Externals of the Catholic Church: The Great Religious Orders

It is not within the scope of this work to give a history of all the religious orders of men. During the centuries since the monastic life began, many distinct societies have been founded, varying in their rule and in the work which they were intended to perform. We shall be able to devote a little space only to those that are best known and that are active in our own country at the present day.

The Augustinians

This is one of the oldest of the monastic orders. Legend assigns their origin to Apostolic times, and their rule is declared (though without much probability) to have been formed by Saint Augustine. There is no real evidence, however, that they existed earlier than the year 816, and they were put in their present form by Saint Peter Damian in 1063. They adopted the name of Augustinians, or Canons of Saint Austin, because the details of their monastic rule are in conformity with the writings of the great Bishop of Hippo. They spread very rapidly throughout Europe, and were numerous in England at the time of the Reformation. An offshoot of the order, known as the Augustinian Hermits, was the monastic body to which Martin Luther belonged before his rebellion against the Church.

The Benedictines

This is the oldest order which has a consecutive history – which has maintained its rule and government practically without change. It was founded by Saint Benedict, at Subiaco, in Italy, in 529, and a little later the great monastery of Monte Cassino was established and has been the center fo government for the order since that time.

The order has a noble history. It has aided greatly in the extension of Catholicity throughout the world. One of its members, Saint Augustine of Canterbury, was the apostle of England, and others in later centuries went from the English monasteries to carry the Gospel into other parts of Europe. The order was for hundreds of years the most flourishing in the Church. Up to the fourteenth century it had given tot he Church twenty-four Popes and more than twenty thousand archbishops and bishops.

The order, at several periods of its history, needed reformation to restore the spirit of its saintly founder. New zeal and vigor were infused into it by Saint Benedict of Anian in the ninth century, and by Peter the Venerable at Cluny in the twelfth. In England the order was brought back to its original fruitfulness by the great Saint Dunstan, and at the time of the Reformation is possessed in that country nearly two hundred houses. Several of the Benedictine abbots and monks were martyred for their faith in London, England under King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I, and many others died in prison.

The Franciscans

There are several great religious bodies which are distinct in government but which follow substantially the same rule – that laid down by Saint Francis of Assisi. He established a community in 1209, which a most austere rule. Poverty of the severest kind, bodily discipline, untiring zeal for souls, strict fasting, unquestioning obedience – above all, gentleness toward every one – such were the features of the rule of Saint Francis.

Some time after his death, the order was divided into several branches – the Observants, teh Reformed franciscans, the Capuchins, etc. Some of these were re-united into one body by Pope Leo XIII.

The Franciscans have always been an energetic body of workers. They have devoted themselves to missionary labor in many parts of the world, and the spread of the Gospel in pagan lands is largely due tot heir zeal and fearlessness. Several of the great lights of Catholic theology were members of this order, and it has given five Popes to the Church. In the United States the various communities which are known as Franciscans possess a large number of monasteries, colleges and other institutions.

The Dominicans

The great “Order of Preachers” has existed since the thirteenth century, and has done remarkable work for the spread of religion and the saving of souls. It was founded by Saint Dominic, a Spaniard, who was laboring against the Albigensian heresy, which was widespread and productive of many evils at that time. The society was rapidly extended through the countries of Europe, and when new lands had been discovered beyond the Atlantic the Dominicans took a prominent part in preaching the Gospel in Mexico and Peru.

In the intellectual life of Europe the order held a distinguished place for centuries. Its learned men became professors in the great universities. That most profound of theologians, Saint Thomas Aquinas, whose genius has illumined the whole field of Catholic dogma, and whose “Summa Theologica” is the foundation of all succeeding works on doctrine, as a Dominican – famous not only for his incomparable intellect but also for his eminent sanctity. Others who shed lustre on the order’s history were John Tauler, the Blessed Henry Suso, Saint Raymond of Penyafort, Vincent of Beauvais and Dominic Soto. The community has given to the Church three Popes and more than a thousand bishops.

The order is flourishing in many parts of the world, and continues successfully the great task for which it was instituted – the preaching of the word of God. Missions are given with a zeal and effectiveness which come from centuries of experience. The picturesque garb of the Dominicans is familiar to the people as the Fathers have been often employed in the giving of missions in many of our parishes.

The Trappists

In every epoch of the Church’s history there have been some zealous and devout persons who have had a desire and a vocation for a more austere life than that prescribed by the ordinary monastic rule. They wish to practice sterner and more rigorous penances – to “mortify the flesh that the spirit may be strengthened”; and they carry their austerities to a degree which may seem extreme to many – possibly excessive to some.

The strictest of our present-day orders is the Reformed Cistercians, popularly known as the Trappists. This community is an offshoot from the Benedictine order. Saint Robert, in the eleventh century, was dissatisfied with certain relaxations of the primitive rule of Saint Benedict, and founded a separate congregation with a most rigorous rule at Citeaux (in Latin, Cistercium) in France in the year 1098. The aim of the order has always been the sanctification of its members through prayer and penance, and it was not intended that they should care for the souls of others. One of the great lights of this congregation was the illustrious Saint Bernard, who founded the famous monastery of Clairvaux, and who is venerated as a Doctor of the Church.

In the course of time there was a tendency to relaxation in the rule, sanctioned in 1475 by Pope Sixtus IV, and this in its turn led to a reform of the order by the establishing of new communities which desired to follow the primitive and rigid rule. The branch now known as a the Reformed Cistercians or Trappists was institued in 1662 at the abbey of La Trappe by Armand de Rance.

The monks of the Trappist order rise at two o’clock in the morning and recite Matins in choir, adding the Office of the Blessed Virgin (their special patroness) to the regular office. They then make a meditation for a half hour. They celebrate or assist at Mass. The other parts of the office are recited at certain hours, and other spiritual exercises are performed. There is no leisure time except that spent in sleep. All the members of the community, priest and brothers, labor with their hands in the gardens, barns, workshops or fields. There are no delicacies in their daily fare – not even much of what we would call necessaries. No meat is used; vegetables, bread and fruit are the principle articles of diet. One full meal of these is taken at midday, with a frugal collation later in the afternoon. Bedtime comes at seven o’clock in winter, at eight in summer; each retires to his straw bed and sleeps in the rough habit of their order till the clanging bell at two a.m. summons him to another day of prayer, labor and penance.

The most trying part of the discipline is the rigorous silence. No monk is allowed to speak to another, except to the Superior, and then only about necessary things. The abbot and the guest-master are the only ones who are permitted to speak to strangers.

Truly a wonderful life in the eyes of those who live as we do in the midst of modern luxuries. It shows that the spirit of zeal for personal sanctification which animated the anchorites of the desert has been handed down to a chosen few in later generations.

The Trappists have several houses in England and Ireland, the famous Mount Melleray being in the latter country. There are old, established monasteries and abbeys in Canada and the United States.

The Passionists

This order, the complete title of which is “the Congregation of the Discalced Clerks of the Most Holy Cross and Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ,” was founded in 1720 by Saint Paul of the Cross, a zealous Genoese whose canonization took place under Pope Pius IX in 1867.

The rule of this community is one of considerable severity. In some points it resembles the austere rule of the Trappists, but without the obligation of silence. The Passionists in their monasteries observe the “canonical hours,” rising at night for the reciting of the office; and they have frequent fasts and days of abstinence.

Their habit is a plain loose black gown, girt with a leather belt. On the breast they wear an enameled representation of the Heart of our Lord, surmounted by a cross and bearing in white letters XPI Passio – the Passion of Christ. On their feet they wear open sandals, which gives them their title of Discalced – that is, unshod.

The Passionists were intended by their founder to exemplify two kinds of religious spirit – contemplative and active. They have had great success in the giving of missions and retreats, due to the excellent training which they receive and to the zeal which animates them. According to the directions of their sainted founder, they are to seek nothing in their preaching but the good of souls, and are to set always before the faithful the sufferings and death of our Blessed Saviour as the greatest motive of repentance.

The Redemptorists

Another order which devotes itself mainly to the preaching of missions is the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, generally known as the Redemptorists. It was founded by Saint Alphonsus Liguori in 1732. The Saint wished to form a band of apostolic men who “should preach the Gospel to the poor,” as our Savior did. The order was approved by Pope Benedict XIV, and has always been distinctly a missionary society. Its members take the usual three vows, of poverty, chastity and obedience, and bind themselves also by a vow of perseverance – that is, to remain in the order until death.

They are to be found in nearly all the countries of the Catholic world, and they are engaged in missionary labor in many pagan lands. They have met with great opposition from the infidel governments of Europe, and have been repeatedly driven out of so-called Catholic countries.

The Jesuits

The promise of our Blessed Lord, “Behold I am with you all days,” has been amply fulfilled in every age of the Church’s history. In the centuries when she was evangelizing Europe, the ned was for zealous and fearless apostles to spread the light of the Gospel among pagan nations – and God provided them. Later, when heresies were rife, the Church required men who could declare her teachings accurately and explain them clearly – and an Augustine, an Athanasius, a Chrysostom were given to the world. When the tribes of central and northern Europe were emerging from barbarism and needed to be instructed in the arts of civilization, the Church found her most effective instruments in the great monastic orders.

In the sixteenth century came a new danger and a new need. Protestantism arose and spread with alarming rapidity. It spurned the authority of Christ’s Vicar on earth, rejected some of the most essential of Catholic dogmas, extended its dominion over the fairest parts of Europe, and led millions into the darkness of unbelief. Then God raised up new champions of the truth, strong defenders of His Church – that admirable body of religious men known as the “Society of Jesus,” or the Jesuits.

In 1521, a Spanish soldier received a severe wound in battle. He was Ignatius of Loyola, of a noble Biscayan family, and up to that time he had shown no special inclination toward religion. During his recovery from his injury he happened to read a volume of Lives of the Saints – and a new career was unfolded before him. He resigned his military commission, retired from the world, and formed the resolution of establishing a new religious community which should wage unceasing war on error – which should devote itself to the cause of the Gospel and of Catholic truth, and carry the light of the true faith to the heretic and the heathen.

In 1534, having been ordained a priest, he gathered around him, at Paris, France, six zealous companions, and bound them and himself by a solemn vow “to preach the Gospel in Palestine or elsewhere, and to offer themselves to the Sovereign Pontiff to be employed in the service of God in what manner he should judge best.” In 1536 the new society was received by Pope Paul III, and was solemnly approved in 1540.

The members of the Society of Jesus take the usual three vows of the religious state – poverty, chastity and obedience; and they add to these a fourth vow which reflects clearly the spirit of the order and of its intrepid founder. They bind themselves to go without question or delay wherever the Sovereign Pontiff may send them for the salvation of souls. Their motto is “For the greater glory of God” – “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam”, and the initial letters of these Latin words (A.M.D.G.) are a favorite symbol of the Jesuits.

The scope of their labors is indeed a wide one. Preaching, spiritual exercises, all kinds of charitable endeavor, teaching elementary and advance science, giving retreats, missionary work among Christians and heathen – all these are specified in their constitution. Each member of the order must undergo a long and rigorous probation, the details of which are embodied in the “Book of Exercises,” which Saint Ignatius write before he established his Society. Personal sanctification is ensured by mental prayer, examination of conscience, pious reading and frequent retreats. The Jesuit must be a man of learning, and his natural talents are carefully fostered. The long and discriminating training which its members receive is responsible for much of the success which the order has achieved. The novice who manifests an aptitude for any particular branch of useful learning is subjected to a thorough course of instruction in that line. If he has natural ability as an orator, he receives training which will develop that talent; if he gives evidence of a genius for sciences or languages or philosophy he is urged to perfect himself in all that pertains to his specialty, all without neglecting his education in other directions. Each becomes an expert in something, and as a result the Society has produced a multitude of preachers, professors, writers, scientists and defenders of Catholic truth who have been of incalculable benefit to the Church, and have aided immeasurably in her work of diffusing Christian knowledge among men.

The saintly Loyola intended that his followers should be soldiers of Christ, even in the forefront of the battle, and these soldiers were to be not only men of actions but men of prayer. They were not to dwell in solitude, like the anchorites of early days; they were to be “in the world, but not of it”; and they were to be themselves sanctified that they might sanctify others. They were not to strive for worldly honors, not to accept ecclesiastical dignities unless by a special command of the Holy See.

The annals of the Jesuits are a brilliant chapter of history, but any detailed account of them will not be feasible here. During the lifetime of their founder they established universities in Rome and elsewhere, and were also engaged in missionary labor in all parts of the world. Zealous and learned teachers were sent into Germany and France, and waged a vigorous and successful war against the heresies of Luther and Calvin. Saint Francis Xavier journeyed to the far East and brought the faith of Jesus Christ to Indian and Japan. Somewhat later came the glorious epoch of Jesuit missionary enterprise in the New World. The adventurous Marquette discovered the Mississippi. French priests, filled with ardor for souls, went among the savage Indian tribes, and were put to death with fiendish tortures. Lallemant, Brebeuf, Daniel, Jogues – these are a few of the brave Jesuits who gave up all things, even life itself, that the light of God’s truth might shine in the dark places of the earth. “Greater love than this no man hath.”

The enemies of Christian truth and morality lost no opportunity to harm the Society of Jesus. It encountered strong opposition from its very foundation, and was subjected to many unjust accusations. Ambitious politicians in many countries sought its downfall, and the climax came when the rulers of Europe succeeded in securing the election of a Pope who was not friendly to the Jesuits. He was Clement XIV, formerly Cardinal Ganganelli, and in 1773 he issued a decree by which the Society of Jesus was suppressed in every part of the world, and its members were directed to enter the ranks of the secular clergy.

This action of the Holy See was unprecedented in the history of religious societies, and it is difficult to ascertain the true reasons for it. There seems to have been little cause for such drastic action except the hatred of free-thinking despots and the prejudices of a pliant Pontiff. Lalande, the distinguished astronomer, voiced the sentiment of the best minds of the time when he said, “They have destroyed the best work of man, unrivaled by an human institution – an army of twenty thousand men, unceasingly employed with duties most important and useful to the world.”

Among those who were thus compelled to secularize themselves was the famous John Carroll, afterward the first bishop of Baltimore and the first American member of the hierarchy.

In 1814 the Jesuits were permitted to re-organize under Pope Pius VII, and since that time they have had an uninterrupted though troubled existence – ever in the van of battle, everywhere assailed by the forces of infidelity and revolution, always the first to feel the wrath of the enemies of God’s Church.

In the United States, the Society of Jesus has been notably prosperous with large provinces, hundreds of priests, scholastics and lay-brothers. They have conducted dozens of colleges, managed parishes, and have been especially successful in preaching missions for the laity and retreats for the clergy.

The Society is ruled by a Superior-General, elected for life, whose authority is practically absolute. The garb of the order is a loose black cassock with a white linen collar attached, and a black sash or girdle.

It is indeed a mark of God’s providence that this great religious society was re-established, for without their ardent zeal and well-directed energy, the condition of the Church throughout the world, and especially in the Americas, would be far less prosperous than we find it today.

The Christian Brothers

A most essential part of the work of the Church is the education of the young. Upon the intellectual and moral training that is gen to them depends the future welfare of God’s kingdom on earth.

No religious body has been more successful in its allotted field of labor than the Christian Brothers, more properly known as the Brothers of the Christian Schools.” This congregation of teachers respected and admired throughout the world, was founded by a priest, although its members are not elevated to the priesthood. Saint John Baptist de la Salle was a man of grand intellect, steadfast will and ardent piety, and his life was so holy and the fruits of his zeal so wonderful that he was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1888 and canonized by the same Pontiff in 1900.

His efforts were first directed towards the Christian education of youth by a zealous layman, M. Nyel of Rouen, who had himself devoted much time and money to that excellent work. Having established a corps of teachers, the Abbe de la Salle, in 1684, drew up a code of rules for them and chose the title they now bear – the Brothers of the Christian Schools. The system of instruction formulated by him has never been equaled for effectiveness, and many of the much-vaunted discoveries of modern pedagogy are mere revivals of ideas originated by the zealous French priest. The Brothers have been prominent in educational work for more than two hundred years, and these have been years of constant expansion and progress. They have always been in the van; they keep pace with the development of the arts and sciences, and are always prepared to impart to their pupils the latest and the best results of the world’s advance in civilization.

The new religious society was solemnly approved by Pope Benedict XIII in 1725, and was established as a “religious congregation.” It has had a checkered career. The storms of persecution which have swept over France have often driven the Brothers into exile, but sooner or later they have returned and resumed their work. In the early 20th century the Congregation was not allowed to teach there as a body; it was despoiled of its property, and the results of its earnest labor of many years are being obliterated. In other countries it has been prosperous. There are thousands of members and hundreds of thousands of pupils.

The religious rule of the Brothers is fairly strict in its requirements. A thorough course of study is necessarily demanded. A review of primary branches and a comprehensive normal course are exacted from each candidate. He take the usual religious vows, and pledges himself to remain a layman – for the Brothers are not allowed to aspire to the priesthood.

They wear in their schools and convents a black cassock with a white collar having two square wings at the front – the clerical collar of the French Church in the seventeenth century.

Their title expresses well their purpose. They are “Brothers,” not priests, merely laymen living in community, banded together for a noble work; “Brothers of the Christian Schools” for the school is their field of labor wherein their zealous reapers garner mighty harvests. They are teachers, and the substance of their teaching is, first of all, the religion of Jesus Christ – and, secondly, the whole field of useful human knowledge, illumined by the light of His Doctrine.


There are scores of other religious bodies which deserve extended notice, and would receive it if space permitted. We shall be compelled to pass over our zealous American society, the Paulist Fathers; the Sulpicians, who devote themselves to the training of candidates for the priesthood; the Carmelites, the Fathers of the Holy Ghost, the Congregation of the Holy Cross, the Marists, the Oblates, the Vincentians, and many others. And even with this multiplicity of religious societies, “the harvest indeed is great and the laborers are few.”

– from Externals of the Catholic Church, by Father John F Sullivan