An Encouraging Word — My way or the highway

Love does not seek its own interests. I Corinthians 13:5

Father J. Ronald Knott
Father J. Ronald Knott

Nothing gets more bad press than the word “obedience.” The main reason is that we have such a childish notion about what it really means. For most of us, including many priests, it means basically, “Yes, boss, I will do it if you command me to do it!”

Understood correctly, no community, sports team, presbyterate or marriage has any chance of survival without it.

I attribute my breakthrough in understanding of obedience to St. John Paul II in his document “I Will Give You Shepherds.” He describes obedience not just as  an individual relating to authority, but also as having a “communal” dimension. It is also a promise you make to the other priests of the diocese.

“Obedience demands a marked spirit of asceticism in the sense of not being too bound up in one’s preferences and points of view,” the document explains. Obedience is really about solidarity as a group. Obedience does not negate having a preference or point of view. It is about not being overly attached to that preference or point of view for the sake of unity.

Obedience is about attaining a goal beyond and above personal ministry accomplishments.

Understood this way, a promise of mutual obedience is implied in the marriage vows couples make at their weddings. In the Scripture reading from Paul’s First Letter to the
Corinthians that most couples choose for their weddings, St. Paul says much the same thing — that one of the characteristics of real love is “not seeking one’s own interests.”

“Not seeking one’s own interests” implies an ability to negotiate a consensus with one’s partner, rather than being overly attached to one’s own preferences and points of view, for the sake of the unity of the relationship. Obedience, understood that way, is not about subservience, but mutuality.

One of the great stories about “obedience” is the story of Jesuit Father Frank Browne (1880-1960) who became a prominent documentary photographer and chaplain in the British army in World War I.

His photographs from the Titanic are some of the only surviving images. The year the Titanic sank, Frank Browne was a Jesuit novice when, because of a gift from his uncle, he was able to board the Titanic for the first leg of its fateful transatlantic trip — from South Hampton, England, to Cherbourg, France, and on to Queenstown, Ireland. While on board, he managed to obtain hundreds of pictures of life and passengers onboard the Titanic, including the last image of the Titanic’s captain, Edward Smith.

A couple onboard that he befriended, offered to fund the final leg of the journey to New York. From the Titanic, he sent a telegram to his Provincial in Dublin requesting permission.

He received a frosty telegram in response. It said, “Get off that ship!” He later said it was the only time holy obedience had saved a life. If he had been overly attached to his own will, he would have gone down with the ship.

Father J. Ronald Knott

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