Amanda C. OSHEIM.  A Ministry of Discernment:  The Bishop and the Sense of the Faithful.  Collegeville, MN:  Liturgical Press, 2016. pp. 221 + xxii. $24.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-8146-8319-4.  Reviewed by Stephen S. WILBRICHT, Stonehill College, Easton, MA 02357.


            Discernment is a primary attribute of the Christian community.  For a religion based upon divine revelation, discerning God’s actions in the world and our response of love is of the utmost importance.  Catholic Christianity has traditionally placed responsibility upon the episcopate for receiving and teaching revelation.  However, how does such a limited understanding of discernment take into account the sensus fidelium, or the experience of the faithful?

            Amanda Osheim, associate professor of practical theology at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, seeks to explore this question in her book A Ministry of Discernment:  The Bishop and the Sense of the Faithful.  Her work contributes to the overall development of a bishop’s ministry, his formation as a person, and ultimately the rights and responsibilities of all the baptized.  It is Osheim’s hope that discerning the will of God be an expression of true communion.

            At the outset of her work, the author offers a beautiful pneumatological description of the sense of the faithful:  “The sense of the faithful (sensus fidelium) is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within the baptized. . . The sensus fidelium is God’s faithfulness to the church through the Holy Spirit and allows the church in turn to be faithful to God in its pilgrimage” (xi).  The basic project of discernment is searching to understand how the Holy Spirit is at work within the Church.  Thus, there exists today a great need to foster a “spirituality” of discernment for those most directly charged with scrutinizing the sensus fidelium (i.e. bishops).

            In the course of five, evenly-balanced chapters, Osheim maps out suggestions for just such a spirituality.  In Chapter One, she begins by examining how God’s revelation is both imparted and received.  Self-communication in community is the divine essence:  “If the divine life is a communion flowing from mutual self-communication, then our participation in the divine life will be like it:  a communion rooted in communication, a graced reality both created and expressed by receiving each other and giving ourselves in loving self-gift” (4).  Clearly, such an understanding of self-communication challenges a strict division of the church into the ecclesia docens (bishops who teach) and the ecclesia discens (laity who learn).

            In Chapter Two, Osheim delves into ecclesial documents that describe the bishop’s role in the local church as well as various diocesan structures that support his ministry.  The primary texts Osheim employs are four:  Lumen Gentium and Christus Dominus (both from the Second Vatican Council), Apostolorum Successores (2004), and the Code of Canon Law (1983).  In addition to these core texts, Osheim also describes seven local church structures intended to aid the bishop’s discernment:  diocesan synods, pastoral visitations, presbyteral councils, the college of consultors, finance councils, pastoral councils, and diocesan curia.  The author contends that these structures, if utilized to the best of their potential, help to provide the arena for authentic and transformative dialogue.

            Chapter Three focuses on a source that Osheim believes could contribute greatly to the development of a spirituality of discernment for bishops, namely the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.  The author writes:  “The spirituality of the Exercises develops exercitants into persons of discernment through learning.  Most fundamental for this formation is learning to cultivate humility and thus coming to know one’s true identity in relationship to God and creation” (123-124).  The book’s fourth chapter explores structures within the Society of Jesus that embody the spirit of the Exercises.  Like the structures in place on the diocesan level, incorporating the Jesuit models could provide for a sense of unity in mission or as the Jesuit Constitutions state a “bond of wills.”  Osheim writes:  “Obedience and authority in the Society arise within the discernment of unity and mission” (156).

            Finally, Chapter Five applies what can be gleaned from the Exercises and Jesuit structures to the work of episcopal learning.  A bishop is entrusted to learn the way of humility and to cultivate the way of poverty within the process of discernment.  For example, the bishop must receive the perspective of those most marginalized within the Church.  Osheim writes:  “Receiving the discernment of those who may be on the church’s margins presumes that as a person of discernment, the bishop is able to receive God’s communication of love, which is always mediated through his and others’ limitations” (191).  Thus, Osheim concludes by returning to the seven diocesan structures of support for the bishop discussed in Chapter Two and asks how a spirituality of discernment may help enhance the vitality of these structures for episcopal leadership.  In the end, the author leaves no doubt in the mind of the reader that the ministry of a bishop involves not only teaching, but a teaching that is continually learning from the communion of the Church.

            How does the Church come to know and understand the will of God in mission and in its organization?  This is no easy question to answer.  Amanda Osheim demonstrates that discernment of the sensus fidelium is the work of the whole Church, clerics and laity alike.  The chief contribution of this book is its emphasis on collaboration in discernment.  A healthy bishop is not formed for ministry in a vacuum, but in a living, dynamic communion of persons.  The bishop’s call to manifest holiness to the Church is inextricably related to his desire to learn from the perspective of many voices.       

While this is a very important resource for those in episcopal authority as well as those who surround bishops and undergird their leadership, it is unlikely that it will appeal to a wide audience.  It is truly intended for those who have studied ecclesiology and wish to speculate deeper into the nature of the ecclesial authority.  Similarly, a minor drawback to this work is its overall lack of the personal testimonies or life-stories of bishops themselves.  While Osheim refers to the ministry of Pope Francis and his encouragement of pastors to take on “the smell of the sheep” (161), and mentions the humility of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin and Cardinal Sean O’Malley who washed the feed of sexual abuse victims (170), there are very few anecdotal illustrations that put Osheim’s speculations into a historical context.

  Revision in this direction may have helped to popularize this book.