What are the Catholic orders? Which of them are the most important?
Answer: Since the time of early Christianity there have been Christians who want to live the Gospel as intensely as possible and devote themselves wholly to God. This gave rise to religious orders. A Catholic order is a religious community, the rules of which have been examined thoroughly and approved by the Church. It is made up of men (monks, fathers, brothers) or women (nuns, sisters), who commit themselves to the evangelical counsels to the legitimate superior of the order in the radical succession to Christ. In concrete terms these counsels are: poverty, that is renouncing personal property (community of property), celibacy, that is renouncing marriage and children (chastity), obedience to the religious superior. These people are known by the Latin term religiosi (French: religieux; English: religious; the corresponding German term Religiosen has not, however, firmly established itself). The post-conciliar Church prefers the term consecrated life (vita consacrata) and speaks of institutes of consecrated life or simply religious institutes. This enables the truly diverse religious forms (monasticism, mendicant orders, congregations, secular institutes and hermits) to be given one uniform name and to be treated as one. The fundamental statement by the Second Vatican Council in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (“Lumen Gentium” 43-47) is: religious life is consecrated life. The consecration to God comes about by publicly taking vows, stated in the evangelical counsels given above, and by living in a recognised institute of consecrated life.
The dedication of one’s life is the result of a special calling. Thus, consecration is a divine act and responding to the calling received is a human act. The purpose is perfect love. The origin and constitutive structural element of the spirituality of every religious order is the search for God in spiritual communion marked by asceticism, the reading of sacred scripture and its exegesis, as well as the communal praise of God. In addition to the Gospels and the example of the founding community, the literature that has grown out of the religious order itself – rules, letters, tracts and so forth – provides spiritual orientation. The spirituality of the individual order is strongly shaped by the personality of its founder and the historical right or opportune moment (Greek: kairos) of its foundation.
The most important orders and groups of orders in the Catholic Church today include:
Benedictines, Cistercians, Augustinians, Trappists, Charthusians, hospital orders.
Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites, Hermits of St. Augustine.
Jesuits, de La Salle Christian Brothers, Passionists, Redemptorists.
Priestly communities without public vows:
Lazarists, Sulpitians, White Fathers, Pallotians, Society of the Divine Word.
Many of the male religious orders named above have female religious orders and congregations, e.g. Benedictines, Trappistines, Dominican nuns, Franciscan nuns, Vincentian nuns, Maria Ward Sisters and so forth.
In the year 2000, 0.12% of the members of the Catholic Church, that is over one million believers, belonged to Catholic religious institutes in their distinct and diverse forms. Of these, 75% belonged to female religious orders.
The following text is an example of a religious vow:
“I, Sister XXX, praise almighty God before all the sisters and brothers assembled here today, to live forever in consecrated chastity, poverty and obedience, according to the Rule of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul in Hildesheim “ …I put myself at the service of this religious order for its apostolic-charitable works in the service of God and of the Church with my whole heart. Holy Trinity, one God, accept my vows and make me able and willing to love you ever more fully.”