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St Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-543), who wrote the leading religious rule for monastic living, "evokes the Christian roots of Europe", says Pope Benedict XVI.

In the Roman Catholic Church the term Consecrated life, also referred to as the "Religious Life", denotes a stable form of Christian living by those faithful who feel called to follow Jesus Christ in a more exacting way recognized by the Church. It comprises the life in the religious institutes and secular institutes, as well as the life of the consecrated hermits, consecrated virgins and consecrated widows/widowers, and is regulated in canons 573-746 of The Code of Canon Law 1983.[1] What makes the Consecrated Life a more exacting way of Christian living is the public vows or other sacred bonds whereby the consecrated persons (other than the consecrated virgins and consecrated widows/widowers for whom the consecration takes a different form, see below) commit themselves, for the love of God, to observe as binding the counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience from the Christian Gospel. Benedictines take the analogous Benedictine vow as laid down in the Rule of St Benedict (ch. 58:17).

Consecrated persons are not part of the Church hierarchy, unless they are also ordained priests.[2]

The by far largest number of candidates for the Consecrated Life join what are called Religious Institutes,[3] often referred to in everyday life as religious orders or religious congregations, in which they follow a common rule under the leadership of a superior. They usually live in community, although some may for a shorter or longer time live the Religious Life as Hermits without ceasing to be a member of their Religious Institute; but this is normally an exception to the proper law of the community.

Canons 603 and 604 of the section on the Consecrated Life in the Code of Canon Law give official recognition also to Consecrated Hermits and Consecrated Virgins who are not members of religious institutes (see below).


Some canonical terms associated with consecrated life are frequently misused in common speech.

  • "Institutes of consecrated life" are canonically erected by competent church authority to enable men or women who publicly profess the Evangelical Counsels by religious vows or other sacred bonds, "through the charity to which these counsels lead to be joined to the Church and its mystery in a special way" (cf. canon 573.2 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law), without this however making them members of the Church hierarchy. Such institutes are generally called "religious orders" (for instance, the Order of Friars Preachers; but also, the Society of Jesus and the Sisters of Charity).
  • A "religious order" is one in which solemn vows are taken by members, and that follows an accepted rule. Institutes in which members take only simple vows are religious congregations (a "clerical congregation", if primarily made up of priests and oriented toward priestly work; a "lay congregation" if not). (Canon 588—Note: this is not canon 588 of the Code of Canon Law 1983, so this paragraph needs to be duly revised).
  • A monk (Greek: monachos, Latin: monachus) is a person that leads the "monastic life" in a "monastery". Nowadays it tends to be wrongly assumed that it signifies someone living in community. From early Church times there has been a lively discussion of the meaning of this term (Greek: monos alone), namely whether it denotes someone living alone/away from the rest of society, or someone celibate/focused on God alone. St Benedict understood it as meaning the latter, namely a celibate dedicated to God, as becomes clear from the fact that he considers a hermit to be a kind of monk (Rule of St Benedict, ch. 1).
  • A monastery (Greek: monasterion) is a place where a monk lives and works, and may be home to any number of monks, one or many. Often a monastery of one is, however, called a "hermitage".
  • The term "nun" (Latin: nonnus) has come to be used exclusively for female monks. In English the term "nunnery" is popularly used to denote the dwelling of a community of women. In recent literature one may also find the gender-inclusive term "monastics". Benedictines, Carthusians, Cistercians and Trappists are examples.
  • A "Friar" is a male member of one of the mendicant orders (principally, the Franciscans, Dominicans and Carmelites).
  • The term "Religious" (as in, "he/she is a Religious") is commonly used to refer to a consecrated person, a person in religious vows.
  • Priests in vows retain their usual title of "Father", and "Reverend Father". With a few exceptions (see Jesuits for example), all men in vows who are not priests and therefore to be addressed as "Father" are addressed as "Brother". That is to say, all monks are brothers, but not all brothers are "Fathers".
  • Women are addressed as "Sister". Benedictines have traditionally used the form of address "Dom" for men and "Dame" for solemnly professed nuns. All nuns are sisters, but not all sisters are nuns. The term "nun", broadly speaking, used to be reserved for women in solemn vows and in religious institutes that are subject to Papal Enclosure, the term "sister" for women in simple vows and in other religious institutes. Today this distinction has become blurred. Some women superiors are properly addressed as "Mother", and "Reverend Mother".

Historical development

Each major development in religious life, particularly in the Latin West can be seen as a response of the very devout to a particular crisis in the Church of their day.

The Eremitic Life

See also main article Hermit

When Constantine was legalizing Christianity in the Roman Empire in the early 300s, and the Christian faith became the favoured religion, it lost the self-sacrificing character that had profoundly marked it in the age of Roman persecution. In response to the loss of martyrdom for the sake of the Kingdom of God, some of the very devout men and women left the cities for the testings of the life in the desert that was meant to lead the individual back into a more intimate relationship with God, just like the wandering of the Israelites in the Desert of Sin. The Greek word for desert, eremos, gave this form of religious living the name eremitic (or eremitical) life , and the person leading it the name hermit. St Antony the Great and other early leaders provided guidance to less experienced hermits, and there were soon a large number of Christian hermits, particularly in the desert of Egypt and in parts of Syria.

Though the eremitic life would eventually be overshadowed by the far more numerous vocations to the cenobitic life, it did survive. The Middle Ages saw the emergence of a variant of the hermit, the anchorite; and life in Carthusian and Camaldolese monasteries has an eremitic emphasis. The Greek Orthodox and the Russian Orthodox Churches have their own eremitic traditions, of which Mount Athos is perhaps the most widely heard of today.

In modern times, in the Roman Catholic Church the Code of Canon Law 1983 recognises hermits who - without being members of a religious institute - publicly profess the three evangelical counsels, confirmed by vow or other sacred bond in the hands of their respective diocesan bishop, as Christian faithful that live the consecrated life (cf. canon 603, see also below).

Monastic Orders

The eremitic life was apparently healthy for some, but led to imbalance in others. St Pachomius, a near contemporary of St Antony the Great, recognized that some monks needed the guidance and rhythm of a community (cenobium). He is generally credited with founding, in Egypt, the first community of monks, thus launching cenobitic style monasticism.

St Basil in the East in the 300s, and St Benedict in the West in the 500s, authored the most influential "rules" for religious living in their areas of the Christian world ("rule" in this sense refers to a collection of precepts, compiled as guidelines for how to follow the spiritual life). They organized a common life with a daily schedule of prayer, work, spiritual reading and rest.

Almost all monasteries in the Eastern Catholic Churches and in the Orthodox Church today follow the Rule of St Basil. The Rule of St Benedict is followed by a variety of orders of monks in the West, including the Benedictines, Cistercians, Trappists, and Camaldolese, and is an important influence in Carthusian life.

Mendicant Orders

Around the 13th century during the rise of the Medieval towns and cities the Mendicant Orders developed. Whereas the monastic foundations were rural institutions marked by a retreat from secular society, the mendicants were urban foundations organized to engage secular city life and to meet some of its needs such as education and service to the poor. The three primary mendicant orders of the 13th century are the Order of Friars Preachers (the Dominicans), Order of Friars Minor (the Franciscans), and the Order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel (the Carmelites). Unlike the monks and nuns of the earlier Orders, the members of the latter Orders called their houses convents, rather than monasteries (in English, Dominican convents for men may also be called 'priories', and Fransciscan convents 'friaries').

Apostolic orders

The next major development in religious institutes occurred in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. The Society of Jesus, was founded with several innovations designed to meet the demands of the 16th century crisis: They were freed from the commitments of common life, especially the common prayer, which allowed them to minister individually in distant places. Their unusually long formation, typically thirteen years, prepared them to represent as individuals the intellectual tradition of the Church even in isolation.

Apostolic congregations

Like the Jesuits, the apostolic congregations were founded to provide specific services or ministries for the Church and society. The period of greatest growth of these communities was in the wake of the French Revolution in early 19th century France and Belgium. These communities were largely founded to build schools, hospitals and new missionary enterprises around the world.

Secular Institutes

Secular Institutes have their modern beginnings in 18th century France. During the French Revolution, the government attempted to dechristianise France. The French government had required all priests and bishops to swear an oath of fidelity to the new order or face dismissal from the Church, and had forbidden any form of religious life. Fr Picot de Cloriviere, a Jesuit, founded a new society of women, the Daughters of the Heart of Mary (French: Societe des Filles du Coeur de Marie). While living a life of perfection, they did not take vows, remaining a secular institute to avoid being considered a religious society by the government. They would eventually receive Pontifical Institute Status in 1957. With the Apostolic Constitution Provida Mater Ecclesia issued by Pius XII February 2, 1947, Secular Institutes were recognized as Latin: nova categoria status perfectionis (a new category of the state of perfection).[4] Secular Institutes[5] are a recognized form of Consecrated Life in the 1983 Code of Canon Law. They differ from Religious Institutes in that their members live their lives in the ordinary conditions of the world, either alone, in their families or in fraternal groups. They include, among others, Caritas Christi, The Grail, and the Servite Secular Institute.

Canonical recognition attained in modern times

Consecrated persons: hermits, virgins, widows and widowers

See also main articles Hermit, Consecrated virgin

As mentioned above, there are individuals recognized by the Church as consecrated persons who are unattached to religious institutes. Among them are the Hermits who consecrate themselves to God through their public or private profession of the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience, confirmed by a vow or other sacred bond, in the hands of their respective diocesan bishop (or his delegate), and observe each their own "plan of life" under his direction; theirs is a life devoted to the praise of God and salvation of the world through a stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude and assiduous prayer and penance (cf. canon 603 of the Code of Canon Law 1983; Nos. 920-921 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1992). Then there are the Virgins who are consecrated to God through the laying on of hands of their diocesan bishop and do not profess the evangelical counsels; they are betrothed mystically to Christ, the Son of God, and are dedicated to the service of the Church (cf. canon 604 of the Code of Canon Law 1983; Nos. 922-924 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1992). As regards the Widows who appear to have been given special attention in the early Church, Pope John Paul II in his Apostolic Exhortation Vita Consecrata (section 7c) speaks of Consecrated Widows and Widowers as individuals who through a vow of perpetual chastity as a sign of the Kingdom of God, consecrate their state of life in order to devote themselves to prayer and the service of the Church. The Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches (canon 570) also makes a provision for them.

Societies of Apostolic Life

Comparable to Religious Institutes are the Societies of Apostolic Life,[6] dedicated to pursuit of an apostolic purpose, such as educational or missionary work. They do not take religious vows, but live in common, striving for perfection through observing the "constitutions" of the society to which they belong. Whilst it is not a general obligation for all Societies of Apostolic Life, some of them define in their constitutions "bonds" of a certain permanence whereby their members embrace the evangelical counsels.[7] Examples of Societies of Apostolic Life are St. Philip Neri's Institute of the Oratory, the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, and the Priests of St. Sulpice.

Process of foundation and approbation of Religious Institutes

According to Canon Law (canon 579) religious communities normally begin as an association formed, with the consent of the Diocesan Bishop, for the purpose of becoming a Religious Institute. After time has provided proof of the rectitude, seriousness and durability of the new association, the Bishop, having consulted the Holy See, may formally set it up as a Religious Institute under his own jurisdiction. Later, when it has grown in numbers, perhaps extending also into other dioceses, and further proved its worth, then the Holy See may grant it formal approval, bringing it under the Holy See's responsibility, rather than that of the Bishops of the dioceses where it is present. For the good of such Institutes and to provide for the needs of their apostolate, the Holy See may exempt them from the governance of the local Bishops, bringing them entirely under the authority of the Holy See itself or of someone else. In some respects, for example public liturgical practice, they always remain under the local bishop's supervision.

Typically, members of Religious Institutes either take vows of evangelical chastity, poverty and obedience (the "Evangelical Counsels") to lead a life in imitation of Christ Jesus, or, those following the Rule of St Benedict, the vows of obedience, stability (that is, to remain with this particular community till death and not seek to move to another), and "conversion of life" which implicitly includes the counsels of chastity and evangelical poverty. Some institutes take additional vows (a "fourth vow" is typical), specifying some particular work or defining condition of their way of life (e.g., the Jesuit vow to undertake any mission upon which they are sent by the Pope; the Missionaries of Charity vow to serve always the poorest of the poor).


  1. Cf. canons 573-606, canons 607-709, canons 710-730, canons 731-746 of the Code of Canon Law 1983 (see also Catechism of the Catholic Church 1983).
  2. cf. canon 207; Chart showing the place of consecrated persons among the People of God
  3. canons 573–602, 605–709
  4. Castano, Jose F. Gli Instituti di Vita Consacrata (cann. 573 730 Millennium: Romae, 1995.
  5. canons 710–730
  6. canons 731–746
  7. cf. canon 731

See also

External links

  • information and free resources about Catholic religious vocations and consecrated life.
  • helps those discerning a Catholic religious vocation sort through and connect with communities and institutes.
  • digital edition of VISION, the annual Catholic religious vocation discernment guide.

pt:Vida consagrada