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Retreat - The Essentials of the Religious Life
The Corporate Apostolate of Contemplative Communities
December 28, 1983 Evening Conference
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
We will quote from what the Holy Father gives as a primary source of the Church's mind on the apostolate of religious institutes, namely, the new Code of Canon Law, building on and drawing from now centuries of the Church's teaching and especially the Second Vatican Council.
This Canon comes immediately after declaring that our primary apostolate as religious is that of witnessing to our consecrated life, Canon 674:
"Institutes which are wholly directed to contemplation always have an outstanding part in the Mystical Body of Christ. They offer to God an exceptional sacrifice of praise. They embellish the People of God with very rich fruits of holiness, move them by their example and give them increase by a hidden, apostolic fruitfulness. Because of this, no matter how urgent the needs of the active apostolate, the members of these institutes cannot be called upon to assist in the various apostolic ministries."
Placing the matter in its proper context, contemplative institutes in their apostolic purpose, bears emphasis: contemplative communities are apostolic, indeed they must be. Their members are expected by Christ who called them and by the Church which approves them to strive for the salvation and sanctification of others. Along with Saint Francis Xavier, the heavenly patroness of missions is a Carmelite contemplative, the Little Flower.
The Church teaches that such institutes always have and will have "an outstanding part in the Mystical Body of Christ." They are placed first in the Church's Canonical Legislation about the apostolate of religious institutes; then, having been placed first, they are said to be outstanding in their role in the Mystical Body of Christ.
There are five reasons in particular why they are outstanding:
Canon Law tells us that the members of contemplative institutes offer God an exceptional sacrifice of praise. This bears more emphasis than we might commonly give it. Our first purpose in this world, our primary duty as creatures is to give praise to God, which means to honor, adore, and worship Him. No matter how many muscles we move or speeches we give, no matter how many books we publish, they mean nothing unless and insofar as those who are engaged in the apostolate first and primarily live lives of honor, praise and reverence to God.
If the most important thing we can do in life, barring none, is to adore God, what then is the highest form of adoration? The highest form of adoration is sacrifice. Sacrifice is when we surrender what is precious to us, what we like, in order to show our total submission to and dependence on God and tell Him how much we love Him. All the lip service we can give to God in prayer is only as pleasing to Him as it costs us. There are two "c's" to keep in mind for the future: contemplative and costly. It is the costly praise of God, the costly love of God, the costly worship that is most pleasing to the Almighty.
The more it costs us, the more we please the Almighty. And anyone who really understands authentic contemplative life and really tries to live it should have no doubt that it is costly in surrendering so many things that the human heart by all its natural instincts wants to hold on to. The Church therefore tells us that contemplatives offer an exceptional sacrifice of praise to God. If contemplatives live the life as they should, they pay a very high price. Of contemplatives Christ expects the most total sacrifice.
How does this contemplative life, so highly praised by the Church over the centuries, satisfy the evangelical mission (the new language the Church is using to identify the apostolate); how is the contemplative life apostolic?
First and most fundamentally, it is apostolic by meriting grace for others by the sanctity that those who are authentic contemplatives are expected to not only strive after but achieve. What kind of grace do people need? You name it and people need it beginning with the grace of repentance. The figures by the end of 1983 in the United States will be one-million seven-hundred thousand abortions. If the Lord told Cain after he slew his brother Abel, "The blood of your brother is crying out to me for vengeance", God is angry. What kind of grace do contemplatives gain for others? The grace of staying the just hand of God and bringing sinners to repentance, and the grace of expiation.
There are two monosyllables that always go together: sin and pain. Only God knows. But you don't have to be a Jeremiah or an Ezekiel to predict that God will not allow such massive injustice and cruelty and lechery and unbelief to go unpunished. Contemplatives merit the grace of having God relent and not punish as He surely intends to.
They merit light, especially for the educated and for Bishops and Priests. We are the most learned people in the world, but we are not the most humble. The merit the light to see with the eyes of God that nothing in this world matters except as a means to reach the heaven beyond.
What kind of grace do they merit? Strength. Hundreds of millions of believers in Christ are suffering persecution, and not all the persecution is in Russia or Red China; it is going on right here in our so-called free country of America.
Contemplatives satisfy the apostolic responsibility of religious life by their example to others, says the Church. The example of hiddeness in a world that craves nothing more than show and display - a lot of men take to crime for the publicity they will get. How the world dreads being unknown or overlooked. That is why the Son of God remained hidden for thirty years before He engaged in His public ministry. And who would dare say that He was not redeeming the world during His three decades behind the scenes at Nazareth.
Contemplatives gain grace and engage in the most fruitful apostolate by their prayer. There is nothing under heaven that people need more to learn than to pray. Contemplatives engage in the apostolate by their example by their lives of faith. It is now over seven hundred years since the first Eucharistic heresies began to ravish the Church. In the late 12th and early 13th centuries one contemplative institute after another was inspired by God and approved by the Church to concentrate on worshipping Christ really Present in the Blessed Sacrament. How the world, and the Catholic world today needs that example, faith in the Real Presence.
Contemplatives give an example of patience. Every son and daughter of Adam has to practice patience, which is another word for uncomplaining suffering. We all have to suffer. And if we do so uncomplainingly, we are patient. Authentic contemplative life cannot be lived the way Christ and the Church want it to be lived, given all the circumstances of separation from the world and living in close, intimate proximity, without placing a heavy strain on all the resources of human patience.
The Church teaches us in the Code that contemplative institutes and their members are outstanding parts of the Mystical Body of Christ by their apostolic fruitfulness. Fruitfulness means reproduction, generation; it means somehow that we reproduce ourselves in spirit in those in whose favor we engage in the apostolate. This is one of the great insights of Saint Teresa of Avila: in the work of reproducing ourselves in spirit in other people, of course we must do our part; but it is mainly the work of God. In other words, God will bless the fruitfulness of the whole Church from the Holy Father down in the exact measure that there are souls on earth who are very close to Him, who love Him dearly, and out of love for Him live lives of deep, selfless sacrifice.
We must be clear on a very important aspect of the contemplative life. The contemplative life is indeed, and is primarily, a life of prayer, but not only. It is a life of prayer plus self-denial. Apostolic fruitfulness in the contemplative life is measured not only by how long we pray, how enraptured we are when we are lost in prayer, how much we like to pray; the prayer itself is only as apostolically fruitful as our wills are totally resigned to the will of God.
Why should we so much stress the importance of the apostolic fruitfulness of contemplative institutes? Contemplatives have been very hard hit by the modern secularization that has invaded religious life. The Church insists that no matter what the active needs of the ministry may be the primacy in the religious life is contemplation, which is a combination of prayer and self-denial. So many once flourishing contemplative communities have succumbed; under the guise of meeting the great needs of the world and the Church these days, they have entered into areas which of themselves would be laudable but not for contemplatives.
Lord Jesus Christ, Teacher of contemplation, teach those whom you have called to a life of hidden contemplation to realize the dignity of their vocation. Help them to see that their quiet solitude is most pleasing to You and most fruitful in the apostolate of winning souls from sin and from hell for sanctity and heaven. Give all of us a deeper understanding of what you meant when You told Martha that Mary had chosen the "better part". Make us all, dear Lord, contemplatives according to our vocation as a prelude to that eternal contemplation in the Beatific Vision for which we were made. Amen.
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