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The Meaning Of Religious Life

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

We commonly and correctly identify religious life with the pronouncement of the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. That is true but not quite adequate. We know, for example, that there are in the Church people living what is called a consecrated life as members of secular institutes. They too pronounce vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Yet they are not, and they do not consider themselves to be, religious, because in addition to pronouncing the vows of poverty, consecrated chastity, and obedience, religious live in community.

The Acts of the Apostles tells us how ancient was the practice of living community life in the Church, so ancient in fact that exactly two verses after Peter finished his sermon on Pentecost Sunday and the people had been duly baptized, we are told that they began to live in “koinonia”, in community. Saint Luke, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, further describes what that living in “koinonia” meant; and because it is revelation, community life is revealed. It is an article of the Christian faith that God wants all of His followers, according to their respective states of life, to live in community; but certain people are given special graces to live, if you wish, in community par excellence.

Even as we, as religious, are to witness to a world given to so much greed and avarice by our poverty, to witness against the world with its lecherous sexuality by our chastity, and to witness to a world that is proud and rebellious by our obedience; so we are to a world fragmented by discord, divided in so many ways, by our life in community. It is, in plain English, the Will of God that there be in the Church those whose lives in community testify to the infinite God who has been living, as faith tells us, in an eternal community as the Trinity.

What are the principal features of community life as revealed by God? First, religious life is a community of faith. By no stretch of the imagination could people, except in some business enterprise or for some collectively selfish reasons, live together (even stand one another for any length of time), unless they shared a common faith. Not too many years ago we could presume that all religious in every community had the same faith. Sadly, it cannot be assumed today. Hence, the capital importance of each one of us in the religious life looking to our strong dedication to the faith we all profess, which is symbolized by our common loyalty to th3 Vicar of Christ. What divides too many communities nowadays? On the level on which we are reflecting, it is that some believe, as they should, that the Vicar of Christ speaks for them and to them, and that the directives of the Holy See apply to them personally, even to telling religious what they should wear. Yes, that’s our faith in Christ and in His Vicar.

Community life means not only sharing our faith but also sharing our goods and possessions in common. This is a very practical expression of our community life. There are different needs: some are older, some are younger; some are physically stronger and others not so strong. Each one of us should look to whether we are not exaggerating those needs individually; but assuming that, while meeting the specific needs of each one, we must as much as it is humanly possible—rather, as much as it is divinely possible—share and share alike. Poverty means many things, but it above all means a common sharing in poverty! It is not just common sharing. Someone may say, “But the community is wealthy!” So where is the poverty? The community qua community must be poor.

A community is also a community of obedience. Saint Ignatius, who in the history of the Church has been called the great spiritual master of obedience, told his followers and they have been telling others ever since that it is especially in obedience that the community manifests its common loyalty to Jesus Christ, seeing in the Superior, with all of his or her failings, limitations and defects, the Savior. Even as He was the Superior of the first apostolic community in Palestine, so legitimately authorized Superiors in every religious community are the representatives of Christ, and we are to see Him in them. And I am not sure sometimes which takes more faith: to see the living, physical Christ behind the Eucharistic veils or to see the authority of Jesus Christ behind an obviously human being.

But there is one more feature of community life and that is that it is to be a community of love. Saint John Berchmans (who didn’t live a long Jesuit life) came up with an observation that I am sure has been memorized by most, if not all, religious. “My greatest mortification,” he said, “is community life”—and they canonized him for it. Amen, I agree. But it is not so much the mortification or the penance that living in the company of such different people—shall we call them “characters?”—requires not so much the penitential side, as it is the generous, self-sacrificing side that speaks of a community of love. As the Master told us the night before He died, “By this especially shall people know you are my followers, if you have love for one another.” What blessed opportunities, often demanding and painful, we have for manifesting to everyone, beginning with ourselves, that we are disciples of Jesus by our love for one another in community life.

By now so much commentary has been written on this subject. We have all heard and read enough about the trials of community life. Let me leave just this one thought with you. I make no hesitation in saying that faithful community life will be our principal guarantee of salvation. Wasn’t this the proviso that Jesus gave us in His discourse shortly before His death as the condition on which we shall all be judged? Very well! What blessed assurance we have of being judged favorably if we practice the kind of charity that even twenty-four hours of faithful living of community life demands, if we do it day after day, week after week, and year after year.

Let us ask the dear Savior, who called us for reasons best known to himself, to the religious life, “Dear Jesus, give me the grace to show how much I love you by living my community life faithfully, generously, patiently, resignedly; seeing in every opportunity I have to sacrifice myself to others in the community, the privilege of showing how much I love you, because my religious sisters are my surest guarantee of salvation. Help me in loving them to prove my love for you and receive from you in return the promise of living in the heavenly community for all eternity.

Transcription of the Homily
by Father John A. Hardon, S.J. to the:
Handmaids of the Precious Blood

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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