A seasoned professor, popular conference speaker and prolific author, Franciscan Father Kenan Osborne addresses a question that all religious professionals face, both in their formation and in their practice: How are orders and ministry to be understood in a contemporary ecclesial life that, while obviously linked, is forever different from its origins? Different as well from the period of post-Vatican II renewal which some found hopeful and others confusing. Different surely because both orders and ministry, if they are to have relevance in the 21st century, must function in local settings that increasingly reflect the global environment of a world church.
Exploring this question has been central to the scholarly and pastoral attention of Osborne for decades. Each time he addresses it, his analysis is thoughtful and nuanced, and each time the context widens, while insight into tradition deepens. A search for wholeness rather than enlightenment, is what informs his work. Being aware of a world church is what widens the context in this current study.
Osborne does not see his theological role limited to identifying problematic questions which he can contextualize in order to make the tradition understandable; rather, he pays attention to the new questions being raised in the current ecclesial context and seeks answers that, while sometimes controversial, accurately reflect the light of tradition. Included in these is a proper understanding of ministry as primarily service, “the major characteristic of all church mission and ministry” and “the lens through which one interprets the true meaning of order, ministry, and leadership as well as cleric and lay.” (p.44)
With this perspective it is impossible to avoid the question of how to develop an authentic intellectual, spiritual, personal, and pastoral formation which has credibility within the multicultural reality of the 21st century. Osborne suggests that “An inward-looking church…will become increasingly irrelevant in relation to the problems of our globalized world.” (p.161) Social analysis provides evidence that such a shift has already occurred among some traditionally Catholic populations. This is surely in part because, as Osborne cites John Paul II’s statement in Fides et Ratio: “No culture can become the criterion of truth.” The internal conflict inherent in such a view means that even when actions appear well-intentioned it is perception which defines reality. In this case the perception is that the institution is better served by those whose loyalty to order and church leadership, however dysfunctional, is more trustworthy than the grounding and self-understanding of the baptized and confirmed as “called and commissioned directly by God to share in the three-fold ministry of Jesus the Christ.” (Lumen Gentium, ch 4-5; Osborne, p. 173)
When Osborne further states (p.193) that “For a theology of order and ministry from a global perspective, we must study the now and imagine the future,” he has already presented a careful review of key periods in history, beginning with the ministry of Jesus, as background to discussion of the Church’s present reality. He demonstrates the difficulty of facilitating cultural exchange, regardless of the populations engaged in the conversation; the foundational need is for respect and a “leadership that is able to listen intently and to be seen as listening intently.” (p.202)
While scholarly, Osborne’s experience of engaging with students in academic and pastoral settings makes his writing very approachable. Those with little formal background will benefit from his summary of key periods in church history and his selection and citations from relevant documents. His systematic and practical approach makes the book a useful introduction for students and a helpful reference for teachers.