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The Church makes use of religious associations as a further means of promoting the salvation of souls.
In the present day, when the enemies of the Church are so numerically strong, it behooves her loyal children to form, as it were, into ranks, and with united forces to withstand the foe. Only in this wise can victory be ensured. “Few men,” says Mirabeau, “acting conjointly, can make a hundred thousand isolated individuals tremble.” This language may appear somewhat exaggerated, but there is much truth in it. Union is strength. We cannot raise a weight with a single thread; but a twisted cord is not easily broken.
1. Religious associations are voluntary societies formed among the faithful, with the object of furthering their own salvation or the salvation of their fellow-men.
Religious associations have much the same aim as secular associations; the object of the latter is to promote their own earthly advantage or the public weal; that of the former to promote in the first place their own spiritual interests or those of their fellow-men, and for the most part, as a secondary consideration, the temporal welfare of their neighbor.
2. Religious associations may be divided into confraternities or sodalities, and charitable societies.
Confraternities are, as a rule, exclusively for purposes of devotion; charitable societies are for the relief of the spiritual and temporal needs of others.
Thus the members of confraternities make their own spiritual advancement their primary aim, while charitable societies seek the good of their neighbor. Religious societies have nothing to do with politics; but friendly intercourse and innocent amusements are encouraged as a means of promoting the main object of the association, and preventing the members from taking part in undesirable dissipation.
3. Religious associations are in all spiritual matters subject to episcopal authority; in some countries the legislature exercises a certain control over them.
In all that concerns religion, the Church has exclusive right over confraternities and sodalities. Only the bishop, or the general of an Order has power to erect them; and their rules must be submitted to him for approval, unless they have been already approved by the Holy See. To the bishop it belongs to direct the devotional exercises of the confraternity, to prohibit anything peculiar or extraordinary. It is for him to prescribe the manner in which funds are to be raised, and how they are to be expended when collected. He can attend their meetings or send some one to represent him; he can also appoint the parish priest to be director of the confraternity. It is also necessary to obtain ecclesiastical sanction for the forming of charitable societies.
4. The formation of religious associations has always been highly commended by the Holy See, and large indulgences have been granted to them, because they are of great benefit both to the individual members and to the community in general.
Our Holy Father, Leo XIII., in his encyclicals of 1884 and 1891, expressed high approval of religious associations, especially of the Society of St. Vincent of Paul, and the guilds of artisans and workingmen. Pope Pius IX. says they are an army set in battle array, to combat the adversaries of the faith, not with the clash of arms, but with the silent weapons of prayer. Confraternities may be compared to Noe’s ark, because persons living in the world seek in them a refuge from the rising tide of crime and corruption. The members of these confraternities, as a rule, lead a more devout and well-ordered life than the rest of the world. They are not as apt to neglect prayer, because their rule prescribes certain prayers to be recited daily; they approach the sacraments more frequently, because days are marked for them on which a plenary indulgence may be gained; they learn obedience because they submit to the decisions of their director. They spend more time in religious exercises than in running after excitement and worldly amusements, and the observance of the regulations cultivates in them a salutary habit of self-restraint. They tend to keep up a high standard of faith and morals in the parish to which they belong, and by their good example lead others to frequent the sacraments. They assist in the diffusion of good and useful books; they all contribute their mite for ecclesiastical purposes; for the most part, they discharge the obligations of their calling with conscientious regularity, and the parish priest often finds them a great help in the duties of this office. And if some members give scandal, the rules of the confraternity are not to blame, but the neglect of them; and it must be remembered that cockle always grows among the wheat. Charitable societies are also most useful. Through combined action with those who are likeminded with themselves, the members are encouraged to profess their faith openly and carry into practice the maxims of the Gospel, and be ready to take part in all good works. It is remarked that in parishes where there are no con fraternities or sodalities, religion is generally at a low ebb.
5. There is this advantage in such associations, that the rules enjoining the performance of certain good works are not bind ing under pain of sin.
St. Francis of Sales was a member of several confraternities; he gave as a reason for this that one might gain much from them, and lose nothing. However, if the rules are not observed, the indulgences and graces are lost; this is often the case if one joins too many confraternities. Let no one think it is a mark of predestination to be inscribed in the books of a number of societies, for by a holy life alone can we hope for heaven.
6. Third Orders are, however, in every way more important than ordinary religious associations.
The Third Order is not to be classed with confraternities, as it is affiliated to one of the great monastic Orders. “The religious state,” says St. Alphonsus, “is preferable to all the dignities and riches of the world.”
This article, RELIGIOUS ASSOCIATIONS is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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