“The only worthwhile striving is after the highest ideals: If you aim for an easy target, your standard will inevitably decline, and no progress is ever made, except through real effort and real suffering.” - Servant of God Fra' Andrew Bertie                                                                                                                                                 "Work as if everything depends on you, pray as if everything depends on God" - Saint Ignatius of Loyola

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SECOND CONFERENCE - DORCHESTER DAY OF RECOLLECTION


ON THE MEANING OF OBEDIENCE

Most of us present here are familiar with the Triduum Office of Tenebrae. One of the most poignant and instructive moments comes towards the end of Lauds when the whole congregation kneels and sings the chant “Christus factus est pro nobis obediens usque ad mortem”. Christ became for us obedient, even unto death. These words, first written by St Paul to the Phillipians (2:8), summarises two absolutely primary truths of revelation, that obedience was what rendered Christ’s death the most perfect sacrifice and that it reversed humanity’s previous disastrous original refusal to obey recorded in the Book of Genesis(3:1-19). The death of Jesus, as explained by St Paul teaches us that the virtue of obedience, supremely demonstrated in the willingness to submit to death on the Cross, was in itself an essential solution that removed the stain and shame of mankind’s first turning away from God. Likewise it restored the broken links of direct communication with God that had resulted from man’s first disobedience. Just as we can be assured of that, we should also be in no doubt that the disobedience evident in man’s first experiment with freedom to do as he pleased was the main cause of the fall from grace. The theme of obedience and its opposite is examined and exhibited right through the Bible story of salvation. Beyond Adam and Eve, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, King David, the Prophets, the story of Jonah, all are asked by God to undertake specific tasks and prove their willingness by their fulfilment. In the initial chapters of the New Testament, Zecahriah, John the Baptist and pre-eminently the Blessed Virgin Mary are all asked to co-operate with God’s plan of Redemption. None of us should be in any doubt that the virtue of obedience is what decides who is acting in God’s name. Correspondingly it is clear from Biblical revelation that disobedience is the hallmark of satanic influence and is alien to faith and charity.

It stands to reason then that all of us – and especially those bound to religious vows or promises of obedience ought to both understand what is required by them and have that intention as our constant aim. So, what is meant by obedience in the context of our religion and the Order? Canon 601 of the modern Code expresses it thus: “The evangelical counsel of obedience, undertaken in the spirit of faith and love in the following of Christ, who was obedient unto death, obliges submission of one’s will to lawful Superiors who act in the place of God when they give commands that are in accordance with each institute’s own constitutions.” From this, it follows that those who have taken vows or promises are much more strictly engaged with the practice of direct obedience to a superior than those who are members of the Order without having committed themselves by a solemn, signed contract. Nevertheless, we are all bound by the general expectation of obedience to lawful religious superiors when they are acting within their sphere of responsibility and not manifestly commanding or enforcing regulations or restrictions which are sinful in themselves; infringe the legitimate rights of those in their charge; contradict the expressed intention of more general law and custom, or oblige against conscience. One can see immediately here that it sometimes requires a good deal of enquiry and counsel to be sure of one’s ground for not obeying and perhaps even more of courage to persist with it.

Relying once more on Mgr Dimech for a summary of what obedience means to those who are of that category in the Order, he records that the question is often asked “So, what do I have to do”? The answer he gives is that the obligations are deceptively simple. It is not so much a matter of what is done but how it is done. It represents a desire to enter into a more contemplative branch of the Order; but that contemplation is undertaken without the support system available to cloistered religious. To live this kind of vocation is equally as demanding for those in Obedience as for those who are Knights of Justice. It is amazing that until the 1970’s, there was a very small number of Professed Knights, all of whom lived in some kind of community within their Grand Priories. It was from England that the first stirrings emerged of vocations to this category from candidates destined to live it in a more solitary manner. As we all very much aware, that small initiative has spread to other branches of the Order and is still a vital and flourishing component of its profile in England. For those who take it on, both inside and outside of community life, obedience to a lawful Superior can be a for a religious the greatest trial in life but once a person has willingly and solemnly promised such an undertaking it must inform every action and decision relating to the welfare of the Order and its work that the candidate expects to contribute.

Years ago, when dear old Tony Furness had the time and substance to dwell almost daily on these issues, he once told me in conversation that the most important singular discretion which the Order possessed was the power of dispensation, which could be usefully invoked in almost every situation –except gender alteration. Individual persons may be dispensed from particular rules or customs as and when it may be deemed appropriate. That said, nobody may be dispensed from obedience to the Commandments of God or of the legitimate ordinances of universal and episcopal authority. It should not be a matter of dispute by anyone calling themselves Catholic that the teaching authority of the Supreme Pontiff proclaimed and published as such, may ever be legitimately disobeyed or set aside. All the popes of recent centuries have had the wisdom and the sensitivity to make it clear when their statements reflected a personal view of a matter under consideration. Equally, they have also made it abundantly clear when their decisions have been solemn and binding. There is little excuse nowadays, when information is available online and in bookshops for any literate person to claim that they do not know what Papal teaching is on any aspect of faith or morals. It used to be said in the past that the Italian monopoly of the Papacy for 450 years rather weakened the urge to pay much heed to it. Those who did were sometimes dismissed as Ultramontane. For a short time under John XXIII (1958-1963)it became fashionable among the liberals to idolize the Papacy. His successor Paul VI had a variety of approval ratings. Then, in 1978, we had a Polish Pope and the pundits said he was naturally autocratic and limited by having lived under a dictatorship for all of his life, so was also narrow-minded. More recently the first German Pope for 1,000 years has been elected. The Britain on occasions and in some media reporting, the ecclesiastical equivalent of the 1966 World Cup final and of the TV comedy “Allo, Allo”, has been deployed in much of the commentaries on his suitability and character. Caricaturing the Papacy is an old English pastime and nobody should be taken in by it, least of all people who also claim to champion fair play. The more serious side to this exhortation is that we must make sure that our obedient response to our vocation is mature and based on sound reason and informed conscience. Today, members of the Grand Priory have elected a new Superior. His task is an unenviable one but I am certain that he will be more than equal to it. He should be assured of the prayers and support of all of us who have the welfare and prosperity of the Order uppermost in our minds. Beyond that, he will be comforted to know that where God has guided a person into a special office He also endows the willing suppliant with all the graces necessary for that calling. May the obedient example of Blessed Gerard, St John the Baptist, Our Blessed Lady, and above all of Christ the Lord inform our counsels and inspire all our endeavours.