History of Religious Life Up to Vatican II
New Testament Origins of the Religious Life Part 1
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
The Institute of Religious Life and the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence
of Chicago bring you a series of lectures given by Father John A. Hardon S.J.
on the theme: The History of Religious Life. Father John Hardon is a
Professor of Theology at St. Johns University in New York. He is a well-known
lecturer and consultant to various national, religious and educational enterprises
and is renowned as a retreat master and spiritual director. Father Hardon is
the author of many articles and books including Holiness in the Church and
The Catholic Catechism, which has been strongly endorsed by Holy
Mother Church. In this first lecture of this series on the History of Religious
Life, Father Hardon speaks on the subject: New Testament Origins of the
Religious Life. Father Hardon.
Foundations in the Revealed Word of God
I would like to, now, go over with you so we have something of a birds-eye
view of the classes we intend to cover during the year. It has to be necessarily
short. I do this in order to have you see, not only, the individuals or the
ideas contained under each heading but, especially, the relationship between
the different titles of our handling of the matter in class. The New Testament
Origins of the Religious Life, which we will look at after this opening
survey of the History of Religious Life over the centuries. Here, of course,
the purpose is to verify that religious life has, indeed, its foundations in
the revealed Word of God.
Second: Christian Perfection the First Two Centuries After Christ. We
shall look at different classes of persons of whom we have record, who following
in the footsteps of the disciples of the Master became what we would call the
first religious. There were virgins, there were ascetics and very early there
were hermits. About some of these people we dont know a great deal being almost
two-thousand years removed. But we know enough to say that from the beginning
there were those followers of Christ who listened to His teaching, followed
the directives of the Church, but who did not aspire to a special intimacy or
to live a life of what we now call Christian perfection. There were those who
did not, thus aspire and those that did.
Third: The Origins of Christian Monasticism. Now this is centuries before
St. Benedict, because long before Benedict came on the scene there had been
Communities of Religious. Although Benedict, surely, was the Father of, at least,
Western Monasticism, he was not the Father or Founder of Monasticism. We have,
providentially a fairly long and remarkably detailed life of, at least, the
reputed Father of Monasticism, St. Antony of Egypt by Athanasius whom
you may remember as the one who almost single-handedly fought Arius, as the
result of which the First Council at Nicea condemned the Arian heresy
which denied Christs Divinity. Athanasius wrote the life of Antony since Antony
lived to 356A.D. That, by the way, is not a misprint; he lived 351 to 356. He
was very ascetic, very mortified. Anytime youre tempted to wonder whether mortification
might not shorten your life, think of Antony. Ballast mortification so far from
shortening will prolong your life, if you havent heard this. In any case, Antony,
the Founder of Monasticism, laid the groundwork for what later on became the
principal form of religious life in the Catholic Church.
Fourth: St. Augustine. Most people never think of Augustine as having
anything to do with religious life and, surely, Augustines own early life is,
you might say, the worst possible preparation you might think for the religious
life. Augustine should comfort all of us. If he could make it, so could we.
If we have a past, Augustine had one too. We shall see that the Rule of St.
Augustine for women religious is the first distinctive draft of a rule of life
for women. Augustine, and I dont mean this facetiously, understood women. His
Rule for both men, but for our purpose, especially for women is wise in the
extreme. There is a sense in which all institutes of women that are not monastic
somehow follow the Rule of St. Augustine.
Fifth: The Rise and Growth of Western Monasticism. Notice we distinguish
in number five between Western and what by then has come to be known as Eastern
Monasticism. Before we go into St. Benedict we shall look at the Monasticism
in Italy. In Gaul, modern France and Ireland. Had it not been for the missionaries
of Italy, Gaul, the Celts - which would be England and Ireland, most of us now
would not have the Faith. They were the first great missionaries. This is even
before Benedict. Then, of course Benedict himself and the Rule of Benedict,
for your reading.
Sixth: The Decline and Reformation of Religious Life after St. Benedict.
You might say to yourself when religious just kind of came into existence
there was already a decline. Yes, Sisters, theres already a decline. Now, of
course, it took us less than fifteen minutes to get to number six and were
already in the tenth century. Part of the History of Religious Life, and we
shall try to see as much as we can of, is there is an origin with great fervor
and zeal. There is a rise and development reaching a peak of fervor and, then
being human, Religious decline, weaken and then one of two things happens. Were
living in one of these periods of a massive decline in Religious Life in the
western world. One of two things happens: Either the communities reform or they
disappear. And, historically, most of them have disappeared. Thats the first
lesson we learn. And its a very salutary lesson for us today!
We shall look at a certain number of great names then choose among them, for
your reading, from the writings of St. Bernard whereby history and thats only,
well, only the tenth and eleventh centuries. Less than five hundred years after
Benedict, there was a massive decline in Monasticism. Bernard is one of the
Seventh: St Francis of Assisi and the Witness to Evangelical Poverty. From
now on, I think consistently to the end, the subject of the theme of what we
will deal with in the class will be a period of time from the previous to the
one we are taking, featuring some one great figure; and then that persons relationship
to some phase of the religious life that has a history. With Francis the great
need was for witnessing to poverty. With the rise of the industrial revolution,
with commerce, finance, with the use of money, not merely as a means of barter
but as a means of developing what became the rise of capitalism; there was need
in the Church for someone to witness to poverty. And, of course, the need is
more than ever acute today.
This was the beginning of the Mendicant Orders. I wonder if someone
knows what the word mendicant means. What does the verb, the Latin word mendicare
mean? To-to beg. My dear friends in Christ, every religious institute today
should look to whether it has lost this vision of the religious life. Are we
so secure, financially? Have we such, such fixed revenues, so much real estate
and secure assets that one of the most important features of religious life,
namely trust in Providence has become more academic than real. Begging, in some
form or another is part, in my humble estimation, part of the religious life.
Number Eight: St. Dominic. Francis and Dominic were contemporaries. Quite unlike Francis, who was not a learned pedagogue, and only with considerable
difficulty that Franciscans in time get into a field of education or other more
sophisticated ministries; St. Dominic from the very beginning, wanted his men
to be learned, most of them to be priests, all of them, certainly the priests,
to be eloquent preachers and to profess and defend the Truth. And while there
had already been some medieval universities in existence before Dominic came
on the scene, we can quite safely say that St. Dominic is mainly responsible
for the higher education in the whole world today! He was the one who saw the
need for some in the Church knowing their Faith better than the average and
especially to cope with - along with the rise of industrialism, and capitalism
- the rise of learning! He realized learned people could remain good Christians.
God Leaves No Problems Insoluble
But no less than money is a temptation and keeps people from following Christ
the way they should, hence, a St. Francis: So learning can be a hindrance to
the humble and docile following of Christ; hence, the rise of a St. Dominic.
As we go through the course one thing I want you to keep your eye open for,
on how carefully God makes sure that as problems arise or needs exist, He makes
sure theres somebody around in force to cope with the problem. Leave it to
God to leave no problems insoluble.
Number Nine: St. Ignatius of Loyola and the Society of Jesus. The great
crisis that struck the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century like a hurricane
was the Protestant Reformation. Due in large measure to the ignorance of the
clergy and to massive disloyalty to the Holy See, Ignatius came into existence
providentially to meet that crisis and, of course, the crisis is with us still.
To help educate especially priests and to make sure that everyone especially
the leaders of the Church were loyal to the Vicar of Christ.
The Price of Reforming Other Peoples Lives is High
Number Ten: Teresa of Avila and the Carmelite Reform. When we handle
this subject we shall take both Teresa and John together. As Im sure, as you
know from your reading so far, its not quite clear who was directing whom;
whether John was directing Teresa or she was directing him. I suppose it was
mutual. In any case, there was grave need for the reform of contemplative life.
Teresa was chosen by God to make sure that even as the more active apostolic
communities were being reformed, the contemplative would be reformed too. Im
sure we all know also how much it cost John and Teresa to reform their own respective
Institutes. John spent a fair amount of time in jail, imprisoned by his own
brethren. And Teresa, in traveling from one community to another often with
great difficulties and immense hardships, more than once when she came to a
community she was going to reform; she did not trust her Sisters whom she was
trying to reform with not trying to take her life. There were convents in which
she would make sure she ate only such things as she was sure would not be poisoned.
The price of reforming other peoples lives is always high. If you want
to live a peaceful, quiet, serene life, dont try to reform anybody.
Vision of Involving Women in Active Apostolate
Number Eleven: St. Francis and St. Jane Frances de Chantal. De Sales,
of course, was the director of St. Jane. Francis de Sales had the vision of
involving women in the active apostolate; anyway that prior in his day was not
done. He did not succeed, but his vision was eventually put into effective practice
by St. Vincent. In the process, however, Francis de Sales gave the world what
Id say is the most important spiritual classic for the laity: The Introduction to the Devout Life that I will ask all of you to read
some selections from; and St. Jane who, as you know, went through all the states
of life: Singlehood, Marriage, Widowhood and then the Foundress of a Religious
Institute. Down to earth, deeply spiritual but, immanently, practical.
Society of Jesus to Promote Devotion to the Sacred Heart
I have a soft spot in my heart for the Visitation Sisters because my mother,
after I entered the Order wanted to become a nun. She would have wanted to long
before but I stood in the way. Well, the Visitendines didnt take her. Im not
sure whether this is the reason but the Provincial wrote to me. Said; We understand
you know this woman. I cant imagine they didnt compare the two names; there
might be some at least coincidental similarity. So I wrote a long letter praising
this candidate to the skies. They didnt take her. Her health was poor and at
any rate she saw me ordained, then passed on.
And the Visitation Sisters are also very precious to the heart of every Jesuit
- I wonder why. Who gave the modern world the devotion to the Sacred Heart?
Saint Margaret Mary. And among the revelations that she received from Our Lord
was that he wants the Society of Jesus to promote the devotion to the Sacred
Totally New Vision of Religious Life
Number Twelve: Vincent de Paul and the Apostolate of Christian Charity. With number twelve we enter on a totally new vision of Religious
Life. For the first time in the history of the Church papably-approved institutes
were allowed to take simple vows and women, remaining full religious, were permitted
to exercise their apostolate outside the cloistered walls of a Convent. Sporadic
attempts here and there had been done and tried before. Vincent de Paul with
the Sisters of Charity is why all of you women religious are here today.
Vision of Spiritualizing Those Whom We Affect
Thirteen: St. Alphonsus and the Development of Popular Piety. Alphonsus
came on the scene during the suppression of the Society of Jesus. In any case,
he founded the Redemptorists and the Redemptoristines. He was one from whom
we should learn especially a lot about exporting if thats the word or communicating
more accurately our own spirituality to the laity that enter our lives. Lets
make sure that we talk about our apostolates. There are certain kinds of things
Im going to come to all through the year this is one of them. Our
apostolates are two-fold. They are, first, the apostolate of sanctification.
We are first to engage in the apostolate to sanctify others. And then, secondly,
to engage in whatever specialized work of corporal or spiritual mercy we or
our Community may be engaged in. Everything that a Franciscan touches, every
person who enters a Franciscans life should somehow bring the spirit of St.
Francis into a class in mathematics. In putting my notes together to keep
some tract of all the lectures and conferences Ive given over the years, Ive
begun to index my lectures and conferences. I found one two days ago; a lecture
on mathematics and in sixty minutes, I managed to bring God into that lecture.
So St. Alphonsus caught the vision of spiritualizing those who we affect and
not merely working with them in a specialized apostolate.
Fourteen: St. Elizabeth Seton and American Spirituality. As you read,
which I would put in your hands, the decree of Canonization of St. Elizabeth
and the homily of Pope Paul after her Canonization, you should lay to rest once
and for all the myth that Americans cannot become saints. Pope Paul couldnt
have been more emphatic. He said almost in so many words to us Americans. Look!
We are canonizing this American-born, American-bred person to convince you that
you are to become holy and get a few more saints into the catalogue. There is
nothing incompatible between being a true American and being a Saint. We need
that kind of encouragement.
Theresa of Lisieux Makes Attaining Sanctity Look Easy
Number Fifteen: Theresa of Lisieux, Patroness of the Missions.
Here of course you cant imagine the huddle I went in with myself of all the
saints, modern ones I could have picked you name them; the last thirty years
several hundred people as you know have been canonized. Why choose the Little
Flower? Well, first of all shes popular. Secondly at least she makes attainment
of sanctity look easy. Moreover, and what a moreover this is, she did all she
did apostolic to the nth degree and along with Francis Xavier who baptized over
one-hundred thousand people; a life of prayer and sacrifice were prodigiously
We Can Save Souls without Preaching a Sermon
And as St. Ignatius told us in the long, weary years were in study and formation
it took seventeen years for me from the time I entered the Novitiate, after
one week of Postulancy seventeen years from the time of entrance to finally
take my last vows. Years of, believe me, of not easy study; you dont read books
and study year after year, in my case till the age of thirty-seven. You want
to scream, you dont want to look at another book! Ignatius told us, You are
saving souls while you are in formation. The sacrifice, the things you would
like to be doing youre told, you cant do it. I came to my Dean while I was
in Theology I told him, I want to write a book. I had the whole plan
made out for it. He says, Youre kidding? Im not kidding; Im serious.
Write a book? Youre in studies. Well, Ive got plenty of time; the studies
are easy. I told you, forget it! So, I waited till after my ordination and
then I published the book. In other words, then we can save souls without preaching
a sermon, writing a book, or doing anything in the external apostolate. We need
to hear that, dont we?
God is Pleased with the Hidden Life
And the Little Flower was canonized, as the Church tells us, mainly to teach
us that God is pleased with the hidden life and not only because we save our
souls but we bring many souls to heaven with us.
Unchanging Continuity in Religious Life
Finally as a capstone, need I tell you, the subject of number sixteen could
well have been the title of a two-semester course; Right? And pardon my lack
of modesty in saying this - Im sure I could give you a two-semester course
on Religious Life and in the light of the Second Vatican Council. What we wish
to see, however, is the new insights there has been real development of doctrine.
There are then, summarily, as we finish this first part of todays class; there
are two purposes for taking this course as I see it. The first is to
see the unchanging continuity in religious life from the New Testament to modern
times. And the second is to see the development, the progress, the adaptation
to the times, the adjustments. There are more to the essential elements, the
discovering new insights that were always there, but had never been brought
to the surface. In other words, we want to see, in this course, nineteen
centuries of the unchangeable religious life in a changing world.
To know just the one would be unbalanced. To know just the other without
the first would be a tragedy. I really believe that most of
the problems in religious communities today and the problems are grave in the
extreme, argue, even though less seldom, to communities wanting to hold onto
things that need adjustment. Or more seriously and more tragically, theyre
adapting to everything. To the world and in the process losing that substance
without which - you may have adaptation all right - but you no longer have religious
Foundations of Religious Life Are in Divine Revelation
There are many reasons for beginning our study on the History of Religious
life by paying some attention to its origins in the New Testament. Whatever
else Religious Life means, it should mean a complete and whole souls dedication
of oneself to God. But this kind of commitment is impossible without strong
motivation. The higher the demands, the stronger must be the motive to meet
them. And the strongest motives a Christian can find for making the sacrifices
the religious life calls for - is the belief that the foundations of this life
are in Divine Revelation. In a word like the crusaders were told - Deus Volt,
God wills it. But we have to be sure that God wants it!
Moreover, another reason; persuasive voices are being heard these days and
ideas are being circulated in Catholic circles raising doubts as to whether
religious life might not after all be only a later development of the Church
or by the Church: If that were true, religious life would not properly belong
to Christian Revelation which, as we know, closed with the death of the last
Apostle. It would somehow be a creation of the Church, no doubt, under divine
guidance but what the Church can create, the Church can un-create.
Guarantee of Permanence and Stability
Otherwise, then, if its not based on Revelation, religious life does not have
the absolute guarantee of permanence and stability. By now there have been so
many changes in the Catholic Churchs way of doing so many things that wed
better be certain that this one thing is revealed by God because that the
Church cannot change. Can it change, for example, can the Catholic Church
drop one of the Sacraments, six instead of seven? Why not? Because Christ instituted
seven. Can the Church institute an eighth sacrament - to have an even number?
No! In other words, even if it was not God but the Church that instituted religious
life, the Church can change the substance of what She herself has brought into
being. And not a few are arguing that the present confusion in religious institutes
is symptomatic of the future. If there will be a religious life in the future,
so the argument runs, it would be so radically different from what it used to
be, it might just as well be said to phase out of existence. I hope none of
you has any doubt there are some who are saying this. We should also have no
doubt that they are wrong! But the assurance that they are wrong is the fact
that the Religious Life is revealed. So that as long as there is a Catholic
Church and that will be till the end of time, there will be religious life.
We didnt used to talk this way even twenty years ago. We didnt have to. Wed
better talk this way now! We need to! For these and similar reasons, it is not
only interesting but imperative that we satisfy ourselves on the fact that the
substations of religious life were already laid in the first century in what
we call the Apostolic Age. So much by way of introduction.
First: Jesus the First Religious. I have lectured on this aspect of
the religious life so often that unless there are some total strangers in class
today and I think there are some I have never met before most of you will
somewhere have heard what I will share with you. Pardon the unavoidable repetition.
Why do we say that Jesus is the first Religious? We say that because He not
only became chronologically first but because what He was and what He taught
is primary for whatever follows. This is not only a chronological but a logical
primacy. Christ remains the principal motive why there are religious and the
principal means why there are religious. His Life is our motive and His grace
is our means.
The Four Pillars of Christs Religious Life
We might synthesize Christs life and the example and grace He gives us under
four captions: Christs Love, Christs Service, Christs Sacrifice and Christs
Grace. They are the Four Pillars of His own Life as a Religious and for
us the motive and the means of trying to imitate Him.
Love is the Highest Reason
First: Love. When we speak of Christ being a Religious, we must make
sure that He did so because He wanted to. It was the purest freedom no coercion.
We choose something freely with no compulsion, no coercion because we love.
Pure freedom is pure love. God in the Person of Christ became man just to please
His heavenly Father. He did all He did, lived the way He lived not because He
had to He didnt have to redeem us. Did Christ have to become Man to save
the world? No! As Man did He have to die to redeem the world? No! Did He have
to die on the Cross? No! All of this was free choice and if there is one thing
that stands as the keystone in the arch of religious life, it is the loving
freedom with which some people follow Christ in becoming religious and remain
religious: Because they love! And when you love, you dont have to have reasons,
get it? Love is the highest reason. And when you really come down to it, its
the only reason. All others are arguments.
Show Love by Deeds
Second: Service. This Master who is our Master, which means Teacher,
as the First Religious loved indeed: Loved the Father and loved those whom He
wished to save. But
His Love was a fertile love. It was a fruitful love. He did something to manifest
His love for the Father. To manifest His love for the Father He undertook to
serve the needs of His fellow human beings, though as He saw, were steeped in
sin and badly needed a Savior. Thats the second lesson the Master teaches us.
That when you love its not mere interior affection or sentiment. You do something.
You show your love by deeds. Another name for that is service. Whats service?
Love in action. As by now enough wives have told me about their husbands, sometimes
even if the husbands hear it, Father if you would read the love letters he
sent while we were engaged, youd think he was a budding Keats or Shakespeare.
Sonnets, I didnt think it was in him but somehow I suspected he copied them.
But once we married, he became tongue-tied. Oh he would once in awhile he tells
me he loves me. Watch him! If we love someone, we just dont tell him, we show
it. Christ showed that He loved by serving. But once again, and theres a divine
logic among these four pillars, as were calling them, of Christs being the
first religious. There is service, and service. We can serve reluctantly almost
rebelliously or we can serve with eagerness and cheerfulness. Or we can be shrewd
and choose; we look around. There are ways of serving but the service will be
cheap. Then there is service that is costly.
Costly Service is Sacrifice
Another name for costly service is sacrifice. Thats the third quality
of Christ as the First Religious. It was total self-surrender even as we know
from the narratives in all four gospels to the shedding of His Blood. The shedding
of blood lets make it simple blood belongs to the essence of religious
life. I didnt know that twenty-five years ago when I took my last vows. I know
now. Its real. Its real! And if youre afraid of blood, this is one profession
you dont belong in. I mean it! Im not sure whether the bleeding of spirit
is not greater than bleeding in body.
Be Ready to Shed Blood
And earlier this year, after I was offered a contract in New York with Tenure,
all the trimmings by the university. In New York I get a letter from my Provincial.
We want you back in the Midwest. Now weve got colleges in the Midwest too,
in case youve forgotten. So I had my conference and I came totally ready to
pack up and come back. His predecessor; he was a new Provincial told me I
go to the East. This man, much younger than me, by the way his doctorate is
not in Theology, its in economics. So we talked and he made it clear he wanted
me back. Well, how do you feel about all of this? I said, youre, youre in
charge. Youre the boss. There was at least a thin trickle of blood. All right,
if thats the way you feel, you can stay in New York. Blood belongs to Religious
Life and Christ did more than elevate our sentiments by shedding His Blood on
the Cross. He reminds us, if were going to be like Him, wed better be ready
to shed ours too.
Purpose: To Obtain Grace for Souls
Finally, why all of this exertion and effort? Why even the Crucifixion on Calvary?
Christ didnt need it. Frankly by becoming man all He got for His efforts
was rejection, abandonment, blasphemy and death. And lets remind ourselves,
Christ foresaw that. And He chose it. Thank God were spared; we dont see future.
Isnt that great, how good God is! Probably most of us would panic. Yet He
chose. There was a purpose. The purpose was to win grace. It was to merit the
grace of salvation and sanctification for those all of us because of His suffering
and death, we then would benefit. So it remains in the Church today. We, like
Christ, are to have a finality to all of this. It is true and well see enough
of this as we go through the course that being a religious means somehow to
grow in sanctity. So it does. But it should never mean that we somehow wish
to become holy for our own sakes. Look at me - covered with medals, a virtue
here and a virtue there, bulging all over with sanctity. No! And lets not forget
this; people can be in the religious life twenty-five or more years without
clearly seeing why. The reason why is Christs reason why: It is to obtain grace
Religious: Co-Redemptive Disciples with Jesus
We are religious in order to somehow be co-redemptive disciples with Jesus.
There is, of course, one big difference, a fundamental one, between Him and
us. Unlike Christ, we are sinners no less than the salvation of the people we
labor. So even as we labor, in the imitation of Christ to obtain grace for other
people; we all need, I say it, we need a bit of grace ourselves. But self-sanctification
is not the end product of the religious life. Am I clear? Even that qua
religious is a means to an end, apostolic end. So much for part one.
Conference transcription from a talk that Father Hardon gave to the
Institute on Religious Life
Institute on Religious Life, Inc.
P.O. Box 410007
Chicago, Illinois 60641
Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica