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Religious Vocation - of Divine Origin

Rev. John A. Hardon, S.J.

An address by Rev. John A. Hardon, S.J. (Feb. 29, 1972) at the meeting of Consortium PERFECTAE CARITATIS

It is no secret to anyone familiar with the scene in countries like America, that two very different concepts of the religious life are widely professed.

One view sees religious life firmly rooted in history, tracing its lineage back through the founders of existing communities, through the great figures of Christian sanctity like Ignatius, Dominic, Francis and Benedict, like Vincent de Paul, Frances de Chantal and Angela Merici. It claims to have continuity with the unbroken tradition of Catholic Christianity, even to the early followers of the apostles who took literally Christ’s invitation to follow Him the “whole way” in the practice of poverty, celibacy and obedience.

Clearly, in this view, religious life, while accommodating to each successive age, has a definable past. And its present existence, so it is believed, has a confident future because it is built on the foundation of—by now—nineteen centuries of Christian experience. It is, therefore, supported by the same Spirit of Christ which has preserved the Church of Christ, ever renewed yet always the same, in spite of the ravages of time that have destroyed empires and have seen even the greatest merely human institutions decay.

Another view of religious life is not only different but antithetical. It is willing to admit the past, even to call it “a glorious past.” But it goes on to say that, in our age, this past is gone; and all the wishful thinking or wishful longing for its preservation has become fancy.

The religious life, as these proponents see it, really has no past as a paradigm or pattern of the present, but only a precarious and problematic future. What that future will be is unclear and uncertain. It is part of that continuing revelation which the Spirit of God is only dimly showing now, and will perhaps gradually disclose as the modern world slowly penetrates through the haze of conflicting ideologies that envelop the western world like a dark cloud.

Needless to say, on its own premises, this concept may still use the same term “religious life,” and retain much of the vocabulary which the historical view of religious life also uses—but the meaning of words has been radically changed.

Consequently the meaning of religious vocation changes drastically, too. If every vocation is somehow a personal response to an inner call, the response to becoming a religions is determined by one’s notion of what a religious is supposed to be. On a lower key, for example, my intelligent response to wanting to become a medical doctor depends, finally, on some understanding of what the medical profession is all about. This, by the way, is a standard question asked by medical schools of all their applicants. In screening their overflow candidates, the last thing they want is a person who is vague and ambiguous about the profession he is aspiring to enter.

It would be useful to take each of these opposing views of religious life, and vocation, separately. And the analysis would be revealing. It would disclose that behind each view is really a different concept of the Church, in other words, a divergent ecclesiology. It would also show what many still are not convinced is true, that we are confronted here with more than semantics, more even than the familiar, and by now, pejorative adjectives “conservative” and “liberal” or worse still, “static” and “dynamic” might suggest.

My purpose is more specific. It is to state without apology that there is only one authentic concept of religious life, namely the first one; that its origins are divine because Christ, who is God, practised this form of life; and to this day calls men and woman to follow Him in living the way He did, a life of the evangelical counsels.

So we return to the subject of our conference: “Religious Vocation, of Divine Origin”. My plan is to reflect on these facets of the subject: What does this mean? What are its theological implications? And what are some practical, even critical, consequences in the promotion of religious vocations?

The Meaning

When we affirm that a religious vocation is of divine origin we exclude, on principle, the claim that religious life—to which vocations respond—is merely the product of human genius.

Some would have us believe that religious life came into the Church as a later (even late) development of Christian civilization. We are told various things. In the late second and early third centuries certain Christians wished to escape (with Pachomius) from the persecution and immorality of the secular cities of Rome, Alexandria and Antioch. So they fled to the desert and formed communities where they could live in protective custody from the temptations and threats of a decadent paganism. We are further assured that Benedict did much the same thing in fleeing from the reality of a barbarian invasion in his time. So, too, Francis was a mystic who reacted against the dechristianized luxury of his age. In the sixteenth century, the Church needed a military leader to defend the Papacy against the incursions of Protestantism. Soon after, the Counter Reformation called for the establishment of Catholic schools. With the settlement of North and South America, and more recently the colonization of Asia and Africa—workers were needed in orphanages and homes for the aged, in institutions of learning and care for the handicapped.

In each case, so the argument runs, a charismatic leader founded an organization to meet the call of the times. No doubt inspired by Christian charity, members would be recruited to fulfil the obvious human needs and, presto, another religious community came into being.

Only that and nothing more? Yes, only that and nothing more.

Let me not be misunderstood. I am not denying that in too many cases, for which we are now paying a heavy price, vocations were recruited as the government might recruit men for the armed forces: to meet a certain quota of teachers, or nurses, or welfare workers, or administrators of institutions.

But the abuse of something is not the norm for understanding its meaning. When Canon Law was codified in 1917, and the Code made all sorts of detailed provisions for religious life—to prevent or at least reduce just such mistakes—that, too, was not normative of the essence of a religious vocation.

Its essence is to be found in the Gospels and therefore its origin must be traced, as the conciliar Constitution on the Church firmly declares, to “the teaching and example of the Lord”.

Jesus Christ was the first religious. His life and preaching inspired men and women from the dawn of Christianity to sell all they had, give the proceeds to the poor and follow Him; or to sacrifice, as He did, the legitimate rights to marriage and the rearing of a family, or to be obedient, in a communitarian situation, to persons in whose directives they recognize the voice of God.

No one is saying that by the year 100 there were full-blown religious societies comparable to the highly structured and constitutional communities of today. But by the same token, no single mystery of the faith had the fulness of expression or clarity of comprehension it now possesses. There is such a thing as development of doctrine. The Real Presence or the Papal Primacy, the Life of Grace or Collegiality enjoy a depth of penetration and a degree of relevance that were simply not there in the year 100, or 700, or even 1900 A.D.

Saying that, however, is not to question, indeed, it positively affirms that the substance and essentials of these cardinal mysteries of Christianity were already and certainly revealed by Christ and therefore present in the Church’s bosom since the apostolic age.

Theological Implications

Once we admit that the quintessence of religious life Is part of Christian revelation, a myriad of theological implications follows, out of which I will select only three: implications in Christology, in Ecclesiology, and in Ascetical Theology.

Among the fundamental questions that Christologists have been asking is the one summarized in St. Anselm’s famous work, Cur Deus Homo! “Why did God become man?”

The immediate and very correct answer is that God became man in order to rave mankind, to redeem it from sin and rescue fallen man from the powers of darkness.

But if we keep pressing, and ask further: Was that all? We must say that God became man not only to save the world by to sanctify it; not only to deliver us sinners from sin but to lead us to holiness in union with Himself.

Correspondingly, then, we must say that Christ founded the Church not only as the great sacrament of salvation, but also as the sacrament of sanctification. In other words, He wants His faithful not only to be liberated from evil but to be raised to perfection. And He specially provided, within the Church, for religious to witness to holiness in their own lives so that, seeing their example and following their exhortation, others might be helped to reach holiness in the practice of virtue.

St. Paul’s crisp command, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” is a brief but telling summary of the main purpose of religious life, and therefore the principal motive that should attract religious vocations.

Moreover, the vocation is to no ordinary holiness, but to complete self-giving by a totality of duration, lifetime commitment; a totality of sacrifice, comprised in the three vows; and a totality of service, uniquely devoted to the sacralization of the world.

If we confused this invitation to holiness with the universal call to Christians to become Christlike, we would forget the lesson of God’s selective call—since Abraham’s time—to certain persons to be divinely chosen instruments of grace to their fellowmen. To deny such providential selectivity is to become victim of revolutionary egalitarianism which seeks to reduce the marvelous variety and social interdependence of human beings in God’s world to the classless Utopia of a Marxist mythology.

Ecclesiological View

Everything else is secondary and, as we are now sadly discovering, worse than useless in the absence of this primary focus. A religious may have other employments and engage in a variety of what we call apostolates. But his (or her) vocation is to holiness.

From an ecclesiological point of view, the divine origin of religious life implies that the preservation and interpretation, in fact the approbation and regulation of this life belong by divine right to the hierarchical Church, and ultimately to the Holy See.

This is no trivial observation. If, as the recent Council explicitly teaches, “‘the counsels are a divine gift, which the Church received from its Lord, and which it always safeguards with the help of His grace,” then the guarantee of this grace in fostering and keeping religious vocations is conditioned on the humble acceptance in this matter of the Church’s authoritative guidance.

Never has obedience to the Church’s directives been more obviously and, by now, even pragmatically important. Nothing less than survival of religious institutes is at stake.

As more than one commentator has pointed out, what major superiors in religious communities are being called on to do may be compared to the grave responsibility incumbent on bishops in the Catholic Church. Superiors, like bishops, are being tested, especially in their collegial loyalty to Rome—which means their collective conformity (what a painful word!)—to the principles of the Church’s historic teaching spelled out by Second Vatican and mandated by the organs which the Vicar of Christ uses to direct the Church’s policy.

It is at this point that a word must be said about legitimate pluralism among religious institutes. Their plurality is a matter of record, and their diversity is part of that breathtaking respect for tastes and temperaments so characteristic of God, in matters spiritual both in the natural and the political order. The United States is not Ceylon or Tanzania, and no two religious communities approved by the Church are, or are meant to be, quite the same. Some are more active, as we say, and others more contemplative; some are teaching children in grammar schools, and others are in charge of hospitals or homes for the aged; some are more loosely structured and draw one type of individual; others are more highly organized and appeal to another kind of personality; some are strictly monastic or approximate to a monastic form, whereas others are more eremitic with stress on the individual’s role working in the modern deserts of urban society.

Such variety is neither new nor unusual, and is meant to witness on earth to something of the infinitude of the heavenly Trinity.

Need of Guidance

Yet, just because this valid diversity is so precious, it needs the steady hand of the Church’s divinely-promised assistance to keep it from splintering into promiscuity.

In the same way, within communities no two people are exactly alike, and the very definition of person as a distinct, autonomous individual suggests that no community could demand, even if it wanted to, absolute and regimented uniformity. Nor did we have to wait for recent psychologists to inform us about that.

Yet, again, just because this valid individuality is so precious, it needs the steady hand of the Church’s guidance to preserve it from degenerating into egocentricity.

One of the ironies of our day, who could have guessed it, is that Rome, which we refer to as the Church’s centre of unity, has become for more than one country protector of diversity among religious families and, inside communities, the defender of personal individuality. One reason is that a wave of conformism is in the air and, not infrequently, those in local authority (or at least in power) are trying to shape religious life to the homogeneous mass of some preconceived ideology.

What does the divine origin of religious life imply in the field of ascetical theology? Its most serious implication is that a religious vocation is to a state of life, that the words “state” and “stay”, and “stable” are not merely common derivatives from the Latin verb stare, which means “to stand”. They indicate what, until lately, was taken for granted but in recent years is being challenged: that to those whom Christ calls to a religious institute He also gives the grace to remain faithful in their vocation all the days of their life.

We all know what happened. So many departures from the convent and religious life as have no parallel in modern history. Nothing like it had occurred, at least since the sixteenth century, and maybe never before in Catholic Christianity.

The resulting image in the minds of millions of people has been devastating. Instead of stability, instability; and instead of permanence, the impression left on the faithful is that vows are at best hopeful promises and at worst ephemeral gestures of fickle piety.

The issue is too complex to be examined in detail. One contributing factor, however to this spirit of impermanence has been the false notion that religious life is actually a misnomer; that it is more like a religious mood. Once the mood passes, you leave, much as a person might change a job or place of residence, and often with less concern for the damaging consequences of his action.

All of this is a logical corollary to considering religious life only a human creation, subject to the same vicissitudes as every other human enterprise.

Today’s world, it is argued, is characterized by a dizzy spell of change. Even the newly-coined expression “life-style” is symptomatic of the general trend. Styles change with the season, or the latest decision of the hidden persuaders in commercial advertising. So, too, one’s life is expected to take on the same instability, and anyone who dares buck the trend is put down as “not with it” or “reactionary”.

Hence the importance of recovering what ascetical writers had been saying all along, but complacently assumed that everyone believed. No matter how hectic the pace of modern times, and in spite of all the fanfare about “The Future Shock” induced by our unstable age, God’s revealed truths remain essentially unchanged. Among these truths is the fact that some people are divinely called to walk in the footsteps of the Master and duplicate His life of evangelical generosity.

Those who are thus called have His promise of staying in the state of life to which He invited them. Indeed, their stability is part of the very witness they are supposed to give of God’s unchangeable presence in the midst of a fleeting world.

Practical Consequences

A cluster of practical consequences follow, as corollaries to the fact that religious life is of divine origin, and therefore vocations to this life come from God who became man to practise the counsels and wants others to do the same.

For the sake of convenience, I will give four words that aptly summarize some of these consequences. They are selectivity, formation, structure and service. Let me make a short commentary on each.

Selectivity. Somewhere near the heart of a religious vocation is the idea that God chooses certain people to imitate His own Incarnate example of the religious life. Christ’s words that, “I have chosen you, you have not chosen me” are a startling expression of this mystery.

In practice it means that we must come to understand better than we have done so far that a vocation to the religious life is just that: a distinctive call from God, choosing certain individuals for this way of life.

If we take this at its face value, we shall begin to look more closely for what is, after all, the most important element in a genuine vocation, the selective call from God. The best single sign of such a call is the possession of a strong, sound faith—comparable to Abraham’s when he was called by Yahweh; a faith that is simple and clear, that has been tested in the crucible of suffering, that trusts in Providence implicitly, and that seeks, above all, to do His holy will.

Instead of looking for a high Intelligence Quotient (I.Q.), we should be looking for a high Faith Quotient (F.Q.). The first without the second will reap a crop of sophisticates, with cultivated intellects, whom I consider largely responsible for the present debacle in religious institutes in Euro-American society.

No one is suggesting that we ignore basic intelligence, or fill our novitiates with simpletons. But if we look over the past history of God’s predilection, it is remarkable how He has favoured “the little ones” and, in Mary’s words, has by-passed “the mighty ones” to exalt the lowly.

A sure index of a high F.Q. is the possession even of great gifts, but joined with humility, which gives promise of capacity for sacrifice. For when God chooses, He also confers graces, among which the grace to be lowly in one’s own estimation is paramount, and the ability to carry the Cross is of the essence of being chosen by God.


Formation. Correlative with looking for the right things to recognize authentic vocations and sift them from spurious ones is the need for a supernatural formation of those who, presumably, have a genuine call to the religious life.

A library on the subject is fast accumulating and the Holy See’s extensive document Renovationis Causam only points up the fundamental issue involved. Here is how I would state it. Since religious vocations are of divine origin, it is only through divine means that they can be sustained, and only by divine means can the young religious be formed to face the terrifying challenges of the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries.

Among these means, formation in prayer is so basic that nothing else can supply for this foundation. With it, we can look to the future with courageous serenity.

In order to cut through a mountain of literature and state briskly what I think needs doing, I recommend that those in charge of formation honestly ask these questions. Do they have the right climate for prayer? Do they see around them examples of prayer? Do they receive adequate (and accurate) direction in broad vistas and methods of prayer?

Time for prayer means that those in authority have set up the right priorities; that a fair barometer of how important they consider something is the number of minutes and hours they have provided for its pursuit, here for the cultivation of the sublime art of communion with God.

The right climate for prayer is an atmosphere of quiet peace, which includes sufficient periods of silence but postulates much more. The peaceful quiet so valuable for prayer is especially the absence of tension between people, which, in more prosaic terms, is the presence of understanding charity.

We are moved by example, and those who are being led on the paths of perfection must see around them people who pray. This surrounding may be the immediate residence where they live; but it should include also the whole ambit of the community to which they belong. They cannot be taught one thing in the novitiate or early years of profession, and discover to their horror that all this talk about prayer is really based on a double standard. Those who have the “leisure”, which means the very young or very old, yes, they do pray and prayer is certainly encouraged or duly practised—but maybe because there is nothing “better” or “more useful” to do.

The example of which I speak is the de facto priority given to prayer among religious actively engaged in the apostolate. Is their schedule so crowded, or other interests so absorbing, or their physical and emotional energy so drained that prayer seems to have become routine appearance in chapel or a drowsy meditation in the morning before they have really awakened from sleep?

Direction in prayer is many things, but above all it is discernment of personalities and guidance in helping the religious discover what form of converse with God is most effective in producing the fruits of prayer, which is virtue. Prayer is to make me more holy, which is either selfless conformity with the divine will or my holiness is more sanctimonious than real.

Structure. It would seem, at first sight, irrelevant to talk about “structure” in connection with religious vocations as divinely originated. Quite the contrary, as a few moments’ reflection should reveal.

We began this conference by briefly contrasting two concepts of the religious life. The first view hesitates to say that this life is substantially rooted in the Gospels and, under the Church’s aegis, has a traceable and continuous history as an integral part of Christian tradition. The second view affirms what the first disclaims.

Both views would insist that a religious vocation is from God. But immediately they diverge in spelling out how such a vocation is to be carried out. Is it in a structured community life, with superiors and rules and such empirical signs of a distinctive consecration as, until recently, the faithful had taken for granted and until the present revolution, had been sanctioned by ecclesial wisdom of the ages?

Or is it something radically different? Are we now to believe that in preconciliar days religious life was formalized in special prayer, dress, interpersonal relationships to protect privacy within closed communities, so that the individual person felt incorporated and spiritually safe in the total group orientation? Are we now to confess that all the apologetics of past generations was written, mistakenly, to support this sexless, impersonal, automatized caste system? And are we to conclude that now a disturbing spirit, a burning fire is giving religious vocations an entirely different charismatic direction?

Women of the Church

On the right answer to these questions depends more than meets the eye. For it is one thing to admit that religious life is somehow of divine vintage, and something very different to add that the life of the counsels is not an amorphous religious urge but, like the Church which Christ founded, it has form and structure and definite principles and determined norms—again not unlike Catholic Christianity which, to say the least, is a visible, organized and hierarchical society.

Those who opt for a structureless religious life are quick to describe the kind of people who still sadly, migrate toward preconciliar communities. Especially among women, she is the weak, indecisive person who is looking for support for her own inability to be “self-directed”.

This would mean that women like Theresa of Avila, Julie Billiart, Sophie Barat and Francesca Cabrini were foundresses of asylums for spineless individuals who needed custodial spiritual care. How strange that these weak, indecisive people should have created such monuments of achievement in the Catholic Church!

Service. We have one more facet to see of the practical consequences to conceiving a religious vocation as of divine Gospel origin. It is “service” and affects nothing less than the character of the apostolate to which active religious communities are presumably dedicated.

A new word has entered the vocabulary at this point. “Open placement” or, more euphemistically, “apostolic discernment” is the theory that active service of the neighbour by religious men and women should, in the last analysis, be determined not by superiors in consultation with their members, but by the members, no doubt in consultation with their “coordinators” or “administrative officials”.

Implicit in the theory is the conviction that each person, individually led by the Spirit, is best equipped by nature and grace to find that apostolic and particular work which is most conducive to his (or her) fundamental outreach to the people of God.

It is possible to examine this theory on theoretical grounds. But more suasive, perhaps is to ask how it squares with the known character of the Catholic apostolate since apostolic times. That apostolate has been, from the dawn of Christianity, a corporate apostolate. By the year one hundred, one hundred dioceses are known to have been formed along the shores of the Mediterranean. When Henry VIII suppressed the English monasteries, over two thousand chantry schools for children were suppressed along with them. And when the Communists took over in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, their first target of demolition was all Catholic institutions conducted by religious men and women.

No One “Sends” Himself

It would be a truism to say that the dioceses in the Catholic Church and the institutions in the Catholic world did not come into existence or flourish— or have become the object of opposition by Marxian materialism—because of “open placement” which really means “no placement” but “open option”.

Roman Catholicism has a very clear idea about the nature of a vocation to service in the Church. It sees it as a call to serve the faithful by a mandate from Christ, of course. But this mandate includes the element of being “sent”, hence receiving a mission from those who exercise authority in the name of Christ. Unless we distort the meaning of words, no one ever really “sends” himself.

Every true religious vocation, therefore, includes the grace of humble obedience to the Church’s authorized representatives. They are not to assign indiscriminately or casually, or without concern for the capacity and even preferences of those they send “on a mission”. But they do the sending as all the evidence of the Gospels assures us that Christ sent those whom He had previously called. Mission, like vocation, is also of divine origin.


One short paragraph before I close. In the years to come it will be clearer than it is now how much depends on the undisguised conviction that a religious vocation is from God. From God who became man to become a priest and religious. From God who as man, continues to inspire thousands to follow in His path of holiness and service of mankind. And from the God-man whose grace sustains all who are sure that the Church He founded speaks the truth when it teaches that a call to the religious life is a “divinely given seed”. Experience has proved how fruitful this seed can be, when received in faith and supported by love.

L'Osservatore Romano
Vol. 141 - #43, October 26, 1972, pp. 6-8

Copyright © 1999 by Inter Mirifica

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