Religious Authority

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Question: Sr. Mary Theresa

I belong to a Religious Group. There is every chance that I will be nominated superior shortly. Could you help me understand what exactly is Religious Authority?

Answer: Dominic Veliath SDB

Thank you for your question. However, since you did not mention precisely what sort of Religious Group is involved, I am limiting my response to indicating certain generalities and attitudes which are required of any Religious Superior as such. I hope it proves to be helpful.

1. The Religious Superior is always a Disciple
For the New Testament, a ‘disciple’ is one who has been “personally called by the Lord;” in other words, one who has a “vocation.” The Church has understood this as referring to an all-consuming call. In the New Testament, Jesus confronts would-be disciples with the stark portrait of the hardships involved in responding to such a call. He does not make the prospect easy or attractive for them. It involves a life where one is not ministered to but where one ministers (Mt 20:28); the disciple is not to seek the first place (Mk 9:35); the disciple cannot draw back or temporize when the call comes ((Lk 9:62; Mt 8:22). For the disciple there can be only one master – Jesus Christ (Mt 6:24). However, in the face of difficulties, the Lord assures the disciple that “He will be there with us.” All said and done, the Gospel challenge to discipleship touches the essence of human generosity. Hence, the Religious Superior is a disciple. It is essentially a vocation, a call; not a profession, or a mere competence.

2. The Religious Superior is called to be a Prophet
The Old Testament makes a sharp distinction between the institutional and charismatic leadership of the People of God. The institutional leaders of Israel belonged to the set structure of Israel’s theocratic society and were appointed by the appropriate authority or qualified by birth, but were never called. “Calling” is specific of the charismatic leaders raised up by God and so by definition “called” to cope with tasks that fall outside the ambit of institutional organization. Charismatic leaders are called to initiate new ventures (for example Abraham, Moses), to meet new threats (for example Gideon), to resolve problems raised by new economic and social conditions, and to renew people grown slack in their observance of the covenant stipulations, and in their single-minded devotion to a trust in their covenant-God. Every call marked a new initiative of God and heralded a turning point in “Salvation History.”

3. The Religious Superior – entrusted with a Mission
Another New Testament antecedent which has influenced the understanding of authority is that of “mission.” A “missionary,” in the broad sense of the term is one who is “sent with authority to proclaim the Gospel.” If the New Testament picture of the disciple has greatly influenced the spirituality of the Christian disciple, especially as regards the conformity of his life-style with that of Jesus, it is the role of the “missionary” that shaped the Christian understanding of ministry on behalf of others. A disciple is distinct from a “missionary.” One could not be a missionary without having many of the ideals of the disciple, but one might have the ideals without the activity; as Raymond Brown pertinently observes, one can be spiritual but ineffective.

4. The Religious Superior – A Shepherd
However, the Christian community also has a visible side to it. Consequently it has also has an institutional dimension. There is authority exercised over the community. However, it is also a ministry of service; in other words, such authority is not to be considered as merely power, but primarily as service. The Superior is called to be a “Shepherd” not a “Goatherd.” A shepherd “leads” the sheep; whereas the goatherd “drives” the goats.

5. Some of the Qualities required of a Religious Superior
– A Deeper Understanding of the Commandment of Love: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” The challenge is to SEE the other as we see ourselves.
– A Greater Sensitivity to Certain Groups: This refers especially to the young, the elderly, the sick.
– The Need to forgive and to forget. This becomes easier when viewed from a broader perspective viz., that “all of us stand in need of forgiveness.” When we refuse to forgive, in effect, we are identifying a person with his fault.
– The Responsibility to Correct. The philosopher Socrates is reputed to have said: “If you have no friend to correct you, pay an enemy to do so.” Interestingly the Latin verb “corrigere” = “to correct” comes from the same root as “erigere” which means to build up a person.
– Retain a Sense of Optimism and Humour. There is always the need to remember that “ God is after all in charge.”
A Deep Sense of Gratitude to all those who preceded us. This is beautifully expressed in the thought-provoking epitaph found in the War Cemetery at Kohima (Nagaland):” When You Go Home, Tell Them of Us and Say, For Their Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today.”

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