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The Apostolate of Religious Witness

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


  1. As we approach our next subject, the apostolate of religious witness, it will be useful to recall that both the Second Vatican Council and Pope Paul VI stress the role of religious as witnesses to the world.

  2. We know that religious are to be followers of Christ, and consequently when we speak about religious as witnesses we are really saying that Christ is the pattern of the kind of witness religious ought to give.

  3. Accordingly, I suggest that we look at the following aspects of our subject – keeping in mind that our focus of attention is on Christ, the first religious, and that, like Him, religious are to both practice the counsels and give witness to the world.
1)      Christ as exemplar of a life of the counsels and of witness to the world.
2)      Stages in the religious life, following the example of Christ, to give effective witness to the world.
3)      Implications for priorities in the religious life.

Christ as Exemplar of the Evangelical Counsels and of Witness to the World

  1. It has been customary to concentrate on the following of Christ in the practice of the evangelical counsels, and it is impossible to exaggerate this essential feature of the religious life.

  2. Christ revealed the religious life in the Gospels by living out perfect poverty, chastity and obedience.

  3. Nothing can substitute for this revelation and without faith in its value and enduring sublimity what may still be called religious life has lost its meaning. It is a meaningless term.

  4. Nor should we lose sight of this fact just because in relatively modern time have arisen what are called active religious communities, as distinct from contemplatives.

  5. No, the counsels are to be practiced by all who call themselves religious – whether active or contemplative. Or they are not religious at all.

  6. Moreover, as we know, religious life properly so called (since the rise of Secular Institutes) is identified by the fact that its members live a community life.

  • They live together

  • They pray together

  • They share together

  • They work together … and together they assist one another in living out the Beatitudes which, we are told by the Vicar of Christ, is a good description of the religious state: a lifetime, corporate commitment, to living the Beatitudes.
  1. However, Christ is imitable not only in His practice of the counsels. He is also imitable in the witness that He gave to the world which He came to save.

  2. We might distinguish the two levels of Christ’s imitability by saying that the first is attributable to Christ as an individual and the second is attributable to Christ as a social being. Of course the two are closely related, but the one is not the other.

  3. Why is it important to insist on this? Because it is possible to bifurcate the person of Christ, and divide the concept of holiness – as though a religious were growing in sanctity if he (or she) imitated Christ in His practice of the counsels, while neglecting the following of Christ in His giving witness.

  4. From still another viewpoint, we might say that practicing the counsels, for Christ, looked to the Father and to the loving fulfillment of His will; whereas bearing witness, for Christ, looked to mankind and to the people for whom He became incarnate.

Stages in the Religious Life, following Christ’s Example, to give effective Witness

  1. Here we pause to get our bearings. We really wish to do two things, at once, though not quite simultaneously.
  • We wish to see what was the sequence or order in Christ’s life, leading up to witness, which we are bidden to imitate.

  • We wish to apply the lesson from Christ’s pattern to the religious life, to see how we should now imitate Him in also giving effective witness to the world which He came to save and sanctify, but through us.
  1. When I say “stages” I do not mean that they were subsequent, to one another, or prior and a later, but that we can logically distinguish in the social aspect of Christ’s life three stadia which are closely inter-related. One depends on the other and, as such, they become the paradigm for us to imitate.

  2. These three stages can be summarized in three words:
  • Vision

  • Mission and

  • Witness

A. Let us look at each, and then apply our findings to the religious life.

Christ’s Vision

  1. The vision which Christ had was that of the Godhead, with which, as man, He was substantially united.

  2. But more specifically, as He so often told the disciples, it was the vision of the Father:
  • all that He knew had been revealed to Him by the Father

  • He was constantly beholding the Father. He knew all that the Father knew, because He and the Father were one.

Christ’s Mission

  1. The mission of Christ was His being sent by the Father into the world.

  2. Mission means apostolate, where “mission” is derived from the Latin and “apostolate” from the Greek.

  3. Essentially, then, Christ was sent as the second Person, to become a man among men, in order that He might bring to mankind the knowledge of the Father which He, as the Son, had from eternity; and which He, as man, beheld in the vision which He possessed from the moment of His incarnation.

  4. What does mission add to vision? It gives the vision its purpose or finality. Christ had experience of the Father in order that He might communicate something of the mysteries He possessed to a world that was living in darkness and the shadow of death.

Christ’s Witness

  1. The biblical word for witness is “martyr”, and we all know what martyrdom means.

  2. It meant in Christ’s case that He paid the price of His mission by dying for His vision at the hands of the very people whom He came into the world to save.

  3. What, then, does witness add to mission? It adds the crown of martyrdom that Christ endured because He was faithful to the mission, i.e., the apostolate, committed to Him by the Father.

B. Against this background, we turn to the religious life and ask what it means for those who purportedly are following Christ the whole way

  1. In the counsels and

  2. In the apostolate.

The Vision of Religious

  1. Comparable to the vision which Christ possessed in virtue of the hypostatic union is the vision of faith that religious must have, if they are to be apostolic. And their apostolate is conditioned mainly by the clarity and depth of this vision.

  2. This is the place to mention the need for constant, easy communion with God in prayer, if this vision of faith is to be sustained.

  3. Prayer is the language of faith; it is the atmosphere of faith; it is the nourishment of faith; it is also the object of faith, since what we pray about is what we believe, and that we believe is the reason we pray. Those who believe pray; those who believe little, pray little. This is the verdict of all religious history.

The Mission of Religious

  1. Parallel with Christ’s mission from the Father, is the mission that all Christians, but in a special way religious, have received from Christ.

  2. It is remarkable that Christ remained visibly on earth only a very short time. He gave His followers the mandate to carry on what He had started.

  3. But we are focusing on the mission, i.e., the apostolate of religious. And we should be clear too, as religious, that we have only one basic apostolate or mission. It is to sanctify the world, which means to make it Christlike, which means to not merely save sinners but to produce saints.

  4. Obviously, though, we shall be as effective in sanctifying others as we are holy ourselves. And it is here that all the emphasis possible should be placed on personal holiness in us, born of our vision of faith, as a pre-condition for reproducing holiness in others.

  5. St. Ignatius calls it, in simpler terms, the law of supernatural procreation.

  6. I suggest that the apostolates of religious communities be courageously reassessed to remove such enterprises as are only tangential to the sanctification of those in whose welfare we labor.

  7. Think of the irony of Catholic schools, kindergarten through 12th grade, and college, where religion or theology is the least important part of the curriculum, or only dimly Catholic, or at least not given the primacy which it should have when (and if ) the apostolate of education is consistent with the purpose for which a religious institute was founded, namely to sanctify mankind.

The Witness of Religious

  1. Finally we come to the witness of religious life, which manifestly follows on Mission if the latter is truly imitative of the Master and first Apostle.

  2. What does it mean? it means that there is a price, a heavy price, attached to the religious apostolate. It is the price that Christ paid for His apostolate on earth. Let us review it:
  1. He was opposed by those who envied His success.

  2. He was hated by those whom He rebuked for their sins.

  3. He was betrayed by those on whom He had conferred so many benefits.

  4. He was abandoned by those who found His teaching too much to accept.

  5. He was misunderstood, maligned, and put to death. Why? Because He did so much good…? No, because He was faithful to His vision and loyal to His mission. In a word, He was crucified.

Christ spelled out what this witness to revealed truth will cost those who wish to proclaim His message of salvation to the world. It occurs in the Sermon on the Mount, and its full import is sometimes lost because verses that belong together are often separated. Let us read the whole passage in its full context. It begins with the last Beatitude and goes on in a way that perhaps we have not looked at before.

Happy those who are persecuted in the cause of right; theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Happy are you when people abuse you and speak all kinds of calumny against you on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven; this is how they persecuted the prophets before you.
You are the salt of the earth. But if salt becomes tasteless, what can make it salty again? It is good for nothing, and can only be thrown out to be trampled under foot by men.

The lesson is too painfully obvious to be missed. If, as the Second Vatican Council tells us, religious life is a lifetime commitment to the practice of the Beatitudes, this includes the eighth Beatitude too.

Accordingly, we have been called by God to give the world in our day the witness of the truth by living up to the demands of our state of life – which is to be a life of immolation after the pattern of Christ.

Part of this witnessing to the truth is the opposition we shall (note shall) experience, not only from expected sources outside the Church, even as Christ predicted that our worst enemies are going to be members of our own household.

Naturally we shrink from non-acceptance or, worse, rejection for being loyal to the Master. But let us not be fooled. One sign that we are witnessing to Christ’s truth is that we are opposed. Teaching the truth, proclaiming the truth, living the truth always arouses opposition – as it did when Truth became man and went to His death, ultimately, for being the Truth.

Then Christ’s warning. Comparing us to the salt of the earth, he reminds us that we have been called by Him in order to be used by Him.

He gave us extraordinary graces that we might be channels of grace to others.

He gave us extraordinary faith that we might strengthen the faith of others.

He gave us extraordinary love – through no credit on our part – that we might animate others to love God more.

But if we fail Christ, and we can, then we shall be rejected by Christ. Like the salt of the Gospel, we shall be good for nothing but to be thrown out to be trampled underfoot by men.

This is a terrifying threat that history tells us has more than once been visited on religious who had failed in the apostolic purpose for which they were called.

Our intention here is to hear Christ’s threat of rejection if we fail in promoting His cause, and be sobered by its implications. We beg Him not to fail Him, so that He might not discard us as religious but use us, indeed, use us up as a whole-burned offering in the extension of His kingdom among the sons and daughters of men.

Yet we do not stop with meditating on Christ’s threat and fearing the consequences if we prove unworthy of our apostolic calling.

Rather, we seek to be inspired by Christ’s promise of beatitude, which means happiness – already in this life – if we wear ourselves out for His name.

This happiness, deep down in the interior of our souls, is part of the logic of the Christian witness we are called to the religious life to give. How so?

As people see us happy, obviously enjoying the following of Christ and happy – would you believe it – to carry His cross, they will first be incredulous and then astonished and finally drawn to accept and follow Jesus Christ also.

Everyone wants to be happy. And if the generous imitation of Christ brings such evident joy as people see us experience, they will want to believe in the same Christ that we worship and want to give themselves to His service too.

Our witness, then, will be as effective as we testify by the joy that is ours, that the only way to happiness in life – even this life – is in self-surrender to the loving although demanding will of God.

Copyright © 2003 by Inter Mirifica

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