Opening the Word: Obedience and creativity, fidelity and charism, are closely linked to one another

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Art should be creative. This means the artist must break away from all received norms, obedient only to the creativity that inspires her work.

This supposed clash between obedience and charism often is played out in the Church.

Obedience is presumed to function as curtailing creativity, quashing charism. The obedient are subservient to a power structure, while the prophet challenges all authority and thus enacts the will of the Spirit.

This supposed conflict between obedience and charism is a false separation. In Christianity, obedience and creativity, fidelity and charism, are closely linked to one another.

May 17 – Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 8:5-8, 14-17
Ps 66:1-3, 4-5, 6-7, 16, 20
1 Pt 3:15-18
Jn 14:15-21

Our Lord tells the gathered disciples that they will receive the gift of Spirit through obedience to the commandment of love. The Word who became flesh, who dwelt among us, will depart. Jesus will ascend to the Father.

And yet those who keep the commandments, who follow in the footsteps of the self-giving love of the Son, will receive the Spirit. It is obedience to the person of Jesus, to love unto the end that he manifested upon the cross, that vitalizes the Christian life. This obediential love is the disposition we must possess if we are to receive the Spirit, the gift that unites us to the love of the Father and the Spirit.

To be the Son of the Father is to be obedient, to listen with one’s heart to the voice of God even in the desert of desolation. Obedience is the source of the charism of the Spirit. In the Gospel of John, Jesus breathes the Spirit upon the created order from the wood of the cross. The cross, an image of the Son’s obediential love, is the space where the Spirit renews the face of the earth.

In Acts, this union between obedience and charism is evident in the need for John and Peter to lay hands on the citizens of Samaria. Philip has preached the Gospel, he has healed the sick and the lame and there is joy in the city. Exuberant joy.

And yet, the Spirit of God has not yet descended. Despite the joy pulsating through Samaria, the Spirit is absent. The apostles, Peter and John, must lay hands upon the new Christians. The creativity of the Spirit is unleashed through the apostolic office.

The inter-relationship between obedience and charism is a mark of a flourishing Church. The obedience that we offer is not servile or subservient. The apostolic office does not exist so that bishops may receive fancy titles and cash from donors to support a luxurious lifestyle.

The one who must first be obedient is the bishop himself, obedient to the cross rather than the glory of power and prestige. A bishop who is obedient to anything else confuses the apostolic office with personal power and privilege. He worships himself.

The faithful are to be obedient to the cross of Christ, the commandment of love unto the end. In this obedience, new charisms come forth that renew the Church. Fidelity to the cross gives birth to the Benedictines and the Cistercians, to the Dominicans and the Franciscans, to the Jesuits and the Salesians, and to the Sisters of Life. Further, charisms sprout up among the baptized faithful in every corner of the world, who exercise their priestly office through preaching, prayer, and the works of mercy.

Those who possess authority must also learn to be attentive and obedient to these new charisms. New charisms may challenge the institutions of the Church including the successors of the apostles to pursue holiness with greater fervor. And yet these new charisms need the structures of the Church to dwell in the self-giving love of the Lord.

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is the director of education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame.

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