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Retreat - The Essentials of the Religious Life

The Government of Religious Communities

January 1, 1984 — Afternoon Conference

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

Remember that we are reflecting during this retreat on the Holy Father's essential elements of Religious Life. The second to the last of these substantials according to Pope John Paul reads, "A form of Government calling for Religious authority based on faith."

It is essential, therefore, for authentic Catholic Religious life to have a form of government calling for Religious authority based on faith. In this reflection, we shall limit our reflection to the simple statement of the Holy Father rather than try and go through the scores of Canons on government listed in the New Code of Canon Law. We shall see what he means and apply the meaning to our lives.

What is the Pope saying? He is saying that you must have, if you are going to have Religious life, three things; a form of government; religious authority; and a foundation in faith. Suppose that we go through each one of these three qualities, and analyze them briefly and draw such spiritual fruit as especially here we all need.

The first quality of a Catholic Religious Institute is that there be a form of government. Someone must be in charge. The word ‘to govern’ from the Latin gubernare, is good to know comes from the ancient Romans, who coined the word for Latin, of course, but even the concept. Gubernare (govern) is not quite the same as regere (to rule). We can safely believe that under Divine guidance, in a way similar to the contribution of the Jewish people where Christianity built on Judaism, so be it said; Christianity built on the genius of Rome. It was they who conceived the idea of governing.

Where there is one emperor in Rome who had governors in the provinces, they were assumed to be loyal to the emperor. It was not one person, directly and immediately and constantly and autocratically trying to rule all the people of his, whatever empire, be it Phoenician, Assyria or otherwise. So true is this, locked behind the very simple English word 'govern' or the Latin gubernarethat what the Catholic Church did was to adopt, we insist under Divine guidance, the former structure of government of the Roman Empire, and then the Catholic Church, after the Roman Empire disappeared, passed on this form of government to the whole civilized world. There would not be a United States in the world today, except for the Catholic Church. Christianity was built as we may say under the providentially genius of the Roman form of government, and passed on its form of ruling to all mankind.

The word government is crucial, but as the Church understands the word 'government' it is unique. It is the direction of human beings in society founded by Christ, and the direction is given in such a way that those who belong to the Church are governed by principles, set down by the founder Himself, and in essence - never changed. One reason, by the way, that no civil society (state) could possibly put together a code, as we understand it, of civil law, and where attempts over the centuries have been made, they have all been short-lived. The principles of government in the Catholic Church have been laid down, by Christ, to remain to the end of time.

Moreover, government in the Church is not autocratic; much less tyrannical. Everyone who governs in the Church, governs as part of a hierarchical society, beginning with the Pope, through the Bishops and others appointed by the Holy See, and so on down to the least and last member of the Church. Finally, the Church's government is not democratic as in the right to direct others or lay down laws or set down conditions for Church administration; in the Catholic Church all of these do not come from the bottom-up; they come from the top-down. The right to govern, to set down laws comes from Christ, through the Vicar of Christ, and then on to all those in organized, local, or regional authority.

What are some of the implications for us religious? First of all, the authority that is a consequence in religious life is the authority of Christ Himself. We can see Superiors governing in the name of Christ, and we can see Him in Superiors as no citizen could possible see Christ in the highest and most authoritative civil official. We are governed in religious life by human beings, as we so well know; they have human qualities and especially human limitations. As I like to speak of it, Superiors are terribly human - very well, but behind each Superior we are bidden to see no one less than Christ Himself.

The second quality the Holy Father gives to the form of government in religious life is Religious authority. What does this mean? It means that because the authority in religious life is religious, it is revealed authority. Except for God's revelation in the person of Christ, we would not even know that Christ founded a Church with a right to make laws; administer these laws; judge on the observance of the laws; or impose sanctions, reward or punishment to insure the observance of the Church's laws. I'm saying far, far more than the few sentences that I can give you in the present context might indicate. Catholic Christianity as no doubt that in the Church there are laws with someone who has a right to make them, apply them, interpret them, and make sure they are observed. This is the main reason why in the Sixteenth Century whole nations were lost to Catholic unity.

What did the reformers claim? They denied that Christ Himself is in any intelligible sense, Himself a law-giver. They furthered denied that Christ founded a Church that has the right to make and enforce laws. Once the Reformation broke and the reformers denied that the Church has a right to make laws and enforce them – Who then has the right to make laws or enforce their observance or judge on the breach of these laws? When the reformers decided that since it is no longer Christ and His Church that makes the laws and requires their observance - who then should make the laws? What a pathetic answer - the state!!

Once marriage was removed from the authority of the Church, it was put into the hands, the tender, unmerciful, cruel political hands of the state. See what the state has made of marriage in the last four hundred years - a shambles!! If someone wants a divorce, in some states you don't even have to write, just call-up and in record time you have your divorce - MY GOD! The laws of God from the dawn of human civilization have condemned murder, and be it said, as far back as 2,000 B.C. among the ancient Babylonians, we still have it - carved in granite, four thousand years old – "The woman who aborts an unborn child, and all who assist her in the abortion are to be killed, forthwith, once it is proved they are guilty." – Capital punishment in ancient Babylon for abortion.

So what has one state after another in a de-Christianized world done? They have legalized murder on a scale never before conceivable to man.

What are we saying? We are saying, when the Pope tells us that the government in Religious communities is religious - it is religious authority. That means, that we are absolutely sure, provided the community and its constitutions are approved by the Church and the Superiors are validly appointed or elected in a way that no state could possibly exercise its authority, we are under obedience to Christ and with an assurance of not being subject to the mad abuse of civil authority that is so rampart, for example, in our own beloved United States.

We ask ourselves - What is behind the Holy Father's statement that authority in a Religious Institute is religious authority? It is, as far as we can express the words, by Divine Government, with an assurance of supernatural protection from God, light for those in authority as no official in any mere human society can expect. What are some of the implications of the authority in a Religious Institute being religious? Well, because the government in Religious communities is religious, which means from God, this in practice is mainly what makes an Institute a Religious Institute. God is in charge in a way that He is not as directly or immediately or as we know from centuries of abuse by civil authority has protective as in an Institute that is called Religious. Christ is in charge, moreover, because the authority in a Religious Institute is religious; the life that we live under authority is not lived in the abstract, but in the concrete. It is not vague, but by Christ's Will is definite. It is not generic, but it can be and should be very specific. It is not, needless to say, amorphous; the exercise of authority and our recognition of the duty to obey is to be clear and unmistakable.

This concreteness – definiteness – comes from the authority in a Religious Institute. You don't think things up in a Religious community. Before we close this retreat, let's make sure we know what this religious vocation is all about. It can be very specific. This authority comes, of course, from the constitutions. In the four thousand - plus Religious Institutes recognized by the Holy See and the Catholic Church, there are, of course, as many constitutions, whatever name they may give, for their Rule of Life. The Holy See is constantly reminding, chapter after chapter, please be definite! be clear! - if you want some religious poetry, all right put it in - but religious life is not poetic; it is very realistic.

This exercise of authority comes from the rules and directives, and it especially comes from Superiors, whose task it is to specify and to make clearly definite God's will for individual members of the community. It is here, as we should know from experience, that our religious obedience is so comprehensive and can be so unqualified. It is here, too, that God's Will for us religious can go into such minutia; the exact time to rise; the exact time to pray; the exact time to eat; the precise way to pray; the precise way to dress; and we could stay here and count the all but endless litany of detail.

Now we come to the last feature. We believe that this is the Will of God. This is what makes religious life a lifetime in duration and continuity and detail; a life of sacrifice. A lifetime of comprehensive detailed sacrifice where in our wills we are submissive to what we consider God's Will even in the 'trifles of daily life'.

We have one more quality that the Holy Father identifies as characterizing government in a Religious Institute. It is,as he tells us, founded in faith. Who has any doubt that the government of religious life is not founded on reason, but in Faith, The government should not be irrational, and we in obeying are not abdicating our reason, but what a difference between subjecting oneself, and we do it consciously, to a lifetime submission to authority founded in faith or in an authority in which our reason can constantly stand in judgment.

What is the Holy Father telling us? He is telling us that this obedience of ours is known only from the Divinely revealed Word of God and that Word of God is no mere verbal communication; that Word became Flesh - dwelt, lived, spoke, walked, ate, suffered among us. This Divine revelation, which is the foundation of our obedience, is found in Sacred Scripture, but not only; it is found also in Sacred Tradition. There were the first century equivalents of religious, even though the Scriptures do not go into much detail about what we can call first century religious life, but we know from Sacred Tradition. With special emphasizes, government in Religious Institutes founded in faith, but interpreted over the centuries by the Church. The Church, by Divine mandate, is alone qualified to identify what would be authentic religious life. The great mystic, Francis of Assisi, came to the then reigning Pope, presented his Rule of Life; the Pope shook his head and said, " No, Francis." We don't have a record of dialogue between Francis and the Pope, but the Pope, by the way, has never been canonized. One of the most beautiful inspirations is knowing that one of the Church's greatest mystic souls, humbly went back on what after years of Divinely, as he believed, inspired insight which he drafted into his first Rule of Life; he was told by the Church – won't do – and HE OBEYED.

Before we close this very practical conference, let me draw together some implications. If as the Pope tells us the government in Religious Institutes is founded in faith; well, if we are going to live under that government, humbly, obediently, and above all happily; our Faith had better be strong. So whatever we do to strengthen our faith, does everything to enable us to live obediently, patiently, humbly, and cheerfully.

How do we develop this faith which under girds the authority and underlies our obedience? Prayer. More than once, after an especially difficult demand of obedience, all I could do was make a bee-line for the chapel and talk it over. It means that we honestly try to be obedient.

Of course it’s faith, and faith by definition means accepting what God tells us is true on HIS Word. Even though Religious life is a mystery, it is not to be a sheer, black cloud. We should be able with God's grace, reflection, meditation, reading, and studying penetrate ever more deeply into the meaning of our obedience. While the mysteries of faith can never, this side, of heaven, be comprehended; they are, if you please, to be understood. What I have learned and this is my thirtieth year since my final vows - obedience pays! Once I'm sure that I am supposed to do this or not do something else, and I conform my will to the will of another human being, who may be in everything else except in this my inferior, my submission of will obtains grace, phenomenal grace, extra ordinary grace - I'll use the word - miraculous grace in doing the work of God.

Let's close with a short prayer. Lord Jesus deepen our faith in the mystery of religious life. Make us witnesses of humble obedience in the world that needs nothing more than to respect authority in the Church, in the home, in the state. We believe Jesus, that you are pleased with our submission to authority in our community - trusting that You will accept our loving sacrifice as the price to pay for reaching the Heaven reserved only for those who are humbly obedient on earth. Amen.

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

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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