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Religious Life

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History of Religious Life II
Great Saints and Their Spiritual Contribution
Religious Life in the Light of the Vatican Council II

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

The Institute on Religious Life and the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence of Chicago bring you the last in a series of conferences 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 last lecture, Father Hardon speaks on the subject Religious Life in the Light of the Second Vatican Council. Father Hardon:

Religious Life Since Vatican Council II

I think I would say something about religious life since the Second Vatican Council. I would like to look at it from three viewpoints. First, to identify the principle documents of the church during and since the Council, from which the both present status and future prospects of religious life somehow will stem. Then very briefly look at the problems, whose number is legion and whose solution is known to God alone will have entered religious life since the Council. And then something about the renewal and adaptation that is going on and that shows great promise into the years to come.

The Church's Teaching on Religious Life

First, therefore, the Church’s own teaching on religious life. From the pontificate of John XXIII to the present day, we have record, and we have I’d say, the only record in the world of all the documents issued by the Holy See somehow touching on religious life. The actual number that Father Korchini? gave me is 1227 documents. It is then a library so that whatever problems there are in religious life and no one doubts there are many, they do not stem from the fact that the Church has not been either clear enough or forceful enough or insistent enough as to what religious life should be. The teaching is there. However, there are six documents especially that I would single out that bear emphasis excluding the seventh which has just come out in the last year. But up to 1978, there were six. Let me give you the titles, either in Latin or English, as the case might be and say a few words about each because I would ask you anticipating whatever the Lord will provide next year, that you familiarize yourselves with at least some of the basic documentation.

Lumen Gentium

The first and fundamental document is the Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, Chapters 5 and 6. Chapter 5 is the chapter on holiness, the universal call to sanctity. Chapter 6 is on religious life. The Constitution, Lumen Gentium, as it is called, gives us the doctrinal basis for the religious life the first time in the history of Christendom. Never in almost 2,000 years has an ecumenical council of the church set forth in concise clear terms what, based on divine revelation and the church’s teaching, what is religious life. Much of the knowledge that I have about the doctrine on religious life especially as emanating from the Council, I received from Father Joseph Russo(?), an Oblate, who had been Secretary of the Sacred Congregation for Religious prior to the Council and during it and then was Secretary of the Counciliar Commission on Religious Life. He told me there were 80 meetings of bishops and superiors generally, that is, prior to the actual convening of the Council. He told me the original plan, well there were really two plans, and they were opposed to each other. There was a group of bishops, a minority, but nevertheless a strong minority that felt that religious life should not have any special document of the Second Vatican Council. They had precedent on their side because there had never been. In any case, then the question arose once that was decided that there will be documentation, will it be one single document dealing with both doctrine and norms with both what religious life is and how it should be lived. But the method that prevailed was to separate the doctrine of what religious life is, from how it’s to be lived by placing the doctrine inside the Constitution on the Church.

There was talk, as you may know, about a special document on Our Lady. A decision was to place it inside the Constitution on the Church. So that for all times, the universal church has, you might say, canonized religious life as being part and parcel of the church. As long as there will be a Catholic Church, faith tells us there always will be until the end of time there will be religious. Comforting thoughts, especially nowadays. That’s the doctrine especially in Chapter 6. Perfectae Caritatis, issued by the same Council is then, the normative or legislative side of the Council’s teaching on how religious life should be lived. Unlike, therefore, the Constitution it is called a decree. Where Lumen Gentium in Chapter 6 is addressed to the mind to enlighten those, all the faithful in fact, and especially religious themselves as to what this life is. The decree Perfectae Caritatis is directed to the will informing them and motivating them on how they should live up to the doctrine already declared.

Ecclesiae Sanctae

The third document was Ecclesiae Sanctae. Ecclesiae Sanctae was a document specially issued by Pope Paul VI in what is called a motu proprio. That means a document that the Pope, first of all himself, wants written, very specially involves himself in its composition and places the full weight of his Papal authority behind. This document, motu proprio, Ecclesiae Sanctae was the implementation of four decrees of the Second Vatican Council. The document was issued in 1966, to be exact, August the 6th. The anniversary by anticipation of Pope Paul’s death. The document, therefore, implements first the decree on bishops. Secondly, the decree on priests. Third, the decree on the missions.

Perfectae Caritatis

And fourth, the decree Perfectae Caritatis. But since religious are under the bishops, and not a few religious are bishops, the document on the bishops implemented by Ecclesiae Sanctae also deals with religious life since not a few priests or religious and all religious depend on the priesthood, a large part of that implementation on the priesthood, also deals with religious life.

Since most missionaries are religious, a very large part of the implementation of Ad Gentes Divinitus which is the Latin name for the document on the missions, also deals perforce with religious. But it is especially Perfectae Caritatis that in being implemented by Paul VI gives us the highest ecclesiastical authority on how religious life is to be lived. The logical sequence, therefore, for religious is Lumen Gentium, Chapter 6, that is dogma. Perfectae Caritatis of the Second Vatican Council, that is decree legislation of the aforesaid dogmatic chapter. And Ecclesiae Sanctae is the explaining how you put Perfectae Caritatis into practice.

Those three documents should always be seen as one logical whole: Lumen Gentium, Perfectae Caritatis and Ecclesiae Sanctae. It is in Ecclesiae Sanctae that the Holy Father set down the norms for how the renewal and adaptation legislated by Second Vatican should be done and it is because of the neglected Ecclesiae Sanctae that so many communities throughout the Catholic Church are in great difficulty and not a few struggling for survival. Because the Pope couldn’t have been clearer, and I repeat the full weight of Papal authority is behind this.

The principle agent for the renewal and adaptation of religious life in the modern world is the general chapter. That’s Ecclesiae Sanctae but then the Pope says “there is to be renewal and adaptation.” But renewal is first and it’s primary. Adaptation is very secondary. Renewal has to do with the change of the inside spirit of the community, of its union with God, its pursuit of holiness. Adaptation is in the external order adjusting such external features of religious life as is necessary, well, to fit into our day. “But let not,” he said, “adaptation be of a price of sound renewal.” But then he further said “No chapter is empowered, it doesn’t have the power, doesn’t have the authority to change the spirit of the community, to change the purpose for which the community was founded, to change its constitutions and anything which is substantive. No chapter has that authority.” And it’s there, there’s so much folly, has been perpetrated. Chapters assuming to themselves authority they never had. And as the Pope couldn’t have been clearer in stating they didn’t have – proceeded to do exactly what they didn’t have a right to do – change the substance of the constitutions, the spirit, and charism of the community and the purpose for which it was founded.

The Pope further said the guiding light in whatever renewal or adaptation is done by the chapters must be the charism of the Founder which and having been doing this for almost 15 years, I can tell you many communities, the last thing they concern themselves with, except maybe a pious footnote somewhere about the Founder. The Pope said this to be the guiding star of its renewal and adaptation. So much for Ecclesiae Sanctae.

Fourth Document

The fourth document consciously made tentative was Renovationis Causam. The purpose of this document was not to once and for all change the method of formation of those who are entering religious life. It did, however, open up, as many here know, aspects and features that were quite different. But whatever Renovationis Causam taught and it taught a great deal, yet insisted that the principle purpose of that early formation in religious life is to build a solid spiritual foundation. The very title of the document Renovationis Causam can be translated into English roughly as “For the Purpose of Renewal.” The renewal in the church’s Counciliar language relative to religious life always refers to the inner spirit, to a life of prayer, to the practice of virtue.

Venite Seorsum

The fifth document was Venite Seorsum addressed to the contemplatives in the Catholic Church. Venite Seorsum which may be loosely translated as ‘Come Away for Awhile.’ Draw away from the world in which you are living and, well, engage in prayerful contemplation. The document is still the guiding star of those who wish to live the contemplative life according to the mind of the church. Venite Seorsum builds on the teaching of both Lumen Gentium and Perfectae Caritatis relative to cloistered contemplatives. We just mentioned three things about this relative to all of us. First, this document, though it is sometimes loosely called The Document for Contemplatives, made clear that all religious are to be contemplative. But that’s secondary. Among religious, the life of contemplation in cloister so that properly speaking, Venite Seorsum is directed not to contemplatives, but rather to cloistered contemplatives. And it thirdly spelled out in the most explicit terms on how that cloistered contemplative life is to be lived. The norms of Venite Seorsum are obligatory on all cloistered contemplatives, but sadly, as we shall see when we touch on the problems within the last half hour that we still have left, not all cloistered contemplatives have seen fit to abide by these norms.

And finally, prior to the document of last year was Evangelica Testificatio of Paul VI. The apostolic exhortation which I understand from the French Dominican who was the principle assistant of the Holy Father in drafting the document, he came to Chicago and we spent a day together. He told me my broken French, and his better English helped by an interpreter we managed to carry on, well, was for me a very profitable conversation. The Pope’s original plan was not, but finally was published. It was, so he said, to have issued an encyclical on the religious life which was to have included at the end certain decrees, in effect telling the religious of the world, take it or leave it. In any case, there was strong representation to the Pope not to issue that forthright black and white document. And I understand that my General was largely responsible for convincing Pope Paul to rather publish what he did. In any case Evangelica Testificatio gives us all the positive doctrine about the religious life but minus those strongly worded norms or decrees if we don’t do this, this or that will happen. It is a very paternal document. It is kind. It is also very clear.

Directives of the Holy See on the Relationship Between Bishops and Religious

Finally, and this document does not have a Latin title. It is not known by such. It is rather directives of the Holy See on the relationship between bishops and religious. Published in 1978, it is a long document and spells out what rights bishops have, what rights religious have, what duties each has. Tells the bishops to understand religious life better than they do. Tells religious to better understand the responsibility of bishops than they do. It has norms telling each how they should deal with the other.

So this document on the relationship of bishops and religious promises to be a very important, practical document on the countless ways in which they can and should cooperate for the upbuilding of the mystical body and how they should not interfere. And this is a new language which with each other’s charism, the bishop is told you’ve got your charism, religious are told you have yours. Both are from the same Lord, in the name of that same Lord, please cooperate. So much for documentation.


Well, a necessary few words about problems. I might begin by quoting Father Heizler(?) who was the under-secretary of the Sacred Congregation for Religious who is coming to the United States this August and will be staying here as he told me some time ago in my conversation that I had with him in Rome that among the remarks we make about the work we are trying to do in Rome for religious, that sometimes jokingly we say we are not so much the (Sacra Congrationae for Religiousis (?), in other words, we are not so much a sacred congregation, as the (Sacra Clinica for Religiousis (?) which being translated would be, well, the sacred hospital for religious. There are so many disabled communities that just binding their rules are staunching their bleeding veins, keeps the Holy See busy in such a way that other work often has to be left undone because of the problems in religious communities in countries like America.


What are some of the problems? I don’t have these in a sequence in which I would consider them relatively important. I would put secularization first. It is a large subject, but as might be expected, it is a society that is secularizing in so many ways. It is no wonder that, that spirit of the world which is what secularization is should have penetrated even the thickest monastic worlds. Secularization. When you apply so many things that it is not my business to expand on except to say that beneath it is a loss of faith.


Second, activism. Over the years the Church has been warning her religious time and again not to neglect a life of prayer for the sake of the apostolate. Yet, with not a few communities, those warnings have gone unheeded. Activism is the neglect of prayer in order to engage in, you name it, what, otherwise worthwhile apostolic enterprise. Third. This is not so much a problem as a symptom of a cluster of problems.


I don’t remember the exact title of Fr. Dubay’s book, but it’s a paperback. Some of you may remember the exact title in which he compares the two kinds of religious in the church today, remember? Well, all I know is that when he was writing that book we were together in Philadelphia, the book was already finished, he still needed an introduction and a title. I heard that a book had just been published in France on a subject which I discovered his book was going to be more or less about. Now the title of the French book was something like “What Happened to Religious Life?” And I think he somewhat, unless I’m mistaken, used at least some part of that title for his book.

In any case, the polarization which he there describes has by now been described in many places. I have in mind the pre-chapter documentation that a large community received from its Mother General describing the polarization between religious institutes, between the provinces of the same community, between one local community and another of the same community, polarization inside the same local community. Until now I would say I don’t have the figures and, of course, the numbers are dwindling constantly because of the massive attrition. But I think a large number, I would say the majority, in terms of the number of say, women’s communities, 362 women’s communities in America, I’d say the majority are polarized. That means they’ve got religious either in one province differing from those in another province or between one house and another. You’d hardly recognize as the same sisters how it makes it most traumatic in the same house. And that by now I could write not one, but three books on the polarization within religious communities inside the same local community differing on just about everything.

I remember some time ago they had a group of sisters from the same community, well, they decided to replace their superiors by coordinators. The upshot of which was that they decided that, well, more than one sister wanted to try her luck at being a coordinator. So the previous school year, this is a teaching community, teaching for nine months, they had nine coordinators. In the meantime, the one who was, this is the following year now, was the coordinator for the year. They decided that nine per year was too many. They had just one. She told me in the presence of about a dozen of her own sisters, she said, “Father, you have no idea what this means to one who still believes in the religious life. My problem is that some of my sisters want to attend Mass in the morning and others don’t. And those who don’t, insist that their sleep is being disturbed by those who because they want to go to Mass will necessarily, necessarily run water and close doors.” She got an instruction from the leader of the opposition, “either they go to Mass quietly or none of us will go to Mass.” That is a direct quotation. As one who has been around a lot, I’ve given you by now many reasons for coming up to 1,000 miles from New York to Chicago. This is one reason. That please, God, your communities will not be polarized.

The Loss of Members

There has never in the history of the Catholic Church within such a short span of time, this is a large statement, been a greater loss of membership in institutes of Christian perfection as since the Second Vatican Council.

The Loss of Vocations

In fact, is it any wonder in the light of all these already seen about problems that vocations should also be fewer than they have ever been seeing the history of our country? And yet, and here is the irony, and yet there are two communities I know very well that are lush with vocations. The Missionaries of Charity that I work with in the Bronx and the Daughters of St. Paul. I think I can afford to be very frank though I know I’m being recorded. I know them both very well. Next week I’ll be teaching the Daughters of St. Paul for five days as I have been doing for the last three years. I have been teaching the Missionaries of Charity every week three to four hours. By all the standards and I mean it, by all the standards of those who wanted an updated religious life, called updated, these two communities are not updated. I repeat, by all those standards and some of my graduate students from New York inquiring about both the Daughters of St. Paul and the Missionaries of Charity and New York has, I’m guessing when I say this, easily 30 communities, all quite updated. Whatever it is that draws vocations, it is not being updated. It is whatever that community has where the young people see themselves at the prospect of sacrificing their life for God. They want to sacrifice.

The Loss of Apostolates

And finally, the problem the loss of apostolates. I’m in the right city for this one. In a single year, the Archdiocese of Chicago sold 26 of its Catholic schools to the City. People wondered, by now all kinds of learned monographs have been written for catechists. The reason why so many apostolates have gone even out of existence in our United States is because of a loss of religious commitment among the communities who staff them and I would challenge anyone to disprove that statement. I’m too close to the scene. Strong communities, spiritually, maintain their apostolates. Weakened communities are struggling to hold on and the secularized communities have lost them.

The Prospect for the Future

Finally, a few words on the prospect for the future. We must begin by assuming that God’s providence is permitting all that’s been going on since the Second Vatican Council relative particularly to our subject in order to teach us and to help us in the future. The first good effect that has come from all these massive problems is a deeper understanding of the meaning of religious life. All I know is one who has been a religious for some years, I, myself, have had to burrow far beneath the surface. Things I’ve shared with others which I’ve first had to learn from the Lord in such prayer as I engage in, although I would never have done, speaking for one person, except that I see I must think this thing through.

I’ll never forget, the vice president of one of our largest universities was planning to leave the Society of Jesus on the Priesthood. Relatives suggested he see me. We spent hours together one evening. I want to tell you he is still a priest and still a Jesuit. That you understand your religious life as being also carrying the cross. I never knew that being a Jesuit means suffering in the Society of Jesus to maintain your vocation.

Speaking of the future, there is a stronger commitment to the religious life. Just to see what’s going on strengthens your own dedication. One of my graduate students, a convert from Judaism, the other evening told me that she would like to be a cloistered contemplative. She wrote to, well, the prioress of this community. She must have sent so many questions in, asking the prioress all kinds of things about their community, about their constitutions, their prayer life. In a word, how do you behave? This is from a young woman in graduate school inquiring about religious life. After answering the questions as long as she could, I found out that cloistered community is an affiliate of our institute. I said, “Lucy, you should have asked me.” Oh, by the way she did ask the prioress, “Is your community affiliated with The Institute of Religious Life?” That was a plus sign. And finally the prioress said, “As a young candidate looking around to find a good religious community, may I suggest that you ask no more questions because as you’ll find out when you become a religious, your job will be to listen and not to ask.” Which by the way she thought was pretty good. That’s the kind of a community she wants to enter.

So the stronger commitment from those who enter I screen them. The Missionaries of Charity. Or, I won’t identify, the Mother General. We’re too close to home. But she told me time was when we would very carefully screen the candidate, make sure that she had all the qualifications, that our community needs and now Father, I want to tell you that things are reversed. Whatever questions we ask the girls, they ask us many more. It is not so much they, but we, who are on trial.

Building of Religious Life

I would just very briefly report to you some of the work that the Holy See has been doing for the upbuilding of religious life and using The Institute on Religious Life, using The Institute on Religious Life to help religious. We already have, as you know, and some of you may be very familiar, some not so familiar with these publications called Consecrated Life which is called "Informationes (?)" for the Latin and Italian edition. We have a publication called “Religious Life” that is our own origin that we are publishing to make The Institute on Religious Life and its work better known. We have been requested by the Holy See to undertake a publication for contemplatives and as of now the title they want for this publication, one guess, is Venite Seorsum - Come Away from the World and Be With Me. This is the Lord inviting me.

We are opening an office in Rome. We opened it this month. Sister Reginette, a former member of our board, will be in charge of the office. She has just been assigned and will begin operations in July. I am informed that the Holy See is not only very pleased with what we are doing, but has been very heartened. Carmelite’s secretary told my own superior, I might say, in New York that the word in Rome is very clear. The die is cast. In Rome there will be doctrine and discipline to be insured for the whole Church. And consequently, given the present Holy Father, who, by the way, is being as you probably know already roundly criticized, to pray for him that he might not weaken, but be stronger because of the opposition. And that we ourselves live up to the church’s expectations that religious life will have its own Easter season, because we have had such a long, festive Lent.

Religious life, I already said I would like to but I do not have the time to tell you about the new communities coming into existence, many showing great promise and telling the rest of us to live up to what Christ calls us, wants us to be.


My prayers, I ask for yours. Let’s close with a prayer. In the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Hail Mary, full of grace the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed if the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen. Queen of all saints, pray for us. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.Amen.

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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