AS I write this article, I am in frigid Ashville, North Carolina, attending the 35th Biennial Consultation of the Association of Theological Field Education (ATFE).
I thank God for the opportunity to be with other professionals in theological field education who prepare seminarians and lay students for ministry to the People of God.
The first session of the consultation started with worship that reminded us of our work as a ministry of healing, which arises from truth-telling and in the midst of struggles and pain. “Ministry is not institutional survival,” Dr. Marcia Mount Shoop emphasized to us. ”It’s healing opportunities.”
Dr. Shoop’s message became evident in the subsequent sharing of a group of pastors in Ashville on their own ministry to people at the margins.
Presbyterian pastor, Amy Cantrell, spoke about her ministry to a community of people from the streets and margins who eat together, laugh together, cry together, create together, and share what they have with each other and neighbors. Other pastors also talked about their ministry to the homeless, victims of racism, violence, and hatred.
“We’re here to create space where people live together and work together,” one of them said. “Ours is a small church but powerfully potent,” she added.
“We cannot be a church of pretension, but authenticity,” another pastor shared, alluding to some of his people’s resentment towards ”institutionalized” churches.
What followed after the worship and the panel discussion was a lively exchange in small groups on what we heard from the pastors.
In our Catholic caucus, we shared about the need for professors to keep asking ”So what?” to students when they submit written assignments to expand the appropriation of their learnings to pastoral realities. On the other hand, we also see the need for students to go beyond the pragmatic approach of ministry, to be more transcendent and mystical.
”Ministry should not be just about meeting the poor, but about meeting Jesus in the poor, ” one colleague explained. “In other words, a ministry is about a relationship with Jesus,” another one elucidated. ”In their experiences of ministry, they should be able to express ’Jesus is Lord!’”
These insights relate with Pope Francis’ urging to prepare seminarians to be ”shepherds with the ’smell of the sheep’”. We need priests who are willing to ”serve the people of God, to serve the poor, men and women who are outcasts living in the fringes of society.”
All these ”urgings of the heart” and reflections go back to the heart of Jesus’ ministry which Jesus proclaimed at the inauguration of his ministry (Luke 4:14-21):
”He came to Nazareth, where he had grown up, and went according to his custom
into the synagogue on the sabbath day.
He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.
Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him.
He said to them, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”
The question that we need to ask ourselves and each other over and over again then is, ”How does our program of ministry preparation reflect the heart of Jesus’ ministry? And to pastors, ministers, and members of Christian communities, ”How are our congregations ministering to people at the margins?”
Ultimately, as Chris Sharen contends during his convincing plenary talk on theological field education as a practical-prophetic ministry preparation, our role is to make ”theology matter.”
I’m coming back from this ATFE conference with a renewed sense of ministry, hoping that I’ll bring this ministry and theology at the margins to my next parish assignment.
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From a Filipino immigrant family, Reverend Rodel G. Balagtas was ordained to the priesthood from St. John’s Seminary in 1991. He served as Associate Pastor at St. Augustine, Culver City (1991-1993); St. Martha, Valinda (1993-1999); and St. Joseph the Worker, Canoga Park (1991-2001). In 2001, he served as Administrator Pro Tem of St. John Neumann in Santa Maria, CA, until his appointment as pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary, Los Angeles, in 2002, which lasted 12 years. His term as Associate Director of Pastoral Field Education at St. John’s Seminary began in July 2014.