Are religious orders different from one another? If so, how are they different?

Although all Religious Institutes are similar in that their members live in community and take the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, each religious institute has its particular ‘charism’ (spiritual gift for the Church) and style of life. It is like the rich variety of plants and flowers in a garden: each plant or flower is unique and yet it is identifiably part of the one ‘garden’. Similarly, each religious institute will have recognizable and distinguishable characteristics based on their original inspiration, their founder’s intentions, their rule, etc.

To understand the differences between religious institutes, therefore, you would need to understand their history, their founder’s intentions, and their particular ‘rule’, which outlines their distinctive way of life.

Let’s take the Benedictines and the Jesuits by way of contrasting examples. The Benedictines go back to the 6th century when Benedict of Nursia (480-547) established monasticism and wrote a guidebook (Rule) which is the basis since of many subsequent forms of monastic life. Benedictine monks live and work in a monastery; they are largely contemplative; they take a vow of stability which ties them to a particular monastery for life.

The Jesuits, founded in the 16th century by Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) ushered in a wholly new form of religious life, not based on monastic structure but rather on apostolic need. Jesuits are an active, apostolic order. They are not confined to a monastery or to the regular prayer-life of monks. Instead they remain in the world, moving from place to place, drawn to where the needs of people are most urgent or where most fruit is to be expected. In contrast to the Benedictine vow of stability, they are very mobile. In addition, they take a fourth vow – to the Pope, for mission, offering themselves for service in the universal Church according to the Pope’s wishes. 

For Jesuits, the monastery is ‘within’. They carry the monastic, contemplative dimension deep in their hearts and this becomes the driving force behind their apostolic engagements. They are known as ‘contemplatives in action’.

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