“We are witnesses of these things,
as is the Holy Spirit
that God has given
to those who obey him." (Acts 5:32)
Dear brother Oblates,
Being a good listener is a quality that people appreciate. What obedience literally means is exactly that: to have an open ear, to pay attention. People also say: "Opportunities are often missed because we are broadcasting when we should be listening.”
For the past thirteen years my ministry has been one of service to the Congregation at the level of the General Council. I have had the privilege of meeting many of you, seeing your situations and hearing about you and your lives and mission. In this letter I would like to reflect with you on how we listen to God, to one another, to the cry of the poor, to those who lead us in our mission, and suggest some directions which our listening needs to take in order to respond in a concrete fashion to the needs of the 21st century as ministers of immense hope.
This letter is all about having open ears, and so we begin by asking ourselves: “Are we good listeners? Can we listen to individual people and to the needs of the larger world loved by God? Do we have a heart open to the inspirations of the Spirit in prayer, to the counsel of our religious community, to the plans of our superiors? Or has a widely autonomous, individualistic society got the better of us, closing us up in small, comfortable worlds where we do not need to pay attention to others?
I am completing my earlier letters on poverty and chastity with this third one on obedience. It deals with another basic value, another wellspring that brings vitality to both our Oblate life and mission. Life and mission go together; in living the vows we become missionaries. When we choose the vow of poverty we tell the world about ways to become rich before God. Celibate chastity is meant to speak to others about Christ's love. Similarly our oblation through the vow of obedience contains a hidden treasure for the evangelization of the world: we consecrate the dimension of time, the here and now and every moment, to God's design of salvation, and we do it together, led by our superiors.
In the present letter I also wish to deal with the vow of perseverance, as it is easy to relate perseverance to obedience. Perseverance stresses the perpetuity in time of our obedience to God's will, emulating Christ's obedience until death. The fourth vow says that our choice of vowed obedience does not apply only within a given and known situation, but its aim is to have us entrust our whole future to God instead of trying to construct it ourselves.
As a fellow-missionary I am inviting you to reflect together with me in four steps. Firstly, I relate obedience to the human quest for freedom. Secondly, I propose a theological reflection on the vow and then a third step brings us to look at the Oblate spirituality of obedience. Having recognized the foundations on which our vow is built, I conclude with a fourth step inviting each of us to live our obedience by responding in a practical and realistic way to the joys, hopes and difficulties of our personal and community lives. Doing so, we will become better missionaries of hope among the most abandoned.
Through his incarnation into a human existence Christ has shown us a way we all should go. As we follow Jesus through the vows, the Gospel value of obedience invites us to become similar to “Christ the Son”.
It strikes me that our Constitutions tell us that our vow of obedience is grounded in Christ's own loving and listening relationship with the Father. Constitution 2 points out this similarity with Christ: “We strive to reproduce in ourselves the pattern of his life.” It concludes: “Thus, we give ourselves to the Father in obedience even unto death and dedicate ourselves to God's people in unselfish love.” How can this find its articulation in our lives?
As leaders in the Church we may find it particularly difficult to accept that we should be on the side of obedience like all the other disciples of Christ. Practically every priest and brother in ministry, in one or other way, holds some authority in missions and parishes, schools and institutions, be it as superior or by certain privileges. Do not those who are priests sacramentally represent Christ, head of the Church? It is good to recall that even through the sacrament of Holy Orders priests still represent Christ, the Son – and not God the Father. The same is true for those of us considered as missionaries: our vocation is to reproduce the pattern of Christ, the one who has been sent, the one who depends on the will of his Father.
I hope that these faith-based reflections on obedience might show us the way to achieve true happiness and freedom. That way consists in living our lives according to the pattern of Christ. Human beings are not made to live like pagan gods or demi-gods, understood as superman or superwoman; we are made to live like sons and daughters of God. We are destined to reproduce the pattern of Christ, and therefore here on earth and above in heaven, there is no way of escaping a relationship with God, which the Bible describes as obedience. The way to freedom has three parts.
There is an old story that illustrates this: a man has decided to serve only the one who is the most powerful. He soon gives up his job with a landowner to serve the prince. Then he moves on to the king. Since the king is afraid of the devil the man decides to work for Satan. At the end he discovers that God is more powerful than even Satan and ends up consecrating his life to God alone in the service to the poor.
There exists a false obedience, which enslaves. Blind, total obedience, which might be due to God and to God alone, has been demanded in abusive ways by authorities that pretended to speak in the name of God but pursued only their own agendas. Secularism has an anti-authoritarian side and up to a certain point this rebellion is justified. The person who has vowed obedience needs to take this into account; he must know that “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29) Thus, obedience to God can lead to rebellion. In other situations the believer may take the advice of Paul who asks slaves to obey their masters as if they were Christ. (Eph 6:5) This also is a way of living freedom, even if we were to be in jail.
True obedience accepts legitimate authority. “In the Superior we will see a sign of our unity in Christ Jesus; through faith we accept the authority he has been given.” (C 26) Formation leads the new Oblate “to relate in a mature way to his brothers and to those in authority.” (R 65b) Based on faith, we will find freedom and fulfillment in obeying the many just laws that regulate our civil societies, or in listening to the Church and its authorities, in following the guidance of our communities and their superiors.
For St. Eugene, obedience is central to religious life. He calls it “the main vow, the most basic of all the vows.” Eugene's first step in approaching religious life is the private vow of obedience that he and Tempier make to each other in 1816. He frequently uses the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas for whom the vow of obedience is the one through which “we offer more to God than through the other vows.” […] “It includes all the others”.
It is a vow that Eugene lives profoundly himself. I quote a longer paragraph that he writes in 1814 after a time of rest imposed on him by a life-threatening illness.
“May the Savior's obedience not only with respect to his heavenly Father, but also in respect of Mary and Joseph serve me as a rule to submit myself willingly, not only to events, but also to the wishes of others even when they are opposed to my own. It is not enough to submit oneself to superiors: perfection would lie in giving way to one's equals or inferiors. In this voluntary obedience, one should not be content with not grumbling, with not putting off doing it promptly, but it would be necessary for the will to submit interiorly. I must certainly not forget that what made me suffer most at the time I was ill was finding myself in a position where I was acting wholly autonomously, in such a way that I did not know if my works, which lacked the merit of obedience, were agreeable to God.” 
He suffers from the fact, that prior to being ill, his position had been too autonomous!
Not only does our Founder embrace enthusiastic obedience for himself, but he also recommends it to his fellow religious because he is convinced that they will find their true joy in it. To Father Mille, he writes that he should be “finding contentment in all things and a real happiness under the gentle yoke of obedience.” 
On occasions he becomes very demanding and sounds categorical: “…complaints. I am decided not to listen to them.” But he also makes it clear that his demand of obedience has nothing to do with despotism. He shows himself flexible and open to suggestions, and includes the following in the 1818 Rule: “Nevertheless, it is permitted to state the reasons which one might have for being disinclined to undertake a certain duty.” Once having said that he adds: “But when this has been done, with all modesty and submission, the Superior's decision ought to be accepted as a manifestation of God's will.”
One of St. Eugene's favorite exhortations is about regularity. He praises the community of Notre Dame de l'Osier in this regard: “People vie with one another in their admiration for the regularity, good order, piety that reign in the house.... They find edification in everything: the silence that reigns in the house, the punctuality at all the exercises, the office…” He defines regularity as, “fidelity in shaping one's life according to the spirit and the letter of the Rule.” – Note that he does not forget the spirit!
During the Founder's time and after it, most of the General Chapters dealt in one way or another with obedience. Fr. Joseph Fabre complains about “the profusion of external works”, which has become “one of the great obstacles to the observance of the Rule.”  To remedy such a situation, he reminds his Oblates: “In a Congregation, there cannot be and there must not be any personal works.” Does this not sound as something of actuality today? He goes on: “All works must be carried out according to the Rule, that is, according to obedience [...].”
It is interesting to see that already in these early years, Fr. Fabre values something that we would call the principle of subsidiarity. He asks that a superior should “allow each one, within the confines of the Rule, the necessary freedom to do good in holy ministry and also to fulfill the tasks for which he may be responsible in the house or outside it. [...] It is not fitting that he should intervene directly in everything and get personally involved in everything. Let him keep his place.”
However, in other aspects, obedience often seems to have had a certain military undertone until Vatican II. Today it probably still suffers from an image problem due to past practices and certain expressions of the spiritual tradition, like the famous cadaver-obedience of St. Ignatius, quoted by St. Eugene. From this we might be able to understand the strong quest for freedom that emerged as a reaction soon after Vatican II.
The Council enriched us with a new vision of obedience, which led the 1966 Chapter to make substantial changes to our Rule. Since then many important aspects have come to occupy their just place in the presentation of the vow: the call of those in need and of the Church, community discernment, adult co-responsibility and authority understood as service. Let me put before us this new language as it now reads in our 1980 Constitutions:
“By obedience, we become the servants of all. Challenging the spirit of domination, we stand as a sign of that new world wherein persons recognize their close interdependence. … Our life is governed by the demands of our apostolic mission and by the calls of the Spirit already dwelling in those to whom we are sent. Our work makes us dependent on others in many ways; it requires real detachment from our own will and a deep sense of the Church.” (C 25)
“Our Superiors are a sign of the Lord's loving and guiding presence in our midst. They call us to live up to our Oblate vocation and provide us with the support we need. In a spirit of coresponsibility, they lead the community, making decisions, supporting initiatives and implementing policies…” (C 81)
“Superiors, and all among us in authority, are called to service as men of faith and prayer. In humility and true obedience, they will seek enlightenment from God and from their brothers' counsel.” (C 82)
Our 2004 General Chapter chose not to produce a major reflection document; we have only a short letter on “Witnessing to Hope” and an abundance of practical proposals. The capitulants felt that the essentials had been clarified and expressed well in the three previous assemblies, 1986, 1992 and 1998, and indeed since the 1980 Rule. What emerged as necessary was the need to identify the areas where we must put our ideals into practice. The Immense Hope project has already been an attempt to make our choices operational; it needs to be pursued further and brought to fruition in each Province and Delegation.
Allow me to recall some of the direct or indirect references to our vow in the recent Chapters, made in different contexts:
In our Oblate history and in recent texts we can find much inspiration for living our vow of obedience. We should meditate on it and also put it into practice. In my letter after the Chapter, I tried to identify the overall areas where we need to put our vision into practice: a) “Respond to the thirst of our world for hope”; b) “nurturing of the Oblate in his community and religious life, and the formation of Superiors”; c) “the crossing of … borders” (WTH).
In a particular way the last two have a practical connection to the vow of obedience, and I will make some suggestions on these areas of Oblate life in what follows.
“The Constitutions and Rules set out a privileged means for each Oblate to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. They are inspired by the charism lived by the Founder and his first companions; also, they have received the approval of the Church. Thus, they allow each Oblate to evaluate the quality of his response to his vocation and to become a saint.” (C 163)
Modern autonomy and its search for self-fulfillment can become so strong in us that we lose our points of reference and orientation, and our lives go adrift. The vow of obedience is a remedy against this; it does not exclude self-actualization but puts our hierarchy of values in the right order. We have entered the Congregation to be missioned and to commit ourselves to losing our life for the benefit of others; a religious will find his self-fulfillment here and not through an autonomous life-plan.
a) The Rule as our special Oblate translation of the Gospel
After professing our vows, we heard the words:“Do this and you will live!” as we were receiving the book of the Constitutions and Rules. This is in keeping with Eugene's desire that each Oblate live the value of regularity, that he be faithful in shaping his life according to the spirit and the letter of the Rule. Did not St. Pius X underline the same when he declared himself ready to canonize any religious who would faithfully live according to the Rule?
Our traditional understanding of regularity and strict observance certainly are not magic potions that assure us of salvation. The danger of rigidity and self-righteousness remains. On the other hand, the Rule can truly be called a special translation of the Gospel for Oblates. Re-interpreted by each General Chapter it gives us the parameters for a religious life that can be considered right and healthy at the present time in history.
As vowed persons we do not have access to the graces that most Christians have through the sacrament of marriage and through the daily struggle to remain faithful in hostile environments. As religious our need for intimacy and our call to faithfulness is lived in a different way. A sure means of experiencing the intimate friendship of Christ and the fraternity of religious community, and of living the cross and the resurrection according to the very pattern of his life, can be found in our Rule.
Considering the importance of our Constitutions and Rules, should we not find a moment each day in our communities to read together one of its articles?
b) Living the presence of God: overcoming the tension between personal charism and community charism
Entering the path of obedience and persevering in it is not possible without a strong spiritual life. A spiritual path recommended by our Oblate tradition is that of cultivating a constant awareness that we walk in God's presence. The Rule recommends that “we seek his presence in the hearts of the people and in the events of daily life as well as in the Word of God, in the sacraments and in prayer.” (C 31) It even mentions the “call and the presence of the Lord among us today” (C 3) as the constitutive element of our vocation.
In my experience as Superior General I sometimes wonder about our basic values when it comes to accepting the discernment of the community and an obedience given by a superior. It is true that personal charism and health reasons need to be respected, and that nobody should be forced into a situation where he will be profoundly unhappy. Abuses of authority are also possible, and for some things there is the right of appeal. But beyond all that, we also have vowed obedience and perseverance, answering freely to a very special call coming from a community charism.
When we live in God's presence obedience will show its richness and its many facets to us. We will be brought to listen to the demands of the mission and to our community, as well as to our own conscience and to the authorities. (cf. C 25) For Christ and his followers, obedience sometimes also means the cross. “We become the servants of all” (C 25) and we follow the one who “became obedient unto death, even death on the cross” (Phil 2: 8). “Called to follow Jesus, we too listen attentively for the Father's voice so that we may spend ourselves without reserve to accomplish his plan of salvation.” (C 24) Living in God's presence this way, our personal spirituality well be strong enough to overcome the tension between the call of the personal charism and the call of our community.
c) Obedience leads to renewing the Oblate
It is not without reason that the last General Chapter asked the Congregation to focus on supporting the person of the Oblate who is the minister of hope. Under the heading Oblate community and religious life it recommends that “the General Council develop an animation process throughout the Congregation, the focus of which would be the needs of the person of the Oblate as a minister of hope.” One dimension of this animation is to be: “the nurturing of the Oblate in his community and religious life.” It should include “such elements as … personal and communal integrity; … the fostering of transparency and accountability on all levels; … the examination of life-giving structures for community life.” (WTH 8) Many things fall under this: professional conduct in our ministry, the way we handle finances, and the community structures we need to create and respect. Our vow of obedience leads us to focus on renewal in these practical aspects of life.
In this context an increased contact with members of our lay associations and friends of our communities is also mentioned. The Chapter asks us to “discover the rich potential of the presence of associates who strengthen us in the Oblate vocation and mission”. (WTH 9) They will put us more closely in touch with some of the realities not always accessible to us. As in the case of poverty, the laity often might live obedience more than we do. Accepting the leadership roles appropriate to the laity in the Church can help us discover more deeply Christ's spirit of sonship and brother and sisterhood, and help us to discover new dimensions of obedience.
“The call and the presence of the Lord among us today bind us together in charity and obedience to create anew in our own lives the Apostles' unity with him and their common mission in his Spirit.” (C 3)
Individualism is a characteristic of modern culture and, if it becomes strong, it makes community life impossible. Complaints about this are often heard among Oblates. The spirit of obedience has the power to overcome individualism and to build community. “Our lives of sharing, graciousness and our discernment in community contest the ways of individualism.” (EPM 30)
a) The spirit of obedience builds community, and adds a new quality to our mission
In many places our mission has added a special flavor to the local Church because it is carried out in community and according to the proverbial family spirit of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. As I said above, obedience adds to our life and mission much more than mere discipline can do. It is meant to be an expression of our faith through which people should be able to see Christ, the obedient one. Through this vow we are painting an icon of the Most Holy Trinity, we are proclaiming the liberating truth that humans are essentially sons and daughters of God.
b) Quality community life depends not only on the membership but also on its leaders
The Chapter clearly mentions these two elements: if we want to respond to the “needs of the person of the Oblate as a minister of hope” it is not enough to nurture the individual Oblate in his community and religious life; we need also to attend to “the formation of Superiors and others sharing in leadership”. (WTH 8)
A good number of situations of obedience crisis may be caused by weakness or inadequacy of leadership. There is a noticeable difference between a province where people are only asked: “What would you like to do?” – in order that they can work to the best of their individual abilities – and one where the question is: “Could you help us in a specific place?” – Here they are expected to contribute to a common mission. This does not come without hard work on the part of our leaders. They need to stimulate and assist us to become one mind and heart, and they need to shape us into a united missionary corps. The result of this unity will then be a renewed sense of the urgency of the mission we Oblates have to accomplish in the present world. In such a clearly articulated mission each one will be eager to collaborate in obedience, even if one or the other concrete task would not have been his personal choice.
For this reason the recent Chapter, like the two previous ones, recommends again that there be “formation for Superiors and others sharing in leadership, which would propose different models and practical skills needed for its exercise at all levels.”
There was interesting discussion in the assembly around the terms “leader” and “leadership”! Some found it appropriate to use these words while others felt this was too secular a way of speaking. In a sense they are right. We should not forget that a superior is more a spiritual figure than a coordinator or a president. The Oblates call him a “sign of the Lord's loving and guiding presence in our midst” (C 81) and “the pastor of his brothers.” (WAC 23,6) Imitating Christ's authority, his is a servant leadership, which our Rule expresses well: “Superiors, and all among us in authority, are called to service as men of faith and prayer. In humility and true obedience, they will seek enlightenment from God and from their brothers' counsel.” (C 82)
For this service, however, people with certain qualities are needed and they should be prepared to receive some training. Leadership is not a post of honor or a reward for merits. We need capable superiors who can be true leaders. This is the third time that a General Chapter asks for their training. Something has been done in several provinces but we must go further. The vow of obedience will only find its full expression and bear witness to the world, through missionary communities that enjoy quality leadership. Our superiors are meant to be God's instruments to shape us into a united missionary corps.
Obedience, lived in a spirit of following Christ, the Son, is a path to personal freedom. Recognizing Christ's mission as ours we discover the true dimensions of our evangelizing efforts. Obedience makes it look small compared to God's design and on the other hand renders it fruitful beyond our human means. This becomes patent in the mother of all apostles, Mary. Besides Christ, there is no one on earth who has lived obedience more than Mary, handmaid of the Lord through whom God has done great things. “Open to the Spirit, she consecrated herself totally as lowly handmaid to the person and work of the Savior.” (C 10)
The vow of obedience gives life to us Oblates and it will bear fruit in liberating others as well. Through the vow we proclaim Christ as the Son and “The Son's attitude discloses the mystery of human freedom.” In the mystery of obedience we discover “the path to the gradual conquest of true freedom!” This must be lived by ourselves, first. It benefits, then, all those whom we are sent to evangelize. If we will have brought people to the “obedience of faith” (Rm 1:4) we will have liberated them.
Rome, April 17, 2005
Fr. Wilhelm Steckling, OMI
 “Constitutions et Règles de la Société des Missionnaires de Provence”, Part Two, Chapter One, par. 2. See Frank Demers, Obedience, in Dictionary of Oblate Values, Rome, 2000.
 Spiritual Writings in Oblate Writings I, vol. 15, no. 130, p. 104.
 May 21, 1836 letter, in Oblate Writings I, vol. 8, no. 573, p. 232.
 August 17, 1847 letter to Father Tempier, in Oblate Writings I, vol. 10, no. 939, p. 174.
 October 8, 1835 letter to Father Eugene Bruno Guigues inOblate Writings I, vol. 8, no. 547, p. 178.
 January 10, 1831 letter to Father Courtès in Oblate Writings I, vol. 8, no. 378, p. 2.
 Circular letter no. 42, June 29, 1887, in Circ. adm. II (1886-1900) p. 46.
 ibid. p. 47.
 Fabre, Circular Letter no. 24 “To Reverend Fathers local superiors and directors of residences”, March 5, 1872, in Circ. adm. I, (1850-1885), p. 261.
 In his February 2, 1857 circular letter St. Eugene makes his own the famous words of Saint Ignatius: “In their hands, we should be like soft wax which takes on the form they wish. We should consider ourselves as lifeless corpses which have no power to move of themselves.”
 “Indeed, the Son's attitude discloses the mystery of human freedom as the path of obedience to the Father's will, and the mystery of obedience as the path to the gradual conquest of true freedom. It is precisely this mystery that consecrated persons wish to acknowledge by this particular vow. … "The lovers of your law have great peace; they never stumble" (Ps 118:165).” (Vita Consacrata 91).
 WTH 8; see WAC 23,6; EPM 32.
 Cf. Frank Santucci's book, Eugene de Mazenod, Cooperator of Christ the Saviour, Communicates His Spirit.
 WAC 6.
 Adaptation of an expression in WAC 7.
 Fabre, Circular letter no. 57, March 26, 1894, in Circ. adm. II (1886-1900), p. 185-186.
 R 92d.
 “Indeed, the Son's attitude discloses the mystery of human freedom as the path of obedience to the Father's will, and the mystery of obedience as the path to the gradual conquest of true freedom.” (Vita Consacrata 91).