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Religious Life Today

Part 4 of 4

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

March 25, 1977

IMPRIMATUR: Umberto Cardinal Medeiros, Archbishop of Boston

Authenticity in the Religious Life

There seems to be a special value in writing about authenticity in the religious life in our time.

If there is anything that the modern world abhors it is pretense. It can forgive a person for not being intelligent or educated, for not being skilled or trained, even for not being a law abiding citizen.

What it despises is make-believe, where a person claims to be what he is not, or professes to possess what he does not have. Such descriptions as counterfeit and phony, artificial and imitation, are only symbolic of a deep-felt need in our day for honesty and sincerity.

Coming to the religious life, we can say that the need for authenticity is particularly urgent because of the critical situation in the Catholic Church in our day.

What is this situation that calls for authenticity? It is the predicament in which believing Catholics find themselves, seeing so many people who call themselves religious and yet, to all appearances, act and live otherwise.

People are, therefore, confused. Most of them, even the Catholic faithful who know a good deal about the religious life in general, may not know the refined details of living out the evangelical counsels. But they do have a correct image of what religious life is supposed to be.

They know, for example, that religious are professing to live a life of closer intimacy with God, of actual poverty beyond what other people practice, of consecrated chastity that sacrifices the pleasures and the prospects of marriage and of dependence by obedience on a superior.

They also know, because they have the record of the achievement, that religious work together in the Church’s educational and welfare apostolate, as a community; that schools, hospitals, homes for the aged and handicapped, would be impossible to maintain unless they were maintained as corporate enterprises, with dedicated personnel of religious who labor, without pay, and whose services to the Church are professedly an extension of Christ’s practice of charity when He went about doing good during His earthly stay in Palestine.

All of this people know about religious. But what do they see?

They see men and women professing to be poor but too often living and dressing and experiencing the good things of life in a way that contradicts this profession.

They see not a few men and women professing celibacy and chastity but living in ways that hardly witness to Christian celibacy and defending their conduct as a form of ‘the third way’ or of development of their feminine or masculine personality.

They see men and women professing consecrated obedience but actually having such independence of time, travel, work and entertainment, as few but the wealthiest or most uninhibited individuals enjoy.

They see men and women who profess to belong to an apostolic community but who are literally scattered to the four points of the compass in response to what is called ‘self-fulfillment.’ They have left in a single decade more empty convents, more vacant schools, more closed welfare institutions, than it took over a century of hard-earned sacrifice to build.

Words fail us to describe the shambles of a once-flourishing religious life in large segments of the Western world. It would take an Isaiah or Jeremiah to do justice to the injustice, either by default or design, against the sacred institution of religious communities in countries like America.

What is Authentic Religious Life?

We are in a position to ask ourselves the logical question: with all the babble of confusing opinions everywhere, when once-trustworthy journals are saying such contradictory things about the religious life, how can we still tell what is authentic and what is false?

There is no problem for those who have the faith, as there is no solution apart from humble obedience to the Church’s teaching authority.

For one who believes, the authenticity of religious life is found in the Gospels, in the history of Christian sanctity, and the teaching of the Catholic Church. Each of these three sources gives us a separate and distinct insight into what genuine religious life should be.

The Gospels

In the Gospels we have the portrait of Christ, the first religious revealing the first element of authenticity. This is self-sacrifice.

If we were to isolate the one feature of Christ’s humanity which identifies Him as the pattern for us to imitate in the practice of the counsels, which He first practiced, it would be His self-sacrifice to the Will of the Father.

Since the essence of sacrifice is surrender, self-sacrifice means self-surrender. Christ made this self-surrender perfectly:

  • By becoming man. As St. Paul tells us: Christ Jesus was by nature God. But He did not consider being equal to God something to cling to. He emptied Himself, taking the nature of a slave and being made like unto men. And appearing in the form of a man, He humbled Himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to death on a cross.

  • By spending Himself completely for the welfare of sinful mankind whom He came into the world to save.

  • By giving Himself entirely and exclusively to the work entrusted to Him by the Father.

There is not a selfish moment in Christ’s whole life, from His conception in the womb of Mary, to the moment He disappeared from sight on Ascension Thursday.

The History of Christian Sanctity

As we read the lives of the saintly men and women religious of Christian history, we learn another dimension of the religious life that needs to be added to the message of the Gospels. It is the dimension of prayer.

What does this mean? It means that those who sought to follow in Christ’s footsteps as religious, unlike Christ, were human persons. Unlike Him they did not enjoy the beatific vision already on earth, and much less possess the hypostatic union with the Divinity. Unlike Him, they were sinners, in need of redemption, and unlike Him, therefore, in need of redemptive prayer.

There are no exceptions in the history of Christian hagiography. All those who, as religious, achieved any degree of sanctity, were men and women who prayed.

They prayed always. They prayed in different ways. They prayed with varying degrees of what we would call the external signs of union with God. They prayed in spite of great aridity. They prayed in ways and words that sometimes seem strange to us. But they prayed.

How significant is this universal fact of prayer? So significant that, without it, there can be the appearance of religious life, its outside imitation or shell. But there is no life unless there is prayer; and the life is only as vital and deep as the prayer is constant and real.

We touch on the heart of religious life when we say this. The reason is that if the followers of Christ are to become anything like Him, they cannot achieve this without oceans of grace. And if the normal source of grace is prayer, this means, to use a strange figure of speech, oceans of prayer.

The human nature of Christ was substantially united to the Word of God. Christ prayed indeed but He did not pray to obtain the grace to become holy. He was holy, because, though man, He was God.

But we are not divine. We are not only human, but terribly human, with the humanity of our fallen nature. Unlike Christ, but obedient to His precept, we must pray and pray from the depths of our souls, if we are to acquire any approximation of the holiness of the Savior, whose practice of the counsels was connatural to Him, since He was divine. But it is utterly supernatural for us, since we are so pathetically human.

What good is it for religious to be shown the ideals of holiness to which they should aspire? What good are the beautiful invitations of Christ to become like Him in poverty of spirit, chastity of heart, and obedience unto death, unless we have the means of achieving what we are invited to become?

Worse than useless, because we shall be discouraged at our failure to live up to the expectations and frustrated at our inability to be what our religious profession demands.

In my opinion, this is somewhere near the center of the convulsion in religious life in our day: despondent people under vows to become holy, who, they honestly confess, are not holy.

“So why should I stay in the convent or cloister? I am a hypocrite and sham. Better leave than pretend to be what obviously I am not.”

The missing bridge between hope and achievement, between profession and realization, is prayer. Much prayer, assiduous prayer, incessant prayer, living in God’s presence, communing with Him, and in the Gospel language—knocking, seeking, asking, begging, urging God to come to one’s assistance. Otherwise sanctity is just something that religious read, like a romantic tale about persons in a never-never land, without ever getting there themselves.

Teaching of the Catholic Church

Our third area of reflection on authenticity in the religious life is the teaching of the Catholic Church.

What does this teaching contribute to genuineness in the practice of the evangelical counsels, and without which, religious life is only a name, or at best, a romantic dream that is never realized? It is structure.

The word ‘structure’ today has some unsavory connotations and most people shy away from talking about structures, if they do not wish to lose their audience or be turned off by those whom they wish to inform or inspire.

But there is no choice. Through now almost two millennia of religious life in Catholic Christianity, the Church has taught that there is no religious life—except conceptually or in the mind—unless this life has

  • Some definite form

  • Some specific requirements

  • Some clear organization

  • Some prescribed norms in which the counsels are to be lived out

  • Some clear arrangement of time and duties to be performed

In a word, the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, whom Christ promised to teach all truth, has taught that if you want religious life – in fact and not merely in theory – you must have structure.

The founders and foundresses of the great religious families in the Church were – let us dwell on the word – founders and foundresses of religious institutions. They were, without exception, saintly persons with charismatic gifts of leadership. In many cases they were not themselves natural organizers or what we would today call administrators, with a flair for structure. Often quite the contrary as the story of St. Francis of Assisi eloquently illustrates. But once they decided to have followers who would gather round them and later carry on their work, the Church insisted that their communities become institutes—with visible organizational structure.

Since the institutes have been founded, this has always been the special contribution of the Church to the religious life. Along with reminding religious of the Gospel message to follow in the footsteps of the Master, and along with recalling to religious that without incessant prayer all their desires for sanctity are doomed to frustration—the Catholic Church has taught the absolute indispensability of structural form.

Call it Rule (singular) or rules (plural); call it Constitutions or Directories; call it regulations or prescriptions. Call it Horaria or perceptive Custom Books. By whatever name, either religious life has such visible forms, or it is not a religious community; and it is certainly not a religious institute.

There must be superiors and other (how strange to use the word) who are subjects. There must be specifications regarding prayer, work, meals, and sleep; regarding dress and the place where the religious meet; there must be requirements that declare who does what, in what way, for how long.

All of these are part of the Church’s heritage to religious life that nowadays runs so counter to the spirit of the age, which is the spirit of independence and individualism and of freedom ‘to do one’s thing.’

No one in his right mind is suggesting that religious life has to be regulated from morning till night, down to the smallest detail. Nor am I saying that today we need more structure, just because so many communities have foolishly abandoned prescriptive forms altogether.

What I affirm, however, is that there would not now be a crisis in the religious life if the leaders of communities—which means their superiors—had all been responsive to the Church’s prescribing the visible forms to which those who want to live a life of the counsels must conform.

Why such visible forms? Because the Church, like Christ, has a twofold nature, at once divine and human, invisible and visible. If those who profess to be religious want to be authentic, they cannot split Christ in two and claim they are following in His spirit, but unwilling to follow Him in body.

That way lies folly or, as we are sadly seeing, dissolution of once-flourishing institutions of the apostolate because there had preceded a demolition of the structures which gave religious institutes their identity and form.


Experience is a costly teacher, but she is a good teacher if we are only willing to learn.

The lesson that the current turmoil in religious life should teach us is that you cannot tamper with the laws of grace, any more than with the laws of nature, and not pay the consequences.

These laws of grace relative to religious life are especially three:

  1. The foundation of authentic religious life is the following of Christ in the sacrifice of self, as revealed in the Gospels.

  2. The fulfillment of authentic religious life is the practice of constant prayer, in order to obtain the light and strength our fallen human nature constantly needs if we are to approximate the holiness of Jesus.

  3. The future of authentic religious life, even as the past, depends on humble obedience to the Church’s teaching about form and visible structure.

Those who are superiors in religious institutes are in a historic position in our day, to exercise their gift of courage from the Holy Spirit, to see that these three laws of grace are faithfully observed.

If they are, where they are, and insofar as they are observed, religious life will not only survive but thrive.

Christ is calling a multitude of young men and women to join our ranks as religious. But they want to be genuine religious, not spurious counterparts. They want to be, as so many have told me, real religious, not actors, who are merely playing the part.

Please God, we shall not fail them.

Christ Our Hope

There are few religious subjects on which more has been written than the subject of hope. Not only volumes but whole courses, and not one but many of them, are available on “The Theology of Hope,” on “Hope for the Modern Man,” on “Hope and the Future of Christianity,” on “Hope and Despair in the Modern World.”

We do not have to go far to find a reason for this extraordinary preoccupation with hope today. There is so much to discourage even the most sanguine observer of world events in our day. In the Catholic Church we are seeing the most extensive defection from priestly and religious commitment certainly in the past five hundred years and perhaps in all of the Church’s history. There is confusion in religious education, infidelity in Christian marriage, and the spectacle of a whole nation practicing genocide by contraception and induced abortion on a scale unparalleled in the annals of mankind.

Add to this the pervasive growth of Communism in the Far East and whole nations in Europe under the heel of Marxist tyranny, and it is no wonder so many are crying out in near despair, “How long, O Lord, how long!”

Yet, for all these terrifying features, what gives most Christians greatest cause for concern, I believe, is not so much the large issues that surround them in the Church or in the world. It is the painful experience that we have in our own personal and social lives. It is the tragedy of an only son who had thrilled the heart of his parents with his first priestly blessing and is now, as the saying goes, laicized. It is the horror of a young man or young woman, on whom parents have spent their life’s earnings for higher education, now disowning the mother and father because the faith has been lost. It is the blank mystery of a dedicated man or woman who had left, as they felt, all things to follow Christ and now, years later, discover that the community they entered has ceased to exist except in name and that the vows they had so generously pronounced are now a mockery and blasphemous sham.

Yes, there is more than enough to explain why those who read the Gospels with open eyes and try to live them are forced, almost in spite of themselves, to turn from the spectacle that surrounds them and turn to Christ as the only hope in today’s world.

So, we ask ourselves, what do we hope in when we place our trust in Christ the Savior? This is not a vain question, because, depending on how authentic our hope is, we shall either have our hopes realized or we shall find them unfulfilled. And unfulfilled hopes are the seedbed of discouragement or even despair.

What to Hope For

There is a remarkable similarity between the situation in the time of Christ and the situation in our day.

In the time of Christ, the Jewish people had every reason to be discouraged. Here they were, the Chosen People of Yahweh, to whom the great prophets had promised such great things. They were to become the leaders of all nations, they were to enjoy great peace and the worship of the one true God was to spread from them to all the peoples of the earth. Their prophet Malachi foretold that, because of them from the farthest east to farthest west the name of Yahweh would be honored among the nations and everywhere a sacrifice of incense would be offered to His name, and a pure offering would be made, too, since His name would be honored among the Gentiles.

But what did the Jews see by the time of Christ? They saw their nation in virtual slavery under the Romans, their people forced to pay tribute to Caesar, their sacred laws ignored by the masters who controlled the people of God, and their lot not much better than it had been in Egypt centuries earlier under the persecuting hand of the Pharaohs. Is it surprising then that the Jews of first century Palestine hoped for deliverance or that up to the moment of Christ’s ascension the apostles kept asking Jesus, “Lord, has the time come? Are You going to restore the kingdom of Israel?”

This fact alone, that even the apostles, who had spent three years in the Savior’s constant company, should have had such earthly desires centered on the things of this world, speaks volumes for mistaken hopes to which all of us are prone—no matter how otherwise spiritual we are.

When, therefore, we speak of Christian hope we must know what it does not mean. It does not mean looking forward to an end of trial and tribulation. It does not mean expecting to be delivered from suffering and pain. It does not mean living in a dream world of unreality, which our drugs, and drink, and fiction, and movies, and media are fostering to the point where you begin to wonder, “Who is still sane in this world anyhow? Is it the writers of our television scenarios, or we?”

At the same time, we must beware of going to the opposite extreme. We should not conclude that, because so many have decided to escape from the brash reality by crawling into a cocoon of their own fancy, that there is no hope of alleviation of the miseries of this world. That way lays mental suicide and is, if anything, even less worthy of a believing Christian.

The correct understanding of hope is beautifully illustrated in the episode described by the evangelist Luke. It took place on Easter Sunday afternoon. Though we have heard it many times, it deserves to be repeated. As I read the evangelist, note carefully the two concepts of hope that can be seen in conflict: the mistaken idea of the disciples and the correct one of the Savior.

“That same day, two of them were on their way to a village called Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking together about all that had happened. Now as they talked this over, Jesus himself came up and walked by their side; but something prevented them from recognizing him. He said to them, ‘What matters are you discussing as you walk along?’ They stopped short, their faces downcast.
“Then one of them called Cleophas, answered him, ‘You must be the only one staying in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have been happening there these last few days.’ ‘What things?’ he asked. ‘ All about Jesus of Nazareth,’ they answered, ‘who proved he was a great prophet by the things he said and did in the sight of God and of the whole people; and how our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and had him crucified. Our own hope had been that he would be the one to set Israel free….’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘You foolish men! So slow to believe the full message of the prophets. Was it not ordained that the Christ should suffer and so enter into his glory?”

Rereading this account of the dialogue of Christ with the two disciples on the way to Emmaus reveals what all of us need to see very clearly, that authentic hope centers on the example of Christ. Like Him, we are to expect to suffer, and so, which means “and therefore” enter into glory---Christ into His, and we into ours.

Do not tell me this is an easy lesson to learn. It is the hardest conclusion we have to reach from the premises of our faith. All our natural instincts cry out for relief and our natural desires aim to be freed from oppression or misunderstanding or non-acceptance by those we love---in a word, to be delivered from pain. Yet that is not the way Christ lived nor should we expect to live that way ourselves.

What are we to hope for then? We are to hope for the light we need to see the dawn over the horizon—in a word, to see that God has an all-wise purpose of giving us the privilege of joining with his Son in his passion. We are to hope for our own Easter Sunday, when God will wipe away all tears from our eyes, where there will be no more death and no more mourning, or sadness; when the world of the past—which for us is still the world of the painful present—will have gone.

How Christ is Our Hope

Having said all of this; one question still remains: How is Christ our hope in a world—at least our own personal world—that sometimes seems to be so hopeless?

He is certainly our hope in the example He gave us of how we are to bear up under God’s visitations, whether they are physical pain, or spiritual dryness, or social estrangement or even open opposition from perhaps sincere people who, for that very reason, can cause us more suffering than people who are notoriously acting in bad faith. His patience is the model of what ours should be, even to excusing the murderers who nailed the innocent Lamb of God to the Cross.

Christ is moreover our hope in the words of explanation—He went out of His way to teach us why the servant is not greater than the Master, and why we should be merciful, which means forgiving, to others, if we want God to be merciful to us. If there is one lesson that Christ never tired of repeating all through His public life and to the day of His ascension, it was the insistence that souls are redeemed only by suffering, that sins are remitted only by shedding of blood, and that man is reconciled to his Maker only by undergoing pain.

But Christ is especially our hope in the grace He is always pouring into our hearts to give us the strength we do not have of ourselves to cope with. I do not say the great trials of life, but even such minor problems as putting up with a person who talks too much, or who acts on the impulse of the moment, or who forgets to thank us for a favor received.

He is our hope because He is the almighty power of God who lives in the center of our being, ever ready and always at hand to help us bear with the crosses of our life, especially with the heaviest cross what we carry, which is ourselves.

But we must do our part. Jesus is our hope, indeed, but we must trust Him, and not belie by our actions what we profess with our lips. If we trust Him, we shall distrust ourselves, which means we shall not worry, because worry is a sign of reliance on self to the forgetfulness of God. If we trust Him, we shall not be anxious, because anxiety is a sign of expecting self to cope with difficulties that only God can overcome. If we trust Him, we shall not be sad, because sadness is a sign that we think we are somehow still running the world, that is, the little world we occupy, whereas God is behind, beneath, and beyond everything that, we thoughtlessly say “happens” to us and in us. Christ is therefore our hope because He is our only source of joy—now during these few short years on earth and then for all eternity.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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