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Religious Orders - Historical Development

The first or monastic period lasted about 800 years, during which time the Monks held the very foremost position in the Church and in the world. They were extremely numerous and wealthy, and, on the whole, they excelled in holiness and learning. The second period, that of the Friars, was a brilliant one, especially for the first hundred years; the growth of the new Orders was rapid, and their influence' was boundless. But their epoch lasted only three centuries, and the latter half of this time was one of unquestionable decline. The third period, that of the Clerks Regular, was even shorter, for it lasted barely 200 years. It produced but one Order of first-class importance;the others had but little influence on the world, and no great power even in the Church. The fourth period, that of the Congregations, saw the religious life put upon an altogether lower plane. It produced a number of new institutes of feeble constitution, narrow scope, and small extension, compared to the vigorous life of the ancient Orders.. The Congregations have, indeed, done good work, but seem already to have seen their best days, while no new societies of the same class appear to be rising to take their place.

Monks The first monasteries were formed during the fourth century. Their manner of life was carried into other regions, both of the East and West, and various legislators gave rules to the different societies of monks that were formed. In the West two only of these survived-the rules of St. Augustine and St. Benedict. The former of these, though much the earlier of the two, remained in abeyance for some centuries; the latter flourished wonderfully from the first, and absorbed most of the monasteries that had been founded under the earlier rules. During the six or seven centuries which followed the death of St. Benedict, A.d. 540, it is hardly too much to say that the monasteries contained all that was fervent and learned in the Church.

The expression "ordo monasticus" at first denoted a class of monks, as "ordo virginum" denoted a class or virgins, and "ordo sacerdotalis", the class of priests. The first founders, St. Basil and St. Benedict, thought not so much of establishing an order as of drawing up a plan of individual life, common to the use of monks who desired to be directed in their aspirations after perfection. Each monastery was independent, and was not even bound to a definite rule; the community was left free to change the observance, and a certain option could be allowed to the monks to choose which of several rules they would follow.

Various Orders of Monks came into existence that professed to follow the Rule of St. Benedict, but they did so in varying degrees of exactness. Each Order marked a fresh attempt to restore a fervor that had perished or decayed. Thus arose the great Order of Cluni, later on the still more famous Order of Citeaux, and others. Orders were also founded that were independent of the Rule of St. Benedict, such as that of the Carthusians.

The reforms of the monasteries in the tenth and eleventh centuries gave rise to aggregations of monasteries, which prepared the way for the religious orders of the thirteenth century. The Congregation of Cluny founded by St. Odo (abbot from 927 to 942) which, in the twelfth, century grouped more than 200 monasteries under the authority of the abbot of the principal monastery, and of the Congregation of Cīteaux, of the eleventh century, to which the Trappists belong, and of which St. Bernard was the principallight. Less for the sake of reform than of perfection, and of adapting to a special end the combination of the cenobitic and eremitic life, St. Romuald (d. 1027) founded the Camaldolese Order, and St. John Gualbert (d. 1073) the Congregation of Vallombrosa. From the eleventh century also (1084) date the Carthusians, who needed no reform to maintain them in their pristine fervor.

The reforms of Cluny and Citeaux prepared the way for the religious order in the present, sense, by making all the monks subject to the authority of one supreme abbot. St. Francis and St. Dominic united their disciples in one vast association with an interior hierarchical organization of its own, and recognizable even outwardly by the identity of rule, dress, and life. From that time forward, each religious order has been a corporation of religious approved by the Church. And since we distinguish institutes bound by solemn vows and approved by the sovereign pontiff from institutes with simple vows, the expression "religious order" has been naturally applied exclusively to institutes with solemn vows.

Regular Canons The Rule of St. Augustine, by its elasticity, gave scope for the organisation of new Orders, and several came into existence during this period. They are known under the generic name of Canons Regular. The whole of this period in the history of the Religious Orders, from their inception until the end of the twelfth century, may be called the Monastic period. No other forms of religious life existed but the monastic and the canonical; all the monasteries were houses either of monks or of canons regular.

Many bishops endeavoured to imitate St. Augustine and St. Eusebius, and to live a common life with the clergy of their Church. Rules taken from the sacred canons were even drawn up for their use, of which the most celebrated is that of St. Chrodcgang, Bishop of Metz (766). In the tenth century, this institution declined; the canons, as the clergy attached to a church and living a common life were called, began to live separately; some of them, however, resisted this relaxation of discipline, and even added poverty to their common life. This is the origin of the canons regular.

Military religious orders A noteworthy outcome of the crusading movement was the foundation of several curious orders, of which the Hospitalers and the Templars were the most important. The military orders date from the twelfth century, and while observing all the essential obligations of religious life, they had for their object the defence of the cause of Christ by force of arms; among these were the Knights of Malta, formerly called the Equestrian Order of St. John of Jerusalem (1118), the Order of Teutonic Knights (1190). the Order of Knights Templars (1118).

These orders combined the two dominant interests of the time, those of the monk and of the soldier. They permitted a man to be both at once; the knight might wear a monkish cowl over his coat of armor. The Hospitalers grew out of a monastic association that was formed before the First Crusade for the succor of the poor and sick among the pilgrims. The pope showered privileges upon the Templars. They were exempted from tithes and taxes and were brought under his immediate jurisdiction; they were released from feudal obligations, and bishops were forbidden to excommunicate them for any cause. No wonder they grew insolent and aroused the jealousy and of hate of princes and prelates alike. Even Innocent III violently upbraided them for admitting to their order wicked men who then enjoyed all the privileges of churchmen. Early in the fourteenth century, through the combined efforts of the pope and Philip the Fair of France, the order was brought to a terrible end, suppressed by Clement V at the Council of Vienne (1312), at the urgent request of the King of France. Philippe-le-Bel. Its members were accused of the most abominable practices, - such as heresy, the worship of idols, and the systematic insulting of Christ and his religion. Many distinguished Templars were burned for heresy ; others perished miserably in dungeons. The once powerful order was abolished and its property confiscated.

Mendicant Orders of Friars A new form of the religious life came into existence in the thirteenth century. It was an age of growth and expansion. Men's minds were full of new ideas; they wanted leaders and instructors in religious matters; new agencies were required to meet the needs of a rapidly developing society. Neither the Monks nor the secular clergy could supply the want. The Monks and Regular Canons had always affected a certain seclusion. Their monasteries were mostly in the country, or, if in a town, they were surrounded by a large precinct which kept them apart from the town life. The new Orders chose their habitations in or near towns. The Dominicans almost invariably set themselves down in the haunts of men; the Franciscans had an affection for hermitages and solitary places, but rarely were they very far from frequented spots; both Orders alike kept themselves closely in touch with the outside world, and aimed at doing it service.

The mendicant orders are marked by two characteristics: poverty, practised in common; and the mixed life, that is the union of contemplation with the work of the sacred ministry. Moreover, the mendicant orders present the appearance of a religious army, the soldiers of which are moved about by their superiors, without being attached to any particular convent, and recognize a hierarchy of local, provincial, and general superiors. The order, or at least the province, takes the place of the monastery. Other important points may be noticed: the mendicant orders are founded only by favor of an express approbation of the sovereign pontiff, who approves their rules or constitutions.

The Dominicans and Franciscans, with the Augustinians and Carmelites, and some other Orders of less importance, all founded during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, formed a variety of the religious life quite separate from the Monks and Canons Regular, recognised as being so in Canon Law. They are called officially Mendicant Orders, from the practice, which all embraced at the beginning of their existence, of holding no property, and subsisting on alms. The popular name given to them everywhere was Fratres, brethren, or some vernacular equivalent-in English, Friars; in Italian, Frati ; in Spanish, Frayles. It expresses the familiar footing on which they placed themselves with the people, and which differentiated them from the Monks even more than their mendicancy. The houses of the Friars were less vast and splendid than the abbeys of the Monks, but they were ample enough to lodge a considerable community. At the middle of the fourteenth century the average Dominican house in England contained about forty friars.

Hospitaller Orders The hospitaller orders are specially devoted to the relief of bodily infirmities; most of them are of comparatively recent origin. The most celebrated of all, the Order of Brothers of St. John of God, dates from 1572; the Cellite Brothers were approved by Pius II in 1459; the Brothers Hospitallers of St. Anthony were approved by Honorius III in 1218. The misfortunes of Christendom were the cause of the foundation of orders vowed to the most excellent works of mercy, namely, the Redemption of Captives; the Trinitarians (Order of the Most Holy Trinity), and Mercedarians (Order of Our Lady of the Redemption of Captives). Both these date from the thirteenth century, the first being founded by St. John of Malta and St. Felix of Valois, the second by St. Peter Nolasco and St. Raymond of Pennafort. They follow the Rule of St. Augustine and are mendicant orders.

Regular Clerks The importance gained by the clergy, as distinguished from the monastic bodies, was the determining factor in the form which was taken by the next development of the Religions State. Several forms of it had been worked out, and furnished no new variety - the monastic, the canonical, and the mendicant Orders; another type was to consist of Orders of Clerks-i.e., clergymen. The mendicant orders were one of the glories of the later Middle Ages. Fresh needs led in the sixteenth century to a new form of religious life, that of the clerks regular. These are priests first of all, even in respect of their mode of life, and their dress: they have no peculiarity of costume; they undertake all duties suitable to priests, and attend to all the spiritual necessities of their neighbour, especially the education of the young, which the mendicant orders had never attempted. Being clerks and not canons, they escaped at the same time the inconvenience of having a title of honour and of being bound to any particular church.

Several Orders of this type were founded during the course of the next hundred years, with similar characteristics, and are called generically Orders of Regular Clerks. Many of them take a vow not only not to seek for ecclesiastical dignities, but even not to accept them. The first were the Theatines, founded in 1524 by St. Cajetan and Cardinal Peter Caraffa, later Paul IV; then came the Barnabites, or Regular Clerics of St. Paul, founded in 1533 by St. Anton Maria Zacearķa; the Clerks Regular of Somascha, founded by St. Jerome Emiliani, and approved in 1540, the same year which saw the beginning of the Society of Jesus. The Clerks Regular. Ministering to the Sick, called Camilians after their founder, St. Camillas de Lellis, was founded in 1591. But the type was not an enduring one. Only one of the Orders belonging to it has left a deep impression on the Latin Church and obtained a place in history - the Society of Jesus. The rest, so far as they still exist, are survivals. The Society of Jesus owes its still vigorous life to its wider scope and more efficient administration.

Congregations A further growth has, however, taken place in extension of the religious life, but on a lower level. Institutes have been founded in later times; they are not Orders, however, but Congregations. The Passionists and Redemptorists belong to this class, and were founded about the middle of the eighteenth century. In more recent times have followed the Society of Mary, the Oblates of Mary, the Congregation of Picpus, the Institute of Charity, and others. At first sight there may appear to be little to distinguish between a Religious Order and a Religious Congregation. The difference, however, is really fundamental. It lies in the nature of the vows taken by their members; in an Order they are solemn, in a Congregation they are simple. The difference between the two practically amounts to this, that simple vows are readily dispensed; while solemn vows are relaxed only in extreme cases. The bodies in which solemn vows are taken are alone properly called Religious Orders.

In the sixteenth century Leo X by his Constitution "Inter cetera", 20 Jan., 1521, appointed a rule for communities of tertiaries with simple vows, according to which those only who promised clausura were obliged to observe it. St. Pius V rejected this class of congregation by his two Constitutions, "Circa pastoralis" (29 May, 1566), and "Lubricum vitae genus" (17 November, 1568). They continued, however, to exist, and even increased in number, first tolerated, and afterwards approved by the bishops: and subsequently recognized by the Holy See, which, in view of the difficulties of the circumstances, has for more than a hundred years ceased to permit solemn vows in new congregations. These are the religious congregations of men and women to whom Leo XIII gave their canonical charter by his Constitution "Conditm a Christo" (8 December, 1900).

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:09:10 ZULU