Brief Book Review: Priesthood in Religious Life

Priesthood in Religious Life: Searching for New Ways Forward
Edited by Stephen Bevans and Robin Ryan

Who is it for?  In the words of the editors, “Women and men of the entire church in their search for ways forward in understanding and living out the great gift that is priesthood in religious life.”

Who should read this? All the ordained, religious and diocesan, their men in formation, women and men who are their collaborators in ordained ministry.

What’s the main point? Priests who are members of religious communities live out their ministry differently from diocesan priests – a difference that implies a distinctive contribution to their ministry in the church.

Why is this book significant? The editors bring together for the first time in one volume the many aspects of that difference, reasons why it is so widely misunderstood, and invitations to explore practical solutions that preserve both the integrity of religious life and commitment to the ministerial needs of the Church today. Like those participating in the conference that is the origin of this work, the reader journeys

  • from a critical review of canonical and other magisterial documents on priestly ministry,
  • through eye-opening considerations of issues of priestly formation,
  • and a well-focused discussion of the theology of religious priesthood,
  • to the writings of Popes St. John Paul II and Francis with their emphasis on distinctive religious charisms and baptismal ecclesiology as characteristic of a “priesthood shaped by religious life,”
  • and the rich and challenging insights into lived experiences among African Americans, Latinxs, Asian-Americans (and as the final chapter, Canadian religious) as so many invitations to fostering interculturality in religious communities and the church,
  • and finally, to concluding reflections on the spirituality of the priesthood in religious life with their focus on the centrality of the “prophetic office.”

Each of these chapters is significant, inviting readers to think beyond the ordinary to envision a future church that, in the words of Pope Francis, is a “communion in mission” and where religious priests engage their experience of such a “communion” in their ministerial service according to the charism of their communities.

Applications. Virtually all ordained religious in North America find themselves engaged in some way interacting with fellow diocesan clergy and lay collaborators in parish service. Priesthood in Religious Life offers an understanding of the nature of ordained ministry for religious, plumbs the ways the particular charism and spirituality of orders and congregations imbue its ordained members with a distinct identity, and – building on these – suggests a roadmap for collaborative ministry among religious and diocesan clergy.

Quibbles. I missed the significant voice of lay collaborators – many of whom are women, here represented by only two contributors to the volume – now so essential a witness to the joint ministry of both religious and diocesan clergy. Further, as a “hooked” reader not wishing the collection of topics to end, I would have appreciated a concluding chapter or epilogue analogous to the opening preface pulling the many threads together into a summary view of the “new ways forward” so remarkably addressed in each chapter.

Kudos abound for both the presenters at the originating conference of the same name (2017) for their up-to-date engagement as well as critique of contemporary theology and for the editors who brought forth a lively, well-edited, and accessible volume in a timely manner (2018).

Next steps. Lest this invitation to take seriously “new ways forward” remain a challenge of words only, readers who are ordained religious in the field will do well to get this book into the hands of the formation personnel and vocation directors of their communities, seriously commending its incorporation into the core literature of their programs. Let us go beyond this obvious “next step” and make every effort as well to commend the book to the leadership and faculty of diocesan seminaries.

Bevans, Stephen and Robin Ryan (Editors). Priesthood in Religious Life. Searching for New Ways Forward. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2018. 232 pages.


H. Richard Rutherford, C.S.C. is Professor Emeritus of Liturgical Pastoral Theology, University of Portland, Portland OR.

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