Religious Orders And The Different Kinds
Once you have received that strong and burning call to dedicate your life to God, the search can be confusing. If you decided that a religious order might be a fit for you, here are some basic facts that could help you in your journey towards finding God’s will for you. The Catholic Church is big and wide and holds a variety of orders, institutes, societies and congregations, but each is unique and a precious gift to the Church.
Religious life is a practiced life style with in the Church that is almost as old as the Church itself. Tradition, spiritualities, history and a sense of mission are deeply ingrained in these groups. We will not cover the history of them here, but know that it is a rich and deep treasure within the Church that our Lord holds in the palm of his hand.
Some basic characteristics of religious orders, institutes, societies and congregations are that they live in community (unless they are hermits), they pronounce vows/promises and they are committed to specific works within society and the Church.
The Different kinds:
Dividing these groups into categories could turn into a very long list. Those who have a passion for math know that this could draw up some fun endless possibilities. Our purpose is to give some examples, shed light on the subject, as well as introducing some vocabulary. By no means would we want to walk you down into the deep forest of religious categories.
Let us begin with an apostolic community verses contemplative. Apostolic orders are those who are active outside of their monasteries, convents or houses. The members hold jobs such as teaching, social work, counseling, administrators, attorneys, nurses, doctors…well you get the idea. They work for an organization and build a balance between their “ministry” and their life in community. The salary they earn most of the time goes into the common financial “pot” for the needs all the members of the congregation, society or institute. Each religious community handles their finances slightly different and could be set up as a whole separate topic. But most times the salary is turned over to the community, institute or society. The group in turn supports the member financially, assisting him or her with the basic needs of life.
Contemplative orders, also known as cloisters, are those who have as a priority to pray for the needs of others, the world and the entire Church. This group can be divided into two, semi-contemplative and contemplative (semi-cloistered or cloistered). Semi-contemplative orders also have some kind of employment, they usually have part time jobs outside of their living arrangements or they have a job within the monastery / convent/ house part of the time. This helps them to be self sufficient and safe guard their mission of prayer.
The other group of course is the contemplative order. For the most part they do not leave their living arrangements, if there is a need they assign someone to do the day-to-day errands in order for the rest of the house to remain focused on the daily prayer schedule. This group however, will also have some kind of light ministry to sustain themselves financially; this would be supplemented with outside donations. Some of these works could be making candles, candy, vestments for Priests or ornaments for churches.
There is one cloistered type, which could be important to mention here. Following the same needs and structures, there is a type of cloistration called Papal Cloistration. That is a strict cloistration of its members and it is a commitment of the order to be steeped in prayer for the needs of the Church alone. The members never leave their convents or monasteries. If there were extreme circumstances, such as urgent doctor visit, death of a family member, the Pope himself or a person assigned by the Pope would have to give the dispensation for that member to temporarily leave the convent or monastery. That is one reason it is called Papal Cloistration.
Even though there are other categories we could look at, I will only add canonical verses non-canonical and international verses local communities. When an order is canonical it means that, the Vatican has approved the group. When they are not canonical, it can mean
1- They are approved by a diocese
In order to be approved by the Vatican, the congregation or order has to exist a long period of time, do good works and be a good example in the Church before the Vatican will extend canonical status.
International community verses a local community. This is an important aspect to know about religious orders. Some are international, which means they have founded houses in several countries. Most of the time they have their Mother House/Father House in Rome or in the country where they were founded. If you are interested in this kind of life, be ready to serve in other parts of the world.
Local communities are those who have not expanded beyond the country / region where they were founded. They believe there is plenty of work and needs right where they are for the time being. These groups might serve the entire country where they live, a certain dioceses or area. If you are not the kind that likes to travel, or would like to remain close to home, this might be a good choice for you.
Components of a Religious Order:
There are three important components of religious orders that make them unique and distinct from each other: history, spirituality and mission of the community.
The history will tell you when they were founded and why. Perhaps the community you are looking at was founded during a time where there was a great need for medical service, so the community began helping the sick. Or perhaps there was a need for education, the members dedicate themselves to work in educational ministries today. Each religious order was born out of a need during that particular era.
The spirituality of the community will tell you what aspect of Christ do they make emphasis on in their daily lives. Take the Franciscans for instance, they follow the suffering Christ, the poor Christ, even though they are guided by the life of Francis, the members look to how Francis related to Christ. The title of a community many time can point out to you what the community’s spirituality is, for instance: Sisters of the Sacred Heart, the Redemptorist Fathers, Mercy Sisters, etc. All communities follow the life and example of Christ; it is their founders who showed them the way to follow our Lord.
The mission of a congregation, society, institute or order can be very focused or have more variety to it. For instance, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd were instructed by their founderess, Saint Mary Euphasia to only serve women and girls in need. If they ever strayed from this work they would lose the essence of who they were. Today, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd continue to do exactly what their founderess directed them to do. Other communities work in a variety of services as long as it is in line with the purpose and mission of the order, whether it be teaching, doing medical work or in the case of my religious congregation, doing any work that will allow us to bring the goodness and kindness of the Savior to all people. How focused you need to be in terms of ministry? How much room do you need to have to find a ministry that is comfortable for you ?
A community, a Gift to our Church:
So much more can be said about religious congregations, institutes, orders, or societies. But these are basic elements you can begin to use in your search. Just remember that each community was founded during challenging times, the members embraced Christ and set forth to fill the need of the time. The women and men who set forth to build the Kingdom of God, even with smaller numbers, continue to address the needs of the world by being an example in community, a people of prayer, committed by a vowed life and immersed in bringing forth Christ for all.
Sr Elizabeth SDS