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Retreat - The Essentials of the Religious Life

Religious Vocation

December 26, 1983 — Homily — Conference 2

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

As you recall, this is, the first of the essential elements, the non-negotiables that the Holy Father singles out as on trial in the Church today. As he calls it, the first substantial element is a special call from God. We might begin by asking ourselves why it is important to go into this subject or for our purpose, why the Holy Father makes this the first of the essentials.

There are two reasons why this subject is transcendentally important today. The first is widespread confusion about the uniqueness of the religious life and consequently, how can we speak intelligently about a special call if it is not to a special way of living. The second reason, it’s so important, is that for sustained motivation and religious need not only initially but constantly and enduringly - strong, clear, unqualified motives for becoming and remaining religious. And the most persuasive motive anyone can have to do what may be very difficult on human nature, is in the motto of the crusades, God Wills it! We better be sure we are called by God if we are going to remain faithful to living out what is by all accounts a very demanding way of life.

I would like to do just one thing; define a religious vocation and then spend the next half-hour or so explaining the definition.

First, the meaning of Religious Vocation. A religious vocation is a special call from Christ through the Church to follow Christ more intimately in the life-time practice of the Evangelical Counsels in a community according to norms approved by the Church. On reflection I found out there are eight distinctive features in this definition.

I.  A Religious Vocation is a Special Call from Christ

It is then first of all caressed; Jesus Christ Who does the calling no less than He called the Apostles in the first century, It is He Who calls and continues to call in our century. But, as though the documents of the Church make clear, it is a special call, it is a specific call in many ways.

It is first of all special in Christ calling only; we have to say this, calling only certain people. It is by God's Will selective. It is moreover, a call to a distinctive, different, indeed unique way of life. Others have their call, religious have theirs. It is finally special in being called to do a very particular work in the apostolate.

The heart of every call is to a mission. The correlative of vocation is mission. Religious are therefore called by Christ in order to be sent by Christ, to be assigned by Christ, to be designated by Him to cooperate in a distinctive way in His work of saving souls.

Religious are not called just to save themselves. Or indeed only to sanctify themselves. I'll be stronger still, religious are called in order to be sent and they are sent in ways in which Christ desires. To help Him in saving and sanctifying souls and the salvation of religious and their sanctification depends on how zealously they work for others. If it is surprising, let it be surprising, but our sanctification is conditioned on our zeal in sanctifying others. So much for the first distinctive feature -- a special, unique call from Christ in order to cooperate with Christ in the redemption of the world.

II.  The Church's Role in Confirming an Interior Invitation from Christ

Through the Church, a vocation is indeed from Jesus. But although religious vocations are deeply interior, they nevertheless come to a person through the visible and I would add audible Church. Unless the interior call is associated with an expressed desire from someone representing the Church, the interior vocation is uncertain at best. And in the final analysis, no one can be sure that he or she has an interior call from Christ unless someone who speaks for the Church confirms that interior invitation by making it Ecclesial.

No less than in Palestine, Christ did not merely invite people interiorly so that yet a sudden inspiration to follow Christ, Christ spoke audible words which they could hear. They saw a visible Christ whom they were told "to come and see". Before our reflections are over, we will see more about the Church’s role in confirming, authenticating the interior invitation from Christ.

III.  To Follow Christ

This following of Jesus is clearly, not merely, chronological. He came first, we come later. To follow Christ, means to become specially associated with Christ, in imitating Christ more closely, in being ordered by Christ to identify with His saving work in sacrificing oneself. I recommend memorizing this triad: sacrificing oneself for Christ, like Christ and with Christ.

For Christ because it is out of love for Him, like Christ because He is the model of how we are to live and with Christ. Religious life is even conceivable, let alone livable, let still more alone, livable happily only if we have grace from Christ, in other words, with His help.

IV.  More Intimately

Whatever we will say in the next week, and we'll use a lot of words. There is one word that stands as the foundation of everything else, or from another viewpoint, is root of a religious vocation and that is the word MORE.

The fundamental essence of religious life is in doing more. More than what? More than is strictly obligatory to reach Heaven. A person has a vocation to being a religious only if that person has received the grace to do more.

Remember when Christ invited the rich young man and after telling him to keep the Commandments the young man objected, "but I have kept this from my youth, what more is wanting to me?" And then Christ set down the Magna Carta of religious life, "if you wish" depending on the translation, "to be perfect go the whole way, then do certain things" and finally "follow Me".

What's the more? It is first in receiving the grace to do more than is strictly required to reach Heaven.

What does this more mean? It means undertaking a life to do more than is expected of others. Either a religious resides himself to doing more than others or that person does not have a religious vocation. What does this more mean? It means doing more than is obligatory by Divine precept. God has laid down certain clear and unqualified obligations, do this, do not do that, and condition on obeying Christ's commands and observing His prohibitions, we will not be saved. The more means going beyond prescription, beyond obligation, beyond precept, beyond command. What does this more intimately mean? It means doing more because responding to greater graces. This is a frightening reflection. Whatever else revelation tells us it makes per lucidly clear to whom more is given of him more is expected.

It is therefore assumed that a religious vocation means receiving extra, long pause, extra-ordinary graces. Clearly not everyone receives such graces, that's why not everyone is called to be a religious.

And finally, we are still asking ourselves what does the word really mean? It means doing more because it means undertaking positions in the Church, that we call positions of leadership in extending Christ's kingdom. In varying degrees, religious are to be leaders to lead others by their example, by their good works, by their prayers and by their active apostolate in greater or less degree. Leading others they are to be as the Latin says “duce aleorum” they are to be the leaders of others. Clearly those who are to lead others are to do more than those whom they lead.

V.  In the Life-Time Practice

We'll talk about the counsels in a few minutes. I wish here to stress the importance of the life-time feature of a religious vocation. As I've been saying since I was ordained, there is no such thing as a temporary vocation. Every religious vocation is permanent. You either have it or you don't have it. And if you have it, it is intended by God to go on through life into eternity. Its object therefore is to follow Christ until death. To follow Christ uninterruptedly. That's why, and some will be unhappy with what I'm going to say, I am unhappy with sometimes the very injudicious vacation that religious are given. Dear God, vacations from what?

More vocations have been injured, as a Priest I know more vocations have been lost. Change a letter and you may change a person’s life; there is no such thing as a vacation from a religious vocation. In other words, it is life-time both in being until death and in being uninterrupted. By the same token no religious ever retires. "I am now a retired religious." What are you talking about? Once a vocation is responded to it is meant to continue uninterruptedly, not until retirement, but until death.

From another viewpoint, a religious vocation is not an employment, it is not a job, it is not even a profession, it's not a mere occupation. It is a call to devote one's whole life with the wholeness as the Second Vatican Council makes clear, a three-fold wholeness - a wholeness of duration, a wholeness of duration, a wholeness of sacrifice, and a wholeness of service. And frankly given those three forms of totality that's all there is.

VI.  Evangelical Counsels

So with a life time practice now of the Evangelical Counsels, let's make sure we have the vocabulary clear. A counsel as we've seen briefly before is going beyond precept. A counsel presumes the practice of the precept but it goes beyond with that moreness, to coin a word, that we described before. But these are evangelical. Why evangelical? Because they are found in the evangelia. Meaning what? Meaning this is the way Christ lived His life and we are to live our life modeled on His.

To get more deeply into the subject of what a counsel is let me point out immediately, and this is where Catholicism stands not only as the only true religion but so unique in the world as I can say having taught comparative religion for the twenty-five past years there is nothing like it, Catholic Christianity recognizes God's Will as manifested to His creatures in two different ways or if you wish on two different levels.

There is first of all the level of duty. The level of the universal "ought" required of every son and daughter of Adam. This is a binding will. This is a rewarding will, if we do God's Will on this level we shall be rewarded. This is also a punitive will, if we do not do our duty we’ll be punished.

There is a second and a higher level to God's Will. This is a scandal to those outside the Catholic Church. This is God's inviting Will, this is God's Will requesting. I have found it useful to distinguish the two levels Of God's Will by calling the first perceptive and the second attractive. Meaning what? On the first level God demands obedience as Lord of Heaven and earth as our Creator but this same God who commands us became a human being to draw us. Remember the words of Christ "I will draw to Myself". This is God the all-beautiful One, this is God not here the commander but God the Lover. The One Who draws, the One Who appeals, the One Who invites. What an apparently blasphemous word - God asks. He commands all right that is obligation but He also asks. You'd never think, you'd never think, but the word please is in the Divine vocabulary. "Won't you please do this, and do that, and thus become more and more like Me" because the foundation of a religious vocation is that we're attracted by Jesus, we are drawn to Him, to follow Him beyond what we must do to avoid being, punished by His justice. These counsels as we know and we won't dwell on them now and just to hear it, since the Second Vatican Council, chastity is always placed first -- chastity, poverty and obedience.

VII.  In a Community

The new code of Canon Law, we might say revolutionizes the language of following Christ, the new code speaks of a consecrated life and it distinguishes two principle forms of this consecrated life in two kinds of institutes - in secular institutes and in religious institutes. And the essence of belonging to a religious institute is living in a community. In other words the characteristic feature of religious life as distinct from belonging to a secular institute is a vocation or a call to cooperate living, to cooperate prayer, to cooperate work, to a cooperate apostolate. Togetherness, the Church teaches us, togetherness is at the heart of a religious vocation. That does not mean that people can not obtain sanctity even high sanctity without living in a community, but the distinctive of a religious vocation is this togetherness, in following Christ and in serving Him in the Church together.

VIII.  According to Norms Approved by the Church

How critically important this is especially today. So many are ignoring and even openly defying the Church's directives on what religious life should be. No doubt these norms will differ considerably among different religious institutes but they will all have certain features in common. This approval from the Church is first of all the approval of the Constitutions. If in even as great a mystic as Francis of Assisi having drafted his constitutions for the Friars Minor, presenting them to the Pope and the Pope finding them unsatisfactory, the great Francis, then went back rewrote his rule of life and modified drastically because the Pope who from all the historical records was no Francis of Assisi, the Pope told Francis I think your rule is too severe. So he changed it, why because he was Pope. The constitutions must be approved by the Church; they must be interpreted by the Church.

Why is this so very important? For us religious, we have the assurance of God's grace only if the way of life we profess and strive to live has been approved by the Church. The community will be blessed, it will get vocations, its’ members will grow in sanctity only on condition that their way of life is approved by sometimes a painful human Church which faith tells us is animated by the spirit of God.

As we go back over these distinctive features of a religious vocation, let’s remind ourselves that not everyone receives this call from Christ. I am speaking to people who are honestly convinced they have received a religious vocation. Ah, but a religious vocation is not just received at the beginning of one’s religious life, Christ continues calling that is why we must continue and how that needs to be stressed today, continue responding.

Dear Jesus, we believe you called us to follow you more intimately in a religious community. Sustain us by Your grace, give us the light we need to never, never Dear Savior, loose sight of You because it is only You Whom we wish to follow being sure that if we do our part You will do Yours until our vocation will be fulfilled in that community where we will join You with the Father and the Holy Spirit never to be separated from your love. Amen.

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

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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