Externals of the Catholic Church – Religious Societies

Our Church, like every society that has work to be done, knows full well that “in union there is strength.” Results that would be impossible of accomplishment by individuals become possible and even easy when united effort is made. Individual energy, even in spiritual things, is apt to be misdirected; or, at least, it is likely to be of benefit only to him who makes it, and to produce little or no good result in others. But when the religious efforts of individuals are combined with similar zeal on the part of others by the forming of religious societies, and when the work of the whole body is carefully guided and regulated, great good is accomplished, both in the individual member and in the whole society. God’s glory is promoted, and the members are sanctified to a degree that would not be possible except as a result of such united effort.

For All Classes

The religious societies established by our Church are almost beyond counting. She has organized them for every class – for men and women, for the married and the single, for children, for those living in the world and those consecrated to God in religion. She sets before these societies a great variety of objects – works of charity for some, devotional exercises for others; zeal for the spiritual improvement of mankind and for the spread of Christian virtues; aid to missionary enterprises; prayers and good works fo the souls in Purgatory – such are some of the secondary objects of Catholic societies, all tending towards their great primary object – the sanctification of their members and the glory of God.

The Kinds of Societies

The Catholic societies for the laity are divided into three classes:

First, Confraternities, which are religious associations of the faithful canonically established by Church authority to accomplish certain works of piety or charity; and when a confraternity has received the right to unite to itself sodalities existing in other localities and to communicate to them the spiritual advantages it enjoys, it is called an Archconfraternity.

Second, Pious Associations, which have in general the same objects, but which are not “canonically erected”; these are variously known as pious unions, leagues, sodalities, etc.

Third, societies which are not distinctively religious, even though all their members are Catholics.

In the second class, the “Pious Associations,” are the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, and the Apostleship of Prayer, otherwise known as the League of the Sacred Heart. In the third class are included the various beneficial organizations that have been established within recent years – notable among which are the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic Knights of America, the Catholic Foresters and the Catholic Benevolent Legion. We shall be obliged to confine our attention to the best-known societies of the first two classes.

The Federation of Catholic Societies

The Catholic societies of the United States have formed themselves into a union known as the American Federation of Catholic Societies, for the promotion of their religious, civil and social interests. The Federation has no political motive, but merely seeks to foster Christian education and Catholic interests, to overcome bigotry, to spread a knowledge of Catholic doctrine and principles, and to combat the social evils of the day. It was first advocated in 1899, and was established at a convention in Cincinnati in 1901. It is said to represent nearly two millions of Catholics, and has exercised a widespread and salutary influence since its inception.

The Holy Name Society

“At the Name of Jesus every knee shall bend.” The greatest organization intended especially for Catholic laymen is the Society of the Holy Name of Jesus. It has been a wonderful power for good ever since its establishment centuries ago. At no time have its beneficial results been more in evidence than at the present day; in no place has it effected more good than in our own country.

The Holy Name Society (or, to give it its full title, the Confraternity of the Most Holy Name of God and Jesus) was established by the Dominicans, and has always been under their especial charge. It owes its origin, indirectly at least, to a decree of the Council of Lyons, in 1274, which provided for the instruction of the faithful regarding devotion and reverence towards the Name of Jesus. Shortly after the issuing of the Council’s decree, Pope Gregory X directed Blessed John Vercelli, Master-General of the Dominicans, to apply the energies of his order to this work. The society had a gradual growth in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The first public procession in honor of the Holy Name took place at Lisbon in 1433. In 1564 Pius IV approved the confraternity and granted indulgences to it; and since that time it has been further enriched with spiritual favors by many Pontiffs.

The members bind themselves to labor for the glory of the Holy Name; to pronounce it always with reverence; to abstain from all sinful speech, and to strive that others shall also refrain from evil speaking. The spiritual advantages are many. Masses are offered for living and dead members; plenary indulgences are granted on the day of admission into the society and on certain festivals during the year; and partial indulgences may be gained for almost every act of worship or charity performed by the members.

It is a society for Catholic men living in the world, and its aim is to help them so to live that their every-day duties to God and their neighbor will be well performed – that their lives will be lives of manly Christian virtue and of good example, resounding to the greater glory of God.

The League of the Sacred Heart

This is also known as the Apostleship of Prayer, and is one of the most widely spread of Catholic societies. It is purely spiritual in its aims, being intended to promote the practice of prayer for the mutual intentions of its members, and the increasing of love for our Blessed Saviour in return for the love which His Sacred Heart has lavished upon mankind.

It was founded at Vais, in France, in 1844, and was put substantially into its present form by Father Henri Ramiere, a Jesuit, in 1861. It was approved by Pius IX in 1879, and its statutes were revised and again approved by Leo XIII in 1896. It is under the special care of the Society of Jesus, and to the zeal and wise direction of that great Order it undoubtedly owes much of its marvelous success.

The supreme officer, known as the Moderator General, is the Superior General of the Jesuits, who usually deputes his authority to an assistant. The management of the society is largely carried on through the “Messenger of the Sacred Heart,” a periodical which is published in different parts of the world and in various languages. Diocesan directors promote the work in their own territories, and the separate societies are known as “centres,” each in charge of a local director. Under him are promoters, each caring for a band of members and distributing the “mystery leaflets” which instruct the members concerning the monthly practices of piety expected of them.

The religious duties of the association are a daily offering of prayers and good works, the daily recitation of a decade of the beads for the special intention of the Holy Father, as recommended in the monthly bulletin of the society, and the making of a “Communion of Reparation” on an assigned day of the month or week. The first Friday of each month is observed as a day of special devotion, the Mass of the Sacred Heart being usually celebrated; and evening services are held at which the members assist.

The growth of this society has been phenomenal. Over 62,500 local centres exist in various parts of the world, of which about 6700 are in the United States. There are no less than twenty-five million members in this world-wide organization, and four millions of these are Americans.

Our Blessed Lord has assured us that “where two or three are gathered together in His Name, there is He in the midst of them.” How pleasing, then, must be the united service of these millions of His children! Each month the intentions and good works of the society are printed in a bulletin, and the number and variety of these are astounding. Millions of separate petitions, millions of prayers of thanksgiving ascend day by day to the throne of our Saviour from the League of His Sacred Heart.

This society has had a large share in bringing about that great spiritual renovation which is the most consoling feature of our Church’s life during the last few years. Frequent Communion is its watchword. Some of our readers can remember when the person who approached the altar-rail as often as once a month was looked upon as somewhat of a devotee. All this is changed – and largely through the League of the Sacred Heart. Frequent Communion has become the rule, rather than the exception, for practical Catholics. When, in future ages, the history of our Church in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries shall be reviewed, the wonderful spread of the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the resulting increase of devotion to the Blessed Sacrament will be the salient points of that history.

The Children of Mary

It is rather a curious fact that the Children of Mary, now distinctively a girls’ society, had its origin in a sodality for young men. In Rome, about the year 1550, a number of students at the Roman College were formed by their Jesuit teachers into a religious organization for practices of devotion and works of charity. This society was approved by Gregory XIII in 1584, and was enriched with indulgences, especially by Benedict XIV. In 1830, at Paris, a pious nun named Catherine Laboure was favored with a vision in which the Miraculous Medal of the Blessed Virgin was given to her as the badge of an association for young girls. The indulgences which had been previously given to the men’s sodality, known as the “Prima Primaria,” were extended to the girls’ sodality, and further evidences of approval were given by Pope Leo XIII. The society exists in nearly every country, and its branches flourish in almost every parish here in the United States. It has been productive of untold good among our young girls, and membership in it has become recognized as the badge of devout Catholic maidenhood.

The Rosary and Scapular Societies

These are commonly united in our parishes into a single organization, but they are in reality distinct bodies, established at different times and for somewhat different objects.

The Confraternity of the Holy Rosary was instituted in the fifteenth century, and the first branch of which there is a definite record was founded in the city of Cologne, in Germany, in 1474, by a zealous priest named Sprenger. A Dominican, Alan de Rupe, was largely instrumental in establishing the devotion of the Rosary as we now have it; and it was through him and other members of his order that societies of the Rosary were formed throughout Europe.

The members of this society partake of the merit of all the good works performed throughout the world by the members (both male and female) of the Dominican Order. Branches exist in many of our parishes, and with us it is largely a woman’s society. It has received many indulgences from various Pontiffs; and Pope Leo XIII, in 1898, renewed and confirmed these in an important decree.

The only obligation for the members is the reciting of the beads – the fifteen mysteries within a week; and even this does not bind in any way under penalty of sin. In return for this simple service they share in a vast treasure of merit gained by the great Order of Preachers, which has ever been unsurpassed in untiring effort for the spread of the faith of Christ and in zeal for souls.

Other Rosary Societies

There are other societies which have the same object and practise the same devotion. The “Perpetual Rosary” has existed since the seventeenth century. It assigns to each member a certain time of the day or night for the recitation of the beads, so that a continual Rosary will be offered to our Blessed Mother. Another society, the “Living Rosary,” dates from 1826, and divides its members into “circles” of fifteen, each of whom is to recite a single decade each day, thus ensuring the recitation of the whole Rosary by each circle – a maximum of prayer, as it were, with a minimum of effort.

The Scapular Society

The “Confraternity of Our Lady of Mount Carmel” – for such is the real title of the Scapular Society – is much older than the Rosary Confraternity. It is known to have existed in the thirteenth century, and may be even older. The origin and rules of the scapular and scapular medal are fully treated elsewhere in this book, in the chapter on “Scapulars.”

The Purgatorian Societies

Devotion to the suffering members of the Church in Purgatory is almost as old as the Church herself, for the doctrine of the Communion of Saints has always been asserted as a part of Catholic teaching. The Church of the catacombs had its prayers for the dead. The religious societies of the Middle Ages practised special works of charity for deceased members; and it was customary for churches and monastic houses, even of different orders, to enter into an agreement to pray and offer Masses mutually for the souls of all who were enrolled in a “register of brotherhood.” This led to the institution of “Purgatorian societies” exclusively for the laity, and the first of these of which there is a clear record was established in Germany in 1355.

There have been, and still are, many distinct associations of this nature. Prominent among them are the Confraternity of “the Passion of Christ and of the Sorrowful Mother,” instituted at Rome in 1448; “Our Lady of Suffrage,” 1592; the “Archconfraternity of Death and Prayer,” 1538; the Franciscan “Mass Association of Ingoldstadt,” founded in 1726, which has many thousands of members and provides for the saying of more than two thousand Masses daily; the “Archconfraternity for the Relief of the Poor Souls in Purgatory,” under the direction of the Redemptorist Fathers, established in 1841; and a society intended especially for the relief of the most needy and abandoned souls in Purgatory, founded at Montligeon, France, in 1884. All of these associations have been enriched with numerous indulgences by the Holy See, and priests who belong to them are in some cases entitled to the “privileged altar,” which means that a plenary indulgence is granted to the soul for which the Mass is offered.

Thus does our holy Church provide for her children, even when they have passed from this world. It is a consoling thought, when we approach the end of our earthly career and dread the purgation which may be our due, that prayers and Masses are offered daily all over the Christian world, in the fruits of which we shall have a share.

The Society of the Holy Family

The “Archconfraternity of the Holy Family” is more widely established in Europe than it is in America. Its object is the sanctification of Christian families, and its membership includes men, women and children. It was founded at Liege, Belgium, in 1844, by Henri-Hubert Belletable, an army officer. He was a married man, living in the midst of the world, obliged to mingle with companions of all kinds – “even as you and I”; and he realized that the only hope for society was the bringing of religion into the daily and family life of men.

The association grew rapidly, and was placed under the direction of the Redemptorist Fathers. Pius IX, in the year 1847, approved it and granted indulgences to its members. It has about 1400 branches throughout the world, and nearly five million members.

Another society which has the same object was established in 1861 at Lyons, and was enlarged and approved by Leo XIII in 1892. It is known as “The Pious Association of Christian Families.”

The Society of Saint Vincent De Paul

This is an organization of Catholic laymen which is almost world-wide in extent, and is engaged in ministering to the needs of the poor. It was founded at Paris in 1833 by Antoine-Frederic Ozanam, a brilliant young professor, who brought together several of the students of the Sorbonne for charitable work, under the title of “The Conference of Charity” – later adopting the name of “The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul” and choosing that grand exemplar of Christian charity as the patron and model of the society.

Its special field, from the beginning, has been “the service of God in the persons of the poor,” who are visited in their homes and assisted according to their needs. The membership is of three classes: Active, subscribing and honorary – the last two being those who cannot devote themselves personally to the work, but who assist the active members by their influence, their contributions and their prayers.

The branches of the society in parishes are known as “Conferences”; and when there are several of these in a city they are usually controlled by a “Particular Council.” A further plan of administration has been undertaken in this country, which calls for a “Superior Council of the United States” for the whole country, a “Metropolitan Central Council” in each ecclesiastical province, and a “Diocesan Council” in each diocese.

The society has now more than two hundred thousand members. It exists in every European country and in almost every other part of the world. The American branch was organized in Saint Louis in 1846; and throughout this country at the present time about $400,000 is annually gathered and spent – and, remember, it is all spent for the poor, and not for salaries and “expenses.”