Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Servants in a Servant Church

One of my personal heroes has always been the great pope John XXIII.  He was the pope when I was in grade school and when I entered the seminary, and his humor and wisdom were legendary even then.  Always a curial outsider, it was rather ironic that one of his closest friends over the years was the ultimate Vatican insider, Giovanni Battista Montini, who would succeed John as pope Paul VI.

John is known for his famous opening speech at the Second Vatican Council where he encouraged the world's bishops to be true shepherds in finding ways to meet the needs of people in the modern world.  The speech that is less known, however, is the concluding speech to the Council delivered by Paul VI the day before the Council's solemn closing.  John had died after the first session of the Council (October through December 1962), and Paul had led the church during the last three sessions (September through December, 1963, 1964, and 1965).  On 7 December 1965, Paul VI addressed the bishops of the world with these words:
We stress that the teaching of the Council is channeled in one direction, the service of humankind, of every condition, in every weakness and need.  The Church has declared herself a servant of humanity at the very time when her teaching role and her pastoral government have, by reason of this Church solemnity, assumed greater splendor and vigor.  However, the idea of service has been central.
Following the Council, and after he implemented a renewed permanent diaconate in 1967, Paul VI continually spoke of deacons as the "animators" of the church's own servant-hood.  John Paul II echoed this famous quote and then observed that deacons were "the church's service sacramentalized."
So, what does a "servant-Church" look like?  How does a "servant-Church" act in the world?  Long before we consider deacons as an order of ministry in the church, we need first to examine the nature of the church itself.


  1. Bill:

    Your challenge is certainly a complex one but let me start some of what will likely be a lot of commentary here.

    --If I were ever to be asked to preach at a retreat for priests and bishops (and I have never been so asked), a critical part of my message would be Matthew 23:2-4, 11-12,and maybe even 28 (although that last verse is a bit strong). The writer of Matthew gives a very pointed and blunt image of what our church should NOT be -- and history has an annoying way of reminding us that our church has a nasty habit of ignoring this teaching and doing exactly what the writer of Matthew says we should not.

    --Second point; the appropriate word for the questions you are asking is "ecclesiology," -- the study of how the church views itself. Regardless of what Vatican II promised, the church continues to have a very ambiguous way of defining itself. On the one hand we are monolithic and huge and very vertical in our operational management but we claim to want to be collaborative and pastoral and pay attention to the "sensum fidei" -- the consensus of the faithful-- at the same time.

    Perhaps "ecclesiology" should be the exclusive topic of the next ecumenical council. Then, maybe, we can get some clarity here. In the interim, we still have to live within that ambiguity.

    My vote would not be to call this council forth as "Vatican III" but as the "First Ecumenical Council of Sydney."

    Maybe, after the new council is announced, we can argue whether a representative sample of permanently ordained deacons can be official delegates.

    Deacon Norb Wethington
    Diocese of Toledo

  2. I confess I never appreciated Richard McBrien's 'servant church' before reading Avery Dulles's Models of the Church, which helpfully highlights the value of the model with its weaknesses and recommends buttressing it with more robust ecclesiologies.

  3. Norb,

    These kinds of questions are what drew me into the field of ecclesiology in the first place; it was the focus of my doctoral work. In many ways, of course, ecclesiology WAS the prime subject of the Second Vatican Council. As we continue the implementation of the Council, it will be interesting to see where the next couple of papacies lead us.

    I'll leave it at that!

    Fred, I'm interested in your take that somehow "servant church" was somehow linked to Richard McBrien. It's actually been around quite a bit longer than that! As a former student of Dulles, I would mention that he always characterized ALL of the models as flawed, but useful. There was no "master" model (although Komonchak, I think, disagrees with him), and the multiple models all need to be appreciated, rather like the facets of a diamond.

    Such an approach echoes the work of Vatican II, which chose to use a whole series of biblical images to describe the church. That, to me, is what is so significant about the quotation from Paul VI that I posted. His summary that all of the work of the Council could be focused on the servant character of the church is quite profound. I can't find a later quote of his that expanded the statement slightly: he said that the Church had declared herself to be the servant of the world RATHER THAN ITS MASTER. To me, what this says is not so much about a "model" of church but an ATTITUDE of being church, how we approach the world.

    Just continuing the conversation!


  4. Bill,
    It was from Dulles that I learned that McBrien is a main proponent of the servant model today (and Dulles does trace the history of the model before McBrien as well). Dulles is fair and critical in his evaluations, but he is in no way neutral. He's most critical of the Institutional model, the Herald model, and the Servant model. On p196 (expanded edition, 1987), Dulles offers directions for how the servant model should integrate other perspectives. Further on, Dulles notes that 'for blending the values in the various models, the sacramental type of ecclesiology has special merit" (197).