Circular Letter: Fall 2000
Obedience as a Corner-Pillar in the Life of the Church
Yours, O Lord, is the power and the glory!
The eyes of your servants and handmaids are fixed on your lips
and the wings of your angels bear your Word over creation in holy obedience.
Give us, o Lord, the help of your angels, that we might promptly execute in holy obedience
Your Word as it comes forth from the superiors and teachers of Your Church.
St. Gabriel, you who bore the obedience of Mary to Heaven,
let holy obedience be for us a shield of defense against the evil one,
that the seed of the Word of GOD might grow and bear fruit. Amen .
The Necessity of Seeing our Theme in Conjunction with Other Themes
The sequence of conferences for this retreat is not simply a stringing together of unrelated topics, but rather, it follows both the plan of the mediation of GOD’s grace as well as its whole development in the history of salvation. First, we will consider GOD and His loving call, which on our part deserves a full and unconditional response, and is worthy of the fundamental attitude of willing obedience.
This call of GOD reaches us today by means of the mediation of grace, through Mary and the holy angels, who first bore this law of Call and Answer into the whole of creation, and then afterwards, and above all through the SON of GOD become man–and who has become “Eucharist” for our salvation, in accordance with GOD’s covenant with His chosen people. The angels brought to GOD the obedience of Mary. To Him they wish to bring our obedience in the life of the Church and as members of the Mystical Body of CHRIST.
But even more: through their service as Guardian Angels on earth and in the Church we should live in unity with the will of GOD Himself in the small situations of every day life, so that through our obedience the material creation might also find it’s way into unity with GOD (cf. Rm 8:21 ss).
Now as we consider obedience in the life of the Church, it is important first to view things from a larger perspective, and this for various reasons:
1.) On the one hand, because we all must decide for or against God and never merely for this or that view or person or action. In every moment of our lives we speak a “depart” to the devil or to GOD; a “come” to heaven or to hell; every day we fashion our own eternity more and more.
2) Moreover, we must look to GOD Himself, since obedience is not in the first place an act of the intellect but rather an act of the will and hence of love. Obedience is an act of giving, of donation, not of understanding, but of faith. Pope Leo XIII in his letter Sapientiae christianae of 10/1/1890 stresses:
“Union of minds… requires, together with a perfect accord in the one faith, complete submission and obedience of will to the Church and to the Roman Pontiff, as to GOD Himself. This obedience should, however, be perfect, because it is enjoined by faith itself, and has this in common with faith, that it cannot be given in shreds;–nay, were it not absolute and perfect in every particular, it might wear the name of obedience, but its essence would disappear. Christian usage attaches such value to this perfection of obedience that it has been, and will ever be, accounted the distinguishing mark by which we are able to recognize Catholics”(HK-879f). Neither in an obedience without faith nor in faith without obedience do we exceed our own understanding.(cf. STh II-II, 5,3)
As an act of love, obedience does not first ask; What should I do? but rather whom shall I obey, to whom shall I give myself, to whom shall I give my body and soul, my abilities and talents? Our Lord did not say “He who understands My commandments…, but rather “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (Jn 14:15)!
3.) And here there is a third reason for the necessity of this overview: It lays in the nature of the Church which can only rightly be understood in view of GOD Himself. But we must first explain what the Church is in order to be able to speak of the possibility or the necessity of obedience in the life of the Church. We wish, therefore, in the first part to consider the Church, her relationship to GOD, her essential characteristics and the place of obedience in the Church. There will result, in the second part then, a clearer view of the life of the Church in the light of obedience.
I. Obedience as a Corner Pillar in the Life of the Church
1. What is the Church?
In the Second Vatican Council the Church attempted to explain itself in great detail. In the first chapter of the Dogmatic Constitution “Lumen Gentium” she reaches for many Biblical images which illuminate this mystery in many aspects.
a) The Church is the Mystical Body of CHRIST
The first task of the Church is the establishment of the kingdom of GOD; “This kingdom shone out before men in the word, in the works and in the presence of CHRIST” ; and a little further on we read: “But principally the kingdom is revealed in the person of CHRIST Himself, Son of GOD and Son of Man, who came “to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45)(LG 5).
The Church is then that edifice wherein the family of GOD dwells, that field which the “heavenly householder planted as a choice vineyard”(Mt. 21:33-34; cf. Is 5:1ss). But the true vine is CHRIST who gives life and fruitfulness to the branches, that is to us, who live in Him through the Church, and without Whom we can do nothing(Jn. 15:1-5)”(LG 6). And finally, looking back to the explanation of St. Paul we see: (LG 7)
“In the human nature united to Himself, the Son of GOD, by overcoming death through his own death and resurrection, redeemed man and changed him into a new creation (cf. Gal. 6:15; 2 Cor. 5:17). For by communicating His Spirit, CHRIST mystically constitutes as His Body those brothers of His who are called together from every nation – tamquam corpus suum mystice constituit.
In that Body the life of CHRIST flows into the faithful, who in a mysterious yet real way are united to CHRIST through the sacraments – CHRISTO per sacramenta arcano ac reali modo uniuntur.
The life of CHRIST flows into that Body, the Church, into the faithful! For this reason the Church is also that Bride of CHRIST beloved by Him…constantly nourished and cared for, which has been designated as “Our Mother” and which in reality is such (cf. LG 6 and DV 19; 2nd reading on Saturday 2nd week of Advent in the Divine Office on the relation between MARY and the Church). He who finds the Church finds life! By means of this Life coming to us through the Church, CHRIST will subject all things to Himself (cf. 1 Cor. 15:27s), unite all things to Himself (cf. Eph 1:10), all things both in heaven and on earth, until GOD reigns over all and in all (cf. 1 Cor. 15:28).
“To accomplish so great a work Christ is always present in His Church…,” present in the liturgical ceremonies, present in the Sacrifice of the Mass, in the priest, and above all present under the species of the Eucharist. He is present with His power in the sacraments, present in His Word, since it is He Himself who speaks when Holy Scripture is read in church; present when the Church sings and prays, present in every soul, we might add, which He has consecrated to Himself as a temple in baptism, in which he remains, so long as the soul does not reject Him through serious sin(cf. SC 7). The Church is completely marked by this presence of CHRIST and with Him the HOLY SPIRIT, ever one with the FATHER.
Let us hold fast to this truth: The nature of the Church is obviously incomprehensible without CHRIST; only he who looks to GOD through her, understands her truly. The Council Fathers in the decree on the formation of priests call to mind a phrase of St. Augustine which has particular importance in our day: “A man possesses the HOLY SPIRIT in the measure in which he loves the Church” (In Jn 32:8; OT 9); and as it states in the decree on the priesthood: “Faithfulness to CHRIST cannot be separated from faithfulness to His Church” (PO 14). Only he who understands the Church in this inner, living unity, as the Bride of CHRIST, as His own mysterious but very real Body, will be able to give obedience to the Church, and be able to have the conviction that this is needed and something necessary for salvation.
b) In and through the Church CHRIST continues His mission
The Church is marked by the presence of CHRIST; for in her the mystery of our salvation is continued (cf. LG 52). The presence of a transcendent, totally self-sufficient and all-perfect GOD makes the Church holy. This holiness is manifested in the beauty of the liturgy, in the purity of doctrine, and in the holy, supernatural power of life found in the sacraments, as well as in the reverence of her children, the faithful. She is glorious before GOD, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, holy and immaculate.
This presence of GOD among men reaches its fullness with the Incarnation of the Son of GOD, who received the mission from GOD the FATHER to make known the Gospel, and to reveal His name to us (cf. Jn 17:6). Since He has made known to us all which He has heard from the FATHER (cf Jn 15:15), and assured us of the presence of the HOLY SPIRIT which He sent at Pentecost, for the full understanding of what has been revealed, the Church has become “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3″15, cf. 2 Tim 1:13) — hence it is holy by nature, and infallible in its understanding of the truth, so that CHRIST could assure the Apostles before the whole world: “He who hears you, hears me” (Lk 10:16; in this way the apostolic origin of the Church is guaranteed). In the Apocalypse John hears the words of CHRIST: “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Rev 1:17s; cf. 5:2-5). This key, which is also the “key of the kingdom of heaven”, CHRIST has entrusted to one man, to St. Peter (cf Mt 16:19), and He has given to men the mandate: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation” (Mk 28:19 – Prophetic Office), “baptizing them” (Priestly Office) “and teaching them to observe all” that was commanded (Mt 28:19 – Pastoral Office), — a truly universal, all-embracing, catholic mission.
But CHRIST is still with them; He is with them until the consummation of the world (cf Mt 28:20). It is CHRIST who preaches and baptizes, blesses and transforms in the Apostles, in the Bishops and priests, in the bearers of ecclesiastical authority (cf. SC 7), it is CHRIST who is accepted of rejected (cf. Lk 10:16; Rev 9:4). Who of us would imagine that he is capable of communicating the divine life to one being baptized, that he can wipe away sins with the formula of absolution, even at the sacramental level; that by blessing he is able to expel the devil and restore peace of heart?
It is CHRIST, who takes on form in His members (cf Gal 4:19; LG 7), who gives life, moves and unites through the one and same SPIRIT dwelling both in the Head and the members, the life-principal of the Church (cf. LG 7). It is CHRIST, who loves the Church as His Bride, “image of the man who loves his wife as his own body (cf Eph 5:25-28); on Her part, the Church is subject to Her Head (ibid. 23-24). “For in Him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col 2:9). The Church, which is His Body and His fullness, He fills with His divine gifts (cf Eph 1:22s), that She might grow and attain to the whole fullness of GOD” (cf. Eph 3:19)(LG 7.8).
2. How Important is Obedience?
a) Obedience is acceptance of grace necessary for salvation
“While she slowly grows to maturity, the Church longs for the completed kingdom and, with all her strength, hopes and desires to be united in glory with her king” (LG 5). Her yearning is for the sake of the acceptance of the call of grace which comes through men, as we have already mentioned. “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you”, Our Lord adds in the same breath, “rejects me …and Him Who sent me” (Lk 10:16). Or, as we read in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: “Those who hear the [word of the Lord] with faith…have truly received the kingdom. Then, by its own power the seed sprouts and grows until the harvest” (cf. Mk 4:26-29).
This longing is the longing of a mother for the salvation of her children; it is the selfless longing of the Bride of the WORD made flesh (DV 23), one with Her divinely beloved and singular Bridegroom (unicum sponsum CHRISTUM)” (PC 12), just as the unity between CHRIST and the Church which we have considered manifests, and which Our Lord expresses in a wonderful way when He compares Himself to a mother: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem,…how often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Mt 23:37).
This longing presents itself to us as even more insistent, when we read in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation that: “‘The obedience of faith’ (Rom 16:26; cf. Rom 1:5; 2 Cor 10:5-6) must be given to GOD as He reveals Himself — and this He does by means of the Church, as stated further on in the same Constitution (cf DV 8). In this way , man freely commits his entire self to GOD, by “the full submission of his intellect and will to GOD Who reveals, and by willingly assenting to the Revelation given by Him” (DV 5).
In this acceptance of the call of GOD which is transmitted through time by means of the Church, lies our decision for or against GOD: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mk 16:16). “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of GOD rests upon him” (Jn 3:36; cf. Gen 49:10). Not until the answer of MARY’s obedience did grace find a worthy vessel.
Only in obedience does the divine seed find the necessary and fertile soil. Only in the soul which gives itself to GOD completely with understanding and will does grace reach its goal and begin the transformation of creation in CHRIST (cf. Eph 3:21). Only by means of this obedience owed to GOD and His grace and which is to be given to the Church will we find that unity which is the true mark of the Church.
Obedience, by means of which the divine and creative Will of GOD is bound into one (cf. CD 28), is therefore necessarily laid into the foundation, into the very constitution of the Church. Without it grace cannot take root; without it GOD cannot build up the new creation, the Heavenly Jerusalem, without obedience it is impossible to have unity.
We will consider the characteristics of obedience at another time; now we wish only to add the following: Obedience to GOD in the Church should especially be marked by a lively, joyful, loving and free character, since in the final analysis it amounts to a mother-child relationship and ought to be a perfect expression of the thankfulness, trust and love of a child for its mother!
b) The judgment of the tradition of the Church on obedience
That we might see the fundamental importance of obedience for the whole plan of salvation, we will call to mind a few important points. There shines before us at the beginning of the Church the obedience of Our Lord, an example for us all (cf. Heb 10:7-9; Jn 2:4; 4:34; Mt 26:53s). As he was dying He cried out “I THIRST”, that is, for the obedience which all creatures owe to their GOD. (cf. Jn 19:28; Phil 2:8; Rom 5:19). The answer of obedience which MARY gave pierced the heavens, so that they might open for us (cf. Lk 1:38); with St. Joseph she gave the obedience of faith (cf. Mt 1:24-28; 2:13s), which the Holy Father in his Apostolic Exhortation to all the faithful has put forth as a model for all the faithful (cf. Redemptoris Custos, 4, 24, 26 and 30).
When the Lord solemnly established Peter as the head of the Church and entrusted the flock to him three times — according to a Jewish ritual of law — He assured Himself not only of Peter’s love but also, and in the first place, of his obedience: In commanding Peter to throw out his net that morning, He ordered him to do something contrary to his own knowledge about fishing. JESUS demands poverty of spirit and an abandonment of ones own will, and Our Lord reveals with the abundant catch not only the fruitfulness of a restless obedience, but also how he wishes that His Church be ruled and guided (cf. Jn 21:3-7; 1 Cor 1:28s).
We can easily find in the first pastoral writings of the Apostles, the Pastoral Letters of the New Testament, a confirmation of the fact that obedience is a corner-pillar for life in the Church. Let us listen to Ignatius of Antioch, disciple of St. John, as a witness of the early Church: “With regard to those things of concern for the Church, nothing is to be undertaken without the Bishop…He who undertakes something without the knowledge of the Bishop serves the devil” (Letter to Smyrna 8,1 and 9,1).
It is well known that the Father of Western Monasticism, St. Benedict, constructed a whole way of life, having as its goal spiritual perfection, on the virtue of obedience (cf. Ch. 5 and 33 of his Rule). The 3000 Benedictine saints ought to be sufficient to convince us of the truth of this corner-pillar.
The Dominican Order in the 14th and 15th centuries reformed itself not as the Carmelites did by means of a change in the constitution, but simply by means of a strict observation of the rule, that is by means of a resolute obedience to the existing constitutions; it is a model example of a reform from the inside!
In the writings of John of the Cross the following principle is fundamental — even though the saint is not well known for this — He writes in the Ascent of Mount Carmel: “GOD loves so much that a man entrust himself to the guidance of another man, that He definitely does not will that we give credence to the supernatural truths which He Himself has communicated to us, before they have come forth from the mouth of a man” (II, 22,9). Finally, Pope Pius the XII explains the value of “obedience in both private and public life” when he writes: “If obedience be disregarded no human power is adequate to restrain and pacify the unbridled passions of the masses. For religion alone is capable of upholding justice and morality” (Fulgens radiuntur, 1947; HK-1822).
c) Obedience is the saving protection and the necessary guide for sinful man, or the necessity of obedience on the part of man.
(The mistake of seeking fault with others)
Having attempted to show the necessity of obedience as something fundamental to the very constitution of the Church itself, we must now arm ourselves against the false objection which would seek to dispense us from obedience on account of all the human weakness found in the Church; the objection does not hold, because its real root is simply “I want to be free”, free from every obligation, from every sacrifice, from every restraint. If the Church really appears weak, it is due not to its structure but to the members themselves, because we have betrayed her laws and given in to the enticements of our egos, of the godless world, of the devil who hates the good!
With regard to questions of obedience we ought not to look to human failings, as Our Lord Himself has said. He taught that we must distinguish between our superiors and the example they give: He who is superior but does not give a good example is to be obeyed; “practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do” (Mt. 23:2).
(With regard to true self-knowledge)
We want, with the aid of the words of Pope Pius XII, to take a look at ourselves. He taught that religion alone is the support for justice and morality, that which can restrain the passions. This means that obedience is something of necessity. How weak and shortsighted is our understanding; we do not know what is for the good of our own salvation, (otherwise we would know too that for which we should pray)(cf. Rm 8:26). How often we are directed by our sinful inclinations and deceived even on the path of goodness.
Romano Guardini, with his keen understanding of man, has recognized this truth in his first decisive religious experience, as we can see in his second Account of My Life. He writes:
“It happened in the little attic room in my parents house on Gousenheiner Street. Karl Neunhofer and I had spoken about the question which had been occupying both of us, and my last word on the matter was: “It all comes down to the phrase: ‘He who holds fast to his life will lose it, and he who gives up his life for My sake will find it’. The interpretation which lay in this translation of Mt 10:39 expressed what was of moment to me. It was gradually becoming clear to me that there exists a law, according to which a man, if he “holds fast to his life”, that is, if he remains within himself and only accepts as valid that which is immediately clear to himself, will lose that which is essential.
If he wishes to come to the truth, and in the truth become his true self, then he must make a gift of himself. Surely this insight had previous stages, but they had slipped my mind. Karl Neundorfer had come upon these same words in the next room, from which there was a door leading out to the balcony. I was sitting at my desk and my thoughts continued: To give up my life — but to whom? Who can demand that of me? And to demand it in such a way that in giving it, it will not actually be I who take it again in hand.
Not simply “GOD”, for when a man wishes only to deal with GOD he says “GOD” but means himself. There must exist some objective authority which could draw my answer out from every hiding place of self-assertion; but there is only one possibility: the Catholic Church with Her authority and precision. In the end, the question of holding on to or giving ones life is decided not before GOD, but before the Church.” Then it seemed to me that I bore everything, really everything, my whole being, in my hands.
Then I went out to my friend and told him. But he himself must have experienced something similar. With him the thought that drew him most was: “The greatest chance of discovering the truth is to be found there where the greatest possibility of love lies.” The question for him had been “where does one find the path to love”, and the answer he found was the same: in the Church. (R. Guardini, Berichte uber mein Leben, Patmos-Verlag Dusseldorf 1984, p. 71f; emphasis my own).
It is a blessing then, and a grace, that the Church is a concrete, palpable structure for us, so that our feelings, desires and longings not be led astray; these dispensations of GOD and the Church guided by the HOLY SPIRIT offer to us a support and stronghold against our vacillating and so easily deceived nature, and make it possible for us to advance toward GOD in peace and love and security.
For this reasons the Fathers of the council, though speaking more specifically about the obedience of religious, have this to say: Far from lowering the dignity of the human person, religious obedience leads it to maturity by extending the freedom of the sons of GOD (PC 14; cf. LG 43). By rendering obedience to GOD the whole human person is raised to a higher order, the order of grace, joy and peace.
Let us conclude these fundamental considerations with the words of Pope Pius the XII to the clergy of Rome: “If you wish to grow in the love of CHRIST, then you must render obedience, childlike trust, and love to the vicar of CHRIST. In his person you pay respect and obedience to CHRIST Himself, in his person you encounter CHRIST. It is false to distinguish between a Church of Law and a Church of Love. That is not correct; much more rather, is the Church of Law, whose head is the Pope, at the same time the Church of CHRIST, the Church of Love and the whole family of the Christian people.
Between you and us there ought to prevail the most intimate ties, like those found in a truly Christian family, which bind the father to the children and the children to the father” (Solemnis conventus, 24-6-1939; HK-1295).
II. Obedience in the Life of the Church
1. The Extent of the Authority of the Church
The most important question is: what is the extent of Church authority: A child is raised and educated by his father and mother. The same must be true for a child of GOD. “I am the Lord your GOD, who teaches you what is of profit, who leads you in the way you should go” (Is 48:17). “Behold, I send an angel before you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place which I have prepared. Give heed to him…do not rebel against him,…for my name is in him” (Ex 23:20s). These and other word of GOD wish to say to us: The concern of the parents, and consequently also His concern for us, embraces our whole life, both physical and spiritual, present and future.
a) Our obligation to obey does not exist only with regard to “ex cathedra” decisions.
Pope Leo XIII answers our question in this way:
“In defining the limits of the obedience owed to…the authority of the Roman Pontiff, it must not be supposed that it is only to be yielded in relation to dogmas….(2) Nay, further, it is not enough sincerely and firmly to assent to doctrines which, though not defined by any solemn pronouncement of the Church, are by her proposed to belief, as divinely revealed, in her common and universal teaching, and which the Vatican Council declared are to be believed with Catholic and divine faith. (3) But this likewise must be reckoned amongst the duties of Christians, that they allow themselves to be ruled and directed by the authority and leadership of bishops, and above all of the Apostolic See. And how fitting it is that this should be so any one can easily perceive. For the things contained in the divine oracles have reference to GOD in part, and in part to man, and to whatever is necessary for the attainment of his eternal salvation. Now, both these, that is to say, what we are bound to believe, and what we are obliged to do, are laid down, as we have stated, by the Church using her divine right, and in the Church by the Supreme Pontiff. Wherefore it belongs to the Pope to judge authoritatively what things the sacred oracles contain, as well as what doctrines are in harmony, and what in disagreement, with them; and also for the same reason, to show forth what things are to be accepted as right, and what to be rejected as worthless; what it is necessary to do and what to avoid doing, in order to attain eternal salvation. For, otherwise, there would be no sure interpreter of the commands of GOD, nor would there be any safe guide showing man the way he should live” (Sapientiae Christianae, 10-1-1890; HK-881).
Pope Pius XI also emphasizes this is his Encyclical on marriage:
“CHRIST Himself made the Church the teacher of truth in those things also which concern the right regulation of moral conduct, even though some knowledge of the same is not beyond human reason….So for the same purpose He has constituted the Church the guardian and the teacher of the whole of the truth concerning religion and moral conduct; to her, therefore, should the faithful show obedience and subject their minds and hearts so as to be kept unharmed and free from error and moral corruption, and so that they shall not deprive themselves of that assistance given by GOD with such liberal bounty, they ought to show this due obedience not only when the Church defines something with solemn judgment, but also, in proper proportion, when by the constitutions and decrees of the Holy See, opinions are prescribed and condemned as dangerous or distorted” (Casti Connubii, 21-12-1930; HK-1732s).
Likewise, the Second Vatican Council in her Dogmatic Constitution on the Church demands “this loyal submission of the will and intellect”, and a “respectful acknowledgment and sincere assent” to the Bishop of Rome “even when he does not speak ex cathedra“ (LG 25).
This Conciliar and post-Conciliar attitude which expects obedience to directives laid down as well as to simple desires which present themselves is not new (cf. PO 15 or in Canon Law can. 276). Already St. Paul counted on the love and willing consent of his people, which is why he simply had to express his desires to Philemon (cf. Philem. 12:14).
St. Ignatius of Loyola, in the constitutions of his “Society of JESUS”, demanded obedience “not only in matters of duty, but also in other things, even when one does not possess an express sign for the will of the superior, that is, without express command” (Constitution VI, c.1, 1). A certain family spirit ought to reign in the Church, where the love of the child anticipates the command of the father (cf. CD 28; Pp. Pius XII, above p. 89).
b) “The Pope… a sure guide on the path of life”
Always with a view to the final cause, the eternal salvation of men’s souls, the Church senses the need, and it is her duty on account of her GOD given responsibility for the care of souls, to have something to say about all facets of life. She can, and under certain circumstances she must, forbid the reading of certain books (cf. can. 822ss), or prohibit participation in certain clubs or events, or declare a certain film to be harmful for the soul ect. (Thus the Holy Father announced in his Apostolic Exhortation on the Vocation and Mission of the Laity (Christifideles Laici, Nr. 31) a forthcoming list of groups which enjoy the official recognition of the Holy See).
In the document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith “On Certain Aspects of Christian Meditation” dated October 15, 1989, the Church stresses concretely its competence in issuing directives about the life of prayer (No. 7): Since “Christian prayer…in reality is always a prayer within that :community of saints”, within which and with which we pray,…, it must also always be carried out in the true spirit of the praying Church and hence under her direction, which from time to time can be made concrete in spiritual directives based on her past experience”.
Was not the obedience in the life of JESUS also very concrete? Simon said: Everyone is searching for you. He replied: “Let us go on to the next towns” (Mk 1:37s); or: “Go into the village opposite, where on entering you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever yet sat” (Lk. 19:30s). And on another occasion: “Watch with me”; when the disciples then slept, they received the mild rebuke: “Could you not watch one hour with me” (Mt26:38-40)?
The Council has summed up these various aspects of the demands of GOD on the faithful in their private and public lives in the sentence: “Therefore all the faithful are invited and obliged to strive for holiness and the perfection of their own state of life” (LG 42).
2. By Humility and Obedience Priests Conform Themselves To CHRIST
“Clerics are bound by a special obligation to show reverence and obedience to the Supreme Pontiff and to their own ordinary.” So states the first Canon of the chapter on the obligations and rights of clerics in the new Code of Canon Law (Can. 273; cf. can. 273-289).
The Second Vatican Council sees the foundation for this obligation to obedience in the sacrament of ordination itself: “Priests for their part should keep in mind the fullness of the sacrament of Order which bishops enjoy, and should reverence in their persons the authority of CHRIST the Supreme Pastor. They should therefore be attached to their bishop with sincere charity and obedience. That priestly obedience…is based on that sharing of the Episcopal ministry which is conferred on priests by the sacrament of Order and the canonical mission” (PO 7). “On their part, the bishops solemnly swear this obedience on the day of their consecration to the highest visible head of the Church, the successor of St. Peter, the Vicar of JESUS CHRIST” (Pp. Pus XI, Ad Catholic Sacerdotal, 20-12 1935; HK 1254).
a) The necessity of priestly obedience
Only obedience helped the Lord endure Gethsemane: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Mt 26:39), not My, but Your will be done. “The Will of the FATHER sends Him (JESUS CHRIST) to men, to sinners, yes even to His murderers, and He can not be more closely bound to this Will of the FATHER in obedience” (CM 13).
JESUS as man made an act of the most devoted obedience in dark faith as He stood before Judas, Pilate, the Highpriests and the hate-filled soldiers, an act of faith in the Will of the FATHER who concealed Himself, and who was not speaking directly and immediately (cf. Mk 15:34). The whole story of the passion is a pure act of obedience; the whole redemption is the fruit of obedience; GOD the FATHER has so highly revered this obedience of His SON, that He has joined to it the redemption of millions of men!
The more a priest recognizes his own human misery and the greatness of the mission which he has received as an unworthy servant (cf. Lk 17:10), the more Our suffering Lord will become the center of his thoughts and meditations. Pope Pius XI wrote to his priests:
“Our heart fills with fatherly consolation at the sight of Our Brothers and Our beloved Sons, Bishops and priests, who like chosen troops ever prompt to the call of their chief hasten to all outposts of this vast field. There they engage in the peaceful but bitter warfare of truth against error, of light against darkness, of the kingdom of GOD against the kingdom of Satan.
But, by its very nature as an active and courageous company, the Catholic priesthood must have the spirit of discipline, or, to use a more deeply Christian word, obedience. It is obedience which binds together all ranks into the harmony of the Church’s Hierarchy….
Obedience ought then…to make the Church Militant a foe truly terrible to the enemies of GOD, “as an army set in array” (Song of Songs 6:3.9). Let obedience temper excessive zeal on the one hand, and put the spur to weakness and slackness on the other. Let it assign to each his place and station. These each should accept without resistance; for otherwise the magnificent work of the Church in the world would be sadly hindered. Let each one see in the arrangements of his hierarchical Superiors the arrangements of the only true Head, Whom all obey: JESUS CHRIST Our Lord, Who became for us “obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross” (Phil 2:8).
Obedience leads then to victory in personal battles, as well as to battles for the reign of GOD. It helps “to avoid every sort of division” (LG 28) and “to form a single presbyterate and a single family, whose father is the bishop” (CD 28) — full of peace within, source of admiration for those on the outside!
b) “…to build with the bonds of supernatural charity”
What unites a family is love. This “charity flows especially from the Eucharistic Sacrifice. This sacrifice is therefore the center and root of the whole life of the priest, so that the priestly soul strives to make its own what is enacted on the altar of sacrifice. If he lives in such a way, and “penetrates ever more intimately through prayer into the mystery of CHRIST” then CHRIST “working through his ministers…can ceaselessly do that same will of His FATHER in the world through the Church” (PO 14).
For such a priest knows: “Faithfulness to CHRIST cannot be separated from faithfulness to His Church” (PO 14); in such a priest there is built up in his relationship with his bishop or superior the “bonds of supernatural charity,…the unity of the will of the priest with the will of the bishop” (CD 28); such priests sense the need to test “what is GOD’s Will — that is to say, how far their projects are in conformity with the standards of the Church’s Gospel mission” (PO 14); such priests most gladly “spend themselves and are spent in whatever office is entrusted to them, even the humbler and poorer” (PO 15).
Love perceives the inviting voice of the FATHER and fulfills his paternal requests. In this supernatural light, the duties of a priest are an expression of the Will of GOD, which he is bound to heed and obey more than that of men (cf. Rev 5:29), be it his personal obligation to strive after holiness, making use of the suitable ways and means, as for example daily celebration of mass and recitation of the office, regular mental prayer and frequent reception of the sacrament of penance or the special veneration of the Mother of GOD (cf. cam. 276), or be it ones pastoral obligations, as the care for giving instruction in the faith or forming the consciences of the faithful (cf. AA 7, 4), or the duty “to be ready to hear the confessions of the faithful” (cf. CD 30). This spirit of supernatural charity and of a responsible and free obedience naturally demands of priests a “constant disposition of mind…to seek not their own will but the will of Him Who has sent them” (PO 15); but it also makes possible that intimate family spirit which on the one hand, for example, assures the priests of a certain stability of office in their respective parishes for the spiritual welfare of the souls entrusted to them, but which, on the other hand, expects that when they “are unable to perform their duties adequately and fruitfully,…they spontaneously render their resignation or accept the invitation of the bishop to do so”, in poverty of spirit and detachment.
This interior detachment makes a priest pure and into a “man after the Heart of GOD” (Acts 13:22; cf. Phil 2:5). And thanks to this purifying effect of obedience there is opened up to the priest the possibility of a deeper knowledge and understanding and a grace-filled interior life (mystical life) (the proud only see themselves, but the humble and pure see GOD! — Mt 5:8). GOD will show to him occasionally deeper reasons for his duties, and this will render his obedience even more noble. For example:
1) He may come to recognize that he must be faithful to his “book keeping” for baptism, confirmation and marriage (cf. can. 535, 895, 1122), because these are all events which are of permanent consequence before GOD: they are only received once and, therefore, they are recorded in the “Book of Life”.
2) The obligation to be present in the parish (cf. can. 533), to hear confessions (cf. can. 986) he will recognize as a sign that GOD Himself is always there for his children and always has an open ear for their petitions.
3) Holy Mass celebrated faithfully every day is a testimony for the love of GOD, which offers itself wholly and of its own accord, always (and not only when it is necessary) for the good of souls.
4) The Lord grants that important harmony which should exist between the fear of GOD and the love of GOD, to those who allow themselves to be guided in the liturgical rubrics with a certain poverty of spirit by the light of the obedience of faith; as an example, there is the corresponding threefold genuflection (as sign of the fear of GOD) and the threefold kiss (as sign of the love of GOD) in the present liturgy.
c) The tension of the cross in pastoral work
Naturally, this obedience appears to be more difficult in pastoral work. Here we must hold fast to that which should be clear to us from what we have said so far: “The priestly ministry, being the ministry of the Church itself, can only be fulfilled in the hierarchical union of the whole body of the Church” (PO 15). On the other hand, we must here be cautious not to let ourselves be led into considering things with the false opposition of “those above” and us “here below”.
We can already understand the Incarnation of GOD as a “pastoral action”; it is a salvific act of GOD by means of which He brings grace to us men according to our capacities and circumstances (cf. Jn 15:22; Mt 13:13.17; 1 Jn 1:1).
This effort applies to the teaching, priestly and pastoral offices for the whole history of salvation. Of course, the call to conversion, the way of salvation, that is, the way of the cross, is not inviting, and for this reason the pastor of souls must attempt like a father to give his children the bitter medicine they need. In order to avoid the danger though, that the father fail to give the child the one medicine that can save him out of a false sense of compassion and a desire not to inflict pain, Pope Pius XII offers the following orientation in his encyclical on the priesthood:
“We are far from holding that the apostolate must not be in keeping with the reality of modern life and that projects adapted to the needs of our time should not be promoted. But since the whole apostolate carried on by the Church is by its essence under the control of the Hierarchy, new forms must not be introduced save with the Bishop’s approval….In this way, all will be done in an orderly and disciplined manner and, the efficacy of priestly action will be assured.
Let everyone be persuaded of this: that it is necessary to follow the Will of GOD and not that of the world, and to regulate the activity of the apostolate according to the directives of the Hierarchy and not according to personal opinions. It is a vain illusion to think oneself able to hide one’s own inner poverty and still cooperate effectively in spreading the Kingdom of Christ by novelties in his method of action.”
Then the Holy Father addresses what is today the most actual problem facing the social teaching of the Church:
“Errors of both economic systems [i.e., communism and capitalism] and the harmful results deriving from them must persuade everyone, especially priests, to remain faithful to the social teaching of the Church, to spread the knowledge of it and, to the extent of their power, to reduce it to practical application. This teaching is the only one that can remedy the evils We have denounced, evils which are so widespread. This teaching unites and perfects the demands of justice and the duties of charity….Ordinarily, the carrying out of these Christian social principles in public life is the task of the laity” (Menti Nostrae, 23-9-1950).
In general, we must be cautious in our preaching not to manipulate GOD Himself by the proclamation of half or distorted truths; for if we alter the image of GOD, the order in creation, we distort not only our way of looking upon GOD, but we end up preaching a different, changed GOD.
How often John Paul II makes reference to this truth, especially in relationship to perhaps the best image of GOD found in the natural order, the family. But it applies to dogmatic truths as well, which offer men answers to the basic questions about the sense of their lives and so help them, that they not easily be led astray by the false offers made by the sects and pagan philosophies so prevalent today.
With regard to the administration of the sacraments it seems there is especially a need for growth in pastoral activity in relation to marriage, in order to address a concrete problem.
The Church desires that: “If they can do so without serious inconvenience, Catholics who have not yet received the sacrament of confirmation are to receive it before being admitted to marriage.” And “It is strongly recommended that those to be married approach the sacraments of penance and the Most Holy Eucharist so that they may fruitfully receive the sacrament of marriage” (Can. 1065).
The lack of preparation for confession before marriage, and above all for the communions of many who participate in the ceremony, inclines many parish priests to perform the marriage outside of the mass. Their intention is good, but do they act with proper understanding and a responsible obedience? Our Lord teaches us that we can “discern the spirits” by considering the fruits of our actions. Where does the solution of having the marriage outside of mass lead to? Where that of marriage within the mass?
If the marriage is celebrated only with the service of the Word of GOD, then one probably takes less pains about the confession of the couple, which in any case should go before marriage; matrimony is not seen as clearly as an image of the love of CHRIST for His Church, which love is celebrated and made present in the mass, nor are the ecclesial and social dimensions and responsibilities of parenthood as clearly expressed; the ceremony turns into a seemingly personal affair or into another version of a civil marriage.
Of course, one ought not to celebrate the mass simply because it belongs. Much more ought we to see the celebration of matrimony as a great pastoral opportunity. The Church obliges the pastor of souls to furnish the Christian faithful assistance (obligatione tenetur) especially through “preaching and catechesis…, through personal preparation” (that is, not limited to a relatively “anonymous” Cana Conference), and finally through “a fruitful liturgical celebration of marriage…” (can. 1063). In the personal preparation one is able in most cases to lead the couple to the sacrament of penance.
The homily that is foreseen in the celebration offers a wonderful opportunity to speak about CHRIST’s love for the Church, for the faithful, imaged in the love of the spouses, and at the same time a concrete catechism on the mass, the necessity of seeking forgiveness in the sacrament of penance and the requirements for receiving Holy Communion, and thereby prevent possible sacrilegious communions of the guests. Where the priest does not meet with a childlike faith in the couple, he must always strive with his pastoral care to fulfill the Will of GOD, and also here applies the sayings: “Love finds a way” and “He who seeks finds!”
How can we address the present difficulties of broken marriages if not by taking more care before they happen! How but with a serious effort to lead them into a life with GOD, so that GOD’s grace might help these people to live their lives together — something not so easy these days, especially when one considers the poor character formation which most of them have received. Or to put it another way: Will a couple really strive to live the sacrament of matrimony, that is, this unity with and in CHRIST, if they previously did not seek this union in the sacrament of reconciliation and communion? Is it not possible to receive the sacrament of marriage unworthily, that is, sacrilegiously?
This is not a question of falling into the error of applying quantitative or mathematical measures to the spirit and to strive for merely external perfection, but that of the spirit of the law, the intention of the lawgiver, that is, to understand and fulfill the will of GOD! In any case, to look only to fulfill the minimum requirements in this matter is not the solution! One could almost ask if departing from the directives of the Church doesn’t amount to a kind of pastoral suicide, or lead to a kind of miscarriage. A loving, humble and zealous obedience to Church directives surely shows the best prospects of success.
d) Love which overcomes all things: What is more beautiful…?
It is not a matter here of giving out patent formulas, but to recognize that the fulfillment of our obligations as instruments of GOD is surely not always easy; but it is by far the best way. Even more: resting on the supernatural charity with which GOD has called us to be His representatives before men, and has placed us in a spousal relation with the Holy Church, we must always put the question of obedience before ourselves in the following manner:
What is more beautiful than fulfilling the Will of the beloved, of the Divinely Beloved?!; as His Bride, to do what is pleasing to Him, the Holy and Immaculate, the much longed for. And he who has understood that — with supernatural faith, of course, and with the love of GOD in his heart — understands also when we ask: What greater thing can we do for the world, for souls, yes, even for the whole creation, than to bind them with the chains of Divine Love?!
Can I, a sinful man and one constantly inclined to pride, believe that I am able to offer to men something better than GOD wishes to offer?!
Can I consider myself capable of knowing what brings GOD and His Bride the Church more joy and glory, than that which GOD Himself desires through His Church?! Who am I to think that I am capable of judging the wishes of GOD’s Heart and what serves man’s true happiness?!
Do you think the Apostles responded to the Lord: “And what if we find a different ass than the one you described?” or: “but what if someone offers us a different one beforehand?” No! In this regard, we can consider the struggle of Peter at the Last Supper: “You shall never wash my feet…” — There is a faith in the greatness of JESUS, yet without obedience! – “You do not now understand!” Then: “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” — An obedience without faith. – “He who has bathed does not need to wash, expect for his feet…” until he was able to obey exactly, and through his blind obedience find his way to faith (surely, even in the end he did not fully understand).
And today, if it is CHRIST Himself who baptizes: should He not be able to say (through the Church, His representative), how He wants to baptize (the rite), how He wishes to make the unbloody renewal of His sacrifice (the rite)?! That is a long way from an empty formalism, but quite close to that unity of mind of which Pope Leo XIII (p. 3) and the Second Vatican Council (CD 28, p. 16) following St. Paul (cf. Phil 2:5) spoke and which is demanded by charity. Who would dare to interfere with the Lord, or attempt to show Him another way? He who has a notion of what he ought to do as a priest, allows the Lord all freedom, even in determining the “how” of things!!
We know some of the thousands upon thousands of false ways which surround the one way of Truth, which is CHRIST, who became man in poverty, who died on the cross in obedience, who gives Himself in love till the end of time in the Holy EUCHARIST; he gives Himself to all those who wish to become like Him in the same poverty, in the same obedience, out of love.
“Following the example of CHRIST’s meekness and gentleness, the Apostles preached” –and we wish to do the same with them — “the Word of GOD with full confidence in the divine power of that word to destroy those forces hostile to GOD (Eph 6:11-17) and lead men to believe and obey CHRIST” (2 Cor 10:3-5) (DH 11).
3. Obedience in the Life of the Faithful
a) The laity also are bound by religious obedience
Just as for the health of the body it is necessary to have a proper ordering of all the members, so it follows that obedience is not only demanded of the priest on account of his office and of religious in virtue of their vows, but also of the laity according to their state and functions in the Church. “The faithful, for their part, are obliged to submit to their bishops’ decision, made in the name of CHRIST, in matters of faith and morals, and to adhere to it with a ready and respectful allegiance of mind. This loyal submission of the will and intellect must be given, in a special way, to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra in such wise, indeed, that his supreme teaching authority be acknowledged with respect, and sincere assent be given to decisions made by him, conformably with his manifest mind and intention” (LG 25).
We sense in this word of the Church not so much the severity of a command as the caring love of a Mother who counts on the love of her children. Nevertheless, the Church is conscious of Her serious obligation to teach and form the faithful; she knows about the end and goal determined by GOD and knows how to get there. For this reason the Church requires of the faithful a participation in the liturgy, which has been described, not without reason, by one theologian as the “novitiate of the laity.”
In addition the Church offers to all, everything necessary for the development of the life of the soul and its maturing to the full stature of CHRIST; the sacraments for healthy growth and as a further aid to these the sacramentals. She can say together with St. Paul:
“You learned from us how you ought to live and to please GOD…do so more and more….For GOD has not called us to uncleanness, but to holiness. Therefore, whoever disregards this, disregards not man but GOD, Who gives His HOLY SPIRIT to you” (1 Thes 4:1.7-8..
b) “How you ought to live in order to please GOD”
The Church takes so seriously the invitation and obligation to strive after growth in the life of grace until one reaches holiness according to ones state in life, that she postpones baptism in those cases where there is fully lacking a hope that the one baptized will be brought up in the Catholic religion (cf. can. 868). For in baptism, the one baptized, together with his godparents, are taking on many responsibilities: some of which are, for example, the rejection of sin, a constant effort to come to know the faith better, the love to speak with GOD in prayer, the readiness to receive the later sacraments and to give testimony of GOD and His Church before the world (cf. can. 209-222).
In the sacrament of confirmation the baptized take on the general spiritual role of “Mother Church” as a personal obligation. As an “adult in the faith” he should be a witness of GOD. In order to accomplish this effectively he must live united to GOD, orient his life ever again by the Will of GOD, correspond to His commandments and directives (e.g. the laws of the Church), check up on things by means of examination of conscience, and correct himself in the regular reception of the sacrament of penance.
He should, according to the will of the Church, “diligently apply himself to a more profound knowledge of revealed truth” (LG 35); he should also maintain a “life of intimate union with CHRIST in the Church…by the spiritual helps common to all the faithful, chiefly by active participation in the liturgy” and the reception of the sacraments (AA 4; cf. LG 33).
In the Church, “joined to CHRIST the Head and in communion with all His saints, the faithful must in the first place reverence the memory ‘of the glorious ever Virgin Mary, Mother of GOD and of Our Lord JESUS CHRIST'” (LG 52; cf. ebda 7.69; can. 1186). It is, finally, also their obligation to faithfully fulfill their work in the world and “to care for orphans and widows when they are in need” (Jas 1:27).
c) Obedience is lived most perfectly in loving collaboration
The Church assures all the faithful of their “right to receive in abundance the help of the spiritual goods of the Church, especially that of the Word of GOD and the sacraments from the pastors.” And “like all Christians, the laity should promptly accept in Christian obedience what is decided by the pastors who, as teachers and rulers of the Church, represent CHRIST. In this they will follow CHRIST’s example who, by his obedience unto death, opened the blessed way of the liberty of the sons of GOD to all men” (LG 37). This obedience, however, does not exclude a responsible membership on the part of the laity: “By reason of the knowledge, competence or pre-eminence which they have the laity are empowered — indeed sometimes obliged — to manifest their opinion on those things which pertain to the good of the Church” (LG 37).
If we priests see here and there too little readiness to obey among the faithful, too little of the joy of the children of GOD as a fruit of the way of obedience shown us by CHRIST, then we should use it as an occasion for an examination of conscience, whether we perhaps do not permit them to experience too little of the fatherly Love of GOD and the motherly care of the Holy Church and because of this make obedience burdensome for them, or whether we “recognize and promote the dignity and responsibility of the laity too little.”
The Church desires from her priests: “They should with paternal love consider attentively in CHRIST initial moves, suggestions and desires proposed by the laity. Moreover, the pastors must respect and recognize the liberty which belongs to all in the terrestrial city” (LG 37). Naturally, the same applies also for the relationship between bishop and priest or superior and religious!
The Church should be “one single family” (CD 28); the “priests should unite their efforts and combine their resources under the leadership of the bishops and the Supreme Pontiff and thus eliminate division and dissension in every shape or form, so that all mankind may be led into the unity of the family of GOD” (LG 28).
Only through the uniting bond of love in a life of obedience does that collaboration come about, which makes possible the final task of the Church with regard to the obedience she owes GOD; it is namely, “the work of the entire Church to fashion men able to establish the proper scale of values on the temporal order and direct it towards GOD through CHRIST” (AA 7; cf. Mk 16:15; Rm 8:12).
According to J. H. Newman (in The Dream of Gerontius), “The angels are…executors of the visible order of the world,…the true causes of motion, of light, of life and of those elemental principles of the physical universe which give us the notions of cause and effect and of what we call the laws of nature.” They stand ready also in this task to help us in a loving collaboration with the fulfillment of our obedience to GOD in the life of the Church (cf. Heb 1:14).
Obedience is a Mystery of Faith!
Just as the Church, as a work of the grace of GOD, is a mystery of faith, so also the life in her and all relationships to her spring forth from the faith!
The lack of courage to live poverty has its roots in a lack of faithful trust in the providential love and attentiveness of GOD.
At the root of a broken purity and an abandoned celibacy there stands tepidity in the love of GOD, which then leads to a decrease in faith.
The same applies to obedience: Our devotion to GOD through His Church and her order is easy or difficult according to the degree of our supernatural faith, or, it is only a problem for those who do not believe! This faith is a grace; yet it can be petitioned! Since we are priests who have solemnly promised obedience to the Church, we must first be men of faith and of prayer, then we will also be able to be good and faithful, obedient servants of Our Lord, to whom He will one day say: Come, good and faithful servant! Because you have shown me obedience, enter into the joy of your Lord!
Let us also be courageous preachers of the Faith and of obedience before the faithful! As much as the Faith is always an annoyance to the self-centered sinner, likewise, and even more so, must we trust and insist upon man’s orientation to GOD, in all that the Faith teaches us, and thereby confidently await the blossoming of their souls. The Faith today is being extinguished. A smoldering wick is brought most quickly back to flame.
We must have the courage to simply presuppose the love of GOD sown in the soul at baptism, and then to boldly proclaim the mysteries of faith and thus also religious obedience! We will find open hearts! We will arouse new faith — and naturally, increase the annoyance of the unwilling and so hasten a division.
Obedience, also that in and to the Church, is before all else and essentially an act of our faith, of our love, of our confident surrender to GOD.
Nothing of this will change, we can not escape it. Therefore, we can boldly guarantee:
He who believes in GOD and wills to love Him, will also find himself on the best path to come to an appreciation of obedience and to love it, and always by means of it to more perfectly find GOD!
“But when the Son of man comes, will he find faith of earth” (Lk 18:8)?
My Lord and my GOD! Help my faith, that it become strong,
for then my obedience will become strong and easier for me!
Lord, help my hope, that it not be shaken by fatigue or despair,
for then my obedience will become more courageous and faithful, and easier for me!
GOD, You my great love, come, come, and set me on fire with your love,
for then my obedience will be set aflame, and give light to others, that they might find You. Amen.
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