Paul BERNIER, Ministry in the Church: A Historical and Pastoral Approach. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2015. pp. 382. $45.00 pb. ISBN 978-1-62698-153-9.  Reviewed by Peter DRILLING, Christ the King Seminary, East Aurora, NY 14052.


In 1992, Paul Bernier added his treatise, Ministry in the Church: A Historical and Pastoral Approach, to the growing number of books and articles on the history and theology of ministry that were being published by Catholic authors. As he took the reader on a tour of the history of official and, to a much less degree, spontaneous ministry across the centuries of the Roman Catholic Church, Bernier made good use of a variety of the already published texts as resources for his own work. On the basis of the continuity and diversity of the various eras Bernier concluded his book by reflecting on contemporary challenges and opportunities. His was a well-ordered and well-articulated study, which this reviewer read at the time and found to be of great benefit.

Now Bernier offers a second edition of his study.  For those who read the first edition at the time of its publication, the second edition offers a salutary review, including some occasional added nuances, chiefly in his discussion of contemporary challenges. For those who are encountering Paul Bernier and his historical/pastoral account of ministry in the Catholic church for the first time, the book will surely serve as a useful and highly readable review of the development of this area of Catholic life from one era to the next, and it will serve as well to call for the reader's own engagement of the challenges posed for contemporary ecclesial ministry, whether or not the reader agrees with Bernier's suggestions for how to go forward into the future.
Each chapter of the text concludes with a list of "Discussion Questions," which are a fine characteristic of Bernier's style of involving the reader.  The questions serve well for communal discussion if the book is used as a class text, and they serve just as well for personal reflection. They force the reader to pause and think for oneself, dealing with the historical and pastoral issues addressed in that chapter, and not just move on to the next chapter.

Bernier's focus is the ordained ministry in both its continuous and its changing reality through the centuries of the church's existence. But he also makes clear, highlighting Vatican II, that "[t]he greatest imitation of Christ does not depend on ordination. It requires only that we try to be to people in our time what Christ was to people in his. This can and must be achieved by everyone who has been baptized" (p. 37). This does not mean, however, that Christian ministry is individualistic.  In fact, writes Bernier, "Any discussion of ministry should begin with our understanding of the church itself" (p. xv).  However, there is more. Even beyond ecclesiology is the theological source and grounding of Christian ministry. "At the root of all Christian ministry (and service, for that matter) is the doctrine of the Trinity" (p. 336). Christian life is relational. As God is a communion, so is the church, and so is the church's ministry.

While guiding the reader through one historical era after another, often taking note of some of the unfortunate expressions of ordained ministry, Bernier insists that this does not imply a criticism of those who were responsible for creating each arrangement of ministerial order: "We do not have to fault people for choices that were made in the past" (p. xii). These influential members of the church were just responding to the call to live out the Gospel within the worldview that prevailed at the time; no human being is beyond that sort of approach to life's demands. Agreeing very much with Bernier's point here, this reviewer doesn't always find himself in agreement with the author's critical assessment of ministry.  I refer particularly to chapter 8, on the post-Reformation Catholic church; I find Bernier to be too negative, neglecting, for example, some of the good expressions of church life and ministry in the Baroque era and in the pre-Vatican II twentieth century. That slight criticism notwithstanding, I find that this book, even after a few decades plus, continues to be a solid invitation to engage the history and theology of ordained ministry.  Moreover, in the final chapters it serves as an important call to the contemporary church to deal more imaginatively with the issues we face in the area of the ministry of Christ's church.