All of us are called to be “religious,” that is, “to bind” (Latin: religare) ourselves to God. We are all called to keep the Two Great Commandments, the Ten Commandments, and the Six Precepts of the Church, and to assent to the Church’s teachings. But some of us are called to bind ourselves to God in a special way, to go beyond the “minimum requirements” and to seek the higher path — the path of perfection.
In Matthew 19:16-30, Jesus is asked how to be saved. He answers. And then He also reveals what we must do to be perfect — two different things:
And behold one came and said to him: Good master, what good shall I do that I may have life everlasting? Who said to him: Why asketh thou Me concerning good? One is good, God. But if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. He said to him: Which? And Jesus said: Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness. Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
The young man saith to him: All these I have kept from my youth, what is yet wanting to me? Jesus saith to him: If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come follow Me. And when the young man had heard this word, he went away sad: for he had great possessions.
Then Jesus said to His disciples: Amen, I say to you, that a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you: It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven. And when they had heard this, the disciples wondered very much, saying: Who then can be saved? And Jesus beholding, said to them: With men this is impossible: but with God all things are possible. Then Peter answering, said to Him: Behold we have left all things, and have followed Thee: what therefore shall we have?
And Jesus said to them: Amen, I say to you, that you, who have followed Me, in the regeneration, when the Son of man shall sit on the seat of His majesty, you also shall sit on twelve seats judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And every one that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands for My Name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall possess life everlasting. And many that are first, shall be last: and the last shall be first.
Since the earliest times of the Church, men and women sought to live this ideal, and women led the way, following the advice of St. Paul, who wrote in I Corinthians 7:34, 39-40:
And the unmarried woman and the virgin thinketh on the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she that is married thinketh on the things of the world, how she may please her husband…. …A woman is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband die, she is at liberty: let her marry to whom she will; only in the Lord. But more blessed shall she be, if she so remain, according to my counsel; and I think that I also have the spirit of God.
Poverty, chastity, and obedience — the “evangelical counsels” described by the combined words of Our Lord and St. Paul — shaped the path of perfection walked by these early religious, and which is still walked today by those who have “the call.”
In the beginning, these virgins and widows lived with their families while pledging sexual continence and working for the Church, sometimes as deaconesses (an office that did not involve Holy Orders, but by which women functioned to help other women in the Church, such as at Baptisms). They were a special class in the Church, women who were living in a “religious state,” and they had their own sign: because in ancient Rome a veil (a red or red-striped one) was worn by married women, and because Christ is the Bridegroom, these consecrated virgins and widows also took the veil and were called “brides of Christ.” St. Athanasius (ca. 295-373) wrote of this in his Apologia ad Constantium, and described how these holy women acted as signs to the heathen:
The Son of God, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, having become man for our sakes, and having destroyed death, and delivered our race from the bondage of corruption, in addition to all His other benefits bestowed this also upon us, that we should possess upon earth, in the state of virginity, a picture of the holiness of Angels. Accordingly such as have attained this virtue, the Catholic Church has been accustomed to call the brides of Christ. And the heathen who see them express their admiration of them as the temples of the Word. For indeed this holy and heavenly profession is nowhere established, but only among us Christians, and it is a very strong argument that with us is to be found the genuine and true religion.
At first, young women would take the veil themselves, or would be given it by their parents, but soon the giving of the veil to virgins who pledged continence was done during solemn consecrations by Bishops when the women were 25 (widows received the veil from priests). And soon the women lived together in communities.
Third century persecutions drove many of these women, and other Catholics, into the desert — but some didn’t just use the wilderness as a refuge, but embraced it in the spirit of mortification and after the example of St. John the Baptist. As the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it so well, they “sought to triumph over the two unavoidable enemies of human salvation, the flesh and the devil, by depriving them of the assistance of their ally, the world.”
The greatest among these ascetics was St. Anthony Abbot (A.D. 251-356),1 who is known as the Father of Monasticism. St. Anthony was the son of rich Egpytian parents whose inheritance he gave up at age twenty, compelled by Our Lord’s words to the young man in the verses from Matthew’s Gospel above. He assumed poverty and spent fifteen years studying the lives of other ascetics and practicing the virtues. He came to live in a tomb in the Egyptian desert where he was tormented — mentally, and brutally, physically — by demons that would take the shapes of people and wild beasts.
At age thirty-five, he retreated further into the desert, living absolutely alone in an abandoned fort for twenty years, seeing no one, talking to no one. Disciples flocked to the fort, however, begging him to come out and act as their spiritual advisor, and in A.D. 305, that is what he did. He spent about five years teaching and organizing them, and then retreated again for the remaining forty-five years of his life, though now receiving visitors and occasionally leaving his seclusion in order to help Christians who were being persecuted by Maximinus or the Arians, and to seek out St. Paul the Hermit.
While St. Anthony was teaching the ways of the hermit, or “anchorite,” his contemporary, St. Pachomius (ca. A.D. 290-346), was organizing men into communities, nurturing the seeds of “cenobitic monasticism” planted by the women virgins — that is, community-based monasticism, as opposed to the “eremetical monasticism” practiced by the anchorites. In around the year 400, St. Augustine would also write a rule2 for religious communities, a rule that would become very influential some 600 years later.
The Pachomian and Augustinian ways of life were adopted by both male and female communities, but were rather loosely organized, however, and it took St. Basil the Great (A.D. 329-379) to develop a more formal “rule” — a system of organizing the lives of the monastics around prayer, work, and meals in common.
St. Basil’s rule called for the monks who practiced more extreme forms of austerity to be answerable to a superior, and it eliminated any spirit of competition that might tempt those ascetics who saw themselves as “spiritual athletes.” St. Basil’s rule was the standard for monasteries, both East and West, until St. Benedict of Nursia added his touches to the monastic way of life, giving rise to the great Age of Monasticism and, later, the active religious congregations.
The Rise of the Benedictines
St. Benedict wrote his Rule (read the text here) in around A.D. 530, in Monte Cassino, Italy (about 80 miles south of Rome) — now considered the cradle of the Benedictine Order — where St. Benedict had fled from Subiaco, Italy because of persecutions by fellow Catholics jealous of his popularity. The Rule is marked by its practicality, sensibleness, and avoidance of the extreme mortifications of the Desert Fathers. Food, while not luxurious, was plentiful enough, and no monk would deprive himself of enough sleep and relatively decent sleeping conditions. Community life is organized as a family in which the Abbot is father and obedience expected; unlike the ways of other monks, these monastics were expected to remain in the house in which they made their profession, a rule which gave to the Benedictines a great stability.
But what made the Rule so popular was its adaptability. While it focused intensely on work along with prayer (their motto is “Ora et Labora”), the sort of work done was shaped by local needs and conditions. Here it might be teaching, there it might be farming, and in another place it could be illuminating manuscripts or designing and building cathedrals. St. Augustine of Canterbury took the Rule to England in A.D. 597, and Charlemagne’s son, Louis the Pious — Holy Roman Emperor from 814 to 840 — disallowed all other Rules in his kingdom but that of St. Benedict. It was monks and nuns that lived under this Rule who, along with Celtic monastics, evangelized the Germans, Poles, Bohemians, and the people of the Nordic countries. Eventually, the Celtic monasteries adopted the Rule of St. Benedict as their own, too.
Now, all of these monasteries were independent Benedictine congregations that followed the same Rule, with the Abbot of each house being equal to and independent of the Abbots of other houses. But in A.D. 910, in the Abbey of Cluny in Burgundy, France, a reform was begun that consisted of opening daughter houses under the centralized authority of the Cluny Abbot, thereby forming an actual “Benedictine Order.” The dangers of the system were rooted in its violation of tradition and of the principle of subsidiarity; the benefits of the system were its uniformity and the strength that comes in numbers and through mutual support. A spirit of strife grew as the “Black Monks,” as the Benedictines were known, agreed with or loathed the reform. The Fourth Lateran Council, in A.D. 1215, took matters in its hands and decreed that the monasteries would henceforth be grouped together into congregations according to country, with the autonomy of individual monasteries preserved. Each congregation would have chapters in which each monastery would be represented (presided over by a president — not a superior general — elected for a limited time) to help ensure uniformity by writing “constitutions” on the Rule that must be approved by the Holy See (since 1893, under the reign of Pope Leo XIII, there has also been an “Abbot Primate” who acts as a nominal “head” of the entire Benedictine Confederation).
So, though the phrase “Benedictine Order” is often used, it’s not quite accurate; “Benedictine Confederation” is the more proper way to put things as the word “order” indicates centralization.
But, in any case, in addition to the development of branches of the Benedictine family, true religious orders soon arose to fight the great heresies and do charitable works. Some of these orders were “military orders” consisting of knights; others were “hospitaller orders” devoted to caring for the sick and wounded; and others were “mendicant orders” (orders whose members own nothing and live by begging), such as the Franciscans and Dominicans and groups that branched off from them devoted to preaching and charity.
Before continuing, let me explain some terminology.
A “First Order” is the masculine branch of a religious order, and consists of monks, friars, or brothers.
A “Second Order” is the feminine branch, and consists of nuns or sisters. Note that some congregations of women religious arise totally independently of any masculine branch, so are not called “Second Orders.”
A “Third Order” is the layman’s branch of a religious order, and consists of laymen and laywomen who belong to the religious order but who may or may not live in community. If they do live in community, they are called “regular”; if they don’t, they are called “secular.” Secular members of Third Orders can be homemakers, attorneys, plumbers, doctors — anyone. They don’t take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience (unless they do so privately); they make promises.
Some religious congregations might have all three branches; some might have only one or two.
Now, you’ll note I distinguish among “monks,” “friars,” and “brothers,” and between “nuns” and “sisters.” This is the explanation:
Religous who are cloistered and whose work consists only of that which is compatible with the cloister are called “monks” or “nuns.” These orders are typically described as “contemplative orders.”
Religious who do work “in the world” — e.g., who work as teachers, in hospitals, etc. — are said to be members of “active orders.” Members of active religious orders are referred to as “brothers” and “sisters” — unless the Order is a mendicant order — a “begging order” that’s now allowed to own property, such as the First Order Franciscans, Dominicans, and Augustinians. Male members of mendicant orders are called “friars”; the female branches of these orders are cloistered, traditionally, so their members are called “nuns”.
So, to correct a very common mistake, if you see a woman in a habit, she is not necessarily a “nun” (in fact, if you see her, chances are she’s a “sister”!), and if you see a man in a habit, he might not be a “monk” but a “friar” or “brother.”
Note, however, that any woman religious is addressed as “Sister,” but is referred to as either “nun” or “sister” depending on whether she is cloistered (of course, if she is an Abbess or Mother Superior, she is addressed as “Mother Abbess” or “Reverend Mother,” etc.). It is the same with the men: a male religious is addressed as “Brother” (unless he is also a priest or Abbot, etc.), but is referred to as either a “monk,” friar,” or “brother” depending on whether he is cloistered and what congregation he belongs to.
As I was saying, there came to be many new religious orders that sprang up during and after the Middle Ages, each with a different “charism,” or focus and spirit as determined by its founder. I Corinthians 12:4-12:
Now there are diversities of graces, but the same Spirit; And there are diversities of ministries, but the same Lord; And there are diversities of operations, but the same God, who worketh all in all. And the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man unto profit. To one indeed, by the Spirit, is given the word of wisdom: and to another, the word of knowledge, according to the same Spirit; To another, faith in the same spirit; to another, the grace of healing in one Spirit; To another, the working of miracles; to another, prophecy; to another, the discerning of spirits; to another, diverse kinds of tongues; to another, interpretation of speeches. But all these things one and the same Spirit worketh, dividing to every one according as he will. For as the body is one, and hath many members; and all the members of the body, whereas they are many, yet are one body, so also is Christ.
All of these “diversity of graces” are reflected in the different charisms of the various religious Orders, and they all build up the Body of Christ in their different ways.
In A.D. 1084, St. Bruno founded the Carthusians, who live by a Rule they call “The Statutes” — most likely a blend of the Rule of St. Benedict, St. Jerome’s Epistles, the “Vitae Patrum” by Cassian, and other writings of the Fathers. They dress in white habits with a cowl (or veil, for women), and their focus is contemplation and solitude.
In A.D. 1098, St. Robert of Molesme founded the Cistercians — the “White Monks” — as a reformed branch of the Benedictine family. Later, in the 18th century, Reformed Cistercians who became known as “Trappists” began to branch off in order to adhere to a more strict observance of the Rule, their official recognition as a separate group coming only in A.D. 1893.
In A.D. 1120, on Christmas Day, St. Norbert of Xanten started the Canons Regular of Prémontré (the Premonstratensians, or “Norbertines”). Using St. Augustine’s rule and mixing in a dash of the Cistercian way of life, the Norbertines dedicated themselves to the active priestly ministry.
In A.D. 1209, St. Francis founded the Franciscan Order — the Order of Friars Minor — to restore the spirit of poverty among religious that had too often been infected with a corrupt spirit of greed. His Rule, known as the “Regula Bullata,” was approved by Pope Honorius III in A.D. 1223. St. Francis’s friend, St. Clare of Assisi, founded with him the Second Order Franciscans known first as the “Poor Ladies,” but now as the “Poor Clares.” Later, in A.D. 1529, a branch called the “Capuchins” was formed in order to re-emphasize the Franciscan ideals of poverty and contemplation. This great Franciscan family gave to us St. Agnes of Assisi, St. Bonaventure, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Bernadine of Siena, St. John Capistrano, Bl. John Duns Scotus, St. Catherine of Bologna, St. Joseph of Cupertino, St. Lawrence of Brindisi, St. Maximilian Kolbe, and St.Pio of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio). Its Third Order came to include St. Elizabeth of Hungary, St. Elizabeth of Portugal, St. Louis IX, St. Thomas More, Pope St. Pius X (and many other Popes), Dante Alighieri, Joan of Arc, Michelangelo, Blessed Peter of Siena, Franz Liszt, Charles Gounod, and Louis Pasteur.
In A.D. 1218, SS Peter Nolasco and Raymond of Pennafort founded the Order of Our Lady of Ransom (the Mercedarians), a mendicant order focused on ransoming Catholics imprisoned by Muslim captors.
In A.D. 1220, St. Dominic adopted the Rule of St. Augustine and founded the Dominican Order — officially known as the “Order of Preachers” — to evangelize and re-evangelize and, more specifically, to combat the Albigensian heresies. This Order produced St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas, Fra Angelico, St. Peter of Verona, and St. Vincent Ferrer, among others. Its Third Order was the home of Catherine of Siena, Martin de Porres and Rose of Lima.
In the late 12th century, a group of hermits living on Mt. Carmel in Jerusalem adopted a Rule written in 1208 by St Albert, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, and founded the Carmelite Order with the Prophet Elias as their spiritual father, and focused on contemplation. During the unrest of the Crusades, they spread north and, in the 14th century, the Second Order was formed — only to be reformed later by St. Teresa of Avila, who mothered the Disalced Carmelites. St. John of the Cross drew his inspiration from her and reformed the First Order soon thereafter. Other great Carmelites over the years include SS. Simon Stock, Andrew Corsini, Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi, Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face (Thérèse of Lisieux), and Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
In A.D. 1233, seven rich Florentines turned their backs on their worldly lives, adopted the Rule of St. Augustine, and formed the black-habited Servite Order, a mendicant order focused on mission work and increasing devotion to Our Lady, especially to her Seven Sorrows (the Second Order is primarily contemplative).
In A.D. 1244, a group of hermits from Tuscany also adopted the Rule of St. Augustine, forming the Augustinian Order which gave the world St. Thomas of Villanova, Gregory of Rimini, St. Rita of Cascia, St. Nicholas of Tolentine, and Gregor Mendel — and which cursed the world with Martin Luther.
In A.D. 1370, St. Bridget of Sweden wrote her own Rule and founded the Brigittine Order of nuns and monks who focus on the Divine Office and Adoration.
In A.D. 1524, St. Gaetano (“Cajetan”) founded the Theatine Order (the “Clerics Regular”) to re-edify the life of the clergy and encourage the laity to practice virtue. They founded oratories and hospitals, and went on papal missions to foreign lands. Venerable Ursula Benincasa founded the Second Order of the Theatines in 1583, devoting herself and her sisters to the simple life of St. Martha.
In A.D. 1540, St. Ignatius of Loyola founded the Society of Jesus — the “Jesuits” — in order to defend the papacy and the Faith. Their focus is academics and, in order to carry out their work in the world, they dress as secular priests (who should be wearing black cassocks!). From this once glorious Order came SS. Francis Xavier, Peter Claver, Robert Bellarmine, Isaac Jogues and his martyred companions, and Athanasius Kircher (and many other scientists).
In A.D. 1625, St. Vincent de Paul founded the Congregation of Priests of the Mission, known as “Lazarists” or “Vincentians,” to care for the poor of urban France. Later, he founded the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, whose distinctive cornette headress (which anyone over the age of 50 recognizes as the type Sally Field wore in her role as the Daughter of Charity “Flying Nun” on TV) was the headress of the Ile de France region of that time. It is to this Order that St. Catherine Labouré, who was directed by Our Lady to strike the Miraculous Medal, was attached.
In A.D. 1729, St. Paul of the Cross founded the Congregation of Discalced Clerks of the Most Holy Cross and Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ (“Passionists”), an order dedicated to contemplative community life. The cloistered Second Order was founded by St. Paul and Mother Mary Crucifixa 51 years later.
In A.D. 1732, the great moral theologian, St. Alphonsus de Liguori, founded the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (“Redemptorists”) to work for the poor of Europe and around the world.
In A.D. 1859, St. John Bosco (“Don Bosco”) 3 an Italian priest, founded the Salesian Order, named after St. Francis de Sales. Its mission is to care for the young and to provide for the education of boys to the priesthood.
In A.D. 1880, St. Frances Cabrini (“Mother Cabrini”) founded the Institute of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Though her dream was to set up missions in China, she and her spiritual daughters were asked by the Pope to leave their native Italy and go to New York to care for the Italian immigrants there. Mother Cabrini founded scores of hospitals, schools, and orphanages — work that led to her becoming the first citizen of the United States to be canonized.
Hundreds of different Orders have grown over the years, nurturing men and women on the path to perfection, and doing so much good work for the Church and the world. Praise God for this rich heritage that gave such life to Holy Mother Church — and may our religious orders be restored to the glory of God.
Just for fun: read about the hand signs used by monastics during times of silence.
And please enjoy this video about the Benedictine monks of Le Barroux Abbey in Vaucluse, France (in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region):
1 St. Anthony Abbot is also known as St. Anthony of the Desert, St. Anthony of Egypt, St. Anthony the Hermit, etc. He is recognized in art by the presence of a Tau symbol, a long staff (often Tau-shaped) with a bell on top, a pig, and, sometimes, a rooster or other animals. You might also see him pictured meeting with St. Paul the Hermit. He is the patron of monks, swineherds, gravediggers, and domestic animals, and is invoked against skin diseases — especially the skin disease named after him, “St. Anthony’s Fire.” Read the story of his life in “Life of Antony” by St. Athanasius (ca. 295-373):
The account of his meeting with St. Paul the Hermit is not included in St. Athanasius’s work, but is told in “The Life of Paulus, the First Hermit” written by St. Jerome ca. A.D. 340 – 420).
2 All of the religious rules mentioned here — those of SS. Benedict, Augustine, and Francis — can be downloaded in pdf format from this site’s Catholic Library.
3 “Don” (as in “Don Bosco”) is the word used to refer to and address Italian secular priests — priests who work in the world, such as at parishes. “Padre” (as in “Padre Pio”) is the way Italian religious priests — priests who belong to religious Orders — are addressed .