Credible Communion: The Witness of Apostolic Religious Life

When the Church has been humiliated and vilified by public scandal … I suggest we need to shift our focus to Christ.


“How can you write anything credible about the witness of religious life today?” I was asked by a disillusioned colleague. “Isn’t it a question of lying low and waiting for the storm clouds of the present to pass over us, and then some people might be ready to hear what you have to say?” Somehow that did not seem a very ‘gospel’ way of proceeding. Yet, in our contemporary scenario, when the Church has been humiliated and vilified by public scandal, many seem paralyzed by grief and cynicism, who would otherwise be willing to write about the witness of religious life. When mourning abounds, and when the grievous sins of a minority seem to obliterate the memory of the compassionate faithful service of the dedicated majority, how is the face of Christ, and any credible communion, to be seen within the Church, within religious life, within ourselves? This is where I suggest we need to shift our focus to Christ.

Caritas Christi urget nos: the Love of Christ impels us. This cri de coeur from St. Paul is a helpful reminder to religious men and women to focus our living and activity. Love alone makes us credible as religious, not our love manufactured by our own efforts and will, but the love of Christ, deeply rooted in his relationship with the Father and empowered by the work of the Spirit. It is this Trinitarian love that is the root and ground and heart of religious life. It is the beauty of this love that calls forth our vocations, that inspires all our activity, and that communicates through our joyful witness the eternal hope of the Gospel, and the reconciliation that God so desires for our fractured world. Love alone is credible because this succinctly summarizes the divine initiative and impetus at work within apostolic religious life when coherently lived out in contemplation and action. It is the love of God in action in the person of Christ that opens our hearts and minds to the reality of intimacy with our God. It is from this depth of Trinitarian intimacy that we draw the resources for a credibility of love for all with whom we live and work. It is the imperious nature of this love that draws us beyond the destructive “political” polarized struggles with which we all too readily engage, toward the gentleness to disarm even those who have grown hardened. It can lead us to seek what is common to every religious vocation and charism—intimacy with the Lord, and a sharing in his redemptive mission.

I have four further points to make: 1) to identify the love that underpins the religious vocation; 2) to highlight the love expressed in the Paschal Mystery and the ongoing importance of conversion in our lives; and 3) to focus on the love that is manifested in an ecclesial commitment. This is no sentimental love, but a “tough” love, a committed love, a passionate love, willing to bear the cost of belonging to our Lord, and our individual religious families, and to the service of the Church in the world. For added efficacy, 4) I also suggest a way in which the three vows taken by religious are also applicable to a degree to all members of the Church.

The Love That Underpins Our Vocation
The love that calls religious in their vocation is the same love that brought each one of us into being, that loved us into existence from all eternity. This is both the reality of our own life and the reality of the witness that religious are called to share with those with whom we live and work, and all with whom we engage. As Pope Benedict XVI reminds us:

God loved me first, before I myself could love at all. It was only because he knew me, and loved me, that I was made. So, I was not thrown into the world by some operation of chance, as Heidegger says, and now have to do my best to swim around in this ocean of life, but I am preceded by a perception of me, an idea and a love of me. They are present in the ground of my being … God is there first, and loves me. And that is the trustworthy ground on which my life is standing, and on which I myself can construct it  1

So important is this understanding for Pope Benedict that his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, elaborated the reality of “the love which God lavishes upon us, and which we, in turn, must share with others.” 2 It is in the light of this love that the vocational call is framed. The Lord reminds us of this prevenient love, drawing forth a response of love that waits upon the word of the Lord’s leading. It is aware of the divine initiative that is always present before us, and that is the sure ground on which we walk forth into the future. It is vital that religious continue to spend contemplative time, drawing from this source. The call to prayer is primary in all our endeavors. It is the only way in which our apostolate will be fruitful. It is the disciplined commitment to a relationship with the Lord that will empower all our activity. Hans Urs von Balthasar considers prayer to be so important that he maintains “the Christian stands and falls with prayer.” 3 How much more so is this for both contemplative and apostolic religious.

The call of Christ implies a choice—primarily God’s choice of the individual—and then, the human response of choice, that disposes the individual to enter more deeply into the mission of Christ. This human response of choice is, as it were, a self-abandonment, characterized by an openness that enables the choosing of God’s choice. We cannot be more free than to choose God’s choice. The primary call of human beings is the call to love, love of God and love of neighbor. This is an absolute call, admitting of no exception. 4 This love is active. Indeed, if there were not a dynamic outward action of love, it would not be truly love. 5 At the heart of this love is the mystery of self-giving and, consequently, of “choice.”

True love is radically and fundamentally disposed to renounce everything so that everything may be held in readiness for the first sign of the will of the beloved. So true is this of God’s love for human beings that the whole world is a demonstration of God’s unsurpassed love. The particular call that we have heard as individuals in a uniquely personal manner—through prayer and reflection on the word of God—becomes the foundation, not only for a growing Christian maturity, but also for the priestly state, the state of religious life, or the state of marriage to which we have been called. 6  As we made, and continue to make, our choice as religious, we are drawn into the unity between Father, Son, and Spirit. Every mission, every qualitative calling within the Church, proceeds from the Father, and through the Spirit leads the one called to the Son, who has been called from all eternity by the Father. We might ask ourselves when did we last prayerfully ponder the beginnings of our own vocation? How far do we still allow this reality of God’s choice of us into our everyday consciousness? Do we consistently understand ourselves as involved in God’s mission, or do we focus on our ministry? What means might we take to live from this foundation?

Love Expressed in the Paschal Mystery: Ongoing Conversion
The Paschal Mystery is central to the understanding of our faith. More than this, it is a reality sharply focused for apostolic religious, many of whom have within their Constitutions, or Rule, the understanding of a call “to serve beneath the banner of the cross.” 7 Indeed, all Christians at some time in their lives must face the full, dramatic horror of the Cross when they confront the suffering of Christ for their sinfulness, their alienation from themselves and God, through sin, and the continuing suffering of Christ in the contemporary human realities of poverty, violence, and oppression. It is, perhaps, Paul who best articulates the centrality of the Cross, wanting to “know nothing, but Christ crucified.” 8 This is the supreme “foolishness” of God, which, paradoxically, reveals God’s power and wisdom. 9 As apostolic religious, this ‘foolishness’ is the ground on which we stand. It inevitably means being open and willing to embrace the reality of the Cross in our lives, both as individuals, and as communities. It means living a life of ongoing conversion, and through that way of the Cross, we are drawn deeply into the life of the Trinity. It means inexorably confronting our own very human temptations to independence and self-seeking.

The more deeply human beings allow themselves to be open to the dynamic spirit of God, the more they become aware of themselves in the midst of God’s creation, at home in God’s world, and invited into God’s creative and redemptive work. Credible apostolic ministry in the 21st century requires an appreciation, and imitation, of the self-emptying love that lies at the heart of the Trinity. This is both an invitation and a challenge. The invitation is to a more profound understanding, and a deeper participation, in the life of the Trinity. The challenge is to personal and communal transformation and pastoral outreach.

Self-surrender encapsulates the heart of the vows of poverty and chastity lovingly lived. “All authentic being in love is a total self-surrender…. something in itself, something personal, intimate, and profoundly attuned to the deepest yearnings of the human heart. It constitutes a basic fulfillment of (our) being.” 10 Many apostolic religious can echo these words in the resonance of their own hearts. The very possibility of such self-surrender, and the intrinsic nature of this to authentic being in love, I would suggest, lies at the heart of the mystery of God, and, therefore, is reflected in human beings created after the image of God.

The act of self-surrender is an act of fruitful love. This is true par excellence in the life, passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, but it is also true in our human reality as apostolic religious. Since our lives, however, are obscured by the existence of sin, this act of self-surrender involves an element of risk in a surrender to a God we do not clearly see or perceive. In consequence, true self-surrender always involves some degree of sacrifice, or renunciation, and a growing desire for real purification. This is a call of ever-deepening love that enables our lives, and our service, to be truly a Christ light for others.

Generous self-surrender may be seen in terms of real commitment to the leading of God, and the needs of “neighbors,” that is central to any concrete mission.  Both self-surrender and obedience are crucial to apostolic mission. In that self-surrender, individuals respond to the invitation to enter into God’s creative and redemptive activity. Here, obedience is a response of love to that invitation, and always includes the divine gift of a greater interior freedom and energy. This, in turn, assists that response. Obedience is only true when undertaken out of love in a joyful response to the divine initiative of love, not out of fear. It is love alone which prevents obedience from becoming oppressive by engendering life-giving energy, and permanence of commitment. In becoming obedient, we, as it were, acknowledge for ourselves what is most truly our particular human selfhood, the particular form of cooperation with God, which as individuals we were created to enjoy.

It is clear that the self-surrender of Christ was actualized in obedience, even unto death, in his loving being for others. The pattern of divine love is the Cross—a pattern of life for apostolic religious who are drawn into the same path. This is not a destructive burden, but rather a source of empowerment, enabling a deeper refining of our interior dispositions.

Integrated Apostolic Religious
For contemporary apostolic religious, the question needs to be posed: how far do we separate our prayer from our work? Is there a key integration, such that all our apostolates are undertaken metaphorically “on our knees”? Is there still such integration in the times where the Cross is more apparent in our lives in large ways; or the irritating, awkward, mysterious freedom of those other real human beings with whom we live and work each day? In the drama of our lives, are we aware of the divine and human dimensions? Contemplation and action are intertwined. It is not a form of contemplation that leads to gaining knowledge; rather it is a contemplation that leads to action, and an action that leads to the discovery of truth. Such a discovery is consequent upon participation in the world, a world we come to know in its beauty and truth through self-giving love. A spirit of openness is the only true response to a God who is ever greater than any conception of God.

Love Manifested in Ecclesial Commitment
We are committed to the Church because we are committed to Christ, and the Church is his body. In the contemporary Church, we are challenged to live out this commitment in ways that are life-giving. It is clear from what has already been indicated that the possibility of living in such an ecclesial way, so that the mission of Christ may be promoted, involves a deeper contemplative living that finds expression in an active apostolate. Central to a living out of this ecclesial relationship is a principle that benignly interprets the words or actions of another, i.e., that considers that another person is trying to say something that is good. Therefore, the focus of attention is on what is the good that the other is trying to say, despite the inadequacy that we all face with language.

The contemporary Church lives in the reality of these tensions: between prayer and action, the individual and the community, and the now and the “not yet.” Thus, she “lives in an incomprehensible place between earth and heaven, between death and eternal life, and between the old world that is passing away, and the new and incorruptible world.” 11 In this space, the Church is poised to respond both to her Lord, and to the world within which she has her existence. 12 The heart of the Church is the celebration of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is at the center of life for an apostolic religious. It is here, in the gift of the Eucharist, that the mystery of the Church’s role is revealed, for the Eucharist is “a reciprocal communion between Christ and the Church, and ultimately between the Trinity and the entire cosmos.” 13 Here the Trinitarian life of God is manifested, and also “the ultimate nature of (all) created being in their difference and unity.” 14 So, also is revealed within the Eucharist, the end to which the Church is oriented, “for the goal of the (Church) is the salvation and rescuing of the world.” 15 As St. Paul states, all things are to be reconciled in Christ. In the Trinity’s plan for the world, creation was a gift from the Father to the Son that reveals the life of the Trinity. And in the redemptive work of Christ, there is a return of this gift of creation from the Son to the Father. Human beings are drawn into this divine dynamic at the heart of creation. 16

Relationship between Religious Life and Priesthood
The religious life and the life of priesthood are closely linked. This is an insight that we might fruitfully ponder. With regard to the priesthood, Christ continues to be present in the world through his word, his sacraments, and the ministerial priesthood. Since no human being is able to adequately represent Christ, Christ, as it were, lays hold of a man, and through the sacrament of holy orders, enables that man to represent him. No human being is fully able to do this. Therefore, there is always a real gap between the priest and the office to which he has been called. The subjective holiness of the priest never matches the objective representation of his office. This gives the potential for great humility, but, nevertheless, Christ guarantees that when the priest acts in his name by preaching his word and celebrating his sacraments, he is present to the faithful with his grace through the action of the priest. It is important that religious life and the priesthood are seen as complementary and vital for the life of the Church—not as competitive or alternative vocations. In the tradition of the Church, there is a clear recognition of an inner coherence between these two vocations.

The Abiding Significance of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience
We know that those who enter religious communities accept these vows in their most literal form, but in one way or another, something of their spirit is needed by everyone who really desires to follow Christ. The New Testament is very clear when it demands poverty of spirit, purity of heart, and filial obedience from the followers of Jesus. The reason for this is that each of these three qualities help us to live more detached from the self-regarding interests with which we habitually clutter our lives. They help to simplify us. Poverty is not just about dropping, for the sake of love, all those material things we think we must have. It is also that interior freedom from possessiveness, where the focus is constantly on I, me, and mine. At its heart, it is the recognition that we have nothing of our own, but are totally dependent upon God. When we realize this, we are ready to truly receive his gifts. Chastity, in this context, doesn’t mean a focus on giving up marriage, but something much more subtle. It really means the spirit of poverty applied to our emotional life. So, we don’t spend time in self-occupied daydreams, where we are the center of attention. It is a call to friendship with God, and all the people with which we come into contact. Obedience, then, becomes the surrender of our wills to God, to be able to really pray, not my will, but God’s will be done. And, strange as it may seem, obedience means more freedom, not less. It brings a greater energy, lifts the burden of perpetual choice, and actually increases our power of effective action. If, as a Church, we could really be obedient in this way, we would be able to deeply contribute to the loving transformation of the world.

Conclusion: The Language of Love
How are we to speak of the treasure of apostolic religious life today? I would suggest that the language of love is appropriate, for it is the love of God on which all is based. This love calls for a contemplative reading of the signs of the times, a prayerful pondering that may result in fruitful action, a love that recalls each religious family to its roots, just as Vatican II requested. It is imperative that we reclaim something of this contemplative way of proceeding with regard to our prayer, our planning, and our practices as apostolic religious. Certainly, if we do so, both as individuals and communities, it will make a difference, and assist the transformation of our Institutes. And here the faithful, loving life of even one member has enormous influence. For graced, joyful fidelity bears witness to the faithfulness of our Triune God. It is divine love flowing in us, and through all our apostolic efforts, that gives real credibility of communion.

  1. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, God and Man, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press,2002), 26-7.
  2. Pope Benedict XVI Deus Caritas Est, (Washington DC, USCCB, 2006) 2.
  3. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Elucidations, (London SPCK,1971) 113.
  4. “We are here to love—love God and to love our neighbor.” Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Christian State of Life, (Ignatius Press, San Francisco. 1983) 27.
  5. “The inner life of love is inconceivable without the rhythm of growth, of ever new openness and spontaneity. Love can never give itself sufficiently, can never exhaust its ingenuity in preparing new joys for the beloved, and is never so satisfied with itself and its deeds that it does not look for new proofs of love, is never so familiar with the person of the beloved that it does not crave the wonderment of new knowledge.” Ibid. 28.
  6. There is, of course, clearly the married state to be emphasized, and Balthasar does so in his work. My focus is on the state of the counsels—religious life and the priestly state—as this is the subject matter of this paper.
  7. C.f. Formula of the Institute of the Society of Jesus 1 in The Constitutions of the Society of Jesus and Their Complementary Norms. (St Louis, Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1996) 3.
  8. 1. Cor. 2:2.
  9. C.f. I Cor. 1:18.
  10. Bernard Lonergan, “Theology and Man’s Future”, A Second Collection, (London, Darton, Longman & Todd, 1974), 145.
  11. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Explorations in Theology II, (Ignatius Press, 1991), 511.
  12. C.f. Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church)#9; Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Modern World) #41. where it states that the Church defines itself as “an instrument for the redemption of all, sent forth into the whole world as the light of the world and the salt of the earth”. But, also, the Church defines itself as the “sacrament by which Christ’s mission is extended to include the whole of man, body and soul, and through that totality the whole of nature created by God.”
  13. Nicholas Healy and David Schindler, “For the life of the world: Hans Urs von Balthasar on the Church as Eucharist”, The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar, (Cambridge, University of Cambridge Press, 2006) 51-63.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Explorations in Theology II, (San Francisco Ignatius Press, 1991), 316.
  16. “The world can be thought of as the gift of the Father (who is both Begetter and Creator) to the Son, since the Father wishes to sum up all things in heaven and earth in the Son, as head (Ephesians 1: 10); thus the Son takes this gift – just as he takes the gift of Godhead – as an opportunity to thank and glorify the Father.” Theo-Drama II, 262.
Gill K. Goulding, CJ About Gill K. Goulding, CJ

Gill K. Goulding CJ, LHS, BA, MTh, STL; PhD, is a Sister of the Congregatio Jesu (IBVM/Loretto) and an associate professor of systematic theology and spirituality at the Jesuit Regis College, Toronto University, Canada. She completed her doctoral degree at the University of Edinburgh, where she was elected a research fellow on completion of her PhD. She lectured in systematic theology and spirituality for the University of Edinburgh, the Roman Catholic National Seminary in Scotland, and the Theological Institute of the Scottish Episcopal Church. Alongside her work as a theologian, she also works in spiritual direction and does retreats. She came from Scotland to Canada in 2001. She was an international visiting fellow at the Woodstock Center, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. in 2006, and held the Veale Chair at the Milltown Institute of Theology and Philosophy in Dublin, Ireland in 2009.


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