Maybe you have seen a woman walking down the street or most probably in Church dressed in a Religious habit, perhaps with a veil covering her head, and maybe with a Rosary at her side. All the above point to the person of a Religious Woman, a Sister—commonly we call her a Nun, and you might even call her Sister or Mother! Then it most likely has happened that you saw a man in a car, or a bus, or in the subway with a long black robe, with or without a white-plastic clip covering his neck, perhaps fingering Rosary beads. In this case you encountered a Male Religious. How might you address him? Two of the most appropriate titles would be: “Father or Brother.”
PRIEST RELIGIOUS. The priests in your Parish are usually of two different categories: Diocesan priests or Religious priests. It might be the case that you really do not know the fundamental commonality between the two, but also the marks of differentiation. For this reason, we would like to highlight what indeed are the basic elements which constitute RELIGIOUS LIFE. Some elements you probably know, but others may be eye-openers! So, let’s dive into the riches of what depicts Religious Life, what is the specific physiognomy of a Religious!
LIVING RELIGIOUS LIFE TO THE FULL!!!
1. VOCATION—THE CALL! The verb in Latin is vocar—meaning: to call! God calls many to follow Him in the Religious Life, but all are free to say Yes or to say No! Peter, James, and John were called from being fishermen to being fishers of men. (Lk. 5:1-11) They said Yes to the call and became Apostles, martyrs, and great saints—the pillars of the Church. On the other hand, Jesus called a Rich young man, a very good man at that, to follow Him, but this young man went away sad because he had many possessions that really had taken possession of him. He said No to the call and went away sad. Even today many are called but become selective listeners and purposely become deaf to the call. We invite you to read the life of Saint Antony of the Desert written by Saint Athanasius—an extraordinary call from God to a rich young man which resulted in the foundation of Eastern monasticism!
2. CALL TO PERFECTION: CALL TO BE A SAINT. Indeed, all of us are called to become saints because Jesus stated imperatively: “Be holy as your heavenly Father is holy.” ( 5:48) However, those who willingly accept the call to the Religious Life accept a radical call to holiness in a most demanding but most fulfilling way, as we will see as our essay unfolds.
3. LIVING OUT THE VOWS. In most Religious Orders or Congregations there are three vows: Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience. All those, both men and women, who have chosen to follow the Lord in the Religious Life are called to embrace, accept, and strive to live out the vows which are solemn promises made to God in the ecclesial context of the Church and the People of God. Vows are not enslavement but in fact a means to experience the true liberty of the sons and daughters of God! We will briefly address these three vows.
4. POVERTY. The Religious accepts and embraces poverty. This means the decision to own nothing except God. Indeed, the Person of God and the love of God is their true treasure. As Jesus said: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and everything else will be given to you besides.” (Mt. 6:33) A humble abode, a room and place to rest their head, a vehicle that is lent to them temporarily if they live in the USA, clothes on their back, and a frugal and simple staple at the table. In the words of Saint Paul to Timothy: “If we have food and clothes, we have enough… for the love of money is the root of all evil.” (I Tim. 6:8,10) By living out in a radical way the vow of Poverty, the Religious is kept free of the real danger and enslavement of the reigning philosophies of the day—that of Materialism, Consumerism, and Hedonism.
5. CHASTITY. In this vow the Religious makes a solemn promise to sacrifice the human and affective love of a spouse—husband or wife—so as to give their heart, mind, soul, body, strength, and energy to loving God fully, totally, and unreservedly all the days of their life. However, they do not deny their paternity/maternity but rather sublimate it to a transcendental level. That is to say they forego the biological engendering of children so as to bring forth children of God in the spiritual realm. For that reason, a priest is called Father; and a nun is called Mother.
6. OBEDIENCE. In this vow the Religious sacrifices their will so as to do the will of God, and strives to conform their will to the will of God in all times, places, and circumstances. This is done in imitation of Jesus who said: “My food is to do the will of my heavenly Father.” (Jn. 4:34) Our Lady, model of all Religious, gave her total will to God in these words: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord, may it be done to me according to your will.” (Lk. 1:38) Lived in full, the vow of obedience crushes the innate pride and self-will that permeates our being due to Original sin. As Dante wrote: In His will is our peace.” (Par. 3:85) It must be said: living out the vows produces true freedom, the freedom of the sons and daughters of God.
7. COMMUNITY LIFE. The early Apostolic life was characterized by living in common. It was like a magnet that attracted others and it was said, upon observing the primitive and first Christian community, “See how much they love one another.” (cf. Jn. 13:35) “All was held in common. They dedicated themselves to the Apostles’ instruction… to the breaking of Bread (Mass and Eucharist)… and to prayer.” (Acts 2:42-44) The purpose of Community Life is to live out the Gospel of love in the context of a Religious Family, striving to live out the last and greatest Commandment of Jesus: “Love one another as I have loved you.” (Jn. 13:34)
8. RELIGIOUS HABIT. Practically speaking, the wearing of a Religious habit distinguishes one Religious from another. Moreover, Church documents highlight the Religious habit as an Eschatological sign—that by seeing this outward sign, the world is drawn to reflect on the fact that there exists a life beyond the grave—eternal life and Heaven. It is a sign of one’s consecration and belonging totally to God here and hereafter. In the world, seeing a Religious in habit takes us beyond our material life and lifts us to the higher realms of our spiritual life. Our life has a purpose: to get to heaven!
9. PRAYER IN COMMON. Another indispensable element of the Religious Life is that of community prayer. Concelebrated Masses (Mass with joint celebrants); praying the Liturgy of the Hours—Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, Compline; praying the Rosary in community and other prayers are frequently the spiritual staple of the Religious Life. Jesus expressed it in these words: “Where two or more are gathered in my name; I am in their midst.” (Mt. 18:20)
10. PURSUIT OF HOLINESS: PERFECT CHARITY. The Document from Vatican II on Religious Life is titled Perfectae Caritatis—meaning Perfect Charity. All those who choose to enter and to live to the fullest extent possible the Religious Life are making a commitment to strive on a daily basis to grow in holiness by the pursuit of growth in charity, which is the greatest of all virtues and as Saint Paul says, “The bond of perfection.” (Col. 3:14)
These are just a few of the most salient elements that constitute the Religious state of life for both men and women. Striving to live out Religious Life to the fullest extent possible is an infinite source of blessing to the Church, to families, and to the world at large. Countless graces radiate from men and women who give themselves totally to the service and love of the Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed, “Many are called but few are chosen.” (Mt.22: 14) And, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are all too few. Beg the Lord of the harvest to send more laborers to work in the Vineyard of the Lord.” (Mt. 9:37-38)