Common Obedience

Author: Giuseppe Cristaldi


Giuseppe Cristaldi

Common obedience "…means listening with love to a Word…"

The Holy Father's address to the preachers and parish priests of Rome for the beginning of the Lenten period (see L'Osservatore Romano 27th February) is linked through its ideas with his message to priests of 30th June 1968 and, from a different point of view, with the encyclical letter On the Celibacy of the Priesthood (Sacerdotalis Coelibatus). In all we find the same devoted intention to understand, the same spirit of participation in the pains and problems of the priestly life, the same spirit of charity.

The Pope's attention has formerly been directed on these occasions to the circumstances and topics of pastoral life, to the 'objective' side of the priest's life. It is not without significance that this year he showed more concern with its 'subjective' side, in other words with the problems of the priest himself, in the social and cultural circumstances of today and in connection with the dynamism of the Church's life.

He revealed two poles of thought. One is the specific 'role' played by the priest in the Church's life, and, through the Church's presence in the world, also in the current sociological situation. The other is the character of the 'sacra. auctoritas' itself, which is suigeneris and is not comparable with the various kinds of civic and political forms of authority. For this reason it requires profound and incomparable obedience.

The priest's position in regard to the complex and variously orientated society of today, his 'role' in it, to use sociological language, can only be discerned and described 'within' the Church. That is to say, it can only be understood and discussed within the context of the 'institution for salvation' that the Church is, working in the world with the twofold character that belongs to the sacramental 'sign', but with a force, a 'charge' the origin and the content and tension of which do not come from the world. The sociological bias given to the priest's functions and duties today cannot prescind fromthe fact that the priest is 'rooted' in the reality of the Church, with his own particular character, and that the Church is indeed at work in the world and the texture of social relationships.But it is also conscious of transcending the world inasmuch as she is 'the mystery of salvation'. (It is noteworthy that the title 'Clergy in Church and Society' was given to the theme of the IX International Conference on Religious Sociology, held Montreal from 1 to 4 August 1967. Its proceedings have been published at Rome by the C.I.S.R., 464 pages).

Tension is characteristic of the Church, because she is above history on the one hand, but immersed in it on the other (immersed 'inasmuch' and 'as' transcending history). It cannot fail to be reflected in the priest's existence and life, for he is joined to the Church ontologically by reason of his priestly ordination (cf. Lumen Gentium 10; Presbyterium Ordinis, 3, 7, 19). Consequently he is also sociologically joined to her as a real institution with a visible structure, working 'in' and 'with' historical time.

We can now perceive the risk which the priest runs of separating himself from certain of the Church's structures which are temporal and therefore radically temporary. The risk lies in the possibility that, after making that separation, the priest may 'integrate' himself into a sociological milieu where worldly and profane elements or dimensions prevail and absorb all things.

This is the origin of that position held by the priest, which the Pope described in his message of 30 June 1968 as 'paradoxical and incomprehensible to those without faith'. The priest's situation is of someone 'within' the Church who is at work 'within' history

but with a tension, an outlook and an aim that go beyond history, and are metahistorical. The priestly life is indeed tense, tense with the ecclesial ministry and with service to the brethren, therefore committed to communion with humanity. Priests "live among men as brothers among brothers" (Presbyterorum ordinis, 3), but they also have a necessary and unfailing drive towards detachment and segregation. This is so in the first place for the sake of their interior lives (see what Lumen Gentium, n. 41, has to say about the 'wealth of meditation' which priests must attain, for the sake of a holiness which is not only for them but for the whole Church, and which must be won even in the midst of ‘apostolic cares’, ‘dangers’, and ‘tribulations’). In the second place, their detachment arises from their dialectical differentiation, and also integration (very different from ‘absorbing integration'), on the sociological plane of the people around them.

Hence the Holy Father's call to priests "not to lose that specific function through a mistaken desire for integration in society, for assimilation, for 'democraticization' as is said today, in relation to the surrounding society". The Church ought not to democraticize herself, because she stands beyond even ideal forms of democracy: she is 'communion'. This is to say that her founts are at a much deeper and radical level, and at that level she can also take in the democratic spirit, but will make it a vehicle and a sign of communion.

This brings us to another crucial point in the Holy Father's allocution, namely the relation between authority and obedience. The Pope referred to the 'structures', and spoke of a dynamic and basically praiseworthy idea, even though "it is often formulated in an intemperate, and applied in explosive and questionable ways". The problem therefore arises of putting authority in its right perspective—which is the ecclesial one—and viewing the Church's structures in that perspective, bearing in mind that they too are being subjected to the dynamic tension of development and renewal. The Church's authority is radically bound up with the Church's 'mystery'. That authority cannot of course be without its own visible and institutional form of expression, but it should always strive to be that 'transparent sign' of the mystery of salvation.

(Some pertinent and well balanced observations have recently been made on the theme of the authority 'of’ the Church and authority 'in' the Church: see H. De Lavallette, Aperçus sur l'autorité de l' Église et dans l' Église, in 'Études', January 1969, pp. 59-67).

We hear talk of a crisis of obedience and authority. However, every crisis is ambivalent; it may attack values, but can also regain and restore them in a clearer, purer and more convincingly authentic way. It was of course a mistake to depict the Church's authority as analagous to that of a more or less absolute monarch: it is equally erroneous to compare it with the kind of authority that prevails in democracy. The Church lives 'beyond', even though she is 'in' the varied and changing forms of historical experience, and for this reason it was right to say that the Church is an ‘atypical' society. She has her own incomparable 'originality', which comes to her from the divine 'inventiveness'. The Church is an astonishing and mysterious invention of God's. Therefore she transcends human inventiveness, and in certain respects also confounds it. All this demands profound conviction in faith, but also a certain 'style' in exercise of ecclesial authority. The Pope expressed this with delicacy and sincerity when he said: "Understand, dearly beloved, that it is Our desire for the style of Our government of the Church to be a pastoral one, that is to say, that it shall be guided by duty and charity, be open to comprehension and indulgence, exigent in loyalty and zeal, but fraternal and humble in sentiment and form". He added: "Under this aspect, with the Lord's help, we wish to be loved". Authority shines through as love and expects the response and consent of love.

So we are once more in the sphere of love, which is 'common obedience' to 'the redemptive mystery of the obedience of Christ'. It is a question of a new kind of obedience (it cannot be compared with civil and political obedience), which involves 'the whole Church and pledges all who are part of it, with their various duties, functions and charisms. It is obedience that has Biblical roots and Biblical significance: the obedience that consists in 'hearing' in order to follow. It is listening to God's Word, which gives itself and by so doing commits itself and commits us. This voice of God has to pass through the various structures, and we must try to catch its sound and follow it.

It means listening with love to a Word that is always the word of love. It is here that those tensions, which will certainly not be lacking on the historical and sociological level, resolve into the supreme tension of love, which is the gift of liberty and an offer of liberation. It is peace: that peace which the Lord granted to his Church (Jn 14:27).  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
17 April 1969, page 8

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069