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The Corporate Witness of Religious Life
Conference by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
These reflections are based on statements by Pope Paul VI in his "Apostolic Exhortation to Religious", which as you recall was published on the Feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul, the two greatest witnesses to Christ after Christ's own Mother. It is not my purpose here to make a theological analysis of all that the late Vicar of Christ told religious. Its best analysis, I think, is a prayerful, meditative reading of what is called in the English translation, "The Gospel Witness".
What are the principal directives of Pope Paul after the most detailed analysis of the meaning of religious life given to us by the Second Vatican Council? The full title of the exhortation that was awaited for years is: "To the Members of Every Religious Family in the Catholic World, on the Renewal of the Religious Life According to the Prescriptions of the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council". Note the word "prescriptions".
In 56 sections of closely written text, all that Pope Paul tells us religious to do, can be reduced to one mandate, urging religious to be witnesses of holiness. That is our vocation. Everything else is our avocation.
We are to be witnesses of holiness to a world that is fast becoming secularized and that acutely needs such a witness if the teachings of Christ are to be effective in cultures that from one viewpoint are more advanced than ever before in history. So they are. But progress creates problems. Just because of this scientific and secular development, these cultures (and especially our own) are running to destruction where and insofar as they lack the vision that only Christ's message to mankind can give. Progress becomes chaos unless it has direction, purpose and a goal. The same world which under God's providence has made such marvelous strides in secular pursuits, unless it knows how to use those developments, will destroy itself by the very instruments of its own creation.
The role of religious as witnesses can, of course, be understood in two ways. There is one way in which we have most commonly heretofore thought of it: that we are to witness to holiness by our own personal, individual lives. That still stands.
However, not only do individual religious need to testify to the holiness which they have received from God. They are also to witness as communities by their corporate following of Christ in the practice of the evangelical counsels. For our purpose, because it is so stressed in this exhortation, we shall concentrate on the directives for giving corporate witness to sanctity as communities.
"Religious communities have collective and distinctive vocations", Pope Paul writes. It is not just we as persons, but we as societies that are called. What seems to be our prior vocation as individuals is only possible because there has already been a corporate vocation of a community with which we might identify ourselves. Then, having received these vocations, communities should witness to holiness in these ways: through their corporate identity, through their corporate prayer, through their corporate poverty, and, through their corporate obedience. Each aspect of this quadrad is dealt with by Pope Paul at great length and in such detail that no sincere reader of his message to religious can misunderstand his meaning.
First, our vocation as communities to witness to holiness by our corporate identity. As you know, it is the obvious things that we overlook. To begin with, in order to give witness corporately, the group must first have a corporate identity. You perjure yourselves if you give witness to what you do not have; there is such a thing as giving false witness! If you testify to the truth you must first know, and in this case be, that to which you testify.
We should then remind ourselves that religious communities are not clubs or mere human societies. They are more than organizations, and they should be more than business enterprises. They are, (How I like to quote Pope Paul on this) "they are religious families". But if a natural family has visible identity because all its members have a common source, that is a common genesis (the parents of the offspring), the supernatural family of the religious community has visible identity because, as the Pope insists, each community has a visible head!
Let me give the exact words of the Pontiff: "The presence of superiors acknowledged as such, is indispensably necessary for any kind of community". Why did he say this? Because a growing number of what used to be communities, and that still call themselves such, have given up the idea of having Superiors. Let me burden you with a sentence of Latin: "Superiorum praesentia quivis communitate est prorsus necessaria." It is almost English. "It is not only necessary " and he might have left it at that. But he added the strongest Latin adverb for "absolutely": prorsus. If you have a Superior, you have a community.
If you don't, you don't.
Furthermore, if we say the essence of the identity of a natural family consists in its having a common beginning, the essence of the supernatural family of a religious community is in its having a common end; a common goal. This common purpose belongs to the heart of a community and it is mainly derived from the distinctive charism of the person or persons who founded the congregation. Their spirit and outlook, but especially the apostolate for which they founded the community, cannot be ignored at the risk of playing with the life-blood of the institute.
I doubt if the late Pope urges anything more strongly in this Exhortation than this premise: "Be faithful to the charisms of your founder or the days of your community are numbered." Fidelity to these charisms is commonly shown by community practices and by the community apostolate (the community's identity publically recognized). Fidelity is manifested by religious working together institutionally and by religious as a group working together as a corporate entity.
Thus schools and hospitals, homes and welfare institutions, conducted by distinctive communities, are not only the Church's glory and her principal way for continuing Christ's work of corporal and spiritual mercy but institutions in which the religious work together, from which they work together, and with which they are identified are also the mainstay of the community's continual existence. If these institutions need religious (and who doubts it?), religious also need these visible, corporate realities for their survival, not to say for their progress and growth in laboring for the good of mankind.
Speaking of the Blessed Sacrament, the Sovereign Pontiff wrote: "The Eucharist is the unqualified center of your communities gathered together in His Name. Consistent with this fact, therefore, they should be visibly united around the oratory where the Presence of the most Holy Eucharist signifies what it also effects, what should be the most efficacious gift of each religious family." The center of a religious community is Christ in His Eucharistic Presence.
Why should corporate prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, and through the daily liturgy be so important for the community? The reason runs so deep that unless communities grasp it, (tragically many do not), they will not engage in that kind of corporate prayer which they absolutely need even to survive.
Why corporate prayer? Because communities, like individuals, have a supernatural life to sustain and the sustenance comes only from Christ - that adverb, "only" is his. Spiritual nourishment comes only through earnest prayer, whose center is Jesus Christ Himself, in His continued Bodily Presence among the members of a religious family. Remove corporate Eucharistic prayer and you snuff out the life of a community. It can no longer breathe. It has lost its source of life, as the shambles of more than one, once strongly vital religious congregation tragically testifies.
Retain this prayer: Remember, we are speaking about witness. Keep this witness of our own united, cooperative and corporate prayer, and the world of broken homes and broken hearts will see that community life is possible, indeed, that it can be a great joy! It should be. The whole question and the only one they ask is "How"? And we answer, "Through the power of grace, be it for the family of the flesh or the family of the spirit, by praying together in Christ's Name and in the company of His Eucharistic Sacred Heart."
Our third level of reflection is corporate poverty. Pope Paul is lucidly plain about religious poverty. Its practice means fraternal sharing. "Poverty so lived," he says, "in truly being reduced to practice that possessions, not excluding salaries, are brought together in common, testifies to the spiritual communion by which you are joined."
A Religious uses nothing of any monetary value (and the word is 'nothing') of her own independent initiative. I repeat: the word is 'nothing. How different are the ideas of some who talk about the "injustice" of Sisters earning less for their labors than their women counterparts in the professional world!
Let me quote a passage from an article by a woman Religious. They are putting these ideas into very aggressive practice. "The idea that the Sisters are expected to serve in the name of poverty is simply not palatable today. It has been considered wrongly a sacred tradition that Sisters should exchange their talents and energies for a mere pittance in the name of poverty and for the glory of God."
Several years ago, while I was in Rome on business, I had a conversation with the Director of Religious Education of a large southern diocese. I asked him how his Sisters were doing. "Well," he told me, "as well as can be expected these days. But they are getting expensive." So I asked him, "What do they cost?" He told me, "Our diocese budgeted each teaching Sister for the last school year at $10,000 each!" This was in 1975 and I might add, all was tax exempt. That is not poverty.
It is also not the mind of the Catholic Church. It is not the teaching of Christ, nor is it the directive of His Vicar on earth. As our present Sovereign Pontiff has affirmed, so did Pope Paul VI tell Religious to wear their habits, and not coincidentally while he is writing on the subject of poverty! How wisely and with profound insight into human nature did Pope Paul say that a religious habit is not only a sign of religious consecration, but also a sure means of preserving religious poverty.
Nobody is deceiving anybody. We either practice corporate poverty or we scandalize the faithful who need our witness as persons who have gone and sold what they had, given to the poor and then and only then, have answered the summons, "Come and follow Me."
What a person wears symbolizes what he owns. In today's world as in every age, expensive clothes, different clothes for different occasions, and a constant change in style and fashion are the universal marks of affluence. They are also the opposite to what a Religious professes to be, the follower of a Master, the infinite God - Who was born in a stable, Who died naked on the Cross and was buried not even in His own grave.
There is one more level of reflection: corporate obedience. No single aspect of this Papal Exhortation has been more crucial than the Pope's insistence on corporate obedience.
As with prayer and poverty, the emphasis here is not only the individual's witnessing, but the community's. What does corporate obedience mean? It is the ready compliance of those responsible, for the corporate identity and activity of an order or congregation with the directives and at times the prescriptions of hierarchial authority, notably of the Second Vatican Council and the Holy See. The latter especially for us Religious speaks through the Sacred Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes.
Where such obedience, of those who are responsible for the corporate identity and activity of the community, is lacking or deficient, the whole body and every member of the community suffers deeply. Words fail me beginning to describe the heroism of some Religious whose leaders are not obedient to hierarchical and Papal authority. When this happens, it matters little that individuals within the community want to be responsive to the Church's mandates for religious life. They are caught in the awful dilemma of having to make an impossible choice between obedience to the Church in its Conciliar and Papal authority, and compliance with authorized leaders who may be at greater or less variance with the mind of the Church.
Pope Paul gives the basic reason why corporate obedience to the Roman Catholic Church is of the essence of religious life. It is because the life of the evangelical counsels is part of Christian revelation and therefore is subject to the judgment of Christ's Church. The Church is the only safe guide, for understanding the religious life in our age or in any age.
In Pope Paul's own words, "The authority of the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit has the duty to interpret these evangelical counsels, to regulate their practice, and finally to build on them stable forms of life." The operative word is 'stable'. Stability of religious communities (which means their survival) depends on many factors, but on none more absolutely than their corporate obedience to Jesus Christ in the person of those of whom He said, "He that hears you hears Me, and he that despises you despises Me."
Communities which follow these prescriptions need no exhortation except
to remain loyal to the See of Peter, whose guidance on earth is the guarantee
of divine grace from heaven, leads to and gives a foretaste of heaven by
Christ's own promise of happiness and peace deep down in the heart of Religious,
even in this valley of tears.
Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica
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