Religious orders

Origin and variety of orders

Monks sitting in a round. © Abt Hermann-Josef Kugler O.Praem

Since the beginning of Christianity, there have been men and women who live in accordance with the example of Jesus Christ and thus want to serve the proclamation of His Gospel. They form communities of women or men to demonstrate the sincerity, credibility and sustainability of their life and service. Since the High Middle Ages, these forms of life have been characterized as the three evangelical counsels of poverty, celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of God and obedience.

In the course of Church history, very different communities of women and men have developed, which today are referred to under the collective name “religious communities”.

Elements they have in common are

  • the life in community (communio),
  • the commitment to God and the community through vows (consecratio)
  • and the mission to serve the Church and the people (missio).

The evangelical counsels are fundamental values or virtues of religious life and characterize the attitude to life, the way of life and the commitment of religious people. In solidarity with all people they understand poverty, celibacy and obedience as a prophetic sign of the coming of the kingdom of God. At the same time, the decision for a life according to these principles is of a voluntary and binding nature.


A sister speaking to a guest. © DOK (Arnulf Salmen)

It is above all due to the different tasks and services, that a wide range of different forms and types of orders developed: preaching orders, teaching orders, nursing orders, pastoral and missionary communities and many others. The monastic and contemplative orders are primarily dedicated to worship, prayer and hospitality. Upheavals in society and the Church led to a change of the activities and tasks of many orders.

Today, the difference between the religious communities lies more in the forms of their communal living. These range from a spiritual bond and occasional meetings of widely scattered members, over small groups of members living together and working at different places to large convents in which the members live, pray and work under the same roof. Depending on the circumstances of the individual’s or community’s life, the common and spiritual way of life may also considerably differ.

The religious communities form a missionary, prophetic and contemplative part of the Church and they inspire the Church with their variety.


Secular institutes

Today, the differences between some religious communities and so-called secular institutes often become indistinct. Pope Pius XII in 1947 laid the canonical foundations for the establishment of secular institutes or worldly communities. Unlike the religious communities, the members of secular institutes live their consecration and mission “in the world”, without seclusion and religious habit. Today there are secular institutes with their members living under one roof and fulfilling their tasks like a religious order and there are orders with their members working in different professions without seclusion and without wearing a religious habit. What they have in common is the obligation to live according to the evangelical counsels in commitment to God (consecratio) and to the community (communio) and in serving the people (missio).
In other countries the way of life of orders and secular institutes is summarized by the terms vita consecrata, vie consacrée, vida consagrada, consecrated life. In German a collective name like this does not exist so that the term „order“ often also means „secular institute“. In addition, the term „vita consecrata“ also comprises the singular way of life of hermits and female hermits and of the consecrated virgins.

Today many religious orders and secular institutes are undergoing a process of renewal. The following basic texts, also on the renewal of religious orders, were formulated during the Second Vatican Council, the Würzburg Synod and after the 1994 Bishops’ Synod on consecrated life in Rome:

Current issues of consecrated life

On its spring plenary assembly in 2005, the German Bishops’ Conference dealt with current issues of consecrated life and religious orders during a study day on the topic „Development and today’s mission of consecrated life“. After this study day, the bishops initiated a follow-up process dealing with the development and the common work of parishes and consecrated life e.g. in joint pastoral and charitable initiatives, so that the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the invitation to practice the faith may reach many people of our time. Four talks were held between bishops and experts from the religious orders and communities which were focused on the following four issues:

1.    „Religious orders and the local church“
2.    „Service to the sanctity of everybody in the people of God“
3.    “Social and charitable institutions of religious orders“
4.    “Pastoral care for vocations”

In these talks, the bishops and experts discussed specific problems and prepared suggestions on how to promote an exchange and cooperation in the different fields of pastoral, charitable and educational work of dioceses.

One highlight of this discussion process was a Future Discussion between bishops and communities of consecrated life held on 1 February 2007 in Würzburg on the subject “Serving the Gospel together”. About 140 bishops and religious people had followed the invitation of the German Bishops’ Conference and deliberated on the perspectives and concrete forms of cooperation between religious orders, communities, dioceses and groups.

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