By Rev. Fr. Anthony Obute Ori. A Paper delivered on NCPDF SEMINAR: NOVEMBER 2018
The apostles were called by Jesus Christ so that they could be with Him and thereafter be sent to the nations to proclaim the good news of salvation to all men. Although the Great Commission of Jesus Christ in Matt. 28:19 is meant for all Christians there are those who, having been called by God, are specially trained and specifically mandated to ‘give up’ all they are and have for the sake of the Gospel.
The institution of the priesthood in Catholicism represents a class of men called from the midst of their fellow men to offer sacrifices to God and mediate between God and men in various dimensions. The enormity of this task of mediation necessitates the urgency and intensity of the hybrid training and discipline imbued on the candidates for the Catholic priesthood.
Post-Trent enlightenment provided the seminaries as one of the indispensable structures for clerical training and formation. While in the seminary the priestly aspirants are schooled in various social and human sciences alongside their compulsory Sacred Theological studies which are all geared towards enhancing the complete education of the mind and heart of ‘the man who eventually turns the priest’. For the ones truly called who have genuinely discerned their vocation the whole process of formation culminates in the dramatic episode of Sacred Ordination, a time when they are ‘chosen’ and commissioned to live, preach and lay down their lives for the gospel.
There comes a time in the process of Ordination to the Presbyterate (priesthood) when the deacon, humbly kneeling before the bishop, extends his clinched hands and, placing them into the hands of the bishop, promises obedience to the bishop and his successors with the responsorial verse: ‘I do’. This piece focuses on this solemn vow of clerical obedience and its eventual implications in the life and ministry of the priest.
THE MEANING OF THE VOW OF CLERICAL OBEDIENCE
From its Latin etymology obedire the term obedience is most likely to have come from the combination of ob meaning “to” and audire meaning “listen or hear”. As such, obedire could be delineated as “to listen” or “to hear”. In today’s ecclesiological discipline the concept of obedience from all indications supersedes its etymological description. This is because it goes beyond the idea of hearing to include the details of what is heard and the eventual act of doing exactly what someone has heard.
Pope Leo XIII was right when he maintained that; “Obedience is not the servitude of man to man, but submission to the will of God, who governs through the medium of men”. Obedience gives the priest both freedom and peace. It is important to remember that the bishop possesses the fullness of holy orders, is heir to the apostles, and is called by the Holy Spirit to govern his diocese as a chief shepherd. Obedience to one’s bishop graces the priest with the love that comes from the Holy Spirit. This particular vow acknowledges the truth that God’s hand guides our bishops and the Church. To be obedient is to trust God’s will for us.
Obedience is one act that implies so many other responsibilities. Little wonder that one of my rectors during my seminary days, Fr. Sylvester Dagin, always told us his students that the vow of obedience is a “Death Sentence accepted and endorsed” by those who freely make such a vow in the hands of the Bishop. The evangelical counsel of obedience, undertaken in the spirit of faith and love in the footsteps of Christ, who was obedient even 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 the institute’s own constitutions.
It is true that the call to formation is finally answered when one is ordained a priest. However, the call to the various priestly apostolates thereafter goes with vow of obedience made on the day of ordination. In his post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation given in Benin Republic in 2011, Benedict XVI addressed the priests saying: “Live obedience to your diocesan bishop in simplicity, humility and filial love.”
INSTANCES OF LIVING OUT CLERICAL OBEDIENCE IN THE PRIESTLY MINISTRY
Clerical and ecclesiastical obedience can be lived and practiced in the following instances of priestly life:
Postings and Transfers: This is one of the most recurring moments when the vow of obedience made at ordination is expected to be lived out. Saint Cyprian of Carthage, in the middle of the third century, stated: “The Church rests on the bishops, and all her conduct follows the direction of those same rulers” Being the chief shepherd of his diocese, it is the bishop that approves and endorses the posting and transfers of his clergy who are his co-workers. At such moments priests ought to respond promptly to the voice of God through the bishop without debate or delay. Many clerics have proved themselves worthy of their maturity in this regard. There are many priests who have humbly submitted to the will of the bishop at such moments of transfers and postings.
Nevertheless, it is also a common experience today to see how some priests get so uneasy whenever transfers are imminent. Owing to their inflexible nature and personal agenda, they wish to remain in parishes which they have made their ‘personal properties’. Some even go to the extent of lobbying their way into “comfort or viable” parishes and apostolates just because they abhor anything like sacrifice in their lives. They feel the priesthood is an ‘epicurean institution’ meant for easy and flamboyant living.
A lifestyle and mentality of this nature is a repudiation of the vow of obedience made at the event of ordination. Sad but true, some bishops have gone to the extent of contending with some priests who either refuse their transfers or circulate false stories about the bishop just because they were transferred. Some have taken their transfers as heavy burdens; gone to their new places grudgingly and lived unproductive priestly lives there. The faithful end up suffering as they are starved from spiritual nourishment and the genuine pastoral care of the priest. One who is obedient ought to be open to both the comfortable and challenging apostolates in the priesthood, no matter what his personal options or preferences may be.
Studies and Sabbatical Leave: This is another area that demands priestly obedience. Based on the need and situation of a diocese or the church, the bishop usually appoints some priests to further their studies in designated academic disciplines either here in Nigeria or overseas. Some of these clerics have gone and successfully completed their studies and come back to be engaged as deemed fit by their bishops. However, some priests have defied ecclesiastical obedience either by going to the academia to specialize in other disciplines or even diverting their concerns into other personal concerns and pursuits. In any case, they end up at variance with the goal the bishop had in mind before sending them for such mission.
It is a known tradition that priests can ask for sabbatical leave and, if suitable, be given by their bishops or appropriate competent authority. Whereas so many have been faithful to the terms of this ‘refreshing package’ of the church, others have abused it. Some go on such sabbatical leave and get so acclimatized to their ‘holiday zones’ that coming back to their diocese becomes a difficult task. Some have ended up having troubles with the authorities before returning and yet others have even resisted any recall from their bishops.
Annual and Monthly Retreats: The spiritual life of the priest is an important dimension of his calling. Retreats are meant for refreshing the priest in his spiritual warfare. It is true that one cannot so much do the work of the Lord and forget the Lord of the work. The Mother Church, in her wisdom, has created retreat opportunities for clerics to enable them find time out of the daily busy pastoral schedules and activities of their apostolates to commune with the Lord in a more relaxed and serene environment. These retreats are most times spiritually nourishing and offer the participants opportunities of growth, fresh zeal and fervour for the work of God entrusted to their care.
As such, a situation where clerics turn down the call for such retreats and stay away from attending without any genuine and pressing excuse amounts to a breach in the loyalty pledged at the hands of the bishop on the day of ordination. It is true that moments of spiritual reunion like this are also meant for improved growth and solidarity among the clerical family of a particular diocese or congregation, for the family that prays together stays together.
Financial Returns: The American Archbishop, Paul Marcinkus, a one-time president of the Vatican Bank, once observed that you can’t run the Church on Hail Mary’s alone. By this statement the cleric did not mean to enthrone the pecuniary phase of the church to the detriment of the spiritual. He was only out to encourage the people of God on the need to support and encourage the work of God with the human resources within their reach. No doubt that although some give to mission by going, others go to mission by giving.
In parishes and various institutions of the church, the laity happily contribute to the coffers of the church. They do this through Sunday and weekday offerings, diocesan and parish levies, tithes, thanksgiving, bazaars, gifts etc. The church, in her wisdom, has a charter of how these funds should be disbursed and utilized for the growth of the church and the betterment of humanity. A particular percentage is expected to be remitted to the Diocesan treasury at stipulated times.
There is no doubt that many priests are faithful to their quarterly returns and have up-to-date records in the diocesan archives. However, there are other ones who are not bothered about this important gesture that sustains the smooth running of the diocese. Do you think this is a mark of docility and obedience to the church?
There are several liturgical and social functions that are organized at the diocesan level. Priestly ordinations, Chrism Mass, church dedications, religious professions, anniversaries, funerals and even parties are organized at one point or the other. It is a noble thing to attend these functions and identify with the priestly family of the diocese. There are many priests who are worth the commendation in this regards. This is a call on those who are snobbish in matters that pertains their diocese to make amends as this does not align with the tenets of clerical obedience.
EVALUATION AND CONCLUSION
It was Fulton Sheen who once remarked; “Civilization is always in danger when those who have never learned to obey are given the right to command”. Only a leader who has followed well knows how to lead others well. Obedience does not mean the execution of orders that are given by a drill sergeant. It springs, rather, from the love of an order, and love of Him who gave it. The merit of obedience is less in the act than in the love; the submission, the devotion, and the service which obedience implies are not born out of servitude, but are rather effects that springs from and are unified by love. Obedience is servility only to those who have not understood the spontaneity of love.
The ecclesiastical vow of obedience, no doubt, can be challenging and demanding at times. However, we ought to trust in God who has called us and in our mother Mary who is always pleased when we obey as she did in the face of the will of God for her. We can do no better than making the words of T.S. Elliot our own when he says; “I have rolled up my sleeves and taken the church on my back, I shall never put her down”.
 Code of Canon Law , Can. 601.
 Benedict XVI, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation AfricaeMunus, Benin Republic, 2011, no. 110
 Benedict XVI, Op. Cit., no. 101.
 CBCN, Ratio FundamentalisInstitutionisSacerdotalis (2005), no. 75
 Fulton Sheen, The World’s First Love, (Bandra: St. Pauls, 2003), P. 86
This paper was originally published in 2018 under the Nigeria Catholic Priests Discourse Forum (NCPDF)