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Jesuits - Euro-Mediterranean Province

Jesuits and obedience

Giuseppe D'Apollo SJ durante una celebrazione eucaristica

What is obedience for the religious and how has this attitude evolved in the Society of Jesus?

Along with chastity and poverty, obedience is one of the pillars of religious life. Nuns, priests, friars are required to lead a modest life, for some mendicant orders the rigour is greater with regard to poverty. As far as obedience is concerned, it is due to various persons who hold ecclesiastical roles.

For the diocesan priest the reference is to his bishop, hence to the Pontiff, for the member of a religious congregation there is also an internal hierarchy, as for the Jesuits.

Every novice learnt that obedience was always due to one’s superior and that the highest respect was nurtured towards one’s senior brethren.

A Jesuit, who did not hold any apex role, therefore owed obedience to the local Superior, the Superior of the community, and in his absence to the minister or confrere he had designated, then to the Major Superior (the Provincial), to the Father General within the hierarchy of the Society of Jesus.

Some researchers have studied this issue by consulting above all the Monumenta, the letters of St Ignatius and his collaborators and successors addressed to the brethren and other correspondents.

Obedience is declared in different sources reflecting different moments of Jesuit life.

Obedience in the formula of Last Vows

At the time of the Last Vows, the solemn and final incorporation into the order for a Jesuit, the fathers may become spiritual coadjutors or professed four vows. This is an additional vow of obedience, which these Jesuits make to the Pope and which in the past concerned missions.

If the Pope had asked a professed four-vowed to leave for a distant destination to proclaim the Gospel, he would have obeyed.

Today the fourth vow is no longer linked to missionary activity, but it is still envisaged that the Pontiff may ask a Jesuit for a specific assignment or apostolate. In this case, the Jesuits, pledging not to aspire to an ecclesiastical career, confront Father General.

Obedience in daily life

Obedience was, however, part of the life of all Jesuits, put to the test from the very first years of the novitiate through the expiation of guilt, in the presence of all the brothers of the community in the refectory, on their knees. This is a practice no longer in force today, since the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

Obedience was also experienced in assignments. Each Jesuit, periodically, in the past as today, is reassigned to a new city or residence, with new assignments so that his charism and his example of vocation can reach different people and territories.

Today, the destination is the result of a dialogue with the Provincial, who also welcomes the Jesuit’s aspirations, whereas in the past it was different.

From some destination letters we read: “Dear Father, brother in Christ, Holy Obedience sends you to the residence of […]”.

The communication is often brief, sober and assertive, there is no explanation accompanying the motivation.

When the Provincial decided, it was not a matter for discussion, nor was it a matter of choice, since he was always considered to be inspired by the best intentions and the Holy Spirit.

Even the language, which we deduce from letters and sources, tells us how obedience was declined.

The Provincial was often addressed as “Your Fatherhood”, since he was considered a father to all the Jesuits of the Province, who were entrusted to him during their term of office.

Each superior, both the Provincial and all those in charge of the residences, were the authority of reference, the community was made up of Jesuits who were considered subjects of the superior. This lexicon was inspired by the context in which the Society had been born and developed for most of its history: that of monarchical states, ruled by absolute monarchs.

With the end of these forms of government and the advent of democracy and republics, this vocabulary of the Society of Jesus has also disappeared.

How obedience is declared today

Obedience, prescribed by St Ignatius himself and recalled in the Constitutions, internal documents and recalled in the letters, has not been immune to social changes.

We can interrogate different sources that recount the declination of obedience in daily life: the home diaries, the correspondence, the personal notes of some Jesuits who dedicated reflections to these themes.

In the house diaries, already in the first decades of the twentieth century some changes can be perceived: small inattentions to the rules, often caused by novelties of the moment such as the arrival of the telephone that made those engaged in conversation forget to keep a low tone of voice.

The use of Latin also began to disappear in speech as well as in writing, increasingly replaced by Italian.

The great changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council and the protests of the 1960s profoundly influenced by obedience. l’obbedienza. Its evolution will be the subject of study when the pontificates of John XXIII and Paul VI are opened for consultation.

Maria Macchi