Jesus came to give us life and to give it abundantly (Jn 10, 10). This abundance of life is unthinkable without the full development of our personality. God created us “in his own image” that is: with some of his own autonomy. When mankind had fallen into various kinds of slavery and bondage, Jesus redeemed us from these chains and raised us to a new dignity. Through him we can live as free and happy children of God.

What is the root of Christian autonomy? And how can priests, who are commissioned by Christ to continue his liberating work, help people attain such genuine autonomy? In our reflections we will be guided by St John's Gospel - the Gospel of Christian maturity.


Human beings differ from animals because they have a mind and a will. What this really means is: a human being can make his own decisions. Whereas animals are controlled by external circumstances and internal drives, human beings can observe reality, reflect on implications, weigh up good and bad, and choose a particular course of action. Both the ability to discern and the freedom to choose between various alternatives are essential in decision making. A full human decision is both conscious and free.

In a way it is correct to state that we only become truly human to the extent that we make our own decisions. We also build up our own personality through it. By nature we may have a certain disposition or temperament. But these do not form our character. Our ‘character’ develops as a result of the decisions we make in the course of our life. A dishonest person, for example, has acquired this trait by repeated decisions to deceive and tell lies. A charitable person on the other hand became so by having decided on many occasions to be kind rather than harsh.

What actually happens, when we take decisions, is that we gradually take charge of our own life. Psychologists tell us that a mature person is someone who masters his environment. He understands his world correctly and despite adverse conditions manages to cope. He stands on his own two feet without making excessive demands on others. He can make up his own mind on what is good or bad for himself; and he is prepared to take the necessary steps to look after himself. A mature person is a winner, not a loser.

Recalling such psychological truths, we perceive the main reason why so many of people remain depressed and helpless. In short it comes to this: they have not learned to take their own decisions. When they were born they found everything had already been decided for them. The family they belonged to, the low social rank, the state of poverty, the kind of work expected from them: these could hardly be changed. And when they felt like striking out on their own and doing something new, such initiatives were usually beaten down by parental authority, social tradition, the hostility of public opinion, the conflict with other interest groups. Bowing to the inevitable brought dependence but also social security. Rather than mastering one’s own fate through personal decisions, becoming servants and slaves to the system paid off. It was submissiveness and dependence that were rewarded not originality and creative endeavour.

Studies on development projects in India have shown that it is usually the middle classes, not the most deprived communities that benefit most. Often defective planning, a bias in the organisers and other factors are blamed for this. But the real reason for the different degree of profit lies, according to me, in the degree of autonomy already enjoyed by the beneficiaries. The middle classes: small farmers working their own land, shopkeepers,village leaders, teachers and office workers, have acquired considerable skill in mastering their own lives. In any new situation, such as when a project is launched, they will be the first to eagerly grasp opportunities offered. Their ambition, sense of initiative, experience in organising: in other words, their ability to take wise decisions, gives them a headstart that will naturally make them the greatest beneficiaries. For the power to decide for oneself is the key to developing our human potential.


You may wonder why I have been stressing this factor of decision making so much. The reason is that it is an element so easily overlooked, in the leadership role. Leaders have to provide good instruction. They need to guide people, motivate them, encourage and warn. But the one thing they should never do is take other people’s decisions for them. For it is only by making their own decisions that people will truly grow and take charge of their own lives. Dependent people who are used to bow to so many masters in social and political life, will only too readily bow to spiritual masters as well. Seeing their confusion and misery priests can so easily fall into the trap of adopting paternalistic responsibility and ruling people’s lives instead of helping them rule their own.

Parents often make this mistake. They believe it to be in the interest of the child that “the best” (as the parents see it) is chosen for them. A mother may decide for her teenage daughter what clothes to wear, what school to attend, what free time factivities to indulge in ,which friends to play with, what books to read and what colour of ribbon to wear in her hair. She doesn’t realise that she is depriving the child of the most important and precious gift: to allow the child to become a true adult, an autonomous person who can decide things responsibly for herself. And when the daughter rebels as so often happens, rather than being disappointed and angry, she should be grateful for this expression of a personal search.

The mother who wants her daughter to grow as a true person, who allows her to make her own decisions wherever possible, will not have an easy task. Often, when her daughter seems to be doing the wrong things (as far as she can judge),she will need great sensitivity and restraint not to exert undue pressure. She will express her mind, of course. She will give advice and support. But knowing that true autonomy can only come by personal decisions, she will be careful not to break her daughter’s will. Therefore she will show patience and confidence and be prepared for the inevitable mistakes, precisely to make sure that her daughter will become a mature and independent person. The mother will experience that she is losing control, that she is becoming less important in the life of her child, that eventually she has to allow her child to go and live her own life. She will suddenly realise the depth of Jesus’ words when he said: “I am telling you the truth: a grain of wheat remains no more than a single grain unless it is dropped into the ground and dies” (Jn 12,24).

I believe that this comparison applies very much to the leadership of priests. It is easy to be authoritarian, to tend a herd of submissive and passive sheep. It is far more demanding to guide people towards true spiritual self-reliance. May I give some practical examples?

The Vatican Council has stressed the co-responsibility of the laity. In the campaign towards self-reliance, the essential role of pastoral councils, on all levels: village, parish and diocese, has been brought out. This should not remain a dead letter. It is vital that the members of a particular community can really express their own opinion and take their own decision regarding matters pertaining to that community. This extends also to spiritual questions, to matters of church organisation, to how the sacraments are prepared for and received, to all the different aspects of the apostolate. The church will only become the people’s church if they really see that their own decisions count. Even though the priest will have a leading function in guiding the community, he should not be seen to overrule or dominate.

Or, consider the case of religious, especially religious sisters in parishes. Often these are gifted people, committed to the apostolate and capable of doing a lot of things priests cannot do ourselves. But does it not often happen that the local parish priest presents the initiatives they take, curtails them, warns them off? Should they, as responsible leaders, not rather welcome and encourage the contribution sisters can make? This means involving them in decisions affecting the parish and the areas of apostolate they are concerned with. It often means allowing them to do things their way, because as autonomous free persons that is the way the apostolate will eventually flourish best.

And what about those lay people who sometimes cause priests headaches, the educated officials or business man who is interested to help the church but who can also be quite critical? Are they going to treat such individuals with hostility or shove them off diplomatically? Or will they acknowledge that they are valuable members of the community who should be guided, not opposed? Knowing exactly how to deal with them, where to encourage and where to restrain, is a real challenge. But one thing is certain: if they simply disregard them or refuse to take them seriously, they are not living up to their task. And priests may discover that if they learn how to integrate these more vocal and independent persons for the good of the community, the apostolate will benefit greatly from it.

So often priests undertake community projects on behalf of people who may not know what they really plan to do. Perhaps, they do not even agree to them. Are such projects not doomed to failure from the start? I believe that many more projects should only be accepted on diocesan and regional level if they are carried by a community decision.


If priests adopt the strategy of allowing people to be really involved as persons, of making them take their own decisions, their pastoral approach will follow new priorities. These will concern areas such as: “What should I be doing as a priest and what can I delegate to others? Should I think up the projects, or should I find out with each community the project they need? Am I going to spend my time mainly on constructing buildings, or in forming people? How can my sermons instruct people regarding responsible decision making and co-responsibility? What can I do to develop the talents of people belonging to my parish?” There is no need for me to spell them out in detail. Once they have adopted the basic new strategy, they will discover implications for themselves.

It may be helpful to study an example from the Gospel, to see how Jesus himself dealt with people. One such example that strikes me as highly instructive is Jesus cure of the blind man. We find the story narrated at length in John’s Gospel (Jn 9,1 -41). Now remember that this blind man had always been really helpless. He was sitting outside the Temple gate, requesting alms. People knew him as a blind beggar.

When Jesus wanted to cure him, he did not open his eyes there and then. Instead, he spat on the ground and made some mud with the spittle. Then he rubbed the mud on the man’s eyes and said: “Go and wash your face in the pool of Siloam”! Now the strange thing is, often overlooked by commentators, that Jesus left the blind man to find his own way to Siloam. Neither he himself nor one of the apostles went along. Jesus wanted the man to make his own decisions: to decide that it was worthwhile trusting Jesus, worthwhile taking the trouble of finding the way to Siloam and washing his face. Once the man was cured, unexpected new problems arose for him. The Jewish authorities were angry because he had been cured on the sabbath. So he was called before a group of Pharisees and scribes. These kept pestering him with questions and refused to accept the story he told. When the man called on his parents for corroboration, these turned away from him. “Ask him himself, he is an adult. He can speak for himself!” `So the man had to stand on his own two feet and defend his testimony. And what a magnificent defence he gave! The more the scribes challenged him, the more he started pointing out that Jesus must be from God. Otherwise how could he have done such a miracle?!

Again, we would perhaps have expected Jesus or one of his apostles to stand by, to speak on behalf of this illiterate beggar who had been blind all his life, to defend his cause. But Jesus does not act in this way. He knows that the very process of being challenged and having to defend himself, will make the blind man grow, will help him to be an autonomous Christian. It is only afterwards that Jesus meets him and presents him with a new challenge. “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” The man requires further information - which Jesus gives. Then he freely and happily submits himself to Jesus as a disciple. Do we not have here a marvellous example of a true strategy of love? Not only did Jesus restore the man’s sight, he also gave him back what he needed most: the sense of his own independence. As a blind beggar he had totally depended on others for almost everything. Now Jesus gave him the opportunity to prove his self-worth. He received harsh treatment. He was called a liar, a man born in sin; and eventually banned from the synagogue because of his stubborn opposition to the Pharisees, But through this process he became a free, responsible member of Jesus’ kingdom.

This is what Jesus also stated as a general principle. Although he was the Word made flesh, God Incarnate, he did not want to crush our individuality and autonomy. “I do not call you servants, because a servant does not know what his master is doing. Instead, I call you friends because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father ”(Jn 15,15). In other words: Jesus does not treat us as servants who are simply told what to do; he treats us as friends, because he explains his Father’s will to us and expects us to freely decide to do his bidding. Jesus promises also that as his friends we will give our own individual contribution to his kingdom. “Whoever believes in me will do what I do - yes, he will do even greater things than I did” (Jn 14, 12). By giving us the new inner principles of life and love, each member of the kingdom is like a new Jesus who can honour the Father by doing the same things Jesus did. “My Father’s glory is shown by your bearing much fruit” (Jn. 15,8). It is as mature, autonomous Christians by taking decisions inspired by love, that we will produce fruit pleasing to the Father.


Psychologists have made a study of what “mature persons” are like. They list fourteen characteristics (A. H.Maslow) which present quite an accurate and complete description. Notice how in almost every single item of this list, the ability to take responsible, personal decisions is presupposed. Autonomous decision making is an essential part of being a fully developed person. Just study this list:

  1. More efficient perception of reality and more comfortable relations with it. Mature persons judge situations and people accurately. On the whole they don’t feel threatened and frightened by the unknown. They do not, like immature people, show a catastrophic need for certainty, safety, definiteness and order.
  2. Acceptance of self, others, nature. They are at home with nature and with human nature. They accept bodily needs and natural processes without disgust or shame, but also appreciate the “higher” qualities that help make up human nature.
  3. Spontaneity. Mature persons can appreciate art, good times, and zestful living. The mature person is not weighed down by conventionality but can capture peak experiences’ of living easily.
  4. Problem centering. Mature persons work effectively and with persistence at objective tasks. They can lose themselves in authentic problems without being preoccupied with themselves.
  5. Detachment. Self-actualizing people have a need for privacy and for self-sufficiency. Their friendships and their attachments to family are not of the clinging, intrusive, and possessive variety.
  6. Independence of culture and environment. Closely related is the ability to take or to leave idols of the market place. Neither flattery nor criticism disturbs their fundamental course of development.
  7. Continued freshness of appreciation. Here again we encounter an aspect of spontaneity, and responsiveness to new experience. Mature persons are open to learning new things, to looking at the world around them with new eyes.
  8. Limitless horizons. Mature people will be concerned with the ultimate nature of reality. This feature is characterised as “mystical” or “oceanic”. It’s the religious factor in maturity. In the religion of the weak the personality figure that dominates is the ‘dependent child’; the main motivation is fear. In mature people the ‘spontaneous child’, inspired by wonder, awe and joy plays a bigger role.
  9. 9. Social feeling. They have a basic feeling of “identification, sympathy, and affection” in spite of occasional anger or impatience. Compassion for one’s fellow mortals seems to be an hallmark of maturity.
  10. Deep but selective social relationships. Complementing the attribute of “detachment” we find self-actualizing people capable of unusually close personal attachments, with their own egos more or less obliterated. The circle of close attachments may be small, but even surface relationships outside this orbit are handled smoothly and with little friction.
  11. Democratic character structure. Mature people generally feel respect for and show respect to any human being just because he or she is a human individual. Many studies have shown that ethnic and religious tolerance is associated with other features of maturity.
  12. Ethical certainty. Mature people are sure about the difference between right and wrong in daily living. Expressed differently, they do not confuse means with ends and hold firmly to the pursuing of ends felt by themselves to be right.
  13. Unhostile(sic) sense of humor. Punning, joking, and hostile wit are found less often than thoughtful philosophical humor which elicits a smile more usually than a laugh, which is intrinsic to the situation rather than added to it, which is spontaneous rather than planned, and which very often can never be repeated.
  14. Creativeness. This has rightly been called a summary characteristic which is an unfailing attribute of mature people. Without exception, their style of living has a certain strength and individuality that puts an impress upon whatever they do, be it writing, composing, shoemaking, or housework.

This is a description drawn up by secular psychologists. In a strange way, I find it also a very good description of Jesus’ own character. If we compare the way Jesus thought and acted and related to people, with the behaviour of the Jewish authorities at the time, we see how he emerges as a truly mature and autonomous person. As a human being Jesus became what he was by the decisions he took. He crowned his own life on earth by the most difficult and the most beautiful decision of all: by laying down his life for us. “No one takes my life away from me. I give it up of my own free will. I have the right to give it up and I have the right to take it back” (Jn 10,18). “The greatest love a person can have for his friends is to give his life for them” (Jn 15,13). Is this not the autonomy we should foster in ourselves and in people entrusted to us? Allowing others to grow at our expense, does mean a kind of dying for us; but it is the kind that brings new life.

Books consulted for this section:

A.H. MASLOW, Motivation and Personality, Harper, New York 1954.

M. JAHODA, Current Concepts of Positive Mental Health, Basic Books, New York 1958.

G.W. ALLPORT, Pattern and Growth in Personality, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, London 1963.