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Retreat - The Essentials of the Religious Life

Doctrinal Formation: What is Religious Life?

December 31, 1983 — Evening Conference

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

In context, we are looking for the third and last time at the matter of lifelong formation for religious. The Church wants us to be continually educated, trained, from entrance into a Community up to eternity. We now wish to consider doctrinally, from the viewpoint of the Church's dogma or teaching, "What is religious life?" As our source of doctrine, we take the definition of religious life from the new Code of Canon Law, and isolate those elements in the Church's definition that need to be especially stressed in teaching and training religious all through life, about what we become when we become religious.

"Religious life as a consecration of the whole person manifests in the Church the marvelous marriage established by God as a sign of the world to come."

Immediately we see that religious life, as the Church understands it, is composed of these three elements which, as it were, constitute its essence. Religious life is at once a consecration, a marriage, and a sign, which are the logical subdivisions for our reflections.

We are first told that religious life is a consecration. We have seen how religious life is a consecration as something sacred and holy, as a life set apart for God. But here we go a step further to emphasize another meaning of consecration, namely, a total devotion or dedication. We saw in our meditation on "Who Is Christ?" that because Christ is God we must legitimately say we love Christ with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind.

What does this say about religious life? It says that a religious is specially called to love God in the Person of Christ. Our vocation is to fulfill the first Commandment, where the object of our love is God indeed, but God become man. The Church tells us that no one else is called in the way that we are to love God in the Person of Christ with all (note the totality) our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind. It is that "allness", that completeness, that totality, that wholeness that is at the heart of religious life as consecration. Assuming as we must that Jesus Christ is God, while everyone is to love Christ, not everyone is called to love Christ with the same completeness and totality. Those who receive the vocation to love Christ in that way are called "religious".

This is not so obvious as may seem. Our present Holy Father has a great deal to say about what he calls the "unique value of a religious vocation":

"Preserve and foster a correct and lofty concept of religious life and consecration according to what the Master always taught and still teaches. The Church today certainly encourages secular and lay forms of spiritual life which, if properly understood are a great blessing for the people of God and for the world. The Council made clear the dignity of the earthly values and the spirituality of the laity. Nevertheless, the same Council, stressing the unique value of the religious vocation, takes care not to depreciate it with a distortion of a misunderstood secularism, forgetting that the religious life achieves a perfection beyond baptismal consecration.
"It is certainly not a matter of feeling with vain presumption that one is on a higher level than the simple laity. On the contrary, more is required of the religious precisely because she or he has received more. Of a religious is required greater humility, greater gratitude to God, greater awareness of Christian duties, a greater commitment to charity, since 'When much has been given a man, much will be required of him. Much more will be asked of a man to whom more has been entrusted.'"

What is the Vicar of Christ telling us religious? He is telling us that religious life is a call to extravagant love of Christ, love of Christ who is God, because to religious has been given the capacity for such extravagant loving. Whatever else a religious knows, he or she must be convinced on faith that however undeservingly, we have been overwhelmed with grace so that we might give overwhelmingly to Christ in return.

Our second reflection, marriage. We do not commonly think of religious life as a marriage. But we must quote the Church; she says, "Religious life is a marriage."

By way of prelude, we might note that all the mysteries of faith are known and understood only insofar as they are compared with things that we know naturally. Christ, for example, speaks of the grace that He came to confer on mankind as a life. We know what life is, so grace must be a form of life. The Church, we learn, is a kingdom and a Body. All of these are comparisons, analogies we call them. Mysteries take on meaning by being compared with things we know in the natural order. Religious life is a mystery. Marriage has been known from the dawn of human existence. We are told by the Church that religious life is a mystery that can be better understood by being compared with marriage.

Suppose we briefly look at marriage, to see how religious life can be considered a spiritual or supernatural wedlock. In marriage two people, husband and wife, take each other for lifetime living with one another. Every marriage, as Christ understands it, is exclusive - one man with one woman. Every marriageby divine will is indissoluble until death. Every marriage is to be founded on selfless love between the marrying partners. Every marriage is meant to benefit the partners, she him and he her, a mutual exchange between husband and wife. And finally, every marriage is to be procreative according to God's will; every marriage depending on the will of God is to produce offspring as the fruit of married love.

If we apply these concepts by analogy to religious life, we will see some remarkable similarities. Sacred Scripture in the Old Testament and surely in the New time and again, and the Church, speak of Christ as the spouse of a dedicated loving soul. By our vow of consecrated chastity, we religious forego legitimate human love and bind ourselves exclusively to Christ, being sure that this spouse will never be unfaithful. In the final analysis, religious life like marriage is meant to be indissoluble. There is only one kind of genuine religious vocation, where the intention is to make it a lifelong partnership, or (for our purpose), a lifelong marriage of our souls with the spouse Jesus Christ.

Religious life surely calls for selfless love on both sides. On Christ's side there is no danger, no selfishness, no holding back. He has no earthly spouse and gives Himself selflessly to us. The only danger is that we might not give ourselves totally to Him, hence the responsibility of spending a lifetime developing and cultivating our selfless love of Christ.

How truly religious life is to be mutually beneficial. True enough, we cannot possibly benefit Christ as God. But we can please Him and we can and should benefit the mystical Christ in His Church. His benefiting us is a foregone conclusion.

Finally, religious life is to be reproductive as we have seen more than once. If Saint Paul could tell the Christians of his day how he labored to bring forth "this offspring in spiritual birth"; if Saint John speaks of those "who are born not of flesh or of the will of man but of God", then surely we ought to look upon religious life as a supernatural wedlock that in God's providence is to be reproductive in the souls we reproduce for heaven by our lives of prayerful, humble sacrifice.

Saint Robert Bellarmine wrote a delightful essay on the role of religious as supernatural fathers and mothers. He says, "All too often it happens that natural fathers or mothers will indeed beget children physically in this world, but then, having procreated them bodily, simply neglect them spiritually. It is our blessed privilege as religious to provide supernaturally to fill the City of God on high with children who are after all brought into this world for heaven, even though we have not, as it happens, given them physical birth."

Religious life is a sign. A sign, we know, is something known that leads us to the knowledge of what, except for the sign, would remain unknown. But there are signs and signs. Thus we speak of the sacraments as signs, which they are; but what signs: Instituted by Christ they signify the internal conferral of grace on the soul according to the external ritual which signifies what happens internally. Thus, water in baptism is a sign externally of cleansing; internally, the most profound cleansing possible and necessary to see the Face of God, cleansing the soul of sin. Anointing at confirmation is a sign. It is done with oil. Oil rubbed on the body of an athlete, for example, or of a sick person meant to heal, to strengthen. It is a sign, therefore, of the internal strengthening of the soul, especially of faith - to proclaim the faith, to live the faith, to share the faith, and if need be to die for the faith. One of the modern definitions of the sacrament of confirmation is "the sacrament of martyrdom".

Holy Communion - we receive what looks and tastes like bread and wine. Those external elements transubstantiated into the living Christ are a sign. Externally, the body seems to be fed. It signifies the deep, necessary internal nourishment of the soul.

Religious then are a sign of the world to cane. How? We should have changed the verb: religious SHOULD BE a sign of the world to come. We are as truly that sign as we are authentically religious.

First, we are a sign of the world to come by calling people's attention to ourselves, whose lives are supposed to be in the truest sense other-worldly. That is why every religious in secular garb is a mockery, and what someone should tell them, a walking lie.

We are told by the infallible Church that we are to be a sign of the world to come. How? We are that because and insofar as our interests on earth are a prelude of the interests of those in heaven with God. What do those in heaven do? They pray. On occasion? No, they are always praying. Quoting the Master, "In heaven there is no marriage or giving in marriage." It is no easy thing to live out in this world with our mortal bodies, in our faithful lives of consecrated chastity. What do the angels and saints in heaven do? They are constantly adoring God. We should be always. As the Holy Father keeps telling religious in one country after another, "Your whole life should be a constant act of adoration." Where the bodily knees may not be bent in formal prayer, but the human will is constantly bent before the will of God doing what He wants us to do. And that is adoration.

What do those in heaven do? They practice the most perfect selfless charity. Saint Paul reminds us that everybody in heaven is not "equally well off". Nevertheless, there is no envy, the sadness that someone else possesses what I lack; there is no jealousy, hugging what I have and refusing to share. Selfless charity is the total absence of envy and jealousy. That is heaven, the world to come.

You see why we change the verb, from our "being" this sign, to our "supposed to be" this sign?

In heaven, all is peace. There is no conflict, no struggle or animosity, no discord. We are as truly signs of the world to come to the world that desperately needs us to be these signs insofar as this side of heaven we live heavenly lives.

How do those in heaven do God's will? Perfectly, universally, no one lagging behind. But best of all, everyone is beatifically happy. Any time we are sad, we are being tempted. How the world needs this sign of people who are living on earth - struggling, suffering, with patient endurance; yet, they rub their eyes, "Is it possible? But she's happy, I can tell it."

There is a profound sense in which religious life takes on the quality of a lifelong sacrament. As we said at some length, the sacraments are signs too, but they are effective signs; they not only point to or show, they give. This, then, is the last and most important way in which we religious are to be a sign of the world to come: a sign first to our fellow religious, a sign to everyone whose lives we touch, obtaining for others the grace that others need. And of course we trust that other religious will do the service for us. No one gets to heaven alone. We either help others get there or we won't make it ourselves.

Lord Jesus, grant us a deep appreciation of the dignity and sublimity of our religious life. Help us to see we are consecrated in order to love You, our God with all our souls, with all our hearts, and with all our minds. Help us to see our religious life as a lifelong marriage into eternity with You, our beloved spouse. Help us to be the sign you wish us to be to our fellow religious, to the Church, and to all the world that this world is only a passing shadow and that the world to come is our eternal destiny in the heavenly community of the City of God. Amen.

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

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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