Tuesday, May 14, 2024


At our Priest Assembly in 2012, the priests of the Louisville, one at a time, were invited to renew their Promises of Obedience to then Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly OP


A few selected ideas from an article I wrote about the Promise of Obedience in 2010 for Our Sunday Visitor Magazine. 

The priests, who make up the majority of every diocesan presbyterate, make two solemn promises: celibacy and obedience. (It might be good to remind ourselves here that religious priests working under a diocesan bishop are full members of that presbyterate as long as they are working in that diocese. They are not just visitors or mere associates.)

Rather than negatives, the promises of celibacy and obedience are meant to free us up for ministry. Celibacy makes it possible for us to become that ''intimate sacramental brotherhood for the purpose of ministry'' that the Church speaks about.

Of the two promises, the only one we ever hear much about, after we make it, is celibacy. We never hear too much about ''the other promise,'' the promise of obedience. It, too, makes it possible for us to be that ''intimate sacramental brotherhood for the purpose of ministry.''

The older I get, the more I appreciate the wisdom of our two promises. Regardless of all the pious exaggeration written about the beauties of celibacy, I agree that, if embraced and lived freely, it can be freeing. It can free one up for a greater good, for full-time service to the People of God. The only time I have ever thought much about obedience, or needed to, was when I got my first assignment after I was ordained.

As one who was born in the country, but urbanized quite well by the seminary system, I had my heart set on being an associate pastor in a large suburban parish in Louisville, where restaurants, theaters and friends were all around. What I got was an assignment to the ''home missions'' of our diocese, on the edge of Appalachia, a parish the size of the state of Delaware with a Catholic population of one tenth of one percent, as far away from Louisville as one could get. My family and friends were three hours away.

I cried, I pleaded and I even took to my bed to no avail! I had to go ''out of obedience.'' I was a bit like those people who join the National Guard in peacetime, not imagining that they would ever have to fight a war! I balked at first, but with God's help, I was able to turn my mind around.

Since I didn't get what I wanted, I decided to want what I got. That, I believe, is part of the true spirit behind the ''promise of obedience.'' I went because the bishop has the ''big picture'' and said he needed me there. I went because I promised him and his successors that I would go where the Church needed my gifts.

Yes, I was upset and disappointed. Yes, I tried to change his mind, but in the end, I knew that it was me who needed to change my mind. I did change it, not grudgingly, but with as much good spirit as I could muster. (By the way, that assignment turned out to be fabulous, one that led directly to later assignments that were all the loves of my life.)

Over the years, my understanding and appreciation of ''obedience'' has evolved. It has matured. I have come to see that the ''promise of obedience'' has implications beyond the person of the bishop. It includes a promise to fellow members of my presbyterate. Rather than making me a slave to the whims of one particular person, the bishop, it is really a promise to be a ''team player'' with the bishop and the other members of my presbyterate for the sake of the common purpose we share: effective ministry to the People of God. It is this understanding of the ''promise of obedience,'' a promise to be a ''team player,'' that I believe will lead to a renewal of our presbyterates. The theology is quite clear: we are not priests, one by one. We are priests in a presbyterate under a bishop. ''Lone rangers'' and ''priests in private practice'' are heretical!

Remember these promises? You made them! I made them! We meant them, didn't we? Didn't we? (1) ''Are you resolved, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to discharge without fail, the office of the priesthood in the presbyteral order as a conscientious fellow worker with the bishops in caring for the Lord's flock?'' (2) Do you promise respect and obedience to me and my successors?'' How do those promises sound to you after all these years? How do those promises sound in one’s retirement years!

Priests do not carry out their own ministry, they are fellow workers in helping the bishop carry out his ministry! For the bishop to carry out his ministry of caring for the Lord's flock, his team of fellow workers must be on the same page with him! That is why respect and obedience is needed! All this is beautifully put in Eucharistic Prayer I for Masses of Reconciliation, ''Keep us all in communion of mind and heart with our Pope and our bishop.''

At a time we need to work together as a team, we seem to be growing further and further apart. As Lily Tomlin would put it, ''We are all in this together, by ourselves.'' A new look at, and a new appreciation of, our promise of obedience, I believe, can be the beginning of the reversal of that trend.

An expansive understanding of ''promise of obedience'' is the only thing we have in our arsenal as diocesan priests to ritualize that group resolve because, in it, we promise each other to be ''team players.'' We cannot have a healthy, unified presbyterate when everyone is self-focused. We are an orchestra, not a loose association of soloists. We are one body with many parts, each with gifts the whole body needs. Like the original twelve, Christ calls us to resist those things that threaten that unity, especially working alone, working too much and working against each other.



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