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Retreat - The Essentials of the Religious Life

The Message of the Vicar of Christ
to the Religious of the World

December 25, 1983 — Evening Conference — Conference 1

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

Over the centuries all the Bishops of Rome have shown a remarkable affection for Religious. They have sensed as of by divine instinct that the welfare of the people of God depends on no small measure on the loyalty of dedicated men and women Religious in living up faithfully to their vows. The Popes have consequently encouraged religious to remain loyal to their consecrated commitment. They have warned Religious about the seductions of the world and the devil and the passions of our fallen nature that must be kept under control if consecrated life is not to become desecrated life and if the great potential for apostolic good that Religious can achieve is not to be worse than wasted if those specially consecrated to God do not do what the Christ who called them wants them to achieve.

If the Popes over the centuries have unwaveringly exhorted Religious to be Religious, there is a special reason why Pope John Paul II should be concerned about Religious Communities and their well-being in the modern world. In fact, there is a cluster of reasons for his solicitude. In countries like the United States, there has been a phenomenal drop in the number of stable vocations to Religious Life - in our country, a drop of 90% since the Second Vatican Council. Whole Communities have been gutted of membership as by a ravishing forest fire. Schools, hospitals, and homes for the aged, retarded and handicapped have been reduced in some diocese in Europe and America almost to the vanishing point. The dignity and sublimity of the life of the councils has been damaged, damaged in the extreme, because so many persons, nominally Religious, have often been in the vanguard of critics of Church authority and of humble obedience to superiors.

For these reasons and nary others that are common knowledge, the Holy Father felt impelled to write an extraordinary Letter on Easter Sunday 1983 to the Bishops of the United States.

The Pope began by telling the American hierarchy that during the Holy Year commemorating nineteen and a half centuries since Christ's death on Calvary, the Church "is seeking to respond", in his own words, "ever more faithfully to the immense love of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of the world."

This response to Christ's love shown on the Cross is no mere academic reaction. It is absolutely necessary that we respond in corresponding love; otherwise, the graces won for the world on the Cross will have been wasted. The objective redemption was indeed finished nineteen hundred and fifty years ago. But the subjective profiting from that redemption, realizing the fruits of the redemption, actually benefiting from the graces that Christ won for us on the Cross, that depends on our responsive generosity to Christ's extraordinary love shown by His death on the Cross. In other words, our response to Christ's generosity is the absolute condition laid down by God for that redemption actually redeeming.

Having said this, the Holy Father goes on to explain, and it is the heart of his message, that this call to the responsive love to the love of Christ in order to fructify Calvary very specially, particularly pertains (in the words of the Holy Father) "to individual men and women religious and to each religious community." Why, we ask, are Religious particularly bound to respond to Christ's redemptive love? Why? Because as Religious we have received graces far above what other people have received from Christ; because as religious we have freely consecrated ourselves to be a sign of the redemption accomplished by Christ. Its fruits must be visible in us if others are even to believe in Jesus Christ. Again, why? Because as Religious the Church depends on our witness of sacrifice to maintain her credibility as the Spouse of Christ. And finally, why should we more than anyone else respond in corresponding generosity to Christ's total holocaust on Calvary, says the Pope? Because as Religious we have been entrusted with so many apostolic enterprises whose success or failure depends absolutely on how faithful or unfaithful we religious are to our vowed commitments.

It isn't money or arson that destroyed once flourishing buildings and institutions of the apostolate in our country. It is the loss of commitment; it is failure to live up to what we as Religious have allegedly vowed ourselves to do. So much by way of introduction. I will now give a number of subtitles as we go along and then comment on each as we meet it.

I.  The History of Achievement

With this as a backdrop, the Holy Father goes through an inspiring litany of benefits that Religious have brought to the Church and to the nation, indeed, to the wide world. Let me just list and count them as we go along. In each case, I am directly quoting the Holy Father.

First. "From early colonial days, by the grace of God, the evangelizing zeal of outstanding men and women religious, encouraged and sustained by the persevering efforts of the Bishops, has helped the Church to bring the fruits of the Redemption to your land." Except for the blood of an Isaac Jogues, a John de Brebeuf, except for the untiring efforts of missionaries who had come to this country as early as Columbus in 1492, aboard his ships (and that for the record is the main reason that compelled Columbus to seek to discover what he found, surprisingly, a New World), the fruits of the Redemption could not have spread throughout this land.

Second. "They blazed a trail in Catholic education at all levels, helping to create a magnificent educational system from elementary school to university." Saint Elizabeth Seton is only the best known and the outstanding of the by now tens of thousands of dedicated men and women Religious who brought the faith to millions in the Catholic school system of America.

Third. "They brought into being health care facilities remarkable both for their numbers and quality." As I have told my students over the years in teaching comparative religions, the only hospitals, the only orphanages, the only homes and residences for the retarded and the handicapped and the disabled in the whole world are those that have been conceived and created by Christians, and among Christians, mainly Religious.

Fourth. "They made a valuable contribution to the promotion of social services." Over the years, inspired by Popes like Leo XIII and Pius XI, in the vanguard of those rending all kinds of social welfare to millions have been Religious.

Fifth. "Working towards the establishment of justice, love and peace, they helped to build a social order rooted in the Gospel." Recently I spent a few hours in conversation with a man prominent in the American military, who had just had a private audience with the Holy Father and another private audience with my Jesuit General in Rome. This outstanding military leader of our country said, "I believe that the peace in the world depends mainly on the Bishop of Rome and that dedicated people follow his directives." And I would add, if Religious are not faithful to the Vicar of Christ in promoting peace, God help a war-torn world.

Sixth. "Their witness to the primacy of Christ's love has been expressed through lives of prayer and dedicated service to others." The Pope is saying that we as Religious are mainly called upon to give public testimony, if need be by the price of our blood (that is what witness means), to the main purpose we have in being Religious which is show how much Christ loves us by our deathless love of Him, shown by our life of prayer and by our tireless service of others.

Seventh. "Contemplative religious have contributed immensely to the vitality of the ecclesial community." I like that word "immensely", because whatever else other religious can do in the active apostolate depends ultimately on the grace of God which they receive, and the principal source of grace in the apostolate is contemplative prayer and contemplative sacrifice. For example, it is good to know that before Saint Dominic founded the Order of Preachers he first established the contemplative Dominican nuns.

Eighth. "At every stage in its growth, the Church in your nation, marked by a conspicuous fidelity to the See of Peter, has been deeply indebted to its religious: priests, sisters, brothers." How true, how very, very, very true. Who, pray tell, are the three canonized American Saints? Mother Cabrini, John Neumann, and Elizabeth Seton: all Religious.

Finally, "The religious of America have also been a gift to the universal Church, for they have given generously to the Church in other countries; they have helped throughout the world to evangelize the poor and to spread Christ's Gospel of peace. This generosity has given evidence of a strong and vital religious life, ensured by a steady flow of vocations."

The Holy Father is naturally, apart from his Office, one of the most intellectual men in the world. Before his elevation to the papacy, he had the reputation for being one of the four intellectual giants in Europe. When he speaks or writes you can be sure his ideas hang together. From what we have just quoted, there are two thoughts that hang together, and they are:

  1. a strong and vital religious life" and

  2. "a steady flow of vocations".

The Vicar of Jesus Christ is telling us what the precondition is for a steady flow of vocations: a strong and vital religious life. Amen. I would estimate that by now we have forty books giving us every other possible socio-economic reason except this one for the lack of a steady flow of vocations.

So far, then, the Holy Father is describing the past. It is a glorious past, breath taking in the scope and variety and depth and profusion of blessings that Religious in America have brought to our own country and to many other countries throughout the world.

II.  The Present Crisis

If what we have just heard is a picture of the past, what is the situation at present? It is critical in the extreme. There is, according to the Holy Father, "a marked decline in recent years in the numbers of young people seeking to enter Religious Life particularly in the case of institutes of apostolic life." The Holy Father goes on: "This decline in numbers is of great concern to me. The median age of Religious is rising and their ability to serve the needs of the Church is becoming increasingly more limited."

Before we go on, we must be very plain. What I have just told you is the focus of the Pope's concern: the drastic decline of religious vocations in America. Notice that the Pope is writing to the Bishops. He knows that what he says will be read by millions. He measures his words. He does not go on to elaborate about the widespread secularization that is going on in so many once flourishing religious communities. In plain Anglo-Saxon, they are dying out. The Pope does not elaborate on this fact, because he implies it in what we shall see is his proposed solution.

What is this solution? We will spend the next seven days talking about the solution, and in the process, hopefully, we will inspire ourselves to be better Religious and stronger witnesses to the Christ who called us. The solution is simplicity itself: Get back to basics in Religious Life and vocations will return. This then brings us to our third area of reflection.

III.  Essentials of Religious Life

The Pope is embarrassingly logical as he approaches the core of the problem facing Religious in America: Get back to basics.

  1. A. He first identifies where these basics are to be found. There is no need of a big study, years of dialogue. No. He names them. All you have to do is to be able to read. These basics, he says, are found first in "Lumen Gentium" and "Perfectae Caritatis" of the Second Vatican Council, notably in Chapter Six of "Lumen Gentium" (the Constitution on the Church) and the Decree "Perfectae Caritatis" which implements the doctrine of "Lumen Gentium".

    Again, these basics are found in "Evangelica Testificatio" (The Gospel Witness), the document published by Pope Paul VI. These basics, he says, are found "in the addresses of my predecessor Paul VI"; and modestly he affirms that they can be found in "my own many addresses to and about Religious". And finally and most recently, these basics are found in the new Code of Canon Law, which happily opened the Advent Season this year.

  2. The Pope admits that institutes of apostolic life differ a great deal in their charisms and their apostolates, and no two are exactly alike.

    He then goes on to identify certain essential elements. All right, he says, all right. Religious institutes do differ. But let me tell you that there are certain elements that are or should be common to all authentic Religious Life. Call these elements "basics", "constants"; call them "essentials" or "substantials"; call them the "non-negotiables". They deserve to be memorized, and they are clearly stated by the Pope. I know Papal documentation from more than twenty-five years of teaching theology and can say that no Pope has ever, in all these centuries, identified them as simply and as unambiguously as Pope John Paul II:

    1. A vocation given by God.

    2. An ecclesial consecration to Jesus Christ through profession of the evangelical counsels by public vows.

    3. Fidelity to a specific founding gift and sound tradition.

    4. A sharing in Christ's mission by a corporate apostolate.

    5. Personal and liturgical prayer, especially Eucharistic worship.

    6. Public witness.

    7. A life-long formation. Gone is the day when Religious can be satisfied with just what we used to call "Early Formation". No longer; it must be life-long.

    8. A form of government calling for religious authority based on faith.

    9. A specific relationship to the Church.

  3. How important are these essential elements? So important that without them Religious Life first weakens, then wanes, and finally dies. Look at those nine essentials. Every Community that is sick or moribund or on its way to being buried fails in greater or less measure in living up to one or more of these essential elements. As the Holy Father says, "Fidelity to these basic elements, laid down in the constitutions approved by the Church, guarantees the strength of Religious Life and grounds our hope for its future growth."

IV.  Papal Directives

Pope John Paul II is nothing if not practical. We may be sure that he would not leave his message, that we have so far recounted, to the American Bishops hanging, as it were, in mid-air. He appointed a special Commission to look into the conditions of Religious Life in the United States and to set about doing what needs to be done. But most important, he directed the Vatican Sacred Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes to spell out exactly, in detail, and concretely what Religious Life should be and what the Church wants it to be; then, by comparing what the Church expects with what is actually going on, to make such changes (if need be, radical changes) as are necessary.

V.  Closing

One closing observation. Early in his letter to the American hierarchy, the Pope places his hopes for Religious Life in what he says is “a call to penance and conversion". Yes, the Pope wouldn't be the Pope who has spent some thirty years under the Communists, suffering and struggling in spite of demonic opposition to the faith, if he didn't tell us Religious that what we mainly need is to respond to Christ's call to penance and conversion. What Religious Life needs (and not only in our own country) is nothing less than the humble admission that we need correction, we need amendment, we need reformation. This conversion is first of all to be made in the hearts and minds of the Religious themselves. That, after all, is what a Retreat is mainly all about. It is to look into our hearts and to ask ourselves humbly how well we are living up to the hard demands of the vocation that Christ called us to in following Him in living the counsels.

The great concern of the Holy Father for the future of Religious Life in the United States is unquestionably in our hands. That future is secure, that future is assured on one condition: that we Religious first humbly recognize and admit where we are wrong; second, that we obtain from the Jesus who called us the light we need to know how to change our ways; and finally, that we ask Him for the strength we need to do what Religious Life mainly needs in our country, to tell our Savior, "Lord, we have sinned. We've done wrong. We are sorry. And we promise with Your help to be what You want us Religious to be, witnesses (which in Biblical language is "martyrs") to following You from Your birth at Bethlehem in a cave to Your death naked on the Cross."

Retreat given to and recorded by the
Handmaids of the Precious Blood

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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