With the Pembroke transitional diaconate ordinations just 2 days away, I’ve been reminiscing on my own diaconate ordination, which wasn’t all that long ago – 2013. In particular I’ve been looking back to the diaconal promises and the reflections I wrote in preparation for making those promises. There are three promises that the deacon candidates make during the ordination rite: 1) “In the presence of God and his Church, are you resolved, as a sign of your interior dedication to Christ, to remain celibate for the sake of the kingdom and in lifelong service to God and mankind?” 2) “Are you resolved to maintain and deepen a spirit of prayer appropriate to your way of life and, in keeping with what is required of you, to celebrate faithfully the Liturgy of the Hours for the Church and for the whole world?” 3) “Do you promise respect and obedience to your ordinary and his successors?”
Below is my reflection on the promise of respect and obedience. It’s a bit heady, but I like it.
It has been said by several speakers during my time at the NAC that the most challenging promise to live out in one’s priestly ministry is not celibacy but obedience. I recently completed a course on the cardinal virtue of justice at the Angelicum in which I learned, among other things, about the virtue of “observance.” St. Thomas places this virtue among the allied virtues of justice. It is an allied virtue because it shares certain characteristics with justice, but it lacks one of the essential qualifications, viz. equality. Along with religion and piety, observance lacks equality between the one who owes the debt and the one to whom the debt is owed. The inequality in “observance” is between the virtuous/honourable man or the man in office and those who lack said honour or office.
Commenting on this article, Joseph Pieper draws the reader’s attention to the fact that this virtue is largely absent from modern Western society, and thus it is difficult for most contemporary readers to understand what St. Thomas is teaching. Now, instead of the virtue of observance, what we most often witness are the tensions between the “boss” and those being “bossed.” This situation is unfortunate and dangerous, because not only does society depend on men recognizing their inequalities, but this virtue is obviously linked to personal happiness.
Of course, honouring my bishop, both on account of his office and his virtue, though essential, is not equivalent to obedience. The virtue of observance has as its principal parts honour, as already described, and obedience. However, despite being a part of observance, St. Thomas describes obedience as the highest of the moral virtues on account of the goodness of what is contemned, viz. one’s own will.
St. Thomas states that obedience has its high dignity because it flows from charity. He quotes Pope St. Gregory the Great as saying, “Obedience should be practiced, not out of servile fear, but from a sense of charity, not through fear of punishment, but through love of justice” (II-II, 104, a. 3). Blind obedience, i.e. obedience rooted in fear or pure obligation, is not a virtue. To follow the will of another without regard for charity or true justice is obviously vicious; however, in speaking of obedience to one’s bishop, this is unlikely to be an issue. The more dangerous vice is clearly disobedience. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that my ways or my ideas are better than those of my superior. We might find ourselves saying things such as, “He doesn’t really know what’s going on in my parish. If he did, he wouldn’t ask me to do such and such; or, he doesn’t know me. If he did, he wouldn’t have given me this parish; etc.” According to St. Thomas, deliberate disobedience is a mortal sin because it is contrary to the love of God, who bestows all authority, and to love of neighbour, since it withdraws the obedience due to the superior.
“His lord said to him: Well done, good and faithful servant, because you have been faithful over a few things, I will place you over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord” (Mt. 25:21).
Many blessings to Justin, Stephen, and Anthony as they make their promises and receive the grace of Holy Orders.