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Retreat - The Essentials of the Religious Life

Communion in Community

December 28, 1983 — Homily

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

Recall this is one of the essential elements as the Vicar of Christ teaches us of authentic religious life. There are two features of religious life that are surprisingly spelled out in great detail in the new code of Canon Law, poverty and community life.

Canon 670: "A religious institute is a society in which in accordance with their own law the members pronounce public vows and live a fraternal life in common."

Community life is of the essence of religious life.

Particular Norms:

“The fraternal life proper to each institute unites all the members into as it were a special family in Christ. It is to be so defined that for all it provides mutual assistance to fulfill their vocation. The fraternal union of the members rooted and based in charity is to be an example of universal reconciliation in Christ.” Canon 602.

Each religious institute is to define its form of community life, which as with poverty, will differ considerably from one community to anotheralways remaining truly a community. Community life makes a religious institute into a supernatural family in Christ. The members belonging as they do to a single spiritual in Christ have a common origin. It was Christ who instituted religious life as community life. It is a family because it has a common goal; its members use common means and with emphasis they are under one ultimate authority.

We are told by the Church that the immediate purpose of community life is to be of mutual assistance to the members. We are not meant to be alone. Our religious vocation requires cooperation in our following of Christ. The community of the Apostles that Christ gathered around Him is part of Christian revelation. Fraternal union, that's the expression, that the code uses, means union as brothers and sisters.How come brother and sisters? Because we are meant to be united by Christ, united under Christ, united for Christ and with emphasis united with Christ.

Our Community life is said to be rooted and based in charity. Charity is to be the root, meaning what? It is the source of our spiritual growth in the life of Christ. In other words, for a religious to grow in the spiritual life, he or she has no choice but they must live with others. Others may with God's grace grow in holiness either alone or only periodically or sporadically be with others but not religious. And charity is the basis of our spiritual life. It is the foundation of our stability as religious.

Our community life is meant to be a witness to others. That's what the Church teaches. The world desperately needs the example of people living together in love. And my friends, that is no cheap exhortation. The world needs, how it needs, the example of people, different people differing in everything except in the one thing which unites them, the love of Christ and the witness to others.

Remember Christ's commandment: "Love one another as I have loved you." This is no longer merely the Old Testament Commandment to love your neighbor, singular, as you love yourself, singular. Christ's new commandment the night before He died is the commandment to loving in a community. "Love one another as I have loved you."

What can the Church possibly mean by saying that our community life is to be an example of universal reconciliation in Christ. What does community life have to do with reconciliation? Community life means practicing reconciliation, being patient with one another, bearing with one another, forgiving one another as Christ's condition for His mercy to us. We are all sinners; we all need God's reconciling mercy. Without His mercy none of us will see the face of God. Christ teaches there is no mercy from God unless we practice mercy toward others. Where on earth are we better able to practice forgiving, forbearing, patient mercy. The present Holy Father defines mercy as 'love that costs'. It took God to invent it – community life. You can not live with others the way Christ wants us to by loving one another as He has loved us without practicing constant love that costs. I hope you've heard before – community life is the most effective way of expiating our sins and obtaining mercy from an all-just God.

Our purpose as a religious community is to verify what the pagans said about the Christians in the first century: see how they love one another. If we really love one another, and no body but no body has any doubt, what demands living in community makes on our self-love. By this, dear Lord, what are You saying; You taught us so many things yet you isolate one thing when You told us: "By this shall all men know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."

This then is the foundation of community life, the teaching and example of Christ with His Apostles; He the first Superior, they the first Religious. And then still part of revelation, the practice of the early Church.

Remember immediately after Peter preached his first sermon on Pentecost Sunday after Luke says: "That very day about three thousand were added to their number having repented and been baptized." Then St. Paul, "these remained faithful to the teaching of the Apostles to the Community, to the breaking of the Bread (which is the Eucharist) and to the prayers. The faithful live together and own everything in common. They sold their goods and possessions and shared out the proceeds among themselves according to what each one needed." Later St. Luke: "The whole group of believers was united heart and soul. No one claimed for his own anything that he had as everything they owned was held in common."

We need this, I need it, you need it. We need to be clear in believing that community life is part of our faith. Community life is therefore no construct of human reason; it is no mere practical arrangement for greater economy or efficiency. Sure it’s more economical to buy things in lot quantities; sure its more efficient if different people do different jobs for a common purpose - General Motors knows that.

Now community life no less than the Holy Trinity which is the Eternal Community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, community life among human beings are the reflection of the community of the Trinity is part of Divine revelation. And for our purpose the Trinity is an incomprehensible mystery - the Community of the three Persons in one God. Well, community life is a mystery. You don't comprehend it, you believe it. And believing it you live it.

Canon 608: "A religious community is to live in a lawfully constituted house under the authority of a superior designated according to the norms of law. Each house is to have at least an oratory in which the Eucharist is celebrated and reserved so it may truly be the center of the community."

According to the mind of the Church, therefore, religious are to live together in a residence, some one physical place, that Ecclesiastical Authority approves as a home for religious. It is the approval by the Church's authority that constitutes what externally may not look like anything different than another home. Ah, but this is no mere house. What then constitutes a religious residence?

It is the religious living together, surrounded by the same walls, covered by the same roof, under a superior (one by the way for each residence); where the residence is approved as a religious community by the Church's authority and where Jesus Christ in the Eucharist abides. There is therefore no question of having a religious community unless the religious live together. There is also no question of a religious community unless there is a superior; The Church's code is clear "under the authority of a superior designated according to the norms of law." The superior therefore is no mere coordinator, no mere facilitator, no mere manager. The superior has authority, meaning – the right under God, to tell those under authority what to do. The superior is not merely someone who conveniently takes care of the needs of a group of people living together in an apartment.

The Church makes it very clear, you have a religious house and therefore the foundation of a religious community if you have at least an oratory, which is a canonical term, the lowest in scale where the Blessed Sacrament is preserved and Mass is offered. The community may have a chapel or even a church open to the public but the quintessence of a religious community is the Eucharist. The Holy Eucharist is therefore to be celebrated in the Sacrifice of the Mass and reserved as the Real Presence. The Eucharist is the center, the Church says - truly the center, of the community.

Christ is really to be the primary focus of the community; without the Eucharist there is no religious community. Depending on how authentically Christ is this center, the community is truly a communion, that's the Church's language, interior union - that's communion of people living together in community where they are externally united. That which provides interior union to a community is the Presence of Jesus. No less, not one whip less, than Christ was the center of the apostolic community which He founded so He is the Holy Eucharist is the living, abiding, physical center of a religious community today.

"Religious are to reside in their own religious house and observe the common life, they are not to stay elsewhere except with the permission of the superior." Canon 665.

This provision of the Church's legislation is most important in our day. Failure here no matter how well intentioned has been one of the main reasons for the weakening and gradual disillusion of once strong religious institutes. Again this living together is no human invention on the part of the Church which because She invented it, She can change it. The Church can not change living together as of the essence of religious life, why not? Because it is revealed by Christ. It is founded on God's revelation, taught and practiced by Christ with His Apostles and lived out by the early Christians, who we are told, lived together.

Sure this means physical cohabitation, it means practicing the common life; it means that togetherness is at the heart of true religious life. Exceptions should be exceptions depending on the institute and its apostolic aims. In fact there's a special provision in the new code which reads: "members who unlawfully absent themselves from a religious house with the intention of withdrawing from the authority of superiors are to be carefully sought out and helped to return and to persevere in their vocation." Canon 665, part 2. Words could not be clearer on how solicitous the Church is to preserve community life in order to preserve religious life. If someone walks out or walks off, find him or find her; bring them back because living together is religious life, the one stands or falls by the other.

In the light of all we have seen from the Church's universal teaching and legislation what are we to conclude? First, no one who understands human nature has any illusions about the self-sacrifice that living community religious life requires. St. John Berchman's statement: "my greatest mortification is community life". How true, how painfully true. I believe it expresses the experience of every religious who wishes to seriously and faithfully live out his or her community life.

The spiritual benefits are incalculable. Community life provides the opportunity for practicing a litany of virtues. Let me just barely mention a few:

Humility - oh how obedience gives me a chance to practice humility. How putting up with others - common life provides precious opportunities for the practice of humility.
Patience - it means to suffer uncomplainingly. Can our fellow religious, can they, ever give us the privilege of suffering. The way that other human beings with whom we live can give us occasion for the practice of patience.
Kindness - whatever else my fellow religious need, they want to be loved and they expect me to love them so my practice of kindness towards them in meeting the most fundamental need of human nature which is love that is community life.
Prudence - no two members of even the smallest community are the same; we differ immensely. As a religious I've got to live with different people who are not only different as individuals. People can change from morning till the afternoon; they will differ with different seasons. My prudent adjustment to different people at different times in different circumstances calls for the exercise of the virtue of prudence.
Charity - the one virtue that community life draws out as a magnet from the most selfish human heart, community life, draws out the practice of charity. It is especially in community life that we are able to show our love for God by our selfless love for others with whom I am living together. If our love for God is mainly shown by the degree and depth of our love for others community life provides consistent opportunity for showing our love for God as nothing, nothing under Heaven can provide.

Lord Jesus, You lived community life with Mary and Joseph at Nazareth. You formed the community of the Apostles in Palestine and You inspired community life among Your followers promising to give them the grace to live together as a communion of love. Help us to see in our community on earth a preparation and a prelude to the Eternal Community on high to which we hope to reach You with the Father and the Holy Spirit never again to be separated from You and those whom we have loved on earth out of love for You. Amen.

Retreat given to and recorded by the
Handmaids of the Precious Blood

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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