The freedom of obedience in religious life

6 mins read
Pope Francis uses incense to bless new priests before their ordination Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican May 11, 2014. (CNS photo/Stefano Rellandini, Reuters) (May 12, 2014)

In our culture, obedience is largely thought to be the opposite of freedom — something to escape through adulthood, no longer being under the authority of parents and school.

The Catholic Church, however, teaches that obedience is a good and holy thing: “By faith, man completely submits his intellect and his will to God. With his whole being man gives his assent to God the revealer. Sacred Scripture calls this human response to God, the author of revelation, ‘the obedience of faith,'” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 143).

Vocations to the religious life actually require a vow or promise of obedience, something dramatically at odds with the culture. It is the cultural view of obedience that once pitted Father Joshua Ehli, rector of Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Bismarck, North Dakota, against school and parents when he was an adolescent. He used to skip Mass and frequently got into trouble at school. By high school, the administration at St. Mary’s Central High School informed him that if it continued, he would not be with them for long.

“That jarred my soul,” Father Ehli said. “The fun from doing my own little will was beginning to have greater and greater consequences. I started cleaning up my life, and spiritually, there was growth in virtues and obedience.”

The lessons he learned from his two priest religion teachers began to affect him on a deep level. “Once I understood the elements of the Faith, it impacted me,” Father Ehli said.

By senior year in high school, he felt an inkling that he was called to be a priest, and he ran from it. “I didn’t have a deep desire, but there was this voice that I never could completely escape,” Father Ehli said. Finally, to “scratch that itch,” he entered the seminary after college, assuming it would confirm that the priesthood was not for him. He soon realized, however, that it was a perfect fit — even the promise of obedience to his bishop.

“Instead of it being a concern, I realized the promise of obedience was a source of great freedom,” Father Ehli said. “I don’t have to wonder if I’m doing God’s will.” And so it was easy for him. Until it wasn’t.

Father Ehli was ordained in 2009 and served as a parish priest until 2015 when he was assigned to Rome to serve with the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, assisting the cardinal prefect to administer in mission territories on behalf of the pope. Father Ehli loved Rome and found his work interesting and rewarding. He was also working on a doctorate degree. Then in October, with a year and a half still remaining in his assignment, Bismarck’s Bishop David D. Kagan informed him that the rector of Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, Father Austin Vetter, had been appointed as bishop to the Diocese of Helena, Montana. Father Ehli was chosen to replace him.

“I said yes out of love for my bishop and his role, not out of my own desire,” Father Ehli explained. “It was an invitation to a deeper trust in the Lord, which is what the Church teaches.” Ironically, it was the very topic Father Ehli planned for the dissertation he now had to abandon — discerning personal freedom within the context of obedience.

“I understood the topic, but now I actually had to do it,” he said. “It took me about a month of working it out with the Lord to come to terms with it. I prayed for God to help me depart from my will and provide for me in the next opportunity. Once you get through that and trust grows, excitement comes waiting to see what you are going to do. My initial resistance seems infantile now,” he said. “I am very happy here.”

Bishop’s perspective

According to Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois, obedience is related to mission. “Obedience is not an arbitrary exercise of power where a bishop orders a priest to do something to show that I am the boss,” he said. “It is related to mission. If I ask a priest to take an assignment, it is because I need that priest in this parish. The bishop is matching a priest’s abilities with the needs of a parish.”

He noted that the word obedience itself comes from the Latin oboedire, which means to listen. “So obedience,” Bishop Paprocki said, “means, who do you give ear to? Are you listening to yourself, to the culture or peer pressure, or to your bishop or superior?

For diocesan priests, he explained, there is a promise of obedience to the bishop. “A religious order priest vows obedience to his religious superior and to his community and to his bishop,” he said. “When I assign a religious priest, I have to work through his religious superior.”

Naturally obedient

Growing up in San Antonio, Mother Madonna, prioress of the cloistered Carmelite Monastery in Wahpeton, North Dakota, actually liked being obedient in order to please her parents. But in second grade, when she announced that she wanted to become a bride of Christ as a religious sister, her parents told her never to speak of it again. They expected her to eventually get married, have children and live next door to them.

“How can this be?” Mother Madonna asked God. “I wanted to give myself totally to God, but my parents were saying no.” At the end of her senior year in high school, she felt drawn to enter the Air Force while continuing to discern. She was stationed in England.

“From there, I was able to find out who I was apart from my parents,” she said. She became certain that God was calling her to the religious life. Mother Madonna was accepted into the Carmelites and welcomed the vow of obedience. “I wanted it so bad I was willing to do anything,” she said.

She did not expect, however, that “anything” would include taking a turn leading the sisters in Gregorian chant. “I was so scared,” Mother Madonna recalled. “The sisters have beautiful voices and I don’t even want to listen to myself. I sounded horrible, but I did it. I felt Our Lord was saying to me, ‘It’s going to be your greatest cross, but it’s also going to be your greatest gift to me.’ It hasn’t been easy, but this is what I can give to him. He has given me so much.”

As a prioress for the last six years, Mother Madonna said her job is to serve the other sisters, and she must still be obedient to her bishop and Carmelite superior.

Women religious from the Diocese of Metuchen, N.J., pray during a Mass of consecration at the Cathedral of St. Francis of Assisi in Metuchen Dec. 12, 2019. (CNS photo/Mike Ehrmann, The Catholic Spirit)

Soon to be ordained

Deacon Brother Daniel Maria Klimek, assistant professor of theology at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, is a member of the Franciscan Friars of the Third Order Regular from the Province of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. He is scheduled to be ordained a priest on May 23.

“I believe that as a religious, I am called to ‘die’ so that the flock may have life,” he said, “But that ‘dying’ is a beautiful gift of self to Jesus and Mary made in relationship to them.”

According to him, Pope St. John Paul II taught that dying through the gift of one’s will unites us to the obedience of Jesus on the cross and the Blessed Mother’s spiritual crucifixion at the foot of the cross.

“Sister Clare Crockett, a young Irish sister who died in an earthquake in Ecuador in 2016, put it beautifully,” Brother Klimek explained. “She said that every day she gave Jesus and Mary a blank check, explaining that they have the right to change her plans for the day and request of her whatever they would like.”

The vow of obedience, he said, is part of a daily conversion that allows the Holy Spirit to permeate our heart. In this way, obedience does not feel like an obligation but is lived out joyfully.

Obedience conquers the vices of individualism, pride and self-centeredness so that freedom and virtue flourishes, Brother Klimek said. “The three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience are meant to reflect the most perfect conformity to the life of Jesus Christ,” he said. “By living the vows, we are not only serving the kingdom of God, but are also radically emulating the life of Jesus, our savior.”

Brother Klimek pointed to St. Paul’s words: “Yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20). “One’s will becomes so absorbed with Christ’s will,” he said, “that every divine request brings joy and every opportunity to act on the vow of obedience feels like it is a part of the individual’s own desire and disposition.”

It can be difficult, Brother Klimek said. “But it is also deeply life-giving, helping one to live in accordance with eternity, with what matters most in the long term through a sacrifice of one’s will, personifying crucified love for him who deserves all of our love.”

Patti Maguire Armstrong writes from North Dakota.