Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of
Antioch, 1st c. A.D
2:15-17 "Love not the world, nor the things which are in the world. If
any man love the world, the charity of the Father is not in him. For
all that is in the world, is the concupiscence of the flesh, and the
concupiscence of the eyes, and the pride of life, which is not of the
Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the
concupiscence thereof: but he that doth the will of God, abideth for
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
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
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:
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
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
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 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
communities, but were rather loosely organized, however, and it
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
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.
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.
congregations might have all three branches; some might have only one
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
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 --
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
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
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. This
order would expand to the new United States in 1809, when St. Elizabeth
Ann Seton ("Mother Seton") started a community in Maryland, modifying
the Vincentian habit to a simple black habit, black cape, and black
cap. Mother Seton's sisters focused on setting up orphanages,
hospitals, and schools for the poor.
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.
And please enjoy this video about the Benedictine monks of Le Barroux
Abbey in Vaucluse, France (in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region):
Footnotes: 1St. 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.
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 -
2 All of the religious rules
mentioned here --
those of SS. Pachomius, 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 .