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Retreat - The Essentials of the Religious Life

The Corporate Apostolate of Active Apostolic Institutes

December 29, 1983 — Homily

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

We should first pause to make clear about what religious institutes we are speaking. We are speaking to those and about those whose avowed purpose is to engage in the practice of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy understood as to people who are not members of their own communities. What complicates the issue is that contemplative institutes properly so called may also engage in spiritual and corporal works of mercy. On the other hand what we call active communities are also to be contemplative practicing what is known as contemplation in action. I believe that the simplest distinction is to say that there are in the Catholic Church two extremes. There are strictly cloistered communities that are properly called contemplative and there are communities that are not cloistered but are engaged in a wide variety of active apostolic labors. Between these two forms of consecrated life is a wide variety of institutes some more cloistered at one extreme and others more active at the other extreme.

What is the Church's teaching regarding communities that are commonly called active apostolic institutes? As we've been doing let us first quote the Church's legislation on the apostolate of active apostolic institutes, it comes in one long canon of the new Code of Canon Law and it is quite detailed though we've said before it is not legalistic:

"Apostolic action is of the very nature of institutes dedicated to apostolic works. The whole life of the members is therefore to be imbued with an apostolic spirit and the whole of their apostolic action is to be animated by a religious spirit. Apostolic action is always to proceed from intimate union with God and is to confirm and foster this union. Apostolic action exercised in the name of the Church and by its command is to be performed in communion with the Church."

As we look at the foregoing teaching of the Church, we see it contains very specific directives all born of centuries of experience and laying the foundation for fruitful apostolic achievement into the future. What I will do is identify what I consider the most important features of this legislation. As a member of still the largest apostolic institute in the Catholic Church believe me obedience to these directives of the Church is the only hope of preserving the by now thousands of institutes in the Catholic Church of active apostolic spirit so as to remain not only faithful to the charism of their founders but to do what the Church desperately needs from them in today's convulsive times.

Our first area of concentrated reflection: Apostolic action essential - for religious, men and women, whose communities are founded for apostolic activity this activity belongs to the very essence of their institute. It is consequently of the essence of their religious vocation. What is the Church telling us? She is saying that in God's Providence some people are called to this distinctive way of life they in fact the majority of the million and a half religious in the Church today. Anyone who seriously wants to serve God in an apostolic community must resign himself to this fact of God's Providence and take my word for it, it is not easy.

What's the problem? The problem is that apostolic demands can be so numerous and so pressing that a religious may honestly feel he or she is not really living authentic religious life. Xavier would write back to St. Ignatius: "is this what God wants me to do? I am exhausted, dead tired; there are times when I am so tired I can hardly even recite my Breviary. To continue the thousands who want to receive the waters of Baptism my hands are so fatigued I have to have people hold up my hands as I pour the water over the people's heads."

The problem? Is all this feverish activity part of my vocation? For communities to which God has called religious - the answer is YES. God wants religious belonging to active apostolic institutes to exhaust themselves in activity in doing His Will. It is therefore not alien to, and perfectly consistent with the Divine Providential plan for those religious. As I've told so many religious God's Will for you is that you go to bed at night exhausted. Much as I would many times prefer to be personally in solitude or informal prayer, if my vocation calls for active apostolic work, like this, this is God's Will for me and He is pleased if and when for the good of souls I forego what I might personally prefer to be doing – being totally intent on God.

Aware of what we've just been saying that sometimes painful dilemma that sincere religious in the active apostolate often face, the Church reminds them of how to cope with the situation. How? In two ways:

  1. The whole life of such religious should be imbued with the apostolic spirit, with a sense of the gospel mission, with zeal for souls, with the desire to bring Christ to others, with a burning ambition to do everything possible indeed to even do the humanly impossible to save people from hell and for Heaven.

  2. At the same time all their apostolic activity which can at times be hectic and if sincerely lived up to I assure you is exhaustive; it should be animated by a religious spirit. What does this mean? Note the contrast, apostolic spirit in going out to souls, religious spirit in being united with God. What then is this religious spirit? It means that such religious are to constantly check their motives for action to make sure it is not themselves or even just to please the people that they are seeking, it is God and God alone they want to please. That the very simple matter of whom I will engage in apostolic labors for. If I am animated by a religious spirit the last thing I will ask myself is that the people I labor for please me, whether they are nice or amiable, or amenable, or appealing or grateful, the only question that a religious animated by the religious spirit asks is - does God want me to? And if have any preference I will prefer those who are least appealing, dear Lord, that is not easy.

In order to maintain this religious spirit such religious should keep ever in mind why they are engaging in apostolic activity - it is to please God, to imitate Christ, to be His channels of Grace. All I should want to do is to be used by God - to be used UP by God.

On this second level in answering, How? Religious in active apostolic work must keep telling themselves, I am no mere educator, I am not a professor at a university, I'm not just another writer or social worker, or nurse, I'm a religious whose purpose is to satisfy what God most wants, He wants souls to know, love and serve Him. All my activity is a means to an end; the end is the salvation of souls. That's why in so many active apostolic institutes it is such a temptation for those who have been sometimes very professionally trained, even years of education, to them humbly follow the dictates of obedience and engage in such apostolic activities as superiors want them to and not what they would personally prefer.

Intimate Union with God

Needless to say if I am to be imbued with an apostolic spirit and all my activity is to be animated by a religious spirit there has to be a basic orientation of mind and heart to maintain this balance between activity and religious purpose. The necessary basis so the Church tells us is intimate union with God and the more active we are the more intimate we have to be in our union with God. What does this? Again it means two things.

It first means that I keep my mind on God in prayer as much as I can through the day and whenever perhaps I wake up at night,

  • By frequent aspirations; how frequent, very frequent.

  • By constantly recalling the Presence of God,

  • By always, always talking to God; even when I'm talking to someone else,

  • By sharing my thoughts, my trials and problems, my hopes and plans with God,

  • By asking God to enlighten my mind even as I work

  • By trying to unite myself with God in at least a moment's prayer whenever I perform any conscious and deliberate action,

  • That I never consciously or deliberately do anything, anything without joining what I'm doing with at least a moment's prayer to God.

Secondly, that I keep my heart fixed on the Will of God. Having God in my mind is not quite the same as having my heart fixed on God's Will. I am constantly and painfully aware that selfishness, self-will is the besetting problem of everyone's fallen nature. So I try always to please God; I try to do what I believe here and now at this moment, I believe He wants me to do. By cultivating the habit of never asking if something is pleasant or easy that has nothing to do with what I'm suppose to be doing. The only question that my will should ever ask - does God want it? That I try to maintain the habitual disposition of doing only God's Will and never my own.

Labors Should be Done in Union with the Church

As religious we are sons and daughters of the Church, par excellence, this means that our apostolic activity is to have the Church always in mind and always in heart. By seeking to meet the needs of the Church and not of society at large or the state, or of some organization, our primary purpose is not even to meet the needs of the community to which I belong. The needs of my community are always to be subordinated to the needs of the Church.

By being responsive to the desires of the Church, this means finding out what the Church wants what especially the Vicar of Christ, speaking for the Church universal, tells us the Church most needs.

The following statement is a statement of the Church of what in Her judgment as expressed by the late Pope Paul VI is the single most important apostolic need in the Church today:

"The essential mission of those religious undertaking apostolic work is the proclaiming of the word of God to others to those whom, God places along their paths so as to lead people towards the faith."

The most fundamental need in the Church today is faith; that those who don't believe in Christ might believe in Him; that those who do believe in Him might believe more deeply, more understandingly, more clearly, more firmly and above all more lovingly. But how does anyone come to believe? There's only one way - someone who already believes shares his faith. There would be no audience here and no speaker here unless we have the faith and none of us would have the faith unless someone who believes passed on his or her faith to us. What then others have given to us and at what a price we in sheer gratitude should want to pass on to others. This is the Church of God telling us religious what the world most needs in today's age of unbelief.

Dear Jesus, You called all religious to be apostles to their fellow men. Inspire us with such deep love of Your Sacred Heart that we might spend ourselves in sharing with others what You have so generously given to us. Mary Queen of Apostles pray for us.

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

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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