This is a translation of the speech of Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York delivered Nov. 10 at the opening of debate in the Second Vatican Council on the schema dealing with religious life in the Church.
In general the schema meets with my approval. With certain modifications and definite clarification on some fundamental points, it can be accepted by the council and used as a basis of sincere renewal of religious life in the Church.
This schema is important, Venerable Fathers, since, in the words of Pope Paul VI, “the Church receives a great part of her power in the world from the flourishing condition of the religious life. … The work of religious institutes is wholly necessary for the Church in these days” (L’Osservatore Romano, 24 May 1964). Therefore this schema deals with matters of no less vital interest for the welfare of the Mystical Body of Christ than those we have been discussing in the council up to the present.
A renewal of the religious life both as regards its internal constitution and its external apostolate as well as an adaptation to modem condition is necessary in many instances. This work of aggiornamento has been going on for many years and will gather momentum from the encouragement which we give it in this council. But this aggiornamento presupposes that the true nature of the religious life and its essential function in the Church is both appreciated and safeguarded. There is question of adaptation only of external forms and accidentals. There is no question of changing the nature of the religious life. We must beware “lest our youth, becoming confused while thinking of their choice of a state of life, should be hindered in any way from having a clear and distinct vision of the special function and immutable importance of the religious state within the Church” (Paul VI).
The religious life is a life of entire dedication to God and the things of God; it is a life of prayer and union with God; it is a life of sacrifice and self-abnegation; it is a public testimony that the Kingdom of God is not of this world (John 18:36), a testimony of which the Church has special need today. It is a serious error then to think of the religious life as though it were nothing more than a kind of lay apostolate, differing from the ordinary lay apostolate only by the fact that Religious take vows. This would be to confuse two testimonies — the testimony of the baptized Christian who lives and acts in the world and the deeper testimony of the Religious, who even when acting in the world, must be seen to transcend it. “The profession of the evangelical vows is a super-addition to that consecration which is proper to Baptism. It is indeed a special consecration which perfects the former one, inasmuch as by it the follower of Christ totally commits and dedicates himself to God, thereby making his entire life a service to God alone” (Pope Paul VI).
Now, certain things have been said and written regarding the religious life and its adaptation to modern conditions which seem to involve this confusion; they seem to overlook and almost deny the special witness which is given to Christ by the religious life. Suggestions have been made for modernizing religious life which tend to deprive it of its specific nature, which tend, in fact, to destroy it. Religious life must be modernized — though the need for this can be exaggerated — and Religious orders must adapt their special apostolate to cope with modern needs, but nothing must be suggested and nothing must be done in the name of modernization or of apostolic efficiency which would prevent Religious from bearing their essential witness to Christ by their vows, by their life of union with God, by their life of detachment from the world and the things of the world, by their wholehearted spirit of abnegation and self-renunciation which unites them to Christ in His Redemption.
Certain things which have been said and written, Venerable Fathers, have not been merely inadequate in theory, but, I say it with all possible conviction, they have been seriously harmful in practice. In not a few cases they have disturbed the mind and spirit of Religious men and women, indeed of whole Religious communities, causing them to doubt whether their life of dedication, of poverty, of chastity and obedience, of prayer and penance in its present form, is of value for the Church. Not a few have been so disturbed that they have desired to leave Religious life.
In my diocese there are over 5,000 Religious women alone. These excellent Religious have borne and bear their own special testimony to Christ and that testimony has been fruitful among the Catholics of my diocese and has excited the admiration and reverence of non-Catholics as well. Without the testimony of these Religious men and women, my diocese would be much poorer spiritually; no amount of lay Catholic activity, however excellent in itself, could compensate this loss. Yet even in my diocese not a few Religious have been disturbed by confused writings and speeches on the modernization of religious life in the Church.
I must therefore ask that the council in its statement on religious life emphasize its special nature and insist on the special testimony that it gives to Christ in the Church. This council should hold up before the world the essential values of genuine religious obedience, religious poverty, and consecration to God by chastity; it should make clear the necessity of the lives of sacrifice, of prayer, of self-abnegation and penance which genuine Religious lead. The work of modernization and adaptation should proceed under proper guidance but nothing must be done under the plea of aggiornamento which empties the religious life of its purpose and significance. We must hold up the religious life for what it is and not condone, or seem to condone, any ideas which confuse it or would reduce it to the level of other forms of Christian life in the Church, however excellent.
This plea I make in the deepest sincerity since I owe it as a public tribute to the Religious men and women of my diocese and as an acknowledgment of their profound religious spirit.