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Retreat - The Essentials of the Religious Life
Doctrinal Formation: What is the Catholic Church?
December 31, 1983 Afternoon Conference
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Suppose we first get our bearings. We are reflecting on the necessary lifetime formation, especially in doctrine urged on all religious in the New Code of Canon Law. We are told that this continual formation should be both doctrinal and practical; where the doctrine has to do with what we believe, and the practical concerns how we are to live up to our belief.
In our last conference, we reflected on the question; Who is Jesus Christ? That question, if you recall, He asked His own disciples. "Who do you say that I am?" It is the most fundamental question that any human being can be asked. Who, in your judgment, is Jesus Christ? Depending on how that question is answered; everything else either follows or nothing else can be asked.
In our present conference, we go a step further and again rely on the Nicene Creed. "We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church." As we did before, so now, let us consider each of the four marks as they are called. The four marks of identity by which the Church founded by Christ is recognized. As we meditate on the meaning of these four marks, let us apply each Truth to our own religious lives.
The Church is one. When we profess to believe that the Church founded by Christ is one, we are immediately reminded of Christ's prayer at the Last Supper when He prayed to His Heavenly Father:
" that all may be one as you, Father, are in Me, and I in you; I pray that they may be one in us that the world may believe that you sent Me: that they may be one, as We are one I living in them, you living in Me that their unity may be complete."
What kind of unity did Christ want His Church to have, and that by His grace she has possessed since the beginning? It is, first of all, a unity of faith where all that belong to the true Church believe the same mysteries of Christianity. Either one believes these mysteries and is a Catholic or one does not believe and is not a Catholic. Where is the true Church? It is in the most distant parts of the globe where people believe in the same Truths revealed by Christ.
This unity is, moreover, a unity of Worship. All true followers of Christ receive the same sacraments; are baptized in the same way; participate in the same Mass; adore Christ in the same Holy Eucharist; confess their sins and obtain absolution by the same words of Divine forgiveness; are married according to the same ritual; priests are ordained by the same imposition of hands; and before death the faithful are anointed by the same Holy Oil and the same plea for God's Mercy.
We ask again, What is this unity of the Church that we believe when we say 'We believe in the one Church?' It is a unity of Law, and how critical this is today. It is a unity where all true believers accept the same legislation from the Church's authority on all the faithful according to the different rights in communion with the one true Church of Christ.
It is, finally, a unity of obedience under Bishops who are united among themselves. It is all Bishops, priests, religious and laity united in common alligence to the Bishop of Rome; the Vicar of Christ, and the Prince of the Apostles.
Sure, people have a free will. Of course there has been disunity, but where there is disunity there is non-Christianity. Having said all of this, dogmatically as the expression goes, what does the Church's unity tell us religious? It tells us first and most practically, to be united among ourselves as religious. All the pious talk about unifying the Church will be just that, pious talk, unless it begins at home. Remember, these articles of Faith which we profess to believe when we recite the Nicene Creed are not only to be believed with the mind; they are to be lived with the will, and how hard it is for the will, say for us religious, to bend itself in unity under one superior; him or herself finally subject to the one Bishop of Rome.
What does this unity tell us religious? That we are to be united with the faithful who are, in light of themselves, united with the Bishops and priests. We are to be united, with strong insistence and spelled out explicitly in the Code, to the highest Superior of every religious in the world; the Bishop of Rome. United with him by knowing what he is teaching, by being aware of his directives, and by being loyal, if need be to the shedding of our blood, in defending the person of the Vicar of Christ.
I believe that not a small amount of the disunity in the Church today, and there is enough of it to be a scandal, is the result of failure, of not a few religious, to be united as they should be - or as we should be - as our Faith tells us. We are obliged to be united among ourselves in the love to which we have vowed ourselves. We are to be united in faith under the Church's authority, terminating in the successor of St. Peter. How a disunited, dismembered world wants the witness; dear Lord, how it needs the witness of our patient, painful unity.
The second mystery of our Faith regarding the Church; the Church is Holy. As with unity, so with holiness, it is the Will of Christ and the main reason that God became man.
When St. Paul told the contemporaries of his day, "This is the Will of God, your sanctification," he was simply repeating what Christ had preached throughout His public ministry. We are to be holy as our Heavenly Father is Holy. As we have been saying, that is why the Father sent His Son; one in nature with the Father. God became a human being in order, by the practice of His human virtues, He might reveal to us, and make imitable the Holiness of God, so that by following Christ 'Our Way' we might experience Christ 'Our Life.' This in a way is the most demanding of the four marks of the Church on us religious.
We believe that the Church is Holy. What are the implications for us? It implies the gravest duty of our vocation and the main reason of our existence as religious in the Church of God. Everything is secondary to this primary obligation. That is why we are called religious! Religion has to do with God. Either we are holy or we are hypocrites.
What is our vocation? We are called to be holy; we are called to be virtuous; we are called to be sinless; we are called to be Christ-like; we are called to be because Christ is God, God-like. This is no pious rhetoric, we are called, in plain English, to be saints!
Surely, it is no coincidence, but an eloquent testimony to the truth of the Gospel, and vindicating the purpose of religious life that the majority of the saints honored, as such, by the Church have been religious, and I feel safe in saying will be religious. This is true even with a St. Catherine of Siena or a St. Rose of Lima. They were saints affiliated with religious communities while they themselves lived in the world. This is not unimportant. We are to become saints ourselves and to make others saints. Whatever else we do as religious, and there are many labors, yet in whatever we engage, our main focus must always be to become personally holy in order that we may be used by God to sanctify others.
Much of what I know in the spiritual life, I have learned, obviously, from St. Ignatius. St. Ignatius tells us that saints reproduce saints; holy people generate holy people, and by way of contrast, unholy people reproduce unholy people. That is why the devil tempted and successfully seduced our first parents, to make them unholy like himself. This then is the verdict of Christian history. Sanctity is meant to be prolific; it is meant to be reproductive. None of us, in the design of God, are meant to be holy in order to admire our own beautiful sanctity! God Forbid!
If this is the verdict of Christian history, it is also our very grave responsibility. Once again, I dare say that where and when, and to whatever extent the Church has not been holy in past centuries or is not now as holy as she could or should be; religious men and women, who are not truly religious, are mainly to blame.
Correspondently, where the faithful are holy and pleasing to God, and living up to the sometimes heroic demands of their state of life, and the demands, for example, for married people in the world today can be heroic, you will commonly find religious who have by their example, and teaching, and prayer, and sacrifice contributed considerably to the sanctity of the Church in their day.
Continuing on, we profess to believe that the Church is catholic. To say that the Church is catholic is to simply affirm that she is universal. Merely the Greek equivalent for the Latin derivative universal. Christ could not have made it plainer when He told His disciples just before His Ascension to " Go preachthe Gospel to all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." Among the evangelists, the great evangelist of universality is St. Luke; you'd expect that since he was the disciple of St. Paul.
So we ask once more, how is the Church catholic? She is first of all catholic by the intention of her Founder who wants all human beings to hear the Good News of Salvation. That is a painful statement to make. There are four and a-half billion people in the world today; they have not all heard the Good News of Salvation. Remember what the angels sang on Christmas morning? This will be Good News; Joy to all people. Christ wants all human beings, no exception, to receive the sacrament of Baptism; He wants all to believe in the Real Presence; and He wants all to be nourished on His own Living Body and Blood.
How again is the Church catholic? She is catholic by the phenomenal, we may say miraculous, diffusion that she has had to the far corners of the earth; to people in every walk and state of life; among cultures that are as different as the people in India, London, Rome, Johannesburg, San Diego, and New York. Yes, the Church has diffused to every point of the compass, but the diffusion is unlike, for example, Islam which was also diffused. How was Islam diffused? By Fire and Sword. Mohammed and the Koran tells his followers to preach his law to them; try to persuade them, and if the people will not accept his law let them first be subjugated; if they refuse to live peacefully in subjection, let them be killed. It is those passages of Koran that are the bedrock of so much of the convulsion in the Near East today, but not Christianity; not Christ her Founder.
This marvelous diffusion of the Church has been, not by the power of the sword, but as with so many of the martyrs, by the shedding of their blood through the sword. Surely, this is a miracle. The provocation over the centuries of a Faith that makes such extreme demands on weak human nature; humility, charity, chastity, obedience, patience, and in opposition to the forces of evil and power in the world; nevertheless, hundreds of millions in every society and in every culture call themselves Catholics.
We are not quite finished with our analysis of the meaning of the word catholic. Once more, how is She catholic, this Church of Christ? She is catholic because She and She alone has remained loyal, among all the so called Christian bodies, to all the teachings of her Master - even the hard ones. She has not compromised on the sanctity and indissolubility of marriage; on abstention of carnal experience outside of marriage; on the sanctity of unborn human life; and on the dignity of women.
So the universality is not only geographic or cultural, it is also doctrinal. Accepting the Church, does require of her followers obedience to even the hardest demands of Jesus Christ.
How does the Church's Catholicity affect us religious? It should inspire our zeal by prayer and sacrifice, doing all we can directly or indirectly to bring every human being on the face of the earth under the sway of the sweet yoke of Christ. It should inspire us to spend ourselves according to our vocation and begging God to increase the number and sanctity of the Church's members. But as I dared say before, I dare say now; only God knows in His Wisdom why so many hundreds of millions are not yet Catholic or Christian or haven't even heard the names of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. There are many reasons; the lack of zeal among religious; comfortable, convenient, cozy.
From the Novitiate days on, I came to know and love my Jesuit confrere St. Francis Xavier. He wrote letters he said like a madman from India to the people in Europe especially to religious.
"Here there are teeming millions hanging on to every word that I preach, begging to have me pour the waters of Baptism over them, but where are the zealous workers?"
"People, he said "are going to hell because of your laziness."
We are still on earth, we don't know only God knows who and to what extent they are responsible, but we are speaking to ourselves. Please God, we shall not only recite the word catholic when we profess the Creed, but live it. We belong to this Church, and the only reason that we have the faith today is because others have worked and slaved and shed their blood, so we might believe. When we pray, and as religious how often we pray the Our Father, and say 'Thy kingdom come,' we are praying for the Catholic Church that she might be more catholic in being more universal in the persons who belong to Christ's Mystical Body on earth; that they might be more generous in giving themselves wholly to the Will of God.
Finally, the Church is apostolic. The expression apostolic means many things. It means that Christ built His Church on the Apostles; they the Apostles are the pillars on whom Christ established His Mystical Body. It was to the Apostles that He entrusted the mysteries of revelation; hidden as He said from the foundations of the world. It was from the Apostles that He made the first leaders in the first century. This is so true, that historians tell us that by the year 100 A.D. there were over 100 dioceses along the shores of the Mediterranean. Every single diocese originally started either by an Apostle or by someone sent by an Apostle to carry on the work of Christ. Thomas went all the way to India; James to the edge of Spain; and the other Apostles throughout the then civilized world.
For all these reasons the Church is apostolic, but She is especially apostolic in the fact that the night before He died, Christ ordained the Apostles. He made them priests and Bishops, and gave them a share in His own powers and ministry. That, by the way, is the heart of the Church's apostolicity.
How then is the Church apostolic? We keep repeating in many ways, but none more fundamentally than the true church is a priestly church. The Catholic Church traces the ancestry of every priest and Bishop in the world today to those first twelve men whom Christ raised to the dignity. Remove the priesthood and you destroy the Catholic Church; weaken the priesthood and you weaken the Church. The enemies of Christ have always known this, and have acted shrewdly on their knowledge. That is why every persecution of the Catholic Church, from the first century to the twentieth is mainly aimed at the priesthood and the episcopacy. Try; that is what the devil instigates the Church's enemies to do; try by all manner of satanic means to confuse priests, to seduce priests, to frighten priests, to secularize priests, to deceive priests, and if they resist crush Bishops and priests by putting them in prison; setting them into helpless exile; and if they still resist kill them. One of my greatest joys is that in Spain alone, in this century, the Society of Jesus has had over three thousand martyrs. Oh, how I thrill to quote that statistic.
What does all of this mean to us religious? There are many responsibilities that it imposes. They are to be faithful to the Church's apostolic mission. No matter how cloistered or contemplative we are, we dare not at the risk of losing God's grace, be uninterested or indifferent to the apostolate needs of the Church. We are to be obedient in our apostolate, to the directives of those who hold legitimate authority in the Church, but above all we must pray and beg God. We must do penance and offer sacrifice to insure the Divine Grace to protect Bishops and priests from the hostility and treachery and blandishment of the antichrist; who is very active in the world today. He is centering his malice on the successors of the Apostles; the Bishops and priests of the Catholic Church.
We close with a prayer. Dear Lord, the day You died on the Cross Your Church came into being. She was born of Your open-side on Calvary. Help us, Dear Lord, to know this Church You founded; to love Her; to proclaim Her; and Jesus, we ask this knowing what we are saying, if it is Your Will to die for Her. Amen
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