What is officially called Religious Life in the Catholic Church is organised around a number of vows that are defined by the universal law of the church.
These vows are publicly taken by individuals after a required period of formation. A minimum of three vows are involved, but some groups have a fourth vow that some members or all members take (for example the Order of Saint Benedict and the Society of Jesus).
The three basic vows centre on poverty, chastity and obedience, even if different terms are sometime used in describing them. To take these formal vows in a way that is officially recognised by the Church, a person must be a member of a religious order, society or congregation that has been approved by the Church to accept candidates and to administer these vows. The taking of these vows offers a person a form of life recognised and supported by the Church. By these vows, a person is enrolled in what is called "Religious Life", a stable form of living within a defined style of religious community. Each of these three basic vows is discussed in more detail on the following pages of Augnet: poverty, chastity and obedience.
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This Augnet page and the following three pages are an adaptation and abridgment of the indicated sections of Plan of Augustinian Formation (Ratio Institutionis), which details the preparation of candidates for the Order of St Augustine.
This edition was first published in Rome during 1993. The document’s chapter on the basic elements of Augustinian formation appears elsewhere on Augnet.
31. Religious life is only one of the ways in which the Gospel of Jesus can be lived. Jesus' appeal to follow him was addressed to everybody who accepted his message, without distinction.
All who have expressed their will to follow him through baptism participate in his mission to build up the Reign of God. In other words, every believer has the task of making God reign in this world by doing his will, which consists essentially in bringing about justice, peace, and love among human beings.
This applies not only to life choices, such as marriage or religious life, but also to the different professions of baptized persons. A labourer, a lawyer, a physician, an employer, all have to practice their profession as Christians in the light of the Reign of God. This is no denial of the particular character of religious life.
Following Christ always implies personal fidelity. When it is a question of a life choice that is a response to a particular call from God, such fidelity is all the more required. Religious life is a radical form of living the Gospel.
32. The identity of religious life and what distinguishes it from other ways of Christian life consist mainly in two aspects:
a) In order to follow Christ, religious make a certain evangelical value, that is, the original inspiration of the founder, the center of their community life. They wish to realize the charism of the founder in and for their own time and environment. Each religious family has received the mandate to model a particular form of Christian life and community within the Church. One of the reasons for which we become Augustinians is that we find Augustine's spirituality significant for today's world, and we want to live it together with others.
b) From the very beginning of religious life the members of religious groups have wished to realize their original inspiration through an evangelical commitment.
The Rule of Augustine can be characterized as an expression of the Christian challenge to bring all people into full community.
The Rule sounds a protest against inequality in a society which is marked by egotism and individualism, by possessiveness, pride and power, by a distorted conception of freedom and sexuality.
To be sure, all Christians are called to live the eschatological or ascetical aspect of Jesus' message: because God is the final goal of the human being, they should not cling to material goods, to their complete autonomy, or to an unrestrained sexuality. They may not consider these things as the final goal of their lives.
Religious, however, make this eschatological aspect a concrete part of their lifestyle by the three vows. They withdraw from some duties connected with marriage, with a compensated job, and with living together as persons bound by blood relationships.
33. As a matter of course, Augustine's emphasis on love and community life reflect on his interpretation of the vows. To become familiar with this interpretation is an important task in formation.
Though religious life constitutes a particular call in the Church, as such it does not guarantee that religious will lead a better Christian life than other Christians, or be more perfect, for perfection is an inner reality, not an exterior one. Everything depends on the degree of our love, including love of peace and justice.
As Augustine writes with regard to virginity: “Is there not something that a virgin consecrated to God should frankly consider, so that she does not dare to think herself better than another Christian woman, be she widow or married? ... Consider that there may be some people better than you because of their hidden gifts, even though in appearance you yourselves are better. When in your goodness you credit the fine qualities of others, which are by chance unknown to you, your own good qualities, which are known to you, are not diminished by this comparison, but strengthened in love” (On holy virginity 44,45; 52,53).
We have to examine honestly how we put our ideal into practice, or how we can renew it courageously. A fresh concern for the interior aspect of our vocation is our most urgent task.