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The Evangelical Counsels

Renewing commitment to the centerpieces of priestly life

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The evangelical counsels of obedience, poverty of spirit, and chaste and respectful love are the pathways by which priests imitate Christ and inspire every member of his Mystical Body to do the same. Thanks to these three foundations, priests witness to God’s presence in the events, things and people they encounter wherever he places them in service of their apostolic ministry.

Counsel of Obedience

To listen to and surrender wholeheartedly to the providential disclosures of God’s loving and allowing will in any event that comes a priest’s way is the ever-present grace attributed to the counsel of obedience.

Beyond any semblance of static repetition or blind compliance, this counsel expresses a priest’s permanent commitment to Christ and the lawful authority of his Church. It counters the temptation to be disobedient, which is to say to listen to one’s own will rather than the will of the Father. In and through Christ, priests obey God with their intelligence, feelings and intuitions; with their learning and experience; with their prayerful, catechetical, practical and aesthetic attributes.

Obedience in the priestly life is meant to be a sharing in the obedient listening of Jesus to the Father. He was obedient in all the events of his life, as the son of a carpenter, as an astute teacher of the Scriptures, as the promised Messiah. From his private life to his public life, obedience motivated Jesus to find, fulfill and respond with courage to the formative events God allowed to transpire in and around him. The entire story of his life can be summarized in two words, “Yes, Father.”

To know the Father’s will in all the events of their life, priests pray for the grace of enlightenment and for the wisdom to escape the traps of disobedience set for them at every turn — from the remnants of selfish sensuality to functional ambitions and inordinate needs for possession. Granted to priests by the Holy Spirit is the grace to believe, trust and love the Father’s will revealed in the day-by-day unfolding of their lives and the teachings and traditions of the Church that they are bound by obedience to uphold.

The Church, understood in the light of a priestly vocation, offers God’s people a unifying vision of Christian life rooted in the common ways of liturgy, word and sacrament. The more priests listen to these ways as openings to communion with the mystery of the Trinity, the more they refine their sensitivity to the divine meanings embedded in the past, present and future events God allows in their lives.

Whereas disobedience builds up resistance to Christ’s call and the Church’s teachings,

obedience frees priests from being overly attached to their own plans and projects and signs of measurable success. They strive instead to live in obedient imitation of Christ’s rhythm of attentive care and quiet rest, to the right balance of labor and leisure. They commit themselves to thank God for the peace and joy of being able to exemplify what it means to say “Yes, Father” in the finite events that weave into the tapestry of time a golden thread of eternal meaning.

Counsel of Poverty

If obedient listening helps priests be open to the sacred significance of events, then poverty prompts their appreciative response to the natural and cultural things around them. The Holy Spirit inspires them to treat these gifts in ways that transcend the self-centered tendency to use them for selfish purposes incompatible with the Gospel truth that this world, and all the goods it can offer, will never fulfill one’s deepest longings.

The practice of poverty of spirit prevents priests from being overly attached to such material goods as a vehicle, a building, a special kind of food or clothing. Poverty overcomes this consumeristic bent and points priests to the only gift that lasts: that of God’s saving care for every soul.

Thanks to this spirit of detachment, priests remind us of the limited goodness, truth and beauty of the things of this world. They can be enjoyed and praised in thanksgiving as long as one never becomes possessed by one’s possessions.

Christ’s sensitivity to this truth shines forth when he speaks in parables about lilies of the field and little sparrows cared for so gently by him that not one falls without his knowing it. In countless ways, Jesus shows us how the gifts of nature and culture should be used wisely and respectfully in inner detachment and poverty of spirit.

Visiting a wedding party, Jesus makes available in a wondrous way the finest wine. He multiplies the loaves and fishes so that the crowds following him can quell their hunger and regain their vitality. When his apostles are not able to catch any fish, Jesus tells them where to drop their nets to fill them to the breaking point. When Mary Magdalene bathes his feet with aromatic, expensive oils, he praises her publicly by reminding the other guests that they ought to have done the same rather than reprimanding her for not selling the perfume and giving the money to the poor. Jesus counters their one-sided, materialistic view of poverty and praises the boldness of the woman to symbolically ready him for his burial.

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A Franciscan Reminder

Regarding the habit worn by Franciscan friars, the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word tell us, “Our habit consists of a simple brown hooded robe, similar to the one worn by Saint Francis himself, and a corded rope cincture, or corded rope belt, worn around the waist.

“The rope worn as a belt around the waist symbolizes being girded with Christ and is tied in the three characteristic Franciscan knots that signify the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience taken upon becoming a member of the community. Each knot has five coils to remind us of the five wounds of Christ.”

— From franciscanmissionaries.com

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This respectful attitude toward the gifts of culture and nature became such a hallmark of Jesus’ life that one of the main attacks on him was that he was a drinker of wine, a man who even allowed his disciples to eat the corn of the field on the Sabbath. What was clear was that his presence to the gifts of the Father was only possible because of his ability to distance himself from the mere material meaning of things. He never became enslaved to them but strove always to disclose and celebrate their deepest meaning.

Jesus was so free from things that he could honestly say he did not possess a stone on which to lay his head. This does not mean that he never found a place to sleep; it serves only to emphasize that he kept himself free from absorption in such concerns. His example shows priests that in keeping with their vocation they should care about food, shelter and clothing, on the condition that their lives are not absorbed or preoccupied with them.

In the parish, town or city where priests serve, they use things in the best interest of others, freed from mere possessiveness and revealing that it is possible to find God in a sunset, in the smile of a child, in a painting, in a sip of wine, a crust of bread, an evening of good company. Everywhere in culture and nature, the mystery of transforming love waits to reveal itself to the poor of spirit, who are no longer burdened by the need to possess things for their own sake or to cling to them as ends in themselves.

Priests show us how to go beyond the shell of ownership to the silent mystery that whatever we own manifests. They are sensitive to and care deeply for the spiritually and the physically poor and offer them the help good caregivers are bound by Christ to provide. They show us the way to care for all that is in poverty of spirit.

Counsel of Chaste Love

To love as Jesus loves is the finest way for priests to be both receivers and doers, contemplatives and practitioners, who give to others not parsimoniously but out of an abundance of sensitive concern. Beyond such attributes as skill and learning, priests draw upon the spiritual enlightenment granted to them by their love for the Lord. They express their care in outpourings of charity for those abandoned in body and soul. They identify lack of love as a disintegrating force eroding trust between persons, together with respect for life and the upholding of their own and others’ innate dignity in Christ.

The meaning of the word “chaste” comes from the verb “to chasten,” which signifies “to refine” or “to purify.” Priests love chastely by overcoming, with the help of grace, egocentric compulsions and ambitions aimed at coercing or manipulating others, or violating their integrity spiritually, psychologically or physically.

While obedience manifests the presence of priests to Christ in events, and poverty regulates their relation to things, respectful love heals the brokenness due to sin that may despoil priests’ relations to others. Such love restores priests and people to an abiding respect for one another as brothers and sisters in the Lord. It flows forth in quiet dedication, selfless service and tender care for every person in the pew.

The healing power of Christian love goes beyond the immediate relief of such important needs as feeding the hungry and providing shelter for the homeless. In addition to these efficacious expressions of Christian love, priests foster less noticeable ways of exercising charity, including service to the sick and impoverished that may provide little or no immediate recognition. A priest may not enjoy regular signs of worldly success, but his years of service to Christ and his Church will outlast any ephemeral expression of earthly recognition.

Jesus said that whatever we do for the least estimated persons around us we do for him. He described how, at the end of time, people will ask him, in surprise, when they clothed him, gave him a drink or visited him in prison. Are these not the very times when priests serve him in the anonymity of seemingly endless hours in the confessional or in labors where they are most needed, night and day?

Priests understand that the height of growth in other-centered love occurs the moment they see the People of God as sinners in need of redemption, who turn to them for help, broken as they may feel themselves to be. At its most sublime heights, this lifelong movement from self-centered to other-centered love makes priests wounded healers who respect others and care for them as the gifts of God they are.

The mystery of transforming love is the wellspring from whence the gift of celibacy flows forth, revealing to priests the fruitfulness of inclusive love and the fulfillment of their vocation to live and die in the person of Christ.

A priestly vocation committed to obedience, poverty of spirit and chaste respectful love represents the culmination of what it means to lift the events, things, and people entrusted to one’s care to the highest expressions of ministry and apostolic dedication. From the ordinary unfolding of the day, priests derive the extraordinary blessings of being disciples of the Lord, proclaimers of his word and lovers of his bride, the Church.

Most of all, they are men of prayer, who know that without God they can do nothing. By their very lives, they announce to God’s people the necessity of listening to Gospel truths, of being poor in spirit, and of loving one another as the Lord has loved us.

SUSAN MUTO, Ph.D., is dean of the Epiphany Academy of Formative Spirituality in Pittsburgh and author of “Gratefulness: The Habit of a Grace-Filled Life” (Ave Maria Press, $15.95).

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Living the Counsels

Obedience
Priests obey God with their intelligence, feelings and intuitions; with their learning and experience; with their prayerful, catechetical, practical and aesthetic attributes.

Poverty
Thanks to the spirit of detachment, priests remind us of the limited goodness, truth and beauty of the things of this world. They can be enjoyed and praised in thanksgiving as long as one never becomes possessed by possessions.

Chaste Love
Priests love chastely by overcoming, with the help of grace, egocentric compulsions and ambitions aimed at coercing or manipulating others or violating their integrity, spiritually, psychologically or physically.

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