New Vatican document on obedience in religious life

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Vatican, May. 28, 2008 ( - The Vatican has issued a new document underlining the importance of obedience in religious life.

Entitled "The Service of Authority and Obedience," the 50-page document from the Congregation for Religious takes the form of an Instruction. It was presented to the superiors of male and female religious orders on May 28 at an assembly held in the Salesianum in Rome.

Obedience, the Vatican document says, should be understood by religious as "a way to help the community or institute to seek and achieve the will of God." The basis for religious obedience, the Instruction notes, is found "in that search for God and for his will which is particular to believers." In offering their obedience, religious imitate "the fundamental experience of Christ Who, out of love, was obedient unto his death on the Cross."

The document from the Congregation for Religious explicitly takes up the question of "difficult obedience," which arises when the individual religious finds the superior's directions "particularly hard to carry out." It also considers situations in which the superior's orders might cause conflicts in the individual's conscience.

Obedience can "give rise to difficult moments," the Vatican document acknowledges. Nevertheless the Instruction observes that religious should reflect on the fundamental role of obedience as a path to understanding God's will. The exercise of religious authority can also be difficult for the superior, the document notes. Everyone in religious life is called to embrace obedience "not just as a passive and irresponsible execution of orders, but as a conscious shouldering of commitments."

The Instruction offers some direction for religious superiors, encouraging them to use their authority prudently, "inviting people to listen, favoring dialogue, sharing, co-responsibility." Superiors should show pastoral concern and mercy for those living under their rule, the document notes.

The Vatican Instruction repeatedly calls readers back to the understanding that obedience is not only a means of structuring the life of religious communities, but a way of seeking and understanding God's will. Religious, the document stresses, should recognize in their obedience to superiors "a real actuation of the will of God."

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