Etiquette in a Religious Life
May God the Holy Spirit unite us ever more with the Son to the Father!
As a Christmas gift, I decided to put together some of the recommendations of Fr. Justin on how we should behave with God, with our neighbor and even with ourselves. The word etiquette may sound offensive for some of you, but it is used purposely to indicate that we are dealing here with norms and manners of behaving, which are fundamental in our external and internal relationships.
Each of our community can ascend closer to what is an ideal community, a community that we all long for, if everyone of us puts an effort to practice these ascetical principles taught to us by Fr. Justin in order to help us examine our conscience. Everyone of these norms deserves to be studied, appreciated and be put into practice so that our life may really be a continuous witnessing of love. As it is always true that the interior is always more important than what is exterior, it remains also true that external things are channels through which the interior becomes visible and transforms into a testimony. What is internal does not exclude what is external, and vice versa; rather, they support and complete one another. The interior animates the exterior and in turn the exterior reveals what is in interior.
The majority of these norms can be found in the questionnaires for the examinations of conscience in the Devotional. I suggest that after a first reading you take each norm individually and use it for your meditation and examination of conscience.
Let us ask the Lord to grant us, as a special Christmas gift, the sound and enlightened optimism that Fr. Justin wants us to practice; once enriched by this positive attitude, we may become sowers of joy and irradiators of peace everywhere (R 298).
As religious, as consecrated persons, if we don’t start from God as point of departure, we will never arrive to any destination whatsoever. Our life in its entirety must be a personal and living relationship of love with God, with ourselves and with our neighbors. From the way we relate ourselves to God depends the way we relate to ourselves and to our neighbors. We see in everybody and in everything an irradiation of God-
“Put always before every other stimulus and motivation, the intention to ever more please God” (R 252, 1). This is indeed the essence of our oath of love to the Holy Trinity; it entails living the vow of charity at the third level: to do always, in everything and everywhere, what, according to our knowledge and understanding, will render greater glory to God.
The love of God is the main reason and the unifying element of all our actions: Reduce everything, be it internal and/or external, to an act of total love of God, the most direct and intense, the most prolonged and varied possible (R 250, 4). Sacramentalize everything with pious symbolism, with the sign of the Cross and invocation of the holy names (R 252, 1). In all and always, try to see and do things in a supernatural way; in all and always, try to see and do things from the point of view of God our Lord (R 255, 6). Let us try to save these pious symbolisms, such as: the greeting, the reverence (bowing of one’s head), the sign of the cross and the genuflection always doing them with due precision in their entirety. How many signs of the cross resemble the gesture of one who is driving away flies from the nose! How many genuflections seem to be a caricature of something rather than an act of worship!
Let us make a habit to make ours the high esteem, which the Lord has for everyone of us, the immense value which the Lord bestows to each one of us (Cfr. R 262, 4). The love which in itself is invisible, becomes visible in its multiple and concrete expressions, be it the love for God or for one’s neighbor. True love cannot remain hidden:… Every public worship shall be done with great liturgical solemnity (R 257, 3). Liturgical solemnity is transformed as a testimony of faith and of love, and then, it becomes a teaching lesson for the entire people of God.
Love solitude in order to seek and expect from it a “one on one” encounter with the Lord who speaks to the heart (R 252, 4). Solitude permits us to encounter our very self, mirroring ourselves in God.
Keep your resolutions, promises, vows and commitments… (R 255, 4). Failing to keep your word or your promise means being unstable, not worthy of faith, not reliable. Failing to keep a promise means lessening the level of your esteem (or esteemability) and responsibility. At times, we easily make vows and promises with superficiality causing bitterness and disillusions in those who have placed their trust in us.
Let us feel the necessity and the need of spiritual direction (R 255, 7). Among the ascetic practices of the Vocationists, spiritual direction occupies a very important place. Very often, we blind ourselves and persist in our presumption of superiority and faultlessness. As it is necessary medically to undergo certain amount of controls, like the yearly check-
Let us always dominate ourselves in a way that we may be able to control what is excessive, to calm down every disturbance and excitement, and to sweeten every bitterness. Let us avoid every excessive emotion, be it joyful or painful, be it in our work or in recreation. Seek to understand that which is primary in one’s duty in order to do it with perfection. Do not burden oneself with too many tasks and apostolic activities if they may be detrimental to previous commitments. Accustom oneself to reduce the multiplicity of external acts to the unity of the internal state of adhesion to the Lord. Have a prudent flexibility in all those things that are not contrary to one’s duty. Preserve and spread good humor with sentiments full of warm cordiality (R 314). Very often, we justify our weaknesses and shortcomings blaming the devil, the circumstances, or others, instead of humbly admitting that we are not capable to control ourselves. The majority of our defects (as in the case of the many missed opportunities) are due to our inability to control ourselves, to proper restrain our winged children, youths and lords. In our relationships, quality is much more important than quantity.
Cultivate esteem and love for every person consecrated to the Lord with priestly ordination (R 256, 1). Have zeal for religious life making sure that everyone knows and appreciates it, and every elect may desire and embrace it (256, 2). In every banquet of the divine love, be it the banquet of the Word of God or of the Host or of any other grace, put yourself in spirit at the last seat (R 260, 1).
Deepen and nourish the sense of one’s nothingness, guiltiness, and unworthiness…(R 260, 4). Be sensitive to the needs of the confreres more than to yours, and seek to provide (R267, 4). Certainly, I don’t promote nor encourage, nor animate vocations if I lack respect, if I criticize and backbite priests or religious persons. Our negative sentiments transmit waves and influences of pessimism on those who listen to us and are near to us; in the same manner, our sentiments of esteem and love transmit influences and waves of positiveness and love. That is why it is said (and it is true) that the best vocation promoters are those religious who are happy, content of their vocation. Negative generates negative, positive generate positive!
Everyone must avoid the exaggeration of hygienic , the illusions of sentimentalism and the preoccupations of those who are always worried about their health (R 270, 3). Have a great esteem of orderliness even externally, and preserve it at every cost. Have a great care of personal external decorum in order to honor the presence of the Divinity, most especially in time of prayer and in every place of prayer (R 261, 5). Try to see the enemy in every agitation, filthiness and disorder even if it is only external and reject it ( R 288, 7). Cleanliness and order in the person and in our facilities are the minimum indispensable factors to a life of civility. Dirtiness and disorders are always the indications of the presence of the enemy, and above all, of low self-
Have a holy detestation of hastiness and precipitation; do everything with a serene ardor. Avoid, even externally, anything that may disturb the surrounding persons like running around, making noise, raising up one’s voice…. When you are unable to give something, or when you have to say no to someone, express your sorrow with amiable compassion so that your neighbor may feel some consolation in it (R 315). I remember reading a poster in an office that said: Handle it well, handle it once! It is the same case of translating into practice the old saying: Haste makes waste. In every discussion, preserve calmness and moderate your voice. Very often, he who shouts is the one who is wrong. Follow the schedule; having a time designated for various activities increases your productivity and efficiency, in addition to rendering yourself more acceptable and pleasing to others.
There was a time when saying clerics, priests or religious was more or less as saying well learned, sage or wise! The Church, in general, and religious life, in particular, has always been considered as guardian and promoter of culture. A priest or a religious who is not well educated in the truths and teachings of the Church is an embarrassment to himself, to the Congregation and to the priesthood. If one lacks a sound academic and theological formation, then he needs to make it up through continuous updating, personal study, and have at least the decency not to put himself forward, and to ask some information before opening his mouth in order to spare some harm to himself and to others. Fr. Justin insists that we should possess: Have a profound knowledge of the letter, spirit and observance of all ecclesiastical and religious norms (R 275).
In one way or another, everyone of us has some superiors to whom he must give an account of himself and of his deeds; and at the same time, everyone of us is a superior or is responsible for others. The Word of God invites us always to obey every authority even if the superior might be mischievous! Respect towards authority consists also in visiting him and in making oneself be known by him. In the Congregation, the large majority of the confreres likes and loves to be visited by the major superiors; often, one can hear comments complaining that the superiors do not pay them enough visits or do not make themselves be seen often (and this is good!). But how many have ever thought of paying a visit to the superiors, of going to them? I do not want to mention at all the easiness with which we judge, put down and condemn the superior and his decisions! How do we behave with those who depend on us, as in the case of the faithful in a parish or the students in a school? Are we going to permit them to behave as we behave with our superiors? Let us listen to what Fr. Justin taught us: Have a deep internal and external respect of every constituted ecclesiastical and civil authority. Effective and affective charity for the person of the superiors, while they render this service of authority. Desire to be always under the vigilance and control of the major and minor superiors. Have a good will to make yourself known by the superiors in order to facilitate his tasks…Pay interior attention and religious correspondence to the holy inspirations approved by the spiritual director (R 275). Make sure to render a good internal and external execution of every command of the legitimate superior, even if there is no precept of obedience. Persevere at any cost in your vocation, never giving motives to expulsion…(R 276).
What a nonsense, what an insult to common sense, to have a religious who resigns, leaves or abandons his mission! Experience has taught me, or rather, has made me touch with my hands that he who resigns afterwards regrets it and ends up feeling miserable. As men of God, committed to serve, we must be tough persons in this world, capable to overcome every difficulty. During my term of office, I have never hesitated to accept a resignation of those who wanted to resign, and I never repented of having accepted it afterwards. Every thought of resignation, of giving up or of betrayal comes from the evil one. Many saints have taught us that as religious we must die “standing straight up, on the breach of battle”. Our leading principle must not be the egoistic or restrictive: “I like it” or “I don’t like it”; rather, it should be based on what God wants from me, on what my neighbors need from me, on what obedience requires me to do!
Docility to the schedules, to the common activities and to the regulations of the offices, of the ministries…Not participating to the regular community schedule is a sign of lack of respect for others, offending their dignity. No one should come late, but if it ever happens, it is right and just not to justify oneself, but humbly ask pardon. Their time is as precious as mine, (or even more precious than mine!).
Make sure that every act and status of ours acquires the merit and blessing of obedience (R 276). Do not do anything only to please yourself, at your own will and pleasure. Add to all our acts merit of a blessing and of obedience. Above all, do not take any commitment or engagement, whatever it may be, without having cleared it first with the superior of the community. He who does and undoes things, he who goes in and out as he pleases, demonstrates a great lack of respect for others, for himself and for his work. Such a person will never be considered important in the eyes of others. Some of our houses look more like a prestigious hotel, not for their cleanliness, order and elegance, but for the continuous coming in and going out with an absolute anonymity, with cold indifference towards others. Is this really what we want?
Concentrate on the present with all your energy without being distracted by the past and by the future (R 287, 7). Age quod agis: do well what you are doing. You cannot escape from the present hiding yourself in the past or dreaming the future. Be aware of the person or persons in front of you. Be present always at your place, on your job (R 289, 1). Care with steadfastness the external regularity, the religiosity of the environment and perfection of religious observance (R 289, 5).
Never talk about yourself with others, neither positively nor negatively, except, when it is necessary, with the spiritual director or with the doctor (R 302, 6). This is indeed an ascetical norm, but it is also a good norm of polite behavior. How tiresome it is to listen to someone who does nothing else but boasting about himself! May the Lord free us from such persons!
Love and do spontaneously ordinary and humble services of the house, do them in secret and without self ostentation (R 303, 2). There is a strong clerical temptation: that of desiring to be or to act like “First Ladies”– if I will not be the center of attention, I will not participate. How sad is the attitude of some confreres who are convinced that if one is not a superior or a parish priest, then he is nothing! Despite all the inevitable difficulties connected with being a “superior”, still there exists the quest for the post of responsibility and command, not really in order to rendering a service to the community, but rather in order to affirm oneself, feel important, nurture one’s vainglory, or simply in order to considering himself as “superior”. Prefer always to work in the name of others, and for the glory and the service of others, even in one’s proper field of work (R 339, 7).
Have always prompt to ask cordially pardon to anyone for every external offence or for any difficulty caused to others (R 303, 6). Often happens that we may offend, or hurt someone, or may be offended by someone else without malice. What does it cost to ask pardon or to say “I’m sorry”? Only by apologizing can we avoid chains of arguments, or bitterness and be able to reach out to others and to dialogue with them. There is nothing easier or more frequent than committing errors; likewise, there should be nothing more frequent and easy than saying : I’m sorry, forgive me.
Be on guard against every form of human jealousy, while being devoured by divine jealousy for the salvation of all souls (R 319, 5). Fight every inconstancy, laxity and instability of character. Reflect cautiously, think seriously, consider al possible alternatives before making any commitment to anyone or to anything (R 310, 1&2). Keep far from your thoughts, and even more from every conversations, every form of verbal process for personal matters. In every conversation and dispute, try to affirm your opinion and uphold the truth without superfluous passion and rigidity. Always ask permission for every external thing, even if it is not desired, nor required. Never complain about anybody or anything, without venting, not even with the closest friends (R 347, 1-
Be open to all good initiatives and make them yours, assimilating them in the spirit and works of the Congregation. For the effectiveness of the apostolate, try to integrate also a sound and approved modernity, careful not to fall into “old-
Towards one’s neighbors
Give to anyone, even externally, every possible manifestation of esteem and honor, in words and in actions. Wholeheartedly say of every person all the positive things that you know of him. Try to surround with tenderness every new comer, every tempted person and all guests…Try to sacrifice your personal comfort and interest for the sake of others (R 298). Egoism is egocentric; love, however, is always oriented towards others. Try to anticipate others in rendering to them every form of esteem and respect. Try to greet others before they can greet you.
Try to see and provide for the needs of others more than for your own personal needs. Whenever there is an opportunity to do some good deeds, to meet the needs of others, let us try to sacrifice our comfort and interest. Hospitality is sacred. To receive in the house a confrere, a benefactor or a poor should really be a feast and should be the source of innumerable little works of charity, prudence and gentleness, starting with making sure that the restrooms are clean and ready to use, that nothing is lacking for the guest, and that warm affection and real Christian love may always be abundant.
Cultivate and intensify … the spirit of gratitude, of thanksgiving and of sacrifice (R 257, 4). November is the month of thanksgiving. One of those few words taught to us by our parents at childhood was the word: Thank you. Giving thanks does not cost much; but it will surely please the one who gave us something, while encouraging him to give more.
Consider your vocation, your mission and the congregation, with all their laws, duties and programs, as something alive and not dead. Consequently, try to apply yourself to developing all their energy, putting in action all their demands and seeking to do perfectly all that must be done (R 350, 3&4). Vocations, missions and the Congregation are alive and palpitating like our physical organs; and so they must not be locked and stored somewhere; they must grow and be developed first of all in me and then, through me, in others. What do I do in order to give more life and impulse to my charism, to my vocation, and to my religious family? You cannot maltreat, trample down and impoverish again and again your religious family, which sometime may appear to you as being poor and weakling but it is really a great, precious and beautiful gift, given to us by God himself. How is it possible for us to use and abuse, humiliate and even despise so easily this religious family and still be able to remain in it? The assembly of the General superiors, this November 2005, deals with fidelity to one’s vocation, and invites the superiors to study it and to find possible solutions to the problem of those who leave the congregation but should remain in it, and of those who remain in the congregation but should rather leave it.
Follow all the norms of good manners and of politeness especially in the community and in the society. As social and rational beings, we don’t live in isolation. We are well aware of the fact that what one does influences others or impacts on them. How easy it is to create a chain of bitterness, rancor, resentment and hate. The greatness of a person consists in breaking up this chain of negativism and stopping its flow. The good signs of respect and esteem, the sweetness and the good manners do not only destroy the negative chain but also transform them into something which is positive, extremely positive!
After almost three years of study, meetings, prayers and conferences, the last synod of the Archdiocese of Newark identified its first and most important need: that of hospitality. The people of God want a church that is hospitable, a welcoming community. I am really grateful and, at the same time, I appreciate many of our confreres and communities who really make visible the joy and the warmness of hospitality. Being hospitable is the first norm of being polite and the first vocational service that we can offer to those who are near to us.
Never try to encroach on the activities and responsibilities of others when they are dealing with pleasant or gratifying things. There should not be any curiosity on what others are saying or doing, unless obliged to do so on account of a well defined obligation. Lovingly offer your services especially in things or dealings that are unpleasant…Voluntarily embrace works of mercy for the sick and for the poor (R 299).
Give to others the opportunity to affirm themselves in what they are doing, and in what they know that should be done. While it is important to be open to others, it is equally important to respect also their privacy. I don’t believe that there is a need to remind you that extending a hand to someone, helping especially in things that are less pleasant, does not mean usurping, but being useful, being of great help, of alleviating others.
Renounce and abnegate every particular friendship and sensible tenderness with creatures, in order to consecrate them all to God (R 250, 7). Avoid every sensibility sought for itself, and every particular familiarity with any person, even of the same sex (R 270, 2). Sentimental and particular friendships may seem to be something good, but are not real good; they are not fruits of love, and they do not lead to true love. Real love is always oriented towards others: this type of love concentrates on oneself; it restrains instead from expanding.
Eliminate every luxurious object from our communities, both in private as well as in community living. With regards to oneself, be contented to use products of lower class. Work as though you were to support everything with your work. Do not escape but rather embrace the possible difficulties of those who are still adapting to the situation. Reduce to the very minimum the personal use of those things that are considered necessary. For the personal use of necessary things prefer what is less comfortable and less expensive. Ask habitually permission even to use necessary things (R 262). With dignity and simplicity, we must live coherently what we profess. In the way we dress ourselves and in the environment in which we live, we may easily be drawn from one extreme to another. The way we dress ourselves, or we decorate our environment send messages of inclusiveness or exclusiveness; it can attract or draw away others and may even cause serious problems in the community creating divisions, rebellions, attracting spot lights on something and overshadowing others.
The Lord does not call to us to consecrated life just in order to serve ourselves, creating our own comfort. The Lord has called us in order to work in his vineyard, to spend our life for others; and this cannot be done without facing difficulties, obstacles, and hardships.
Do not sell or buy, do not receive or donate anything in your own name and of your own will. Do not procure nor conserve anything for yourself, neither in your possession nor entrusting it to others. Be always aware of the cost of things in order to use them parsimoniously; be diligent in conserving material goods. Return to the community what exceeds your present needs without conserving it for future personal needs. Don’t conserve food in private, nor anything without the superior’s knowledge. Keep diligent account of whatever passes through your hands. Try to follow perfectly community life without special treatments in thing such as food, or dress, books, medicines, etc. beyond what is strictly ordinary (R 266). With the passing of time I continue to notice that, unfortunately, still exist the so-
I really hope that the insanity or stupidity of these religious, who, while transferring from one community to another, impoverish the community where they have served, may soon come to an end! It is really wrong, unethical and irreligious to move furniture or sacred furnishings from one house to another excusing oneself saying “I bought all these things”, or “these were all given to me”. How many of these megalomaniac have found the house already furnished decently, but in order to pursue their capricious desires, have put away all that had been there, in order to put all those that fit their taste, and then leaving the former house empty. We must be honest in this; if a person gives a gift, such as a computer, a car, paintings, etc., to the superior general, to the local superior or to the parish priest, it is not given just because we are handsome, but it is given in view of the responsibility which we render in the community. The Divine Master keeps reminding us that the one who is not faithful in small matters, will not be faithful in bigger ones (cfr. Lk 16:10).
I have found it very useful, for me and for the people, this new kind of spirituality preached and propagated in America called the Stewardship spirituality; this consists in understanding and living, as stewards of all those things (time, talents and treasure) that pass through our hands. Nothing belongs to us. All belongs to God. He himself has entrusted to me certain talents, treasures, time, my very self… and of all these, I must give an account. For us religious, this should not be something new, and yet, many times, we forget it.
Our very confreres should never be admitted into our personal room; those who are not our confreres should not be admitted into our house, except in the reception room and any other area designated for lay people (R 270, 3). Time and customs change but human nature remains the same! The preventive method teaches us that it is better to prevent than to correct or punish afterwards. Prudence and respect can never be considered as excessive.
Give always something useful for the soul to those who are near to us, saving religious poverty. In addition to strictly follow all the norms of justice, we must be generous with the poor and in paying fair wages to the workers. Try to feel and transfuse maternal concern not only for those that belong to us but also for all members of the Holy Church. Feel within yourself and transmit to others a motherly care not only toward our own confreres but toward all the members of the holy Church. Feel with yourself and transmit to others through your actions St. Paul’s teaching:“I have become all things to all men, in order to conquer all to Christ Jesus”…(R 300). How beautiful it is to give generously! It seems as though we know and like to receive only! We must receive whatever is given to us only in order to give it to others and not in order to keep it. We must be centers of distribution and not of collection. Money must only pass through our hands but it must not stay there.
W we must sacrifice our personal likes, criteria and mentality those of others, whenever we deal with things that are not mandatory (R 301, 3). Positively, try to console as best as we could, every suffering of our confreres, as soon as it becomes known to us. On the other side, we want be able to rejoice with others glorifying the Lord for every goodness. Positively, try to concur as best as possible to every good work done within the holy Church (R 307, 4-
In the spirit of love with which everyone should overflow, try to feel that it is better to give, and to give always rather than to receive. Have always a kindly opinion, a kindly word and a kindly action for everyone. We should be creative in finding new ways to ever give some temporal or eternal goods to those who approach us (R 322, 1-
Try to give a very cordial smile and a very spiritual greeting to those who are near us. Whenever we are confronted with any known moral or physical necessity, we must try to provide to the best of our ability. Be accustomed to be of great service to those near us, in our work and in the community (R 323, 1-
Many times in the past, I have been tempted to write a letter by the title: It is not easy. In various ways and in different places, I always repeat with a clear and firm tone that in the logic of the Gospel, the sequela Christi has never been seen nor presented as an easy pathway to follow. In our life, nothing comes easy. Everything must be done and/or conquered with commitment, with sacrifice and with perseverance. Our spiritual greeting is: Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Undoubtedly, it is not easy to have this greeting penetrate the mind, the heart, the culture and the practical life of many. If we make a serious effort to do it, probably, we will have results that are not flattering, but if we give up simply because it is not easy, we will never have any results at all. We should not expect that the people will begin to greet us or greet each other saying Jesus, Mary and Joseph, only because we have explained it one time to them from the pulpit; it needs to be repeated, and we should repeat it again, repeat it always!
This list could be continued! The Lord called us to be salt of the earth and light of the world. Our good works and good ways must shine out before men, so that, seeing our good works and good ways, they may be able to praise the Lord. With his presence in us, the Lord elevates us, dignifies us and sanctifies us. Let us try not to hinder the work of God in us, or to put it under a bushel basket covering it with our bark of rusticity, impoliteness, arrogance, negligence and egoism. As consecrated people, we must be the prototypes of humanity, the channel and the bridge which unite humanity with the divinity, and not as unpleasing obstacle which hinders and discourages the encounter with the fountain of all life. Let us always distinguish ourselves everywhere for our upright behavior and good manners. Let us imitate our venerable Founder also in his good manners, politeness and profound veneration for others.
As the Father reveals the depth of his love giving us his Son, so too must we try to reveal the love of the Father by joyfully offering all our life for others, sacrificing for them and showing them the Word-
Merry Christmas and happy Epiphany of Our Lord. May the year 2006 be for us, for our religious family and for the entire world, a year of peace and love; may we see and find ourselves more committed in our ascensional journey on the road to sanctity, and dedicated to rediscover and to actualize our charism. In union of prayer, I greet, embrace and bless you all.
yours in Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
Fr. Louis M. Caputo, S.D.V