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Retreat - The Essentials of the Religious Life

The Apostolate of Witness

December 28, 1983 — Afternoon Conference

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

We begin, with the present conference, the whole subject of the corporate apostolate of religious. Our specific focus of the present meditation is the apostolate of witness. As we enter on the large area of the apostolate of religious institutes, I think it will be best to follow the order of the new Code of Canon Law which, by the way, is the very opposite of being a legalistic document. It is most meditative. No less than eleven canons constituting a whole chapter, some subdivided into several parts, dealing with the panoramic question of the apostolate of men and women religious.

By way of introduction, let me first give a short preview of all the canons to see the logic in the Church's careful handling of this vast subject. Then we will take each aspect separately and devote, with apologies, no less than four conferences in sequence to the apostolate of religious, touching on every important phase of what needs to be better understood among religious in our day. The four aspects that we shall consider in four successive conferences are, first, the apostolate of witness; second, the apostolate of contemplative communities; third, the apostolate of active communities; and finally, some practical norms for the apostolate. Before these four aspects of the apostolate of religious are covered, I trust you will agree they deserve the time and minute attention which the Church gives to this critical essential of religious life. Our first topic, therefore, for prayerful reflection is the apostolate of witness

We begin our reflections with seeing something of the Church's teaching. What I will do is quote - it's a short one - the opening canon of this chapter in the Code on the apostolate of religious communities. The canon reads: "The apostolate of all religious consists primarily in the witness of their consecrated life which they are bound to foster through prayer and penance." Unquote. Canon 673. What is the Church telling us here? She is giving us a statement of primacy in the apostolate of religious institutes and she is telling us how this primacy is to be promoted. What, then, is the primary apostolate of all religious, whether men or women, whether cloistered or externally active, whether clerical or lay, whether monastic or constitutional, and whether tracing their origins to centuries ago or are a recent, even present day, institution. Their primary apostolate, says the Church, is the witness of their consecrated life. In a few minutes we shall go into a deeper analysis of what witness means, but let's first make sure we know what the Church is saying.

She is telling religious that their main apostolic responsibility before everything else they do for others, beneath everything else and behind everything in the apostolate is that they give witness to the world of their being consecrated. All that we have so far seen about a consecrated life of dedicated chastity, poverty and obedience means, all that we have meditated on regarding community life, all of this must - the word is 'must' - first, be an order and faithfully lived out and loyally practiced as, we might say, the divinely ordained soul of the apostolate of religious in the Catholic Church. Every other form of apostolic effort is the body; this is the soul. In the absence of this kind of witness, whatever else religious do or try to do will be only minimally effective or as history points out, can be counter-productive. The heart of the apostolate of religious is their consecrated life patently lived out as consecrated life. With a wisdom born of centuries of experience, the Church further tells religious how this primary apostolate of witness is to be fostered. The principal means, we are told, are prayer and penance. This is no cliché. It is a statement of supernatural wisdom that if we religious are to be a city on a mountaintop, if we are to be witnesses to others by our faithful living of consecrated life we need two things: we must pray to obtain the help of God's grace and we must practice penance which in more prosaic terms means we must practice constant self-denial. Without prayer we shall not obtain the light and strength we need to remain faithful to our vowed commitment; and without self-denial we shall not co-operate as we should with the graces that God gives us in such abundance as God's chosen ones. The intentions that God has for us are far above - we must say this - undeservingly, God's expectations of us are far above what He expects of others whom He has not called to the consecrated life

But there are two conditions. Having been thus called we must obtain help from God to be gained through constant prayer, and we must exert ourselves, work, labor, call it mortification, call it penance, call it in Christ's language, self-denial. Both are necessary: prayer to obtain the grace, and self-denial to co-operate with the grace received.

So far for a reflection on the Church's canonical teaching that our primary apostolate is the witness of our consecrated life. So we now ask ourselves, what is witness? either as a noun or as a verb. The best place to begin our inquiry as to what witness means is to go back to Christ's message to His disciples on Ascension Thursday just before He left the earth in visible form to return to His Father. Christ told the sorrowing disciples who were saddened that He was leaving them. He said - I quote: "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you and then you will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem but throughout Judea and Samaria and indeed, to the ends of the earth." Unquote Christ, speaking His last parting message to the apostles.

On closer scrutiny we see that Christ is making a prophecy. He was foretelling three things. He foretold to the disciples that, they would receive power from the Holy Spirit; second, that they would be strengthened by this power in order to give witness to the Savior - no power, no witness; no Spirit, no power. And third, that their witness would reach from Palestine even to the far ends of the earth, even to the end of time. My speaking to you, and you patiently listening nineteen hundred and fifty years after the prophecy, is proof positive that the prophecy is being fulfilled.

Suppose we look for a few minutes at each of these three promises of Christ. Ten days after Christ's Ascension, the apostles and disciples including Mary did receive a miraculous outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Simon Peter who had been so weak that he denied his Master during the Passion, on Pentecost Sunday, thanks to the Spirit, stood up boldly and told the assembled Jews they had murdered the Messiah Whom he dared call "the Author of life." He told them to repent and be baptized. And Luke casually remarks, "Over three thousand were added to the number of believers on that day."

As the young Church grew, it was the same Holy Spirit Whom the new Christians received Who gave them strength, like He gave Stephen, to shed their blood for Jesus Christ. It was the same Spirit Who enabled Paul to travel across the Mediterranean proclaiming Christ, and then dying as the fruit of his missionary zeal. Yes, the first part of Christ's prediction was amply fulfilled. The Holy Spirit did come, He did give miraculous power to the Christians who believed in Him, power to understand, power to withstand and power to proclaim. You and I are the living proof of that power.

Second prediction. The word that Jesus used in making His prophecy, we translate in English as, quote: "You will be My witnesses." The original Greek in which St. Luke wrote the Acts of the Apostles reads: "You will be my martyroi", my martyrs. That's not a gloss on the text, that's what Christ said. Thus we see that the commonplace word, witness, is not commonplace at all - it means martyr. We come back to our original question: what, then, does 'witness' mean? It took me twenty years to carve the definition. which included some personal experience. A witness is one who testifies under duress, to revealed truth in order to persuade others to accept Christ and His Church. Let me repeat the definition: a witness is one who testifies under duress, to revealed truth in order to persuade others to accept Christ and His Church. To witness, therefore, means to testify to what I know on faith to be true. If we testified to what was not true we would be, not witnesses but perjurers. I know what I witness to because I believe. I know because I've received from the Holy Spirit in Baptism the gift of faith, and the gift of wisdom and understanding, and knowledge. And I've had this light of faith nourished by receiving the same Jesus Christ Who first sent His Spirit on Pentecost Sunday. I testify because I see, not with my reason but with my mind enlightened by the Spirit of Truth that whatever Christ revealed about Himself and His Will for the world is true. Part I of the definition.

How is witness giving testimony under duress? It is under duress because as a witness to Christ I often am going against my own natural inclinations to skepticism and pride. The worst critic of our faith is our own fallen - let's use the adjective - fallen, human reason, in order to testify to Christ I am going against the practices and philosophy of the world. It hasn't changed since Paul's day. It looks upon Christ and His Cross as folly. Some time ago I had lunch at his invitation with the father of a girl who had entered a good, strong religious community. For two hours we talked. "All I'm asking you," he said, "all I want to know is can you prove to me that my daughter is not crazy. That's all." I didn't convince him. So later on we went back to the same effort, only this time I had to try to convince him and his wife and the sister of the religious, all three of whom proudly told me as we sat down to dinner this time: "You know, we are all atheists. "Well, if you're atheists, that means we start with prayer." And I proceeded to make the largest sign of the Cross I've ever made. This time, three hours, and I did make some dent in their unbelieving armor.

Back to our subject. How is witness giving testimony under duress? By going against the world. Finally, how do I witness under duress? By going against the wiles of the evil spirit whom Christ had so often to drive out of possessed persons in His day. And I have to keep from being deceived by the devil in my day. It's duress all right. As religious, our consecrated lives are a rebuke to worldly people. They are a stark reminder to them that they should reform their lives. People in sin don't want to be told they're sinners. They resent the hidden reprimand of our efforts to follow Christ; even to seeing us dress differently than the expensive luxury and seductive finery that the world so admires. That's Part II of our definition of witness.

Part III. Christ prophesied that those who would receive power from His Spirit would be His witnesses, that is, His martyrs, even to the ends of the earth, even - what am I saying? - to Jemez Springs in New Mexico. That's about as far away as you can get from Palestine without returning. How truly this prophecy has been fulfilled, and how magnificently have religious over the centuries fulfilled it. Let's be clear, however. This matter of witnessing to Christ is not an accident or an afterthought of following Christ as religious are supposed to do. It should be on our part a conscious and very deliberate desire to persuade others to believe in Christ if they are not yet Christians, to believe in Him more deeply if they are. And above all to love Him more ardently. Two weeks ago I had my first meeting of Jewish converts. I've brought a few into the Church, they're not easy to convert. And others, pardon the verb, that I rounded up. Had Mass for them and told them: "As converts of the Chosen People, you have an obligation above everyone else to proclaim Jesus Christ." But here is where our own depth of faith is so important. Nothing convinces like conviction, and nothing persuades like being firmly persuaded oneself. Either I as a religious am absolutely certain that Jesus is God, that the Child in Mary's arms at Bethlehem was her Creator, that the One Who died on the Cross for my sins was the Lord of heaven and earth Who was crucified out of love for me - either I am penetrated to the core of my being with the truth of these mysteries or I shall not be able to convince others that what I am saying is really true.

But if I am thoroughly imbued with the reality of Jesus Christ, every person whose life I touch will be affected and benefited accordingly.

I have one small part left in this first conference: Forms of witness. We should expect by now, nineteen hundred years after Christ made His prophecy to the disciples--now the Church's masters of the spiritual life would analyze what we may call the different forms of witnessing to Christ that He expects of all of his followers and that we as religious are told is our primary apostolate. There are, reflecting the Church's wisdom, three main forms of giving witness to Christ. Not everyone is expected to witness on all three levels in the same way. Not all religious communities place the same stress among these three forms of witnessing to the Savior but all three are of the essence of giving witness and all three are incumbent in varying degrees on all religious.

They are: the witness of holiness, the witness of charity and the witness of communication. We shall go into all three in later conferences, but there is some value in even briefly seeing what these three kinds of witness mean, as a kind of bridge to what we shall see in greater detail later on. The witness of holiness is a commandment of Christ to give others good example. He tells us - I quote the Savior: "So let your light shine before men that they may see your good works and thus give glory to your Father in Heaven." The witness of sanctity for us religious is no option. It is our most fundamental obligation as people consecrated to Christ.

The witness of charity is again a duty laid on His followers by the Master. He tells us - remember? By this - first and mainly by this, our practice of charity - will others know that we are, and not merely claim to be, His disciples. Love attracts, love appeals, love draws, love all but coerces the human heart. If we love others as Christ wants us to, we will draw souls to Jesus.

Finally, the witness of communication...spans all the ways in which we can speak or write or otherwise communicate our ideas to other people - again a commandment: "What you have heard, preach from the housetops", and, frighteningly: "He that denies Me before men, I will deny him before my heavenly Father. He that proclaims Me, speaks of Me, talks of Me to men, I will proclaim before my Father in Heaven." Call it religious conversation, call it spiritual conversation. Communicating our thoughts about Christ and His Church to others is an essential part of our religious consecration. A short prayer:

Lord Jesus, deepen our faith so that we may know You in order to proclaim You. But above all inflame our love for You so that everyone whom you put into our lives we will look upon as a blessed opportunity to witness to about You in everything we say and do. Amen.

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

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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