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Religious Life Today

Part 1 of 4

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

March 25, 1977

IMPRIMATUR: Umberto Cardinal Medeiros, Archbishop of Boston



Part 1:

    The Crisis in Religious Life -- A Crisis of Faith in the Church’s Teaching Authority

    Religious in Tomorrow’s World

    Religious Poverty and the Christian Faith

    Consecrated Chastity — A Mystery of Faith

    The Witness of Chastity

Part 2:

    The Meaning of Religious Obedience

    Selectivity, Formation, Structure, and Service

    The Value of Silence in the Religious Life

Part 3:

    The Divine Office as the Church’s Prayer of Praise and Intercession

    The Divine Office as a Form of Sacrifice

    The Divine Office as Liturgy

Part 4:

    Authenticity in the Religious Life

    Christ our Hope


The title of the present volume, Religious Life Today, was not chosen at random. It is a conscious profession of faith in two articles of Catholic Christianity: that in every age there are those who respond to Christ’s invitation to “follow me” in the pursuit of sanctity, and that among those who thus respond are persons who live what the Church calls the religious life.

Needless to say, everything depends on how we define the religious life. Some would so redefine it that what used to be called religious life is no longer considered valid or feasible today. That is not the underlying theme of this book. In my judgment, religious life is what the Catholic Church, speaking through her teaching authority, and most solemnly through the Second Vatican Council, tells the faithful it is supposed to be. It is what the Church, speaking through the Holy Father, and the Sacred Congregation for Religious and for Secular Institutes, declares it should be.

The following pages are a modest effort to capsulize these directives of the Catholic hierarchy and the Holy See. In this sense, religious life today is what Christ wants it to be; as He first lived this life in first century Palestine and as those who love Him are trying to live His life in the twentieth century.

Part 1

The Crisis in Religious Life

A Crisis of Faith in the Church’s Teaching Authority

Anyone who speaks on the religious life nowadays is on the spot. People will listen only long enough to find out what stand he takes. Is he progressive or reactionary? If they decide he is primarily concerned about preserving what are considered by him essentials of the religious life---and the listeners are progressive, they ‘turn him off.’ He is branded a reactionary and they look to someone else.

Or take the opposite case. If they hear him talk about change and adaptation, and the need for adjustment to modern times---and they are reactionary, he has lost them. He makes no more impression on them than if he were speaking Mandarin Chinese.

My purpose in this conference is to get just one idea across--a crucial one on which everything else depends: to show that religious life today is going through the most serious crisis in its history.

Why call it a crisis? Because the situation is critical in the elementary sense of that term:

It calls for clear judgment and evaluation. It demands strong decision and firm resolution. It implies a transition point of forthcoming change. It finally suggests a risk for everyone involved with the eventual outcome precarious and known only to God.

What is the Crisis?

When people talk about crisis, they generally mean some sort of turning point in the life of a person, period or institution which may go either way -- in sickness, either recovery or death; in business, either prosperity or liquidation.

Something like this obtains in religious life, as all the evidence seems to indicate.

Never in anyone’s memory have religious communities done more self-examination than in the past few years. Never have there been more drastic revisions in customs and regulations. Never have more committees met or more conferences been held or more monographs been written than today, on the religious life.

On the statistical side, most communities have more defections after last vows and more shortage of entries and more problem areas than ever before.

Yet all of this, as impressive as it seems, is only external. What shall I say about the interior struggles and trials, the hopes, and frustrations in thousands of dedicated souls--in every form of community life and every level age and social maturity? “Where are we going? What are we doing? How are we ever to recover the balance and perspective that we so desperately need?”

Nothing would be simpler than to lapse into an academic dissertation on the beauties of the religious state, start analyzing the evangelical counsels, and leave the impression that things are no different now than they were ten or even five years ago. It would be easy to suggest that all we need is a few more books or a few more meetings and things will get back to normal again.

I do not think this is so. There is more work to be done than meets the eye and deeper issues to be solved than decide on the exact shade of a religious habit or the number of dollars a sister may carry in her purse!

The crisis in religious life is actually a crisis in modern, certainly in Western, society. And the sooner we catch on and admit that this is so, the better for religious life and, indeed, for Christianity.

It would be passing strange, if it were possible, for the world at large to be going through a profound revolution and yet have men and women religious who are a part of this world remain unaffected. One might as well imagine a sailboat being quietly unmoved on a stormy sea as suppose that that part of humanity, called religious, could not be involved in the revolutionary changes going on in human society.

There are two ways of looking at these changes and it makes a big difference which viewpoint we take. More accurately, the two viewpoints are not mutually exclusive but should be complementary. Taken separately and exclusively they give a distorted vision of the modern world. Put together and properly balanced they offer an accurate picture of reality and afford a sound basis for making valid judgments, whether about the religious life or any other important phase of human society.

From one viewpoint the world has changed immensely for the better. Progress in knowledge has been phenomenal. We know more about more things on the earth, under the earth, and above the earth than we have every dreamed of---I don’t say a hundred years ago, but since the middle of the present century.

The knowledge explosion is not only taking place in physical sciences. It touches every sphere of intelligibility. The human intellect is broadening its dominion over time: over the past, by means of historical knowledge; over the future by the art of projecting and planning. Social scientists can predict, for example, to within a few degrees the percentage of people in certain professions, of crimes in a certain locality, of accidents in a certain industry, and believe it or not, of the sales potential of every color in a shipment of a thousand women’s dresses to a department store!

Advances in biology, psychology and medicine not only brings hopes of improved self-knowledge; combined with developments in technology they are helping leaders of society exert great influence on the lives of others--of individuals and of whole nations.

With development in knowledge has come improvement in human living conditions: more and better food for more people, better health, and the highest longevity rates in recorded history.

Life expectancy in America for men rose each decade since 1900 from 48 to 67 and for women from 44 to 75. Thanks to the advances of science some 25 years have been added to the life of each of the 200 million Americans alive today to give and aggregate of five billion additional life-years since the turn of the century. If this is not progress, then words have lost their meaning.

Part of this growth in knowledge was growth in the communication of this knowledge--rapidly, widely, colorfully, and persuasively. When St. Peter preached his first homily on Pentecost Sunday, a mere few thousand could hear him; and then, we are told, the communication had to be helped miraculously. When Pope Paul VI addressed the United Nations, an estimated 100 million heard him and understood what he was saying.

With increased knowledge and its ready, widespread communication has come a drastic change in the exercise of human emotions and desires which depend on knowledge as the body depends on food. As people know more, they want more; and as they want more, what used to be luxurious or superfluous just a short time ago becomes for many people sheer necessity. It makes little difference that these newly acquired ‘needs’ are mainly psychological. Of course they are. But most human needs are psychological. This is precisely the difference between animals and persons. The basic physical needs are all that an animal wants. But a person’s desires reach far beyond what he physically needs. After all, his heart is made for infinity.

Part of this increase in human desires is an increase in the desire for more knowledge. People want to know---just plain know---more than they have ever hungered for before. You name it and there are recesses of man’s spirit that crave to understand it. Every new law of physics or chemistry opens a Pandora’s Box of a thousand questions that demand answers. Every new insight into the human psyche or the operations of society is an incentive to learn more and still more; the mind is never satisfied. The billions of dollars spent in atomic research and in successful flights to the moon are only symbolic of this quest for knowledge that has become, in my opinion, the most powerful drive in the human race today.

Books have been written, just summarizing the first and most obvious estimate of the revolutionary changes going on in the modern world. They spell progress, and they mean for millions of Americans increased wealth, greater access to people and all the joys of interpersonal relationships and a heightened sense of freedom born of education and constantly expanding horizons in every kind of knowledge.

But here is another aspect to these changes that is just as real as progress. Here is where the crisis enters in.

Revolutionary progress in every phase of human existence has created a problem. The problem is over the reaction to all this new availability of so many, frankly desirable, experiences. Man’s genius is opening up for us fantastic opportunities for pleasure of the body and joys of the spirit. Now what?

Common sense would intimate that access to possession or prospect of enjoyment is no guarantee that possession or enjoyment would be truly good. If I am a struggling bookkeeper and my boss is a careless millionaire it is not good for me to steal some of his money no matter how available it may be. Or although another man’s wife is willing it would be bad for me to encourage these feelings no matter how pleasant her embraces might be.

Objectively everything that God has created is good and everything we call progress can be really progressive, provided it is used in the right way.

The problem is to know that right way. Put in more prosaic terms: to know what experiences that modern life is offering in such abundance are good and not only pleasant and available; when they should be sought; how I should enjoy them; for how long; under what circumstances; where; in whose company; and above all, why I should seek them out or at least take complete satisfaction in them when they come my way.

It is of small value to keep repeating that technology and the social sciences are making the world day by day a better and better place to live in. All of this is progress on only one condition, that we also solve the problem, each one for himself, of when, where, how and why these marvelous opportunities are to be rightly used to good advantage. They can also be used for self-destruction.

The same nuclear power that promises to furnish man with unlimited energy for peaceful production can also become a mushroom cloud that leaves behind it a cemetery of unburied dead.

This, as I see it, is the crisis that faces today’s society, whether secular or sacred, whether in the Church, among the laity, or in the religious life. What is the crisis? It is the pressing series of questions, the problem, if you will, that modern progress demands that we answer: when, where, how and why should we use the material and cultural blessings that the cumulative genius of modern man is offering in such profusion?

Different Answers

As we get closer to the hub of the issue, we see immediately that different answers are offered for these questions. Let us be sure of one thing, however; no one in his right mind would say that it makes no difference whether we answer them, or how they are answered.

There are those and their number is legion, who claim we are to find such answers as we can from ourselves, individually and collectively. The same intellectual powers that produced atomic fission and television are able to know how they are to be used. To say anything less would be to raise the question that they consider should never be asked: Is there any limit to man’s capacity -- not alone but working with others -- to resolve the problems of human existence?

I call this latter-day Pelagianism. It has advocates in every branch of society, and its spokesmen are intelligent, persuasive, and convincing.

Others think differently. They are quick to admit to all the developments of science and culture that characterize the modern world. But they insist that without God and His revelation, without Christ and His Church, progress can turn into pathos because men are not able, without divine light and direction, to use the potentially good things that, under God’s Providence, have become so prominent a part of today’s history.

The Christian believer maintains that progress is not only a problem, but an insoluble mystery, that may turn into tragedy unless God helps us understand what He wants us to do with the gifts He is lavishing on His people nowadays.

To better focus the contrast between these two philosophies of life let me quote from two sources: John Dewey, the dean of American rationalism; and the Second Vatican Council.

First the dean of American philosophers, for whom religion is not the acceptance of a supramundane deity but man’s own pursuit of his own ideals and the use of his own independent energies:

“Men have never fully used the powers they possess to advance the good in life because they have waited upon some power external to themselves and to nature to do the work they are responsible for doing. Dependence upon an external power is the counterpart of human endeavor.
“Nor is emphasis on exercising our own powers an egotistical or sentimentally optimistic course. It is not the first, as it does not isolate men, either individually or collectively, from nature. It is not the second, because it makes no assumption beyond that of the need and responsibility for human endeavor… It involves no expectation of a millennium of good.”

Now another view from the Vatican Council:

“Through his labors and his native endowments man has ceaselessly striven to better his life. Today, however, especially with the help of science and technology he has extended his mastery over nearly the whole of nature and continues to do so…
“In the face of these immense efforts which already preoccupy the whole human race, men agitate numerous questions among themselves. How should all these things be used? To the achievement of what goal are the strivings of individuals and societies heading?
“The Church guards the heritage of God’s word and draws from it moral and religious principles, without always having at hand the solution to particular problems. As such, she desires to add the light of revealed truth to mankind’s store of experience, so that the path which humanity has taken in recent times will not be a dark one.”

This claim of Christianity is not a lazy excuse for letting the Church do our thinking for us. When specific questions are raised and particular problems are faced we still have to use our own minds and labor mightily through hours of dreary planning and cooperative reflection. But, as Christians and Catholics we believe what those who do not share this faith do not believe: that we terribly and constantly need the divine assistance promised us by Christ through His Church’s teaching authority to make sense of all the progress that surrounds us and to know how to use these gifts of God wisely.

The Crisis in Religious Life

We return to the original question we posed: Is there a crisis in religious life, and what is it?

There is a crisis; the same as confronts the whole people of God, only more acutely as persons--like religious--are more attuned to the promptings of grace and more concerned to do God’s will, not in the first century or thirty years ago, but today. The crisis is the conflict that so many Catholics, and therefore religious, are facing as they are torn between two competing philosophies of life: one that tells them the answers in today’s revolutionary world are found uniquely in themselves and in the collective experience and intelligence of their peers; and another that says: no, that is not enough, we must have the ready guidance of Christ speaking through His authorized teachers in the Church.

I am not repeating a platitude. This is no aphorism about listening to the voice of the Savior who dwells in the depths of my soul. Of course, I should hear His voice and listen to His words and no Christian here should have any doubts.

What is not aphoristic, and what many people who call themselves Christian do not go on to say, is that the voice of Christ has been speaking for centuries since the Ascension in the history of the Church’s teaching and experience, and can even now be heard in the words of a Yankee bishop or the language of an Italian Pope.

There are all sorts of pseudo-crises that can be mistaken for the real thing. Some would have it that the conflict is between the young and the old--the generation gap. Some would say the conflict is between the progressives and the conservatives--the attitude gap. Some would say it’s between the hierarchy and the people of God--the clerical gap. Some would say the conflict is between European ways and the American way of life---the culture gap. Some would say the conflict is between segregation from the world and involvement in people’s lives -- the secularity gap. Finally some would say the conflict is between freedom to be oneself and submission to a thousand regulations -- the personality gap.

All of these and many more that could be added are not trivial and we may not ignore them. But they are not the fundamental issue at stake.

The crucial and vexing question for which there should be only one answer---and we are given a hundred -- is: Did Christ mean to be taken literally when He told His apostles, “He that hears you hears me and he that despises you despises me” (Lk. 10:16)? Or again, when He said, “I am with you always, to the end of time” (Mt. 28:20)?

Religious life, as part of the Church or, for that matter, as part of human society, must share in the renewal and adaptation that are always useful and sometimes very necessary. Good will and pious intentions are not enough. If this renewal is not to become a fiasco, and what should be adjustment not end in disaster, there must be norms to follow and principles to adhere to. These norms and principles are the cumulative wisdom of the Catholic Church since the time of Christ -- as seen in the forms and practices of religious institutions approved by the Church, in the saintly men and women whom the Church has raised to the honors of the altar, in the guidelines being set down by the Church through her authorized spokesmen and, conversely, in the cautions which the Church wisely provides to help (and not hinder) the life and apostolate of religious for the future. In my estimation, the real relationship of the religious life to Rome and the whole question of collegiality are at the heart of the present turmoil and on the proper understanding of this relationship depend in large measure, the future well-being of men and women religious in the Catholic Church.

As we read through the mounting volume of the Church’s current documentation on religious life, we find it is written from a distinctive perspective. This perspective is the spiritual heritage received from Christ and lived out by the Church in her history up to the present day.

I call this the historical side of renewal in the religious life. It is that substantive element which must undergird any adjustment worthy of the name. Disloyalty here would change the renewal into a revolution, or better, into rebellion, and subvert the essence of community life according to the evangelical counsels.

This side will be treated along with a cultural appraisal for each area considered. More exactly, what are some of the changes that seem to be called for by contemporary needs? Inflexibility here would reduce the renewal to a mere juggling of incidentals, without getting to the heart of the matter.

Running as a theme in the Church’s modern appraisal of religious life is a careful distinction between adaptation and renewal for the institute and for the individual religious. Moreover, the Church’s interest centers on the individual though without neglecting the need for institutional renewal. More accurately, the focus is on the individual as the best single means for an authentic renovation of a community.

Christ Himself has assured deep satisfaction to those who follow Him faithfully: “If you keep my commandments, you will dwell in my love…. I have spoken thus to you that my joy may be in you and your joy complete… Peace is my gift to you, my own peace, such as the world cannot give” (John 14:15).

Whatever personality development means, it must mean growth in that personal sense of achievement which is objectively determined by Christ’s will for me as a religious and subjectively as experienced by those who respond to this will generously.

For some years now I have dealt intimately with religious men and women. My own experience has convinced me that religious can be happy, very happy in their vocation, and satisfied to a degree that not many in other walks of life can experience.

Yet I have also dealt with enough unhappy religious, dissatisfied with themselves and their community.

My belief is that happiness here is in direct proportion to living the religious life as God wants a particular person to live it. Failure to do so may be due to ignorance or apathy or indifference, but the net effect is the same. It produces a malaise that cannot be described, but can only be experienced or seen.

Before concluding, I want to make sure that this, at least, will be plain. Before God, whether we are in positions of authority or not, our main contribution to adaptation and renewal is what we ourselves achieve in our own personal lives. Over this, with divine graces, we have sovereign mastery.

If each religious, in his or her own life, effects the kind of renovation God expects of him, the combined result on religious life in the Church will be monumental. How do we make this divinely desired renovation? Ultimately by doing the will of Christ in our regard. But that is just the question: What is the will of Christ? The will of Christ is the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.

Of course it takes faith to take this answer simply and live it out in childlike humility. But what else is religious life if not a lifetime consecration in faith to following in the footsteps, sometimes bloody footsteps, of the first Master of the religious life, who is Jesus Christ?

Religious in Tomorrow’s World

I would like to address myself to the panoramic subject of “The Religious in Tomorrow’s World.” We might perhaps put this topic in the form of a question by asking, “What is the role of the religious in the world of tomorrow?” In asking this question, certain things are implied or taken for granted.

We assume, first of all, that the Church knows what religious life is and that we should not be groping around for an answer. Though there are quite a few individuals, as we know, who have an identity crisis in the religious life in the Constitution on the Church, the Second Vatican Council gave us the most extensive, the most incisive, and detailed development of the subject of religious life in all the nineteen centuries of the Church’s history.

We furthermore assume that religious life has a future. Those who talk or write about a post-religious life, an era which could look back over the religious life that used to be, are men and women who do not believe (even though they may call themselves Catholics) that Christ will be with his Church and, therefore, that the religious life which began in apostolic times will perdure till the end of time. The Church will always have her religious.

Even twenty-five years ago, the questions we are now asking would have been, I don’t say irrelevant, but at least less important. They would certainly not have been as crucial as they are today. On all sides, people are leaving the religious life. In many countries, but especially the United States, not a few religious houses are closing--multi-million dollar institutions, some built within the last fifteen years. Postulants and novices number the lowest in modern history. Some of the largest communities, with a total of still extant membership of a thousand or more, have no novices.

A library of books urging a complete revolutionary reversal of religious life is being published. As only a priest knows, who deals intimately with souls of religious, there is such anguish among religious---some young, some middle-aged, and some old---as would be incredible except that it is so terribly real.

The more we are told of how desperately religious life has failed to meet the needs of the times, how out of tune it is with the times regarding the world’s needs and especially the future, the more clear it becomes that the real failure has not been of principle but of practice. The principles given to us are more than adequate for the future as they have been sufficient for the glorious past. But many religious, and by now we can safely say thousands, have not been living up to these principles; and in the process, they raise doubts about the validity of the religious life they profess.

When one large American diocese in five years lost 1100 religious, it is no wonder that people are asking, “What’s wrong?” And perhaps it is no great wonder that some are saying, “What’s wrong is religious life.”

I consider the juxtaposition of failure with religious life a tragedy, and unless we face up to the fact that there has been a misrepresentation of the reason for the failure, all the talk about the role of religious in the world of tomorrow is so much meaningless breeze. For if there will be--as we are safe in predicting--a tomorrow, there won’t be enough religious to make it meaningful. My contention is: It is not religious life, but religious who have failed. And I further believe that in the degree to which we answer the why and how of their failure, we can also intelligently and intelligibly respond to the question of what awaits religious men and women in the years to come.

As I see it, religious have failed in three ways, and their prospects for the future are only as bright as their willingness to do something drastic (and it had better be drastic) about these failures. Religious have not prayed enough. They have not sacrificed enough. And they have not loved enough. It is unnecessary I think to dig into the Christian revelation that Christ has given us to prove that all of these three elements---prayer, sacrifice, and love---are at the center of the Christian faith. It is no wonder that wherever and insofar as these fail, not only religious life will fail, but Christianity as well.

Every page of the New Testament urges the necessity of praying. Christ, as we know, places Himself squarely in front of His followers, telling them: “Without me, you can do nothing,” meaning, “Whatever you ask me, you will receive,” but by a terrible implication, “If you don’t ask, you will not receive.” He declares as a universal mandate, “Pray, lest you fall into temptation.”

Christ gave us, though He did not Himself need it, the example of spending nights in prayer. So, too, regarding the sacrifice that He demanded of His followers, “Take up your cross daily and follow me,” the operative words are “your cross.” He has His; we have ours. And as by now most of us know, the heaviest cross is ourselves--and not occasionally or in times of crisis, but daily. A follower of Christ is one who carries his cross under the inspiration of Christ. “Can you drink the chalice that I have drunk?” Christ speaks, and He modifies, but He doesn’t let go of the substantive. No matter how many adjectives Christ added, it is still a yoke and a burden that He bids His followers to carry. Speaking to a people who could understand his agricultural vocabulary, He spoke of grain having to be buried and die and that it would bear fruit only, only if it first died.

And love, love is so basic to the Christian way of life that without it, we are told by the same Jesus, there is no salvation, “By this,” Christ says in one crisp sentence, “shall all men know that you are my disciples.” By implication (and this is a malediction) one who does not love is not a follower of Christ. Notice in all of these where the emphasis is placed---on the practice of the basic Christian virtues.

Some time ago, I had occasion to do some searching for books on the religious life. I went to a big store to see the latest books they had. I never expected to see what I did. After taking down the titles of forty books currently in print and recently published, all on the religious life, I decided that was about all I needed. I didn’t read all forty, but I read enough to say that, if one percent deals with the basic Christian virtues, it’s a lot. Change everything except the heart of man. All kinds of renewal, all kinds of restoration, some revolutionary change, but there was scarcely a word about what I would call the terrifying need for changing man’s response to God if religious life is to be what Christ wants it to be in the future.

There are persons nowadays, some highly placed and influential, who are telling people just the opposite. The real trouble, the only one, they say, is that too many communities are still wedded to old ways and old structures.

We are being told that, if only all these old ways were changed, if only communities would change their superiors into coordinators, revamp their organization, reshuffle their resources, everything would be all right: and religious could look forward to tomorrow’s world with peaceful equanimity. Do not misunderstand me, however. I am not saying that the times do not call for some changes and adjustments in external forms; we cannot seriously think of meeting the needs of the jet age with horse-and-buggy facilities. What I do mean, however, is that the basic need is not for more and ever more restructure of externals but for deeper and ever-deeper reformation of the interior lives of religious (and I think I know their hearts.)

I also know that talking this language these days is not popular. Be sure that I trim my vocabulary to the audience. It is so much more acceptable when you say that what’s wrong with the Church today is over-centralization, or mishandling of finances, or lack of communication between those on top and those in the middle and especially between those on top and those on the bottom, or not enough democratic process in government, or that individuals are not given enough money tospend for work in the inner city, or that the customs and rituals, the regulations and procedures in the Church are archaic and should be completely revised.

I do not deny that there is much room for improvement in all these areas. I’ve been around too much not to want improvement. And I would not want anything I say to be understood as undercutting the need for adjustment and updating of certain features of religious communities. But I also believe that all this will be wasted effort or worse, unless religious face the world of tomorrow with renewed dedication to prayer, generosity, self-sacrifice, and greater wisdom and zeal in loving others as Christ has so lavishly loved to them.

What has all of this to do with tomorrow’s world? Everything. As I foresee the world in the near future, it is characterized by certain qualities, some of which are already with us and others which are just rising above the surface. It is, first of all, a world of extraordinary achievement in science and industry. It is a world of wealth and prosperity, at least for some. It is a world of extreme organization and of top-notch efficiency.

I have been informed, for example, about how carefully the telephone company in one of the states watches its personnel. Telephone operators in the area where this person who told me lives are often monitored. What they say over the telephone is listened to and periodically recorded to make sure that telephone operators are efficient. Periodically they get a report on what they should not have said in the last working week. Each of these features will carry with it both the benefits and the liabilities that are built into achievement, affluence, and efficient organization.

The great achievements of science are a matter of record, and the future is breath-taking. Not only the moon but also other planets may well be reached---all, we hope, for the physical betterment of mankind. Knowledge of the secrets of nature will be plumbed--secrets that we only dimly suspect even exist now. It is said accurately that more substantive discoveries have been made in science since the turn of the present century than in all the previous history of mankind.

Yet, or better, because of this explosion of knowledge of nature and the world of science, tomorrow’s world will need, as yesterday’s world never did, men and women who are not mesmerized by all these achievements, who can still look at the universe, including the moon, and say with the psalmist, “It is only a passing shadow and a wisp of smoke scattered by the wind.” We’ve got to grip ourselves to keep saying, “It is just a shadow; it is only a wisp of wind.”

In other words, the greater the spectacle of man’s success in conquering space and time, the more we shall need in tomorrow’s world people --us-- who know there is more to reality than mass and weight, and higher value than speed or the taste of exotic wine. Tomorrow’s world will need, as no other period of man’s history needed, religious that see beyond all this façade and give witness to their vision by their easy and constant communication with the world of the spirit in prayer. If we pray, the world knows it; if we don’t, the world soon finds that out, too.

Again, the world of tomorrow need men and women who are not brainwashed by advertising which, as at least some of us will recall, was defined by Will Rogers as “that which makes people buy what they don’t want with money they don’t have.” Yet, we know our economy is built on creating needs where, objectively, there are none. The consequence, of course, has been that we are the most prosperous nation in the annals of mankind. We have the longest life span, the shortest working hours, the most time for leisure and recreation. We buy more perfume and deodorant; we eat more food than any other nation on the globe. We are the best fed, the best clothed, the most sweet-smelling civilization in history. As though that were not enough, we have taken the extreme measure of preventing the conception of more people, and permitting the murder of unborn babes, so as to have more for ourselves. (One of the advantages of reading languages other than English is that you read what others think of us---frankly, they don’t think much of us!)

Given this preoccupation with material possessions and what I call, “cultural greed,” tomorrow’s world will desperately need religious whose lives of sacrifice will testify to the passing unimportance and emptiness of all this. We prove its unimportance by our sacrifice.

Here again, we can fool nobody, least of all ourselves. We have said that if we pray, the world knows it, and if we don’t it also knows it; the same is true of sacrifice. All the piety and liturgical splendor of the day on which we pronounced our vows will haunt us like a mad dream unless we live lives of sacrificial poverty, chastity, and obedience.

The world, then, will need religious whose poverty will testify to the wealth of God’s grace and the riches of those who have left all things to follow Christ. You can tell a rich person when you see one. We are bidden to give witness to the riches of those who sacrifice material possessions.

Our chastity will testify to the joys-- real, deep, and (let’s use the other word) pleasure, too, that are open to those who communicate with God and who generously serve their neighbor in living a truly celibate life. The only reason, so we told ourselves, we undertake a life of celibacy is in order to practice a more perfect life of charity.

And our religious obedience will testify to the freedom that comes to everyone who submits his will to another for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.

Those who vow poverty testify to riches; those who vow chastity testify to joy; those who vow obedience testify to freedom. But we’d better experience it; vowing it is not enough.

Finally, society has never been more organized. A book like Whyte’s The Organization of Man could not be published except in our era, which is more structured and more efficiently planned than anything ever known, particularly in the United States. Words like bureaucracy, efficiency, urbanization, automation, collectivity, federation, and conglomeration---all of these are related to organization, always in order to be more productive, more efficient.

Yet, with all of this organization and efficiency--in fact, because of it--our time-clock- civilization is becoming daily more impersonal, more unsympathetic, more unfeeling than that of any other nation in history. We are becoming a society of strangers; and the more you deal with this organized society, the more convinced you become that it is true. Millions of people walk around wearing masks.

Consequently, whatever else tomorrow’s world will be, if it’s going to be a societal world--one in which there is organization--it will have to be a world (and, please God, we will help to make it so) in which there will be the continued witness of men and women who form societies not bound together by the production chart or the time clock or the efficiency experts or even such things as geographic limits; rather societies which are called communities because they are communities. A community by definition means a society of people who not only live together, but are together. Although they have distinct individualities because they are persons, the society itself is a person and has a spirit all its own.

In other words, the world of tomorrow will need the witness of societies which are religious communities bound together not from the outside, but from the inside, not juxtaposed but truly united in the bonds of love. As the world of tomorrow grows physically smaller--and it will, through easy erasing of space and time--it will need above all the evidence of how human beings can be joined together, not because they can reach each other easily or hear about one another quickly, not because they are one geographically or physically, but because in the deepest reaches of their spirit, they share the same faith, have the same hope, and above all, practice the same love-- love for the same Christ whom they not only love together but possess together.

All the marvels of science now make it so easy for us to learn quickly about what’s happening throughout the world. We reach others in a matter of minutes, when it took days before, or in a few hours when it took months before. This easy physical proximity cries out to heaven, or better, it asks us to teach the world what it needs: how to be one in spirit. Otherwise it risks destroying itself. When two people, as married couples tell me, are not in love, the closer they are to each other physically, the more painful is their cohabitation. They want nothing more than to be far, far apart.

What faces the world of tomorrow is a very simple but terrible dilemma. It can either destroy itself through world conflict or unite itself through the bonds of love. We especially have been chosen by God to teach our organized world how to live together, because we have taught the world how to love together in community.

Religious Poverty and the Christian Faith

There are some aspects of the religious life that are less often treated in public discourse and written books. The reason may be that some aspects of authentic religious living are less popular, or less acceptable, or more alien to contemporary cultures in countries like America. Whatever the reason, it is simply a fact that you can almost predict nine out of ten titles of articles or books on contemporary religious life. The titles bear a remarkable, though not surprising, relevance (as the saying goes) to modern life.

The subject of poverty is not one of those nine out of ten. It is as though the only poverty about which religious nowadays are supposed to be concerned is someone else’s poverty, but not their own.

Consequently, it is not only timely but will be useful to go back in spirit to the foundations of religious life, which are the data of Christian revelation. We shall look at a number of things that faith tells us God has revealed about poverty. And in the process we shall be not a little enlightened about what poverty still means for religious, and what the Christ who called us to the religious state expects us to be or become, with the help of His grace.

By way of prelude, let me suggest that we meditate on these dimensions of our topic, each in the form of a question:

  • What are the different kinds of poverty known to unaided human reason?

  • What are the kinds of poverty known to us by Christian faith?

  • What are the implications of our religious poverty in the light of our Christian beliefs?

Kinds of Poverty Known to Reason

There is some value in looking, however briefly, at the forms of poverty that human reason, apart from faith, can recognize. Why should this reflection be useful? It is useful because otherwise we are liable to be looking in the wrong place to understand what religious poverty is all about. Its meaning and sublimity are not accessible to reason alone. They are knowable only by faith.

As reason looks at poverty, it can be simply defined. Poverty as the human mind conceives it is the lack of material possessions. By contrast, wealth is the having of material possessions, in greater or lesser abundance; whereas poverty is just the opposite.

Immediately we see that such lack (or not having) of material goods, whether money or property or their equivalent, may be the result of sheer necessity. A person for example is born into a poor family; or he may have had wealth but lost it through a variety of circumstances. In any case, the first kind of poverty known to reason because it is so well known to human experience is the poverty of necessity.

This kind of poverty is, in itself, morally indifferent. There is nothing either morally good or bad about being necessarily poor. It is the lot in life of hundreds of millions throughout the world. No doubt the poverty of many is the result of injustice on the part of others. But the fact of poverty is a fact of life and, as the Savior told us prophetically: the poor--that is, the necessarily poor--we shall always have with us.

We are to do all we can to relieve their distress and are to be zealous to promote social justice in order to give everyone the opportunity to participate in this world’s goods. But we are not to look upon poverty, as poverty, as in itself a moral evil. In other words, it is not a sin to be poor.

But reason goes beyond recognizing the poverty of necessity. It also recognizes a poverty of choice. What does this mean?

It means that, even apart from revelation, and already by the light of natural reason, man sees in himself the obligation of justice. He sees by the light of his native conscience that what other people have, which may be considerable, is to be respected. He knows through the natural law that men would fall into chaos, and society would be impossible if we did not keep our hands off of what belongs to other people.

Not only does reason tell us we are to keep our hands off what belongs to others, but we must even keep our hearts off the possessions of our neighbors. The inner monitor of our mind, built into our human nature by the Creator, forbids avarice, no less than stealing.

At first sight this may seem a big strange. Why? Because we are so used to recalling the two precepts of the Decalogue, namely:

“You shall not steal”
“You shall not covet”

…that we are likely to forget that what Yahweh did on Mt. Sinai was not to give man precisely a new revelation on the subject, but merely (though importantly) to re-enforce by faith what man’s reason even without faith could (if it would) recognize to be true: that God deals differently with different people. To some He gives ten talents (call this wealth). To others He gives one talent (call this poverty). Yet the poor may not, unless he is in dire necessity, take what belongs to his neighbor, nor may he even wish to expropriate what does not belong to him.

In either case, then, the poverty he is bidden to practice is the poverty of precept. God prescribes by reason and confirms by Mosaic revelation that we are to choose to be satisfied with what we have, although it is less than someone else has. And the only avenue open on moral grounds (always apart from dire necessity) is to earn what I want beyond what I have. I may not steal, either by hand or by heart. I am bidden by the infinite God to practice the precept of poverty of choice; here the choice of not depriving another person of what rightly belongs to him, no matter how eager I may be to get what is not mine.

Kinds of Poverty Known by Faith

So far, then, we have seen that there are two kinds of poverty known to unaided human reason: the poverty of necessity and the poverty of choice, where the first is a condition that is now beyond my control, and the second is a command of the natural law, strengthened by the commandments of the Decalogue.

We now enter the realm of Christian revelation, which is God speaking to us through Christ and the Spirit of Christ which He sent; or from our viewpoint, the realm of the Christian faith, which is our response to God speaking. He speaks--this is revelation. We listen--this is faith.

As we look into the New Testament revelation on poverty, we first remind ourselves that Christ did not come to destroy the law or the prophets; therefore, all that the Old Testament teaches about the poverty of precept, which the poverty of choice tells us, is not to steal and not to covet--remains. Not a jot or a tittle is changed.

But Christ went beyond what the Old Testament (confirming human reason) had taught. He developed a new form of the poverty of sharing, beyond what the Jews of the Mosaic code were told to practice. And he introduced the totally new poverty of dispossession that had never even been conceived before. On both counts we are in the regions of pure faith, and the best we can do is to try to better understand what must always remain a mystery, here the Christian mystery of revealed poverty.

What are we saying? We are saying that from Christ and because of the revelation He gave to the world, we now know of two kinds of poverty of choice--beyond precept--that we may conveniently call the poverty of community sharing, and the poverty of total dispossession.

Community Sharing

It seems best to place both forms of Christian poverty into their biblical context. St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles elaborately describes the first where he tells what happened right after Peter’s first sermon on Pentecost Sunday.

Luke concludes the sermon narrative by observing that “those who accepted his (Peter’s) message were baptized; some 3000 were added that day.”

Then he continues, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ instruction and the communal life…those who believed shared all things in common; they would sell their property and goods, dividing everything on the basis of each one’s needs.”

A chapter later, Luke comes back to the same theme. “The community of believers” he says, “was of one heart and mind. None of them ever claimed anything as his own. Rather, everything was held in common.”

Here we have a new phenomenon in religious history, revealed as we believe by Christ in His own practice of the common life, and put into prompt practice under the influence of the Spirit of Christ right after the Lord’s Ascension.

Note what this means. This means more than the Old Testament precept to love one’s neighbor as oneself, and therefore to practice the precept of love in relieving human destitution and want. This is more than sharing of one’s bounty to help others who are in obvious need.

This is a corollary to the creation of a new reality, a Christian community of such a kind that those who wish (which means those who have the vocation to do so) may voluntarily give up what they own and share with others in the same community everything they had previously called their own.

Let us be clear about what we are saying. We are not claiming that every Christian either in the first century or in the twentieth century is required to practice this poverty of communal sharing.

This is dramatically pointed out by St. Luke in the terrifying narrative of what happened to Ananias and Sophira.

Luke had just explained how Barnabas “sold a farm that he owned and made a donation of the money, laying it at the apostle’s feet.” Then Luke goes on: “Another man named Ananias and his wife Sophira likewise sold a piece of property. With the connivance of his wife, he put aside a part of the proceeds for himself; the rest he took and lay at the feet of the apostles. Peter exclaimed, ‘Ananias, why have you let Satan fill your heart so as to make you lie to the Holy Spirit and keep for yourself some of the proceeds from that field? Was it not yours as long as it remained unsold? Even when you sold it, was not the money still yours? How could you ever concoct such a scheme? You have lied not to men but to God.’ At the sound of these words, Ananias fell dead. Great fear came upon all who heard of it.”

Three hours later, the same dialogue and the same sad end befell his wife, Sophira.

Yet through it all notice how clear Peter was in insisting that Ananias and Sophira did not have to sell what they had and give the whole proceeds to the community. They were morally free not to join that kind of a community. But having received the grace to make the sacrifice, God expected them to live up to the grace of their vocation. They failed to do so. And the tragedy which befell them will remain an object lesson for all religious of all times, not to cheat on God’s grace, not to take back (or keep back) what this grace prompts them to do--namely, to share completely with their community everything to which they have (or had) a rightful claim.

I consider this single factor of not living up to God’s expectations in the matter of communal, shared poverty, as the root of most of the evils that have befallen once flourishing religious institutes in affluent societies like the United States.

God will not be mocked. Those to whom He gives the grace to live the life of communal poverty in and with a community, He also wants to be His witnesses in a world that has gone mad with selfish individualism and injustices born of self-conceit.

If religious institutes fail to live up to their vocation of corporate poverty, which means the poverty of sharing and sharing alike, grace will be withdrawn from these institutes and, without grace, they will not be able to survive.

Poverty of Dispossession

But we are not finished yet. Closely allied with the evangelical poverty of communal sharing, and yet also distinct, is the poverty of total dispossession.

Dispossession is implicit in the fact that those who had the vocation were to sell what they owned and share the proceeds with other members of the community.

But there is more here than only that. The poverty of dispossession is also a counsel, not unlike the poverty of communal sharing. Neither is a strict precept, even in the New Testament.

However, the poverty of dispossession goes beyond the poverty of communal sharing. How so? It is the imitation of Christ to the limit of human powers of sacrifice, elevated by the grace of God.

It was expressed by Christ when He told the rich young man who wanted to do more than just save his soul, to sell whatever he had and give the proceeds to the poor--observe, “give the proceeds to the poor”; that is, give them away, “and then come follow me.”

It was expressed by the Master when He stated that the foxes have their holes and the birds of the air their nests, but the Son of Man has not whereon to lay His head. Why not? Because He undertook a life of poverty of total dispossession.

This is the kind of poverty the great saints and founders of religious orders practiced themselves and commended so strongly to their followers. This is the poverty that St. Francis called Lady Poverty and his dearest sister. This is the poverty that St. Ignatius called the bulwark of the religious life; as long as religious practice this poverty of dispossession, they are religious, but no more and no less.

It is imperative to emphasize that poverty of communal sharing is not enough. Communities can be wealthy, and there is such a thing as the communal sharing of wealth, under the guise of juridical poverty.

No, to be true followers of the poor Christ, we must be really poor and not only poor in spirit; we must be actually poor and not only by canonical claim.


The ascetical implications of this straight-forward teaching of our Christian faith are numerous. So I shall select only one, namely the witness to poverty that the Church expects us to give in the world today.

Why, we might ask, is it especially important for religious to witness to evangelical poverty--which is the poverty of community sharing and of dispossession--today? Why? Because today, more than ever in the history of man, men have access to an abundance of this world’s goods.

Take our own country. Compared with the world of times past, and with most of the world today, we are living in a terrestrial paradise. We spend over seven billion dollars a year on hard liquor, two billion dollars a year on the care of lawns, and some twenty billion dollars on advertising--to stimulate psychological needs in the absence of physical wants. Ours is the best fed, least painful, most sweet-smelling culture of human history.

And this is the culture before which we are bidden to witness to the poor Christ and not be ashamed or afraid of doing so.

It is easy in the matter of poverty to hide behind pious phrases or defend our indulgence by saying we have to conform to the people among whom we live and work. That is not true. The world always tries to make conformists of those who challenge its ways, and it crushes those who rebuke its selfish and often cruel indulgence of wealth.

We hear so much nowadays about personality development. So we ask a strange question: Does evangelical poverty foster this development or stifle it? It fosters it in a way that no one knows better than the person who lives it with unstinted generosity toward God. Nothing, in my experience, more surely enslaves a religious than having access to luxuries and superfluities that others cannot get or that are incompatible with the vows we have pronounced.

Conversely, the practice of poverty brings great liberation in the exact measure that I divest myself of whatever I do not need.

May I suggest three norms, in three words, for our practice of poverty in today’s world. To be truly relevant, therefore sacramental in the lives of all who see us, our poverty must be sincere, it must laborious and it must be generous.

Our poverty must be sincere. We must be in fact and not only by profession, really poor. God knows, and the world knows, if we are poor only in name.

Our poverty must be laborious, by which we resemble workers in the world who have to labor, often in distasteful jobs, under trying conditions.

Finally, our poverty must be generous, by which we freely devote ourselves and all we have for the service of the neighbor.

Sincerity, labor and generosity may not be easy to spell out in rule books and constitutions; but they are not hard to determine, each one for himself, once we set our minds to it.

Our poverty is sincere if we actually lack certain things we should like to have; it is laborious if we become tired in the work we perform; and it is generous if we cheerfully share.

Why be poor? Because God became man to be poor before us. Jesus of Nazareth, we need to tell ourselves is the infinite Majesty who became a child and a laborer and a beggar and a servant to teach us proud human beings how much the Lord loves the poor. He does indeed. All He wants us to do is become like Him in poverty; and He will tell us, even in this life, what riches we can share.

Consecrated Chastity — A Mystery of Faith

It is remarkable how frequently we now hear or read about celibacy, among priests or religious, and how comparatively less often we hear about consecrated chastity.

One reason may simply be a cultural preference. The word “celibate” has a definite meaning in our society and people use it without a second thought.

But then again, there may be a deeper and less admirable reason for the preference.

As commonly used, celibacy essentially means not being married, and a celibate is one who, though marriageable, is single for a variety of motives. There are celibate scientists who find that they are thus freer to devote themselves to science; there are celibate educators and scholars and writers and diplomats. They are not married because, perhaps, they would find marriage a hindrance to their profession or, perhaps, their spouse in marriage would find them so preoccupied with their career as to have little time for their married partner and even less time to rear a normal family.

Moreover, and this touches on the heart of the issue, as the modern world understands celibacy it means the exclusion of marriage, of course, but it does not necessarily exclude sexual activity. A man or a woman may be quite celibate, because not married, but may also be quite active sexually, and our pansexual society accepts the double standard without moral qualm.

Hence the value of being clear about what we mean when we speak about the consecrated chastity of a religious, and not merely his celibacy.

In order to probe more deeply into our subject and clarify what may otherwise be confusing, let me deal with this matter from several different perspectives, whose main purpose in this conference is to get a clear and distinct idea about what consecrated chastity means.

We shall approach this delicate topic under the following headings:

  • Chastity as the virtue of temperance

  • Chastity as the virtue of charity

  • Chastity as a lifetime imitation of Jesus Christ

Chastity as the Virtue of Temperance

We all know what the virtue of temperance means. Temperance is the virtue that governs our bodily and emotional desires, in two different ways. Concretely this means that a temperate person is able to restrain his natural appetite for food and drink, for ease and comfort, and for sexual gratification.

When temperance refers to the control of the urge for sexual gratification it is called the moral virtue of chastity.

As such it is morally binding on everybody, men, women and children; the married and the unmarried; priests, religious and the laity.

We are all bound by an obligation that is grave to deliberately not indulge sexual pleasure except in marriage, according to one’s married state of life.

For the married this means they are allowed full sexual pleasure within the marital embrace--provided they do nothing to deliberately prevent conception. But outside of their own mutual relations as husband and wife, married people too must practice chastity. They are forbidden the indulgence of their sexual appetites except in the sacramental union between themselves. This is not easy, as married people will tell you, since they see so much moral laxity all around them. Adultery is in the air they breathe.

For the unmarried, the virtue of chastity as temperance means total abstention from any fully deliberate desire for or indulgence of sexual (or as we also call it, venereal) pleasure.

Hence, as the latest papal declaration on sexual morality declares, premarital relations are mortally sinful, so also are masturbation and homosexuality, and no amount of sentimentalism or psychologism can make these sins sinless.

Basically, then, chastity as temperance is essentially self-control. It means that through self-discipline and the helps of God’s grace a person refrains from deliberately giving in to a powerful human drive. The drive is powerful because on it finally depends the continuation of the human race. It has been compared with the drive for self-preservation; only here it is the preservation of human society.

As such, chastity as temperance is knowable by reason and provable by human logic. If nothing else, we know from history and experience that people who do not control their sex appetite end up not controlling other appetites. They become victims of their lusts, and the hospitals and mental institutions are filled with the slaves of their sexual passions.

Chastity as Virtue of Charity

But chastity, though the same word is used, can also mean something more than mere temperance. It can mean the practice of chastity as the love of God and the greater love of one’s fellowman.

Except for Christ’s revelation on the subject, we should hardly know about the existence of chastity as charity, let alone we would see it put into practice.

What does this mean? It means that, provided a person has the grace to make the sacrifice, he or she is able not only to restrain the sexual appetite but actually can offer up to God the pleasure to which we have a perfect natural right.

What are we saying? We are saying that, since the grace of Christ has been given to the human race, it is possible not only to practice sexual self-control but to make what we may call sexual self-sacrifice.

There is quite a difference between controlling—in the sense of not indulging---and surrendering---in the sense of freely and voluntarily giving up to God.

When I practice chastity as temperance, I am abstaining from a pleasure; when I practice chastity as charity, I am more than abstaining. I am willingly and (with divine grace) cheerfully offering God the pleasure that I do not so much fear as that I consider precious---and, therefore, pleasing to God---as an oblation to His divine majesty.

Notice, too, we said that chastity as charity is motivated by fear. When I practice chastity out of love I sublimate the virtue of temperance; I elevate it to a higher sphere. I surrender what God and I know is a source of great natural and (in marriage) legitimate satisfaction not only because I fear to offend God but because I want to do something more for God by pleasing Him through this noble sacrifice.

But it is not only out of love of God that people undertake to practice chastity. They are also moved by their love for others.

How so? We have the answer by now in the annals of human history, since the time of Christ. Those who wished to signalize themselves in the service of their neighbor, in the corporal or spiritual works of mercy were, with rare exception, persons that sacrificed the blessings of marriage. They knew what experience testifies, that loving chastity is really loving charity. It does many things:

  • It liberates the human spirit to give itself more generously to others than, in God’s ordinary providence, is possible for those who are married.

  • It enlightens the human mind to see the needs of others and become extraordinarily thoughtful of their wants.

  • It sensitizes the human heart to respond to human problems and to want to relieve human misery.

  • It enlarges the human horizon to see beyond one’s own surroundings---certainly one’s own immediate kin---and thus gives those who are chaste, because they love the capacity for loving more people, more effectively, and more selflessly than any other single gift to God can produce.

We might almost say that chastity as charity is animated by two great loves: the love of God for whom chastity is embraced, and the love of others in whose service chastity is exercised.

If Chastity is the love of God as sacrifice; chastity is the love of our neighbor as service.

Chaste people are loving people. They give up a great personal satisfaction in order to say, not only in words but in action, and not only in spirit but in body, “I love You, my God.” And they proceed to put this love into practice by serving those whom God puts into their lives to prove that their chastity is sincere.

Chastity as a Lifetime Imitation of Christ

But we are not finished yet. Religious chastity does, of course, include the practice of the virtue of temperance. It also means that I am moved by the love of God and my neighbor. But when I vow myself by chastity I do more than practice the virtue of temperance or, for that matter, the virtue of charity.

What do I do? I bind myself, and I do so voluntarily, and I do so for a lifetime, and I do so under vow. Each of these three elements deserves special attention.

I bind myself voluntarily. Notice that there is no obligation, as precept, requiring anyone to a life of consecrated chastity. So far from its being a precept, before I do the self-binding, the Church is careful in the extreme to make sure that no one undertakes this responsibility without years of probation and years of formation. No one, antecedent to my desire to do so, tells me I must be a religious. I choose to become one. And then I have to wait a long time, some might feel too long a time, before I am permitted to make the oblation.

I do so for a lifetime. This is the acid test of a true vocation to consecrated chastity: the willingness, even before I take my final vows, to live a life of sacrificial chastity. I cannot foresee or predict the future. No matter. God knows my future and I trust Him that He will not allow me to be either deceived or deluded. The fact that He inspires me with the desire to live until death in faithful chastity I trust is a sign of His enduring grace to keep me faithful to my consecration.

I do so under vow. What does this add to my readiness to live a chaste life, until I surrender my body in death to God? My vow is the oath pronounce by which I testify to God the sincerity of my commitment.

A vow is, therefore, no simple promise. It is a sacred affirmation by which I enter into covenant with the Almighty.

On my part I call upon God to witness that I am telling the truth. I am resolved to keep what I am offering to His hands, and never to retract or call the oblation back.

On God’s part, He ratifies the covenant by assuring me a lifetime of light and strength that I will need to remain faithful to my promise.

The vow of chastity is at once a pledge and a prediction. It is my pledge of loyalty to God. It is God’s prediction of His loyalty to me. He will never go back on His prediction, provided I do not go back on my pledge.

There is one more dimension, however, to consecrated chastity. This is the pattern and inspiration for anyone undertaking this generous form of life at all.

Why ultimately does a religious do it? He or she does it because of the prior inspiration from God. True, but God as God cannot practice chastity—no more than He can practice poverty or obedience.

Here we enter the precincts of mystery. Faith tells us that God became man to redeem us from our sins. So He did. But was that all?

No, God became man also to sanctify us in holiness. He not only wants us delivered from the slavery of the devil and enslavement by our own conceits. He wants us to be like Him, who is all-perfect. And our holiness is essential Godlikeness.

So what did God do? He became man in order to reveal to us in human form what God is like so that, by becoming like Jesus, we shall be becoming like God.

Our final question is the critical one. What attribute are we imitating in God when we are imitating the chastity of Christ?

More than one attribute, we might say, but none more surely than God’s spirituality. He has no body. He is perfectly independent of all material things—beyond space and beyond time, beyond size, shape, or color, or sound; beyond all dimensions and extension. He has no bulk or quantity, no mass or corporeal need. In a word, God is pure spirit.

In imitating Jesus in his chastity as man, we are imitating Jesus in His spirituality as God. Our chastity is a sign of what God can do with weak, fallen human nature. He can, by His grace, so master our bodily impulses that we become more and more like God, independent of that most imperious of all human drives—the driver for sexual satisfaction.

Christ, we believe, had perfect self-mastery, as man, over all His bodily emotions. We should expect this, since Christ is God. But we are called upon to imitate Him, the virginal Son of the Virgin Mary, to become like Him by grace what He was as the natural goodness and complete reliance on His grace.

Unless He had first called us to this sublime state of life, we should not even be talking about consecrated chastity, let alone striving to live it out faithfully. But having called us, we may be sure He will not abandon us to our own weakness or whim.

The secret is to keep telling Him how much we need His aid. And since He gave us His Mother as the mediatrix of all graces, and in particular the grace of chastity, we should often invoke her and trust that she will hear our prayer, which may go something like this:

“Immaculate Virgin Mary, I confide my vow of chastity to your maternal heart. I ask your help to guard my senses, especially my eyes, for an unchaste eye is the messenger of an unchaste heart. Knowing my pride, I pray for that humility which invites the mercy of God. Knowing that I am human, I shall not be surprised at the urge of concupiscence, but trusting in your care I rely on your protection in all the graces that I need from your divine Son. Amen.”

The Witness of Chastity

If the poverty of Christ needs a witness today, so does His chastity. There is a close relationship between the two. When Christ called those who are poor in spirit, He also promised those who are pure of heart that they would see God.

It is no coincidence, either, that Matthew placed together two discourses of the Master in which His disciples asked Him practically the same question: How is it possible?

In the first discourse, on monogamy, Jesus said that marriage, from that time on, must be what it should be---one man with one woman until death. When the disciples heard this, they asked the incredulous question: “If that is the position with husband and wife, it is better to refrain from marriage.” Christ’s reply is the Magna Charta of evangelical chastity:

“That is something which not everyone can accept, but only those for whom God has appointed it. For while some are incapable of marriage because they were born so, or were made so by men, there are others who have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let those accept it who can” (Mt. 19:11-12).

In the second discourse, which came on the heels of the first a young man came to ask Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life. He was told to keep the commandments. When the man replied that he had kept all of these: “Where do I fall short?” Jesus gave us, through him, our Magna Charta of evangelical poverty. “If you wish to go the whole way,” Christ said, “go sell your possessions, and give to the poor, and then you will have riches in heaven; and come follow me.” On hearing this, the young man went away with a heavy heart, for he was a man of great wealth (cf. Mt. 16-22).

Whatever else these discourses teach us, it is the higher ethic which Christ brought into the world—beyond anything the world had ever seen before. No wonder the disciples were astonished at Christ’s prescription of monogamy on his married followers, which He did not retract but used as the occasion for offering even voluntary chastity as an option to those who have the grace. No wonder Christ added a commentary on riches after the young man had left Him. “I tell you this,” He said, “A rich man will find it hard to enter the kingdom of heaven.” At which the disciples were amazed and protested, “Then who will be saved?” Jesus looked them in the face and replied—and we need to hear this today—“For men this is impossible; but everything is possible for God” (Mt. 19:25-26).

That is it. Consecrated chastity like poverty is humanly impossible. It is possible only with the grace of God.

Nobody doubts it. The only doubt people may have is whether we are faithful to our vow. Once convinced of that, they need no argument to prove that, without divine assistance, no one could live this way and be happy. They know from experience.

However, as in the case of poverty, so with chastity, we want to concentrate less on the dignity of this vocation or even on how to keep it faithfully, than on the awful need the world has of our witness to preserve any semblance of chastity. Social scientists in other cultures, more than our own, are persuaded that material affluence has much to do with it. I f nothing else, sex indulgence costs money, takes time, and needs expensive means of sustaining stimulation after the first heat of passion has been satisfied.

Whatever the reasons, ours is a sex-ridden society.

Preoccupation with sex has reached an all-time high in the Western world. The writings of Freud, for example, are twenty volumes of analysis into every kind of sexual aberration. Critics like Julian Huxley further testify to the extent to which sex has almost become identified with modern culture and the advancement of sex pleasure a standard of modern progress. Secular psychologists claim that repression of knowledge about sex has led to the discredit of religion and the outlawing of God. “Our greatest taboo,” according to Huxley, “has been the discussion of sex. The child who begins to ask awkward questions and to display its perfectly natural curiosities on these as on all other matters, is, for the most part, simply told not to, and in a shocked voice. Here, on the one hand, is the natural desire of curiosity; on the other, repression by authority, and by authority mixed up with ideas of right and wrong.” The result is that religion is first associated with suppressing urgent knowledge and then discarded for hiding “the facts of life.”

Learned books used in prestigious universities are saying in thousands of pages that we must revise our whole philosophy about sex. They say that since men and women today are so constantly and consistently breaking through the morals of sex, we should re-appraise the whole structure of Christian ethics and revise its outmoded standard. Of particular concern are the sexual habits of unmarried youth.

Needless to say, this approach to sexual problems is revolutionary. If problems are still admitted, the conflict is not between human passion and an objective code of morals, sanctioned by 2000 years of Christian history, but between the legal and social restraints imposed by a stodgy religious culture and the newly discovered spirit of liberty that seeks only the maximum of sex pleasure before and after marriage, and is willing to break through any barriers to find gratification.

The net effect of ignoring moral values has been to fill the atmosphere with a deluge of sex magazines and books, movies and television, and all the means of communication, whose incessant pressure places heavy demands on the virtue of men and women that still believe in the Decalogue and hold that Christ was not a dreamer when He enjoined restraint of the passions even in the secret thoughts of one’s heart.

Periodicals are a good example. The number of otherwise acceptable publications that cater to the prurient tastes of their readers is legion, and occasional efforts of civic-minded groups to control the tide only emphasize the powerful influence which magazines have on the impressionable minds of the young.

Yet, the most serious aspect of this sex revolution is not the amount of pornography or the ease with which it is propagated. The worst feature is the complacency that a radical change of moral climate finds among the people and the difficulty of getting the courts to convict anyone who is making a fortune on his neighbor’s concupiscence.

In a celebrated decision that provoked wide reaction in religious circles, the Supreme Court passed judgment in favor of an International Pictures Corporation. The case involved the censorship of a motion picture which advocated adultery as morally acceptable. The opinion of the court held that the New York statute under which the motion picture was banned is unconstitutional since it prevents the advocacy of an idea, in this case that adultery may be legitimate behavior. The Court asserted that the First Amendment protects such advocacy, the score of literary freedom.

Implicit in the rise of sexualism through all the media of communication is the denial of original sin, which, by definition, means that men have lost their perfect dominance of the passions and therefore the sex urge should be controlled rather than stimulated for the sake of the pleasure it gives.

As a religious looks at this orgy of sexualism, can he have any doubt about the need for his witness to show the world that chastity is not only possible but practicable and, with God’s grace, does not suppress our personalities but gives them inner peace and new energies that only the chaste of heart can enjoy?

Our contemporaries, to whom we are sent, are taking a hard look at the meaning and value of human love and of the whole sexual life. To them we should offer the sincere, simple and wise testimony of our consecrated chastity.

No less than poverty, our celibacy also is essentially sanctification. According to the teaching and example of religious teachers and the constant teaching of the Church, we embrace chastity as a special source of spiritual fruitfulness in the world. Through it, full domination of our bodily and spiritual energies is trained for a prompter love and a more total apostolic availability toward all who enter our lives.

Moreover, the profession of chastity for the sake of the kingdom of heaven is of itself a true preaching of the Gospel. It reveals to all men the beauty of spirit over matter and the power of grace over nature.

Yet we also know that chastity is not a virtue of the weak or something that is acquired without cost. It demands of us sacrifice by which we knowingly and willingly forego entrance into that family relationship where husband and wife, parents and children, can in many ways, even psychologically, attain mutual fulfillment.

Our celibate consecration, therefore, involves a certain affective renunciation and solitude of heart which is part of the cross offered us by Jesus as we follow in His footsteps. This sacrifice of marital companionship closely associates us with His paschal mystery and makes us sharers of the spiritual fertility that He enjoyed.

We assume that the vow of chastity is accepted with a humble, joyous and firm spirit as a gift from God. We further assume it is offered to God as a sacrifice. Given these premises, it not only does not diminish our personality nor interfere with our human contacts and dialogue with the world; it rather expands our capacity to love, unites us with others more deeply, and brings us to a fuller charity than is normally possible without celibacy.


No one who has any experience with religious has any doubt that using the right means to preserve chastity is absolutely necessary. Sincerity of purpose or good will may carry a man or woman through other commitments of religious life, but of themselves they are not enough for evangelical chastity. Either the proper means are taken or this commitment is lost.

The first set of means pertains rather to those who admit candidates to the community. These candidates must show, above all, faith, balance and informed freedom of choice.

Without faith, how can anyone make sense of this higher love which raises the perfectly normal affections of a man or woman to express themselves above their natural capacity?

Faith alone gives reason to human reason why the sacrifice of a spouse in marriage and of a family of children is pleasing to God. Faith alone tells the religious that because Jesus is God and Jesus practiced perfect chastity, therefore, it must be not only good but very good and, indeed, a most noble gift to offer God. Faith alone tells the believer that when God chose to become man, He chose to be conceived of a virgin, although He had to work a historic miracle to make this virginal conception possible. Evidently, but evident only to the eyes of faith, chastity is dear to the eyes of God.

Without balance of character, how could we hope for that progressive equilibrium between impulse and intellect that remains unshaken even in the vast provocative sexual or affective situations that may arise in the apostolate?

And without informed freedom of choice, how can we trust that later on the decision to chastity may not be retracted?

Let me promptly add that age or previous exposure to sexual stimulation are not, of themselves, any proof of balanced character or informed freedom of choice. They can be quite the opposite in the absence of a deep faith and proved desire to give oneself to Jesus Christ.

I cannot overstress what I consider a fetish that many have made of psychological and psychiatric testing of candidates for a life of celibacy. I do not exclude such tests where doubts exist; but I feel they often obscure the prior and greater need for knowing a candidate’s spiritual and, after admission, of guiding him (or her) spiritually for a long time and not only the first few years of postulancy and novitiate.

Once admitted to a religious community, how does one grow and develop in a life of chastity?

I suggest five norms, none of which is new, though some are brand new in their relevancy today. To neglect any one of these is to live in a dream world of theoretical chastity, not in the real world of consecrated celibacy.

Before all else, a religious must cultivate a close friendship with Christ and familiarity with God. In this world no one lives without love. When our contemporaries question or fail to understand what our love is all about, we should offer them a prompt reply by the witness of dedicated chastity. But this witness will be only as sincere as the love for God that burns in our hearts. We are not freaks or misanthropes; we, too, are in love.

There is no substitute, therefore, for close intimacy with God as the primum necessarium for the preservation of religious chastity.

Our chastity does not exempt us – how could it – from the need for companionship and the desire for affection. But as religious there should be no question where this companionship is mainly to be found or this affection mainly to be shown. It is companionship with Christ, who is the Spouse of our souls; and affection for Him who loves us more than any human being could love or be loved by us in return.

The only trouble with this obvious recommendation is that some people find it cold. Well, it is not cold to those who honestly try to live it out, and it does not remain cold to those who sincerely strive to grow in that virtue which is the foundation of chastity, namely love. Love is the reason for undertaking a life of chastity in the first place. And love is the only way this chaste commitment can be sustained. God shows His intimacy to the chase soul beyond any expectation of those who do not make this sacrifice.

If the love of God is the foundation of chastity, love of others is its normal condition for growth in maturity. Our love for Jesus Christ should impel us to genuine human love of people and to true friendship with them. Chastity for the sake of the kingdom of heaven is not only safeguarded by fraternal friendship; it also matures and develops through it. Consequently we should regard as a precious apostolic fruit of our chastity that mature, simple, anxiety-free dealing with the men and women with whom and for whom we exercise our zeal for the up-building of the body of Christ.

There is more here than perhaps we suspect. True chastity is selfless, unchastity is selfish. If I want to grow in chastity I must grown in selfless charity.

Thus loving progress in generous charity is another step in climbing the ladder of perfect chastity.

After all, why did I vow myself to a lifetime of chastity? Was it not that I might be able to give myself more completely and unreservedly to the service of others? Should I not then expect the Savior to reward my motive by strengthening my ability to live up to what, by His grace, I had undertaken to do? Make no mistake about it. Consecrated chastity is a virtue in which we are to grow. And we grow in this celebrated gift of God’s mercy in the exact proportion that we give ourselves in hard work, and with sacrifice of time, convenience and energy to the welfare of others. Chastity requires charity. Chastity needs the soil of charity.

The perfect liberty of chaste love is not acquired in one day. It requires the wise use of all those positive means of sanctification and personal growth that are open and available to religious men and women. Among those, I consider dedication to assigned tasks, cheerfulness of disposition, and kindness to others most important. If I am dedicated to my work, I will not be bored; if I aim at cheerfulness, I will not be sad; and if I am kind to others, they will not be unkind to me. Boredom, sadness, and the experience of unkindness are the sworn enemies of chastity.

Asceticism and the prudent custody of the senses are as necessary today as they ever were. Religious now are exposed to more sex stimulation than ever before. As long as such stimulation is not sought for itself or it’s honestly unavoidable in connection with our apostolate, God will not be wanting in His grace.

But the story of needless emotional excitation along sex lines—through reading, movies and television---is uniform. It leads to sexual arousal and then, either the religious wakes up and puts a stop to the needless stimuli or leaves the religious life. This is not prudery but sanity, as anyone who deals with priests and religious defecting from their celibacy can testify.

Moderation in human contacts is necessary if chastity is to be preserved. Married men and women in the world know they have to moderate such contacts if they want to remain faithful to their husbands or wives. Frequent indiscretion, they discover, leads to infatuation, and infatuation to infidelity.

Either religious also learn to discriminate with whom they associate, for how long they can talk, what they can talk about, and under what circumstances they can be alone with certain people—or nature takes over. I will add one sentence. Priests are vulnerable and arousable; and religious women are often the most accessible.

By way of epilogue, let me just point out what the Church, especially the Vicar of Christ, has been at such pains to exhort religious to do. They, i.e., we, are to be witnesses to a world in which sex has become a mania and abstention from sexual pleasure almost the incarnate evil.

What does it mean to witness to the world by our chastity? It means three things:

  1. To testify to the value of chastity because we have learned this value from our own experience. No one can witness to what he does not personally know.

  2. To testify to the joys of chastity again because we know what this means from the deep spiritual satisfaction that totally dedicated celibacy always brings. People must see that chastity is not only possible, but pleasant; that we are not only chaste, but happy. We must show it is not the dreadful nightmare that those who do not have our faith make it out to be.

  3. Finally, if we are to witness to chastity we must be willing, if need be, to practice the martyrdom it sometimes means. After all, that is what the biblical word “witness” means. A witness, on the testimony of Christ, is a martyr. We must be ready if and when our chaste consecration to Christ costs us dearly to pay in the struggle with our flesh or in giving up what (or whom) we are naturally attracted to.

But the sacrifice of chastity is worth all the effort we put into it. In a short time, shorter than we think, we shall be rewarded by entering into that company with the Lamb of God where only those who have kept themselves chaste will be allowed to come. We shall not enter heaven alone, however. Chastity is more appealing than we think. It is positively fascinating. Our lives will bring merit to many souls who will reach their eternal destiny because we have been willing to offer God---for a short time---the sacrifice of our bodies in chastity.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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