Having established the purpose of the Society and the persons that make up the Society, Fr. Founder proceeds by setting up the structure for welcoming people into the Society.
Fr. General is ultimately responsible for admitting all applicants, but he may delegate the Provincial who, in turn, may delegate other persons appointed by him.
Those who are admitted begin their period of postulancy or First Probation which consists of:
Examinations (the gathering of all necessary information, the assessment of the postulant’s desire for perfection; his physical, intellectual, moral standing; his resolve for perfection; his resolve for perfection in this Society)
Instructions (three in all: on perfection in general, on perfection in the Institute; on the way of life in the novitiate)
Exercises (adoration, meditation, prayer, examination of conscience, confession, disclosure of conscience, the Eucharist)
Admission into the Society
Fr. General is ultimately responsible for the admission of applicants, but he may delegate Provincials and Superiors in the various houses of formation. All members of the society, however, should feel the responsibility of welcoming applicants, directing them to those who have been appointed for the specific task: “Any member may receive the postulant as a guest until he receives a reply from the person to whom the matter was referred” (C19, E2). This openness by each member to possible vocations is implied also in Fr. Founder’s comment that “it is right for us to co-operate eagerly with the promptings of the divine call, taking care to increase the number of the perfect, and of those labouring in the vineyard of Christ, our Lord” (C21, E).
For reflection and discussion:
“Should all members of the Institute do more to promote vocations?”
There is a useful debate going on between some who argue that it was Fr. Founder’s express indication that the Institute should not seek vocations in an active manner but rely entirely on divine Providence and others who claim, instead, that members should feel the responsibility of seeking vocations actively. The contrast is really only apparent, both sides stressing two essential features of every vocation: the personal call of the Father in the depth of one’s heart, and the necessary background knowledge of the existence of the Institute, of its purpose and charisma, of its role within the Church.
Vita Consecrata stresses the same points: “Besides promoting prayer for vocations, it is essential to act, by means of explicit presentation and appropriate catechesis, with a view to encouraging in those called to the consecrated life that free, willing and generous response which carries into effect the grace of vocation”; and again, “A primary responsibility of all consecrated men and women is therefore to propose with courage, by word and example, the ideal of the following of Christ, and then to support the response to the Spirit’s action in the heart of those who are called” (VC64).
See also Ratio Formationis 46-48; Directory 8-11
Fr. Founder recommends great generosity in the admission of applicants:
“Our ignorance about those whom the heavenly Father may send to be perfected in the Society must make us very cautious about rejecting persons who seek to enter it. In this matter we should imitate JESUS, the divine Master and Lord, who says, “All that the Father gives me will come to me; and him who comes to me I will not cast out” (C134).
This generosity has been highlighted in the booklet, “Seeds in search of soil” (see n.19). Prominence is given to letters written by Rosmini on this topic, in particular the letter to Fr. Pagani of 17 November 1842:
“As for accepting applicants: I receive all those who ask for this and who show me that there is some hope that they will succeed… The reasons for which I so easily admit people are these: 1- I am very much afraid of making rash judgments concerning my brethren, and so I am inclined to think well of them… I deliberately expose myself to the possibility of being deceived, incurring expense, and meeting with problems…; 2- This practice seems to me a way of imitating the kindness of our Lord JESUS Christ, who said, “I will not send away anyone who comes to me”. These are the words which our Constitutions put before us, and they are quoted in this connection by the most outstanding rules of the holy founders of religious institutes...; 3- The Institute is equally anxious and attentive not to neglect any slightest opportunity for good that God’s generosity affords it… If a brother of mine asks me for something, and I have no positive reason for refusing him, I must not only welcome him, but patiently and lovingly exert myself on his behalf, and continue to do so, until I am convinced that he cannot successfully become a member of the Institute… I should like these maxims to be followed by every Superior who has the faculty of receiving aspirants. They come from the Constitutions. It is simply a matter of applying them” (J. Morris, Ascetical Letters Vol. 4, letter 81).
The same letter is an eye opener about Fr. Founder’s views on applicants who do not seem to have outstanding intellectual or other gifts. He writes, “The true end of the Institute (which we must never lose sight of) is holiness. We must take little account of everything else; and we ought to have a special tenderness for those of our brethren who are poor, disabled physically, or even mentally. I can assure you that I have just as great an affection for the simplest and most uncultured of our brethren, provided that he is good and holy, as for the most learned, or one of noble family, possessed of brilliant gifts in the sight of the world. And I prefer the former, when I call to mind the love which JESUS Christ had for the poor and the despised… So I think we should receive all men of good will into the Institute…” (ibidem)
The initial interviews must be dominated by a spirit of great charity, providing the applicant with every opportunity to give an account of his desire to enter the perfect life, and of his gifts and talents, together with his weaknesses and shortcomings. It should be an exercise in spiritual discernment both for the interviewer and the applicant.
It is clear, however, that we must not hesitate “to send away those whom we know, through positive indications, do not come to us from the heavenly Father”. Fr. Founder mentions two such “positive” indications: the lack of total freedom on the part of the applicant, and a serious lack of maturity and of right intention which are manifested by “inconsistency of mind, lack of judgment, obstinacy, disordered or seriously intractable passion, lack of true will for perfection” (C135). All recent Church documents on Formation stress the need for “a sufficient degree of human and Christian maturity” in applicants, and whereas in most cases the assessment can be made swiftly and clearly, in other cases it may require time and a good knowledge of the human heart. Fr. Founder’s indications of what may not constitute “a sufficient degree of human and Christian maturity” are most helpful and psychologically sound.
Vita Consecrata on Initial Formation
The document recognises the “decisive importance” of initial formation, stating that the primary objective of the formation process is to prepare people for the total consecration of themselves to God in the following of Christ, at the service of the Church’s mission.
It stresses the importance of personal responsibility for one’s vocation: “The objective of formation is to say “yes” to the Lord’s call by taking personal responsibility for maturing in one’s vocation, this being the inescapable duty of all who have been called” (VC65).
It stresses also the character of wholeness: “Formation should involve the whole person, in every aspect of the personality, in behaviour and intentions. It must provide a human, cultural, spiritual and pastoral preparation, and it should address the psychological, spiritual, theological, and pastoral dimensions” of the divine call (VC65).
Thus, two are the important elements of initial formation: Personal ownership and responsibility for one’s vocation, and a formation which has the character of wholeness.
The Constitutions do not specify the exact length of the period of postulancy, leaving it open to the personal requirements of the postulant and the successful progress in the series of examinations, instructions, and exercises.
This First Probation is required for all applicants to the Institute, those who wish to embrace fully the religious life, those who wish to become adopted sons, and those who ask to become ascribed members. Obviously, the first probation will vary according to the different states to which postulants can be directed. We shall deal firstly with the probation of those who ask to profess unlimited perfection in the Institute, being free of all impediments.
The First Probation is an intense period marked by three interdependent types of activities: examinations, instructions, and spiritual exercises.
Fr. Founder highlights 7 examinations, the first 5 proper of applicants to the religious life in the Institute, the 1st and the 6th proper to those who apply to become Adopted Sons, and the 1st and the 7th proper of prospective Ascribed Members.
The seven examinations are:
There are three fundamental instructions which must be presented clearly and comprehensively by Formators and which must constitute the basis for deep reflection, meditation, and prayer on the part of the applicant. The instructions communicate the essence of Christian perfection, the nature of the Institute of Charity, and are a solid preparation for the Novitiate. These instructions constitute the backbone of the period of Postulancy, as they lay the foundations for life in the Institute of Charity.
First Instruction: On perfection in general
All Christians are called to perfection, but what is perfection? “Perfection consists in exquisite love of God and of our neighbour”. Those who wish to join the religious life in general, intend to consecrate themselves entirely to loving God and neighbour, without the distractions and cares typical of the ordinary life of Christians, who are also called to perfection. To love God one must do what is most pleasing to Him. What pleases God is justice, or innocence of life, therefore, the postulant “must desire to purify himself more and more from every stain and become more pleasing to God”. This spiritual work of purification requires the rooting out, the rejecting of every other love from his heart so that all his longings may genuinely tend to his one Creator and Lord. In particular, he must reject sinful longings, and also longings which, although not sinful, are an impediment to his total consecration to God.
The effort to become more pleasing to God every day brings with it perfect “indifference” to all the means by which God may wish to bring about the postulant’s salvation. This indifference extends to everything in this world, so that he may not love one thing more than another until he knows God’s will concerning it.
This principle of indifference is rooted in the firm conviction that “all things and all human events are means equally effective in God’s hands for human sanctification, and that we do not know what will be good or bad for us. God has reserved this knowledge for Himself alone until in His mercy He makes it clear to His faithful servants who are ready to listen to His voice” (C48).
In particular, one should be indifferent to those things to which people are very strongly attracted by natural inclination: to contempt or to esteem, to discomfort or to riches, to sickness or to health, to a short or a long life, to works of charity that one likes or to those that one does not like. In all these things, what matters is not the natural inclination of the individual but solely the Will of God. So “anyone who seeks perfection must examine himself and ask whether he is prepared, even in the exercise of charity, to lay aside his own will and show himself indifferent to all things, in accordance with the will of God.”
Second Instruction: On perfection in the Institute of Charity
Anyone who has been called to pursue perfection in the religious life must start from the clear understanding of what perfection is. We have seen that indifference is already comprised in the general meaning of perfection, it is an essential quality for “anyone who seeks perfection”.
But now we want to know why a postulant who has resolved to love nothing in this world except the will of God and to hold himself totally indifferent, should resolve to pursue perfection in the Institute of Charity. Fr. Founder answers: “After reflection, the postulant may conclude that there can be no safer way of learning the divine will than that of obedience. Moreover, he may wish to use the judgment and discretion of the Superiors of this Society to discern the divine will, and consequently make himself over entirely to their direction, submitting himself to obedience in all matters. If so, he can be said to have made up his mind to enter this Society” (C.66).
What is so special about obedience in this Society? It has two distinctive characteristics: it is universal: “Obedience in the Society is as boundless as the charity of God”; and it is reasonable: “Whoever practises obedience in our Society does not abandon himself to human caprice, but to the conscience of a well-informed religious… A Superior in this Society is a spiritual father and as such is bound to bear in mind in all things the greater spiritual progress of the members… Precautions have been laid down to ensure the choice of superiors worthy of ruling, and they are warned and almost impelled to follow the single rule of divine prudence in governing, and to command their brothers, for whose souls they will have to account, with perfect circumspection and fear and love” (C.68-73).
Obedience with its two distinctive marks of universality and reasonableness is, therefore, the specific means of pursuing perfection in the Institute of Charity. Since obedience is “as boundless as the charity of God”, then even indifference in our Society becomes universal and more clearly defined: one must be willing to go to any place and live there as obedience requires, one must be prepared to serve God and neighbours in any grade, high or low, that the discretion of superiors may destine him, and one must be ready to serve God and his neighbour in any post that obedience will indicate as the will of God. There are three kinds of indifference, therefore, to every place, grade, and post.
Anyone who wishes to pursue perfection in the religious life in general must embrace “holy indifference” and in spirit at least be open to all charitable works. In practice, however, the obedience and the scope of the charitable works he will pursue are already limited by the specific mission and charisma of the Order he will attach himself to. The Institute of Charity, however, is truly open to all charitable works, hence obedience and indifference in the Institute will have to be necessarily universal. The distinctive mark, therefore, of the Institute of Charity is universal obedience “as boundless as the charity of God”, hence also universal indifference as the necessary pre-condition.
The postulant is not expected to possess already the perfection described but to long for it, praying God to grant it to him as he wishes to enter the “school of JESUS Crucified”, the novitiate, in which the discipleship of Christ is taught and learnt.
To enter the novitiate with the right dispositions, the postulant must resolve to rely completely on the judgment of superiors in all things, practising indifference especially with regards to the priesthood, to studying, or to continuing his studies.
It is true that, humanly speaking, to become a priest or to study is more prestigious and offers apparently more opportunities for good, but not if such positions should go against the will of God for the individual. It may be more pleasing in the sight of God if a person serves Him in the lay state or without academic learning. Hence, the postulant must acquire “perfect indifference” about such matters in the knowledge that “every defect in relation to holy indifference is directly opposed to his calling” in this Institute of universal obedience (C82-85).
“Holy indifference is to be employed most rigorously with regard to the priesthood” (C82).
“He should be equally ready to undertake or to abandon his studies if superiors shall judge more helpful to his salvation, and more in conformity with the will of God” (C83).
It is this “perfect indifference” (C.85) or “holy indifference” (C.85E) that will allow the religious to render God and the Church “the greatest possible service”, since only God knows what is best for the person and for the Church.
If the postulant is willing to embrace the obedience and indifference typical of the Institute of Charity, then he is to be reminded of two important consequences. The first is that the novice should be like an open book before his superiors, with no secrets, and with readiness at all times to make a full disclosure of conscience. The superior, “his loving father”, will be greatly assisted by this openness in order to guide him with a spirit of intelligence in the work of charity best suited to him and to the needs of the Church.
The second consequence will be that obedience and indifference will guide in all things the poverty he will embrace. In his heart, the novice will have an absolute detachment from all goods, loving poverty as a mother, in practice he will let himself be guided in all things by obedience: “In this Society the human being and anything he may possess is subject to obedience” (C.89).
For reflection and discussion
Universal and reasonable obedience is the distinguishing mark of the Institute. But how can obedience be universal and reasonable without the full knowledge of aspirations, abilities, attitudes, spiritual gifts, and weaknesses of the brethren as envisaged by Fr. Founder?
What ways have Formators found in their practical experiences to reconcile the requirements of the new Code of Canon Law (630) with the “full disclosure of conscience” to Superiors stressed repeatedly by Fr. Founder in the Constitutions as the means of achieving “reasonableness” in obedience?
The postulant must be given every opportunity to discern whether he has a vocation to enter the Institute of Charity. It is important, therefore, that he should know in outline the main features of the novitiate he is about to enter. The novitiate is a school of perfection “where the candidate strives under holy discipline and by God’s mercy to obtain the perfection he desires” (C98). Training in obedience and indifference will have the predominant place.
In the first place, it is important for the postulant to know that relationships with the world, with friends and relatives will be kept to a minimum, and always under the discretion of the Superiors. The novitiate is like a “going into the desert” to meet God in the most personal manner, hence the postulant must show willingness to leave all things and persons in secular life behind, and be at rest in obedience to Superiors. He will have to set aside “every earthly longing for his relatives and change it into a spiritual longing; he should love them with that love only which ordered charity requires of one who, dead to the world and self-love, lives for Christ our Lord alone, whom he holds in place of parents, kindred and all things” (C100).
Fr. Founder maintained all his life very strong ties with all the members of his family and with his many relatives and friends, as the many visits and letters to them testify. In the gradation of “ordered charity”, family, relatives, and friends have clearly a high position for him. However, we also know of the firmness with his parents when they tried to put obstacles to his decision to follow God’s call to the priesthood, and of the stern words he wrote to his dearly beloved mother. (On relations with the outside world and the family during the novitiate, see notes 12-13 in Rules of the Institute of Charity, pp.158-159).
In the second place, the postulant should be told of the way of life within the Institute which is directed in all things by obedience. He must seek what is must humble, and he must expect that “food, clothes and sleeping accommodation are those of poor people” (C103). He must obey cheerfully and with humility anyone who is in charge of him in any way, from the cook, to the nurse, to the Superior.
Moreover, the postulant should be well acquainted with the two guiding principles of the vocation to the Institute of Charity, the Principle of Passivity and the Principle of Indifference. We shall see later the centrality of both principles in the life of Fr. Founder and in the Constitutions, but this is the way he presents them in the present Instruction for the benefit of postulants who are being prepared to enter into the Society C108):
1- Principle of Passivity
The foundation of all perfection is a profound awareness of one’s own nothingness before the Almighty God. “The power of human beings, who “cannot make one hair black or white”, is nothing in the sight of God, and all things are in the hand of the Lord”.
A novice, therefore, should forget himself and love a life truly hidden with Christ in order to please his heavenly Father alone, who sees in secret. He must remain constantly at peace in his own state as if he were going to die there, and keep free from all anxiety. He should not seek or desire for any change of state for any reason, this would be totally opposed to the spirit of the Society. He must be firmly convinced that if he abandons himself entirely to the Providence of God his Father, the Father Himself will look after him and lead him to that lowly or noble state and grade in which he can better benefit his own soul and the Church of Christ.
2- Principle of Indifference
Even though Christ merited all things, He did not assume any honour or grade or duty for Himself, but accepted all things from His Father, and was able to say, “I came not of my own accord, but He sent me”. Indifference predisposes the spirit for every possible form of action, but the religious is not moved to action by his choices, desires or personal preferences but by the will of God alone. If he has no part in any change, he can be reasonably sure that his present and future state come from the Lord his God, and “have not been usurped by himself”. The person who remains tranquil in his present state, and tries hard to carry out its obligations, truly has God with him.
The two principles contain the essential characteristic of Fr. Founder’s spirituality and the essential spirit of the Institute of Charity, therefore they must be presented at once to postulants with the view of developing them further during the novitiate.
There are many letters of Fr. Founder that deal with both principles, explaining them from various perspectives according to practical situations. It would be a worthwhile exercise to make a collection of such letters for teaching purposes and for meditation.
The six tests
Finally, the postulant should be told about the six tests that novices will have to undergo at some stage during their novitiate to assess the degree of their indifference.
Fr. Founder sees these tests as exercises in holy indifference: “The reasoning behind these tests is as follows. We have enumerated three kinds of indifference, to every place, grade, and post; each of the tests is an exercise in each type of indifference” (see C117E2 for a fuller explanation).
The instruction is brought to conclusion by a final reminder that progress in perfection will be possible only on condition that the novice will have the “mind of Christ”, will “put on Christ”: “All his efforts must be devoted to accepting and desiring whatever Christ our Lord loved and cherished. They would desire to suffer contumely, calumny and injury and be thought fools (without themselves giving cause for it), if it could be done without offence to the divine Majesty, or sin in their neighbour. Such desire springs from their longing to emulate and imitate in some way their Creator and Lord JESUS Christ by putting on His garb and emblems…” (C119).
Examination of prospective Adopted Sons
The principle that justifies the admission into the Institute of both Adopted Sons and Ascribed Members is presented by Fr. Founder as follows:
“The spirit and purpose of the Society, which rejoices in taking its name from the CHARITY of our Lord JESUS Christ, is such that it wishes to pour out and share as widely as possible with others whatever good it may obtain by the Lord’s grace” (C126).
The sixth examination is proper of those who desire religious perfection but are bound by one or more of the impediments mentioned above. These persons truly wish to belong and subject themselves to the Superiors of the Institute and to profess the three vows if they could. The Institute, therefore, desires to share with such persons the spiritual goods bestowed upon it by God, by adopting them as sons and cherishing them with all charity.
The examination is meant to ascertain whether these persons truly desire religious perfection, and feel themselves ready to undertake the religious state in the Institute if the impediments holding them in secular life were to cease. If they reply affirmatively, then they will undergo some of the examinations and the instructions that we have already considered for the postulants (C124).
If circumstances permit and the purity of intention is beyond doubt, then these persons should be asked to bind themselves more closely to the Institute by taking one or other of the vows after the second probation, so that they may profess, at least in part, the ideal of religious life which they desire.
Fr. Founder considers as possible candidates for adoption members of other religious Institutes if they should desire to be linked to our Institute by mutual duties of love of Christ and by the merits each possesses. This adoption of religious of other Institutes would be a powerful witness of the unity of all religious in the one Church: “How joyful it is in the Lord to keep before the mind and maintain in reality the exquisite unity presented by the monastic state in the early history of the Church!” (C126).
Examination of prospective Ascribed Members
Ascribed Members are Christians well known for their good works in their daily lives who ask to be accepted into a more intimate communion of spirit with the members of the Institute, sharing with them the merits of all good works, prayers, and every other spiritual good. Our own religious and all adopted sons are considered ascribed by right (C129E), and diocesan priests would be very welcome, since they would extend the exercise of works of charity.
Examination of prospective ascribed members consists of the usual background information, but, moreover, of the persons’ desire for Christian virtue and exercise of charity towards God and neighbour according to good order in the widest manner for the honour of God and the good of the Church.
If some Ascribed should desire to co-operate in particular works of charity they may form a pious or religious society with specific rules drawn up by themselves and approved by Fr. General. This will be called a “Sodality of Ascribed Members” and its associates will be subject to its examinations, tests and probations as their own rules prescribe (C133).
Vita Consecrata expresses the same desire for a stronger communion among different Institutes, and communion and cooperation with the laity.
“Those who are united by a common commitment to the following of Christ and are inspired by the same Spirit cannot fail to manifest visibly, as branches of the one Vine, the fullness of the Gospel of love. Mindful of the spiritual friendship which often united founders and foundresses during their lives, consecrated persons, while remaining faithful to the character of their own Institute, are called to practice a fraternity which is exemplary…” (VC52). A significant contribution to this communion is made today by the Conferences of Major Superiors and by the Conferences of Secular institutes.
“Today, many Institutes have come to the conclusion that their charism can be shared with the laity. The laity are therefore invited to share more intensely in the spirituality and mission of these Institutes” (VC54). Contacts with the laity take the form of a relationship that is primarily spiritual, but often such contacts also translate into forms of pastoral cooperation.
Exercises in the First Probation
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”, proclaims Psalm 111; Fr. Founder considers the “power and fear and majesty of the Lord” the foundation of all exercises to be undertaken during the period of postulancy, which are intended to purify the candidate from all faults and sins in general “so that they may cast off the old man and put on the new” (C144).
Adoration of the divine Majesty is thus the first and most important exercise for the postulant, and the exercise should go hand in hand with instructions about God, our Creator and source of all that there is. Everything in the Institute flows from the profound understanding that God is God; we must recognise our own nothingness and open ourselves to God’s infinite love: “Create a clean heart within me, O God: put a new and constant spirit within me” (Ps.51,10), and again, “Independently of Me you have no power to do anything” (Jn. 15,5).
The means of obtaining this state of blessed humility before “such great and adorable Lord” who brings us peace are two: constant prayer (mental and vocal), and daily examination of conscience. The postulant, therefore, must practice constantly both means, becoming more and more familiar with them.
But it is God who will do the work in the postulant: the purification of his heart and the love of God in his heart will be brought about solely by God through the Sacraments, especially Confession, and the Eucharist.
Five are therefore the most important exercises of postulants: Adoration, prayer (mental and vocal), examination of conscience, Confession, and the Eucharist. To these, Fr. Founder adds disclosure of conscience with all humility and sincerity to the religious Superior.
Biblical Research on the Principles of Passivity and Indifference
The themes of “Election”, “Divine Calling”, “Fear of the Lord”, “Covenant” would be suitable for deepening what Fr. Founder presents in this second section of the Constitutions. Formators may wish to develop these themes for their own preparation.
However, we shall base our biblical study on a useful booklet written a few years ago by Fr. T. Deidun entitled, “Rosminian Spirituality and Biblical Theology”. Fr. Deidun’s work is an attempt to discover the biblical foundation of the two principles which constitute the essential spirit of the Institute of Charity. What follows is a brief and necessarily limited and free summary; it is hoped that Formators will be able to procure for themselves a copy of the booklet which, I am sure, they will find very rewarding.
Fr. Deidun’s starting point is the rich theological significance of the Covenant in Scripture, in particular of the New Covenant; his claim is that Fr. Founder’s two principles are embedded in the long tradition of the Covenant, the essential reality of both Old and New Testament: “What is essential in Rosmini’s spirituality – his distinctive charism – is a brilliant reflection of the essential novelty of the New Testament”.
The first Covenant between God and Abraham envisaged God’s continuing protection and blessing on Abraham and on the many nations that would issue from him in return for Abraham’s and his descendants’ obedience and faithfulness to God’s commands. Circumcision of the flesh was the external sign of the covenant.
The Covenant was renewed in a solemn manner at Mt. Sinai, this time between the God who had saved them from slavery in Egypt and the descendants of Abraham, the people of God led by Moses. God reassured them again of His mighty help and protection, the kind of help they had experienced over and over again in Egypt and in the desert; they would be His people and He would be their God. In return, the people of Israel had to obey God’s commandments which had been cut on tablets of stone.
The history of the people of God from that time was a progressive awareness of the incapacity, of the impotence of the people to keep their side of the covenant, with dramatic consequences which included the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile.
This is the background to three great prophecies of a future Covenant: the time will come when God Himself will intervene directly in the hearts of the children of His people and “make” them obey His commands. The three prophesies are the following:
The three prophecies about a New Covenant founded on the gift of the Spirit were brought to fulfilment through the Incarnation, Passion, Death, and Resurrection of the Son of God. The Holy Spirit, which the Risen Christ sent down from His Father upon the whole Church on the day of Pentecost, brings to fruition the immense benefits that Christ has gained for us. To be sure, natural man is still impotent and incapable of loving, and if “he remains in the flesh he is incapable of pleasing God” (Rom.8,8); we must recognise our own impotence and God’s sovereignty, and let ourselves be led by the Spirit of God.
This is the good news of the New Covenant: of ourselves we are incapable of any good, but with the Spirit of God in us we have been raised to the status of children of God; by ourselves we are impotent to keep the law, but with the Spirit in us we are made able to obey and to love. “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ JESUS – St. Paul exclaims with jubilation in Rom.8,1- for the law of the spirit of life in Christ JESUS has set you free from the law of sin and death”; to the Corinthians he writes, “Of myself I am incapable, my capacity comes from God” (2Cor.3,5); and to the Philippians, “I am no longer trying for perfection by my own efforts, but I want only the perfection that comes through faith in Christ, and is from God” (Phil. 3,9); and again, “My strength extends to everything in the One who gives me power” (Phil.4,13). Commenting on this last verse, Fr. Deidun writes, “This paradoxical combination of the consciousness of one’s radical incapacity on the one hand, and on the other of one’s infinite capacity in the power of God – of strength coming to perfection in weakness – is, of course, common to all authentic Christian spirituality; but it is characteristic of Paul, and, as we shall see, of Rosmini, that they possessed it with a peculiar intensity” (Deidun p.6).
The inner dynamism of the New Covenant is manifested most clearly in John 15. The passage presents the image of the vine and branches, and JESUS tells us that if we want to bear fruit, we must remain in Him (or in His love) and He (or His words) in us; for He is the source of all our activity. Jn.15, 5, Rosmini’s favourite verse quoted very often by him, expresses most clearly the idea of the New Covenant and of Fr. Founder’s source of his two principles of conduct: “Whoever remains in Me, with Me in him, bears fruit in plenty; for without Me you have no power whatsoever to do anything”.
All purely human efforts, all human initiatives are simply powerless in achieving salvation for ourselves or for others. This is the conviction that should constitute the launching pad for utter trust and reliance in JESUS alone, this is the origin of the principle of passivity that makes us acknowledge our nothingness and at the same time the primacy of God in our life: “Of yourselves you can do nothing, but with Me you will bear fruit in plenty”. Notice the paradox: of yourselves nothing, with Me all things! Our passivity in Christ issues in unbelievable dynamism and power: “He will perform the same works as I do myself, he will perform even greater works”, says JESUS of the disciple.
Fr. Founder formulated this rich theological realities brought about by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit into the two principles which constitute not only his own personal spirituality but the essential spirit of the Institute of Charity as well. Drawn from the depths of the New Covenant theology the principles take us back to the gospels of JESUS Christ. The two principles are most clearly stated in a document entitled “Rule of Conduct”, written by Fr. Founder on the occasion of his entry into the Novitiate in November 1830, in which he gives an account of the basic principles of his spirituality and of the way in which the Institute grew out of them.
“I, Antonio Rosmini-Serbati, unworthy priest, had resolved to follow a rule of conduct consisting in the following two principles: 1- To attend seriously to the task of correcting my enormous vices and of purifying my soul of the iniquity that had weighed upon it from my birth, without going in search of other occupations or undertakings for the benefit of my neighbour, finding myself quite impotent to do anything of myself to his advantage; 2- Never to turn down works of charity towards my neighbour, when divine Providence should offer and present them to me, for God has the power to use anyone and even myself for his works: in such cases I would maintain a perfect indifference in regard to all works of charity, doing the one proposed to me with the same enthusiasm as I would any other, at least as far as my free will was concerned…” (Rule of Conduct).
Having stated the two principles, Fr. Founder gives an account of how his fidelity to these two principles led him to found the Institute:
“It happened that the Marchesa Maddalena di Canossa, foundress of the Daughters of Charity in Italy, several times urged me to form a Religious Society, whose aim would be the exercise of charity towards neighbour. Up until 10 December 1825 I had always refused. But on that day I began to realise that if I was to be consistent with the second of my principles, then I ought not to decline the undertaking that was being urged on me, if God should offer me the means; but neither should I seek out those means, for by so doing I should be going against the first of my two beloved principles. Secondly, I realised that if God should send men who came asking me to form such a Society with them, I should only be able to give them the counsel that I myself followed – that is, to adopt as norm the two fundamental principles that I regarded as reliable for the regulation of the Christian’s conduct. I concluded, therefore, that if God wanted me to found a Society, then those two principles should form its whole Rule”. (Rule of Conduct)
Fr. Valle considers the day 10th December 1825 as a “day of enlightenment” which confirmed Rosmini as a religious founder, under the special inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Rosmini himself marked the day with entries both in his Diary of Charity and in his Personal Diary:
“I have written to the Marchesa Maddalena di Canossa and sketched the first draft of the Society of Charity which has as its foundation the principle of passivity in all undertakings” (Diary of Charity, entry of 10th December 1825)
“10th December 1825. On this day I conceived in a flash the plan of the Institute of Charity” (Personal Diary). The only person in whom he confided immediately was Maddalena di Canossa. In a letter which conveys the intimate joy of his communion with God and His Providence, he writes, “The Sons of Charity have been constantly in my mind and even more in my heart. I have thought about the matter for a long time, and warmly recommended it to God. I wait further light from the Lord to recognise His holy Will” (EC, I, p.170).
The providential sign came in 1827 when Rosmini was at Milan: “1827, 8th June – Count Giacomo Mellerio introduced me to Giovambattista Loewenbruck who proposed the formation of a society directed toward the improvement of the Clergy. I explained to him my idea of the Society of Charity”. Rosmini explained that he could not change nor modify in any way the two principles which he considered the foundation of the Society; and Fr. Loewenbruck accepted them (Personal Diary).
“Rosmini never did modify those principles. In all his correspondence (from 10th December 1825 on), in the plans of the Institute sent to individuals and in the more extended “Descriptions” of the Institute, the same two principles are presented as the basis of everything. The Maxims of Christian Perfection, of which Rosmini says that “they are the basis of the Constitutions”, that “they contain the spirit of the Institute” and that “they contain the Institute of Charity in embryo”, are only a meditated application of these two principles. It is certain that these principles express the charism of Antonio Rosmini and the essential nature of the Institute of Charity. We could never abandon them or their implications without replacing the Institute of Charity with some other society” (Deidun, p.10).
We shall have a greater opportunity to clarify even more each of the two principles as we progress in the study of the Constitutions, especially when we shall deal with Providence (the foundation of the entire Society) and with Humility and the Elective state of the Society.
For now we conclude the study of this section by quoting from a letter of Fr. Founder to Don Pietro Rigler in December 1832 in which both “passivity” and “indifference” are explained in a rather colourful manner: “We must always remember that our state of contemplation must never be a state of inactivity, but a state of preparation, a state in which we build up enthusiasm, generosity and grace to be ready and fervent in the work to which the Lord may call us. We must remain in hiding like the lion in his den; we must live at home in contemplation like bows stretched taut, like spumante ready to spurt forth, like a pressurised force that will expand and explode with all the more impact when the moment arrives. It is necessary for all of us to have a good understanding of this elective state of ours. But since man is limited, it is better to tell the young religious one thing at the time and first get them to appreciate the inestimable value of a hidden and retired life committed to meditation and prayer: and then, perhaps at the first occasion when the charity that constrains us calls us to active service, is the time to explain the other part of the teaching…” (J. Morris, Ascetical Letters Vol. 2, p.66)