Demythologizing the Superior

Author: Cardinal Pericle Felici


Cardinal Pericle Felici

A widely distributed weekly for the Italian clergy carries a report of the conclusions of a congress of the superiors of the Seminaries of an Italian region in which representatives of the seminarians of the region took an active and, as they said, exemplarily constructive part. It is not our intention to linger over the vast theme which was dealt with in the congress nor over the conclusions, since we do not have at hand anything but the report of the weekly which is done with stylistic elegance but with concessions to commonplaces, legalities, triumphalism etc.

However, one phrase struck me particularly, which, since it was given in quotation marks must have been stated emphatically by an eminent participant at the Congress: "Luckily, today we are witnessing a demythologizing of the figure of the superior, with whom it is now possible to initiate personal relationships."

Today it is the fashion to talk of demythologization. This word, which cannot be found in good dictionaries and which therefore can be considered a neologism, literally means to remove from a person, an event, a fact, or an object, its mythical character; that is, its legendary or unjustifiably exaggerated characteristics. It can, however, also have very different meanings and can lead to conclusions which do not have the same weight or acceptability.

In fact, one can speak of a justifiable demythologization for the sake of the triumph of truth, such as when the truth becomes freed from false glitter which obscured its innate splendour. A magnificent romanesque architecture which is hidden, because of the bad taste of some period, by trimmings, baroque stucco-work and decorations, appears more stately, more majestic, more evocative if, through an able work of restoration, it is brought back to the original. Some persons or events, even of our times, which have been falsified by the tastes and passions of persons involved, would gain in beauty, humanity and splendour if they were wisely brought back to their true state. This, on the other hand, is often the responsibility of historical criticism, which must, among other things, always remember the otherworldly realities which, although they do not submit to empirical experimentation, have a well determined influence on history...

But there is another type of demythologization: that which regards the sacred deposit of the Faith. They have begun with the demythologizing of God and the Holy Trinity, and passed on to the demythologization of Christ, the Gospel, and the principal dogmas of our Faith, and end (but is it ended?) with the demythologization of the priesthood and the Magisterium of the Church, which, unfortunately, many no longer obey, or at least they do not obey with that spirit of faith which is necessary. I am obviously not talking about the investigation and explanation of dogma, which renders the truth of the faith more intelligible to the men of our times; but I am talking of real demythologization, which is based on the erroneous presupposition that that which the Church has taught up to now belongs to a great degree to the world of fables and, even if it is necessary for children, it is not at all suitable for the adult man of today who feels vividly his dignity and maturity.

Now these demythologizers do not realize that what they are saying with immense sufficiency, has already been said and written with equal sufficiency and obstinacy by their predecessors, who are the heretics and heresiarchs, about whom not only the Church but also history itself, reason, and often good sense have expressed a negative judgment. The history of heresies is, basically, the history of attempted demythologization of the truths of the faith. If we wanted to list them all we would have to write a history of the Church. The doctrine of Vatican II judges them all once again; and the Symbol of the Faith of the People of God, which was pronounced by Paul VI at the end of the year of the Faith, and which contains a clear reflection of that doctrine, as well as of the traditional doctrine of the Church, can forewarn us against false mirages and false allurements.

Now we come to the subject of the demythologization of the superior which was treated by the Catholic weekly mentioned above.

Certainly one cannot say that obedience to the superior is and has always been observed by all; but up until now this was attributed either to human weakness or bad will. Upright people were not tempted to resort to the right of controversy or to the demythologization of the superior. Today the attitude, at least in some quarters of the Christian life, seems to be different. It is necessary, however, that we be specific.

Undoubtedly, the concept of the superior who with words or deeds says: I am the law; or who believes that he is the sole authorized agent of God's will and imposes everything, including that over which he has no right, in the name of God (recently I heard of a director of altar boys who, in order to convince his youngsters to obey at the blast of a whistle, came out with this statement—when I whistle, God whistles!), finally the concept of the superior who, with regard to his subjects, believes that everything is permitted for him—if in the past this was accepted in a well-ordered community, today it is no longer so. The Council itself, while giving prominence to the figure and office of him who holds authority in the Church, not only defines accurately the limits of this authority but also emphasizes the contribution which the subjects must make for the betterment of the society.

If the so-called demythologization were limited to bringing the figure and the responsibility of the superior back to its just limits or to expressing the desire for prudent, wise, balanced and holy superiors, there would be nothing wrong with it, even if in this case the word is not pleasing and everything must be done within the framework of respect and veneration which the disciple owes to him who is his legitimate superior.

Unfortunately in many cases this demythologizing, even if coloured with splendid rhetoric, turns in other directions, not all of the same nature but all false and dangerous.

The first tends to consider the superior as a person, who must naturally be interested in his subjects (who, on the other hand, no longer appear as such) but as an equal, that is, as one of themselves, perhaps older and more experienced, who must provide for the common well-being according to directives established by decision of the group, which often means through the initiative of a few of the most enterprising and violent (some seminarians of a college described their rector as the one who provides their meals!).

The second direction is even more dangerous. In this, the superior appears as a poor man, placed in the position of scapegoat for all the difficulties in the social life of the community and for which there must be someone responsible. This seems to be the concept of superiors for those who claim the right to criticize them continually and say or write even the most outrageous things about them.

Finally, the third direction is the most common. While seeming the least dangerous it is really the source of the others. It is caused by a lack of the sense of the supernatural, on account of which the superior is no longer recognized as the expression of the divine which is inherent in his authority, but he is considered instead as holding authority derived from the designation of the people or from his gifts of intelligence, will and sagacity, or from his academic degrees and experience, that is, from the personal skill of the superior himself.

Demythologization is generally taken in this last sense. But no one is unaware of how dangerous this is, especially in the ecclesiastical context. In fact, we respect and obey superiors because "there is no authority except from God" (Cfr. Rom. 13, 1) and "he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed" (Cfr. Rom. 13, 2). In the Church, then, a unique mission and a power which is not of this world was entrusted to Peter and the Apostles and their successors. "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations... teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Math. 28, 18-20) " whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven " (Math. 18, 18); "He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me (Luke 10, 16). These are divine words which bring about a mysterious representation in Peter and in the Apostles, as in their successors, for the exercising of that authority which crosses the boundaries of this world and is absolutely necessary for tile life and work of the Church. To wish to introduce a democracy in this as if we were dealing with a worldly society, would be contrary to the plan of Christ himself. It is a betrayal of his message, destroying, at the very foundation, that unity for which he prayed on the eve of his death and of which the Eucharist remains the reality and everlasting symbol.

With regard to the more specific problems or young seminarians, while recognizing the urgency and the necessity of a wise solution to these problems, we must be careful not to fall into the mistake of an easy and dangerous "cult of youth". We would open the door to disorder and endless insubordination were we to introduce into seminaries and the education of seminarians criteria which rather than being democratic are in conformity with the demands but quite dubious needs of the modern lay school.

We must, on the other hand, distrust those who speak of the rights of the masses who are sometimes euphemistically called the people of God, as well as those who, under the mantle of the Council, carry on a monologue about dialogue. Heaven help us if they were in charge. It would be the end of the rights of the People of God, and the end of dialogue! We have had plenty of examples.

What we need is a radical demythologization of these demythologizers, to bring to light their hidden ambitions and their improper and dangerous aspirations.

Christ obeyed those who were his superiors in his earthly life. He saw in their will the will of the Father. He did not demythologize even if it was often a case of persons of dubious moral character. Saint Peter exhorted the faithful to obey their legitimate superiors, even though they were overbearing (cfr. I Peter 2, 18; and Ephesians 6, 5; Col. 3, 22, Tit 2, 9). He did not advise demythologization. Many Saints, the champions of our Faith, for the sake of obedience, did things which seemed foolish to others, and now they enjoy the glory of the victors.

Instead, how many problems and how much confusion and how much damage is caused by the modern disputers and demythologizers. For the purpose of exalting human dignity they end up by oppressing it and debasing it. Even in the liturgical sphere, some question and disobey the legitimate authority. They carry out experiments which are crazy and freakish, deluding themselves that by these means they are bringing more souls to Christ, and forgetting that the great liturgy, with which Christ attracted humanity and brought it back to God, was based on love, obedience and sacrifice: "Father, not what I will but what thou wilt" (Mark 14, 36).

I quote from memory a Greek passage. I do not remember the author (Alas, dear Horace, the fleeting years are slipping by: Carm. 2, 14, 1-2).

During the storm when the ship is in danger, the crew centres its attention on the captain, ready to respond to his every signal, to obey his commands, like an orchestra that watches and obeys the conductor. In this man, who directs, urges, commands, all see their only hope of salvation.

The image of the Church as a ship battered by the storm, is old and ever current. We must save her. Christ cared for her and will continue to do so; he always watches over the mystical ship. But we must also cooperate with him; it is part of the economy of salvation. However, proud and insubordinate disputation will not help, nor will a destructive demythologization. What will help is the spirit of faith, obedience and charity, which is the true spirit of Christ, the sole saviour of the Church and of the world.

Is it then a good thing to demythologize the figure of the superior? In the best of cases it is only a source of equivocation and confusion.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
5 December 1968, page 8

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