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Public Witness and Religious Identity

The Public Witness of Religious Life

Rev. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The new Code of Canon Law could not be more clear. It declares that, “The public witness to be rendered by religious to Christ and the Church entails a separation from the world proper to the character and purpose of each institute” (Canon 607, §3).

There are seven basic elements in this canon and each deserves careful explanation. On the faithful living out of these elements depends the future well-being and even survival of religious life in countries like the United States.


Who are religious? They are persons who have voluntarily consecrated themselves by the public vows of chastity, poverty and obedience and who live community life. They manifest in the Church the “marvelous marriage established by God as a sign of the world to come” (Canon 607, §1).

It is not unimportant to know that we are here speaking of religious, and precisely not of any other persons who may also be living a consecrated life.


Religious, we are told, are to give witness. It was Christ who first told the Apostles on Ascension Thursday that they were to be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and even to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). The inspired word used by Christ for “witnesses” was martyroi, or “martyrs.” Religious are to be nothing less than martyrs. They are not only to testify to what they believe, but testify under duress and in spite of opposition. Religious life on these premises is to be a living martyrdom. The world must see that religious pay, and pay dearly, for their faith convictions; otherwise the sign-function of their witness will not have been achieved,


At first glance it might not seem necessary to emphasize that religious are to give public witness. What other kind of witness is there, we could ask, except one that is public? In fact, if it is not public, it is not even witness.

But there is more here than meets the eye. The witness of religious is to be public three times over:

  • It is public because the testimony they give is out in the open, for everyone to hear and see. In this sense, every true follower of Christ is to be His witness so that others may see the good works which faith inspires and give glory to God whose grace alone makes the practice of Christian virtue possible.

  • It is public because religious are to give overt testimony of their consecrated profession. Indeed this is the distinctive feature of the apostolate of a religious, as compared with a secular institute. As the Church’s history makes clear, the primary apostolate of religious is not so much in what they do but in who they are, that is, persons whose “whole existence” is seen as a “continuous worship of God in charity” (Canon 607, §1). That is why the habit is an essential element of religious life. Either their garb gives constant public evidence of their dedicated state of life, or religious are untrue to their principal apostolic responsibility.

  • Finally the witness of religious is public because they are to testify not only to their personal consecration, but to the consecration of their community. This is why the habit of religious is to be a sign of dual consecration: once of themselves as individuals, and once again as members of a dedicated society. A uniform habit, therefore, distinctive for each community and the same for all its members is essential if religious are to give public witness to their own and their community’s collective dedication to Jesus Christ.

To Christ

Religious are first of all to witness to Christ, as He made it plain to His Apostles. Convinced on faith that Jesus is the Son of God in human form; certain that the One in whom they believe deserves their total loyalty; knowing that Christ is one with the Father; that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life; loving Him therefore with all their hearts and giving up everything the world calls precious— it is no wonder that, because of what they have heard in the depths of their souls and seen with their own eyes, enlightened by faith, religious can say to others “we are giving our testimony, telling you of eternal life which was with the Father and has been made visible to us” (I Jn 1:1-2).

To The Church

It is not only Christ to whom authentic religious are witnesses. It is also to the Church, of which Christ is the Mystical Head. This bears all the emphasis possible in our day. True religious know that Christ cannot be divided. In testifying to the power that Christ gives those who love Him, they witness to the fact that all grace comes of course from Christ, but through His Church. No one can have God for his Father who does not have, and obey, the Church, as his Mother. By their lives of humble submission to the hierarchical Church, of which Peter is the visible head, religious witness to that critical truth expressed by the Savior when He told the Apostles and their successors, “Anyone who welcomes you, welcomes me” (Mt. 10:40).

Separation From The World

The witness of religious is a paradox. They testify to Christ’s own great love for the world, for which He died, and yet, like Him, they are to show themselves “not of this world” (Jn. 18:36). Physical separation to form a separate community is only part of their “otherworldliness.” Their manner of dress, their distinctive daily order, their observance of cloister, their own horarium of liturgical and private prayer, their routine of life that is consciously different not only from the laity but from other consecrated persons—all of this is part of their distinctive following of Christ. When He told His disciples to leave all things to follow Him, He gave some of them the grace to do this literally. Religious today are heirs of this grace, in order to “consummate the full gift of themselves as a sacrifice offered to God” (Canon 607, §1).

According To Each Institute

There is great wisdom in the Church’s telling religious that their separation from the world should be “proper to the character and purpose of each institute.” It is precisely here that one institute differs so much from another. Each community has its own special charisma and its corresponding apostolate. The key to giving witness is to be true to the spirit of the institute to which a religious belongs and remain faithful to its sound traditions. No doubt every religious family, if it is authentic, requires a degree of separation from the world. But the amount of this separation and especially what form it will take, can differ immensely. These differences are part of God’s providence and a condition for His blessings on the witness that religious give to Christ and His Church.

Religious Life: What the Church Teaches - A Study of Five Aspects
Institute on Religious Life © 1985, pp. 27-30

Copyright © 1999 by Inter Mirifica

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