Retreat for Priests -- New Orleans, Louisiana -- October 15, 1993


In many places in the New Testament, the obedience of Jesus is underscored.
"... and he went down with them and came to Nazareth and lived under their authority." Lk 2:51
". . . not my will but your will be done."
". . . I have come, not to do my own will, but the will of Him who sent me."

To obey those set over you, especially those who have an authority which you did not offer them, is a trait of the earnest Christian. But obedience is also a principal stumbling block for you and for me. We revere our freedoms. We do not like to be told what to do. We do not want to surrender our independence. And these attitudes can be hostile to Christianity.

I like to argue, following a long Christian tradition, that humility is the groundwork of every virtue. Whenever you find virtuous activity, you find a humble man. Wherever you find unwholesome work, you find a proud man. Obedience, then, is not the foundation of the Christian edifice; humility is. But the virtue of obedience is one of the first, if not the first, of the stones that build the Christian life. If may be the corner stone.

Let us try to be clear about this edifice which we are to build for ourselves and for those whom we lead. Faith, Hope, and Charity are Rs capstones. There is no Christian life without these, to be sure. But to practice the theological virtues, I need moral stability moral virtue. Among these, obedience is outstanding. Put it another way: Show me a priest who is obedient to God, to the See of Peter, and to his Ordinary, and I will show you a priest in whom charity flourishes.

Of course, obedience is difficult. We all want to do our own thing. Each of you prefers, by far, to be a pastor rather than an associate. Each of us has his own ideas about how the liturgy should be conducted, how the church layout should be devised, how the laity should be incorporated into the maintenance of parochial programs, what the responsibilities of the curates should be, how the finances should be administered, how and by whom the CCD should be run, and so on-and-on. A pastor is the boss, though at times he must consult the Ordinary and obey his decisions.

But few of us like to be told what to do. We love our freedom. And usually the bishops allow us broad tolerance - too broad in the view of some! How many times do you ask yourself: "Why doesn't Schulte crack down on Father so-and-so?" I suspect that we seldom ask whether he should crack down on us! This is, after all, my parish.

"Let a man so account us as steward of Christ." I have no right to emphasize my authority so long as I do not underscore my obedience. In the contemporary church, however, obedience is not usually underscored; it is largely ignored. Bishops make decisions, often after long, drown-out negotiations, and negative reactions set in - from the clergy and from the laity. How many news stories can you recount of disputes between a local ordinary and members of his diocese -- disputes that are exultantly carried in the secular, and even at times in the Catholic press? Too many by far.

Sometimes we fail to be obedient, and we must acknowledge that in those times we are most un-Christ-like. "I have not come to do my own will. . ." Each of you has promised obedience to your bishop. This, of course, is most difficult. if you are blessed with a bishop whom you admire, obedience is relatively easy. He dies and another takes his place whom you do not like, and a disobedient spirit readily takes hold. Examine your conscience now and ask: "How often have I failed in reverence, how often have I obeyed only niggardly, how often have I criticized in a carping spirit, based mainly on my dislike?

I want to insist on reverence here, reverence, at least, for the episcopal office. Yes, yes, I know that some bishops do a poor job, some are selfish, some mean, some niggardly, some haughty, some cowardly; there are some who more or less throw in the towel; there are some who are not too bright; and there are some who in fact, have no concern any longer and say: "Do your own thing." But there are many bishops who are prayerful men, many who are friendly and approachable, many who have an openness to their clergy which, judging by their actions and reactions, comes first. I have the profoundest respect for a local ordinary whose door is open, as much as practically possible, to his priests.

Now there are times when all of us are upset with a bishop's decision and we throw up our hands: "How could the son-of-a-gun be so stupid!?" At such times, when we cool down, we have to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, in this matter he knows something that I do not which he is not free to reveal. Or maybe, just maybe, his direction, which is not mine, may prove to be o.k.

In any event, you and I (I readily admit this), talk too much about our bishops - criticizing them too quickly, too roundly. Now, I often say to penitents, who confess the sins of calming or detraction, that they have a bad habit of speaking unkindly or unfairly of others. Not as a digression, I say here that the only way I can overcome my evil habit of saying unkind things is to work consciously, steadily, to replace the evil habit with its opposite - that is, by saying positive things about another. And by remaining silentl How hard that is! Thing about it. Someone criticizes negatively another and you say nothing because: a) you don't want an argument; or, b) you don't want to be dismissed; or (c) you don't want to be criticized yourself.

The spirit of obedience is as necessary for you as air for breathing. It is a moral virtue and therefore exists between extremes; just as it is evil to want to be treated as a stick or a stone, so it is evil to want to be treated as one naturally endowed with authority, good judgment, unfailing good sense, standing in the middle, the virtue of obedience requires that, at times, one argue for his position - even stoutly if in the end he is prepared to acknowledge authority and to submit to it with reverence!!

The clergy must exhibit a reverential spirit of obedience - to the bishop, to those whom he entrusts with responsibilities, and to be sure, to God.

No conference, no subject matter that I could offer for your reflection is more important than this. So please take the time to ponder this matter, to examine your conscience, to make good resolutions. Promise yourself that you will overcome willfulness, that you will embrace the state of being a subject and that you will then often say, prayerfully, sincerely: "Not my will, but yours be done."

Sermons and Lectures by Damian Fandal, O.P.

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