George Dennis O’BRIEN, Finding the Voice of the Church. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007. pp. 256. $25.00 cloth. ISBN 978-0-268-03727-7.
Reviewed by Francis Berna, OFM, La Salle University, Philadelphia, PA 19141-1199

This text seeks to speak to a wide audience carefully avoiding “traditional theological language and pious tone” (ix). Along these lines the author suggests a readable text based on some solid thinking. O’Brien provides the solid thinking. The sophisticated reader, however, may put the text aside too quickly given the complexity of the author’s primary analogy of “World-Play,” later more fully developed as a “play within a play” and “La Divina Commedia.”

From the first reference to Wittgenstein through the remainder of Part 1, O’Brien draws on such notable artists and thinkers as Shakespeare, Pirandello, Gilson and Flannery O’Connor. The multiple and expansive references to literature, art, philosophy and theology demonstrate the author’s breadth of sophisticated knowledge. Unfortunately what he suggests to be a “simplification” appears quite complex and unnecessarily abstract. With some patience the more sophisticated reader would enjoy pondering the multiple references O’Brien employs to develop his basic analogy. Without sufficient patience the sophisticated reader, and certainly the less sophisticated reader, will probably give up before taking up Part 2.

For this reader, the real strength of the book lies in the second half. Here O’Brien takes up very specific questions about the voice of the church in today’s world. He explores the voice of the Pope as “professor, judge or patriarch.” Likewise he considers the voice of the church as “persona Christi.” Here he creatively portrays a rich image of Jesus based on gospel encounter. The author emphasizes forgiveness as a central gospel theme and the fundamental dynamic of the Christian life. He writes, “One becomes saintly because one has been forgiven, not because of spiritual athleticism” (147). O’Brien contends that the necessary and credible word to which the church might give voice is forgiveness. Of course the church can only speak this word to the extent that the church has accepted this word.

Developing the theme of the “forgiving voice”, O’Brien emphasizes that the church might speak it best by listening. “Effective speech must attain its own moment and style of ‘presence’” (211). The right time to speak, and the right voice in which to speak, comes only to those who listen.

Appreciating the tensions of left and right in the church, O’Brien promised at the start to avoid waving a flag for any particular cause. Here he again succeeds. While identifying various issues and perspectives the author appreciates both the strengths and the limitations of the issues and those who stand for them. With this sense of balance he offers a word from the work of John Paul II, “be not afraid.” O’Brien contends that the church, ordinary members and authoritative teachers, need not fear being present to the world, listening and offering a word of hope as a way of living in the world.

Most all of Part 2 can be understood and appreciated without the strong foundation O’Brien developed in the first part of the text. His references to the basic analogy are few and the various suggestions of an effective voice have clarity of their own apart from the analogy. The “Philosophical Intermission” entitled “Turn to the Subject” seeks to unite the philosophical foundations of Part 1 with the more concrete proposals of Part 2. Here the more sophisticated reader will appreciate the depth of thought while probably also find disagreement with some of the author’s general descriptions of various great thinkers.

Finding the Voice of the Church seems to offer something for most everyone. This explains both its strengths and its limitations. George Dennis O’Brien has listened to and sounded a wide variety of voices to establish a solid foundation and to suggest a voice for the Church in the world today. While certainly worth reading one or another part, if not the complete text, most readers may well suggest the text needs to sound a less complicated voice.

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