Question: Why does the Church have so many
different religious orders? Why aren't there simply priests and nuns?
The diversity of religious orders is a direct reflection of the fact that there are a variety of ways to holiness. It is very important to note that this is just as true for lay people as it is for religious. Saint Paul says: "there are varieties of gifts but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of ministries but the same Lord ... for as the body is one and has many members, and all of the members of the body, many as they are, form one body, so also it is with Christ."
Our Lord spoke of two major paths to holiness. One was the path of childlike simplicity and humility -- "unless you turn and become like little children...." -- "consider the lilies of the field." The other path was the way of active concern for the needs of one's neighbors: "as long as you did it for one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it for Me." Of course, the paths are not mutually exclusive, and both approaches to holiness can be blended in any number of ways.
Alternatively, we may consider the three "evangelical counsels" of poverty, chastity, and obedience which are vowed by religious, but really must be lived in some manner by every holy soul. "Poverty" might be anything from genuine deprivation to merely giving over the administration of goods to a superior, it always implies a temperate use of worldly things and the intention to share them with those in need. "Chastity" might be celibacy, or simply living according to one's state in life -- married people are not "unchaste" any more than religious are necessarily "chaste." In various times, places, and circumstances the Catholic secular clergy have been married men -- some at the highest level of the Catholic Church. "Obedience" might be to a religious superior, but it might also be to parents or to the dictates of Christian society. Again, it is not difficult to see how these three counsels might be blended in a great number of ways.
Saint Paul urged his congregations to heroic enthusiasm for salvation. He adopted the metaphor of being a spiritual athlete: "Do you not know that of those who run in a race, all indeed run, but only one receives the prize? So run as to obtain it...." There are many ways in which this enthusiasm can be manifested, and further blended with the ways of a holy life.
Over the years, Catholics formally addressing the need to live a holy life have founded a number of religious orders. The multiplicity is not duplication, but an effort to use the differing talents and inclinations of men and women to best advantage, with regard to the needs of the times. Let us not forget that even those of us who must live in the world can incorporate some of their characteristics in our own lives. Long before any religious order developed the clergy and laity of the Church saw to the spiritual and material needs of one another, while spreading the Gospel, even during times of severe persecution. Since Vatican II most of the religious orders have abandoned themselves to the heresy of Modernism, only a few are still orthodox -- the orders as originally founded will be the basis of this article -- if nothing else they serve to illustrate the number of primary ways in which holiness may be approached.
The first religious were probably hermits. We know that such lived in the less populated regions of Egypt, first alone, and then in loosely organized communities. The religious of Mount Carmel are said to have had a similar existence from the pre-Christian times of Elias the prophet, until the invasion of Islam made such a life impossible for Christians in the Holy Land. In general, a lone hermit with a reputation for holiness might have unwillingly consented to teach his ways to followers -- around such a founder, an oratory, and possibly a common eating facility, the earliest monasteries grew.
The need for monastic governance quickly got beyond the ability of these holy and wise founders to provide. They were, after all, mortal, and a time would come when they would rule no more -- and they could not possibly be in all of the places were early monastic communities developed. Some reduced their advice to writing, producing a "Rule" that could be shared by any number of foundations.
In the West, the most successful of the Rule-givers was Saint Benedict of Nursia (480-543). A number of similar orders exist to this day, all with some right to call themselves "Benedictines." Some of the great genius of the Benedictine Rule is found in its flexibility, allowing its followers to adapt their monastic vocation according to their abilities and the needs of those around them. Common to all Benedictines is the vocation to "ora et labora -- to pray and work." The Benedictine places great emphasis on the communal celebration of the Divine Office, and a life that is otherwise filled with holy reading, and humble labor. Although Saint Benedict did not emphasize public scholarship in his Rule, the world is indebted to his monks for preserving the literary works of antiquity and the middle ages, one handwritten copy at a time. The earliest missionary enterprises were often monastic in nature, with Benedictine and other monks spreading Christianity by establishing monastic foundations in previously pagan lands, and then communicating the Faith to the local inhabitants.
In the cities, even before Saint Benedict's time, the cathedrals came to be staffed by men who lived a monk-like existence, Canons Regular whose duty was to chant the Mass and Office, as well as to advise the local bishop and elect his successor. Saint Eusebius of Vercelli (d. 391) is said to be the first western bishop to sponsor such a monastic life; in the East, they are mentioned in the Rule of Saint Basil the Great.
The corporal works of mercy played an important part in the development of the orders. The Order of Saint John of Jerusalem at first maintained a hospice for the poor and weary pilgrims to the holy land, later staffing a medical hospital, and ultimately providing military protection. Several such military orders developed to deal with the continuous threat of Moslem invasion. One famous order, the Knights Templar, was violently suppressed by Philip IV of France and the Avignon Pope Clement V. The Order of Saint John continues today, Knights and Ladies trying to preserve the values of Western civilization and the traditional Catholic Faith.
The early middle ages saw the development of several orders of "friars," religious who worked publicly for the reform of Christendom. One can hardly be a Catholic without a strong love of the truth, with which Christ identified Himself.6 The Order of Preachers, or "Dominicans" after their founder, Saint Dominic Guzman (1170-1221), a former canon regular, were founded to preach the Faith during the Albigensian heresy in France. The Dominican motto "Veritas-Truth," reflects the order's commitment to education and preaching God's truth.
The Friars Minor, called after Saint Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), "Franciscans," gave public example that a Christ like poverty and humility could be lived in the world. Like the Dominicans, they soon developed a solid reputation as educators.
A former soldier, Saint Ignatius de Loyola (1491-1556), employed the military model in establishing the Society of Jesus, or "Jesuits." Their special charism was a fourth vow to be always instant to the command of the Pope. The missionary foundations of North and South America and the Indies are perhaps the greatest Jesuit claim to fame. The lives of Saints Isaac Jogues, John de Brebeuf, and Francis Xavier are as exciting as any adventure novel that will ever be written.
Urbanization and, later, the industrial revolution brought new problems to Christendom, but also new ways to exercise holiness. Removed from the farm economy, husbands, wives, and even children found themselves at work for wages that were both inadequate and uncertain. Unsupervised children were prone to get into trouble on the streets, and without education were doomed to perpetuate the poverty of their parents. Cramped living conditions often brought disease, despair, and immorality.
New religious orders came into being to cope with the problems of the age. To mention just a few, along with their founders: The Brothers of the Christian Schools, Saint John Baptiste de le Salle (d. 1719); Charitable orders such as the Salesians and Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, Saint John Bosco (d. 1888); the Daughters of Charity, and Lazarist Fathers by Saints Vincent de Paul (d. 1660) and Louise de Marillac (d. 1660). Saint Jerome Emiliani (d. 1537) founded the Order of Somaschi (Company of Servants of the Poor, or Somascan Fathers) to tend to the orphaned and the sick. Saint Camillus of Lellis (d. 1614) founded the Congregation of the Servants of the Sick (the Camellians) to serve the sick in hospitals and at home.
In a brief account like this many more orders have been left out than could possibly be included. But the important point to be understood is that there are many paths to holiness. Whether one is called to live in the world or in a religious order, there are any number of ways to draw closer to God. Perhaps more important than the particular path is to keep one's eyes always on the goal.