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Issue Date:  January 25, 2008

Baptism leads to ministry

With characteristic understatement and lowercase eloquence, American poet e.e.cummings once began a poem proclaiming: “i am a little church (no great cathedral).” Poem “77” is a song about every person living fully the sacramental mystery of ordinary life. What cummings celebrated is familiar to people who have experienced the power of ministry to uncover God’s power flowing both ways while serving others (see Ministries). By getting involved in the needs of others, they have learned the holy truth that we are all little churches and, as such, sure channels of grace and mystery.

Ordinary ministry, like ordinary mysticism, has been a belated discovery for many Catholics, in part because words like ministry and sacrament and pastoral care have seemed only for official church workers. Historically this has protected the vocations of ordained ministers and professed religious as distinct from lay service. It also protected a sacramental theology that imagined the church as a giant spiritual waterworks dispensing grace through spigots controlled by the clergy, who alone could consecrate, absolve, anoint, ordain or witness on behalf of God through the church.

Such elevated notions of official ministry tended to give the impression that only priests, sisters and brothers had a vocation to do God’s work.

This is no longer the case. With fewer official ministers to cover growing needs, the laity are increasingly taking on the challenge to be the body of Christ in the world. Better theologies have erased the dualism of separate secular and sacred realms and freed our understanding of how grace is loose in the world and made visible whenever and wherever and by whomever the love of God in all its forms is manifested -- the very substance of the sacraments.

We are little churches because baptism has authorized us to minister to one another and to the world. This takes nothing away from official ministry and only extends its reach. Because the baptized are all little churches, they also are tables of hospitality and altars of sacrifice, where simple prayers count, every self-offering is acceptable and effective.

As ministers of Christ, our everyday activities are blessed. The proffered ride to the doctor, babysitting, phone time with an elderly shut-in, adding a place at the table, giving a listening ear or an encouraging word, saying a silent prayer, stretching our circle to include new friends, repairing broken relationships -- this is ministry. It’s what churches do, even little ones.

What personal ministry leads to, of course, is community ministry. A meal program served from the back of a station wagon in Topeka, Kan., led to a city-wide consortium of churches to provide basic services to hundreds of people. Compassion for a young hitchhiker led to a lifetime of hospitality in a Catholic Worker House that welcomes immigrants. Concern for parents being deported without their children may lead to church-sponsored civil disobedience in Oklahoma. This is how it starts. The grace of baptism is at work, unfolding naturally in ordinary Christians. Without ministry, baptism is incomplete.

We read with admiration about others engaged in important ministries -- to returning Catholics, in clinics and mental health care for the uninsured and underinsured, in shelters for abused women, in meal programs, in special theater groups. We admire, but why not imitate? Each in our own way, in our own space, big or small, is called to ministry.

National Catholic Reporter, January 25, 2008

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