Let us start logically at the beginning: "For freedom, Christ set us free," (Gal 5: 1). It is not a question of obeying without reflecting. The era, when superiors demanded blind obedience, is happily finished. We are human beings; God creates us free and wants us to remain free. Nobody forced you to join the formation programme of the Missionaries of Africa and nobody can force you to remain in it against your will. You are (or are becoming) free persons.
What are we supposed to do with this God-given freedom? Jesus is always our point of reference. Saint Luke shows him as an obedient child, submissive to his parents and later as a man who respected the customs like the prayer of the Sabbath. When he healed a group of lepers (Lk. 17:14), he told them to follow the prescriptions of the Law. However, on the other hand, he was free in front of the authorities and did not hesitate to break with tradition when he had good reason to do it. What was his secret? Why was he obedient at some moments and refused to follow the law at other moments? Saint John enlightens us, "My food is to do the will of the one who sent me" (Jn. 4: 34). Jesus had his own GPS before they were ever invented. In all that he did, he was guided by a very simple principle: "What is the will of My Father, what way does He want me to follow, what Mission does He give me?" If he recognized the will of the Father in the prescriptions of the law, he followed them. Otherwise, he had no scruples about breaking them in order to obey a deeper imperative. The Spirit of Jesus, the Holy Spirit is a spirit of obedience.
It is the same Spirit, the same GPS, that should guide us towards personal holiness and in the Mission He has entrusted to us. Like Jesus, we have to obey one person and one person only and that is God the Father. Always and for each one of us, personally or as a group, that absolute obedience to the Father should be the compass showing us the direction to follow. It should be the deepest motivation of our lives, what we search for with all our strength, our entire mind, and all our will. Through our oath at the service of the Mission of the Church, we commit ourselves to that type of availability and obedience. Free persons, we owe obedience to no other human being, be they the Pope, Bishop or superiors... only and uniquely to the Father. However, it would be a misapprehension to pretend to obey God while paying no attention to the very people He gave us to guide us and help us to discover His will. Still, it is good to remember that, even when we obey them, we are obeying the Father. We do not have to obey our superior simply because he is our superior. We obey because we are convinced that the will of the Father is revealed through him.
Nobody should be guided by the desire to have his own will fulfilled. This is true for persons in authority just as much as it is for those expected to obey. Nobody should try to impose his wishes or his preferences on others. All are supposed to seek and fulfil the will of the Father. The superior will use all means at his disposal to seek that will, which means consulting the individual and the community or group. He will conduct a wide-ranging consultation listening to all views on the matter. On the other side, it is up to the person under authority to give his opinion, explain his position, and disclose all relevant information necessary for a proper discernment. Dialogue does not mean that a person is presenting his own ideas with a view to getting what he wants. It is a chance for him to make known some important factors in making the discernment. This allows the superior to hear the individual and to take into account his contribution to the process of discernment.
The will of the Father is usually made known to us through appointments decided according to the needs of the Mission entrusted to our Society and that are in line with its priorities. Once our superiors have consulted and listened, once they have done their best to indentify the indications given to them by the Spirit, they have the duty to take decisions, which have consequences for the Society and for its individual members. It is through them that the will of God is revealed to us and is calling us to obedience. Before the decision is taken, obedience demands us to be pro-active and to communicate anything we know that might be relevant in the on-going discernment. Once the decision is taken, obedience calls us to take it on board, make it our own (even if it is not to our liking), and put all our energies into its accomplishment.
At times, there seems to be confusion in the understanding of the evangelical virtue of obedience. A stagiaire did not receive the appointment he wanted. He complained there had been no dialogue... notwithstanding the fact that he had been consulted. In this case, the reproach of lack of dialogue shows the person was not ready to give up his own desire and accept something else. His availability was limited. The search for the Father's will should fill us completely. It should be the deep motivation behind all our actions but some obstacles prevent us from being truly available and finding it. Among them are our fears, jealousy, attachment to our own ideas and our own plans, the weight of sin etc. The signs of a lack of interior freedom are easily visible to outside observers: anger, indignation, inability to change pre-established plans, accusations of racism, nepotism and authoritarianism. Unhappily, the person involved often misses these signs, even though they are clearly visible from the outside.
Obedience is a beautiful evangelical virtue, possibly the virtue uniting us most intimately to Jesus and to His mother Mary. "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and put it into practice" (Lk. 8:21). Jesus showed us the way and it led him to the cross (Phil 2:8). It was the wish of our founder to see obedience as a characteristic of our Society (Charles Lavigerie to his missionaries, 04-10-1875). It was not a military style of obedience without dialogue or use of our intellectual faculties but the obedience freely given by disciples looking for the will of their Father with all their heart. This should be the hallmark of our Society. We should practice this obedience from the very first years of our formation. It should become freer and fuller as the gift we make of ourselves to the Father grows in us. All, superiors as well as persons under authority, must be obedient to the will of the Father so that the virtue of obedience can grow and come to completion in us.
Let us ask the Son for the grace of entering more and more into his Spirit of Obedience, becoming in the process, Sons in His image. Let us pray with Mary his mother: "let it happen to me as you have said (Lk. 1: 38).
Secretary for Initial Formation
15 January 2016