Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience

Religious orders still play a huge role in the ministry of the Church. Religious orders consist of groups of men or women living together and dedicated to a particular ministry, be it teaching, nursing, or even contemplation. For instance, the Sisters of Charity, founded by St. Vincent de Paul, have dedicated themselves to the care of the poor and founded many hospitals. The Carmelites are a cloistered order devoted to prayer and meditation.

St. Benedict established the first monastic order; the Benedictine monks founded a monastery in Monte Cassino, Italy, around 520. Eventually, monasteries became prevalent throughout the Christian world; they served as centers of religious learning, and they often became financially successful in farming, winemaking, and other endeavors.

All members of religious communities, whether monks, nuns, friars, or brothers, practice the evangelical counsels. That is, they take voluntary vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. They do not marry, hold no private property, live communally, and practice strict obedience to their superiors.

In addition to monastic orders, the Church also saw the rise of the mendicant orders. Friars belonging to these orders did not live in seclusion but went out into the world in order to exercise the sacred ministry. They were not allowed to earn an income but had to exist on donations. A “brother,” such as a Christian Brother, is a type of friar.

Ordained Priests

Ordained members of religious orders are known as clerics; technically, the Jesuits were clerics because most were ordained for the purpose of active missionary work for the Church. Basilian priests, members of the order of St. Basil, are also clerics. Many orders, such as the Dominicans and the Augustinians, have both ordained and unordained members. The priests serve the needs of the community but can also hold posts outside the community under the supervision of a bishop.

Lay Associates

More recently, some Catholics have chosen to become lay associates. A lay associate is a layperson who attaches to a religious community and becomes an associate member. Lay associates take no vows but may practice voluntary poverty, chastity, and obedience. They usually take a training/orientation course lasting between twelve and eighteen months to learn about the purpose and the ministry of the order.

Because many orders have lost as much as half their memberships in the past fifty years, they now welcome lay associates — a step encouraged by the Vatican. By some estimates, there are now 25,000 lay associates, with 2,000 more in training, in the United States.

Renewal of Religious Life

The popularity of religious orders has seen many declines and revivals. The twentieth-century decline in the memberships of religious orders prompted Vatican II to deal with the matter by issuing a decree on the up-to-date renewal of religious life, in which the council made a number of recommendations, including the following:

  • Religious orders should return to their roots — get in touch with the original purpose for which the order was established and return to those traditions. They should maintain and faithfully perform their specific apostolates.

  • Vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience should be firmly upheld.

  • Religious orders should share fully in the life of the Church as they carry out their ministry.

  • Religious orders should understand the contemporary situation and evaluate their ministry in its light.

  • Contemplative orders are ensured an important place in the hierarchy.

  • The principles of monasticism should be upheld but adapted to the present day.

  • Common life, prayer, and sharing should be a constant, and every member should have the same status; they should be distinguished only by the duties they perform.

  • Laymen and laywomen can adequately perform ministries and profess the evangelical counsels.

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