History of Religious Life

Over the course of Roman Catholic history, men and women have sought to live religious life in varied ways. Different styles of religious life, based on the needs of those seeking this vocation and those whom religious serve, have arisen over time. The advent of new forms of religious life has not obviated earlier ways to lead this life but rather has led to new horizons and greater numbers of those who seek this vocation. Thus, various religious orders have arisen to meet the needs of the day. In some cases, when the need was specific and time-dependent, religious communities have died. Today the numbers of religious, especially women, have dropped rather precipitously; new recruits to religious communities are also few in number. Nevertheless, the service of men and women religious over the centuries of Catholic history has been and continues to be highly significant.

The common ground for all religious are the vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience, referred to as the evangelical counsels. Men and women religious, after at least three years of intense preparation, take these vows perpetually to God. The theology of the vows is extensive, but in essence these commit the religious to live simply, depending of the religious community for sustenance, to forego sex and marriage, and to relinquish selfautonomy, being obedient to all religious superiors.


The first form of religious life, monasticism, emerged in full in the sixth century, but it had some very significant precursors that set the basic tone for future religious congregations. During the mid to late third century, some Christians, in an effort to seek greater personal unity with God, left their livelihood and journeyed to the desert to live in solitude. One of the most famous of these early desert dwellers, collectively called anchorites, was St. Antony of the Desert (251–356). Antony, and like-minded men and women, found their calling in life to be in constant prayer, meditation, and reflection. The desert provided them the environment to rid themselves of outside distractions.

In his biography of St. Antony, St. Athanasius describes how the former found his vocation. One day when passing by a church he heard the Gospel message proclaimed: “Go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21). Antony followed the challenge literally, after making arrangements for the care of his sister, by living in solitude in the desert.

The second group that preceded the sixth-century monastics was another band of desert dwellers called Cenobites. Pachomius (290–347), like Antony, followed the call to solitude in the desert, but rather than living a solitary existence he chose to create a community that would live a form of common life. Such an existence would bring the possibility of greater growth through the community's strength through numbers.

The Rule of Benedict, Chapter 48, reads in part: “Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore the … [brothers] should be occupied at certain times in manual labor, and again at fixed hours in sacred reading. To that end we think that the times for each may be prescribed as follows.” The Rule provides a total road map for day-to-day life.

This concept of searching for God away from society, what became known as monasticism, moved from the eastern desert to the western part of the empire through the actions of such people as St. John Cassian (365–435). As a formal part of religious life in the West, monasticism was inaugurated by St. Benedict of Nursia (480?–543), who founded his famous monastery at Monte Cassino in 529. Gathering a group of men around him, Benedict wrote a Rule that became the general pattern of life used by Benedictines and many other communities who followed the basic monastic way of life. The Rule calls for a strong abbot, stable residence, and the centrality of common prayer for all in the monastery. In addition to the three basic vows, Benedict insisted his monks add a vow of stability, meaning that a monk would live his entire life in one monastery. The model created by Benedict was for a self-sustaining community where monks could work at various activities during the day, coming together regularly for common prayer, meals, and recreation.

The Mendicant Orders

The twelfth century saw the first great innovation in religious life from its original manifestation in monasticism. Seeking to move beyond the walls of the monastery in order to serve God's people in a more public way, groups of religious gathered together as community, but sought their daily sustenance and needs from the people they served. Collectively referred to as the Mendicant orders, meaning beggars, each religious stressed the virtue of poverty and the active ministry of preaching. Because these groups sought the generosity of others to sustain their daily needs, Mendicant orders were urban; they did not live away from society as did their monastic predecessors. The two most famous Mendicant communities were the Franciscans and Dominicans. Today these orders continue their traditional charisms. Franciscans emphasize the simplicity of life as expressed by their founder, St. Francis of Assisi; Dominicans are well known for their eloquence in preaching.

Why do Dominicans use the letters O.P. as a designation for their religious order?

Most religious orders use letters that speak of their actual name or possibly their founder. The Dominicans, founded by the Spaniard, St. Dominic Guzman, specifically to preach against the heresy of the Albigensians (commonly known as the Cathars), use the letters O.P. to designate their ministry — Order of Preachers.

Apostolic Congregations

The Reformation of the sixteenth century was the primary catalyst to the creation of a third major category of religious, the Apostolic orders. We recall that the Counter Reformation (see Chapter 2) featured the rise of the Society of Jesus, commonly known as the Jesuits. The Apostolic orders in general were a response to the social and religious upheaval of the Reformation. A new environment had been created, and people like St. Ignatius of Loyola responded by establishing groups of religious who were totally free from enclosures, more mobile, and with a spirituality strongly oriented toward outward service. The Jesuits were undoubtedly the most famous of these new orders, but they were only the vanguard of a plethora of religious communities that were established when needs arose. In contrast to monastic orders, who lived in an enclosure and centered themselves on prayer, silence, and daily work, and the Mendicant orders that, while ministering to others, were totally dependent on local community for their daily needs, the Apostolic orders were much more independent. These religious were able to function in ministries that compensated them sufficiently so that collectively their communities could operate as independent congregations.

Post-French Revolution Orders

The French Revolution, a seminal event in world history, was extremely destructive to the Roman Catholic Church in Europe. Not only did one pope, Pius VI, die in prison, but the Concordat (1801) between Pope Pius VII and Napoleon in many ways placed the church in a subservient position to the state. Religious orders also suffered greatly during this period. Wellington's victory at Waterloo in 1815 and the downfall of French rule provided a new environment for the development of religious communities. The growing gap between the church and large sections of people in industrial centers raised a new and acute social and educational dilemma. In response to this need, many religious communities, especially communities of women who broke out from their enclosures, became involved in teaching, both secular subjects and catechesis. Additionally, European colonial expansion in Africa and Asia saw the development of many specialized missionary congregations who went to these foreign lands to evangelize the native peoples.

It is important to understand that while male religious communities became more apostolic beginning in the sixteenth century, such was not the case with congregations of women religious, who remained basically cloistered. Some orders of women religious assisted through nursing and teaching, but the general trend, even with these groups, was to have little contact with the outside world.

  1. Home
  2. Guide to Catholicism
  3. Priesthood, Religious Life, and Lay Ministry
  4. History of Religious Life
Visit other About.com sites: