No Obedience, No Heaven

The test of obedience is when it is difficult, not when it is easy, to obey.

Pope Francis ordains ten men to the priesthood in St. Peter's Basilica on May 7, 2017.
Pope Francis ordains ten men to the priesthood in St. Peter's Basilica on May 7, 2017. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

“Where there is no obedience, there is no virtue; where there is no virtue, there is no good; where there is no good there is no love; where there is no love, there is no God; and where there is no God, there is no Paradise” —St. Padre Pio

I became a Catholic because I came to believe in the authority of the Church. I had really come to believe that the Lord Jesus Christ delegated his authority to Peter and that the Bishop of Rome was Peter’s successor. Furthermore, I believed that the validly consecrated bishops of the Catholic Church were the successors to the apostles, and the priests were their “fingers.”

So what to do then when these bishops did not conform to my wishes? I will tell you what happened to me — not because I wish to toot my horn, but simply because it happened and I learned from it and you may learn from it too.

In 1995 I left my post as a minister in the Church of England to be received into the Catholic Church. I had no other training, and I had a wife and two children to support. I got a job as an editor at a small video production company and tried my hand at freelance writing. At the same time I applied to the local Catholic bishop for ordination as a Catholic priest under the pastoral provision. At the time, in England, some 750 Anglican priests converted to Rome. The vast majority were accepted for ordination as Catholic priests including the married men.

My Catholic bishop accepted me for training and envisioned a role in the diocese as a communications officer. I began my training, but the bishop was promoted. We waited 18 months for his replacement. I waited another nine months before obtaining a meeting with his successor. I waited another six months for a reply to my application. It was refused because the bishop “could not think of any way to use me in the diocese.”

I was offered a part time job in a Catholic charity as a fundraiser and this required us to move. So we moved to a new part of the country and I met with my new bishop about ordination. He said “yes” and said they would pick up my paperwork which had already been sent to Rome. We waited six months and learned that “the paperwork had been lost.” We waited another six months and learned that the bishop had changed his mind. He was about to retire and did not want to burden his successor with a priest who had a wife and four children. So we waited for another year until he retired. Then we waited another 18 months for his successor to be appointed.

His successor was a rather bland liberal who quickly decided that he would not ordain any former Anglicans. Not even celibate candidates would be considered. No reason was given, but people behind the scenes told me that my publication of a book of conversion stories did not help my candidacy. The large scale defections of Anglican priests to Rome were supposed to be kept quiet for “ecumenical reasons.” My writing that book indicated that I was a “dangerous, triumphalist conservative.” It was their opinion that I was being excluded on purpose, and my new bishop was at the center of the liberal cabal.

At this point, friends of mine recommended that I go “bishop shopping” in order to be ordained. There were other bishops who would consider my application.

I said, “I’m not going bishop shopping! I became a Catholic because I believed that God spoke through his holy apostles and that the bishops of the Church are their successors. I’m going to obey my bishop even if I think he’s a liberal jerk.” They said I was crazy. In conversation a few years later with a cardinal of the Church I expressed this view and even he chuckled at my “foolishness.”

So how did it happen that I was ever ordained? I was visiting my family in Greenville, South Carolina, when I met Fr. Jay Scott Newman. He listened to my tale and was the first priest who respected my stubborn and seemingly foolhardy obedience. He pondered my predicament and then said, “You know it is possible to have two bishops. You live in England and that bishop is your bishop, but you are an American citizen and Greenville, South Carolina, is your hometown. Therefore the Bishop of Charleston is also your bishop. The bishop is coming for dinner tomorrow night. Would you like to join us?”

It still took another four or five years before the other doors opened up, but we can now see that the path of obedience was, in the long run, far more of a blessing than for me to go “bishop shopping” at the time. Furthermore, I learned lessons in that “wilderness” that I could not have learned any other way.

So I would answer those who find it a strain and a burden to put up with a priest or bishop who they deem to be liberal or mealy-mouthed or downright heretical (without condoning their false teaching or hypocrisy) perhaps there is a lesson to be learned by your own submission to the apostolic authority — even when that apostolic authority is corrupt or disordered or just plain wrong, because to overturn that authority is to place yourself in the position of authority instead, and is that the Catholic way? Surely not. Are you to make the Church or is the Church to make you?

Oh yes it is hard, very hard, to submit week after week to a tiresome and heterodox preacher. “What about my children!” You cry. “Shall they be required to sit through bad catechesis and poor liturgy?” Teach them the truth at home in charity and kindness. Maybe they will learn deeper and more stunning lessons from the example of your dogged obedience than they will if they see you running about choosing your own church.

Did you think it was going to be easy to be obedient? The test of obedience is when it is difficult, not when it is easy, to obey. Are you able to obey even when to do so seems absurd and you have to grit your teeth and hold your nose to obey? Obedience is important even when it is difficult — especially when it is difficult.

The obedience required is the obedience of faith. To obey a superior in religion is not necessarily to condone or approve of the person or all his actions. The root of the word “obedience” is oboedire which means “to listen.” Therefore to obey is to listen — to listen deeply not only to your own thoughts and not only to the circumstances, but also to what God is doing in your life because believe me — he is doing far greater things than you can imagine.

It’s just that he works behind the scenes... in secret.

He’s like that.