Authority and Obedience Rooted in Christ
Mons. Charles M. Mangan
New Document Sheds Light on an Ever Ancient, Ever New, Element of Consecrated Life
"The Service of Authority and Obedience" is the title of the recent Instruction, dated 11 May 2008 — the Solemnity of Pentecost, from the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. This work provides another look at authority and obedience in consecrated life and the interplay between them.
One may argue that the realities of authority and obedience are so basic to consecrated life, and have been explained so often over the years, that this Document is really unnecessary. The Document offers the rationale for its publication: "The principle intent of this Instruction is that of reaffirming that obedience and authority, even though practiced in many ways, always have a relation to the Lord Jesus, the obedient Servant. Moreover, it proposes to help authority in its triple service: to the individual persons called to live their own consecration (First Part); to construct fraternal communities (Second Part); to participate in the common mission (Third Part)" (n. 3).
Furthermore, "in recent years the way of listening to and living authority and obedience has changed both in the Church and in society. This is due to, among other things: the coming to awareness of the value of the individual person, with his or her vocation, and intellectual, affective and spiritual gifts, with his or her freedom and rational abilities; the centrality of the spirituality of communion, with the valuing of the instruments that help one to live it; a different and less individualistic way of understanding mission, in the sharing of all members of the People of God, with the resulting forms of concrete collaboration" (ibid.).
In the "First Part" entitled "Consecration and search for the will of God", both authority and obedience are situated within the foundational commitment to follow Jesus Christ and seek His will. Anyone wanting to be obedient must genuinely listen. "Obedience to God is the path of growth and, therefore, of freedom for the person because this obedience allows for the acceptance of a plan or a will different from one's own that not only does not deaden or lessen human dignity but is its basis" (n. 5). The one striving for obedience to God, desires to listen to and adhere to his Word.
Christ is the example par excellence of obedience to the Father. Jesus embraced the perfect will of His Father, drinking freely from the "difficult chalice.... In imitation of Christ and learning from Him, with a gesture of supreme freedom and of unconditional trust, the consecrated person has placed his or her will in the hands of the Father to make a perfect and pleasing sacrifice to him (cf. Rm 12:1)" (n. 8).
Obedience to God is often directed through human entities that serve as intermediaries, such as "the Rule, the superiors, the community, the signs of the times, the expectations of others and, above all, the poor" (n. 11). The Holy Spirit is needed by those who are called to obey and by those who exercise authority. In fact, all consecrated persons "must sincerely seek the will of the Father, because otherwise the reason itself for this choice of life would disappear" (n. 12).
Persons in authority in consecrated life possess a spiritual authority. Some of their obligations include: to guarantee that the community has time for prayer; to promote the dignity of the human person; to inspire courage and hope when things are difficult; to keep alive the charism of the Institute and the sentire cum Ecclesia; to encourage ongoing formation among the members (cf. n. 13).
The Superior, in fact, is the first one who must obey. He obeys God, the Church, the Roman Pontiff and the proper law of the Institute and exercises authority in a spirit of service, displaying confidence in the community members and engaging them in dialogue.
At the heart of a Superior's authority is genuine pastoral concern for his Brothers or Sisters, drawing light from Sacred Scripture and a profound liturgical life.
The witness of consecrated persons regarding obedience and authority must not be underestimated. The consecrated person demonstrates that God is the goal of his life. The freedom modelled by Christ Himself is the liberty for which the consecrated person pines.
The "Second Part" of the Instruction is entitled: "Authority and Obedience in Community Life". Fraternal life in community, which "is a constitutive element of religious life" (n. 16), demands fraternal love. A correct understanding of obedience and authority is helpful to fraternal living.
"The spirituality of communion presents itself as the spiritual climate of the Church at the beginning of the Third Millennium and, therefore, as an active and exemplary task of religious life at all levels. It is the main pathway for the future of a believing life and of Christian witness. It finds its uncompromising reference in the Eucharistic mystery always seen as more central, precisely because 'the Eucharist is thus constitutive of the Church's being and activity' and 'it is found at the root of the Church as a mystery of communion'" (n. 19).
Holiness, then, is not strictly for the individual but is also an experience for the community, in which the Risen Lord is present in and through it.
Persons in authority perform a great service of listening; they create an environment of trust, which allows dialogue, sharing and co-responsibility. Superiors are to seek the contribution of each member, respecting the individual while working for the common good.
Since the matter of "community discernment" has gained attention in some quarters, one may ask: is entrusting a decision to the community a valid way of proceeding? "Community discernment is not a substitute for the nature and function of persons in authority, from whom the final decision is expected. Nevertheless, persons in authority cannot ignore that the community is the best place in which to recognize and accept the will of God" (20e).
Superiors are to take seriously their responsibility to make decisions even when they do not necessarily please the members of the community, which cannot remain "in a state of continuous discernment" (20f). Obedience is required when the period of discernment has ceased.
There is no place in consecrated life for a haughty superior. "Obedience even under the best conditions is not easy, but it is made easier when the consecrated person sees persons in authority place themselves at the humble and hardworking service of the community and of the mission" (n. 21).
The "Third Part", "In Mission", examines the "sending forth" basic to consecrated life. Jesus' own example teaches us that mission and obedience are inextricable. By desiring to do the holy will of God, which demands obedience, one has begun the mission entrusted to him.
Persons in authority are to encourage the members of the Institute to accept their responsibilities and to confront diversity in a spirit of communion. Furthermore, they should assure that there is a balance among .the many facets of consecrated life, preserving, for example, periods for prayer, work and rest. Superiors must show mercy, possess a sense of justice and monitor collaboration with the laity.
Although consecrated persons may be called to accept a ''difficult obedience", or, in the words of the Father of Western Monasticism, St. Benedict of Nursia (+543), an obedience which is "very burdensome or positively impossible to perform", consecrated persons are to recall "that the model is always Jesus of Nazareth, who even during his Passion asked God that his will, as Father, be done, nor did he pull back from death on the Cross" (n. 26).
Obedience is really "a supreme act of freedom, expressed in total and confident abandoning of oneself to Christ" (ibid.).
What about a situation when the conscience of a consecrated religious impedes him from following the Superior's directive? "The consecrated person will then have to reflect long before concluding that it is not the obedience received but what is sensed within him or herself that represents the will of God" (n. 27).
In words that have been cited often during the last 35 years, the Servant of God Paul VI, who demonstrated a special solicitude for consecrated life, in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelica testificatio of 29 June 1971, declared: "apart from an order manifestly contrary to the laws of God or the constitutions of the institute, or one involving a serious and certain evil — in which case there is no obligation to obey — the Superior's decisions concern a field in which the calculation of the greater good can vary according to the point of view. To conclude from the fact that a directive seems objectively less good that it is unlawful and contrary to conscience would mean an unrealistic disregard of the obscurity and ambivalence of many human realities. Besides, refusal to obey involves an often serious loss for the common good. A religious should not easily conclude that there is a contradiction between the judgment of his conscience and that of his superior. This exceptional situation will sometimes involve true interior suffering, after the pattern of Christ himself 'who learned obedience through suffering' (Heb 5:8)" (ibid.).
Although Superiors can suffer discouragement they must always remember that, despite the inherent hardships, fidelity to one's task "becomes the way of personal sanctification and a means of salvation because of what he or she suffers" (n. 28).
There is an intense spiritual battle intrinsic to the desire to obey. Who will win — I or God himself? All of us will be required to make an act of obedience with which we will conclude our earthly journeys. This obedience will be "an expression of abandonment to the good Father who will call us definitively to himself, into his reign of infinite light, where our seeking will have found its conclusion and our eyes will see him in a Sunday without end. Then we will be fully obedient and fulfilled, because we will be saying 'yes' forever to that Love that has made us happy with him and in him" (n. 29).
"The Service of Authority and Obedience" offers a fresh opportunity to reconsider the important concepts of authority and obedience, which are not "two distinct realities or things absolutely opposed but rather two dimensions of the same evangelical reality, of the same Christian mystery, two complementary ways of participating in the same oblation of Christ" (n. 12).
Weekly Edition in English
13 August 2008, page 7
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