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Our obedience:  a sign and prophecy


Our obedience:  a sign and prophecy.

Let us talk about it again. – 1. The First and radical Beatitude.2. Value of religious obedience. – 2.1. “In the head of the book it is written…” – 2.2. Following Christ. – 2.3. Together with Mary. – 2.4. Like Don Bosco. – 3. A value in transformation. – 3.1. Cultural elements. – 3.2. Ecclesial elements. – 3.3. Signposts. – 3.3.1. From the ascetical to the mystical aspect. – 3.3.2. Members responsible for community obedience. – 4. An obedience for the present day. – 4.1. Our vocation an obedience “in formation” – 4.2. A pedagogy of obedience. – 4.3. Our vocation an obedience of life and mission. – 4.4. Our life a prophetic obedience. – 5. An obedience for the third millennium. – 6. The Annunciation: an appeal and response.

Rome, 25 March 2001

Solemnity of the Annunciation to Mary

My dear confreres,

It is not easy nowadays to speak about obedience.  A change is taking place in the very concept, and it would be naïve to ignore it.  It is a price we have to pay for the continuing development of democratic principles and, in many ways, from the individualistic vision of life, such as leaving everything to authority, to more mature ways of collaborating for the common good, and from the belittling of authority to giving it a more humble foundation against a background of faith.

"Obedience is no longer a virtue”, proclaims the title of a well-known book.  There are those who, with a touch of nonconformist pride, declare themselves “disobedient”.  And there are even those who see in obedience the “sign of an adult who never matured”.  There is an element of truth in this if it refers to the delegation of responsibility which some place entirely ?on the one who commands. Gaudium et Spes assures us that a person is defined by his responsibility to history.[2] Our own responsibility is defined with reference to our neighbour and world history.  And so obedience is a virtue when the responsibility for our life and charism is seriously assumed and shared, according to our particular situation  The Provincial Chapters are already taking place and with the approach of the GC25 it is worth our while to remember that we are all called upon to discern the will of God with regard to our future, setting aside any visions which are too individual or which smack of grinding our own axe.

But there are plenty of  people who risk minting false coins.  There are lone operators about, who fight their own battle and seem incapable of joining any community process.  There are mavericks – it must be acknowledged with a certain bitterness – who are unconcerned about the communal objective, do not defend their own house, and are not even able to associate with the other members of the community.  These are all signs of an unease which needs a remedy.

We have to admit therefore that in  the current culture obedience does not have a good press.  It is not one of those virtues which immediately excites fellow feeling, nor perhaps is it one of the gifts which today’s young person or adult wants to possess to the extent that it becomes a habitual request in his daily prayer, for example.  But the deepest reason is not found in the practice but in the failure to grasp the theological foundation we have expressed in the title.  Religious obedience, in fact, is meant to be united with that of Christ for the redemption of the world.

It has been said that “if obedience is removed as a theological virtue from consecrated life, it re-emerges as a sickness”.  But then we find ourselves at grips with fundamentalism, which would seem to reflect a blind ideology. ? We find on our path strong leadership, but it does not always seem of great help in the maturing process.  We have to acknowledge forms of manipulation, which in one way or another bear witness to much immaturity, and at the same time to unjustified individualism at variance with the salesian project of life that we have taken up.

There is nothing new under the sun, but there is always the need to go back to the beginning and reflect also on the obedience of the Salesian in the prevailing ecclesial and social context, to recognize its meaning, its great value, and its new style.  This gives us the opportunity to complete our reflection on the signs our community life is called upon to give to young and old through the evangelical counsels,[3] not as a sacrifice of our humanity, but as an opening to a transfiguration according to Christ’s humanity, as is abundantly explained in Vita Consecrata.[4]


1. The First and radical Beatitude.

Obedience is in fact an adult virtue.  It can only be an adult virtue.  We propose it to our pupils not to keep them always children, but to help them to mature.  We speak of it in the context of consecrated life, not only because it belongs to the a b c of community life, but because it represents the way of entry into the Mystery of Christ, and also to his "sancta sanctorum", the most fruitful place of his secrets and revelations.  Newman wrote: “They will not know what it means to see God, until they have obeyed him”, and again “perfect obedience is the yardstick of evangelical holiness”.[5]

The religious who sets out to follow Christ takes from him some fundamental attitudes.  He lives a love of  total donation, which renounces a seeking of anything for himself a?nd is expressed in chastity.  Through poverty he proclaims a radical sharing of his goods, which he places unswervingly at the service of communion and solidarity.  By the vow of obedience he consigns his very existence to God’s plan which he accepts unquestioningly through the mysterious interweaving of humble human mediations, often all too humble.

The vows represent the three roots of the tree of our life.  It is certainly not our intention to lay down roots which are dried up and dead: what we want to do, rather, is to transplant a living tree, to give it further growth by transferring it from our own soil to his.  Obedience is the sign of the “new earth” in which our life has already pitched its tent.  It is the attitude underlying the cry of Totus tuus, which we see proclaimed on the banner of John Paul II:  with him we turn to the Father, after the example of Christ, to make of his Kingdom our home.


In the Gospel there is a beatitude which explicitly speaks of the “pure of heart”.  There is another which refers to the “poor in spirit”.  Other speak of the meek, those who seek after justice, the peacemakers and the persecuted.  Obedience does not receive specific mention, but we could well say that it is proclaimed in every line of the Gospel.  It leads all the others.  It is the totality of the Gospel which from the Annunciation to Christ’s death on the cross, proclaims the beatitude of communion with the Father.

The Son obeys the Mother and the Mother the Son.  In the parables good and faithful servants obey while awaiting the return of the Lord.  The spirit of obedience is manifest in those brought in from the highways and byways to eat at the banquet, carrying their white robes.

It is the beatitude which links the Son intimately with the Father.  Whoever wants to follow in the way of Christ is called to enter into the Mystery of his obedience.


When we read over once again what Don Bosco u?sed to say to his sons about obedience, a topic very close to his heart, the central place given to it by the holy educator is evident, in the life of the Congregation, in the spiritual life of every Salesian, and in the light of the effectiveness of educational activity.

Don Bosco’s idea is accurately reflected in the so-called “dream of the diamonds”:[6] "the largest and most brilliant sparkled in the very centre, and on it was written ‘Obedience’: the foundation of the whole edifice of sanctity”.  It is the image of a central and powerful source of energy which is transmitted at the turning points of life.  And he was certainly not referring only to the kind of obedience which ends in mediation, but to that which reaches  and reflects the gentle will of the Father.

Obedience, notes Don Bosco, is the easiest way to become holy; it is an energy able to sanctify every action.  It is the soul of the Congregation, the hub of religious life, the compendium of perfection.  It is the guardian of all virtues, the multiplier of energy and all that is good.  It must be practised in an evangelical manner, not with long faces but with open hearts living in a family spirit and bearing witness to the joy and peace of those who feel themselves close to their Lord.

If you glance through the salesian constitutions and reach the section concerning the vows, you will find that the first place is given to obedience.  It was not always like that.  Faithful to the original arrangement made by Don Bosco, and distinct from the order followed by the Council and by ancient monastic tradition, the GC22 (1984) which prepared the definitive edition of the renewed Constitutions decided that the vow of obedience should return to the first place among the three.[7]  Don Bosco, in fact, had changed the order of the vows as found in the sources, and pla?ced obedience first, to emphasize its power with respect to the mission, to sanctification and to communion.  It is a choice which provides us with a message.

It is meant to suggest to us that “being sent” to the young is the heart of the salesian vocation:  we receive it as a mandate to place ourselves on a risky but vital frontier and to stay there to the end, cost what it may.  To know and to feel that he is responsible for young people  is a characteristic of anyone who has received such a mission.  “By carrying out the mission entrusted to us we relive … Christ's own obedience”.[8]  This first and telling reference to the Father who sends us and to Christ in whose obedience we insert our own, must never be debased by reducing obedience to no more than a effort of the will or an exercise of discipline.

It is also the foundation of fraternal life, in which “we all obey even though we have different tasks to perform”,[9] recognizing that it is availability to the will of God that holds the group together spiritually and saves it from the fragmentation which could derive from the subjective ideas of many persons without a principle of unity.

An obedience, practised in imitation of Christ, invokes an authority which takes its inspiration from the paternity of God, in that “family spirit of love”,[10] which accompanies an obedience which is prompt, joyful and sincere,[11] which equally rejects any feeling of victimization or any deception.

“In the community, in view of the mission entrusted to us, we all obey”.[12]  Obedience is seen as a condition common to all Salesians, even though they have different tasks ?to perform.  It looks unswervingly to Christ, is nourished by his word, and lives by the daily gift of the Eucharist.  It is the guarantee of unity and continuity in the Congregation, the principle which unifies its existence and offers it as a complete gift for the salvation of the young and the life of the community.

2. Value of religious obedience.

 2.1. “In the head of the book it is written…”


For the apostle Paul, as sin is concentrated in Adam’s disobedience, so the force of redemption is expressed in the obedience of Christ.[13]

Psalm 40 – interpreted by the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews – evokes the “Here I am” of the Son in the act of the incarnation: "Thou hast neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings;  then he added, ‘Lo, I have come to do thy will’, as it is written of me in the roll of the book." 

Obedience with, in and through Christ is an expression of the intimate and continual acknowledgement that God is our Father, which establishes the depth of his Mystery, the source of his exaltation and the thrust which leads him to always do his Father’s will.  This translates into speaking not our own words but those of the Father, in not performing our own works but his, in being nourished every day not by our own desire but by the daily food that is his will.[14]

Obedience in Christ is the awareness of  “knowing himself as generated in order to be sent” – as a missionary of the Father, among broods of vipers and the hard of heart,[15] to work with the Spirit’s strength not for his own ends, but solely to serve the cause of the Kingdom in the ways and times and with the results known only to the Father, setting prisoners free, proclaiming the good news to the poor and to sinners the Lord’s year of favour.

Christ is the Amen.[16]  He is the Yes[17] and  Here I come.