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The real meaning of priestly obedience

I had been looking forward to my spring break trip to Rome for months. I had planned to travel in Italy for a little over a week, visit my brother seminarians at the North American College there, and see some of the holy sites in the Eternal City. As it turned out, God’s plan was different, reducing my trip to only 60 hours in Rome and leaving me with a life lesson in obedience.

With the threat of COVID-19 in Northern Italy, the bishop contacted me with fears for my safety and advised me to return home sooner. As is so often the case in our lives, we have our own narrow vision of things, which can sometimes clash with those who have a broader view (especially those who have been placed in their roles as our guardians by God). My desire to stay in Rome for the rest of my trip, regardless of the spreading pandemic, came up against the bishop’s fatherly care and greater awareness of the international situation. The result: I came home, and in hindsight I recognize his wisdom in calling me back when he did.

This experience gave me a foretaste of what priestly obedience implies. In the rite of ordination, both deacons and priests promise their respect and obedience to the bishop. As the ordinand kneels, he places his folded hands into the hands of his bishop, signifying his fidelity to the bishop and his successors. Through this symbolic action, the priest or deacon is ultimately placing his own will in the hands of God through the hands of the successor to the Apostles.

This promise of obedience implies — and requires — the exercise of two virtues: trust and love. I express my trust and love for God by surrendering my will to his through the mediation of my bishop. By trusting my bishop, I recognize that his decisions are made for my own good and the good of the church. In the same vein, I strive to embrace his decisions out of love for Christ and the church, putting their good above my own.

My Rome experience led me to reflect on the role of obedience in the life of a priest. While it may appear that obedience hinders a priest’s free will, it actually offers an occasion for him to conform his life more closely to Jesus Christ. When a priest offers himself obediently to his bishop, he imitates Jesus’ own obedience that he offered the Father in all his actions here on earth. He freely chose this out of love for his Father and us, and trust in his will. When I meditate on what he went through on behalf of all of us, suddenly my challenges do not seem as difficult.

I pray that through my efforts at patient obedience, the Holy Spirit is forming me into the image of Jesus, who is the perfect model of obedience through his total gift of himself to the Father’s will in trust and love. May God grant that same resignation to the divine will in all of us, through our obedience to him and his church.

Briggs, who is from St. John the Baptist Church in Front Royal, just finished his second year of theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020