Authority is Service

Strangely enough, my first contribution to this blog took the form of a post on authority, based on a Trappist’s meditation on St Luke’s account of Jesus’ healing of the man with a withered hand (Lk 6:6-11). Since I would like to put up more material while Todd is on retreat and it has been a year-and-a-half, perhaps I can risk a second post on authority. For the sake of continuity, I’ll draw on another Trappist, in this case the Abbot-General. Dom Bernardo Olivera, OCSO, wrote a letter on this subject to the Superiors of the Spanish Region on August 20, 1993. The letter has been translated and is in the Bulletin of the Alliance for International Monasticism no 85 [2005]). While his reflections are clearly Benedictine, I think that they have a much wider relevance for ecclesial authority.

Dom Olivera first writes to the Superiors:

The first one who must believe that he holds the place of Christ is you yourself; this will help you act like Him. You are not Christ but you hold His place; you do not replace Christ, rather you represent Him, especially in what you do. He who hears you, hears Him. Do not believe that He does what you want and say; rather, you must seek what He wants and make it known. Your authority is a service to life, and this life requires your service more than your presidency. The life you give and the life you serve is not your own but that of Another; in order to give and to serve this Life you must die to your own. In order to serve life you must preserve and promote it, motivate and orientate it. This service is both paternal and maternal. If you are not father and mother conjointly, you will be neither the one nor the other. The greater your personal maturity, the more able you are to bring others to maturity. … To animate and give life, you must make yourself present, but not omnipresent; the degree of your co-living is proportionate to the degree of your moral authority. Your authority is service; for this reason, the greater and better your service, the greater and better your authority.

Then, Dom Olivera begins one of many helpful lists. The authority of the abbot depends on:

1. The capacity to listen
2. Contact with the reality of others
3. Coherence between words and deeds
4. Centering on what is essential and important
5. Promptness in taking charge of situations within his competence.

On the other hand, there are four “plagues” to avoid:

1. The paternalism that abuses authority by confusing it with power
2. The fraternalism that denies the diversity and hierarchy of services
3. The maternalism that needs to protect and shelter
4. The infantilism of the person who depends on others for gratification and assurance.

Dom Olivera wisely tells us, “The authority that takes jesting seriously, and the serious in jest, is stupid.” And, “authoritarianism is the first sign of authority in crisis.”

The abbot should be a teacher whose teaching “teaching must be formative and with a view to transformation.” When the abbot teaches, he should have four objectives in mind:

1. To captivate – to attract the attention and favor of the audience
2. To enlighten with the light of doctrine
3. To motivate by arousing the affections
4. To convince for decision-making

This, in turn, requires following four principles

1. Clarity
2. A step-by-step method
3. Organization that shapes a harmonious whole
4. Vivacity through lively examples

The abbot should furthermore be a shepherd (“You are truly shepherd when you relate to each person as unique and unrepeatable”), a merciful doctor (“If the miseries of your neighbor arouse your impatience and not your mercy, it is a sign that you have not yet accepted your own”), and a prudent administrator. The latter role depends upon some more basic principles:

1. The solidarity that creates bonds and reciprocal responsibilities
2. The subsidiarity that protections the autonomy of decision and action
3. The participation that allows just and proportionate input without invasion or isolation
4. The intervention that allows a higher authority to settle conflicts or solve problems
5. The permission of appeal from a subordinate to a higher authority for help or counsel

The good administrator will avoid three obstacles:

1. Servile dependence on experts
2. Absolute confidence in organizations
3. Waiting for science to confirm what common sense already makes evident

Finally, Dom Olivera asserts, “The Holy Spirit is the principal Agent of our growth in Christ and Mary-Mother is His intimate and immediate collaborator. We superiors can do nothing without them and we can do everything with them.” And, so, it is above all important to spend time in prayer.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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