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The Apostolate as Spiritual Formation

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

When we say apostolate we mean dedication to winning souls for Christ. The word itself means being sent for the purpose of bringing souls to Christ if they are not united with Him already or closer to Christ if they are already in His friendship.

Internal Apostolate

When we speak of apostolate in the religious life, we must distinguish between what I call internal and external apostolate. By internal apostolate I mean the apostolate of supernatural living where my life of prayer and my practice of virtue even though deeply interior I believe in apostolically effective. Every prayer that I offer, every pain that I patiently endure, every act of sacrifice of love that I make, I believe on faith is apostolically useful. We are not specifically here talking about the internal form of the apostolate as spiritual formation, although I think it bears a little bit of emphasis especially during the years of formation where there is not that much opportunity for the external apostolate. That a religious should not feel that he or she is not engaging in the apostolate because they are not out using their muscles. Prayer can be apostolic; sacrifice can be apostolic; lying in bed weakened, paralyzed can be apostolic. Young people, still strong of body, and vigorous of muscle should be told this; that your apostolate is not only moving about. You can be deeply apostolic down deep inside of your soul.

Remember St. Benedict's explanation of the spiritual life? St. Benedict distinguished the active life not only as the apostolic. The active life is distinguished from the contemplative. The active in Benedict's formation is the internal struggle with the world, the flesh and the devil. This is the active life. Then the Apostolate. Now the Contemplative is to be balanced with it. Then on the contemplative there is the personal contemplative life, but especially the communal which is especially the liturgy. Meditation and all the rest that has to do with personal contemplative prayer you might almost say this is mainly prayer. So we have really shifted gears and have quite changed the meaning of words. This is still to this day the Church's official acceptation. The active life is not to be distinguished as opposite to the apostolic. In other words, the active life may be the apostolate but the active life is first struggle with the World, Flesh and Devil.

The main single reason for the crises in religious communities is lack of prayer. In other words, the apostolate has been distinguished from the contemplative that the one has become a substitute for the other. Yet you cannot separate them. It is good theological language to speak of prayer as the soul of the spiritual life, because it is.

It should be made clear to those whom we train, that there is an apostolate even in the most interior forms of living in the religious community because there, nothing that we ever do that is pleasing to God which does not have a profound influence on souls.

External Apostolate

Now the external. When we speak of the external apostolate in the years of formation we should distinguish between that which is done within the community, that which is done outside the community. Here too, the young religious should be told that you are engaging in the apostolate not only when you work with people outside the community; the principal object of our apostolic zeal should be our own fellow religious. The way I behave, what I say, the way I dress, my observance of failure to observe religious rules and regulations have a deep apostolic influence on my fellow religious. It is remarkable how zealous some people can be with people outside and don't even give a thought to the fact that their fellow religious have the primary claim on their zeal. When members don't receive good example form their fellow religious it is hard because not only am I to edify people outside the community but the first person I should inspire and assist is my own fellow religious. Religious are on duty (to give a good example) all day. This should be given much attention because unless religious are trained to recognize the influence and the impact they make on others right inside their family circle they can be on their better or best behavior but it is going to be put on to be able to talk the things of God to outsiders … I better train to talk all the things of God with the insiders. However, the principle focus is not only the apostolate within the community except to stress it, because rather on outside the community that is on person who are not members of our own institute.

A basic principle should be made clear. Having made the distinction we've already made what is the precise relationship of the apostolate and personal sanctity? Personal sanctity cannot be separated from the apostolate. Some will speculate and say that personal sanctity is a means to an end. The end being affective work for souls. That is true, but it works the other way too. Consequently, the apostolate and personal sanctity are interrelated as cause and effect or as means and end. Not everyone has this relationship clear. Let's take each one separately.

The relationship as personal sanctity being a means, and the apostolate being the end; or if you wish personal sanctity being the cause and the apostolate being the effect.

From the Gospels on, in fact, from Christ on we know that a person will be only as effective in bringing souls to God as that person is him or herself united with God. The greatest apostolate of all times was Jesus Christ where His humanity was hypostatically united with the Divinity. On the level of grace, in talking about meriting grace for others we merit, other things being equal, only as much grace as we have the state of grace in our own souls. This is so true that theologically speaking we cannot merit unless we are first in the state of grace. We cannot even begin to merit unless we are in the state of grace. Merit begins with that. That's why we even say as strange as the statement may sound that Christ Himself had in the state of sanctifying grace. This is in His human nature. His human soul had to be infused with sanctifying grace in order to make it possible for Him to merit our redemption. That being said of there is no merit without the state of grace the more sanctifying grace the more meritorious every act becomes. Memorize that. The single principal, most important cause of merit or source of merit for His grace for others is my own possession of sanctifying grace. That is why the Mother of Christ is called the mediatrix of graces. Moreover, not only is my state of grace a condition and a measure … both; condition because without it I can merit no grace for myself or others, and measure because the more grace I have within me the more I can obtain for myself and others. But as I work with God's grace to become more holy God will make me effective, more effective. I will be able to win souls; I will be able to teach souls. The deeper the faith of the teacher the more the students learn. Nobody can cheat here, because God determines how much those whom I try to teach on whatever level of pedagogy I am involved in.

Moreover, St. Ignatius compares the supernatural life here, in terms of the apostolate with the natural life. He says we are intended by God to reproduce ourselves. Those who have the vocation, and most people have this vocation to reproduce themselves, they are to reproduce themselves physically. The command given to our first parents … increase and multiply … is a command which not everyone has to observe. But those who are married are obliged to increase and multiply. That's the main reason why contraception is a sin because already in Genesis God commanded our first parents to increase and multiply. That's why He made two genders. But, while only the married are bound by the duty, and it is a command to increase and multiply and never to interfere with the life process, everyone is obliged to reproduce themselves supernaturally. This is our first duty in charity. In God's mysterious providence, which we would never had guessed, except for the Incarnation, one of the conditions that God sets down for the most effective supernatural reproduction is the sacrifice of physical marriage and physical reproduction. We cannot doubt it because that’s what Christ did, that’s what Mary did. The Queen of apostles was a physical virgin. Not only is that true, as a fundamental law of supernatural reproduction but God uses the same kind of person when he wants to reproduce that type of individual. Ignatius explains that in the natural order down to the lowest biological species—we, in fact identify a species by its capacity for reproduction. A zebra reproduces a zebra; a horse reproduces a horse; cats reproduce a cat. Like reproduces like. God will not make anyone any more holy through us than we are first holy ourselves. He may use others but He won’t use me. That is frightening isn’t it? But in God’s providence we are the condition for other people’s sanctification. He may work a miracle, but it would have to be a miracle.

All spiritual masters say “we shall be only as effective in working for others as we ourselves are closely united with God.” Consequently those in formation from their earliest years should be impressed with the fact that they are even though they are concentrating on their own spiritual life, already engaged in the apostolate. Why is this true? Because we can distinguish two kinds of apostolate, the apostolate of holiness and the apostolate of service.

Apostolate of Holiness

The apostolate of holiness which goes back to the earliest monastic tradition means that I cooperate with God in the salvation and sanctification of souls by my own practice of virtue. Our Lady never preached a sermon. You just can’t imagine her competing with her son. Yet she is Queen of apostles. The apostolate of holiness is practiced through the liturgy and this again goes back to the Church’s earliest tradition. There wouldn’t be any intelligible sense in which men and women as they had from the second century on, had separated themselves from the world lived often in complete isolation from the outside world. Yet as Christ tells us we are to exercise charity in favor of our neighbor, except that by my prayer both personal and especially liturgical I am of immense benefit to souls by obtaining grace for others, than which there is no more important apostolate.

Again the apostolate of holiness is practiced by witness, and we witness mainly by what we are. Secondly, give witness by what we do, and thirdly by what we say. I am afraid that for many people the apostolate has been almost identified with talking. The most influential people in my life have said the least. You engage in the apostolate first and mainly in terms of this apostolate of holiness by who and what you are, then by the way you behave and then thirdly and only thirdly by what you say. Whether by what we speak or by what we write and anytime I get any big ideas about how much good my speaking or writing does I remind myself that neither Christ or Mary have left us anything in writing. Mary has only a few scattered phrases in the Gospels and Joseph nothing. The patron of the Universal Church has left us nothing. . . not only in writing but not even in speech.

Apostolate of Service

There is also the apostolate of service. You might say holiness is also a form of service. But we distinguish. Holiness is a conscious going out to meet other people’s needs. Concretely it is covered by the traditional spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Where mercy is defined as love meeting people’s needs. A word of distinction and clarification of those two forms of the apostolate of service. Between the two there is no question which is the more important. But not only are the spiritual works of mercy more important but they must always be the object of event he most down to earth corporal works of mercy. For a religious the apostolate in terms of the corporal works of mercy never stop with the corpus, the body. We are not social workers. Whatever we do for the body must always go beyond the body or through the body to the soul. Christ’s practice of mercy toward the bodily needs in His day was as so many passages in the Gospel indicate a means to an end. All I know is that so many communities engaged in the corporal works of mercy overlook sometimes to the point of ignoring their main purpose of existence which is to reach the soul. If there is one area religious should be prepared to cope with is the lack of freedom that as religious we have to engage in such corporal works of mercy as will indeed meet the spiritual need of those whose favor we labor so that we are never limited or constrained in making sure that whatever care we have for those whom we serve in body will be only a means to help them in soul.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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