What are religious “orders” in the Catholic Church?

Thank you to Michael Hovey

Some years ago (I think it was back in 1979), when I was a “Brother” (like a nun or Sister, but a male) in a Catholic missionary “order” called Maryknoll, I was one of four members of religious “orders” (I’ll explain the quotation marks below) who were invited to speak about vocations/callings to the priesthood and religious life (religious “orders” of Brothers and Sisters) at a Catholic high school in Newark, New Jersey.  Many of the students there were not Catholics.  After the four of us – a Franciscan priest, a Dominican sister, a Jesuit seminarian, and myself – gave our “pitches,” one student asked, “Just how many religions ARE there in the Catholic Church?!”

The presence of religious “orders” in the Catholic Church can be confusing to folks outside the Catholic Church – and to Catholics too!  First of all, the term “orders” is used rather loosely; it has become a generic term for any specialized group recognized either by the Vatican/pope or by the local bishop that was founded by a charismatic (spiritually and otherwise gifted) man or woman who invites others to “share their vision” of ministry and Christian service in a particular way:  caring for the “poorest of the poor”; educating those on the margins of society; missionary efforts to those who have not heard of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; and so on.

A more proper generic term for these groups might be “religious communities.”  The reason for this is that, as a quick look at a Google search for “Catholic religious orders” will show (and give you a headache), there is a huge number of classifications for those groups which people commonly call “orders” in the Catholic Church – way too many to explain in this article!  There are orders, congregations, religious institutes, institutes of consecrated life, mendicant orders, clerics regular…is your head starting to ache?

I should point out here that religious “communities” are not only found in the Catholic Church; the Orthodox Church, Anglican/Episcopal and Lutheran Churches also have them!

Why do these Christian religious communities exist within the Church(es)?  Dating back to the early centuries of Christianity, some followers of Jesus felt drawn to gather together in monastic, celibate communities to dedicate themselves to regular, frequent, daily prayer; farming, and caring for the needy in the local community.  In the early 500s, Benedict of Nursia wrote his “rule” for his monks – and the Benedictine communities have continued to this day, around the world, following his “Rule.”  As the centuries continued, other men and women were stirred to go beyond the monastery “into the world” to meet the needs of the people of their day, as they were inspired by the Gospel.  Some of the best known are people like St. Francis of Assisi, the son of a wealthy merchant who abandoned his inheritance and, with his friend (St.) Clare, dedicated themselves and called followers to serve the poor, taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.  Ignatius of Loyola, a soldier wounded in war, had a spiritual conversion while recuperating and gathered some friends around him at the university to form the Company (or Society) of Jesus – the Jesuits.  They also took the three vows mentioned above – and an additional vow of obedience to the pope.  [When Pope Francis – who is the first Jesuit to be elected pope in history – met with the superior general, the head, of the world-wide Jesuit order, he joked about whether he still owed obedience to the superior general, or himself?!]

Likewise, St. Dominic founded the Dominicans to be an “Order of Preachers” – thus the initials after their names, O.P.

This, by the way, is a way to tell if someone is a member of a religious community…if they have letters after their name:

Dominican priests, sisters and brothers:   O.P

Jesuit priests and brothers (no sisters):       S.J.  (Society of Jesus)

Benedictine priests, sisters and brothers:  O.S.B. (Order of St. Benedict)

Franciscan priests, sisters and brothers…

Now it gets a bit confusing!  Franciscans, over the years, have had some disagreements about how to best live out the legacy of their founder and have ended up breaking off into different communities – all Franciscans, but placing more focus on this or that aspect of Francis’ life and teaching.  So…we have the Franciscans, O.S.F. (Order of St. Francis), the Order of St. Francis, Capuchins (O.F.M. Cap.) – these are the ones who run the Capuchin Soup Kitchen in Detroit; and the Order of St. Francis, Conventuals (O.F.M. Conv.).  And a few others!

So why did I join a religious “order” (really, it is technically called a “secular institute” by the Vatican)?

I met a Maryknoll priest when I was just about to be discharged from the Navy while serving at a base in Japan.  He was the person who introduced Alcoholics Anonymous to Japan!  My job in the Navy had been Drug and Alcohol Abuse Counselor for four years; I really loved Japan; and I was very committed to my Catholic faith.  Hmmm, I thought, if I joined this Maryknoll group, I could come back to Japan, continue my work, and live out my faith!  Triple Crown!

A lot transpired between then and when I ended up actually getting assigned, with my consent, to work in a shantytown parish on the outskirts of Lima, Peru three years later!  But my reasons to become a Maryknoll Brother remained the same.  Maryknoll, by the way, is the “nickname” for the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America.  The headquarters of the Society is on a knoll in Ossining, NY dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary…thus Mary knoll!  Having had a taste of living in a foreign culture and loving it, and seeing as a core element of my Christian faith the conviction that “we are ALL brothers and sisters of one God,” I felt that becoming a Brother in the one Catholic religious community in the U.S. that was founded to be exclusively devoted to working with people in foreign countries would be an excellent way for me to live out my conviction that “I am Michael, your brother.”  In the end, after five years in Maryknoll, I ultimately concluded that I did not want to spend my entire life overseas (as was the expectation for all Maryknollers, and what I thought I wanted to do when I entered the Society.)  I left the community and, following “a long and winding road,” ended up back home in Detroit!

Signed, Michael, your Brother!