Those words are taken from the second reading of this Mass of Ordination, the Letter to the Hebrews, and correlate so well with the first words spoken by our Lord following His Resurrection in the Gospel of St. John, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). The priesthood rests upon an appreciation of obedience that finds its roots in the mission of Jesus Christ to fulfill the will of God.
Jesus comes to do the Father’s will. Jesus will say, “… the world must know that I love the Father and that I do just as the Father has commanded me” (John 14:31). This entails rejection, suffering and ultimately death. Jesus struggles with obedience, not because there is any suggestion that in the end He will choose against the Father’s will. Instead, the struggle exists to show the free will of Jesus at work, embracing the Father’s will completely and entirely. “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will but as you will” (Matthew 26:39).
Obedience has been called “the highest of the three evangelical counsels” (Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Part III, Chapter XV). And in keeping with true Scholastic juxtaposition, if obedience is the highest of the counsels in the Gospels, then it contrasts with the highest disorder, the concupiscence of flesh which is “pride of life.” It is this pride of life that motivates the non serviam of the Deceiver and works against every desire to embrace a will higher than our own. If the priest is an alter Christus, then there is no escaping the act of obedience, the complete surrender of one’s will first and foremost to the will of God and then by extension to legitimate authority as it seeks to serve Christ in His Church.
On the recent ad limina apostolorum, along with the other bishops, I made a visit to the Congregation for the Clergy. They had a wealth of printed material available for us. One such was an “Examination of Conscience for Priests.” Of particular interest were those questions that dealt with obedience. “Am I guilty of sins of pride? … Do I ask God to give me the virtue of humility? Am I convinced that when I act ‘in the person of Christ’ that I am directly involved with the same Body of Christ, the Church? Can I sincerely say that I love the Church?” It is that last question that I think should disturb us all. “Can I sincerely say that I love the Church?”
Can one truly “love the Church” when one seeks one’s own will? When in the face of disappointment I become despondent over what seems to be authority’s lack of concern for my well-being, then where is the love of the Church, when I seek refuge or consolation in money, the acclaim of society, or the favors of the secular world? Love for the Church can so easily evaporate under the burning heat of self interest.
If Christ learned obedience from what He suffered, then we must do the same. When authority decides against our preconceived notions, when the faithful criticize our absence from the parish, and when a lack of attentiveness to duty causes disruption, these are the facts that unsettle our pride of life. However, there are even more painful moments. False accusations, belittling remarks, alienation by our brother priests, and loneliness leap from the pages of The Diary of a Country Priest. There comes a point in the day when having been charmed by the glitz and glamour that can accompany the life of a priest, the door is closed and we are left to ourselves. It is then that we find ourselves in the Garden of Olives. Then we must repeat the prayer of our Lord, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.”
The fruits of obedience are to be well observed. First, obedience offers us the opportunity to participate in the wisdom of God. A simple dynamic is at work here. If a priest does not obey, then he will never know how to expect obedience. Often when the priest creates chaos in the parish with his own expectations, it is because his lack of obedience has created chaos in his own life. The cross is transformed by the wisdom of God. Only then does it become redemptive. Second, obedience gives us strength of will. Following prayer—heartfelt, open, and honest—we make an act of obedience, then God supplies us with the strength to complete the task. This is a truth at least as old as St. Augustine. “God, in fact, never commands the impossible; but He tells us to do what we are able and to ask Him for the grace to accomplish what we cannot do of ourselves” (St. Augustine, De natura et gratia, Chapter 43). Finally, obedience does not create blind servitude. Instead, obedience brings about freedom. It is about this liberty that St. Paul spoke so frequently in his letters. When speaking of the great interiorizing that takes place for the Christian in the New Covenant of God’s grace, St. Paul concludes, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (II Corinthians 3:17). Obedience to God brings about real freedom, because we move about freely within the truth. The law of God is engraved upon our hearts. Being so, the Spirit allows for a freedom of movement because it is based on the truth. There is nothing more freeing than the truth.
Entering the Cathedral today as a deacon, you will leave as a priest. Allow your heart to be a priestly heart. Let your heart be contrite and humble. Give God room to act in your life and transform your will ever more fully into what He desires. May Christ, who learned obedience through what He suffered, be your inspiration, guide and example. When tempted to let the “cup” pass you by, pray the words of our Lord in the Garden: “Not as I will, but as you will.”