Thursday, 21 July 2011 08:33




In preparation for the 2011 MSC General Chapter, Fr Tony Arthur MSC has prepared a document on religious obedience, a resume of responses to an initial paper sent out to members on religious obedience.  The resume indicates how understanding of obedience, discernment and the exercise of leadership in religious congregations has been developing in recent years.  The resume is now a public document on the MSC Generalate website, for members and those interested in how obedience is being understood in our times.


Obedience and Mission

Reflections on the “Instrumentum Laboris”

General Chapter 2011-05-24


1. In his original plan for the Society of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, Jules Chevalier wrote: “Those who enter the Society can readily accept that others may surpass them in learning, in mortification, in poverty; but they will not allow themselves to be outdone in obedience and mutual charity” (Formula Instituti 1869). This passage is found among the inspirational quotations in the pages of the Constitutions. However, the Constitutions themselves further nuance the Founder’s words and use the expression ‘obedience in mutual charity’ (CS 40), placing the emphasis on how communion shapes obedience: “We bind ourselves to live and act always within that communion and to practice obedience in mutual charity”. The section on Obedience, in fact, is titled “Obedience in fraternal charity”.



Although only two provinces referred explicitly to the Founder’s saying in their statements, the sentiments are reflected in many of the responses to the Instrumentum Laboris. We recognize the profound relationship that exists between our practice of obedience and our practice of community (“Mission in Brotherhood”). This awareness integrates the insights expressed in the responses.


General Observations


2. While it is clear that there is general acceptance that the paradigm of religious obedience has changed, it is evident that the variety of cultures and social backgrounds in our international Society results in different approaches, emphases and concerns with regard to the question. While most of our younger members have never known any other model, the older men are sometimes uncomfortable with the new ways and tend to understand obeying as a means of sanctification rather than an expression of adult maturity. In theory we have moved from a more hierarchical, child-parent model, to a more adult practice (see CS 40, 41) but have we done so in practice? Our Constitutions call us to the practice of a more adult and responsible way of seeking the will of God and relating with one another in community and mission. Obedience is a virtue proper to an adult human being. Only a mature person is truly capable of obeying. To obey is not the same as to be dependent; it is an active rather than passive mode of behaviour: the free and rational action of an autonomous person. The presence of a widespread problem of individualism, identified in the reports from the provincials on the positive and negative aspects in the life of the provinces, suggest that as individuals and as communities we are still struggling to put adult religious obedience into practice. Similar concerns are raised in some of the reports. The new paradigm has, at times, being used to justify not co-responsibility and dialogue, but independence – ‘doing my own thing’.


The pontifical document Fraternal Life in Community states that “It is generally agreed that the evolution of recent years has contributed to the maturity of fraternal life in communities” (47). To what extent is this true of our communities? Is our life together “less formalistic, less authoritarian, more fraternal and participatory”? These are some of the challenges raised by the document from the General Administration.


3. We recognize that the practice of obedience in an apostolic congregation is for the sake of our common mission, for the vital embrace of our missionary charism and not simply the passive acceptance of one’s task. The way of obedience is integral to the development of an authentically evangelical life-style and dedication to the coming of the Kingdom. We need to be clear and realistic about how we understand the practice of obedience today. Some think that the document is too idealistic and lacks the more concrete and critical approach to the relationship between obedience and mission that we need today.


One group observes that the General Chapter will need to clarify the meaning and practice of obedience today since there are various understandings of obedience and authority throughout the Society. Although the Constitutions in their succinct treatment of ‘Obedience in fraternal charity’ provide us with guidelines, one province asks for further practical exploration of the implications of the new paradigm of religious obedience in our life today. “This document has brought great hope for sharing, sense of belonging and participation among the members of the community. But the document does not explore enough the change of paradigm and the way to put it into practice”. The same report asks for more frequent contact between the General Administration and ‘the wider membership on the ground’ to promote a more integrated response to the will of God today throughout the Society.


4. It should be noted that the concern is not so much with ‘obedience by the individual religious’ (ie. the obedient religious) but ‘religious obedience’ (ie. an interior attitude inspired by a common spirituality and sense of identity) and with the authentic exercise of Christian/evangelical authority by the community, more than with the nature of the ‘authority of the superior’. Discernment lies at the heart of the contemporary practice of obedience and authority. Many responses place great emphasis on the role of discernment, more so, in fact, than the Instrumentum Laboris itself.


Paradigm Shift


5. Models that influence our understanding and practice of obedience come from many sources: the society and culture in which we live, the Church, history, our own psychological needs. Age and social and cultural background influence the understanding of obedience throughout the Society. In some provinces younger members have only ever known the model described in the Constitutions. The Constitutions express the new paradigm in words like: Subsidiarity, co-responsibility, accountability, dialogue, facilitation etc. Perhaps what is most significant is the process of obeying: discernment-community-mission.


Although the paradigm may have changed cultural factors continue to influence the understanding and practice of obedience and authority. This includes the older culture of obedience in which many were formed. In more traditional, hierarchic authorities the pattern of reverence for the elders and the ‘chiefs’ can impact on the practice of obedience. It can be hard, for instance, for a younger superior to gain the respect of older members; in other cases there can be the tendency to defer to seniority at the expense of ability or leadership competence. Modern society and liberal culture is often critical of structures of authority and emphasises the priority of the rights of the individual and personal fulfilment over social cooperation and commitment. Such values can sometimes impact on religious life, especially among younger members. Such values – the individualism and independence of modern society and the deference to age in traditional societies – can undermine the emphasis on shared responsibility and personal commitment to a common purpose that characterise the modern paradigm and practice of religious obedience. In modern society the “I” (me) is everything: what I want, what fulfils me. This is a radically inward looking attitude to behaviour and decision making. My outlook on life is ‘relative’ to my needs, my project. My wants become the ultimate reference point and can even be ‘theologized’ into self-fulfilment as the supreme vocation!


6. Although we acknowledge the paradigm shift in our understanding and practice of obedience we also need to recognize the paradigm shift in ‘self-understanding’ and self evaluation that is also taking place in modern society, the quite different socio-cultural context in which we are striving to live as consecrated men today. This movement toward self-centred relativism is directly opposed to another movement: the growing recognition of the central place of the Holy Spirit in modern spirituality and theology, along with recent developments in the theology of the Trinity with their emphasis on the central place of communion and inter-personal kenosis in the life of the Godhead and in evangelical life.


At the heart of our modern understanding of the practice of obedience and of the exercise of authority is an intimate personal relationship with Christ and the active participation in his dedication to the mission, the Kingdom of God. Some also note the impact of modern communication technology – the IT generation – on our attitudes, interests and relationships. The modern media have created a new culture in which people are able to create their own virtual world, cut off from outside reality and the concerns of the community. This seems to be an issue with some younger members and a barrier to active participation in and ownership of the project of the community – and thus an obstacle to the practice of an obedience that is essentially participatory. Modern media and technology - such as the Internet, Face-book, etc – influence the way we communicate or fail to communicate on an inter-personal and engaged level.


7. It is important to emphasise the theological and religious character of obedience and the centrality of community in the contemporary paradigm: the modern understanding of the practice of obedience is shaped by theological rather than institutional, communal more than subjective categories. There is a distinction between ‘moral’ attitudes of obedience (to parents, legitimate authorities etc) and ‘religious’ obedience which is about following Christ and his dedication to the Father’s will and the intimacy of his personal relationship with the Father. This relationship of love and trust sometimes meant for Jesus – as for the early Christians – disobedience to legitimate authorities.


Also influential in shaping the modern paradigm is the contemporary theology of the church and church life. During the past century – reflected, especially, in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council – there has been a significant shift from the institutional to the more communitarian model of the Church. The model we have of the Church will impact on our practice of obedience. Today, we are much more conscious that the purpose of obedience and authority is the building of community and mission – the ownership of common purpose – rather than the maintenance of the institution. The challenge is to develop processes of obeying that reflect a less institutional and work-oriented culture and understanding of our apostolic and communal religious way of life.


Such an understanding of obedience requires a more personal commitment and spirit of dedication. Moreover, it is helpful to recall that in the Consecrated Life the model of authority and leadership is more charismatic than hierarchical. These two models can, at times, be confused when, for instance, the religious superior is also a member of the clerical hierarchy. Our modern paradigm of obedience owes much to the recovery of a more charismatic understanding of our religious life in response to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. This more charismatic model is reflected in our Constitutions and has been influential in shaping our practice of obedience and authority. In theory, at least, we have abandoned the hierarchical model of religious living in favour of community discernment, co-responsibility, listening and communication.


The modern paradigm of obedience has also altered our understanding of the role and attitude of the subject. Today religious obedience is not about what I can or should do but what I want to do. I want what God wants, freely given out of love not conformity or compliance; out of a very personal love not for a reward or to avoid punishment. This goes to the heart of my interior dispositions, the feelings of my heart. Such obedience demands profound openness to the Spirit, like Jesus who spent so much time in communication with his Father and with the needs of the people around him – ‘led by the Spirit’. The practice of this way of obedience is the expression of my desire to love unconditionally as he did.


8. The experience of the international Cordate Community in Birmingham offers an interesting example of how this new model, this new way of proceeding, might work in an actual situation. In the past we generally started with the mission (apostolic work) and then responded to it; the mission thus defined or channelled our practice of obedience. The Cordate experiment began not with a specified mission but with building community and allowing the mission to emerge and take shape through the prayerful discernment of the community. The mission, thus emerged from the radical attempt to be obedient, interiorly and together as a community, from attentive listening to various external media (mediations), through engaging together and with others in critical conversations and reflection – itself shaped by the cultural diversity (MSC and national) of the members. Identification of the mission emerged through the process of faith-sharing, review, planning – not as individuals but together as community. In this process and method of discernment we see a clear and definite paradigm shift. It should also be noted that the process was ‘fuelled’ by response to our charism. What does our charism ask of us today in this situation and with these fellow MSC with whom I am seeking the way? There is an important point here that must always be kept in mind in any discussion of the modern paradigm: our charism has to be integral to the process. Obedience is response to charism, in real situations.


Jesus our Model


9. Our reflection on the shift in the paradigm of obedience makes it clear that the way of Jesus must be the model for our way of obedience. Jesus reveals in his person and behaviour God’s way of communicating – and thus, we might say, of obeying. In the Trinity each Person exists for the other and for the common mission. In the Godhead ‘obedience’, commitment to the mission of Love and Union is shaped by the intimacy of their inter-personal relationships, above all the relationship of self-giving (kenosis). In God to ‘obey’ is to be for the other and not for the self. The divine relationships are not shaped by power-structure but by the mutual sharing of life and love. This is the background, the foundation, of those many sayings of Jesus – especially in John’s Gospel – about his personal obedience to the Father’s will. He lives out a personal relationship that is more precious to him than himself: he is all for the Father and for those whom the Father loves. In essence Jesus is defined as a man and as Son by his obedience to the Father and his openness to the Spirit.


The principle of Incarnation is the foundation of our obedience: the incarnate Word invites us to live out in our humanity the same dynamic relationship of Sonship that was his. “Jesus became obedient out of love; he even gave his life to accomplish his Father’s will. We profess obedience to share his spirit of obedience, that we may better serve our brothers (and sisters) and share more deeply in the mission of our Society and the Church” (CS 38, see also 6). Jesus’ way of incarnation – of being human - was the way of Sonship and service, self-giving not selfishness. Perhaps the most powerful image of his way is the ikon of Jesus’ washing the feet of his disciples in John 13. Jesus, dramatically, teaches us what it means to dedicate one’s life to obedience to a higher purpose, to live an intimate and trusting relationship with a Father who takes him out of himself, to dedicate oneself to the service others, responsive to their needs rather than his own. One respondent commented that the way of discipleship is more a way of heart to heart than a meeting of minds. Jesus was obedient to the sentiments of his Heart. Sometimes this meant that his actions seemed ‘unreasonable’ – as in the case of the washing of his disciples’ feet.


10. Our Constitutions invite us to “share the sentiments of the Heart of Christ” (11), to manifest “the compassionate love of the Father” (3), to “live our faith in the Father’s love” (10) as Jesus did. John’s Gospel places special emphasis on the intimate love between Son and Father that was the driving force of Jesus’ passion to do his Father’s will, his obedience. On the other hand, the Synoptic Gospels place the emphasis on Jesus’ passion for the coming of the Kingdom and the call to discipleship, “to be with him and to proclaim the message” (Mark 3, 14). The Synoptics emphasise what can be called Jesus’ “apostolic obedience”: his passion for the Kingdom. This was the passion that drove Jesus’ ministry, his responses to the needs of the people, “for that is what I came out to do” (Mark 1, 38). Jesus was not only obedient to the will of his Father but also to the cry of the poor and helpless, the needs of the marginalized, the lonely, those striving for holiness and justice. In his attitude we find the inspiration for our own apostolic obedience. But John’s emphasis is equally important: Jesus’ passion for the Kingdom was rooted in his passion for the Father.


Such passionate love for the plans of his Father and compassion for the sufferings of mankind was not easy for Jesus; it involved difficult choices above all the choice he made at the beginning of his ministry to follow the human way, to be vulnerable rather than powerful (see Luke 4, 1 – 15). We can learn from his commitment to the human way, that the true way of obedience will always be an authentically human and sometimes vulnerable way. Perhaps therein lies the deepest challenge of obedience. Jesus’ obedience reached its climax in the ikon of the Agony in the Garden where, in desperate loneliness and agitation, he surrendered himself into the hands of the Father for the sake of the Kingdom. He learnt obedience through suffering – and he practiced it through listening and dialogue, not only in his prayerful relationship with the Father but also in his compassionate relationship with those whose lives and pain touched his. His way was one of obedient service of God and humanity: “I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22, 27).


The witness of Jesus also serves as a warning to us not to try to ‘spiritualize’ the practice of obedience. The way of intimate sonship and of service to the Kingdom is realistic and down to earth; it demands concrete relationships, attentiveness and decisions – it requires a profound willingness to get personally involved with God and with the human condition and the evils that afflict it.


Fidelity to our MSC Charism and Restructuring


11. Just as Jesus allowed himself to be led by the Spirit (Luke 4, 1), so we too, want to be led by our charism, the Spirit’s gift to us as Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. Fidelity to the charism channels our practice of obedience; our primary obedience will be to our charism and spirituality. Some ask whether our present structures – community, leadership, communication – help or hinder such fidelity. “Our governing structures make decisions with regard more to their own convenience than with a view to MSC mission”. Not all would, perhaps, agree with such an assessment but it puts the issue clearly. Do our present ways of proceeding encourage shared responsibility for the expression of our charism in our ministries and decision-making processes?


Fidelity to our charism may require us to review our apostolic commitments. Some suggest that we need to re-evaluate our commitment to our parishes, in particular, as well as our other ministries (see CS 23) so that we may be more in contact with, and at the service of, the marginalized, able to preach the life-giving Word in all its fullness to those who ‘search for meaning in life’ (CS 24). Compassion for the poor and victims of injustice is fundamental to our charism (CS 21 and 22). Our spirituality, our call ‘to be the Heart of God on earth’ challenges us today to ‘think outside the box’ of our traditional structures and ministries. Faithfulness to our spirituality challenges us to discern and shape commitments that will be more constructive and enduring than simply looking for short-tern solutions.


12. Some note that whereas in the early days of the Society, the mission was especially ad extra, today the gentes are often on our doorstep and we do not have to go overseas – and this, not only in the older provinces. The New Evangelization challenges us to find creative ways of being obedient to the charism received from the Holy Spirit. We are being called to build bridges here and now, to investigate new ways of engaging, new ways of listening. We live, in every part of the Society, in a changing secular society where the role and values of religion and faith are being challenged in the public square.


13. In many cases the multicultural situation in so many parts of the modern world challenges our cultural and religious assumptions. Let us not forget that ours is a multicultural congregation – this is one of our strengths, a rich resource of which, perhaps, we do not make sufficient creative use (see CS 24). Do we allow our international character as a congregation to enrich our discernment and obedience? A true international spirit will require openness to dialogue and cultural sensitivity – this can give us new perspectives on our common mission as MSC. One group suggested three criteria that can help us develop new structures of mission: evangelization, social realities and building bridges across cultures and faiths.


One province expressed the hope that, in future, the General Administration play a more active role in restructuring and coordinating our contemporary mission and identity. “Today our congregational organization focuses on decentralization of power. That is a good thing. However, on the other hand, we ask ourselves whether the General Administration is hostage to the interests of the provinces and regions? We believe that it is necessary to review our organization and give greater autonomy to the General Administration, especially in the areas of formation and mission (for example, suggestions regarding new ministries and appointment)”. Others suggest that our federal structure is outdated and no longer serves us well in the contemporary environment in the Church and in a globalized society.


14. Our charism is not an abstraction it is expressed in the individual gifts of each member as well as in the spirituality we all share. Each one, in fidelity to his own gifts, enriches the charism of the Society. We need to encourage structures of authentic dialogue and communication not only between individuals and communities but internationally as well. We are all of us servants of the charism and the mission – not its owners. We are challenged to go beyond our borders, as individuals and as provinces as part of an international community. Today we are increasingly conscious that internationalism is an essential part of our mission in brotherhood.


15. We live our charism and we carry out our mission in the Church. We have been called to enrich the church and human society with the gift of our spirit. As a congregation we are not independent of, nor can we be indifferent to the Church and its mission. While seeking to be obedient to the legitimate authority in the Church we are also challenged to respond to the signs of the times. This is one area where our obedience is not always so straightforward and simple. “Obedience cannot be in a vacuum but must be in a context where we read the signs of the times. Obedient response to God’s will must include responding to the challenges that face contemporary culture today – globalization, ecological threats, issues around intimacy and sexuality, despair and hope”. Today, also, collaboration with the laity should be an integral part of our processes of discernment – we must continually look outward not only inward. As one respondent commented, “The Risen Lord was more interested in sending his Spirit than a set of keys!”


Others ask, how does our charism affect our service of the Church? Are we, in some areas, simply filling up gaps for the diocesan clergy? Are our ministries obedient to our charism? We have always seen ourselves at the service of the local churches, especially those local churches we have helped build – but what are we offering these communities today – specifically as Missionaries of the Sacred Heart?


Decision-making and Personal Identity


16. These reflections bring us to a central question: how do we arrive at those decisions which will help shape our future mission in an authentically obedient way - as well as shape our personal identity as dedicated MSC? The practice of religious obedience involves far more than simply obeying rules or the will of superiors. From the tenor of many responses it is evident that we want to emphasise the importance of discernment, communal decision-making, openness, listening and the exchange of views and insights, in the practice of obedience. This will demand a loving attitude: mutual love and respect, mutual charity. Commitment to the practice of discernment also challenges the ways in which we exercise authority and power at the service of others.


Embracing the methodology of discernment in our apostolic decisions also acknowledges that I want to be an MSC, a member of the community, a sharer in the exploration of the implications of our charism today. One province report built on a quotation from Sandra Schneiders: “We as MSC need to accept as implicit in saying I want to be an MSC that I am entering a state of life and a congregation that pre-exists me and within whose self-understanding I have found my identity and vocation.” In other words, engagement in the process of discernment is an implicit affirmation of belonging and reaffirmation of the commitment to the Society and its mission that I made at profession.


17. At the heart of community is, of course, the person. Attention to my own personal growth in maturity as an MSC and part of our brotherhood in mission is essential. My identity as an MSC also includes my sense of belonging. Without a sense of belonging it is difficult to be obedient, for obedience pre-supposes identity, an authentic self. The sense of belonging implies a commitment to a shared purpose and enterprise that is greater than my own self-interest. I need the spiritual discipline to be able to examine my own attitudes, priorities, spiritual authenticity and motivating force – owning my identity as an MSC in a mature way. “The process of maturing takes place through one’s identifying with the call of God. A weak sense of identity can lead to a misconceived idea of self-actualization, especially in times of difficulty, with an excessive need for positive results and approval from others, an exaggerated fear of inadequacy, and depression brought on by failure” (Fraternal Life in Community, 36).


The practice of truly Christian obedience helps draw me out of myself (my narrow world) into my true identity as follower of Christ and servant of the Kingdom. Obedience challenges us to growth into mature personhood. Jesus spoke of losing one’s life in order to find it (fulfil it), if I am to be an authentic self in relationship with Christ, my brethren and our shared mission with those we serve. “Religious obedience far from diminishing the dignity of the human person, leads to maturity and makes it grow toward the freedom of the children of God” (Perfectae Caritatis 14). Such obedience, of course, while mediated through our human experience always operates on the level of faith and trust as did the obedience of Jesus. It follows the principle of incarnation: God’s plan, the coming of the Kingdom, is always mediated through human and created instruments, through confreres, superiors, community and signs of the times.


One provincial quoted this passage: “A community is not the denial of the person. One should be able to say that the I and the us ought to be linked like the fingers of the hand. The one does not suppress the other. Each is called to become himself in response to God’s call and that right to the end of his life, but always in communion with his brothers. Our obedience should be like that of Jesus. This was a struggle for him and will be the same for his disciples. Obedience integrates the cross and suffering. The Incarnation is the supreme proof of God’s love for us. Our obedience thus enters into the mystery of the Incarnation of Jesus. Jesus comes to save us. With him obedience finds its full meaning.”


Obedience is the quality of a mature person, a discerning heart, one prepared to grow in personal authenticity and integrity. Contemporary events make it clear that when we do not know ourselves, acknowledge our personal needs, strengths and limitations it is easy to fall into the abuse of power and clericalism. The spirit of obedience encourages us to let go, to be open to new life in a spirit of wholeness and integrity. We make Solomon’s prayer our own: “Give your servant an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil”(1 Kings 3, 9).


18. A number of reflections also mentioned the continuing obedience of the aged and sick members of the Society: their obedient acceptance of their fragility, weakness and suffering (CS 25). In some cases the decline of a province also presents us with the challenge to obey and accept the truth of the experience.


Obedience and Discernment in Community


19. “Obedience as defined by the Founder is obedience in mutual charity. This involves dialogue and creativity, availability and mobility [adaptability]. It makes us free or gives us freedom to carry out the mission entrusted to each one of us”.


At the core of this way of obedience is our care and respect for each other, tolerance of weaknesses, a spirit of co-responsibility, attentive not only to the signs of the times but to what we have called ‘external mediations’, the Scriptures, Constitutions, the life of the church and society around us, our confrères etc. We want to learn to listen to one another without judgement and in a spirit of love and mutual respect. Thus, we regard the health and authenticity of our life together (not simply the structures of community) as a most important aspect of the way of obedience.


Modern anthropology and psychology emphasise the importance of relationships for authentic human personhood. This ‘discovery’ is in line with the image of the human person in the Scriptures and in many of the classics of Christian spirituality. Today we are profoundly conscious of the role inter-personal relationships play not only in building up community but also in ministry. Modern theology recognises that a ‘spirituality of communion’ is integral to being a Christian. The quality of our life together will strongly impact on the spirit and practice of obedience. “All the fruitfulness of religious life depends on the quality of community life” (John Paul II).


20. Religious life is a vocation, a call to respond above all to an intimate personal relationship with the God who is Trinity. In seeking to respond to God we also recognize our own needs, our personal human limitations. We want something more than to be confined by our individual limitations; we want to be part of God’s plan, to be sustained and drawn beyond ourselves by his love. Vocation is always a call to the building of the Kingdom – it is to that end that God created the world and sent the Son as one of us. By profession we dedicate ourselves to the Kingdom together, as fellow disciples of the one Master, supporting and encouraging each other, sharing our gifts in community and on mission, enriching one another both humanly and spiritually – and searching together. Our personal vocation is an integral part of the vocation of the whole congregation.


21. There are many personal charisms present in a community. I need to respect the grace in each confrere and reflect, too, on my own particular gifts and share them with others. Above all let me be conscious of the power of grace that is always greater than myself. While I need to appreciate my own limits and those of others, I also strive to be available, giving priority to the needs of the community and its mission over my own. The spirit of dialogue and listening makes demands on the individual. Being available can sometimes mean ‘letting go’, facing my own fears with trust in God’s grace and in the discernment of the community. Dialogue will not always result in the acceptance of my own point of view. Rather, dialogue can be a way of clarifying the issue if it is sincere and constructive. Another aspect of obedience, that we can sometimes forget, is the way in which we respond to one another, supporting and affirming our brothers, acknowledging the gifts of others and encouraging them to develop their personal potential at the service of the mission. This is what obedience in mutual charity involves at the community level.


“In our religious life as MSC no one should pretend to want simply to carry out his responsibilities alone”. The spirit of obedience calls each of us to be part of a bigger vision, sharing responsibility for a common project larger than my own. “Each one should seek to enlarge his vision, to understand that of others, and want to live in community with them, setting a limit to his own independence in order to welcome the will of God which comes through others”.


22. Dialogue and discernment are not the same as voting by majority, manipulating discussion according to one’s own agenda. Dialogue and discernment should engage the whole person (not just my ideas) in openness to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. God expects us to use our intelligence, our experience and insights in the process. Such a process should not be simply superficial – it can require sacrifice, attentiveness, time. It is more than a question of consensus. We may need to learn the process of discernment. It is about being willing to listen to the inspirations of the Spirit in myself and in my brothers, with a prayerful disposition rather than focusing on my own ideas or wants. It is about listening to one another with openness and without discussion, debate or politics. Discernment is not discussion. However, it may precede the process of decision making while ensuring that the decision is made in a spirit of openness and attentiveness to the Spirit of God. Modern ideas of democracy, the authority (tyranny) of the majority can, at times, impact on our dialogue. The practice of discernment is not a matter of power-play or the politics of the self-interest of the majority which can be, in reality, just a subtle form of authoritarianism.


This new ‘model’ of obedience as discernment requires a more generous spirit of availability and responsibility, a more mature attitude to superiors and situations, greater consultation and personal accountability. The practice of obedience also includes financial accountability, care for poverty and attentiveness to the poor, to justice and to the integrity of creation. The practice of communal discernment will only be possible if, as communities and individuals, we are open to the Spirit of Love. Love is Jesus’ privileged ‘mediation’ not Law.


Some also comment that the paradigm of obedience should influence our approach to formation and the promotion of vocations. Are we seeking vocations for the sake of the institution and its image or for the spread of the Kingdom? Concern with our own well-being or image can be another form of individualism.


23. A number of helps can assist the development of a spirit of dialogue and discernment among us: contemplative prayer, spiritual direction, pastoral supervision, directed retreats, all practices that encourage listening. It may also be important to agree on structures and communal exercises that will support the development of a spirit of dialogue and discernment: community meetings, review of life, shared prayer and reflection etc. If such practices are to foster the spirit of listening they will need to be mutually agreed rather than imposed from on top.


24. We undermine the spirit of obedience and accountability in a community when we (especially superiors) fail to challenge the inappropriate behaviour of a confrere or tolerate dysfunctional conduct and attitudes.


Obedience to the Mission of the Society


25. The Constitutions remind us that our missionary commitments need to be “continually evaluated … in the light of our spirit and the needs and mission of the Church” (CS 23). “In a constant effort to share in the sentiments of the Heart of Christ, we will be attentive to all human needs and aspirations” (CS 24). These numbers stress the need for on-going discernment and obedience to our MSC charism in the light of the signs of the times and the needs of the church. A number of respondents made the connection between the experiences that inspired Chevalier’s foundation of the Society and our contemporary world: the prevalence of egoism and indifference which he identified as the modern evil of his days. Such attitudes continue to be the evils of our day, also. Some observe that we need to make sure that such obstacles to the spirit of obedience are not also found among us.


The world in which we live challenges us to respond as Chevalier did. It calls on us to respond to injustice, inequality, migration of peoples, refuges, new technologies, the global village, violence and lack of respect for human rights and human dignity, unfair economic systems, sexual abuse, the scandal of disparity between rich and poor, the relativisation of fundamental values such as love and truth. These situations and behaviours reflect the egoism and indifference of our times. What pastoral options should we make as MSC to address the evils of our time? What should be our priorities? We need to be willing to listen to the experience of others as well. In a recent interview Sister Maureen Cusick (President of the USIG) was asked to ‘define’ obedience. She ‘described’ it in this way: “a sense of alertness to the Word and an ability to really listen to how others are exercising their ministry”. Without such alertness we cannot really be obedient but rather remain trapped within our own traditions and priorities.


26. We want to be on earth the Heart of God. Such an ideal will lead us to reflect – in an authentically human fashion – on the situations of our day, responsive to people’s needs and the realities of their lives. Our response to our motto, Ametur ubique, will stretch the parameters of our engagement, especially with the marginalized and victims of contemporary indifference and egoism. We want to discern new ways of giving fresh expression to the sentiments of love and compassion in the Heart of Christ. Are we open to new challenges, to new ministries, to the demands of the new areopagi, despite our limitations? We need to be more professional and creative, to make better use of the modern means of communication and the possibilities of the global village.


How may we characterize our mission as MSC today? One respondent criticised the Instrumentum Laboris for lacking the attempt to characterise our mission today and asked, do we need to start from scratch? Or are there experiments already happening (such as the Cordate community) from which we can learn new approaches?


27. Our MSC obedience is essentially missionary – the mission contained in Ametur ubique with its sense of un-restrictedness and openness to all possibilities. The greatest obstacle to the carrying out of the mission entrusted to us by the Founder is self-centredness, self-focus, the option for the comfortable and known, whether that attitude is found at the individual, the provincial or the international level. Are we ready to leave the security of a well established mission for the sake of the Kingdom? “Obedience in mission means discerning together the needs of the people, the Church and our response based on the charism, spirituality and mission of our congregation”.


As another provincial report expresses it, “We need to be creative in our mission. We need an integral and holistic mission, responsive to the needs of our people. We need to make an effort to adapt our way to the needs of the people. Let us not involve ourselves with the coldness and convenience of a Church which seems to respond only to maintenance. We should bear witness to an engaged Church”.


Our charism constantly challenges us to explore new possibilities of missionary obedience in order to remain faithful to our MSC vocation. “Even in diminishment, old age and retirement we are called to live our mission as witnesses to the secular society around us and as incarnation of the values we espouse: love and compassion, hope and salvation, justice and peace”. The mention of ‘hope’ is not without significance for hope, confidence in the love God has for us, is surely integral to the way of missionary obedience – it animates our obedience and our attentiveness. If we are simply content to dwell on ourselves and our problems we can only fail to respond to our missionary call. This raises again the question that has already been mentioned: are we content simply to carry on the traditional missions we have inherited or are we willing to explore new possibilities? Some of the younger provinces have branched out into new ministries beyond those handed on to them by their founding provinces. They have moved out from the diocesan structures they inherited from the founding Fathers and set up ministries that can better gift the local church with the grace of our charism.


We need to realistic in the works we take on, open to disengagement when we are no longer able to carry it out with an MSC spirit. Moreover when we take on a mission we should be reasonably sure that we can continue our engagement with it – that we have the resources to make it an authentically MSC ministry. Members need to be qualified for a particular mission and well prepared. It does not help our mission if men are constantly being transferred from one ministry to another. When that happens it seems that it is not the mission itself that has priority but the politics of the province.


28. In the matter of appointments we move from theory to practice. Sometimes we are challenged to give priority to the mission of the Society and the good of the fraternity – above our own personal interests or even security. Consultation and dialogue must be integral to the appointment process but there are times when the decision will challenge the individual to launch out into the deep.


Leadership and the Ministry of Authority


29. The exercise of leadership and authority must always be at the service of our common life and mission as MSC, “a fraternal community, in which God is sought and loved above all” (CIC 619). The description of authority in Fraternal Life in Community provides a good summary of the ideas expressed in the responses to the Instrumentum Laboris.


“An authority conducive to unity is concerned to create a climate favourable to sharing and co-responsibility; to encourage all to contribute to the affairs of all; to encourage members to assume and to respect responsibility; to promote, by their respect for the human person, voluntary obedience; to listen willingly to the members, promoting their harmonious collaboration for the good of the institute and the Church; to engage in dialogue and offer timely opportunities for encounter, to give courage and hope in times of difficulty; to look ahead and point to new horizons for mission” (48b).


In the past the model of authority was identified more with the authority of the superior than the responsibility of the community and the brotherhood. Today we believe that the superior shares the same vocation and mission as his brothers, the common search for God’s will. “We should change the mentality of leaving it all to the superior without taking into account the talents of other members of the community”. To this end mutual trust and confidence between superior and members of the community is essential. We are seeking God’s will for us together. In this pattern of shared listening and shared responsibility we all have a part to play and something to contribute. In the past decisions were often left to the superior, today the process engages everyone.


Archbishop Rowan Williams has an interesting description of St Basil of Caesarea’s understanding of the role of the superior in the monastic life that is as eloquently relevant for us today in our apostolic communities and, perhaps, particularly applicable to us as MSC: “The superior, indeed, has to practice a kind of ‘obedience’ to the community, in that it is his responsibility to adapt his guidance and leadership to the needs of each individual brother: he has to ‘attend’ to them as they attend to him. It becomes his charge, in fact, to ensure that the community does not crush the individual, that the liberty and spaciousness of desert monasticism survive in the institution. He shares in the availability and the painstaking exact compassion of Christ; it is for him to show the brethren the pattern of Christlikeness which they too must realize”. (Wound of Knowledge, 100-101)


30. The task – challenge – of the superior is to empower others, to animate the community, rather than dominate it; to lead in such a way as to engage the insights and abilities of his brothers in the process of discernment, and sometimes to challenge the fainthearted. “The root of obedience is not the superior but the community”. It is the whole community that is called to obey. The process of dialogue can achieve more than the lonely decision of a superior. However, the superior, by virtue of the charism of leadership, has a special role in the dialogue; he is more than one of the crowd. Leadership has its own particular responsibilities. It may mean, sometimes, that the superior will have to renounce his own will, and attend to the voice of the community. Yet, in the end, there will be occasions when the superior has to make the decision for the common good. Sometimes confrontation cannot be avoided but it is vital to maintain mutual respect and appreciation for one another. Unresolved conflicts only burden the community and its mission.


It is not always easy to discern what the Lord is calling us to; we can make mistakes because of our limitations. Thus the search for God’s will needs “an atmosphere of serene dialogue – not argument – listening, sharing, honesty”. Another commented: “Even when we judge that the person in authority is mistaken, we ought to obey for our own spiritual well-being and that of the Congregation and the Church”. Obedience is integral to our commitment to brotherhood in mission – sometimes such a cooperative spirit of obedience can ask sacrifice of us for the sake of the common mission.


31. The members need to be able to have confidence in the leadership. A number of responses raise the question of the method of election and appointment of superiors. Today, more than before, the task of leadership can be quite difficult: empowering mutual charity and fraternal relationships, guiding the search for God’s will, interpreting the common will, encouraging others to be open to God’s will. Superiors need to be reliable, men of their word, men open to God. As limited human beings they need to be aware of their own limits and prejudices. Superiors themselves need to have confidence in their call to leadership: “if they have given me the mission to exercise authority, I have the capacity to decide, the character to resolve conflicts and not flee from them but confront them and always look for a way out, seeking the will of the brothers and the will of God”. At the same time we all need to accept that superiors are only human and can make mistakes and poor judgements – we should not expect perfection, becoming critical and disaffected when we do not find it.


Not every one is equipped with the skills of leadership today. Some feel that superiors are sometimes elected for political reasons or simply for convenience without sufficient regard for their ability to lead. A poorly qualified superior will be tempted to rely on the power of his authority or to tolerate dysfunctional behaviour for the sake of peace. We need to prepare men for the ministry of leadership, noting early in their religious life those with leadership qualities and providing them with proper formation and development.


32. Some question whether, today, the title ‘superior’ can itself be rather misleading, in effect a barrier to the process of obedience. Might it not be more in keeping with the modern theology and practice of religious leadership to call them ‘community leaders’ – a title more descriptive of their role in the community. Especially with older men, titles can be significant and carry the weight of traditional understandings. Some provinces note that there is a declining pool of potential leaders in the province – this can be a real problem. It may be an invitation to restructuring?




33. Many of the responses identified attitudes and environments that were barriers to the authentic practice of religious obedience some have been mentioned already. They are summarised here in point form.


  • Lack of genuine religious conviction and spirit of sacrifice.
  • The spirit of calculation and manipulation.
  • False ‘spiritual’ rationalisation and hidden agendas
  • Acceptance of a worldly scale of values and secular mentality.
  • Insistence on personal freedom and individual rights.
  • Personal ambition such as academic success, personal comfort.
  • Lack of confidence in superiors.
  • The influence of local cultures, attitudes to elders.
  • Hypocritical formalism.
  • Self-importance, spirit of independence, going my own way.
  • Lack of empathy with charism, brethren, mission.
  • Immaturity that impedes dialogue.
  • Indifference and egoism.
  • Lack of enthusiasm for mission.
  • Fear of change, leaving familiar ministries, engaging with new ideas.
  • Resistance to the process of discernment.
  • Authoritarian style of leadership.
  • Lack of self-awareness.
  • Poor affective qualities.
  • Resistance to common life and mission.


All of these forms of dysfunctional behaviour and negative attitudes undermine not only the constructive spirit of obedience but also the spirit of mutual charity that should animate and characterise our life of brotherhood in mission as Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. Many of these problem areas are the same as those identified in the responses from provincials on the positive and negative aspects of their communities.


The core challenges identified at the end of the summary of those reports are similar to the challenges confronting our practice of obedience today:


  • The negative influence of secular attitudes to authority and personal rights that express themselves in resistance to a sense of common purpose and mutual charity.
  • The positive challenge of encouraging and animating the practice of communal discernment and attentive listening as integral to our way of life and missioning today.