The Catholic Diocese of Sacramento, California
Office of Vocations - 2110 Broadway - Sacramento, CA 95818 -


“Do you promise filial respect and obedience to me and my successors?”

Obedience. It is a tough concept to wrap our minds around. In our present day culture, obedience is looked upon as the trappings of an older way of thinking, perhaps medieval in nature, that subverts the dignity of man. It brings man back to a master and slave relationship with others rather than allowing for the absolute freedom man desires today. Obedience. Perhaps we should drop it altogether right now.

But obedience is not the stereotypes that are attached to it. Rather it is a call that each of us have within our lives. What a diocesan priest and deacon promise at ordination is something that, within a wider context, we all do when we say yes to faith. We say yes to God’s existence, His love for us, and His will for us. So truly, obedience is part of our identity as Christians.

Obedience is not a suppression of freedom but a right disposal of our freedom for the good. It is a respect for our dignity. It is neither giving up responsibility or surrendering any control. As St. John Vianney said, “Obedience makes the will supple. It gives the power to conquer self, to overcome laziness, and to resist temptations. It inspires the courage with which to fulfill the most difficult tasks.”

The reality is that most priests and religious experience more freedom in taking a promise or vow of obedience than they ever did in the secular world. Why? Because in promising or vowing obedience, they are free to simply do the will of God expressed in the actions of their superiors. They are free to move about with the freedom that comes with surrender. They are not anxious, worried, frustrated, but at peace in the will of God. Archbishop Timothy Dolan tells the story of a young woman religious who was a principal of a grade school. She was one of the youngest and most talented in her order but her order was collapsing and closing apostolates. He once asked her, “What will your future hold?” She responded, “I don’t know and I don’t care. How freeing it is not to have to worry about my future. That’s the gift of obedience.” Interesting.

And notice the words above. Obedience is tied to a filial respect. We are asked to enter into a father and son relationship with our bishop, our spiritual father. What he asks of us he does as our father who is looking out for us. And we as loyal sons respond with great trust. There is a mutual respect of each man’s role in this relationship. Dolan again tells the story of a retreat director who once said, “You know, I don’t like my bishop. I don’t enjoy his company. I disagree with the direction he is taking the diocese. I am at odds with his ideology, and I am hurt by the way he has treated me. I don’t like my bishop…but, I do love him, and I have given him my solemn word that I will obey and respect him, and I will, and I will do it well. I will live for him and I would die for him.” How powerful is that. Hopefully we do like our bishops but no matter what, we are called to obedience. And this respect we have for our bishop stems from our love of God. Respect actually means “to look at someone while keeping Another in mind.” So we look to the bishop with God on our minds.

Obedience continues to flow out into every other relationship as well. The priest is then so called to be obedient to his fellow priests and the people he serves everyday. He is called to freely dispose himself to the will of God in the lives of all those he meets and serves. Perhaps a helpful prayer for all of us as we seek to be obedient to the will of God is the Suscipe of Charles de Fouchauld:

I abandon myself into your hands;
do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me,
and in all your creatures –
I wish no more than this, O Lord.
Into your hands I commend my soul;
I offer it to you
with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord,
and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself
into your hands,
without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father.

Please check out Archbishop Mauro Piacenza on Obedience and Archbishop Timothy Dolan’s book Priests for the Third Millenium from whom I borrowed generously for more information.


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