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From Baptismal Font to Ministry: The Surprising Story of Laity Stirring the Church

By Dolores R. Leckey

A talk delivered to the College Theological Society's annual gathering at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island, May 29, 2008; published in Origins Vol. 38 #9, July 17, 2008

I’m honored to be here with all of you who day after day labor to cultivate the ground of our young Church. Thank you for inviting me to offer some thoughts on the theme of this gathering: Catholic Identity and the Laity. I have a certain affection for the theme, not only because my entire life has been lived “in the lay state”, but also because for twenty years of that life I focused daily on what has come to be called the “99% of the Church””"the laity. Incidentally, it was the late Mark Gibbs, an Anglican layman and founder of the ecumenical group Laity Exchange, who coined the “99% phrase” in his book God’s Frozen People written soon after World War II. Mark was a remarkable Christian who gave his life to trying to “unfreeze” the Christian laity and the larger Church.

As my title suggests, I am approaching your theme in terms of development, a development of ministerial understanding and practice. The key word, apart from the theological terms of baptism and ministry, is surprising. I submit to you that the years of the Second Vatican Council and those following, up to this very moment”"May 29, 2008”"are years full of surprises. Perhaps that’s why I am struck by the idea expressed by the writer William Maxwell (a former editor of The New Yorker) who wrote, “So strange, life is. Why people do not go around in a continual state of surprise is beyond me.” Indeed. That’s exactly how I feel about life in the Church and in the wider world in which the Church exists. I have come to appreciate the height and depth of surprise by engaging in remembrance. For example: I remember my baptism at age two weeks. I know it stretches credulity but I have a memory of being baptized on April 30th which was, in the old liturgical calendar, the feast of St. Catherine of Siena. That confluence of saint and baptismal water is something I always believed was influential. . . I feel quite certain about the details of my Baptism. Why? Because I heard about them all through my childhood; I was the recipient of the memories of others, which over the years came to feel like my own. I carry within me this communal memory.

In 1958, my first child was born, and baptized two weeks after birth. Like my mother before me, I was not present at the sacrament; my husband, however, went to the church in South Bend, Indiana with two Notre Dame friends who served as “proxies” for the real godparents who were in New York. In 1959, my second child was born in Washington, DC, baptized a month later in the Bronx in a church across the street from the home of her paternal grandparents. My 8th grade teacher, a Sparkill Dominican nun, who was a close friend, told me she would be at the baptism (unknown to her superiors) because she had never seen a baptism although she taught the sacrament year after year. She took a cab with a companion to the church, and this time I did not stay at home but walked across the street to see her. In doing so of course I witnessed my second daughter’s baptism. (My nun-friend also expressed surprise that I traveled from Virginia to New York with an unbaptized baby.) My presence at that baptism was a break with a long established tradition.

Child number three was born and baptized in 1961. A month before, the prospective godfather announced that he had left the Church and so could not serve in that capacity. His wife, who was to be the godmother, while still a Catholic, was upset enough not to come. I went to the church with my husband and this time I held my son during the ceremony which recorded only one godparent (all that was required by canon law). One other unusual thing about that particular ceremony was that several Mormons who were in a study group with my husband and me came to the church to observe every detail of the ritual, and then came to our home to argue the deficiencies in our theology. My in-laws were totally mystified by this turn of events. When that son was nearing the age of confirmation, he announced that he wanted a godfather just like everyone else. The result was that he chose a surrogate godfather who was a joyful, prayerful member of our parish and who also served as his confirmation sponsor. (We celebrated the addition of this surrogate with a home Mass during which our parish priest, expressing some confusion, said he would have to make up a ritual for this “different relationship”.)

In 1963, one year into the Second Vatican Council, our fourth child was baptized and there was no question I would be there. Indeed, following the ceremony the celebrant blessed the parents (several babies were baptized) one couple at a time. There was no “churching” of women by that time. All of these baptisms were on Sunday afternoons.

Fast forward to 2008. In my small parish in Arlington, Virginia, about twenty men and women were received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil. Some of them had never been baptized and some of them were baptized in another Christian community; some of them never confirmed. During Lent, these men and women from various ethnic backgrounds, who had been diligently involved in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, presented themselves to the parish, not only through various public ceremonies at Sunday Mass, but in their own words published in the parish newsletter. All ofthem mentioned the effect that the parish’s diversity of persons and ministry had on their decision. They also mentioned the affect, the emotional bonding that occurred when they witnessed infants and small children being baptized during Mass. They were impressed with the public nature of the sacrament and the community dimension. Today this baptismal community is not comprised of the small private band of godparents and fathers — the pre-Council setting -- but of a parish committed to the Church’s mission. The adult members of this one RCIA program, a program repeated in churches around the world, are not only different in age from the infants whose fathers and godparents took them to church for baptism forty-five years ago, their state of consciousness is different.

What happened? The Second Vatican Council put laity at the center by insisting on the foundational character of baptism. This was expressed in different languages with different cultural twists.

The seminal work of Dominican theologian Yves Congar, who reclaimed the power of baptism as the primary sacrament of evangelization and mission, was critical in shaping this different way of thinking about Christian life. Fr. Congar’s conviction that the laity participate in the priesthood of Christ through baptism can be found throughout the documents of the Council. The Canadian bishops also made a huge contribution in forcefully stating that the real basis for the lay apostolate, baptism and confirmation, affirmed the dual vocation of the laity: to build the world and to build the church. This affirmation has been most important as post-conciliar debates developed and continue over the use of the term “ministry”.

By the 1960s I had the experience of different styles of baptism and was aware of the developing theology of baptism rising in the Council and finding its way to America’s shores. I as a Catholic lay woman of that time wondered what it would mean for the Church “that could not change” (because that was thought to be the will of Christ), and for me personally, as change gathered force in creating a new horizon. In the mid-sixties what I knew about change was coming from Commonweal, Jubilee, and Xavier Rynne’s New Yorker stories. It was also coming from the young priests and seminarians who acted like their shackles had been loosened. One result was that intentional communities of faith were being formed”"my family was on the ground floor of one. The priests who presided at our sacraments were like our rabbis, teaching us about the latest revelations — small r.  A new element entered church life: priests and laity together planned liturgies, a step in collaboration. And a new awareness surfaced in many: church could be fun. It was reminiscent of the W.B. Yeats poem, “The Fiddler of Dooney”. You may recall that the fiddler begins by speaking of his brother and cousin who are priests and who read from their books of prayer. He, instead, read in his book of songs that he bought at the Sligo Fair.

When we come at the end of time
To Peter sitting in state,
He will smile on the three old spirits
But call me first through the gate;
For the good are always the merry,
Save by an evil chance;
And the merry love the fiddle,
And the merry love to dance.

Some of this merriment could be found in communities of sharing and commitment: prayer groups were sprouting up without priests (something new for Catholics) as the voice of the Spirit was quietly heard, “Behold I make all things new”. It was a moment when theology and praxis intertwined.

Home from the Council

When the American bishops arrived home at the close of the Council, they brought with them a commitment to a serious and thorough implementation of the council teachings. Cardinal John Deardon of Detroit, who headed the American delegation to Rome, came back with two major goals: the first was the reorganization of the bishop’s national headquarters so that the work at the national level would reflect the areas of reform and renewal which the Council had decided were essential. His other goal was to establish a National Council largely comprised of laity (2/3) but also with members drawn from the clergy (priests and bishops) and from religious orders.

The first National Council was appointed, not elected, and the membership reflected the theological depth and breadth of the American Church (e.g., Avery Dulles was a member.) Because strongly held opinions were part of the members’ DNA, it also produced fireworks”.  One bishop who was on the original Council told me that it was not until three elements were integrated into the meetings that life calmed down.

  1. A professional facilitator was hired.
  2. Common prayer times, planned by members, were incorporated into the agenda. (I think most of us know that authentic prayer is the great leveler of egos and other things).
  3. Time was made for socializing, and for fun. (Never underestimate the power of a good Merlot.) As defenses were lowered, the existing bonds of baptism were experienced more fully and the outlines of the Council’s common cause became more visible.

Deardon’s plan for this hand-picked council to evolve into a National Pastoral Council was halted however. The Netherlands had already established such a Council and its proactive positions on a number of contentious issues had brought an intervention from the Vatican: there would be no National Pastoral Councils anywhere. So the new council in the U.S. was confirmed as advisory — and so it is to this day.

When I worked at the Bishops’ Conference, I staffed that council for several years. It met twice a year prior to the meetings of the Bishops Administrative Committee, the governing arm of the USCCB. I can testify that the Council was always influential in the preparation of documents. If the Council felt a statement, or Action Plan was not ready, it was returned to the originating committee and staff. The Council also had a pro-active side. Many people either didn’t know or have forgotten that the original Call to Action was conceived and promoted by the National Advisory Council. Call to Action was a major breakthrough of historic proportions in terms of involving the People of God — especially the laity — in identifying a pastoral agenda for the Church in the particular culture that was America at the beginning of the last quarter of the 20th century. The nationwide consultation (hundreds of thousands participated) culminated in 1976 in a Detroit Conference with Cardinal Deardon presiding — which is what most people of a certain age remember. Deardon’s reorganization of national headquarters included establishing a new Secretariat (or office), the Secretariat for the Laity. It was to staff what had become a standing committee of the Bishops’ Conference. That is where I served for 20 years, beginning in 1977 when memories of Call to Action were still present at national headquarters.

Laity Stirring the Church: The Issues

In the course of my work in the Secretariat, it had become clear that laity issues could be framed as “living questions”.  The work that was required of me, therefore, was not only about arranging for dialogue concerning the laity’s responsibilities in governance, it was about the various ways the People of God heard the Second Vatican Council’s universal call to holiness. “All . . . of whatever rank or status are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity.” (LG #40)

Laity heard these words against a background of a new world reality: increasing mobility, technology, communication, changing social mores. As citizens of two worlds, the people went beyond the traditional sources of truth, namely Scripture and Tradition, and dug into the truth of their experience to discover how best to live in faithful response to the gospel. The ferment of which many of us were part, was in communal contexts of all sizes, and included institutions — even the national church structure. But everywhere, the people, often laity and clergy together, were shaping prophetic questions.

In a book published 20 years ago, I identified six such questions, and I think they stand today. Some of the probing edge may be dulled, but I would argue they have within them the seeds of redemption for our church and our world. Yves Congar put it this way “If the church is to have any meaning for contemporary persons, it must be two things. First it must be a church of transcendence, that is, of teaching the contemplative dimension of religion. Second, it must be a church of human liberation — for God, for humankind.” (Vienna, 1981 at Vatican Sponsored Consultation on the Laity)

Six Ways Laity are Stirring the Church

1) The first is the hunger and thirst people have for an authentic spirituality. The Council’s “universal call to holiness” said to the laity that they can seek direct experiential knowledge of God (as differentiated from knowledge about God) where they are. One need not enter a monastery or a seminary for this experience (although that’s always an option), but the Council said in the ordinary circumstances of everyday life is the Mystery which is at the heart of life, that which is often hidden in plain sight. In Deuteronomy, we read, “Surely this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it? ‘No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” (Deut. 30:11-14) By following many pathways in a spirit of true freedom”"from spiritual renewal movements like Cursillo to the practice of Zen, to participation in the ministry of spiritual direction either as directee or director, to an exploration of the arts and of science, lay men and lay women have become more conscious of living in the Presence. And consequently, they have become more responsive to the segments of human need which are part of our everyday environments. What could be more surprising than the laity trusting the authenticity of their own experience?

2) The second way that laity have been stirring the church is through a renewed understanding of marriage and family life as saving grace. Prior to the 1987 synod on The Lay Vocation in the World and in the Church the Laity Secretariat conducted a nationwide survey in which we asked people in the parishes to identify the places where, in their own experience, they most readily encounter God. The primary place of encounter was the family, and these families were of varied configurations with full measure of sorrow as well as joy. When the Second Vatican Council emphasized marriage as a covenant rather than a contract, people’s expectations took on a personalist tone. The shift yielded new dialogues between theology and other disciplines, notably psychology. One of the most important theological breakthroughs, in my opinion, has been the description of the family as “the domestic church”, meaning that the family is, in fact, a real church, not simply a metaphor. As for surprises, when you check who prepares people for marriage today, you find laity in the leadership role.

3) The third way the laity have been stirring the Church is through the changing role of women in both church and society. Gaudium et Spes in referring to “new social relationships between women and men” presented the challenge this way: “. . . it is incumbent upon all to acknowledge and favor the proper and necessary participation of women in cultural life.”(GS #60) But women have been stirring the Church in a most profound way in the last generation through their participation and leadership in the Church’s mission. I will come back to this specific point later. But here I want to point to a related question, women’s participation in social, cultural, civic, and political life, and whatever problems we have in this regard are not limited to Catholics or to issues of ministry alone. Some years ago, an ecumenical group formed during the Second Vatican Council to share similarities and differences in spiritual understanding and practice dealt with the question of how to achieve true equality and interdependence between men and women. I was present at the meeting which included cloistered nuns, a Trappist monk, Protestant clergy, Protestant and Catholic lay women, Catholic priests, scholars, etc. The exploration began with men and women in segregated discussions groups around the question: How has your relationship with women (or men) deepened your relationship with God? I facilitated the men’s group. Here are some of the responses.

  • Women have introduced me to God affectively.
  • From my marriage I’ve learned about spontaneity and directness. That’s like God, I think. God is not concerned with theories or words so much, but with our joy and our compassion.
  • I’ve learned that God knows my cul-de-sacs, and will, when necessary, address my male drivenness.
  • Women are mysterious, and this evokes the otherness of God. There was agreement in this group that sexuality and power are closely     related, for good and for ill.

One very gentle, intelligent and truthful man said that the evolution now underway is a serious threat to what women have been valued and needed for. He asked: “Who will show us how to be receptive to God?”

In plenary session women noted how difficult it is for them — for women -- to express assertively and confidently what they feel they know. Most expressed the feeling of aliveness in the presence of a real relationship with a man. This probing led to other questions like: What are the expectations of women as leaders? Such a question is critical not only for the Church, but for nation states. We are in the midst of an historic political moment in the US, when for the first time, a woman has been a serious candidate for the presidency. Whether or not she succeeds we may want to honestly face the question:  What do we want her — or any woman — to be as leader? Freeman Dyson, who usually writes about the universe, expressed concern about women adopting a language style he calls warrior. (He wasn’t saying that women leaders were warriors). The warriors, he said, are typically male, and they speak the language of efficiency and rationality, production and status. The warriors stand in contrast to victims who are, Dyson says, mostly women and children. The Benedictine writer, Joan Chittister certainly agrees with that, pointing out that women and children bear the burden of war. (Just War, Lasting Peace 2006 Orbis Press)

Having worked in a largely male environment for 20 years, I know how easy it is to slip into warrior-ism — ignoring the reality of my own vulnerability. The truth is, of course, that men tooare vulnerable. We all are. Knowing it makes the difference.

4) The fourth way laity stir the Church is by calling attention to the co-creation with God which we undertake in our work life. Work is one of the three principal sites of lay life, the others being family and civic life. Strange that not much is heard about human work, either in preaching or teaching. This strange silence bothered me during my tenure at the Bishops’ Conference; it also bothered a number of bishops who served on the Laity Committee. We tried to remedy the situation through an initiative of inquiry. We sponsored a conference which attempted to discover why there seemed to be a disconnect between religious faith and the world of work. Sixty laywomen and laymen were invited to a three-day meeting with seven bishops on the Laity Committee. It was held at the University of Notre Dame. A few theologians were also present. The invited laity were leaders in a variety of secular fields: business, politics, medicine, the military, the arts, non-profit organizations, labor, research, science, education, sports and journalism. The bishops who attended made it clear their role was to listen and they urged a candid dialogue.

The guiding questions were two:

  1. What impact, if any, does Catholic faith have on your professional life?
  2. What kind of ministry is needed now and in the future to help busy lay people committed to secular vocations, be consciously Christian in the workplace.

Basically the lay participants replied that Catholic Christian faith did impact their work life, but this was because of the past: the closeness of the Catholic immigrant groups, and the formation they received in Catholic schools. But right now, they said the Church’s ministry is missing them. What they are looking for, they said, is for the Church to facilitate small communities of faith where they can pray and talk about the meaning of their lives as Christian workers, and where they can be supported in their family situations.

The Jesuit sociologist John Coleman, who was present as a rapporteur, agreed with the value of small communities but opposed what he called “the quick fix” — communities with no prophetic edge. When men and women come together in community, he said they should be asking new questions like: What is it in work, in family, in economics, in shops, in laboratories that gives hope? What connects work with other parts of life? And what integrates life? Where is the sense of call, of vocation? Where and how can we understand that we are co-creating with God?

5) The fifth question is related to what I’ve just been talking about, and that is formation of Christian communities. They take various forms.

One way to think about the parish is as a community of friends, befriending the world. (For this terminology, I am indebted to Evelyn and James Whitehead.) They are composed of interdependent parts which make up the gathered church: homes of parishioners (the domestic church); the religious education programs, both children and adult; the pastoral team, i.e., the ordained and laity who are leaders in the parish; perhaps the school—these comprise the communities of friends befriending the world. Friendship is a key New Testament word. Jesus says at the end of his life on earth “I call you friends.”

One way to describe community is to say what it is not.  It is not a new elitist enclave which reinforces the cultural and social biases of the members.  Authentic community helps us to see and to be free of the cultural addictions that can run our lives. It does so through a number of dynamics which I think of as different aspects of the reality of Christian friendship. I want to mention four.

The first is the cultivation of relationships. In an essay, “Liberating the Divine Energy”, Rosemary Haughton speaks of Jesus’ legacy as the establishment of a new social order, in which the key is the encounter. Jesus knew people, not only as acted upon by divine power, but as sources of it. (Rosemary Haughton, “Liberating the Divine Energy” in Living with Apocalypse (San Francisco: Harper & Rowe, 1984)

 The second is respect for truth which includes willingness to face the truth about oneself. Respect for truth means using language that is not spin, not discriminatory, not clichΓ©-ridden and not distorted.

The third is inner work, developing our capacities to open the doorways of the spiritual world and then to walk through those doorways toward the center where God dwells. I would add that authentic spiritual work is not self-indulgent, sentimental, or self-inflating.

The fourth dynamic is the discerning of one’s personal vocation, including a call to ministry.

6) The sixth way that laity have stirred the Church is through their entrance into ministry, and their willingness to share responsibility for the mission of the Church. In 1980, the American bishops approved the pastoral statement Called and Gifted, which broke from the typical bishops’statement or letter. For one thing it was deliberately short, and written in language accessible to the ordinary lay person. The basic theme was that the laity are called by God, to be adult in their relationships, to be holy as they live the lay life, to engage in ministry in the world and in the church, and to build community. The notion of “call” and these particular calls are reflective of deeply held beliefs of the chairman of the bishops’ committee at that time, Bishop Albert Ottenweller, who is now 93 years old, still hopeful, still at the cutting edge of ministry.

Regarding the call to ministry, Called and Gifted situates in the sacraments of baptism and confirmation, thus following the theology of Vatican II.  Lay participation in ministry is presented in two ways: as ministry in the world (called Christian Service) and ministry in the church, in which laity are called “ecclesial ministers”. This is the first time the word “ecclesial” is used in this way.

As the document was being crafted there was a conscious decision to place the world before the church in the call to ministry to signal the importance of the laity’s vocation in secular life.

When the bishops met in plenary assembly there was considerable debate about applying the term “ministry” to civic and public life. The debate was not so much about whether laity laboring in secular fields could be considered “the church in the world” but more a debate about precise language. There were a number of attempts, via the amendment process, to strike the word ministry wherever it appeared. These attempts failed. Called and Gifted was the first pastoral statement on the laity by a bishops’ conference anywhere since the Decree on the Laity was promulgated in 1965. Called and Gifted was passed on the 15th anniversary of the Decree on the Laity.

Fifteen years later, in 1995, the message was updated: Called and Gifted for the Third Millennium. In the revision there is a pledge to support laity whose call is properly discerned as a vocation to lay ecclesial ministry. This time, there was not the battle over the term “ministry” that occurred in 1980.

Ten years after the revised Called and Gifted, the bishops approved Co-Workersin the Vineyard of the Lord (2005), a pastoral and theological reflection on the reality of lay ecclesial ministry, the spiritual formation of the ministers and an affirmation of those who serve in this way. It is a synthesis of the best thinking and developmental practice over the course of twenty-five years and it was prepared through a process of extensive consultation with ministers and theologians and the involvement of bishops all over the country. Even so, there were bishops who during the debate, objected to using the term “lay ecclesial minister”. Their argument was that Catholics would be confused about the difference between lay ministers and the ordained. It seemed that a generation after Called and Gifted the argument had not been fully resolved.

Enter Cardinal Avery Dulles who asked to be recognized but appeared to be ignored. Finally he waved his cane, rather than his place card (the usual method), and was given the microphone. The cardinal said that he had been a theological consultant to the writing committee, and that the drafters of Co-Workers had been very careful that the terminology was in accord with the documents of the Holy See and with a whole series of documents previously published by the Conference of US bishops. He added “I don’t think the term ‘ministry’ is only used in the Catholic Church for the ordained unless it’s qualified in some way, like Petrine ministry or something like that.” The document was approved by a vote of 190-49.

Some of those who worked so long and effectively on that document are at this meeting at Salve Regina.

I doubt that the fathers of the Church sitting in ecumenical council, all those years ago, envisioned the story of lay ministry as it has taken shape over these many years. I feel sure, though, that a number of them”"Cardinal Suenens of Belgium, Archbishop D’Souza of India, Cardinal Ritter of the United States”"would be (are) happily surprised.

The State of the Questions Today

When I introduced the six ways the laity have stirred the Church, I said I thought they remained relevant for our time. I do with these caveats.

  1. Re: Spirituality. For it to be a living question in our time, it needs to be situated in the context of consumerism. Some of you are likewise concerned and are thinking and writing about a spirituality that recognizes the impact of globalization. This fresh thinking needs to find its way into parishes and bishops’ conferences.
  2. Re: Marriage and Family. Clearly this remains of major importance to the laity and is an arena in which they have competence. It is among the new priorities of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the Secretariat for the Laity is currently engaged in writing a pastoral letter about this. I’ve heard concern that the language in the letter could be the opposite of Called and Gifted, i.e., a reversal to the arcane and theologically abstract. Could the emphasis turn to a juridical description of marriage? Yes. Could the narrative take on a romanticized illusionary tone? Yes. Let’s hope we’re not surprised in that way.
  3. Re: Women. We know that women are leaders in ministry, in higher education, and in diocesan structures. But in the US Bishops statement, Strengthening the Bonds of Peace (1994) they asked for earnest study of existing obstacles to women exercising juridical authority. I am concerned that this is unresolved, and that the times seem bereft of imagination in pursuing the possible.
  4. Re: The World of Work. The world has changed in 20 years since I wrote the book Laity Stirring the Church, and so has the work world. Today people worry not so much about finding creativity in their work, as simply having a job. Economic uncertainty burdens family life. So the wage earners understandably feel they have to give the priority to their work, yet long for time with their families. Trying to balance work life and home life is not new, but what may be new is what Robert Bellah calls sullenness and hyperactivity at work, where there should be an environment of care and celebration. I submit this is a field for some imaginative pastoral ministry. (See Robert Bellah, Discipleship and Citizenship in the Workplace, Fuller Theological Seminary, 1990).
  5. Finally, Re: Community. One of the great post-conciliar surprises is how the laity are taking responsibility for responding to the Spirit. The action is on the ground, not in the chairs of power. What is happening from below is new life, and it is exciting and hopeful. From Voice of the Faithful, to the Leadership Roundtable (a venture in church management skills), to new alliances between vowed religious and laity”"new life is flourishing.

Every time I listen to Jack Haught, Professor Emeritus at Georgetown University (and now a Woodstock Fellow), speak on evolution, about single cells finding their way out of ponds and lakes to become . . .what?,  I have hope renewed that the most wondrous life comes from the smallest bits and pieces.

The Nobel poet Czeslaw Milosz, (inspired by Luke 5:4-10) puts it this way:

“On the shore fish toss in the stretched nets of Simon, James and John High above, swallows. Wings of butterflies. Cathedrals.”

“Abundant Catch” in The Gospels in Our Image, Ed. By David Curzon. (1995, New York:Harcourt Brace & Company)