Religious orders have a rich history as an important and integral component of the Catholic Church, spreading the Faith through their traditions of good works and leading pious lifestyles. But have you ever gotten confused by the many religious orders that the Church has, the differences between them, or even what a religious order is? Here’s a brief overview.
“From the very beginning of the Church there were men and women who set out to follow Christ with greater liberty, and to imitate him more closely. They led lives dedicated to God, each in his own way. Many of them, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, became hermits or founded religious families.” – Catechism of the Catholic Church 918
According to the Catholic Church, a religious order, also called a religious institute, is “a society in which members … pronounce public vows … and lead a life of brothers or sisters in common.” Members of these religious orders are considered to be living a consecrated life: a special form of Christian living led by the Faithful who are called to follow Christ in a specific and stable way.
So what makes the consecrated life led by members of religious orders different from our ordinary lives? Consecrated life is defined by the public religious vows undertaken by a person where they commit in their love of God to observe and bind themselves to the three evangelical counsels: chastity, poverty (or perfect charity), and obedience.
Each religious order has a charism, gift from the Holy Spirit, in which they derive their spiritual importance from. An order’s charism acts as a guiding principle of character that drives the specific mission and works of the order.
Religious orders also exist under four different categories. Canons regular are clerics that recite the Divine Office. Monastics are monks or nuns that live and work in a monastery that recite the Divine Office. Mendicants are friars or sisters that live from alms, recite the Divine Office, and evangelize through apostolic activities. Clerics regular are priests who take religious vows and live an active pastoral and apostolic life, often in dispensation of reciting the Divine Office.
Here are nine helpful infographics by Catholic Link that easily explain the top religious orders in the Catholic Church, their specific type, and their charisms.