Priestly Obedience in a Post-McCarrick Church, Part I

Introduction to Part I

“I will do whatever my bishop asks me to do.”

During my time in seminary, most seminarians did not anticipate huge struggles living the promise of obedience. Seasoned priests told us: “Everyone thinks celibacy is the most difficult promise, but actually obedience is the most challenging.” We quickly dismissed these statements. Our approach to priestly ministry would be different than that of priests formed in the culture of dissent that permeated many corners of clerical culture in the USA for decades, especially following Humanae Vitae in 1968.

Seminarians of my era saw continuity in the theology and pastoral approaches of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Their priorities reaffirmed many of our own preferences, especially for clarity in moral teaching, reverence in liturgical style, and commitment to intellectual rigor. We assumed these would remain priorities in future papacies.

We expected our obedient cooperation in leading the Church in the direction illuminated by these popes would be a positive force in the great task of evangelization. As for the pain veteran priests claimed was involved in living the promise of obedience, we assumed we would be immune to most of it because of our commitment to the Magisterium, our disdain for dissent, and our commitment to a rigorous prayer life. The greatest suffering we anticipated was that of leaving a parish when requested by the bishop for a new assignment. But we still planned to do what the bishop asked. We were coached during seminary: “Do whatever your bishop asks of you.” This seemed like a good approach to us.

Ten years have passed since I completed seminary and today’s seminarians find themselves in a very different situation as they consider a lifestyle of ecclesial obedience.

Following the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis has taken the Church in a direction that does not always easily align with the priorities of his two most recent predecessors. Polarization in the Church has increased both nationally and globally, fueled in some part by social media commentators who routinely critique all levels of Catholic hierarchy. These critical voices have no small following and influence among seminarians.

Further, seminarians can no longer be coached simply to “do whatever your bishop asks of you.” Revelations of the heinous patterns of disgusting requests to seminarians by Theodore McCarrick have made clear that seminarians deserve a more nuanced and articulate discussion of obedience.

The McCarrick situation also raised significant doubts about the credibility of US bishops. Seminarians face serious questions like: What does it mean to promise obedience to bishops who historically, as a body, have been less than energetic to protect the safety of children, seminarians, and priests? What does it mean to promise respect to one’s bishop when some bishops seemed to be more worried about avoiding bad press, protecting their own reputation, advancing their careers, and maintaining financial assets of their diocese than protecting the vulnerable, discovering the real truth about accusations against clergy, assisting clergy abuse victims, and defending innocent clergy?

Seminarians are asking: How much can bishops be trusted? Why should I give my life to a Church that is so messed up?

Complicating things further, the past year has been dominated by controversial COVID-19 policies. Some say these restrictions were too much. Some say they were too little. Regardless, seminarians are raising questions about seminary and diocesan policies on masks, social distancing in seminary buildings, liturgical directives requesting communion be received in the hand only, vaccines, and so on. When enforcing these policies, seminaries typically employ the language of obedience to urge compliance. Implied is that a seminarian’s lack of compliance could indicate lack of suitability for ordination.

Knowing what obedience really means is more important than ever. The complexity of the current ecclesial climate has led many of my seminarians to ask me for clarification on both practical and theoretical levels.

I believe this is a good thing. Sadly, my generation did not think enough about obedience prior to ordination. We did not ask enough questions about the practical implications of promising to be obedient to men who, though guided by the Holy Spirit, will always be morally flawed and never omniscient. A recent study indicated that many priests ordained over the past ten years have experienced significant frustration in their relationship with their diocese and bishop. These frustrations were so intense that men considered leaving the priesthood.1

The purpose of these two articles is to provide a clear articulation of Church teaching on the priestly promise of respect and obedience to one’s bishop. These reflections will hopefully lead seminarians to overcome any naïveté they have about the real difficulties of priestly obedience. At the same time, this study will underline the positive value of obedience and allow the beauty of an obedient priestly lifestyle to emerge. In part I, I shall treat the theology of obedience and what it means to have one’s will conformed to the Father’s will for him. In Part II next month, we shall take up the nature of obedience and true authority and how that might play out in various offices within one’s priestly training and life. 

Obedience in Salvation History

In the Old Testament there is actually no unique word for “obedience.”2 Obedience, characterized as submitting oneself to the will and authority of another, is contained in the same Hebrew word translated into English as the verb “to hear” (Shema).3 The Old Testament concept of obedience is also translated as “walking in God’s ways,” or “keeping” and “observing” the commandments.4

From this linguistic analysis we can make two important conclusions. Firstly, listening is essential to obedience. The first step to being obedient to God is to take time to listen to what God has revealed. Secondly, obedience is dynamic. It involves doing something. Namely, conforming one’s life to the will of Another, actively centering one’s life around God and what God has revealed. Hearing God’s word should lead to doing what God’s word has counseled. To use Jesus’ expression, for someone to hear God’s word but not to act on it is downright “foolish.”5 A lifestyle of hearing and following Jesus is shown throughout the New Testament as the ideal of Christian discipleship. This requires a fundamental readiness to embrace God’s word and do whatever God asks.6

This Biblical emphasis on obedience highlights the radicalness of revealed religion in contemporary culture. Modernity emphasizes the need for us to decide everything for ourselves, be our own boss, do our own thing, form our own opinions, find our voice and speak out, dismiss whatever gets in the way of our own dreams and desires, discard whatever is not useful, practical, or agreeable to us. Yet, the concept of obedience within a revealed religion like Christianity emphasizes the need to arrange one’s life according to a different axis, conforming one’s life to divine revelation.7

The Bible teaches that obedience is the proper response of every human person to God.8 However, from the beginning of salvation history humanity has not always listened to God or given an obedient response to God. Adam and Eve were disobedient in the garden, responding to God with distrust, doing things their own way.

We often do the same.

Salvation history can be summarized as God’s attempt to teach humanity that obedience is better than prideful self-seeking. The Ten Commandments should be seen through this pedagogical lens. God tried to show the people the best way to live. That human life is better when people are not stealing, killing, committing adultery, lying, etc. The prophets reiterated the message over and over again that obedience was a better approach than selfishness. The Old Testament used the image of “hardness of heart” to describe the “stubborn” approach of the people, as they refused to cooperate with God’s attempts to mentor them and guide them.9 Their hearts of stone remained impermeable to the Creator’s efforts to soften them and mold them into something beautiful.

Particularly significant is the divine plan for children to learn obedience from the earliest days of their existence in their relationship with their parents. “Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD, your God, has commanded you, that you may have a long life and that you may prosper in the land the LORD your God is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 5:16)10 Family life is meant to be a pedagogy in obedience, leading children to learn the benefits of listening and acting on the words of their parents who reflect God’s fatherly care through truthful instruction and loving guidance.11

In Old Testament times, God provided the people with many additional aides to learn obedience, including ritual laws and the practice of offering animal sacrifices. Unfortunately, the people generally failed to embrace the internal content of these rituals. God tried to help the people understand that offering themselves to God was the fulfillment of the law. True worship was living in obedience to God’s plan:

Sacrifice and offering you do not want;

but ears open to obedience you gave me.

Holocausts and sin-offerings you do not require;

so I said, “Here I am;

your commands for me are written in the scroll.

To do your will is my delight;

My God, your law is in my heart!”

(Psalm 40:7–9)12

Despite repeated interventions, the people failed to listen to God. They refused to offer themselves to God in loving obedience. Rebellion, arrogance, and wavering commitment characterized their response to God’s faithfulness.

Thus, God the Father sent his Son to become flesh not only to provide the human family with a radical example of obedience, but also to create a place within humanity where true obedience could be lived out. By being united with Jesus through the sacraments, God’s people could finally have a means to say “yes” to the Father’s plan and serve him with faithfulness.

Throughout his life on earth, Jesus’ human will and divine will were perfectly united to his Father’s will. Jesus accepted the Father’s loving sharing of life with him and responded to this gift by offering himself to the Father in return. Jesus was fully united with his Father in choosing to bring salvation to the human race.13 Jesus wanted the salvation of humanity just as much as the Father did!

Jesus’ union of love and obedience to the Father was lived out not only in the big moments of his public ministry, like his death on Calvary, but also in the hidden moments of his life. The decades he spent laboring as a carpenter were acts of loving obedience to his Father’s plan for the redemption of humanity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church points out: “The obedience of Christ in his daily routine of his hidden life was already inaugurating his work of restoring what the disobedience of Adam had destroyed.”14

The New Testament emphasized that the union of Christians with Christ through Baptism, gives them a share in his relationship with the Father and the loving obedience that characterizes their relationship. “For just as through the disobedience of one person the many were made sinners, so through the obedience of one the many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5:19) By entering into the obedience of Christ, Christians are able to enjoy the type of relationship with the Father that lives on into eternity.

Entering into the obedience of Christ means being humble, acknowledging, “I can’t do this on my own. I choose not to do this on my own. I will depend and trust the Father.” This emphasis on humility was clear in the preaching of the apostles:

Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,

Who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.

Rather, he emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

coming in human likeness;

and found human in appearance,

he humbled himself,

becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5–8)

Living the humility of Jesus leads Christians to embrace a lifestyle of service. For them, life is not about chasing after one instance of immediate gratification after another, but instead, a stable and firm pursuit of God the Father’s plan, serving others as directed by the Father.

Christian obedience is characterized in the New Testament and in recent Magisterial teachings in terms of freedom, a participation in the freedom of Christ the King.15 Obedience and freedom tend to be antonyms in modern parlance.16 Yet, in a Biblical context, freedom is not understood as the license to do whatever one finds most appealing, pleasurable, or convenient.17 Rather, freedom is the ability to pursue one’s true good and to cooperate in helping other people attain their true good. It is the opposite of addiction, when one is bound to center one’s life around earthly pursuits that will not ultimately lead to deep fulfillment in this life or the next.

True freedom is the ability to fulfill the divine image within us.18 This involves authentic communion with other people, going beyond an isolating, individualistic ethos. Being able to say “no” to temptations to use and manipulate other people, and instead to enter into truthful, caring, and meaningful relationships with them. A Christian with true freedom is excellent at loving other people, staying faithful to commitments, not just following every whim promising gratification.

Our participation in the freedom of Christ the King means sharing in his ability to lay down his life with full self-possession: “Jesus said, ‘I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again.’” (John 10:17–18)

Jesus made a free choice to die on the Cross. His offering of himself was a conscious choice. Thus, his obedience leads us similarly to make the choice to give our lives in dedicated commitment to others, sacrificing for them, out of love for the Father. At a practical level, this means embracing a lifestyle of detachment and recollection so that we have the self-possession to give our full attention to the Father and what he is asking us to do for other people.

Saint Maximus the Confessor and Jesus’ Agony in the Garden

A particularly poignant passage about obedience in the New Testament is Jesus’ agony in the garden (Matthew 26:36–46; Mark 14:32–42; Luke 22:39–46). This passage can seem problematic and incongruous with the above statements about Jesus’ human will and divine will being united perfectly in saying “yes” to the will of his heavenly Father. Why is Jesus in such agony if he is fully committed to the Father’s will?

Saint Maximus the Confessor provided a very helpful explanation.19 He asserted that Jesus was in agony because he had taken upon himself the weight of humanity’s rebellion against the Father, the resistance of humanity towards the Father’s will, facing the temptation to say “no” to the Father’s plan, especially when it involves suffering.

Jesus’ human will and divine will were fully united and committed to doing the will of the Father, as he underwent this painful agony. Jesus chose to undergo this agony in order to make it possible for us to say “yes” to the divine plan even when experiencing inner resistance towards it. During his agony in the garden, Jesus created the pattern for our human will to be oriented towards the Father when obedience is a struggle. In this synergy of our will with the Father’s will, our human will finds fulfillment in love.

At a practical level, this means Jesus has created a space for us to work through our interior turmoil when we face difficult decisions and inner resistance to what God is asking of us. In Gethsemane, Jesus gave voice to our cries and tears (Hebrews 5:7) as we struggle to be obedient to God. He also raised his voice in prayer filled with obedience, to make it possible for us to give our assent to the Father: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42)20

Christian Obedience and Christ’s Redemptive Work

Through his obedience, Jesus inaugurated the reorientation of the cosmos back to God.21 For Christians, each act of obedience is a participation in this redemptive work of Jesus. Because sin and evil are present in the world, acts of redemptive obedience will include suffering. In this way, Christians participate in the Paschal Mystery and allow the fruits of the redemption to flow through their lives.

This is true in all vocations. For married couples, being obedient to Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness or sexual ethics will require sacrifice. For priests, obeying one’s bishop and taking on a less than desirable assignment will include more than a little emotional pain. For consecrated religious, obediently following the horarium of community life when inconvenient requires a great amount of surrender and letting go of one’s preferences.

As tempting as it might be to avoid the burdens of obedience, Christians cannot avoid the example of Jesus who lived obedience no matter the cost. He was obedient even when it cost him something because his mission and obedience could not be separated.22 The goal of all his actions was humbly seeking to accomplish the will of his Father. This obedience was the source of the redeeming power of his actions! His mission was obedience.

If this humble obedience is missing from the life of a Christian, “good works” become superficial and lacking spiritual power, even if exteriorly they appear to be spiritually motivated and convincingly feign the appearance of piety. This is true for clergy, consecrated religious, and lay persons. If one’s motivation is to carry out my own plan, follow my preferences, hold to my judgements and my outlook at all costs, a prideful selfishness and lack of trust that are inimical to the redemptive work of Jesus are driving their life.

For a priest, there will be a great emptiness to his ministry if the wholehearted “yes” of obedience is absent. While such “ministry” might appear to be “service” and involve much hard work, the prideful spirit that animates it will, in the long-term, orient souls away from God. Priests might justify “bending” well-established canonical norms for the sake of “pastoral” flexibility or disregard a clear request from one’s Ordinary because it seems inefficient or counterproductive in a pastoral setting. Yet such disobedience becomes an obstacle to the holiness of a priest and limits the fruitfulness of his ministry:

All priests, and especially those who are called “diocesan priests,” due to the special title of their ordination, should keep continually before their minds the fact that their faithful loyalty toward and their generous cooperation with their bishop is of the greatest value in their growth in holiness.23

Tossing aside obedience, even when done to meet what appear to be practical needs of souls, inhibits the work of redemption. Humble acts of obedience, even when seemingly an exercise of ministerial futility, actually advance the flow of the fruits of Christ’s redemption in the world.

Heaven Will Be Eternal Obedience

Obedience is not just the means to redemption. It is also the goal. Heaven will be eternal obedience. Heaven will be our eternal “yes” to love, accepting the Father’s love for us, with our will being eternally united to his.24  In this union, we will find peace. The poet Dante put it this way:

For it is of the essence of this bliss

to hold one’s dwelling in the divine Will,

who makes our single wills the same, and His,

So that although we dwell from sill to sill

throughout this kingdom, that is as we please,

as it delights the King in whose desire

We find our own. In His will is our peace. . .25

Being obedient means loving ourselves as the Father loves us. Receiving my existence as a gift. Accepting that I am a child of God, treasured and loved for all eternity.26 The primordial act of obedience is accepting the truth that I exist because God loves me, has chosen me to exist, and chooses to keep me in existence. In heaven, our existence will be celebrated for all eternity by God and with the company of the saints. We will be at peace with ourselves and with others, having accepted our place within God’s plan of salvation and the communion of saints. Heaven will be an eternal “yes” to loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves.

What Is the Meaning of Priestly Obedience?

For all Christians, obedience requires a disposition of openness to the divine will. This requires listening, an ear open to God’s wisdom (see Psalm 40:7–9), guidance, and commandments, especially as transmitted to us through Divine Revelation, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium of the Church. “Hear, O Israel,” an invitation to listening, prefaced many attempts by God to lead his people. The structure of Biblical obedience does not allow for picking and choosing dogmas or moral precepts by democratic process or personal preference. Obedience is about accepting what God has revealed, accepting the truth, order, and design God has placed within creation. An obedient Christian asks: “What does God want?” Not simply, “What is easiest, most convenient, most lucrative, or most pleasurable for me?”

With this background in mind, the next question for our exploration is the specific meaning that obedience takes in the life of an ordained minister. What is the connection between ordained priesthood and a promise of obedience? The post-synodal apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis focuses on three connections between obedience and Holy Orders.27

The Apostolic Dimension of Priestly Obedience

The apostolic dimension to priestly obedience connects priests to the original community of apostles to whom Jesus entrusted the task of carrying on his mission. Jesus called “apostles” from the many “disciples” who had followed him and commissioned them to share his saving work with “all the nations.”28 Jesus did not appoint twelve guys to go off and do their own thing independently without any collaboration or communication with each other. Nor did Jesus encourage his disciples to go and simply do whatever they felt or judged was best. They were entrusted with a mission and a message of divine origin.

The early Christians recognized that the apostles and their successors had been entrusted by God with a special role in the community. While perhaps not as developed as we find the Church hierarchy today, from the beginning there was a clear demarcation of leadership roles. Over time, the special role of the successor of Simon Peter as the bishop of Rome among the other successors of the apostles became more and more pronounced.29 Obedience in the life of clergy today connects them to the apostolic roots of the Church and the apostolic succession through which Orders are validly handed on in the Church.

We can’t get around the fact that the Son of God chose to continue his ministry through the lives of imperfect men. They had plenty of weaknesses. There were other more qualified individuals around, including his mother, Mary. Yet, God chose to work through these chosen men and promised to continue to work through them and their successors. Thus, obedience in the Church is an act of faith that Almighty God is working through the sinful, imperfect human persons who have been given leadership positions in the Church. The primary reason one obeys is not because leaders have superior intelligence, excellent communication skills, or dynamic personalities. Obedience is directed towards God, acting through the weak instruments he has chosen to lead and guide us forward in Christian perfection.

The apostolic dimension of priestly obedience shows that obedience is intrinsic to Holy Orders. It is not optional, not added on from the outside, nor a mere devotional practice. Obedience is essential for every priest because it connects him to his bishop who connects him to the apostles who received from Jesus the mandate to lead the Church. By contrast, priestly celibacy, while fitting and the usual form of living pastoral charity for priests, is not essential to priestly life and ministry, as evidenced by many validly married clergy serving in the Catholic Church throughout the world today. Obedience is different. It is mandatory for all clergy. During the Rite of Ordination of deacons and priests, the bishop asks each candidate: “Do you promise respect and obedience to me and my successors?” Those being ordained each respond: “I do.”

Rarely in seminary formation does anyone explain the “respect” that the ordained promise to give their Ordinary and his successors. What does it mean to give “respect” to one’s bishop? In the Latin text of the ordination liturgy the word translated as “respect” is reverentiam.30 The Second Vatican Council in Presbyterorum ordinis explains that reverence is given to a bishop out of reverence for the authority of Christ, the Supreme Shepherd of the Church who is working through the bishops:

Priests, never losing sight of the fullness of the priesthood which the bishops enjoy, must respect in them the authority of Christ, the Supreme Shepherd. They must therefore stand by their bishops in sincere charity and obedience. This priestly obedience, imbued with a spirit of cooperation, is based on the very sharing in the episcopal ministry which is conferred on priests both through the Sacrament of Orders and the canonical mission.31

Implied in this statement is that the reverence owed to a bishop is not dependent upon his holiness, charm, wit, or intelligence. What is being reverenced is not his personality or accomplishments as often is the case with important celebrities, heroes, and leaders treated with special politeness, privileges, esteem, and deference. Reverencing the authority of Christ in bishops is first and foremost a spiritual attitude that requires interior cultivation by priests. This reverence for the authority of Christ will lead to external displays of respect, politeness, and charity, while also avoiding common temptations of making a bishop into an idol, building a personality cult around him, not being honest with him in attempts to please him, or covering up his grave faults to “protect” his reputation.

Revelations of bishops not being held accountability for grave neglect of their office and their own scandalous behavior (i.e. sexual abuse of minors) demonstrates that there was a massive error in the self-understanding of the Church about its clergy. Much of the cover-up of sexual abuse was, ironically, done in the name of “protecting” the reputation of the priestly office and the episcopal office, as if the reverence and respect owed to clergy was founded in their own virtues and not in Christ! Correcting this theological error is essential, not only for reform and greater accountability among clergy and bishops, but also for developing healthier and more genuine relationships in the Church between bishops, priests, and lay faithful.

The Community Dimension of Priestly Obedience

Since all ordained priests and bishops share in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ, there is a bond that unites these men together in their common identity and mission. This special bond is intensified among bishop(s) and priests who have been entrusted with the care of the same portion of God’s flock.32 Through incardination, priests share a communion of life and ministry that is rooted in, and flows from, obedience towards their bishop who carries out his ministry obediently under the pope. Christus Dominus explains:

All presbyters, both diocesan and religious, participate in and exercise with the bishop the one priesthood of Christ and are thereby constituted prudent cooperators of the episcopal order. In the care of souls, however, the first place is held by diocesan priests who are incardinated or attached to a particular church, for they have fully dedicated themselves in the service of caring for a single portion of the Lord’s flock. In consequence, they form one presbytery and one family whose father is the bishop . . .33

The shared mission of a presbyterate should lead to solidarity among brother priests and the bishop in sharing concern for the entire diocese. There is a co-responsibility for the whole of the diocese, with bishop and priests working together to face problems, challenges, and opportunities in the mission of serving the people.

Sadly, a selfish parochialism can easily develop in diocesan priesthood, as a priest focuses only on his own parish. A priest whose sole focus is “my priesthood, my ministry, and my parish” is neglecting the co-responsibility he received through incardination to share concern for the entire diocese, even if most of his time is spent serving a small group of people, his parishioners, within the diocese. Christus Dominus makes it clear: “all diocesan priests should be united among themselves and so should share a genuine concern for the spiritual welfare of the whole diocese . . .”34 A priest and his parish working together with other priests and their parishes, not competing against them, is a sign of presbyteral unity rooted in obedience.

The unity of God the Father and God the Son serves as the exemplar for the relationship between bishops and priests, which Lumen Gentium describes in terms of paternal love and filial obedience:

On account of this sharing in their priesthood and mission, let priests sincerely look upon the bishop as their father and reverently obey him. And let the bishop regard his priests as his co-workers and as sons and friends, just as Christ called His disciples now not servants but friends.35

Unity within a presbyterate is not easy to achieve. Jesus spent much time forming community among his twelve apostles and had to settle ugly, selfish disputes between them.36 The night before he died, Jesus prayed for unity among his followers. Jesus prayed to the Father: “may they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you.” (John 17:21)

Ordained ministers should follow their Master’s example and pray for greater unity within their presbyterate and take concrete steps to build fraternity.

In virtue of their common sacred ordination and mission, all priests are bound together in intimate brotherhood, which naturally and freely manifests itself in mutual aid, spiritual as well as material, pastoral as well as personal, in their meetings and in communion of life, of labor and charity.37

Jesus’ words and example clearly demonstrate that priestly fraternity is not optional for diocesan priests. Both bishops and priests have an obligation to build community, preserve community, and share life together. While it can be easy for priests to blame low priestly morale on the bishop, and for a bishop to blame priests for disunity within the presbyterate, the responsibility is actually shared by both bishops and priests to face problems honestly and work for greater unity. When a priest (or bishop) is examining his conscience he should ask: Am I being an obedient priest and fulfilling the promise of obedience I made to God at my ordination? The proper fulfillment of this promise is not simply just doing one’s “assignment” faithfully. It also means working to collaborate more effectively with the Ordinary, actively building up the presbyterate, and making practical attempts to grow in holiness together. Priestly fraternity is an essential aspect of priestly obedience.

It should be noted that the fundamental bond between priests is supernatural in origin.38 It is not necessarily rooted in a sharing of common hobbies, personalities, age, cultural backgrounds, or political viewpoints. As men striving for holiness, their shared love for God and for his people should be the motivating factor in their shared fraternity and priestly service. This is particularly true of the relationship between the bishop and the priests of his diocese: “The relationships between the bishop and the diocesan priests should rest most especially upon the bonds of supernatural charity so that the harmony of the will of the priests with that of their bishop will render their pastoral activity more fruitful.”39

Therefore, agape, not just human esteem or friendship, should be the motivating factor in cooperating with one’s bishop and in serving the people in accordance with his guidance. Regardless of whether a priest enjoys a close friendship with his bishop and regardless of whether he personally enjoys the company of his bishop (based on personality, common interests, etc.), they can share a deep bond of fraternity in their common choice to express their love for God through obedient service to God’s people.40

The Pastoral Dimension of Priestly Obedience

Jesus’ ministry was rooted in his obedience to God the Father.41 Jesus’ work flowed from the Father. Jesus said “I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me.” (John 6:38) Jesus’ connection to his Father gave his teaching an authority and credibility that was greater than anything his listeners had ever experienced before. The crowds were “amazed” and “astonished” by his teaching, especially knowing his background as a carpenter.42 In response to their amazement and astonishment, Jesus pointed to his relationship with the Father as the source of what he was teaching and doing: “My teaching is not my own but is from the one who sent me.” (John 7:16)

Those ordained for service to the Church are called to enter into the same dynamic of obedience that animated Jesus’ ministry. In their obedience, their ministry shares in the authority of Christ’s ministry. Lasting credibility in ministry is not rooted in social standing, education, or titles, but in the inner power that animated Jesus ministry. The supernatural power that flowed from the Father to the Son, who obediently revealed in the world through the power of the Holy Spirit what he had received from the Father.

Further, priestly obedience witnesses to the radicalism of the gospel.43 The best way for a priest to lead his people to overcome their selfish stubbornness and pride is to model a lifestyle of radical obedience. The people should see in their priest someone whose life says: I entrust myself and my future entirely to Jesus who says “Follow me.”44 Like Simon Peter, priests must be willing to be led where they do not want to go,45 they must be willing to serve with great generosity.46

Likewise, the people should be able to see in their priest a healthy detachment from affirmation and personal preferences as he carries out his ministry. While naturally most priests prefer types of ministry where they will be loved, affirmed, thanked, and supported by the people they serve, through their promise of obedience men entrust their future entirely to God’s direction. They enter into the freedom of Christ who embraced the painful moments of his ministry, including betrayal, mistreatment, and rejection.

Office in the Church is not a path to affirmation.47 It is incredibly dangerous for a seminarian or priest to become attached to the affirmation that comes to him as a result of his ministry in certain situations. It is similarly dangerous to rate the “success” of one’s ministry on the amount of affirmation and personal satisfaction one attains from ministry. Even worse is seeking “confirmation” of one’s vocation from affirmation received while doing ministry. Some of the best and most important ministry of a priest will not be accompanied by affirmation or gratitude, but complaints, persecution, and criticism. Whether a priest “likes” his ministry in certain situations is not the most important question.

Seminarians must understand that when they make their promise of obedience, they cannot put any conditions or stipulations on that promise. It is similar to the promises made by spouses on their wedding day. A man and woman are promising faithfulness in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, and every type of situation in between. They are not limiting their consent only to certain circumstances they find enjoyable or preferable, but they are giving a blanket promise to serve their spouse wherever life takes them. Some mentors will provide an extreme example to make this point to an engaged couple, asking: “Would you still get married even if the day after your wedding your spouse is paralyzed in a car crash? Would you still keep your promise of faithfulness?” The true lover will quickly assent, “Of course!”

To conclude Part I of our study, those preparing for the priesthood should recognize that in the promise of obedience they are committing to serve the Church in any possible circumstance. Even at a city parish when I prefer rural, chancery work when I prefer teaching in a school, or in a blue-collar neighborhood when I prefer suburbia. At his ordination, a man is promising to love the people of God even in an assignment where his gifts are not being utilized, or where he is not appreciated, or where all they talk about is their love for a previous pastor. The parish might be financially healthy or unhealthy. The people might describe themselves as politically liberal or conservative. Whatever the situation, the priest is called to love them faithfully, not fretting about his own personal preferences nor feeling sorry for himself if his ministry is not particularly pleasant or fun. Likewise, seminarians should be careful not to think about their apostolic work placements or their summer ministry assignments in terms of a “good” assignment or “bad” assignment. Also, spending time anticipating announcement of assignments will blind a seminarian to the surprises of God’s providence and opportunities to share in Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection. Here is where true formation occurs, any formation that lasts, in the pierced side of Christ in the heart of Mother Church.

  1. National Association of Catholic Theological Schools (NACT) and Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), “Enter by the Narrow Gate: Satisfaction and Challenges Among Recently Ordained Priests” (2020), p. 95. Available online: cara.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/NACTS.pdf.
  2. See “obedience” in Paul J. Achtemeier, editor, HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996, p. 771–772.
  3. For example, see Genesis 22:18.
  4. For example, see 1 Kings 11:33; Isaiah 42:24.
  5. Matthew 7:24. See also James 1:22. “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.”
  6. Throughout the gospels, Jesus issues the command “follow me” and expects an active response. For example, see Luke 9:59–62; Matthew 16:24–27; 19:21.
  7. Adrienne von Speyr’s description of prayer provides a helpful image of the Biblical concept of obedience. She says a human person is to “become an untarnished mirror of the divine will.” Adrienne von Speyr, The World of Prayer, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985, p. 13.
  8. Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 21 November 1964, #41. “The classes and duties of life are many, but holiness is one — that sanctity which is cultivated by all who are moved by the Spirit of God, and who obey the voice of the Father and worship God the Father in spirit and in truth.”

    “All Christ’s faithful, whatever be the conditions, duties and circumstances of their lives—and indeed through all these, will daily increase in holiness, if they receive all things with faith from the hand of their heavenly Father and if they cooperate with the divine will. In this temporal service, they will manifest to all men the love with which God loved the world.”

    Available online: https://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html.

  9. Ezekiel 11:19, 36:26. Jesus used this same language in Matthew 19:8.
  10. See also, Exodus 20:12; Proverbs 1:8, 6:20–22, 12:1; Tobit 4:3–4; Sirach 3:2–6, 7:27–28.
  11. Since family life is meant to be the first school of obedience for children and an experience of God the Father’s providential care, it is easy to understand why unhealthy parent/child relationships can lead to many struggles with obedience for children when they eventually become seminarians and priests.
  12. The New Testament applies these words to Christ in Hebrews 10:5–10. See also Psalm 51:18–19; Amos 5:22; Hosea 6:6; Isaiah 1:11–15.
  13. See John 5:36 and John 10:25, 29–30.
  14. Catechism of the Catholic Church, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (1997), #532. Available online: https://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_INDEX.HTM Hereafter, CCC.
  15. Lumen Gentium #36; Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 6 August 1993, #38. Available online: http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_06081993_veritatis-splendor.html.
  16. Pope John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis, 25 March 1992, #8. Available online: http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_25031992_pastores-dabo-vobis.html.
  17. See Galatians 5.
  18. Veritatis Splendor #38.
  19. For a summary, see Hans Urs von Balthasar, Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe According to Maximus the Confessor, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003, p. 263–275. See also Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011, p. 157–166; Behold the Pierced One, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986, p. 90–94.
  20. “For these cries and pleas are seen as Jesus’ way of exercising his high priesthood. It is through his cries, his tears, and his prayers that Jesus does what the high priest is meant to do: he holds up to God the anguish of human existence. He brings man before God.” Jesus of Nazareth, p. 163–164.
  21. Lumen Gentium #3; Pope John Paul II, Redemptionis Donum, 25 March 1992, #13. Available online: http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_25031984_redemptionis-donum.html.
  22. Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, Faciem tuam, 11 May 2008, #23. Available online: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/ccscrlife/documents/rc_con_ccscrlife_doc_20080511_autorita-obbedienza_en.html.
  23. Lumen Gentium #41.
  24. Faciem tuam #29.
  25. Dante Alighieri, Divine Comedy: Paradiso Canto 3, 79–85, Anthony Esolen transl., New York: Modern Library, 2007, p. 29.
  26. Faciem tuam #7–8.
  27. Pastores Dabo Vobis #28.
  28. See especially Luke 6:12–16 and Mark 16:14–20; Matthew 28:16–20. See also, Mark 3:13–19; Matthew 10:1–11:1.
  29. The roots of Peter’s primacy can be found in Matthew 16:13–20.
  30. Episcopus interrogat electum, dicens, si eius est Ordinarius: Promittis mihi et successoribus meis reverentiam et obœdientiam? Electus: Promitto.” (De Ordinatione Episcopi, Presbyterorum et Diaconorum #125).
  31. Vatican II, Presbyterorum ordinis, December 7, 1965, #7. In Latin: “Presbyteri autem, ante oculos habentes plenitudinem Sacramenti Ordinis qua Episcopi gaudent, in ipsis revereantur auctoritatem Christi supremi Pastoris. Suo igitur Episcopo sincera caritate et oboedientia adhaereant. Quae sacerdotalis oboedientia, cooperationis spiritu perfusa, fundatur in ipsa participatione ministerii episcopalis, quae Presbyteris per Sacramentum Ordinis et missionem canonicam confertur.” (Emphasis added) Available online: https://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decree_19651207_presbyterorum-ordinis_en.html.
  32. Joseph Ratzinger puts it eloquently in Teaching and Learning the Love of God, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017, p. 60–61: “The priesthood is a ministry that can be performed only in the first person plural . . . only by entering into the great fellowship of those who are called and by being the We of the presbyterate of a diocese can we as individuals carry out our ministry to the whole and for the whole.”
  33. Vatican II, Christus Dominus, 28 October 1965, #28. Available online: http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decree_19651028_christus-dominus_en.html.
  34. Christus Dominus #28.
  35. Lumen Gentium #28.
  36. Mark 9:33–37, 10:35–45; Luke 9:46–50.
  37. Lumen Gentium #28.
  38. Christus Dominus #28.
  39. Christus Dominus #28.
  40. Blessed Columba Marmion, Christ the Ideal of the Priest, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005, p. 144. “In His infinite wisdom the Lord has arranged it thus. Christ saved the world by His submission in the spirit of filial love, and we priests, in order to collaborate with the Lord in the redemption of souls, must unite ourselves to this obedience in our work. That is why we can say of any organization, whether it be a diocese or a religious community, that the measure of its strength is the obedience of its members.”
  41. See Pastores Dabo Vobis #21.
  42. See Mark 1:22, 6:2–4; John 7:14–18.
  43. Pastores Dabo Vobis #27.
  44. Marmion describes the proper priestly disposition: “ ‘My God,’ you have said, ‘for love of You and the good of the Church, I place in the hands of my bishop my talents and my activities. Though him You will tell me what You wish me to do’”: Domine, quid me vis facere (Acts 9:6). “I shall accept as coming from You, the function and tasks which my bishop shall entrust to me. I am confident that in this way I shall have Your blessing for my ministry and for my priestly life.” This point of view is entirely supernatural.” Christ the Ideal of the Priest, p. 143.
  45. “Jesus said to Peter: ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.’ He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, ‘Follow me.’” (John 21:18–19).
  46. “It is lived in an atmosphere of constant readiness to allow oneself to be taken up, as it were ‘consumed,’ by the needs and demands of the flock. These last ought to be truly reasonable and at times they need to be evaluated and tested to see how genuine they are.” Pastores Dabo Vobis #28.

    Marmion provides an insightful application of this principle to his life: “You can imagine how my time is eaten up. I say eaten up, for every morning I place myself on the paten with the host that is about to become Jesus Christ; and in the same way that Jesus is there in order to be eaten by all sorts of persons — sumunt boni, sumunt mali, sorte tamen inaequali — so I am eaten all day long by all kind of people. May our dear Savior be glorified by my destruction, as He is by His own immolation.” Raymund Thibaut, Abbot Columba Marmion, transl. by Mother Mary St. Thomas, St. Louis: B. Herder Book Company, 1961, p. 136.

  47. “Those who seek in their own office a means of becoming greater or affirming themselves, having themselves be served or making others serve them, place themselves clearly outside the evangelical model of authority.” Faciem tuam #21.
Rev. Philip Smith About Rev. Philip Smith

Father Philip A. Smith is a priest of the Diocese of Toledo currently serving as Director of Vocations, Pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, and CYO Sports Chaplain. He holds degrees from Franciscan University of Steubenville, the Pontifical Gregorian University, and the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. He is author of What Nobody Ever Told Us: A Guide to Getting More Out of the Catholic Mass.

Comments

  1. Avatar Gary Sarsok says:

    As many have prophesied the seat of the anti-Christ. where does obedience to Christ and His traditions begin and faux obedience to tyrannical bishops end. If you
    give a sermon about the evil of homosexuality you more than likely will be canceled. If priests refuse to baptiise a child from a homosexual union, you will be canceled. If you give a sermon about the evil of contraception your Ordinary will cancel you. The voice of priests to talk the truth of Christ to the laity is being silenced. The question is do priests lend their voices to Christ or be obedient to evil.

    • I – and I am certain that right-thinking, faithful Catholics agree – could not be more ad idem with Gary Sarsok’s observation. It is patently an act of illusion to pretend that the state of NeoCatholicism described by Gary does not exist. It is not – and cannot be – faithful to Christ’s teachings for bishops and other prelates to act as they have and continue to flout, flaunt and defy Christ’s teachings.

  2. Avatar Mary Blanton says:

    This is a masterful treatment of obedience for both the priest and the laity. I look forward eagerly to meditating on it and hearing the second part. Thank you for your discernment, Father Smith.

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