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Retreat - The Essentials of the Religious Life

Fidelity to the Founder's Charism and to Sound Traditions

December 27, 1983 — Evening Conference

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

What we're doing, of course, is continuing our meditations on the Holy Father's essential elements of religious life. Before we proceed further, it may be useful to note that the Pope combines two kinds of fidelity; both, he says, required as substantials in the religious life: fidelity to the charism of the founder, and fidelity to sound tradition. These two are closely related. In fact, related as condition and consequence. Realistically, there can be no sound traditions if they are at variance with the charism of the founder. That's what makes them sound. And there would be no traditions unless there had first been a founder. The founder's charism gives substance or grounds for what sound traditions, that is, principles and practices, that the founder bequeathed to his community to be passed on, (Latin, tradere) as the traditions that this institute, with the Church's approval, is intended to preserve and promote generations after the founder has left this earth and entered eternity.

My intention in this conference is to do two things; first, explain what the founder's charism and sound traditions mean. Dedication or zeal are not much help unless we know what we are devoted to or zealous about. And then examine, as we go along, some practical ways in which Religious can maintain and, in fact, develop, on both levels, their loyalty to the founder's charism and the sound traditions.

Our source of prayerful analysis will be those basic sources identified by the Pope, beginning with the Second Vatican Council and going to the latest and most authoritative document we have: the code of canon law.

Three words that mean almost the same thing, but not quite, are commonly found in the Church's documentation on fidelity to the founder. These words are 1) charism, 2) spirit, and 3) gift. What is the founder's charism? It is the composite of all the supernatural graces with which the founder was specially endowed in order to establish and sustain a particular institute of consecrated life. The charism begins, of course, with all the endowments that anyone destined to lead others in the ways of God would be expected to have. Integrity of character; loyalty to the Church; a love of Christ and His Mother; devotion to the Holy Eucharist; zeal for souls; and such virtues as faith, patience and selfless charity as God, we might say, necessarily confers on those whom He wants to use as the channels Of His grace not only during the lifetime of that person, but into millennium in the future.

But the founder's charism is not only his or her outstanding qualities of nature and grace. It is also and especially, the cluster of those distinctive graces that, in God's providence, are to be the foundation of a new - otherwise it couldn't be a new - community. Go over in memory the names of such persons as Benedict and Scholastica, Francis of Assisi and Clare, Dominic and Ignatius, Vincent and Louise de Merrilac, Elizabeth Seton and Don Bosco, and we see immediately that they and scores of others who established institutes of Christian perfection were unique individuals. In their lifetime they may have been called strange, or odd or eccentric. Well, let's face it, any unique person is necessarily strange or odd or eccentric. These people were, however, blessed with unique qualities conferred by the Holy Spirit to become the source of one or more religious families.

I wish to dwell for a moment on the uniqueness, in a way, the non-duplicability, of the supernatural qualities of every founder. A founder's charism, therefore, is a supernatural grace that God uses for the good of others. That, by the way, is the Church's understanding of charism. No one ever receives a charism just for himself. God, then, confers this grace to use it for the good of others, and not only for those who join a particular community during the founder's own lifetime, but for the thousands of others whom the community may well be meant to serve in generations to come. I like this bit of statistic: the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius, since 1540 have been made, on the average, by one million persons each year. Surely, the graces that God conferred on Inigo of Loyola were meant not merely for him, but for millions since he died.

What is the founder's spirit? Often the term charism or spirit are used interchangeably, but they're not quite the same thing. We may say the founder's spirit is the charism seen precisely as a source of new corporate life. Every founder, in the profoundest supernatural sense, is a father or a mother, and not just of another, but of a family who follows. God wants to bring families into existence by transmitting life from one person to a group of others. His spirit, we might say, is the founder's soul, but in a unique way. It is his soul graced by the Holy Spirit and prepared long before the founder was born. When God planned He planned from eternity, in order that in God's own time a community is born not of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God, to paraphrase Saint John. If we are all meant to be spiritually reproductive (and we are), founders are reproductive in an extraordinary way. It is of them, under God, that men and women become members of religious families no less - indeed, more truly - than fathers or mothers bring domestic families into existence.

What, finally, is the founder's gift? It is the same as charism and spirit, but seen now as that which God supernaturally confers. There are, as we know, certain gifts that the Spirit of God gives to all people in His friendship: faith, hope and charity conferred at Baptism; the seven gifts, ranging from the gift of wisdom to the gift of the fear of the Lord. But some gifts are given only to some people and they are not given to others. Founder's, then, receive certain gifts that no one else receives. These gifts are planted in the soul of the founder at Baptism. They are nurtured in sometimes strange ways over the years. And then, what may seemed to have happened all of a sudden (but not really) these gifts come to light and life with the founding of an institute of Christian perfection. In nineteen hundred years of the Churchs history there have been no exceptions.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this phenomenon is that it is so comparatively frequent. As frequent as new institutes come into being. And one of the surest signs that the Holy Spirit is busily at work inspiring new founders, no doubt to replace institutes that are tragically going out of existence, is that since the Council over seven hundred new communities have been established in the Church. Not bad. God knows the Church needs new institutes.

By now, anyone familiar with the Church's teaching on consecrated life from the Second Vatican Council to the present, knows how much constant, repeated, emphatic stress is placed on urging religious to be loyal to their founder's charism. Why should this be? Why the preoccupation with being faithful to the charism of one's founder?

There are many reasons and they would be worth recalling here because on a clear understanding of this depends in great measure the degree of desire to know and live up to the charism of one's founder. The founder's charism was not only the divinely chosen means of bringing a religious family into original existence; it remains today the providential means of keeping the community in flourishing existence. Either the founder's charism is a constant preoccupation of the community or the community is in trouble.

How do religious communities come into being in the first place? Is it not through the contagious inspiration of some saintly person who drew others to follow in his footsteps, who catch something of his unique vision of praising God and serving others? The human spirit is ageless; once we come into existence we never die. All of us in chapel today will live on and on into eternity. The founder, therefore, is still continuing to inspire people. He still continues sharing his vision of Christ and his own distinctive way of extending Christ's Kingdom. The founder is alive and active and animating disciples to carry on what may have begun centuries ago. But someone today better be so devoted to that charism as to keep it alive and active. Right? Otherwise the charism will become only a pleasant, past memory.

The Second Vatican Council gave some new words to our Catholic vocabulary, among which is the expression "renewal of religious life." What does renewal mean? Renewal is emphatically not removing the past and starting all over again. That would mean finding a new founder. Nor is it primarily adaptation to the culture and needs of the modern world. It's adaptation all right, but you better have something constant and stable and solid to which the adaptation is made. Renewal, as the Church understands the term, means a return to one's origins.

It means therefore, first of all, a return to one's origins. It means a restoration of one's foundation. It means, if need be, rebuilding on the grounds that first brought a religious community into corporate being. It means in many cases a refounding of the community by recovering its’ unique identity and, if necessary, rediscovering what, under God, the founder first conceived his religious family to be.

How should this be done? There is no single solution for some communities of truly renewing themselves according to the charism of their founder. For those institutes that have honestly tried over the years, in spite of the convulsion through which religious life is now passing, the task is easier. There is no choice. I would say that the loyalty, urged by the Holy Father, to the charism of our founder should have these qualities: It should be enlightened, it should be confident and it must be courageous.

It should be enlightened. By this I mean that religious must come to know their founder intimately, clearly, accurately, specially, if their loyalty is not to become a vapid piety or mere sentimentality. This calls for study, reading, if need be, research, reflection, discussion, and above all, meditative prayer on the writings and actions and words of the founder. His memory must be kept alive and his memory put into present day practice.

Loyalty to the charism of the founder should be confident. Religious must trust that the Holy Spirit speaking through the Church will indeed bring special graces to religious today who honestly strive to recover the spirit of their founder.

Loyalty to the founder's charism should be courageous. This is not obvious. There is so much talk nowadays about updating and changing and adapting, of becoming modern and not being preconciliar or medieval or conservative or archaic, that it takes real supernatural fortitude to buck the tide.

Of course, loyalty to the founder does not mean ignoring the needs of the present day or living in a dream world of the past. But it does mean that just as Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever, so the great followers of Christ, as surely the founders may be said to be, partake of the unchangableness of the Savior. This takes much courage born of conviction based on faith.

Pope John Paul couples loyalty to the charism of the founder to loyalty to sound traditions as one of the essential elements of religious life. Show me a community that cherishes the founder's memory, talks about him, reads about him, invokes him, and I will show you a community that has a promising future. Show me the opposite and I can tell you, that community's days are numbered.

Note carefully, the Holy Father says, "sound traditions." These words of the Pope are found in Conciliar teaching and have been re-echoed in papal documentation ever since. What is the Church saying? She is saying that just as a religious family comes into existence and remains in existence because of its founder who continues as its foundation, so the living out of the founder's charism over the years has become a precious heritage which thus becomes the traditions on which the community thrives. Lose this heritage and you lose all the wisdom born of the Spirit that an institute needs not only to survive, but to thrive in different periods of history, in different places and with different kinds of people who enter a community.

As with loyalty to the founder's charism, so here fidelity to sound traditions calls for certain qualities on the part of religious if they are serious about maintaining not just the accidentals but the essentials of religious life. Loyalty here should be prudent, humble and obedient.

Loyalty to the community heritage - otherwise known as sound traditions - should be prudent to make sure that the traditions are sound. Not everything from the past is meant to be retained. This loyalty should be humble to insure that the community remains humbly submissive to the vision of those who have gone before. In other words, there is wisdom with age; there is wisdom in experience. But it takes humility to respect this wisdom and to build on the past. Above all, loyalty to sound traditions must be obedient by accepting the guidance and directives and, if need be, the corrections and reprimands of ecclesiastical authority and of the Holy See so that we are loyal to what the Church tells us are our traditions and not the community's mistakes or abuses. And what the Church teaches us are sound traditions and not passing novelties.

Let me close with a short prayer. Lord Jesus, grant our community the wisdom we need to recognize the charism of our founder and its’ sound traditions bequeathed from his spirit. Give us the strength we need to remain firm in our fidelity in spite of criticism from others. Above all, dear Savior, give us a deep faith in your Vicar on earth who tells us that this two-fold loyalty will guarantee our loyalty to You Who are, dear Jesus, our first Founder. Amen.

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

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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