Why are there so many different religious organisations?

The Church is like an organism with a very particular DNA. This DNA is not a human invention or creation. It contains God’s stamp. By the will of the Father and the work of the Holy Spirit, the form and structure – the template – of Christ’s Church was established and it continues to grow according to God’s original design until it comes to perfection at the end of time.  The core of this DNA is the Gospel, the Good News. In the course of Church history, aspects of the Gospel came to prominence, usually through a charismatic Founder, which led to new forms of Christian Life. For example, the early hermits took seriously Jesus’ invitation to ‘leave everything’ and follow him. They went into the desert as a sign of total detachment from everything worldly in order to find God alone.

The major contemplative institutes (Benedictines, Carthusians, Cistercians, Carmelites, etc.) grew out of this inspiration. The mendicant (‘begging’) orders of the Middle Ages grew out of a similar inspiration: to leave all in order to be free to love and serve God and neighbour, especially the poor, in accordance with the Gospel. The story of Martha and Mary has inspired many women Congregations down through the centuries – contemplative institutes in imitation of Mary who ‘sat at Jesus’ feet’ and active institutes whose role was, like Martha, to ‘serve at table’, to feed the hungry, to welcome the stranger, to clothe those found to be naked, etc.  In the 19th century, following the Industrial Revolution and the rise of grinding poverty in urban areas, many male and many more female Religious Institutes were set up to care for people in great need.

The Church as an organism is one, but it has a great number of aspects. Different ones come to the fore at those times in history when particular needs call for them. In our own time, we might think of the Focolare Movement, which emphasises the unity of all humankind.  This particular charism is, clearly, of great relevance in today’s globalised world in which, by virtue of extraordinary advances in communications technology, the great need for a united world is recognised. This is just one example of how the Holy Spirit brings from the Gospel treasures that remained hidden but which become vital for the world at special moments in its history.

The number and variety of religious institutes in the Church are the work of the Holy Spirit, bringing new life and vitality to the Church and enriching it with a rich tapestry of colour and form.

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