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History of Religious Life Up to Vatican II
New Testament Origins of the Religious Life – Part 1

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

The Institute of Religious Life and the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence of Chicago bring you a series of lectures given by Father John A. Hardon S.J. on the theme: The History of Religious Life. Father John Hardon is a Professor of Theology at St. John’s University in New York. He is a well-known lecturer and consultant to various national, religious and educational enterprises and is renowned as a retreat master and spiritual director. Father Hardon is the author of many articles and books including Holiness in the Church and The Catholic Catechism, which has been strongly endorsed by Holy Mother Church. In this first lecture of this series on the History of Religious Life, Father Hardon speaks on the subject: New Testament Origins of the Religious Life. Father Hardon.

Foundations in the Revealed Word of God

I would like to, now, go over with you so we have something of a birds-eye view of the classes we intend to cover during the year. It has to be necessarily short. I do this in order to have you see, not only, the individuals or the ideas contained under each heading but, especially, the relationship between the different titles of our handling of the matter in class. The New Testament Origins of the Religious Life, which we will look at after this opening survey of the History of Religious Life over the centuries. Here, of course, the purpose is to verify that religious life has, indeed, its foundations in the revealed Word of God.

Second: Christian Perfection the First Two Centuries After Christ. We shall look at different classes of persons of whom we have record, who following in the footsteps of the disciples of the Master became what we would call the first religious. There were virgins, there were ascetics and very early there were hermits. About some of these people we don’t know a great deal being almost two-thousand years removed. But we know enough to say that from the beginning there were those followers of Christ who listened to His teaching, followed the directives of the Church, but who did not aspire to a special intimacy or to live a life of what we now call Christian perfection. There were those who did not, thus aspire and those that did.

Third: The Origins of Christian Monasticism. Now this is centuries before St. Benedict, because long before Benedict came on the scene there had been Communities of Religious. Although Benedict, surely, was the Father of, at least, Western Monasticism, he was not the Father or Founder of Monasticism. We have, providentially a fairly long and remarkably detailed life of, at least, the reputed Father of Monasticism, St. Antony of Egypt by Athanasius whom you may remember as the one who almost single-handedly fought Arius, as the result of which the First Council at Nicea condemned the Arian heresy which denied Christ’s Divinity. Athanasius wrote the life of Antony since Antony lived to 356A.D. That, by the way, is not a misprint; he lived 351 to 356. He was very ascetic, very mortified. Anytime you’re tempted to wonder whether mortification might not shorten your life, think of Antony. Ballast mortification so far from shortening will prolong your life, if you haven’t heard this. In any case, Antony, the Founder of Monasticism, laid the groundwork for what later on became the principal form of religious life in the Catholic Church.

Fourth: St. Augustine. Most people never think of Augustine as having anything to do with religious life and, surely, Augustine’s own early life is, you might say, the worst possible preparation you might think for the religious life. Augustine should comfort all of us. If he could make it, so could we. If we have a past, Augustine had one too. We shall see that the Rule of St. Augustine for women religious is the first distinctive draft of a rule of life for women. Augustine, and I don’t mean this facetiously, understood women. His Rule for both men, but for our purpose, especially for women is wise in the extreme. There is a sense in which all institutes of women that are not monastic somehow follow the Rule of St. Augustine.

Fifth: The Rise and Growth of Western Monasticism. Notice we distinguish in number five between Western and what by then has come to be known as Eastern Monasticism. Before we go into St. Benedict we shall look at the Monasticism in Italy. In Gaul, modern France and Ireland. Had it not been for the missionaries of Italy, Gaul, the Celts - which would be England and Ireland, most of us now would not have the Faith. They were the first great missionaries. This is even before Benedict. Then, of course Benedict himself and the Rule of Benedict, for your reading.

Sixth: The Decline and Reformation of Religious Life after St. Benedict. You might say to yourself when religious just kind of came into existence there was already a decline. Yes, Sisters, there’s already a decline. Now, of course, it took us less than fifteen minutes to get to number six and we’re already in the tenth century. Part of the History of Religious Life, and we shall try to see as much as we can of, is there is an origin with great fervor and zeal. There is a rise and development reaching a peak of fervor and, then being human, Religious decline, weaken and then one of two things happens. We’re living in one of these periods of a massive decline in Religious Life in the western world. One of two things happens: Either the communities reform or they disappear. And, historically, most of them have disappeared. That’s the first lesson we learn. And it’s a very salutary lesson for us today!

We shall look at a certain number of great names then choose among them, for your reading, from the writings of St. Bernard whereby history and that’s only, well, only the tenth and eleventh centuries. Less than five hundred years after Benedict, there was a massive decline in Monasticism. Bernard is one of the Benedictine reformers.

Seventh: St Francis of Assisi and the Witness to Evangelical Poverty. From now on, I think consistently to the end, the subject of the theme of what we will deal with in the class will be a period of time from the previous to the one we are taking, featuring some one great figure; and then that person’s relationship to some phase of the religious life that has a history. With Francis the great need was for witnessing to poverty. With the rise of the industrial revolution, with commerce, finance, with the use of money, not merely as a means of barter but as a means of developing what became the rise of capitalism; there was need in the Church for someone to witness to poverty. And, of course, the need is more than ever acute today.

This was the beginning of the Mendicant Orders. I wonder if someone knows what the word mendicant means. What does the verb, the Latin word mendicare mean? To-to beg. My dear friends in Christ, every religious institute today should look to whether it has lost this vision of the religious life. Are we so secure, financially? Have we such, such fixed revenues, so much real estate and secure assets that one of the most important features of religious life, namely trust in Providence has become more academic than real. Begging, in some form or another is part, in my humble estimation, part of the religious life.

Number Eight: St. Dominic. Francis and Dominic were contemporaries. Quite unlike Francis, who was not a learned pedagogue, and only with considerable difficulty that Franciscans in time get into a field of education or other more sophisticated ministries; St. Dominic from the very beginning, wanted his men to be learned, most of them to be priests, all of them, certainly the priests, to be eloquent preachers and to profess and defend the Truth. And while there had already been some medieval universities in existence before Dominic came on the scene, we can quite safely say that St. Dominic is mainly responsible for the higher education in the whole world today! He was the one who saw the need for some in the Church knowing their Faith better than the average and especially to cope with - along with the rise of industrialism, and capitalism - the rise of learning! He realized learned people could remain good Christians.

God Leaves No Problems Insoluble

But no less than money is a temptation and keeps people from following Christ the way they should, hence, a St. Francis: So learning can be a hindrance to the humble and docile following of Christ; hence, the rise of a St. Dominic. As we go through the course one thing I want you to keep your eye open for, on how carefully God makes sure that as problems arise or needs exist, He makes sure there’s somebody around in force to cope with the problem. Leave it to God to leave no problems insoluble.

Number Nine: St. Ignatius of Loyola and the Society of Jesus. The great crisis that struck the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century like a hurricane was the Protestant Reformation. Due in large measure to the ignorance of the clergy and to massive disloyalty to the Holy See, Ignatius came into existence providentially to meet that crisis and, of course, the crisis is with us still. To help educate especially priests and to make sure that everyone especially the leaders of the Church were loyal to the Vicar of Christ.

The Price of Reforming Other People’s Lives is High

Number Ten: Teresa of Avila and the Carmelite Reform. When we handle this subject we shall take both Teresa and John together. As I’m sure, as you know from your reading so far, it’s not quite clear who was directing whom; whether John was directing Teresa or she was directing him. I suppose it was mutual. In any case, there was grave need for the reform of contemplative life. Teresa was chosen by God to make sure that even as the more active apostolic communities were being reformed, the contemplative would be reformed too. I’m sure we all know also how much it cost John and Teresa to reform their own respective Institutes. John spent a fair amount of time in jail, imprisoned by his own brethren. And Teresa, in traveling from one community to another often with great difficulties and immense hardships, more than once when she came to a community she was going to reform; she did not trust her Sisters whom she was trying to reform with not trying to take her life. There were convents in which she would make sure she ate only such things as she was sure would not be poisoned. The price of reforming other people’s lives is always high. If you want to live a peaceful, quiet, serene life, don’t try to reform anybody.

Vision of Involving Women in Active Apostolate

Number Eleven: St. Francis and St. Jane Frances de Chantal. De Sales, of course, was the director of St. Jane. Francis de Sales had the vision of involving women in the active apostolate; anyway that prior in his day was not done. He did not succeed, but his vision was eventually put into effective practice by St. Vincent. In the process, however, Francis de Sales gave the world what I’d say is the most important spiritual classic for the laity: The Introduction to the Devout Life that I will ask all of you to read some selections from; and St. Jane who, as you know, went through all the states of life: Singlehood, Marriage, Widowhood and then the Foundress of a Religious Institute. Down to earth, deeply spiritual but, immanently, practical.

Society of Jesus to Promote Devotion to the Sacred Heart

I have a soft spot in my heart for the Visitation Sisters because my mother, after I entered the Order wanted to become a nun. She would have wanted to long before but I stood in the way. Well, the Visitendines didn’t take her. I’m not sure whether this is the reason but the Provincial wrote to me. Said; “We understand you know this woman.” I can’t imagine they didn’t compare the two names; there might be some at least coincidental similarity. So I wrote a long letter praising this candidate to the skies. They didn’t take her. Her health was poor and at any rate she saw me ordained, then passed on.

And the Visitation Sisters are also very precious to the heart of every Jesuit - I wonder why. Who gave the modern world the devotion to the Sacred Heart? Saint Margaret Mary. And among the revelations that she received from Our Lord was that he wants the Society of Jesus to promote the devotion to the Sacred Heart.

Totally New Vision of Religious Life

Number Twelve: Vincent de Paul and the Apostolate of Christian Charity. With number twelve we enter on a totally new vision of Religious Life. For the first time in the history of the Church papably-approved institutes were allowed to take simple vows and women, remaining full religious, were permitted to exercise their apostolate outside the cloistered walls of a Convent. Sporadic attempts here and there had been done and tried before. Vincent de Paul with the Sisters of Charity is why all of you women religious are here today.

Vision of Spiritualizing Those Whom We Affect

Thirteen: St. Alphonsus and the Development of Popular Piety. Alphonsus came on the scene during the suppression of the Society of Jesus. In any case, he founded the Redemptorists and the Redemptoristines. He was one from whom we should learn especially a lot about exporting – if that’s the word – or communicating more accurately – our own spirituality to the laity that enter our lives. Let’s make sure that we talk about our apostolates. There are certain kinds of things I’m going to come to all through the year – this is one of them. Our apostolates are two-fold. They are, first, the apostolate of sanctification. We are first to engage in the apostolate to sanctify others. And then, secondly, to engage in whatever specialized work of corporal or spiritual mercy we or our Community may be engaged in. Everything that a Franciscan touches, every person who enters a Franciscan’s life should somehow bring the spirit of St. Francis – into a class in mathematics. In putting my notes together to keep some tract of all the lectures and conferences I’ve given over the years, I’ve begun to index my lectures and conferences. I found one two days ago; a lecture on mathematics and in sixty minutes, I managed to bring God into that lecture. So St. Alphonsus caught the vision of spiritualizing those who we affect and not merely working with them in a specialized apostolate.

Fourteen: St. Elizabeth Seton and American Spirituality. As you read, which I would put in your hands, the decree of Canonization of St. Elizabeth and the homily of Pope Paul after her Canonization, you should lay to rest once and for all the myth that Americans cannot become saints. Pope Paul couldn’t have been more emphatic. He said almost in so many words to us Americans. Look! We are canonizing this American-born, American-bred person to convince you that you are to become holy and get a few more saints into the catalogue. There is nothing incompatible between being a true American and being a Saint. We need that kind of encouragement.

Theresa of Lisieux Makes Attaining Sanctity Look Easy

Number Fifteen: Theresa of Lisieux, Patroness of the Missions. Here of course you can’t imagine the huddle I went in with myself – of all the saints, modern ones I could have picked – you name them; the last thirty years several hundred people as you know have been canonized. Why choose the Little Flower? Well, first of all she’s popular. Secondly at least she makes attainment of sanctity look easy. Moreover, and what a moreover this is, she did all she did apostolic to the nth degree and along with Francis Xavier who baptized over one-hundred thousand people; a life of prayer and sacrifice were prodigiously apostolic.

We Can Save Souls without Preaching a Sermon

And as St. Ignatius told us in the long, weary years we’re in study and formation – it took seventeen years for me from the time I entered the Novitiate, after one week of Postulancy – seventeen years from the time of entrance to finally take my last vows. Years of, believe me, of not easy study; you don’t read books and study year after year, in my case till the age of thirty-seven. You want to scream, you don’t want to look at another book! Ignatius told us, “You are saving souls while you are in formation.” The sacrifice, the things you would like to be doing you’re told, you can’t do it. I came to my Dean while I was in Theology – I told him, I want to write a book. I had the whole plan made out for it. He says, “You’re kidding?” “I’m not kidding; I’m serious.” “Write a book? You’re in studies.” “Well, I’ve got plenty of time; the studies are easy.” “I told you, forget it!” So, I waited till after my ordination and then I published the book. In other words, then we can save souls without preaching a sermon, writing a book, or doing anything in the external apostolate. We need to hear that, don’t we?

God is Pleased with the Hidden Life

And the Little Flower was canonized, as the Church tells us, mainly to teach us that God is pleased with the hidden life and not only because we save our souls but we bring many souls to heaven with us.

Unchanging Continuity in Religious Life

Finally as a capstone, need I tell you, the subject of number sixteen could well have been the title of a two-semester course; Right? And pardon my lack of modesty in saying this - I’m sure I could give you a two-semester course on Religious Life and in the light of the Second Vatican Council. What we wish to see, however, is the new insights – there has been real development of doctrine. There are then, summarily, as we finish this first part of today’s class; there are two purposes for taking this course as I see it. The first is to see the unchanging continuity in religious life from the New Testament to modern times. And the second is to see the development, the progress, the adaptation to the times, the adjustments. There are more to the essential elements, the discovering new insights that were always there, but had never been brought to the surface. In other words, we want to see, in this course, nineteen centuries of the unchangeable religious life in a changing world. To know just the one would be unbalanced. To know just the other without the first would be a tragedy. I really believe that most of the problems in religious communities today and the problems are grave in the extreme, argue, even though less seldom, to communities wanting to hold onto things that need adjustment. Or more seriously and more tragically, they’re adapting to everything. To the world and in the process losing that substance without which - you may have adaptation all right - but you no longer have religious life.

Foundations of Religious Life Are in Divine Revelation

There are many reasons for beginning our study on the History of Religious life by paying some attention to its origins in the New Testament. Whatever else Religious Life means, it should mean a complete and whole soul’s dedication of oneself to God. But this kind of commitment is impossible without strong motivation. The higher the demands, the stronger must be the motive to meet them. And the strongest motives a Christian can find for making the sacrifices the religious life calls for - is the belief that the foundations of this life are in Divine Revelation. In a word like the crusaders were told - Deus Volt, God wills it. But we have to be sure that God wants it!

Moreover, another reason; persuasive voices are being heard these days and ideas are being circulated in Catholic circles raising doubts as to whether religious life might not after all be only a later development of the Church or by the Church: If that were true, religious life would not properly belong to Christian Revelation which, as we know, closed with the death of the last Apostle. It would somehow be a creation of the Church, no doubt, under divine guidance but what the Church can create, the Church can un-create.

Guarantee of Permanence and Stability

Otherwise, then, if it’s not based on Revelation, religious life does not have the absolute guarantee of permanence and stability. By now there have been so many changes in the Catholic Church’s way of doing so many things that we’d better be certain that this one thing is revealed by God because that the Church cannot change. Can it change, for example, can the Catholic Church drop one of the Sacraments, six instead of seven? Why not? Because Christ instituted seven. Can the Church institute an eighth sacrament - to have an even number? No! In other words, even if it was not God but the Church that instituted religious life, the Church can change the substance of what She herself has brought into being. And not a few are arguing that the present confusion in religious institutes is symptomatic of the future. If there will be a religious life in the future, so the argument runs, it would be so radically different from what it used to be, it might just as well be said to phase out of existence. I hope none of you has any doubt there are some who are saying this. We should also have no doubt that they are wrong! But the assurance that they are wrong is the fact that the Religious Life is revealed. So that as long as there is a Catholic Church and that will be till the end of time, there will be religious life. We didn’t used to talk this way even twenty years ago. We didn’t have to. We’d better talk this way now! We need to! For these and similar reasons, it is not only interesting but imperative that we satisfy ourselves on the fact that the substations of religious life were already laid in the first century in what we call the Apostolic Age. So much by way of introduction.

First: Jesus the First Religious. I have lectured on this aspect of the religious life so often that unless there are some total strangers in class today – and I think there are some I have never met before – most of you will somewhere have heard what I will share with you. Pardon the unavoidable repetition. Why do we say that Jesus is the first Religious? We say that because He not only became chronologically first but because what He was and what He taught is primary for whatever follows. This is not only a chronological but a logical primacy. Christ remains the principal motive why there are religious and the principal means why there are religious. His Life is our motive and His grace is our means.

The Four Pillars of Christ’s Religious Life

We might synthesize Christ’s life and the example and grace He gives us under four captions: Christ’s Love, Christ’s Service, Christ’s Sacrifice and Christ’s Grace. They are the Four Pillars of His own Life as a Religious and for us the motive and the means of trying to imitate Him.

Love is the Highest Reason

First: Love. When we speak of Christ being a Religious, we must make sure that He did so because He wanted to. It was the purest freedom – no coercion. We choose something freely with no compulsion, no coercion because we love. Pure freedom is pure love. God in the Person of Christ became man just to please His heavenly Father. He did all He did, lived the way He lived not because He had to – He didn’t have to redeem us. Did Christ have to become Man to save the world? No! As Man did He have to die to redeem the world? No! Did He have to die on the Cross? No! All of this was free choice and if there is one thing that stands as the keystone in the arch of religious life, it is the loving freedom with which some people follow Christ in becoming religious and remain religious: Because they love! And when you love, you don’t have to have reasons, get it? Love is the highest reason. And when you really come down to it, it’s the only reason. All others are arguments.

Show Love by Deeds

Second: Service. This Master who is our Master, which means Teacher, as the First Religious loved indeed: Loved the Father and loved those whom He wished to save. But

His Love was a fertile love. It was a fruitful love. He did something to manifest His love for the Father. To manifest His love for the Father He undertook to serve the needs of His fellow human beings, though as He saw, were steeped in sin and badly needed a Savior. That’s the second lesson the Master teaches us. That when you love it’s not mere interior affection or sentiment. You do something. You show your love by deeds. Another name for that is service. What’s service? Love in action. As by now enough wives have told me about their husbands, sometimes even if the husband’s hear it, Father if you would read the love letters he sent while we were engaged, you’d think he was a budding Keats or Shakespeare. Sonnets, I didn’t think it was in him but somehow I suspected he copied them. But once we married, he became tongue-tied. Oh he would once in awhile he tells me he loves me. Watch him! If we love someone, we just don’t tell him, we show it. Christ showed that He loved by serving. But once again, and there’s a divine logic among these four pillars, as we’re calling them, of Christ’s being the first religious. There is service, and service. We can serve reluctantly almost rebelliously or we can serve with eagerness and cheerfulness. Or we can be shrewd and choose; we look around. There are ways of serving but the service will be cheap. Then there is service that is costly.

Costly Service is Sacrifice

Another name for costly service is sacrifice. That’s the third quality of Christ as the First Religious. It was total self-surrender even as we know from the narratives in all four gospels to the shedding of His Blood. The shedding of blood – let’s make it simple – blood belongs to the essence of religious life. I didn’t know that twenty-five years ago when I took my last vows. I know now. It’s real. It’s real! And if you’re afraid of blood, this is one profession you don’t belong in. I mean it! I’m not sure whether the bleeding of spirit is not greater than bleeding in body.

Be Ready to Shed Blood

And earlier this year, after I was offered a contract in New York with Tenure, all the trimmings by the university. In New York I get a letter from my Provincial. We want you back in the Midwest. Now we’ve got colleges in the Midwest too, in case you’ve forgotten. So I had my conference and I came totally ready to pack up and come back. His predecessor; he was a new Provincial – told me I go to the East. This man, much younger than me, by the way his doctorate is not in Theology, it’s in economics. So we talked and he made it clear he wanted me back. Well, how do you feel about all of this? I said, you’re, you’re in charge. You’re the boss. There was at least a thin trickle of blood. All right, if that’s the way you feel, you can stay in New York. Blood belongs to Religious Life and Christ did more than elevate our sentiments by shedding His Blood on the Cross. He reminds us, if we’re going to be like Him, we’d better be ready to shed ours too.

Purpose: To Obtain Grace for Souls

Finally, why all of this exertion and effort? Why even the Crucifixion on Calvary? Christ didn’t need it. Frankly by becoming man – all He got for His efforts was rejection, abandonment, blasphemy and death. And let’s remind ourselves, Christ foresaw that. And He chose it. Thank God we’re spared; we don’t see future. Isn’t that great, how good God is! Probably most of us would panic. Yet He chose. There was a purpose. The purpose was to win grace. It was to merit the grace of salvation and sanctification for those – all of us because of His suffering and death, we then would benefit. So it remains in the Church today. We, like Christ, are to have a finality to all of this. It is true and we’ll see enough of this as we go through the course that being a religious means somehow to grow in sanctity. So it does. But it should never mean that we somehow wish to become holy for our own sakes. Look at me - covered with medals, a virtue here and a virtue there, bulging all over with sanctity. No! And let’s not forget this; people can be in the religious life twenty-five or more years without clearly seeing why. The reason why is Christ’s reason why: It is to obtain grace for souls.

Religious: Co-Redemptive Disciples with Jesus

We are religious in order to somehow be co-redemptive disciples with Jesus. There is, of course, one big difference, a fundamental one, between Him and us. Unlike Christ, we are sinners no less than the salvation of the people we labor. So even as we labor, in the imitation of Christ to obtain grace for other people; we all need, I say it, we need a bit of grace ourselves. But self-sanctification is not the end product of the religious life. Am I clear? Even that qua religious is a means to an end, apostolic end. So much for part one.

Conference transcription from a talk that Father Hardon gave to the
Institute on Religious Life

Institute on Religious Life, Inc.
P.O. Box 410007
Chicago, Illinois 60641

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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