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Retreat - The Essentials of the Religious Life

The Corporate Apostolate of Religious: Practical Norms

December 29, 1983 — Afternoon Conference

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

We are on the fourth and last conference dealing with the corporate apostolate of Religious. Our present conference is on some practical norms.

So far we have seen a good deal about what the Church expects of a religious in the apostolate, and all religious without exception. We have seen that the primary apostolate of religious is the witness of a consecrated life. This is so primary that if they fail here they cannot expect God's blessings on any of their apostolic endeavors. We have also seen how much the Church looks for from the apostolic zeal of contemplative communities, bidding them to advance the kingdom of God on earth by their life of prayer and solitude, penance and self denial. They are, as it were, the supernatural arsenal on which the Church depends in her conflict with the powers of darkness. We finally saw how demanding are the Church's requirements of those who belong to what are called Institutes of apostolic activity. They are to make the hard combination of cultivating the zeal of a St. Paul combined with the intimate union with Jesus practiced by Our Lady.

We now want to add the contents of two more Canons of the Code, spelling out some of the more practical features of the apostolate of religious, whether contemplative or active or a variety of combinations of prayer and service to others. I'd like to synthesize these features set down by the Church in four words, then say something about each word in sequence: grace, distinctiveness, adaptation and associates. Each of these four deserves a conference by itself. Together they are a precious set of norms for all religious in the modern world.


The Church tells religious that they participate in the pastoral mission of Christ's Mystical Body in a variety of ways, "performing very many different services for people", then the Code adds, again I quote: "They are therefore to remain faithful to the grace of their vocation." Call it being true to the spirit of one's own founder, call it fulfilling the specific apostolic need for which their community was established; call it concentrating on what the Church expects of this, and not of another, religious Institute. Call it providing apostolic means to fulfill a variety but always a definite apostolate that characterizes this Community. By whatever name, this norm partakes of revealed genius and it is most timely today when so many people are doing so many things and turning, as it were, in so many directions at once we need to be reminded, in fact, warned, not to dissipate our apostolic energies, not to try to do what someone else can or should do.

Every religious vocation is by definition a call to a definite community. No less than a person doesn't just get married; you marry, and you better marry, a specific and definite individual, so a person doesn't become a religious at large. But if they receive a vocation, it's a call to a definite community approved by the Church for a definite purpose using distinct means to fulfill its earthly destiny. Thus, God gave a different and distinct vocation to St. Elizabeth, to Our Lady and to Mary Magdalene, and a different vocation to John the Baptist, St. Joseph, and surely to Simon Peter.

Moreover, when a founder establishes a new community, he or she is inspired to found a distinctive society of consecrated life. St. Benedict founded a community whose motto is "Ora et labora". That's the imperative of two verbs: Ora, pray, and work, labora. St. Dominic established an Order whose motto is "Contemplata alius tradere", "To pass on to others the fruits of one's own contemplation." And as we learned in the novitiate, St. Ignatius founded his Society on the motto, "Ad majorem Dei gloria", "For the greater glory of God." Ignatius told his followers to concentrate on those who will have the greater influence in the Church. Pardon me - one reason I'm here, trusting that you can influence thousands. All of these and others we could mention are different Institutes; let me change the accent: they are different Institutes, and their respective approaches to the apostolic life differ accordingly.

To conclude. Know what the apostolic vocation of your community is and then be faithful to the grace of this vocation, allowing others to be faithful to theirs. That's Norm I: Distinctiveness.


It follows naturally or shall we say supernaturally that with the grace of vocation differing for different religious families, their apostolic work will also be different.

So the second Norm - I quote: ''The Church: Superiors and members are faithfully to hold fast to the mission and works which are proper to their Institute." Unquote. Stands to reason, or, as I prefer, stands to faith. As one of our Jesuit Generals told us some years ago, "Brothers in Christ," he wrote to us, "remember you are not the Providence of God. Do what you are supposed to do and do it well. Do not become involved in work or enterprises that are outside the scope of the Society of Jesus." Amen. The Church's wisdom here is most salutary and, I would add, protective. But this is not only for the sake of, you might say, worldly efficiency. As the Latin proverb goes, "Age quod agis", "Do what you' re doing". Among industries in the world, each one has its own task to do and, say, product to produce. Procter and Gamble make soap and they try to make the best soap in the world. Ford Motor Company makes automobiles. Doubleday, I know, publishes books. IBM makes typewriters and computers, and Parke Davis produces pharmaceuticals. Imagine, getting some medication from the druggist and seeing "This is produced by the Ford Motor Company". Each industry specializes in its own manufacture; each business firm concentrates on its own type or phase of service in the world of commerce and economy. Didn't the Lord tell us that "The children of this world are often wiser than the children of light"? Let's be honest. The Lord wants us religious to have at least as much common sense as business people have, that we do what we are supposed to do, do it well, do it effectively, and do it for as wide a market, market, as possible. The apostolate, believe me, is big business, the business of salvation.

But, we said, there is more here than mere efficiency. The apostolic needs in any age of the Church's history are multitudinous, and in our age they are staggering in their breadth and complexity. All of us, needless to say, are limited, very limited human beings, and religious Institutes are, after all, only societies of limited individuals capable of doing only so much and doing it well. It is God's Will, therefore, that we strive to single out one area, our area, one aspect, our aspect, one approach, our approach, characteristic of our community and concentrate on that in the apostolate. This is where the Church tells Superiors they must be resolute in controlling the sometimes intemperate zeal of their religious and in the words of the Code - I quote again: "hold fast to the mission and works which are proper to their, underline their, Institute." So much for Norm II.


Of course, times change and so do the apostolic needs of the people. Consequently, we should almost expect the third norm on the apostolic needs of communities given by the Church, I quote: "Superiors and members, according to the needs of time and place, are prudently to adapt the mission and works, making use of new and appropriate means." Unquote. Again we can reverently say: makes sense. Provided a religious community remains faithful to its proper charism - and by now the Code has, from every possible angle, spelled out, underlined, emphasized: "Know the charism of your community, know the spirit of your founder, and keep it." But having said that, the Church of God speaking, we may believe, with the wisdom of God, tells communities: provided they remain to their distinctive charism and the way their founder wanted the apostolate to be engaged in, there is not only no problem there is sheer wisdom in making wise adaptation.

There is a problem here - how well I know. The problem is the spectacle of the folly of so many once strong communities that have made some tragic mistakes. Some have substituted adaptation for preservation. They have changed renewal for revolution. And the resulting dissolution of the apostolates of so many religious Institutes in a country like ours must make the angels weep. As a bishop told him, told the Holy Father, Pope Paul VI, he had no explanation for the disintegration of so many hundreds of Catholic schools in the United States; and as bishop and Pope were talking, the Holy Father broke down and wept. So there is enough to make any sane person pause the moment you talk about adaptation. Nevertheless, it is the Church telling religious to adapt. But note the words that are used by the Code. They're just telling religious Institutes to make use of new and appropriate means. Notice? The goal, the horizon in view is the same; souls, but the means, new and appropriate. We might ask, why not? The same God Who inspired religious founders to establish their communities is also the God Who enlightened modern genius and gave scientists the profound insights to create what we call the modern world. Why not use whatever modern means are available to proclaim the Word of God, to reach souls and to bring people back to the Lord from Whom they may have strayed?

There is one word in this Canon of the Code that deserves special attention. It is the adverb, prudenter, prudently. Adaptation should be made - it better be made - but it must be made prudently, that is, in such a way that new apostolic needs are met by the use of new methods and means but always remaining loyal to the original reason for which a community was instituted. Here, we might add, the Church of God is our best model. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and through the directives of Christ's Vicar on earth, the Church is ever adapting and adjusting and acculturating, but yet, as we firmly believe, remaining essentially herself - the same, like her Founder -"yesterday, today and forever." So much for Norm III. We've got one more.


The directive reads, and I quote from the Code: "Institutes which have associations of Christ's faithful joined to them are to have a special care that these associations are imbued with the genuine spirit of their family." Unquote. How truly spoken. Many of the Church's religious Orders and communities have had for over one thousand years various groups of people related to them. Call them tertiaries or oblates; call them associates or aggregates; call them sodalists or co-workers; by whatever name they are called they are in the Church's mind part and parcel of the religious institutes which gave them birth.

Of course, the members of these associations differ in age and gender and state of life, and their apostolic roles will differ immensely depending on the Institute to which they are affiliated. The Code of Canon Law gives the Church basic, general norms for all the People of God. The important thing to remember, however, and the new Code could not be clearer, is that - and I re-quote: these associations are to be imbued with a genuine spirit of their family." The two terms that are critical here are "genuine spirit" and "their family." What are religious being told? They are being told two things. First, that just as religious institutes are to remain faithful to their distinctive charism, going back to the founder, so associates are to know the true charism of the community with which they are affiliated and knowing it are to strive by God's grace to remain faithful.

Second, that even as no two religious institutes are identical – in fact, one of the conditions for the Church's approving a new community is that it show and prove, finally, to the satisfaction of the Holy See that it is different. No two religious institutes, therefore, are by definitions, identical. So the associates affiliated with different institutes will differ, differ in their apostolic purpose, different in the appropriate means they use for achieving what is characteristic of this religious family. People are not associated in global, or in general; they are to be associated specifically, distinctively, identifiably. The mind of the Church. There is more here than meets the eye. In God's Providence, He wants, He really does, He wants the apostolate of religious communities to extend far beyond the confines of a particular institute. The Will of God. He therefore wants people in the world, as the expression goes, to come under the spiritual influence of established institutes of consecrated life. So it has been since the beginning of organized religious life, so it is on a vast scale today. God wants many, many more than are vowed members of a community to reach out in apostolic zeal to the tens of thousands, indeed the millions, of souls in a Christless world that needs nothing more than Jesus Christ.

In order to fulfill this Will of God it is imperative that religious communities take, as the Church prescribes, quote: "special care" to make sure that groups of the faithful associated with the institutes are animated by the same spirit of apostolic zeal as the parent community from which they derive.

Let me close with a short prayer:

Lord Jesus, you have called religious to follow you in order to proclaim your Name to others. Give us a share in your Wisdom to know what we should do in today's world to meet today's needs of souls. Help us to be zealous without being impatient, and generous in spending ourselves for those for whom You shed Your Blood without being imprudent in our apostolic zeal. Amen.

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

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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