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Retreat - The Essentials of the Religious Life

Religious as Sons and Daughters of the Church

January 1, 1984 — Evening Conference

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

In Pope John Paul's own words, he identifies the closing essential element in Religious life as "a special relation to the Church." Religious life is nothing - if not ecclesial. It is the Church, the ecclesial, that preserves Christ's revelation about the evangelical counsels. It is the Church which recognized the authentic charism of saintly persons, who then became founders of Religious Institutes. It is the Church which authorized the establishment of individual Religious communities. Finally, it is the Church which regulates the life of religious; approve their constitutions; and decides what may or may not be done by religious.

Having said all of this, there is still one more aspect of the relationship of religious to the Church; it has to do with our response to the Church's authority. How, we ask, are religious to look upon the Church? In the words of our Holy Father, "They (that is religious) are to look upon the Church as our Mother, and therefore, we are to look on ourselves as Her sons and daughters."

For our reflection on this very important and concluding subject, we will meditate on what Pope John Paul had to say about St. Teresa of Avila on the occasion of the fourth centennial of her death, October 4, 1982.

The Pope began by quoting St. Teresa as she lay on her deathbed when she exclaimed her last recorded words, "I am a daughter of the Church." The Pope then went on to examine in great detail how through her eventful life, Teresa of Avila, was indeed a true daughter of the Church. Pope John Paul went on to tell religious that she is a model for us to follow, and he singled out especially three qualities in Teresa's devotion to the Church that deserve our admiration and imitation. We will first state the Holy Father's choice of the three distinctive elements of Teresa's devotion to the Church, and then point out the implications for ourselves.

First, Teresa considered the Church to be the Sacrament of Salvation. The Church, she believed, is the Sacrament of Salvation which is at work especially in the Sacred Liturgy through the mediation which belongs to the Bishops and priests whose concern it should be to be Lights of the Church. Second, Teresa was subject to the Holy Catholic Church the Pope said, "in everything." And third, Teresa had one intention that dominated all her prayers in all the monasteries she founded, namely, the spreading of the Catholic Faith.

Now for the implications. We hear these three outstanding qualities of Teresa of Avila in her relationship to the Church, and we immediately ask ourselves - How do they pertain to us? What can she, a doctor of the universal Church, teach us? The Church's meaning for doctor in Latin is teacher. What can she teach us - a great deal. Suppose we take each of the three qualities in sequence.

The Church is a Sacrament of Salvation through Bishops and priests. In the Catholic Church, we believe that Christ founded His Church on the Apostles and it is, and has been, through them and their successors, the Bishops and priests, that alone Mass is offered and the Living Body and Blood of Christ is received. Jesus, although He ascended into Heaven on Ascension Thursday has, as Pope Pius XII said "… never left the earth." It is through Bishops and priests that Confirmation is administered; that sins are forgiven by Divine mandate in the Sacrament of Penance and Anointing.

St. Teresa's respect for the priesthood was extraordinary, not because all the priests she met were outstanding in personal qualities or for that matter in moral virtue, but because she saw in them the ones alone through whom Christ remains on earth. Remember, she was the one who reformed the Carmelite Order to make it authentically contemplative and honestly cloistered. The concentration, therefore, in her community was on prayer and sacrifice. In her Rule of Life; in her directives to the nuns, and not only to them, but to the men Carmelites too, her main focus was on the sanctification of priests. She realized that the Catholic Church stands or falls in any place in geography or in any period of history in large measure according to the depth of faith and the sanctity and zeal of Bishops and priests. She saw whole nations lost to Catholic unity because of unfaithful Bishops and priests. How much, how very much, she has to teach us today!

The second feature of St. Teresa's devotion to the Church was her unqualified obedience says the Pope "in omnibus" - in everything. The conditions in the Church in Teresa's day were critical in the extreme. As one saint writing to another, Peterwroteto Ignatius in Rome speaking of one of the large cities in Germany where he was provincial. He told Ignatius, "I don't know one priest in this large archdiocese from the Archbishop down who does not have at least one concubine. There is massive confusion and conflict everywhere." Sounds kind of familiar doesn't it! Yet, Teresa also knew that there is in the Church a body of unchangeable doctrine; a Divinely revealed set of laws; and a final authority and teaching and ruling vested in the Bishop of Rome.

Teresa was childlike, yet she was not childish. She was one of the most intelligent women in Christian history, so she obeyed. She obeyed intelligently; obeyed judicially; obeyed discriminately. She listened as priests talked, and she didn't hesitate to remind them, but when the chips were down as we say; she obeyed totally in what she knew, and she made sure she knew what the Church wanted. Her obedience is a precious lesson for us today. In the turmoil that we see on all sides it was for her, and should be for us, especially, a deathless loyalty to the Vicar of Christ.

Finally, Teresa's zeal to spread the Catholic Faith. We are told by the Apostles that where sin abounds, grace more abounds. The more error that is widespread; the more confusion and contradiction; the more Teresa in her day, and we in our day, should be inspired with burning zeal to spread the Truth. Teresa saw in her century literally thousands of monasteries and convents swept out of existence. Well, in case you don't know - that is happening today! One Dutch community of religious women that had five thousand members twenty years ago is now down to one hundred and fifty still loyal sisters. As I tell people - let's wake-up!

Teresa saw whole countries apostatize from the Catholic Church, and she knew (and that is what the Pope wants to tell us) what was the main source of all this infidelity and apostasy. It was ignorance of the true faith, and perversion of the true faith by the widespread dissemination of error; dissemination of error in Teresa's day when print was first discovered and dissemination of error in our day when the media has been discovered. Am I clear?

Teresa herself was not a preacher or a professional teacher, but under obedience she wrote, as we know, many books. Here is a Carmelite, cloistered, contemplative writing books! - writing because she was ordered to do so at the first beginning of the age of print. She, therefore, urged her religious to pray and sacrifice for those who were in the vanguard of teaching and evangelizing, and preaching that God may give them the zeal to proclaim Christ's Truth in the pulpit and platform and classroom and printed writings. Teresa urged her religious to do penance, as she said, for heretics. There are certain words which have dropped out of our Catholic vocabulary; heretic is one of them. It is a good clear word to describe a person who willfully denies a revealed Truth of God. This is one of the main targets of the penance and sometimes extraordinary mortification, penance, and expiation for those who are losing the faith, so that those who have lost the faith might recover it; those who still have the faith might keep it; and those that are in a position to spread the faith might proclaim it.

In our day, our present Holy Father has been saying with almost pleading insistence that the single, greatest, deepest, and most urgent need for the Church today is to proclaim the Catholic Faith. He is telling this to Bishops, to priests, to seminarians, to religious, and to the laity. Like St. Teresa, we religious are not only to admire her zeal for the Catholic faith, to have it spread everywhere, but to also beg the Savior to increase and strengthen the number of apostles who will do what Christ has told us all to do; His parting message before He left us in visible form - Proclaim the Gospel to every creature.

When we casually identify the three theological virtues as Faith, Hope, and Charity; they are not just conveniently or nicely named first Faith, then Hope, then Charity. Faith is the foundation of Hope. A person without faith is a person without hope. What do I have to look forward to unless I have the faith? The person without faith is also a person without love. Whom will you love except the very few people who are nice and kind and thoughtful and pleasant and agreeable to you unless faith tells you that you are to love the loveless, the unkind, the unresponsive. We will never love the way we must; to hope as we must if we want to possess God in eternity unless we have faith, and it better be the Catholic Faith. That was Teresa's third, and, in a way, outstanding feature of her great devotion to the Church. Because she loved the Church, she wanted everyone to know, so that they too may love the Mystical Body of Christ.

Let's close with a prayer. Lord Jesus, You instituted Your Church to be our path to You and to Heaven as we labor in this valley of tears. Give us religious a deeper love of Your Church, which is Your Spouse, so that loving the Church on earth we might enter the Church Triumphant in the world to come, Amen.

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

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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