Assembly of the General Superiors - The service of authority and obedience


This is a reflection which was done by Sr. Immaculate Nakato (during the assembly of the general superiors both men and women), responding to the document which was inaugurated by Cardinal Franc Rodé (prefect for the religious), on the 28th May during the same assembly.  About 250 men and women religious present.  The panel was composed of six religious representing Africa, Asia, Latin America, Oceania, North America and Europe, Sr. Immaculate sharing her experience as African.


Reflection on the document

Rome 28th May 08

UISG - RomeI appreciate the document. I think it is well researched.  It is holistic in a way that it handles both human and spiritual aspects of the theme reflected.  It deserves serious and sincere implementation both at individual, community, and congregational levels, especially in the exercise of the initial and on-going formation.   It clarifies the problems that exist in many religious communities where the two roles are in conflict.

With my African background, and having had some experience of authority, from my point of view, I find this document well-thought-out and very helpful to all religious especially in situations where the roles are not well understood.  It gives a good response to the imbalances we encounter in our living of the vow of obedience.

I will mention some mentalities/attitudes or practices where authority and obedience is in conflict:

  1. Saying ‘yes’ to whatever comes from the mouth of the persons in authority is a common tendency.  A ‘yes’ which intends to please the person in authority or vice versa. 
    Imagine the end-results if this happen in formation houses.  What kind of religious are we producing?
  2. In some customs, an obedient person is the one who will never say something different from what the superior says.     The superior gives orders and the subject obeys!  No discussion!  The superior is infallible!  One who thinks or behaves differently is considered disobedient, and sometimes a rival.  Some religious have experienced this working with some bishops and priests in parishes.
  3. Community spirit is a value in many African cultures, but sometimes too much emphasis is put on the community.   Individuals’ contribution is not paid attention to.  This comes from the belief that we must perpetuate customs and practices particular to us.  This blocks personal initiative and keeps the community closed in.  It paralyses our enthusiasm for evangelisation because we are not open to new needs, new ideas, and new ways.
  4. In a society which values the elders, many times younger people are not given chance to exercise their membership.  The principle that ‘old age is wisdom’ undermines the contribution of the young religious and those who are less experienced.  They are not given a change to be creative.  This is experienced in communities where there are temporary professed sisters together with sisters of perpetual vows.  As a consequence, there is superiority/inferiority complex, or the young give-in to the elders.  It is even worse if persons in authority have the same mentality!


Faced with the above and many other unhealthy practices and attitudes in our living of the vow of obedience, what challenges are raised in the document we are reflecting about?

1 - Reflecting about the document, I am more convinced that reverence for the will of God and continual search for it is a key factor in our commitment.  It means, putting the will of God in the first place before our personal projects and focusing on Christ who is our teacher and model.    With Christ and through him, we obey God through the persons who are sent by Him.  Our peace, freedom and joy, comes from that fact.

2 - In relation to the above, the word of God and other spiritual exercises which keep us focused to the daily invitation of God are very important element. God speaks to us through our daily experience of him.  If we are not attentive to the voice of God in us, however good our leaders may be, there will be no progress in the realisation of God’s plan for us.  Where this is missing, there is permanent confusion and conflict.

That is why a good process of discernment guided and strengthened by the Holy Spirit, who speaks to us through our informed conscience is necessary.  It is important to distinguish the Holy Spirit from the voice which emerges from subjectivism.  Discernment should lead to decision-taking and implementation.  If there is proper consultation and involvement of individuals or groups, implementation will be voluntary, though not necessarily easier.

However, it is important to note that any decision taken is not the last word in history.  All decisions can be given a new reflection.

3- Helped by their competence and ability to listen to the Spirit, persons in authority are called to humbly seek God’s will and to ensure that it is carried out in sincerity and truth.   Leaders, who do not search, discern, dialogue, and reach out to take advice, who, do not work on their growth, etc, are a disaster to communities!  The first obligation of a leader is to obey God who speaks to her through members, context, norms, signs of the times, etc.  Otherwise they risk putting themselves in God’s place.  This is a big challenge to some communities which have traditions and practices, which put the superior in a very high ‘position’!  Where ‘Superiors’ tend know everything and have answers to every question. (Even when they do not know the question!!!).  Today we are becoming more and more aware that superiors are servants of God’s servants.  Not mistresses to be served. 

Because we all possess the spirit, dialogue of both parties is always good.  However, dialogue is not eternal.  It has to come to an end.  After doing and saying whatever is possible, we leave the last word to the superior who decides knowing the cause.  One accepts the decision in the spirit of faith.

4- Today you cannot neglect the question of human rights; our fundamental task to become who we are; a call to liberty and happiness.  Authority and obedience which denies human liberty or reduces a person to a state of passive inertness or turns down the spirit of initiative is not Christian.  The document values and appreciates the individual person and places her/his day to day responses in relation to others. 

5- Community plays an important role in the search for God’s will and the willingness to carry it out.  That is our common goal, what binds us together.   It comes from the conviction that we are all called and equally inspired by the same Spirit, and can therefore contribute to the furtherance of the mission of the Church.   If we love one another, we will listen to and obey each other.  However, a balance between the individual and the community is necessary to avoid collectivism and excessive uniformity;

6- It is also important to note that obedience is for a task.  It leads to action, to mission.    All our energies are for mission and this mission is Christ himself.  The central focus is not the superior, nor is it to keep her/him in the position, nor to attracting so many to support her/his ideas, but on Christ who is our mission.

Concluding note:

Like Abraham, God asks us our Isaac; what is most precious to us, our will, our freedom, our life.  But he does not wait for obedience which is servile, but fraternal, in confidence and trust.

Service of Authority and Obedience becomes perfect when both parties come to share one mind.  If Authority and Obedience is understood and appreciated, there will be no traces of egoism, competition for power, spirit of domination and victimisation, etc.

I would like to see people in authority at the front line, witnessing to this search for God’s will. It is only if the persons in authority live in obedience to Christ and sincerely observe the orientations of the Church and their Congregational Rule of Life, can members understand their obedience. 

I believe that if the basic elements reflected in this document are grasped from the time of initial formation and during ongoing formation, religious authority and obedience will be lived in great freedom and joy for all consecrated persons.

Presented by
Sr. Immaculate Nakato
28th May 08