So What is this Religious Order Business, Anyway?


So, what do you know about Catholic religious orders?  Don’t break into a sweat, because there will not be a test.  And lest my non-Catholic readers feel uneasy, even some of my Catholic friends lose their footing on this one.  Truth is, I didn’t know all that much about them myself not so long ago.  But then my eldest son joined one, forcing me to take a crash self-taught course.  So just keep reading, and I will save you a bunch of work.

“So, what do your kids do?”  is a common question asked of we fifty-something guys.  And, of course, I always enjoy answering the question, as does any parent who is proud of seeing the children grow and mature into, well, real people.  The answer is so easy with my younger two.  A quick summary of current year in college, their major and what they would like to do for a career is the kind of conversation that is easy for most folks to identify with.  But with the oldest, it presents a problem.

I have tried several approaches, but all of them seem to require quite a bit of explanation.  I have said “He has joined the Dominican Friars”, to be asked in return if it is a baseball team.  I have said “he has joined the Dominican religious order”, to be met with a sort of blank stare that asks “annnnd . . . ?”  I tried starting out with “Are you a Catholic?”, figuring that the answer would clue me in whether to give the beginners or the advanced answer.  Unfortunately, that didn’t work out as well as I had figured, with some of the Catholics just as mystified as anyone else (though perhaps not quite so willing to admit it.)

Religious orders are sort of a foreign topic among Protestants and have not really been that well explained to younger Catholics, either.  The best way to start is with a review of the normal Catholic hierarchy which is, well, quite Roman.  The Parish Priest is under the authority of his Bishop, who has been appointed to his geographical Diocese by the Pope.  The Pope, who is the Bishop of Rome, has a primacy over the other Bishops.  If you missed my discussion about who and what the Pope is, you can read it here.  So, Pope, Bishop, Parish Priest.  Simple, right?

Religious Orders kind of step outside of that simple hierarchy.  They have existed since at least the time of St. Augustine in the fifth century, and probably before that, when groups of Christians sought to retire from the world for lives of prayer, study and personal holiness.  As history progressed and new problems presented themselves, some saw the need for a particular community to address them.  So, in most cases having obtained the consent of a local Bishop and the Pope, a new religious Order could be created, always governed by a unique constitution (generally called a Rule.)

For simplicity’s sake, I am going to stick to discussing male religious orders.  Orders of nuns will be similar in the big picture, but since I know so much less about them, I suggest that we come back to them some time in the future.

Well before the first millennium, while the Church saw a great variety of orders, the best known would be that founded by St. Benedict (the Benedictines), whose Rule distilled to “pray and work”, and who were primarily monastic, which is to say that they kept to their monastery.  Monks, basically.  However, the Benedictines also began to educate area children and eventually developed missions of education as well as hospitality towards travelers.  Other monastic orders made the copying of scriptural manuscripts as their primary physical labor, and it is they that we have to thank for the care, keeping and reproduction of the Bible before the advent of the printing press.

The middle ages saw new Orders that were military or administrative in nature (the Knights Templar may be the best known of this group).  A little-known fact about the Templars, an endless source of modern fascination, is that they operated a sort of banking system that allowed a traveler to deposit money with them at the start of a journey and withdraw it at their destination.  This would have been a valuable service in an era of bandits and highwaymen who were quite ready to separate the traveler from his wealth.

That era also saw Orders that were formed to encounter the world and spread the gospel, such as those assembled under St. Dominic (who saw a need for study and preaching) and St. Francis (who had a heart for the poor).  I discussed these two orders a bit here.  And many are familiar with the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) who were formed by St. Ignatius of Loyola as a quasi-military Order with the goal of encouraging reform within the Catholic Church following the Protestant Reformation, and who eventually became very active in both missionary evangelization and higher education.  In more recent decades, the Jesuits have developed a reputation as the freethinkers of Catholicism.

These examples are only the tip of a large iceberg, as there are many more than we could go into here.  But in most cases, each is self governing with its own hierarchy.  Using the Dominicans as an example, the leader of a particular house is a Prior, who answers to the head of a Province (the Provincial) who, in turn, answers to the Master of the Order.  The only interaction between the priests and brothers of a religious order and the regular structure of the Church is that an Order may work in a diocese only with the approval of the local Bishop.  Also, the Pope can, in rare cases, intervene or even suppress an Order if circumstances warrant.

A Religious Order can be highly geographical.  For example, there is a Benedictine monastery (St. Meinrad) in southern Indiana, which also serves as the primary seminary for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.  This tends to give my area a very “Benedictine flavor”, which translates to a faith that strives to be simple, charitable and hospitable to strangers.  Other areas are more under the influence of other Orders.  This does not result in any real difference in belief from place to place, but it does result in differences in emphasis or outlook.  I should add here that it is not uncommon for a Pope to seek a priest out of a religious order when there is a need to appoint a new Bishop. For nearly thirty years, Indianapolis has been led by two successive Bishops from religious orders  – a Benedictine and a Redemptorist (from the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer.)

One way to identify whether a priest is a member of a religious order is when there are letters after his name.  Unlike in the secular world, these letters do not signify advanced degrees or titles of office.  Instead, they identify a priest with his Order.  For example, OP (Order of Preachers, the formal name for a Dominican), SJ (Society of Jesus) or OSB (Order of St. Benedict).

So, there you have it – the Catholic Church is not quite as monolithic as you may have thought, with a lot of grass roots movements to go along with the more traditional “top-down” kind of hierarchy.  But even with some good-natured rivalries between orders, everything comes together in the end in a common pursuit of the Big Picture.

Finally, there is an added bonus for making it through this little tutorial (that turned out longer than I had planned).  Next time someone starts a joke with “A Dominican, a Franciscan and a Jesuit walk into a bar . . . “, you will be able to laugh at a good punch line right along with everyone else.

14 thoughts on “So What is this Religious Order Business, Anyway?

  1. Thank you! This has helped clear things up considerably. Previously, all the different orders were simply a murky intermingling with the Church. Now there is a coherent order to it all.


    • I have found it interesting how many different religious orders there are. Also, how many others there have been through the centuries that have flourished for awhile and then withered or merged with others. At the same time, new orders have continued to appear. As with so many things, the more I learn, the less I know.


  2. Jim, I remember now the order that both of Maryrose’s aunts belonged to…BVM or Blessed Virgin Mary. One is still alive and helping with other retired and infirmed nuns in a convent in Dubuque, IA. It was great seeing you the other day and thanks again for dinner. Let’s try to make it less than 30 years next time!


    • Womens’ religious orders seem to be much smaller and less centralized than those of the men. They are still a little confusing in my mind. Yes indeed, I enjoyed getting together. Agreed, thirty years was way too long. At our age, we had best not make that mistake again. 🙂


  3. Great post.
    Thought I’d offer my current favorite of Order-oriented jokes:

    Two men considering a religious vocation were having a conversation. “What is similar about the Jesuit and Dominican Orders? ” the one asked.
    The second replied, “Well, they were both founded by Spaniards — St. Dominic for the Dominicans, and St. Ignatius of Loyola for the Jesuits. They were also both founded to combat heresy — the Dominicans to fight the Albigensians, and the Jesuits to fight the Protestants.”
    “What is different about the Jesuit and Dominican Orders?”
    “Met any Albigensians lately?”


    • My son (the Dominican) told me that one, and I got a chuckle out of it. The one I had been thinking of asked the question: What does God not know? The answer is this: He does not know what the Jesuits are thinking, what the Dominicans are doing, or how many orders of Franciscans there are.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. Growing up protestant, the concept of religious orders was completely foreign to me. What has surprised me is how little of a grasp many Catholics have on the topic. But then most have little interaction with clergy outside of their own parishes.


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