Why are there so many different religious orders?

The number and variety of Religious Orders and Congregations that have emerged in the course of its history is one of the great treasures of the Church.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) demonstrated how ecclesial movements were like reforming ‘waves’ that swept over the institutional Church at various critical moments in its history – movements of the Spirit inspiring men and women to live the Gospel more radically and to challenge the institutional Church to reform. These women and men attracted followers and eventually, with the approval of the Church authorities, were formed into ecclesial communities (i.e. religious orders or congregations).

Think of St. Benedict of Nursia (480-547), for example. He was practically the founder of western monasticism, and the way of life he laid down for his monks (the Benedictine Rule) continues to be the basis of monastic life in the Benedictine Order itself and other monastic orders. Then there’s St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226). His call to a life of simplicity and poverty at a time of growing wealth and power in society and in the Church struck a chord with thousands of young men and women who followed his inspiration. It is a movement that continues to breathe new life into the Church today.

St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), the founder of the Jesuits, started an entirely new way of being ‘religious’, where the spiritual and physical needs of the people took precedence over religious (monastic) structure. They were be contemplatives in action. They were free to adapt to apostolic needs and to travel to the New World as missionaries.

Finally, in the 18th and 19th centuries, at a time of massive upheaval occasioned by the Industrial Revolution and growing urbanisation, a plethora of Religious Congregations – mainly female – grew up under the leadership of their founders who sought to meet the challenges of urban poverty, lack of education and health care, etc. In Ireland, we think of great figures like Catherine McAuley (founder of the Mercy order), Mary Aikenhead (founder of the Sisters of Charity), and Edmond Ignatius Rice (Christian Brothers).

In conclusion, the Church is an organism with two interconnected elements. Firstly, there is the institutional Church, made up of the pope, bishops, priests and laity, each with their own role to play.  Secondly we have the ‘charismatic Church’, led by God’s Spirit that ‘blows where it wills’ and brings about new forms and new structures which are not separated from, but are an integral part of the whole Church.

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