Do you promise respect and obedience to me and my successors?
When we consider the various dimensions of priestly life and ministry, as we contemplate the realization of that life and ministry in our years of formation, we may give little thought to the promise of obedience. The promise of obedience is not discussed as much in the seminary formation curriculum as, say, the promise of celibacy or some of the other aspects of the priesthood. Yet, the promise of obedience is often the one promise that makes the greatest difference in the life of the priest. Today, in keeping with the format of my rector’s conferences this year, I would like to focus on the promise of obedience. The same promise is made by the deacon and the priest.
Do you promise respect and obedience to me and my successors?
To begin my reflection this morning, I would like to look at the question of obedience from a philosophical point of view. What is the essence of obedience? The Latin word, obedire, means two things, to hear and to listen. In English there is a slight difference in the meaning of these two words. Hearing is essentially a passive event, involving sound waves moving over the auditory mechanism of the person. As long as my ears are working properly, I can hear. But hearing requires no response. Again, it is passive. Listening is another thing entirely. I listen when I process what I have heard, when I place it in a context, when I, at least at some level, understand what I am hearing. Listening is an active concept, it requires attention and it is dialogical with that which is heard. Passive or active, however, obedire places us in a particular context, the context of relationship. These actions require relationships of varying depths. When I hear, I am in a kind of relationship with something outside of myself, be it ever so feeble, perhaps nothing more than mere sound. When I listen, I deepen that relationship. I am in a contextual relationship, an intentional relationship with the other who makes the sound. Philosophically, I would say the essence of obedience is relationship and by extension the recognition of a necessary relationship in the person. It is also the desire to recognize that relationship is essential to who I am as a person. There are a number of ways in which this relationship can be understood. Sometimes we understand relationships in artificial ways. The gathering of this community is, in some sense, artificial. Most of us have no natural relationship and our coming together is, in a sense, accidental. We are gathered here in some ways because of a contract, a contract for formation that we have made. Our relationships here are certainly very real, but they might be perceived as artificial. We did not really choose to be together. Many of the relationships in which we find ourselves are similar to our relationality here. Our neighborhoods, our schools, our parishes are all a rather haphazard ingathering of folks who may have much in common but are mostly drawn together by the accidents of proximity, bureaucracy or choices of various kinds. However, while the various relationships and communities in which we find ourselves may be accidental, there is a natural element of relationship that must also be taken into account.
Human beings have relationship written in the core of their being. Pope John Paul II in his Theology of the Body renewed this insight for our contemporary western cultural situation. In the modern and postmodern ideal, we are told that we do not need each other, that we can be lone rangers, that we should be completely independent and isolated from the mentality of the “herd”. For the late pope, this cultural message was conflicted because it denied the essential nature of the person as one necessarily in relationship with the other. Relationship is an anthropological truth and many of our modern woes have grown out of an attempt to deny the essential nature of this truth. Obedience, as an expression of essential relationality is the recognition, at a very basic level of what is true about myself. Obedience is telling the truth. Obedience is the expression of the truth that is written in the very fiber of my being. I cannot live authentically without an understanding of obedience. At the heart, this obedience is an intentional hearing the call of relationship that naturally resounds within me and responding to that call by actively pursuing the authentic nature of relationship. Obedience is also an expression of piety in the classical sense of being true to form, true to who I am as a person. It is an acknowledgement of my need for others, a need that is intense, a need that is absolute, a need that cannot be denied without damaging my nature. Obedience is also an expression of humility, of knowing the truth and living the truth of my reality. Obedience is an expression of my anthropological aptitude.
At the level of discipleship, obedience takes on a new dimension. In baptism, confirmation and Eucharist, I am a new creation. My personhood has been changed in a radical way. In Christian discipleship, my personhood takes on new dimensions, the dimensions of being “in Christ”. My character has changed and I am now called to new expressions of relationship. As a Christian, my obedience is now listening to what is true about being a follower of Christ. I have new responsibilities and new intentionalities. My piety and my humility have different emphases although the essence of relationship remains the same. In discipleship, my personhood has to conform to the life of Christ, particularly as it is expressed in the Church. I have a responsibility to fulfill the Law of Christ written in the very heart of the Church’s reality. I have a responsibility to God’s people by my supernatural affiliation with them. I am called to realize that “all are one in Christ Jesus”, that while different members we are of the same body, the Body of Christ. I must act continually for Christ in order to realize the rule of discipleship. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. Obedience to Christ is my authentic self and to act contrary to that truth is to be inauthentic to myself. The natural relationship is now a supernatural relationship and those formerly artificial expressions of community become natural expressions of who I am, brothers and sisters to all, particularly those who are most in need. Who are my mother and brothers and sisters? Those who hear the Word and put it into action.
Finally there is the obedience we express in Holy Orders. The obedience of Holy Orders is an augmentation and an intensification of the obedience owed to the Church through the sacraments of initiation. The Sacrament of Holy Orders is undertaken freely. It is an intentional acceptance of new relationships based upon the new office that I receive when I am ordained. The obedience of Holy Orders is obedience to the Church and to specific persons in the Church. It is a particular relationship expressed through our understanding of the nature of the Church and the means by which the Church communicates our relationship with God. As deacons and priests we make promises of obedience to bishops. Who is the bishop to demand this obedience? Obviously, the bishop does not ask this obedience solely on behalf of himself. We do not make a promise of obedience to the particular personality of the bishop. Rather, our promise of obedience is made to what, or rather to whom the bishop represents. He represents Christ. He speaks on behalf of Christ. His ministry is the ministry of Christ. “the apostolic office of bishops was instituted by Christ the Lord and pursues a spiritual and supernatural purpose.” We make a promise of obedience to this office and this means that we understand what that office represents in the life of the Church, within our larger promise of obedience in the context of our discipleship. Every bishop, by virtue of his office speaks on behalf of Christ. He is also a human person, with a particular personality, particular ideas and opinions. While we do not make a promise of obedience to these aspects of the bishop’s person, it is dangerous to begin to see too strong a dichotomy between the bishop as a man and his office. Our relationship in obedience is the relationship with a person in his office. It is a relationship with the essential nature of his personhood, that is, his being a bishop and having a particular responsibility and role in that nature within the Church. His essence is bishop, but his accidental qualities may be quite varied. He may like certain foods or sports. He may have a particular opinion about one thing or another. Our relationship of obedience is not to those accidental qualities of individual men, but rather to the essential office that makes up the core of each man.
What is the nature of this obedience? The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium gives us some insight here. The term used in the constitution regarding the necessary relationship between the bishop and men in Holy Orders is obsequium relgiosum, religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings of the Magisterium, represented concretely in the life of the deacon or the priest by his relationship with his bishop. Let us now take a moment to review this section of Lumen Gentium
Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious submission. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.
As we know, the magisterial teachings of the Church are gradated according to a hierarchy of truths. The 1973 document on the ecclesial role of the theologian from the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, Donum Veritatis offers the following reflection.
When the Magisterium of the Church makes an infallible pronouncement and solemnly declares that a teaching is found in Revelation, the assent called for is that of theological faith. This kind of adherence is to be given even to the teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium when it proposes for belief a teaching of faith as divinely revealed. When the Magisterium proposes "in a definitive way" truths concerning faith and morals, which, even if not divinely revealed, are nevertheless strictly and intimately connected with Revelation, these must be firmly accepted and held. When the Magisterium, not intending to act "definitively", teaches a doctrine to aid a better understanding of Revelation and make explicit its contents, or to recall how some teaching is in conformity with the truths of faith, or finally to guard against ideas that are incompatible with these truths, the response called for is that of the religious submission of will and intellect. This kind of response cannot be simply exterior or disciplinary but must be understood within the logic of faith and under the impulse of obedience to the faith.
The promise of obedience is firmly directed toward the existential consequences of this theological teaching. Concretely speaking what is this religious submission of will and intellect? It is first realized in the understanding that my ideas may not be the most important ones to express in a given situation. Other people, particularly by virtue of the office they hold may know more than I do. As a deacon or priest, where do I first turn for understanding particular questions? Relationally, our instinct must always be to the bishop. We are in a necessary relationship with this man precisely for this purpose. The bishop is not the arbiter of disputes, he is rather the first teacher. He holds the priestly office of teacher, the prophetic office of the Church. “The Bishop, through the grace of the Holy Spirit who expands and sharpens the eyes of his faith, relives the sentiments of Christ, the Good Shepherd, as he faces the anxieties and expectations of today’s world, by announcing a word of truth and life and by fostering activity which goes to the heart of humanity. Only in being united to Christ, in being faithful to his Gospel, in being realistically open to this world and in being loved by God, can the Bishop become the harbinger of hope.”
Religious submission means that I submit for religious reasons. Those religious reasons are centered on how I understand the voice of Christ to be speaking in the Church. Religious submission means that I must bracket my ideas and opinions (at least in the first instance) and listen to what Christ is saying, in our circumstances in the person of the bishop. Religious submission of the will means that I do not act in any way that would indicate my lack of full agreement with the expressed teaching of the bishop. I do so not out of a robotic response but out of the conviction that the voice of Christ is speaking even if I cannot yet appreciate what is being said. religious submission of the intellect means that I try to think with the Church. I strive to do so. This kind of submission means that I give the Church, the voice of Christ, the benefit of the doubt with the firm conviction that if I live a teaching, if I strive to believe a teaching, I will understand the logic of faith in that teaching. If I make judgments about what the bishop is saying to me before I strive to live that teaching, then I do so dishonestly. This is a process of assent that I agree to in my promise of obedience. While it is true, absolutely true that conscience is primary in our decision making, an appeal to conscience cannot be primary in our realization of any teaching. In other words, if dissent is possible, it is only possible (and not very probable) after the fact of religious submission.
When we look at the Rite of Ordination, the first thing we note is that this promise is the first one in the rite that is accompanied by a gesture or ritual action. The candidate kneels before the bishop. This is a meaningful sign of the relationship between these two men. One is sitting in a position of teaching, the other is kneeling in a position of learning. With this posture, we acknowledge the essences of the persons making the gesture. They do not stand as equals, we accept this. Their teacher/student relationship is inherent in their persons. Their relative postures are a statement of the truth about themselves. It is a relationship freely chosen, but once chosen is not negotiable. In making the gesture I am choosing to acknowledge that I now live in this irreversible relationship, that this relationship is true in my life. The posture is accompanied by a gesture of holding hands. Holding hands is a very powerful and very prevalent anthropological gesture. To grasp hands is to grasp the life force of the other. To place my hands in the hands of another is to place my entire life at their disposal. It is a gesture of trust, of interchange between the persons. It is the same essential gesture we witness in marriage. It sends the message that the lives of these persons, in their essential personhood is now inextricably bound together.
Do you promise respect and obedience to me and my successors?
Again, we make our promise to a particular bishop, a particular man. Care must be given that our promise is not made to his personality rather than to his office, his accidental qualities rather than his essence. Our attitude can never degenerate to: better the bishop you know than the bishop you do not know. We should admire our ordinary. We must respect our ordinary. It is wonderful if we can be friendly with our ordinary. It is essential that we know who this man is and for whom he speaks. The personality of the bishop can only take us so far. We get into serious trouble when we are attracted to a personality and not to a commitment to follow Christ wherever he goes. The bishop’s successors are as yet unknown, but when our religious submission is to the ideal of Christ speaking in the Church, then the personality of those successors becomes less significant to the commitment we are making.
Having examined the content of the promise, it may now be helpful to briefly look at ways in which this promise might be compromised or made more difficult. Of course, challenges to obedience are as individual as those who make promises, but some trends might easily be delineated. I see four: Residual narcissism, Cacophony, Pride, and a Lack of Respect.
First, residual narcissism. We hear a great deal about narcissism today. We know that a clinical diagnosis of narcissism as a personality disorder is relatively rare. Residual narcissism, however is much more prevalent and is often the outcome of the conditioning of a culture bent on radical individualism and selfishness. Clerical circles seem to be awakening to the effects of narcissism in the lives of priests in ways previously un recognized. Very simply, narcissism is the inability to view the world outside of one’s self. It is chronic selfishness, at times, seemingly incurable self reference. Everything in my world view proceeds from my particular interests or the ways in which phenomena impact me. Everything must be created in my image, all activities should center on me. At some level we find chronic narcissism humorous. The old adage of, “let’s stop talking about me, let’s talk about you. What do you think of me?” is a bit tired but certainly also has a ring of truth in it. Narcissism, when it can be overcome, is very difficult to overcome. It lies at the heart of other modern chronic conditions such as pornography and even overweeing social networking. Narcissism, by its nature threatens relationships. Narcissism is problematic for the average person, it is fatal to priesthood. A person with chronic narcissistic tendencies cannot be a priest because priesthood requires a perspective of the other, a regard for the other, a respect for the other. Priesthood is about compassion, suffering with the other. A personality that allows for neither suffering nor the other cannot effectively be a priest. Narcissists cannot make a meaningful promise of obedience because there is no ability to truly listen and respect someone else. The narcissist may look obedient, he may even look hypervigilant in obedience, but it only works as long as he is satisfied with the outcome. Any challenge to the narcissistic worldview and the priest revolts. Narcissism has many forms but intellectual narcissism is perhaps the most dangerous for the priest. I know more than anyone else. I know better than anyone, including my bishop, including the Church, including Christ.
Second cacophony. I cannot hear the authentic voice of Christ speaking through the Church and through the bishop if I surround myself with other voices, if I inundate my world with sounds that conflict and cause consternation in my ability to hear and to listen. Simplicity is required for authentic hearing. How often, when trying to pay attention to a particular speaker have we had to silent errant voices around us? A good question to ask ourselves is: What do I pay attention to in my daily life? What vies for my attention? It is hard to hear the voice of Christ when our soundscapes are filled with the cacophony of lies, of popular culture, of competing voices. We cannot listen to Christ if we are continually trying to tune our ears to other musics, perpetually trying to get reception on stations inimical with our vocations as Christians. Obedience in the Church and in the Sacrament of Holy Orders is geared to one goal: to make us saints. Pope Benedict recently said to Catholic students: “When I invite you to become saints, I am asking you not to be content with second best. I am asking you not to pursue one limited goal and ignore all the others.” Christ in his mysteries, when we truly attend to his mysteries, opens our horizons in ways that external cacophony never can.
Third, Pride. In the world of the priest, pride often manifests in our inability to say we were wrong. Perhaps this is a particular masculine issue as well. No promise of obedience is ever perfectly lived any more than discipleship is ever perfectly lived. We err. Virtue lies not in ever erring but in our ability to admit we were wrong and to make amends. Often we make serious mistakes in following through with our obedience. Those serious mistakes become grave errors when we will not admit our fault. My experience has been that many who leave the priesthood do so because their pride has been hurt in having their opinions overruled by the authentic teaching office of the bishop.
Finally, lack of respect. Respect from the Latin, respectus literarily means to look again or to regard. It means taking more than a cursory glance at a thing or trying to sum up a complex reality with a simple formula. Respect is an ideal that applies to almost every relationship we have. It may indeed be said to be at the very heart of the Church’s sacramental understanding. “Things are more than they seem to be” is an ideal that I apply in almost every pastoral circumstance. I look for depth. I search for breadth. I look beyond the obvious. I do not take everything for face value Lack of respect is a failure to look again, to contemplate what we are doing, to make hasty judgments. Decisions about how to proceed in a pastoral environment must be made carefully and reflectively. When I am in doubt, it is my responsibility to consult others, particularly when I am in a relationship of obedience with the others. A lack of respect is manifested in my not caring about what the opinions of those significant voices might be, or to even acknowledge their significance in my life. It is to live a superficial life.
What do these reflections on the promise of obedience mean for us here and now? I hope one message I have communicated this morning is that we are all under obedience, we are all necessarily in relationship. At the anthropological level, we are under obedience to the nature of our human being. At the discipleship level we are under obedience to the Word of God with whom we have come into relationship through the sacraments of initiation. I cannot deny this obedience if I am to maintain integrity as a Christian. As a seminarian, you are already preparing for the particular form of obedience that comes with Holy Orders. Here in this seminary, we prepare for this listening, this intensity of relationship and this respect. It is not possible to make a meaningful promise of obedience on the day of ordination, if we have never considered the consequences of obedience in our daily lives. How do we interact here every day? Do we give the staff and faculty, men and women who are acting even now on behalf of your bishops the benefit of the doubt? Do we have what Saint Benedict called the “ready step of obedience”? Or is our attitude one of constant criticism and questioning? Do we dissent first and reflect later? Our attitude of obedience, even here is not nourished by a personal affiliation or friendship with the staff. Our attitude of obedience is nourished by my willingness to listen to the voice of the Lord. It is putting Christ in the center of my formation by putting Christ in the center of my life. Of course, this is what we do here. This is what we are aiming for here. This is what we must accomplish here, recognizing our need for continued growth and development. Obedience as understood in the sense in which we mean it in Holy Orders is not a new obedience. it is a fine tuning, a nuancing of the obedience we owe to Christ, and to the obedience that is inscribed in every human heart. In this way we understand that obedience can only make sense in the context of prayer. Prayer is the solidification of that primary obedience, that primary relationship that gives all particular forms of obedience meaning. If I do not pray, I cannot make sense of hte promise of obedience, because it has no context. If I pray, then obedience takes care of itself because I have already put myself, trained myself to put myself at the disposal of someone greater than myself. The mighty God through whom all our lives gain meaning, through whom all our hearing and listening gains wisdom. To this mighty God be all glory and power in the Church, now and forever.