On the CICL Document: The Service of Authority and Obedience

Author: LOR

On the CICL Document: The Service of Authority and Obedience

Congregation for Institutes of Religious Life and Societies of Apostolic Life Document

Free in obedience, freed from obedience, free to obey. These are all unconventional signs that one observes in the new Document: The Service of Authority and Obedience that the Vatican Congregation for the institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life published, on the occasion of the 71st semestral assembly of the Union of Superiors General (USG) dedicated specifically to this theme, held 28-30 May [2008], in Rome.

The Church's capacity to dialogue with the world in a credible way also passes through a new understanding of the sense that consecrated life has in and of itself. The following interview and commentary help to clarify the importance of a Document that testifies to a qualitative growth in consecrated life.

Religious obedience requires moral maturity
L'Osservatore Romano

Archbishop Gianfranco Agostino Gardin, O.F.M. Conv., titular Archbishop of Tor-cello and Secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, granted the following interview to L'Osservatore Romano in Italian. The following is a translation.

Does "The Service of Authority and Obedience", the title of the new Instruction, risk being taken for yet another step to normalize recently established Religious Institutes which seem less stable than in the past?

The title, in and of itself, has no particular bias or colour. It only says the Instruction is about the exercise of authority and obedience in Religious Institutes. But perhaps the noun "service" referring to authority expresses an evangelical character of this duty.

The Latin subtitle can shed light on it, as expressed in the first words of the Document: Faciem tuam, Domine, requiram ("Your Face, Lord, do I seek", cf. Ps 27[26]:8). We could say that the Document presents obedience on a wide horizon, as the fruit of an impassioned quest for God and his will (this is the meaning of the subtitle).

We are all called to this obedience, authority included, indeed, authority first. Within this great theme indications are offered for an evangelical exercise of authority. More than normalization in regard to religious life, it is an aid to live this choice of life with more intense Gospel fidelity.

What need does the Instruction address? How did the text come about?

In these years authority and obedience have been subjected to the influence of cultural changes, both positive and negative, and also by new emphases in the ecclesial environment and within religious life itself. One thinks, for example, on the insistence to respect the dignity of the person, but also of the sometimes exaggerated concept of the autonomy of the individual. One also thinks of the importance of the "spirituality of communion" and for religious, of the fraternal life in community.

The Document seeks to evaluate the best of the recent changes and the current sensitivity, maintaining, at the same time, the firm points of religious life, those that make it an authentic following of the Lord in all ages. This is the explanation of the Document, whose origins go back to a "Plenary Session" of the Dicastery for Consecrated Life, and which has been drawn up with the consultation of the Dicastery Members and also of the Superiors General.

Can this Document contribute to overcome the crisis that both male and female religious life is facing?

I fear that there are many superficial affirmations today on the theme "crises of consecrated life". In fact, such crises refer to the numerical loss; but the number, in itself does not automatically mean quality, neither can one say that one Institute is better than another only because it attracts more vocations.

John Paul II wrote that the true defeat of consecrated life is not in the numerical decline, but in the lack of spiritual adherence to the Lord. The crises of consecrated life is often a reflection of the crises of the Christian community, within which its vital collocation lies. With this Document our Dicastery simply and humbly intends to help consecrated men and women to live with awareness, but also with joy, their quest for God and their fidelity to him.

The youth in ancient Christian countries are less attracted to consecrated life and many religious institutes are declining. What effect does a misconception of religious obedience have on the decline in vocations?

The reasons why fewer people are entering consecrated life in various countries are varied and often complex, and one cannot hastily ascribe the loss of attraction for consecrated life to them. It is true, however, that a misconception of obedience, of a militaristic flavour for example, or rather getting sucked under by a vague "fraternalism", or even a non-evangelical exercise of authority could dissuade entrance to religious life.

Has the introduction of "conscientious objection" in consecrated life been a contradiction?

It would be were conscientious objection understood as a type of mean expedient to elude the duties of obedience. The mention of this theme in the Document instead helps one to understand that obedience in religious life does not require and does not produce passive subjects, deprived of responsibility, but people of whom a profound moral maturity is required, which, as is known, means the capacity to act with a deep conscience aimed at seeking and accomplishing the true good. Indeed, on this topic the Document highlighted a passage of Evangelica testificatio of Paul VI a text from 29 June 1971 but still valid today.

The Instruction seems to contribute to demythologise consecrated life acknowledging all the fatigue of daily life in the actual community.

It is so. To demythologise does not mean to attenuate the great ideals, but rather, to help fill daily life with realism and Gospel wisdom.

What does the text mean by "difficult obedience" and "difficult authority"?

It meant to recall the fact that obedience as a blind exercise of authority can entail difficult moments and suffering. It is not by chance that a biblical expression is repeated several times in the text: "he learned obedience through what he suffered" referred to Christ by the Letter to the Hebrews (5:8). Superiors, as well as the norms that guide the life of consecrated men and women, are "human mediations" of God's will. As the text observes, however, it always deals with precarious, fallible mediations, that can give way to fatigue, uncertainty, anguishing questions by those who must give the dispositions and by those who must obey. Already St. Benedict spoke of a possible obedience that is "very grave, or even impossible to execute"; and St. Francis of Assisi considered the case in which the religious "saw better things and more useful to his soul that those that the Superior ordered". However, it is an "ancient" theme that requires comprehension and dialogue, but also a mature vision of faith.

Poverty, chastity, obedience are the three renunciations required of consecrated men and women that are formalized in just as many commitments. Perhaps today too obedience is the most difficult of the three vows and the most worrisome?

They are three renunciations, but, in the logic of the sequela of Jesus, they acquire, instead, the character of a choice to conform oneself to the One by whose beauty he/she has been conquered. It is not easy to say if obedience is the most difficult. Each person has his own history, his own sensitivity, his own weak points and his own strengths.


Free in obedience

Fr. Pascual Chávez Villanueva
President, Union of Superiors General

It seems to me a concrete and profound Document, original and exceptionally open to the current situation and at the same time anchored in the tradition of the Church, and above all, it is evocative and stirring. Even though it is addressed primarily to Sisters and Brothers who belong to religious life, due to its essential reference to fraternal life, the Document touches the marrow of every Christian's life.

Among the many other reasons listed here, mention is made to one which is universal: the origin and the goal of the life of every human being, seen in the aspect of "obedience"; with an act of obedience, although unaware, we are called to life accepting that good will that has preferred to call us out of nonexistence. We will conclude the journey with another act of obedience (cf. n. 29), presenting death as that final, radical and definitive entrustment into the hands of "Deus semper maior".

The centrality of obedience in the life of each Christian contrasts with the irrelevance with which it is seen and lived in the current culture, even ecclesial. In some Catholic milieus it is even seen with some gestures of rejection, perhaps because it is considered as something that goes against the fundamental human values of freedom, autonomy, and even of one's conscience.

On the other hand, and as a consequence of this, the typically evangelical authority is always more difficult to exercise, which implies, above all, service, but also the dutiful task of governing and taking decisions.

Even at the level of witness, we can say that poverty is the most valued (at times  unilaterally); chastity is admired (even if it is not always understood); and obedience is despised. And perhaps it is normal that it be this way. But if poverty constitutes the priority of witness, obedience must constitute the priority of the one who witnesses.

Therefore, in the Document we find a path that leads to the true source of obedience: Revelation, the Word of God. In Sacred Scripture the authentic believers are radically obedient.

As a Biblicist, I am also very sensitive to the theme of listening, which is emphasized in various places in the Document. I would even say it seems to me that the Document, in its different parts, fundamentally juxtaposes the difference between submitting oneself (which is servile and, in the end, unworthy of a human being: it speaks of "complying") and obeying, which, in all the biblical languages and in many others, has listening as its root.

There is no authentic listening if it is not accompanied by obedience. This, however, has nothing to do with the submission of slaves. Jesus did not submit himself, but "was obedient (υπηκοος) even to death and death on a cross".

It is an extraordinary Document. In the two chapters on community life and on mission we find rich and concrete reflections (sometimes only allusions) with psychological and sociological nuances that must be the object of further study. For example, we find the priority of listening on the part of the superior, rising above childishness, the promotion of communitarian discernment, with the difficulty it implies the capacity to know how to direct community pluralism, the difference between male and female communities.

I am convinced that the future of religious life, understood as a journey of personal and community Gospel holiness, as the following and imitation of Jesus Christ in faith, hope and love, depends on obedience. It does not reduce it to its radicality, but enriches its motivations, so that it can lead to the full freedom of the sons and daughters of God.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
28 May 2008, page 10

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