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Retreat - The Essentials of the Religious Life

Religious Vows: Consecrated Practice of Obedience

December 27, 1983 — Afternoon Conference

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

We are on the subject of religious vows and the Church's teaching, and we are finally on the vow of Obedience. As we have been doing, we will concentrate on the Church's new Code of Canon Law which synthesizes centuries of the Church's tradition. First, the text of the Code. I quote:

The evangelical counsel of obedience, undertaken in the spirit of faith and love in the following of Christ Who was obedient even unto death obliges submission of one's will to lawful superiors who act in the place of God when they give commands in accordance with each Institute's own Constitutions.

The text is from Canon 601. This will be one of our longer meditations.

As with chastity and poverty, religious bind themselves to go beyond the precept of obedience which is binding on every member of the Church and, in fact, on every human being. Obedience is binding on every human being.

We begin, then, by asking ourselves: what, exactly, does the expression, counsel of obedience, mean? This is no trifling question, because the very word obedience implies duty, obligation and, if you please, precept. How then is religious obedience a counsel if it obliges? Here is what this means. We'll take this in sequence. As Catholics, whether priests, religious or lay people, we're obliged to obey the laws of the Church binding on all the faithful. Again, as citizens of the state, every American, as every Spaniard, or Englishman or Frenchman, is further obliged to obey all the just laws of the country, whether those laws are national, regional or local. Note the inserted adjective, just laws. Moreover, in essence every duty of obedience pertains to submitting one's will to the will of another human being who is believed to be vested with divine authority. Properly speaking, obedience is of one human being to another human being. This begins in childhood, when a child is to be obedient to his parents, and then goes on through life obeying all those who have, as we say, legitimate authority.

Now we cross the Rubicon. Except for the Incarnation, we would not know of any other higher obedience than the one we've just described, namely, the duty to obey just laws of legitimate human authority in human society. But when God became Man He introduced a more sublime form of obedience than was ever conceived before. Because Christ was God He was not obliged to obey any human authority on earth. Yet, what did Christ do? He voluntarily, without being required to do so, undertook a life of obedience to religious and civil authority. Let's be sure we know what we're saying, because except for the Incarnation, well, there wouldn't be Institutes of consecrated life. There wouldn't be religious communities. There wouldn't be, if you please, religious obedience.

What, then, did Christ do? By becoming a human being, God voluntarily - and what voluntarily that is - freely, though in no possible sense did He have to, He underwent obedience. He was born in Bethlehem because the Roman emperor ordered the census of all people in the Empire, which included reporting to one's own family town. In Christ's case it was in the City of David. Christ was circumcised eight days after birth. He didn't have to be. He was presented in the Temple forty days after He was born. He didn't have to be. He came to the Temple as required by Jewish law at the age of twelve. He didn't have to. For thirty years He was obedient to Mary and Joseph - saintly persons, of course, but human beings. They were Christ's creatures. He was their God. Yet He voluntarily, without being obliged to, obeyed them. Throughout His public life He was obedient to the Mosaic Law, even when on occasion He declared Himself - to keep the record straight - declared Himself to be the Lord who was above human law, for example, the Lord of the Sabbath. At the Last Supper, Christ followed the prescribed ritual for celebrating the Passover. He didn't have to. And then during His Passion, from being taken captive by his enemies in the Garden of Olives to His final expiration on the Cross, Christ was literally, to the last breathe, obedient unto death.

Obedient to the authority of Pilate who ordered Him to be scourged and finally crucified. Obedient to the authority of the unjust Sanhedrin that consciously plotted His destruction.

I have not spent too much time in recalling this totally voluntary obedience undertaken by the Son of God. Because, without recalling what Christ did, frankly we would not understand what our obedience is supposed to be. I said all of this in order to make clear what kind of obedience Christ practiced and, consequently, what kind of obedience is consecrated obedience of counsel. I wrote this meditation for two hours on my knees to make sure that what I'd share with you would be as clear as my limited intelligence can make it.

What kind of obedience is consecrated obedience of counsel? It is Christ's obedience practiced today by those who out of love for Him voluntarily - get that adverb? - voluntarily, not only with the willingness with which we are supposed to obey what we have to obey under penalty of sin, but voluntarily because like Christ we are not obliged. In other words, our obedience of counsel means freely to undertake to be obedient beyond and above in what we would not have been obliged to obey, as members of the supernatural society which is the Church, or of a natural society like the state. Obedience of counsel is more, much more, far more, than we'd have to do if we did not undertake to go beyond the precept.

We come back once again to the 'more' which the evangelical counsels imply - here the 'more' of consecrated obedience. As religious, we freely undertake to submit ourselves to human authority in the Church, to obey in a way and in things and in such detail - sometimes embarrassingly trifling details as we should never have been obliged to do had we not decided to imitate Jesus Christ Who freely submitted Himself to human authority with no obligation on His part to do so.

All of that was just to make plain what I think needs plainness on what our religious obedience of counsel is all about. It is doing what, like Christ, we would not have to do but in our supernatural folly we undertake to do. So far, then, an explanation of the meaning of the counsel of obedience. The Church, from the Code of Canon Law that we are commenting on, continues by telling us we undertake to practice this counsel in imitation of Christ, now quote: "in the spirit of faith and love in following Christ." One reason, I suppose, why I am so anxious to make this meditation clear is because nothing in my religious life has cost me more than obedience.

What we are being told by the Church, that we, shall I say undertake? or undergo? obedience - you choose the verb - in faith and love in following Christ. No cheap words, those. We must first believe. Believe what? Believe on faith that Christ is God. Get it? Either He is God, and then our obedience makes profound sense, or He is not God – our obedience is not mere nonsense, it is madness. Everything rests on this foundation. As Christ, because He was God, was not required to obey anyone. Right? God obeys no one. Period. Yet – and we keep repeating the adverb – voluntarily, He willingly did so with a freedom that is terrifying: God submitting to a creature. That's what He did. Why? And we'd better know why.

I had to know why when I got back from the Province, the Provincial Censors, some seventy pages of changes in a manuscript I submitted for publication. I read those directives that I was supposed to change my manuscript after years of research. The first thing I did was to go to the chapel and ask for help.

Why did Christ who is God, not only need not have, could not have obeyed anyone, become a human being in order to make obedience even possible? First, to merit for us the grace of humility. It was by pride that sin first entered the world and all sin, all sin, is a form of pride. Why? To teach us how to obey and thereby cooperate with Him in redeeming a sinful, that is, a very proud world.

We must furthermore, we are told, love. First believe and then love. Love God in the Person of Christ sufficiently to want to become like Him. Love seeks assimilation; it desires to be transformed into the one it loves. Only a deep love of Christ can first move a person to enter on a life of consecrated obedience, and only love can sustain this desire to the end. I know.

We go on. The Church tells us - I quote: "The counsel of obedience obliges submission of one's will to lawful superiors who act in the place of God when they give commands which are in accordance with each Institute's own Constitutions. Almost every word in this closing sentence of the canon on religious obedience deserves a long commentary. Suppose we isolate some of the most important parts. As I wrote these words I thought to myself, should I say some of them? I decided to do so. Should I have them recorded? Sometimes I ask that the recorder be turned off. Should I, if it is God's Will, publish them? I think yes.

Notice what the Church is saying. Our counsel of obedience obliges us to submit our wills to legitimate superiors when they order us to do what is according to our Institute's Constitutions. First then, consecrated obedience obliges; that's right. Once a person vows obedience in an Institute of consecrated life, he or she is bound under pain of sin to obey. I wish more spiritual writers would say that. Vows are meaningless unless they oblige the person who makes them live up to what is vowed. In fact by now the centuries old definition of a vow authorized by the Church is to do something better or more pleasing to God than its’ opposite, binding oneself by promise to God under sin. Period. The obligation, we are further told, is to submit our will. This is not immediately obvious. True religious obedience is not only doing physically what a person is told to do, for example, when we entered Philosophy in southern Indiana we were told as philosophers: of the six stairways in a large, once luxurious hotel, we philosophers were allowed to use only one stairway. And our rooms were all over the building. It didn't make sense. No, to unenlightened reason it makes no sense. And we were further informed that the theologians, those who were ahead of us in studies, were instructed by superiors to report on any philosopher using any staircase except the single one that was reserved for the lowly philosophers. More than once when I climbed the six floors – oh, by the way, we were absolutely forbidden to use the elevator.

Obedience, therefore, is not only of the body. So my legs climbed the stairs because I don't want to get caught. Obedience is submission of the will. When we obey we are to do so willingly. No doubt, such obedience calls for interior bending of one's will, 'submission', in the language of the Code. As I've told people over the years, the only reason we bend our knees in prayer is to symbolize our bending of the will in adoration to God.

But suppose my mind tells me that something I am supposed to do is not right - and the brighter we are the more liable we are to think that what we're told to do is not right. My new Provincial, just installed into office, is my former student. He won't mind my saying if he hears this recording that I know more theology than he does. The 16th of next month he's coming to New York - very nice of him - for a conference. I've got a list of things I am going to ask him. I'm already steeling myself to bend my will. Suppose, then, that what I'm told to do just doesn't seem right. Let's get our bearings. We must first assume that what I am told to do is not sinful, otherwise there can be no question of voluntary submission. We may further assume that what I am told to do, on rational grounds is unreasonable or unwise or as I perhaps know from experience is sure to fail. Note the word I used, 'on rational grounds.' And the better that rocks you, that reason, the more objections you can think to submit.

We should further assume that if after prayer I decide to make representation to a superior - St. Ignatius calls it 'enlightened obedience' – I like that…humbly explaining why I think it is a mistaken directive I'm given, after prayer I make the representation. But then if I am still told to go ahead, I do so. Is it rational? Pardon me for saying this. Maybe not. Is it wise? Yes. Wise with the wisdom of the saints who believe that God has His own mysterious reasons for telling me through superiors what to do or not do. My most costly obedience lasted five years: being told to teach – the last place I wanted to go – to teach in a state university. Lord, spare us. I made representations. I remember, I counted them. I had thirteen reasons for not going. By the time I got to the second reason he said: "John, no more reasons. I want you to go."

Lawful superiors, we are told, act in the place of God. This has been the unwavering faith of the Church over the centuries. It is a childlike faith that believes without questioning that human beings – and how human they can be, pathetically human, embarrassingly human, that if they are superiors, and maybe in nothing else – we may be superior to them in everything else, honestly, except in this one fact that as legitimate superiors they are vested with divine authority to order me and I to obey.

I thought I might finish this conference here. But I decided to go on because the closing words of this Canon of the Code on consecrated obedience say what desperately needs saying, namely, that superiors have a right to give orders and require obedience if - get the hypothesis? if - to make sure I'd raise my voice and increase the volume I underlined the word if - if they act in accordance with each Institute's own Constitutions. Believe me, this is no passing afterthought or rhetorical flourish. It is the fruit of sad experience that in more situations than any newspaper or the media will say and in more tragic circumstances that anyone but God and His angels know, those still in canonical authority can abuse their authority and require by verbal orders or psychological persuasion or pressure to conformity what is notoriously contrary to the Constitutions of an Institute and, in fact, contrary to the teaching and directives of the Vicar of Christ. I make bold to say that thousands of religious in the Church today are heroes and heroines of obedience in often very, very trying conditions who are praying for the day when they can humbly submit their wills as their vows require to those who give commands indeed but according to their Institutes' Constitutions as approved by the Church's lawful authority.

What we are here saying deserves to be underscored. In my judgment it is somewhere near the center of the crisis in religious life in the world today, and the main factual reason why the Pope had to address the American Bishops on the essentials of religious life. How much I know that I cannot in conscience say. But I have two closing observations.

Those who by God's grace are living in religious Institutes that have been spared the revolution of secularization, such religious should thank God on bended knees and bend their wills at any cost to self will to obey humbly, cheerfully and lovingly. They hold the future of religious life in countries like America in their hands. Then, those who in God's mysterious Providence are living in Institutes where obedience has been replaced by dialog or where superiors have abdicated in practice if not in principle their authority, such religious should offer up their trials in union with the Savior and be sure that their lives of silent sacrifice are most, most pleasing to God, as by now I've told hundreds of suffering, silent, obedient religious. God will use their quiet obedience to restore religious life in our country and so many other nations to its pristine vigor. After all, Jesus Christ, the first Religious, paid dearly for His obedience, even unto death on the Cross. Should we not be ready with His grace to do the same?

Retreat given to and recorded by the
Handmaids of the Precious Blood

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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