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The Apostolate in Every Vocation to Follow Christ

Rev. John A. Hardon, S.J.

It is worth asking why we should study this subject. One of the most practical reasons in the Church today is what is happening to many religious communities. Many of them are becoming dismembered because they have lost or forgotten the apostolic purpose for their foundation. And once you lose your sense of purpose, then anything can happen. A community may have people, money, resources, but will no longer have, at least for a long time, a religious community.

Religious life is not an abstraction. We can talk about it in the abstract, but it is not lived out in the abstract. It is either lived out in a specific community with a specific apostolic purpose, or it soon becomes a religious community only in name. This bears more than passing emphasis.

We used to, and we still do, emphasize the primacy of the spiritual, interior sanctification. We cannot overstress the importance of that. But in order to have the community survive as a community, it must have a purpose beyond itself. In other words, religious life is not narcissistic, if it is to remain religious life. It cannot be withdrawn into itself; it must have a finality which somehow it serves beyond itself.

Focusing on four specific aspects of the overall theme of how the apostolate is essential to every vocation, the first area is the meaning of vocation in general, in a very broad perspective. Then, the meaning of vocation and the special following of Christ. Third, the relationship of a vocation to the religious life and the apostolate. And finally some theological implications.

In general we may say that God has a vocation for every believer in Christ. We could say that every human being has a vocation, but we would have to change the meaning of words; we would then be outside the ambit of Christianity. The reason we can put it the way I did is that it is already a vocation to be called to be a Christian, and among Christians, to be a Catholic. Unfortunately, this is a vocation which not everyone appreciates. And the more you understand the non-Christian religious systems, you are spontaneously moved to gratitude to God for having been called, because all that was necessary was that we be born in Tokyo or Bangkok or you name it, and through no fault of ours we would have been taught differently. Talk about a special grace to have been called to be Christians, and Catholics!

Consequently, we assume that Christianity and Catholic Christianity is already a vocation and indeed, the primordial vocation. But then within the ambit of Catholic Christianity, what is a vocation? Every vocation of a Christian has certain features, especially our. It is first of all selective, though within the ambit of Christianity we should say that everyone has a vocation. Since evidently not everyone has the same vocation, God must be selective with whom He calls to what vocation. Our parents had one vocation; we religious have another. Some manage in a lifetime to cover a number of vocations. For example, Saint Elizabeth Seton was a remarkable woman: she was a single woman before she married; she married; she was widowed; and then she became a religious. That is a lot of vocations for one lifetime, but that is extraordinary.

Second, it is gratuitous. On the part of God, it is given as a grace and part of the essence of grace is its gratuity. This means that God calls who He wants, to what He wants, and no questions are asked of the one whom He calls. He gives it freely. It is further gratuitous in that it is offered as an opportunity. In precise theological language, we do no receive a vocation to be saved – that’s an obligation. Some spiritual writers state that if a person does not follow their special vocation, they endanger their salvation; but that is an improbable opinion. It would not be just because the person did not follow through on a given vocation. It would be through neglect of God’s grace or other reasons, otherwise the whole theology of vocation just collapses. You cannot talk about it unless you talk about it on the level of gratuity on God’s part and opportunity on ours.

Vocation is a gift. It is something offered. And by definition, a gift may or may not be accepted. Admittedly, the giver appreciates the acceptance of his gift, but it is not as if the giver demands it be taken. It would be a contradiction to oblige the recipient to accept the gift.

Third, every vocation within Christianity is purposeful. This is the key to further unlocking the relationship of the apostolate to vocation. God calls certain people to certain ways of life. Behind vocation is the idea of lifelong calling, so that when a person responds, they give themselves in a lifelong commitment. So the idea of commitment is built into the idea of vocation and therefore its permanence in intention.

God may, for various reasons, do things to alter a person’s life. But as far as that person is concerned, he or she must intend to make a total commitment which is lifelong. Thus, there is a vocation to marriage; a vocation to the priesthood; a vocation to a single state in the world; and a vocation to the religious life.

Fourth and finally, each vocation is distinctive. This is a correlative to number one. It is selective as to persons; it is distinctive as to the way of life to which different people are called. Now behind the idea of distinctiveness is something which might not strike the eye when we first meet it. As we can now look back on 1900 years of “vocationing,” so to speak, in God’s thinking there are certain categories of distinctive ways of life. We wouldn’t want to overdo this, but certain types of people, with certain qualities of nature and especially certain gifts of grace, sort of migrate towards certain kinds of vocations.

Consequently, when we speak of vocation, we imply always some kind of communitarian life to which the person is called so that other people in like manner will have a similar call; otherwise, they’d never get together, or if they would happen to get together, they wouldn’t stay together. So distinctiveness is not so much selectiveness for the person, but rather distinctive features of different forms within the major ways of life. We then have, within the religious state for example, different families or communities. And the very variety and multiplicity of religious communities in the Catholic Church indicates that God somehow “classifies” people and gives grace to people so that they might get together; and then not merely survive together, but actually enjoy living and working together for a common enterprise.

All we are doing is thinking God’s thoughts after Him. He does certain things, and then we theologize; that is, in fact, a definition of “theology”; thinking thoughts after God has done something and trying to figure out, “Now Lord, why did you do it?”

What is a vocation to Christian perfection? This terminology keeps it still one step removed from the religious lie, properly called, though within this vocation to Christian perfection, of course, is surely the vocation to the religious life. A vocation to a life of Christian perfection is a special call to some people. A vocation is a call, something that we, symbolically speaking, “hear” – otherwise what good is the call if you can’t hear it? So, somehow with our minds, we recognize it and it gives us some basis for making a choice.

It must be a special to some people, not only because there are different vocations and this vocation, being different, is special in that sense. But the word “special” has a particular meaning; it is not only specific in being different, but it is special in being unique. So, only those who have received the grace can live out the way of life which Christian perfection implies.

Its foundations are in the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. Thus, the call of the apostles was a call to Christian perfection. So also was the call of the disciples, among whom were women. Mary Magdalene had a vocation, we may be sure, to Christian perfection – and she was quite a character before she had that call! The ring young man had a vocation; it couldn’t be clearer. But he exercised his freedom. Notice what he chose: he chose not to follow the cal that Christ gave him, and Matthew tells us it was because he had much money.

The development of this vocation to Christian perfection was already seen before the deliverance of the Church from the early years of persecution and, until the fourth century, was mainly heremetical. They became hermits; that’s about all they could do. They could hardly get any kind of civil status in the Roman Empire! The problem was, at the time, to even survive as an individual Christian.

But as the Church developed, there appeared three types of Christian perfection which have not only survived to the present day but will continue until the end of time. In general, they are, first, the strictly monastic. It may be heremetical, but that is rare; there are very few hermits in the Roman Catholic Church. The monastic form has many variants. The cloistered communities would qualify under that general rubric. Second, apostolic communities, where they engage in some kind of apostolic work which carries their efforts, even if not the persons, outside of their own community life. And third, secular institutes.

There is a fourth category contemplated by the Holy See in anticipation of the new Code of Canon Law, so that something may be done for the thousands of women who seem not to want religious life yet seem to want to live especially dedicated lives in the Church. The secular institutes are a recent development of the Catholic Church. If there would be a fourth category, it would be some form of what we now call “secular institutes,” but the implications still have to be worked out.

These are the common classifications, with scores of subdivisions under each, especially in the second category. However, that classification – while surely a correct one – is based on structure; it is not based on the essential qualities of every vocation to Christian perfection. This bears emphasis. Members of secular institutes, then, are as much called to a life of Christian perfection as the most cloistered nun or monk or active religious. It is the structure of the way of life that allows for this important classification.

We may want to keep religious life for one further stage to make sure that we remember that there is something about Christian perfection in its essential qualities that remains the same whether it is monastic or cloistered, or a religious community which is not strictly cloistered, or a secular institute. The two indispensable features recognized by the Church are, first, a special call from Christ to follow Him, a vocation to holiness – that is essential. Anyone who is called to a life of Christian perfection, if they have the vocation, they have received the grace to become holy, and this in no ordinary sense; otherwise, it would not qualify as a vocation to Christian perfection.

But secondly, besides a special call from Christ to follow in His footsteps and as far as it is possible (given the person’s capacity) it imitate His life, there is a special mission from Christ to cooperate with Him in the apostolate. Both features are essential and they are inseparable; there cannot be the one without the other. Thus, on the vocation side, it is a grace from Christ and its immediate focus is that we be sanctified. But Christ never separates that call from the mission – apostolate is just another word for mission. This is the purpose designated by Christ for which the grace of vocation has been given.

In other words, our call to holiness does not stop with us. It is somehow to pass through us to others who because of us will then themselves be sanctified.

Now, what is the relationship to vocation and apostolate in the religious life? Since religious life is one form of Christian perfection, it must have a twofold purpose: the sanctification of the religious, and the sanctification of others by the religious. The two are intimately and necessarily related.

This relationship is bilateral. The call to become holy ourselves bears a relationship to the purpose to which we were called – to sanctify others. That purpose has its bearing on our own sanctification and there are myriad of interconnections. No one is called to the religious life for himself. Notice the term “sanctification.” We do not receive, qua religious, a vocation to salvation. That is not a vocation, but a duty, an obligation. The only option is … you-know-what. In other words, there is no question of an offer, like, “Won’t you please…?” Not for salvation. So the vocation is to sanctification, our own.

And also our mission, qua religious, is not to save people; the mission is to sanctify people. This point can be easily missed. Anyone, by virtue of his social nature, is required to cooperate in the salvation of others. That’s our duty as social beings. Moreover, either we help others be saved or we won’t be saved ourselves; either we help others get to heaven or we won’t get there ourselves.

But within the Church there are many vocations which are specially concerned with saving people. It is one of the purposes of the priesthood, to administer the sacraments, without which we cannot be saved. It took the Second Vatican Council to clarify the uniqueness of the religious vocation in a way it had never been clarified before by such supreme authority. The distinctive feature of a religious vocation on its apostolic side is to sanctify others. Pope Paul, in his Apostolic Exhortation on the Renewal of the Religious Life, reminds us of our responsibility as religious to sanctify others, to make them holy, not merely keep out of hell.

How, then, are the two related? These few comments are meant to simply open up vista of prayerful reflection. First of all, by our holiness we help others become holy too. How do we help others? The most important way, even though it is in many ways hidden and known only to God, is by merit. We merit grace by our own life of holiness, and without grace, no one can be saved let alone become holy. Consequently, the more holy we are the more merit we gain for others to also become holy, as we may be sure that those who preceded us merited the grace for our vocation to enter the religious life in the first place.

Second, by example, for which the consecrated term is now “witness.” This is distinct from merit. Merit is interior, it is hidden and in the order of grace. Now example is a grace, too, but it is external. In other words, we show others that it is possible to become holy and to be happy, that holy people are not oddballs but enjoy themselves! Everybody wants to be happy and if they see us happy, they say to themselves, “Well, it baffles me, but how do you do it?” Then we sit them down and proceed to tell them, “Here’s how you do it.” And we tell them the possibility, the means and the benefits of holiness. We witness to it by being holy ourselves, and if we’re not happy at our holiness, then we are not quite that holy yet!

Then, by our sacrifices because in order to sanctify others, it takes a lot of sacrifice on our part. If we were just concerned about our own little ego who we want to make only (in other words, a “holy ego”) and didn’t have to bother about others, it would save us a lot of time and trouble. Most of our problems are that there are people in our lives whom we are supposed to sanctify, and they may be the most trying persons in our lives. That’s the divine logic.

From a completely different perspective, there is such a thing as supernatural generation. Procreation in the order of grace corresponds to procreation in the order of nature. Like reproduces like: a flea produces a flea and a dog produces a dog; a cat has kittens. It would really make the front page headlines of the New York Times if a Scotch terrier had kittens! Like reproduces like in the order of nature and also in the order of grace, which is part of God’s Providence. God will not produce saints except through other holy people. In other words, either there are holy people and other holy people because of them, or there are no holy people around and there won’t be any others – just like the fact that if there are no cats around there won’t be any kittens. If any species becomes extinct, after the order of nature there is no more of that species. Saints are a species; the species dies out once there are no more holy people to reproduce themselves.

We are dealing with mystery. A thing may be mysterious but it can also be a fact, and no one argues with a fact, even though they cannot explain it. That is one side of the relationship, and the more obvious one.

But there is another side: our efforts to sanctify others will also sanctify us. It is not only that the holier we are, the more effective we shall be in sanctifying others, but God always makes sure that others will sanctify us. It’s a two-way street. Our holiness is the indispensable, divinely set condition for making others holy and there is no option; conversely, the very effort we expend to sanctify others is in large measure part of our own sanctifying process.

One thing bears emphasis. The object of our apostolic zeal is our own fellow religious. (Zeal means effort which costs. The apostolate for us as religious is one; all others are answerable and subsidiary to this one – to sanctify others.) They are the ones about whom we should be most concerned and interested, in whose sanctification we should be most involved and should be willing to spend the most effort. And it is here that not a few religious have deterred themselves by having all kinds of apostolic zeal for anyone and everyone except their fellow religious. They may be going out in all directions and evidently expending themselves, but to such a degree that it is lucky if their fellow religious even know their names.

Our fellow religious, then, are the most principal object on whom God wants us to expend our efforts to sanctify others. Who are these “others” that we should be first be interested in, not exclusively, but first? Our fellow religious. And they will help – oh how thy will help! – to sanctify us. Sometimes they don’t have to say a thing, they just have to be around.

Now some theological implications which are conclusions and summations. Let me give a definition of the apostolate, which will include four prepositions I will explain. The essence of the apostolate is to be sent by Christ through the Church to certain people for whom Christ wants us to be mediators of His grace.

Consequently, it is to be sent by Christ and that word “by” is what makes it the apostolate; it is He who sends. It is through the Church. Until He founded the Church, He did the sending Himself. What He really did was to call certain men, whom we now call apostles, because they were sent. And it is that Church now which is the agent or the middleman, so to speak, which Christ uses and through whom He sends some people to certain other people. We are somehow to go out to others; there is an outreach which is essential to the apostolate. No one has a vocation to sanctify everyone. That is not only bad theology, but it is nonsense; the word “certain” (to certain people) is important because that is what theology teaches about the apostolate. And finally, the purpose: “… for whom Christ wants us to be mediators of His grace.” The kind of mediator will depend on the nature of the apostolate.

Now “being sent” has a rather geographic connotation, as if a person is not sent unless he goes, and the further he goes the more he feels he is being sent – “Look at the miles I’m traveling!” But being sent is not geographic; it is essentially the going out of self towards others. It is the not being preoccupied even with our own holiness, but that our own holiness has a finality to it beyond ourselves.

It is the Church who sends and, speaking about religious, in three different ways. First, by assigning certain religious communities for certain purposes that is already an assignation in the apostolate; that is then the mission. Certain communities have one mission, others have another mission, and it is not the business of community A to have the mission of Community B.

Second, within communities the Church approves certain apostolates. It is not just in favor of certain people, but there are certain ways in which each will labor, which each community’s Constitutions appropriately say. There are certain means which one will use which other communities will not duplicate, otherwise there is no need for two different communities. Fifty communities can work for priests, but in different ways. Or consider Catholic education; it will differ as to type, or as to a certain area. So the Church approves within communities a certain specification of their apostolate.

And finally, the Church delegates Superiors both in the Church as members of the hierarchy and within a community, to further designate certain persons for certain tasks. So, no matter how simple or unassuming the task is that we receive from our Superiors, it is in the deepest theological sense our mission behind which stands the sovereignty of God who in the person of Christ chooses certain people to do certain things for the purpose of sanctifying others.

Notice, then, that the essential feature of every apostolate is somehow being designated by the Church. The apostolate is either ecclesial or it is not the apostolate. No one designates himself, nobody sends himself. God’s blessings and extraordinary, miraculous grace are bestowed on communities that see this vision, that they have been called to be sent and to do what they are sent to do.

Copyright © 1999 by Inter Mirifica

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