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Community Religious Life as the
Living Experience of the Counsels in the
Mystical Body of Christ

Rev. John A. Hardon, S.J.

We know and the Church has been teaching us that religious life is part of Christian revelation, indeed, that it is a mystery. And, like all other mysteries, religious life is not only to be believed, but as far as is possible with God’s grace, to be understood. In fact, to believe means to understand, to see with the eyes of faith what the natural man cannot comprehend. We do not believe in the unintelligible. All the while we realize, of course, that full comprehension of any of the mysteries, here of religious life, is impossible. Nevertheless, understanding—growing understanding—is necessary, even though what we are analyzing is a revealed mystery. After all, it is revealed. What kind of a revelation would it be if nothing were revealed? Our focus of attention in this study is on community and more specifically on religious community.

Since we are dealing with a reality founded on revelation, we can approach some understanding of this mystery in three ways that all mysteries can become increasingly intelligible: first, by means of analogy or comparison with things that we know naturally; secondly, by comparison with other mysteries of the Faith; and then most practically by lived experience, which gives spiritual insight to those who put the mysteries of Faith into practice, and for this nothing substitutes for experience.

We address ourselves, then, to seeing an analogy or comparison of religious communities with human societies. Cultural anthropologists define a society, any society, as a group of people who have a distinct culture on each of three levels. In fact, that’s what a society is, it is a people who have a common culture. They then have in any society a distinctive culture on the level of sharing common traditions, common attitudes, and having common customs. Traditions have to do with principles or beliefs, and as such they concern the ideas that underlie a given human society. Attitudes have to do with the affective side of a people, their likes or dislikes, their preferences or rejections, that is, their volitional and emotional responses to the whole spectrum of human issues that face any society and to which it is expected to react. Customs are the ways in which the traditions, which are the ideas underlying a society, and attitudes, which are a societies affective responses, are put into practice.

Finally, so cultural anthropologists tell us, every distinctive society concretizes its traditions, attitudes, and customs in what are technically called institutions. The institutions of a society are the corporate embodiments of its culture, which give that culture stability as a society. You might say that its traditions, attitudes and customs are institutionalized, which means they are stabilized. They also give that society a history on which it can live, and the promise of perdurance into the future. We see therefore that traditions alone or attitudes and customs alone do not yet constitute society. It must somehow incarnate those traditions of mind, attitudes of the will and customs or practices institutionally.

With this a backdrop, we ask ourselves what can all of this teach us about religious communities. A great deal, since it is impossible that what is born of grace, namely religious community, should deny what is part of nature, which is human society. You see what we are doing: we are drawing on a mystery—here, religious community—and seeing what comparing this mystery with what we know naturally, which is human society, can teach us. We are assured by the infallible Church that a source of great insight into the meaning of mysteries is to study them in contrast and comparison with naturally known truths, in this case, human institutions. Consequently, a religious community if it is to be and remain a community must have its distinctive traditions, attitudes and customs, and secondly, with emphasis, it must stabilize these traditions, attitudes and customs in corresponding institutional forms.


Traditions presume a history, namely, a past that somehow endures into the present and has promise of a future. In fact, that is one of the features of all traditions: those ideas that have a historical past that are respected now and that those who subscribe to them trust will endure into the indefinable future. They especially presume that all who belong to a given religious community believe in certain essentials which underlie religious life. If there can be no society anywhere in the world without underlying beliefs, how could there possibly be a religious community unless those who belong to it believed in certain underlying principles, such as: that the evangelical counsels are part of Christian revelation, and are to be dealt with as part of the Faith; that these counsels call for a correspondingly free and permanent commitment? These traditions further presume that the community to which they belong has a communitarian identity; that it can be distinctively identified; that it has a communitarian spirit which is distinctive, indeed, unique; that it is distinctive from groups that are not religious communities.

Authority is inherent in every society. But if there must be authority in every society, there is a great difference between the nature of authority in other societies that are not religious communities and in those that are. In those that are not, the authority is basically representative of those who form that society. They elect delegates who are to carry on their, the members’, wishes, indeed for the common good. Not so in a religious community, being modeled on the Church whose authority is from top down and not, let’s remember, from the bottom up. This is the fundamental difference between all natural societies and the supernatural society which is the Church of which religious communities are microcosms: that in religious communities the authority is from Christ through His Vicar through the superiors in those communities, and not from the members coordinating or appointing facilitators of their own will.

But secondly, every religious community is also to have a communitarian spirit that is distinctive from other religious communities. Otherwise, the very plurality of religious institutes in the Catholic Church would be unintelligible. The Church in her wisdom over the centuries has approved many religious institutes on the prior assumption that they are different institutes. Their distinctiveness is a condition for their existence; otherwise, why have, I don’t say so many, why have more than one? Unless they are each to somehow follow Christ distinctively and serve Him differently.


Attitudes follow logically, or as I like to put it, “psycho”- logically on the community’s traditions. They- that is, the attitudes, are the particular approach which this community takes on each of the dimensions of the Christian religion. There is such a thing as stressing one aspect of Christ’s perfection or another. Jesus Christ is God. God is infinite. Therefore, Christ is infinitely imitable; ten thousand times ten thousand different communities could not exhaust the imitability of the Son of God in human form. For example, one community may stress Christ’s humility, another if we wish, at the other extreme, His magnanimity. Both virtues Christ practiced but the one is not the other. Christ’s patience or His outspoken courage—Christ was both most patient and most courageous, but patience is not quite courage. Or the community may stress one or the other aspect of Christ’s conduct. There is again such a thing as emphasizing one aspect of Christ’s behavior or another. Christ’s poverty or His merciful healing—He practiced poverty and He also went about healing, but being poor is not the same as healing, but being poor is not the same as healing. Christ’s silence or His tireless teaching—He practiced both but silence is not the same as speaking.

Or again Christ is imitable with a difference in stress in His manner of worship. Jesus, we know, often went away to pray privately, to spend long nights in intimate communion with the Father. But then this same Jesus also prayed publicly in the temple, and most dramatically at the Last Supper. There was Christ’s spontaneous prayer of love or His highly structured prayer as He taught us to pray in what we now call the Lord’s Prayer. All of these are the ocean of features in which Christ can be imitated differently and therefore distinctively by different communities. Each religious institute ought to have its own definable approach to all these and many other unmentioned dimensions of Christ’s life and apostolate. The community will also have its corresponding approach to how the counsels are to be lived out; for example, the poverty of a Franciscan as distinct from that of a Carmelite; the obedience of a Jesuit as distinct from that of a Benedictine; the solitude of a Trappistine as distinct from that of a Daughter of St. Paul. I cannot overemphasize the importance of great clarity here and the responsibility of especially the leaders in communities identifying themselves how they, different from others, are to imitate the Savior in living out the counsels.


Since traditions are in the order of principles, and attitude are the volitional affections and emotions, they must be made real in the customs which a community develops to express what it believes in and what is its distinctive approach to Christ. Customs are the body for traditions and attitudes. Here I think it is valuable to insert at least a brief explanation about customs in general before applying them to religious communities.

Customs are the acquired habits of a society. We know what an acquired habit is for an individual person. It derives from the psychological principle that every human actin tends to repeat itself. Thus, whatever the action may be, if it is a human act and I perform it once, I may be somewhat awkward the first time, but having done it once it will be easier to do it a second time. After I perform perhaps a complicated action ten times it will be very easy to do it the eleventh time. And if I have done it a hundred times and I find out that my action was not a good one, I may find it almost impossible to keep from doing it the hundred and first time. The essence of acquired habit is repetition, because built into the physiognomy of every human act is its tendency to repeat itself. And thus, every action tends to become a habit. If I wish to acquire a habit I multiply the actions of what I wish to make habitual. If I wish to break a habit I stop performing the actions of what has perhaps become habitual. We make a habit by repetition; we break a habit by stopping repetition. Thus, the idea of individual habits can be transferred with much value for our better understanding to the nature of custom in religious communities. In other words, as those who belong to a society perform a given custom duly understood and properly motivated they acquire the habit (custom of doing it).

Custom means societal habits. All that we have seen, therefore, about the acquisition of good habits for an individual applies to the acquisition of good customs in the community. And, conversely, the same is true for the individual about breaking a bad habit, otherwise known as a vice. That is the technical definition of a bad habit: it is a vice, just as the technical definition of a good habit is a virtue. All then that applies to acquiring good habits for the individual applies to good customs for the community. We don’t usually, but we should talk about good customs and bad customs. The same psychology obtains.

All the while that the leaders in the community are doing their part towards the cultivation of societal habits, otherwise known as customs, divine grace is operative to still better clarify the minds of religious and strengthen their wills in the formation of societal habits to make these customs. Now here is the beauty of developing customs—sound customs in a community—in time, just because they have been cultivated and divine grace is operative, those customs become easy to perform; they become effective when performed; they are done spontaneously; and doing them brings satisfaction and even joy.


As we have seen, the institutions of a community are the concrete embodiment of that community’s traditions, attitudes and customs. Their number is actually not so large as may at first seem necessary, mainly because the principal animating source of religious life is interior. Secular societies, on the other hand, require a great deal of external structure for their permanence and stability. Think of the thousands of laws in a single one of our states in the United States, because the basic force that makes a natural society like the state is not deeply interior, otherwise than in a religious community. Nevertheless, although their number is minimal, there must be some institutional forms in all religious communities.

These institutions should cover: first, the principles that identify this group as a religious community and specify for its members the fundamentals of belief, conduct and worship. Certain basic principles, the Second Vatican Council insists, must be spelled out in all constitutions. Secondly, there must also be spelled out the practices which are not only characteristic of this community but normative for this community, relative to things of the spirit and of the body. The distinctive religious habit, for example, is one of those essential features. And wisely, Pope Paul VI, after the Vatican Council was over, published a most important document called Ecclesiae Sanctae in which he declared that the constitutions of every religious community are to contain two essential things: they are to contain the basic norms, so that the norms of a community are not relegated to a directory or a custom book but are part of the constitutions of that institute.

And thirdly, the institutions of a religious community, besides stating constitutionally its distinctive principles, and the fundamental norms of how those principles are to be carried out in practice, must also define the distinctive apostolate in which these religious are to be engaged. This apostolate is the incarnation of that community’s service of the Church.

In the years to come religious community life will be effective and prosperous where its leaders have recognized that while community life is a mystery, it is an intelligible mystery that can be understood from many sources but also from the evidence of history. After all, religious communities, unlike merely human organizations, are meant to last. They are not founded to meet merely passing needs and still less to satisfy merely passing whims. They are intended by God, through the Church—the Church that approves their way of life—to endure as monuments of stability in a world of constant and dizzying change. Among the witnesses that we religious are to give to the world that surrounds us and that looks to us for guidance is that of stability. It is a tragic commentary on what is happening in the Church today that so many men and women who had been chosen by Christ to witness to His immutability as the unchangeable God should not be giving the counter-witness of inconstancy.

Religious communities are to endure as continual sources of grace for the people of God, to bring everyone who is touched by them, and especially by their corporate apostolate, closer to God, which means nearer to Jesus Christ. He is the Divine Master teaching today through religious communities the way of salvation and sanctification to a wandering and sinful mankind.

Copyright © 1999 by Inter Mirifica

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