Redemptoris missio (14-15) presents the characteristics and demands of the Kingdom of God, stressing that “the nature of the kingdom is the communion of all human beings among themselves and with God. The kingdom concerns everyone: people, society, the whole world. Working for the Kingdom means recognizing and fostering divine dynamism, which is present in human history and transforms it. Building the kingdom means working for the liberation from evil in all its forms. In short, the kingdom of God is the manifestation and implementation of his plan of salvation in all its fullness”.

3 According to Lumen Gentium the Church is a mission of proclamation and evocation of the Kingdom of God among all peoples. Indeed, the Dogmatic Constitution presents the Church as “the people of God”, consecrated with a messianic task: she is sustained and enabled by the Spirit for a mission of liberation (cf. Lk 4:16-22), to serve the Kingdom of God, guiding people towards salvation.

4 The summary is not a photograph of real life in the Church of Jerusalem, but neither is it a pure fantasy of the author. Luca generalizes concrete episodes from tradition. Generalizing individual cases, he wants to make a reality for all.

5 Cf. LG 10.34; GS 34.

6 Cf. LG 35; GS 35.

7 Cf. LG 36; GS 36.

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