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Retreat - The Essentials of the Religious Life

Life of Public Consecration to Jesus Christ

December 26, 1983 — Afternoon Conference

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

Our present reflections are on religious life as a life of public consecration to Jesus Christ.

As we have seen, the first essential element of religious life according to Pope John Paul is: "a vocation given by God." But a vocation has a purpose. People are called by God in order to do something. What is this something to which those who are religious have been called? They have been called, says the Pope - again I quote - "to an ecclesial consecration to Jesus Christ."

Before we go on, I would like to clarify some vocabulary, specifically three terms: Consecration to Jesus Christ and Ecclesial Consecration. Religious are, first of all, called to consecration. They are called - as casual as the expression may sound - they, or better, we are called to make our lives sacred, permanently sacred in the profoundest sense of the term, "other worldly." We consecrate chalices and churches and altars, and set them aside for divine purposes to serve a sacred and no longer a merely profane or secular function.

So, too, those who have a religious vocation are called to be set aside, except in this case they set themselves aside, for a holy purpose that is no longer a worldly purpose.

Again, this consecration is, so the Pope tells us, "to Jesus Christ." How so? A religious belongs - and the verb is of the essence - a religious belongs to Jesus Christ to be used by Him, to love above all, beneath all and within all, Him. To become like Him, whose only purpose, Christ's, was to do the W ill of His Father; to become more and more, under the influence of His grace, like Christ. This consecration is therefore made as a lifetime adoration of Jesus Christ where the highest form of adoration is sacrifice. And whatever else authentic religious life is, it is - it had better be - a life of sacrifice.

Finally this consecration, we are told, is to be ecclesial. In many ways, the adjective 'ecclesial' is a new term in the Catholic vocabulary. It is not exactly 'ecclesiastical,' which has legal or canonical implications. Religious life is deeply interior. 'Ecclesial' is distinct from 'ecclesiastical' in being interiorly a life that has to do with the ecclesial, the Church, founded by Christ who remains her invisible Head and whose Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, is a living, animating soul.

If we further ask - and we're still on the introduction: How is the consecration of a religious ecclesial? It is ecclesial because religious life is in the Church, for the Church, it depends on the Church, and its divinely instituted purpose is to serve the Church on earth as a means of reaching, and its reaching, the Church Triumphant in Heaven. All I have been saying is by way of a preliminary introduction to clear up the meaning of some words.

Suppose now we identify the areas on which we wish to concentrate. They are mainly three, and I would like to express them in three questions, and as we go along, to answer the questions.

  • First, what is consecrated life in the Catholic Church?

  • Second, how is religious life a distinct form of consecrated life?

  • Third: what are some practical implications in our spiritual lives as religious?

First then, consecrated life. The Holy Father told us that one of the main sources of authentic information about the essentials of religious life, which is what we're talking about, one of the main sources is the new Code of Canon Law. Here we find a quarry of clear, sound knowledge about consecrated life. It will be a long quotation and then we'll go back and break it up and specifically clarify its meaning.

The Code tells us; I quote: "Life consecrated through profession of the evangelical counsels is a stable form of living in which the faithful follow Christ more closely under the action of the Holy Spirit, and are totally dedicated to God Who is supremely loved. By a new and special title, they are dedicated to seek the perfection of charity in the service of God's kingdom, for the honor of God, the building up of the Church and the salvation of the world. They are a splendid sign in the Church as they foretell the heavenly glory." Unquote. Canon 573.

Never be fore in the legislative history of the Catholic Church has consecrated life been so clearly, concisely and, I would add, uncompromisingly defined. What are we being told? We are being told many things. It may help, since I have been counting all along, to continue counting, to identify the elements in this definition of consecrated life:

  • 1st. A person consecrates his or her life through the profession of the evangelical counsels. God gives the grace - that's the vocation - but each person must respond to the grace - that's the profession. This commitment, responding to a divine impulse, is what constitutes consecrated life. God's grace is infinite, but we though creatures, mysteriously and tragically, can either say Yes or No to infinity. If we say Yes and we profess our commitment we become in the Church's language, consecrated persons.

  • 2nd. Consecrated life is a state of life. It is a stable, determined, permanent way of living. It is not an on again, off again, avocation. It is a state of life.

  • 3rd. Those who live a consecrated life not only intend to but actually do follow Christ more closely. Consecrated persons are not living in a dream world or a hypothetical or potential world. They are living in a real world of space and time where they are; insofar as they are consecrated, literally living more closely, which means more generously and more totally, the life that Christ lived during his own visible stay on earth.

  • 4th. All of this is possible only through the action of the Holy Spirit. He, the Spirit of Christ, must provide the faith, trust and love. He must confer his gifts of Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge, Counsel, Fortitude, Piety and Fear of the Lord. More than other persons, religious need an extraordinary outpouring of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. This Spirit must give the fruits of the joys that are in the Spirit and that make this kind of humanly impossible kind of life possible and, what is most remarkable, actually enjoyable.

  • 5th. Those living a consecrated life are - I underline the verb - are truly totally dedicated to God. This is their intention, this is their avowed purpose: to hold nothing back from God, and we are as Religious as we do not hold anything back from the God who called us.

  • 6th. Why do people do this? Why do people give themselves to a life of consecrated dedication to God? Because they love God. It is love that inspires a consecrated vocation. It is love that sustains this vocation. It is love that motivates it. It is love that enlightens where the heart tells the soul what the mind cannot see. It is love that strengthens the weak, fallen, and falling human nature to remain faithful. It is love and love alone that makes the life of a religious what God intends it to be: a foretaste of Heaven on earth.

  • 7th. Can we be more specific? Yes. The Church tells religious they are dedicated to seek the perfection of charity in the service of Christ's kingdom. In other words, the religious has no option. He or she has assumed the obligation to grow in holiness, to become a saint, to become more and more Christlike with the passing of every day.

  • 8th. To what is all of this being directed? Where is it going? Its goal, the Church tells us, is threefold: the honor of God who is praised especially by sacrifice. And what sacrifice really living religious life requires. Its goal is the building up of the Church by increasing the Church's numbers and intensifying the Church's sanctity; both quantitative and qualitative building up of the Mystical Body. Its goal is the salvation of the world, nothing less; the 4-1/2 billion people on earth today. We believe that no one is saved without grace, and grace comes mainly from prayer and good works. And religious are planted in the world - that is why God planted us - to be one of the principal source of grace for a sinful mankind.

  • 9th and finally. Those living a consecrated life are - strange expression - a "splendid sign in the Church." In our secular language we use the word 'splendid' in so many profane senses. What does it mean here? Those consecrated are to be a shining witness in the Church. In the most emphatic way they are those - better, we are those - who are forbidden to hide the good works we do under a bushel. We are to be the city on a mountain to allow everyone to see our witness so that because of us God might be worshiped and glorified.

It is no exaggeration to say that consecrated life is a miraculous life, a life that over the centuries has testified to Christ's continued presence and power in the world. Christ worked his miracles in Palestine and He wants to continue working his miracles in the world today. What kind of miracles? We call them moral miracles, miracles in the practice of virtue beyond the power of the human will to do by itself, witnessing to the Church as Christ dwelling on earth in His members. How do consecrated persons do this? How are they this splendid sign, this resplendent sign? They do so, again by a strange expression, quote: "foretelling the heavenly glory." Unquote.

After all, what is the one mystery of the faith that people need constantly to be taught, including the most devout Catholics? Is it not the mystery that we do not have here a lasting dwelling place? That we are made for a better life, the immortal life with God in Heaven? Those who honestly are living a consecrated, dedicated life of the counsels proclaim to all the world, let me change it, should proclaim to all the world, that we are living on earth all right but we are made for Heaven, that our sufferings in this life are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed in us.

…All of that was still only Part I.

Part II. Religious Life, a distinct form of consecrated life. Here we should pause for a moment to get our bearings. The new Code of Canon Law declares there are two main kinds of consecrated life recognized by the Church: 1st, life in a secular institute, and 2nd, life in a religious institute.

Suppose we look for a few moments at consecrated life as lived by persons in Secular Institutes. As I am sure you know, secular institutes as now constituted, are a 20th century creation. They came into existence to meet a very modern need. What do those do who vow themselves to live up to the counsels in secular institutes. What do they do? They profess their union with Christ through profession of the Counsels, lived out in the midst of the world. The Latin phrase of the Code says, "ab intus", from within the world. Their union with God is translated by their work in the world. It is expressed by means of the world. This is their special vocation defined by the late Pope Pius XII - I quote - as "consecration to God and to others in the world and by means of the world."

Of themselves, the evangelical counsels do not necessarily separate people from the world. In fact, it is a gift of God for the Church that consecration through profession of the Counsels can take the form of a life to be lived as a hidden leaven in the world. Christians so consecrated continue the work of salvation by communicating the love of Christ through their presence in the world and contributing to its sanctification in the world. Their style of life and work are not distinct, and are not meant to be distinguished, from those of their fellow Christians. Their witness is given in their ordinary professional or commercial life in the world. This discreet form of witness flows from the very nature of their secular vocation and is part of the way the Church understands their consecration is to be lived. What is the Church telling us? She is saying that persons consecrated to God in secular institutes are not, canonically speaking, religious.

So we return to our question. How do religious live a unique or distinct form of consecrated life? This is no idle question these days when so many once flourishing institutes are floundering and, in fact, struggling for survival, and, in my not inexperienced judgment, not a few will disappear by the end of the present century.

Before we go on to identify the specific difference between religious and those who are living consecrated lives indeed but in the world, I would like to say a little more by way of vocabulary, isolating the word "public."

The specific difference between religious and consecrated persons in secular institutes may be identified by the word "public."

What does the Church mean? She means that by its essence as willed by Christ, religious life is to be openly, overtly, externally, manifestly, recognizably, a life of consecrated persons. No one should have any doubt who religious are and what they are about. Hence, the crucial word, "public." No mere hidden leaven here. Are we clear? Religious profession is made by vows which the Church receives as public, a stable form of community life in an institute established by ecclesiastical authority, manifest in the visible, sensibly perceptible way, the covenant and communion which religious life as a distinct form of consecrated life expresses. A certain separation from family and from professional life from the time a person enters, say, the postulancy or novitiate, speaks powerfully of the absoluteness of God.

At the same time, it is the beginning of a new and deeper bond in Christ with a family, the family one has left. This bond becomes more firm as detachment from otherwise legitimate relationships, occupations and forms of recreation continue to reflect God's absoluteness publicly, overtly, externally, throughout life.

Moreover, the apostolate in which religious, unlike those who are members of secular institutes - in which religious engage, is an apostolate that is corporate, evidently done by members of a community working together.

Finally, and not unimportantly: Religious Presence. The Church wants to be made visible, clearly visible, in the way religious act, where they live and, with emphasis - the Holy Father makes clear - what they wear. Isn't this good to hear? It is a public witness, the corporate, externally manifest witnessing to Jesus Christ, not hiddenly but openly. The implications of this teaching are staggering and their demands on the life and work of religious can be - and I trust you agree - heroic.

Last Part: Practical Implications. The last part will be shorter as a prelude to the days we still have ahead to spell out these implications.

All along we have been touching on the practical consequences of our subject, namely, that religious life is a life of public consecration to Jesus Christ. And we shall see many more consequences as we go on. Let me here only point up two serious implications that I would synthesize in two words: Prayer and Sacrifice.

The first practical result of all we have been saying is that religious must, absolutely must, live a life of constant, prayerful union with God. Whatever else religious life is, it is a life that makes sense only on the premises of faith. I would not even so much as seriously think of becoming a religious unless I first believed that such a life is livable and lovable; unless I believed that such a life is pleasing to God; that such a life has value in His eyes, because it is so obviously other-worldly and foreign to the philosophy of the world all around us. But I will never remain faithful to my consecrated commitment unless I am constantly in contact with this invisible world of God and Our Lady and the angels and saints. One of my favorite definitions of prayer: experienced contact with the invisible world.

The second practical result of all we have been saying is the need for courage. All of us want to be accepted by others. We live on their acceptance and we dread their rejection. But - in case no one has told you - the world does not accept those who are "other worldly", and yet, we are to win this world for Christ. Clearly, we need courage to live in the world but not be of the world; in other words, not be conformed to the world that crucified its Savior.

As we go on in the religious life we learn from experience that whatever else this life means it calls for a constant carrying of the Cross. To do so patiently, unwearyingly and uncomplainingly day after day, week after week and year after year requires courage. Courage, on Christian premises, is the capacity for endurance. We need courage. Christ will provide the fortitude. After all, He told us not to be afraid: "Have courage, I have overcome the world."

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

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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