Religious Orders

by Tracey Rowland

A look at some Religious Orders

Within the Catholic Church there are man different Orders of priest, brothers and sisters. The following is a short history of some of the more famous of the Orders: the Carmelites, Benedictines, Franciscans, Dominicans and Jesuits.


The Order of St Benedict (O.S.B).

The “Benedictines” is the name given to congregations of monks and nuns who follow the Rule of St. Benedict. The monks and nuns live their lives enclosed within the walls of a monastery. Although each monastery is based on the Rule of St. Benedict, it is an autonomous entity in a legal sense.

The life of a monk or nun in a monastery is based around the Recitation of the Divine Office, a collection of Psalms, Prayers, Readings from the Gospels and the Lives of the Saints, Antiphons, and Hymns. The hours at which the Office is recited are known by their French and Latin names: Matins (meaning morning – around 3 AM), Lauds (meaning the prayer of praise at dawn), Prime (around 7 AM – the prayer of sunrise), Terce (the third hour which is around 9 AM), Sext (the sixth hour or mid-day), None (the ninth hour or 3 PM), Vespers (around 6 PM by which time the star Vesper can be seen in the northern hemisphere) and Compline (the prayer of dusk).

In addition to sanctifying each day and its division of hours with prayer, the monks and nuns undertake intellectual work and manual labour. The monasteries are usually self-sufficient. They usually have their own dairy, vegetable gardens and bakery. Some also produce wines, cheese, honey, beer and olives. The intellectual work usually takes the form of writing books on sacred topics or teaching catechism to children who visit the monastery for instruction in the teachings of the Church. In the mediaeval period before the invention of the printing press, the monks were responsible for transcribing manuscripts and those which they illuminated with water-colour drawings of flowers and animals and saints and Christian symbols are now regarded as great works of art. Historians agree that the Benedictine monasteries saved Europe from the barbaric culture which arose during the decline of the Roman Empire, and in particular, kept alive the tradition of scholarly learning. It is for this reason that St. Benedict is one of the patron saints of Europe.

During the early centuries of Benedictine life monasteries were frequently pillaged and destroyed by marauding gangs of Viking sailors. However by the Middle Ages monastic life flourished throughout Europe. The first major threat to monastic foundations came with the Protestant Reformation. For various different reasons the Reformers were opposed to monastic life. For example, in England King Henry VIII, the founder of the Church of England, decided to plunder the monasteries and distribute their wealth to a new class of aristocrats who were his supporters; while in Germany Martin Luther opposed the whole idea of the spiritual value of monastic life. Following the Reformation in the 16th century, the French Revolution of the 18th Century also destroyed large numbers of monasteries. The Revolutionaries opposed the Church and thought that reason alone without faith or God is all that a person needed to get by in life. Accordingly monasteries were sacked and taken over by the revolutionary government and their members who did not escape were martyred. Today if you visit Paris and go to the area called “Montmartre” you can still see the remains of a Benedictine monastery for nuns which was taken over during the Revolution. This suppression of the monasteries also extended to Belgium (1796), Switzerland (1798), the left bank of the Rhine (1802) and Central Italy (1810). Between 1803-1807 all monasteries of Baden, Bavaria, Würtenberg, and Prussia – 141 of them – were destroyed by anti-Catholic political forces of one kind or another. Those of Spain and Portugal were destroyed in 1834 and 1835. Some of the monks fled to England by which time the anti-Catholic persecution of the Elizabethan era had quelled and new Benedictine foundations were established at Ampleforth (1802) and Downside (1814). In 1850 a Benedictine monastery was founded in New Norcia in Western Australia. In France the Benedictine life was restored at Solesmes in 1833 by Prosper Gueranger.

Some of the greatest Benedictine saints have been women. These include: St Scholastica (who was St Benedict’s sister), St Hildegard, St Gertrude and St Mechtilde. St Gertrude and St Mechtilde are credited with beginning the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In Benedictine monasteries the nuns are called “Dame”, not “Sister”.

In recent times there has been a revival of Benedictine life in France with the establishment of new monasteries. Some of these, such as the monastery of Le Barroux, is devoted to the preservation of the Church’s liturgical heritage and accordingly the Masses and Prayers of the Office are said in Latin. As members of the laity it is possible to visit these monasteries and to remain for a few days as guests. The idea is that it is important for lay people to spend some time in retreat from the cares of the world in an environment where everything is focused on the praise and glory of God. The following statement comes from the Monks of Le Barroux about how they see their vocation:


The monks built Europe but they did not do it intentionally. Their adventure is first of all, if not exclusively, an inner adventure, whose only motive is thirst. A thirst for the absolute. Thirst for another world, for truth and beauty. A thirst that the liturgy kindles in order to guide the eye towards eternal things; to make the monk a man who aims with all his being towards the reality which never dies. Before being academies of learning and centres of civilization monasteries are principally silent signs pointing towards heaven, the obstinate uncompromising reminder that another world exists, of which this world is only the image, the vindication, the foreshadowing.


The Carmelites are also a monastic order. They have their origins in the tradition of the Old Testament hermits. Their Rule was written by St Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem between 1206 and 1214. There are different sub-groups within the Carmelite family with the differences relating to the degree of enclosure within the monastery and the severity of the penances members undertake as reparation for the sins of the world. One major difference is between Discalced and Calced Carmelites. The word “Discalced” means bare-footed, or without shoes.

The Carmelites also spend their lives in prayer and undertake manual and intellectual labours. However a major difference between the Carmelites and the Benedictines is the emphasis given to penance in the Carmelite tradition. Just as the Hermits in the Old Testament and the early Church saw their vocation as essentially one of making reparations for the evil of the world, so too this notion of self-sacrificial redemptive suffering is central to the Carmelite vocation. An understanding of this idea of redemptive suffering may be found in the poem A Celebration of Divine Love, by the Australian poet, James McAuley. In one verse of the poem McAuley says, “Abide the Sharp Frosts and the Time of Pruning, for He shall Come at Last for whom you yearn, and deep and silent shall be your communing/And if His Summer heat of love should burn its victim with a sacrificial fire/Rejoice: who knows what wanderer may turn, Responsive to that fragrant hidden pyre!

Some of the most famous Carmelite monasteries, including Launceston, Brisbane, Wagga Wagga, and Melbourne. The monasteries are sometimes called “Carmels”. Some are very strict. For example, many of the female Carmelites will never leave the grounds of their monasteries once they enter, and thereafter only speak to visitors from behind a grill. Extraordinary exceptions are made for reasons for health. In some monasteries meat is never eaten, while in others, meat is only permitted on Christmas Day and Easter Sunday. Usually the Carmelites will take a religious name which signifies what they perceive to be their special vocation. For example, Edith Stein chose the mane “Teresa Benedicta of the Cross” because she knew that suffering (the “Cross”) was central to her vocation and she had received a strong Benedictine spiritual formation before she entered the Carmel in Cologne. Similarly, St. Therese of Lisieux was “Therese of the Child Jesus” because her special vocation, aside from praying for the missions, was to foster the idea of a spirituality based upon child-like trust in Divine Providence.

The Carmels are thus a kind of high-powered spiritual treasury for the Church.


The Dominicans or “Orders of Preachers” (O.P.) were founded by St Dominic in the 13th century. The Dominicans are not monastic but run parishes, schools, universities and university colleges. Their focus in on the intellectual apostolate, particularly the teaching of the faith through preaching and the intellectual defence of the faith through writing and lecturing. The most famous Dominican University is the Angelicum in Rome which is renowned for its training of priests in philosophy.

There are many Dominican saints, but the most famous include: St Dominic, St Albert the Great, St Thomas Aquinas, St Catherine of Siena and St Catherine de Ricci. At least 83 Dominicans have experienced the stigmata-the appearance of unhealable wounds in their body precisely the position of the wounds of Christ. Two Dominicans have been Popes: Pope Pius V (1566-72) and Benedict XIII (1724-30). St Thomas Aquinas and St Albert the Great are both Doctors of the Church. St Thomas Aquinas said that Dominicans must “contemplate and give to others the fruit of their contemplation”.

Although the Dominicans do not recite all the hours of the Office as the Benedictines do, those which they do recite are recited in common as a community. The Dominicans generally say the Novus Ordo rite of the Mass, but they also have their own “Dominican Rite” which is seven centuries old. In the Dominican Rite of the Mass at the Consecration the Host and Chalice are offered up in a single oblation and with a single prayer and only the Host is elevated. The Rite concludes with the following blessing: Benedictio Dei Omnipotentia, Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti, descendat super vos et maneat simper – “May the blessing of Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, descend upon you and remain with you forever.”

In England the Dominicans are called “Blackfriars” because of their habit which consists of a white robe, scapular and cowl, with a black mantle and cowl. Laybrothers wear a black scapular and cowl. All fasten the robe at the waist with a leather belt from which is suspended a rosary. In France the Dominicans are called the “Jacobins” because of their priory of Saint-Jacques in Paris.

The Dominicans are renowned for their rich liturgical life, for their learning, for spreading devotion to the rosary, and to the Sacred Heart. The Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Paris was built after the French Revolution as a national act of reparation to the Sacred Heart, and it was members of the laity associated with the Dominicans who suggested its construction.

Like other religious orders the Dominicans were suppressed in France in 1903, expelled from Mexico in 1910, from Communist China in 1946 and persecuted during the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. It also goes without saying that their foundations in Oxford and Cambridge were either destroyed during the Protestant Reformation or taken over and occupied by forces loyal to Henry VIII or Oliver Cromwell. The English Dominicans only returned to Oxford in 1929 after 400 years, and to Cambridge in 1939.

An Australian Province of the Dominican Order was founded in 1950. The Parish of Camberwell is a Dominican Parish and the Dominicans also run Mannix College at Monash University, St Albert’s College at the University of New England, and John XXIII College at the Australian National University. The new John Paul II Institute, a Pontifical Institute based in East Melbourne, and offering subjects in theology, sociology and philosophy at post-graduate level, is under the direction of the Very Reverend Professor Anthony Fisher who is a member of the Australian Dominican Province. In Ganmain, a small town outside of Wagga Wagga there, there is a new foundation of Dominican Sisters who teach in the local Catholic school.


The “Jesuits” or members of the Society of Jesus (S.J.), were founded by St Ignatius of Loyola in 1534. He and his six Companions went to Montmartre, the Hill of Martyrs in Paris, and vowed themselves to poverty, chastity, and apostolic endeavours in the Holy Land, or if it proved not be possible, to whatever tasks the Pope required of them.

Like the Dominicans, the Jesuits have a history of working in academic institutions and taking care of the intellectual apostolate. They were particularly prominent during the Reformation and are often regarded as leaders of the Counter-Reformation. Some of the most famous saints include: St Ignatius Loyola, St Francis Xavier, St Aloysius Gonzaga, St Edmund Campion, St Robert Southwell, St John Ogilvie, St Andrew Bobola, St Peter Canisius and St Robert Bellarmine. The latter two (Canisius and Bellarimine) are Doctors of the Church. Campion, Southwell and Ogilvie were all martyrs during the Protestant Reformation. St Francis Xavier is one of the Patron Saints of Australia.

Unlike the Dominicans, the Jesuits do not pray as a community, wear a distinctive religious habit, undertake regular penances or have a female branch of the Order. The Society is highly centralized with military discipline imposed on its members.

The Motto of the Jesuit Order is “Ad Majorem Dei gloriam” (all for the glory of God). In Australia the Jesuits run schools, parishes and university colleges and are heavily involved in work with refugees. In the Archdiocese of Melbourne they are responsible for Xavier College, Kew and Newman College at the University of Melbourne.


Like the Carmelites, there is not only one Franciscan Order, but rather a family of Orders which all derive from foundations of St Francis of Assisi (1181-1226). The distinctive feature of the Franciscan Rule is the obligation of poverty of dispossession. The friars were to own no property and to earn their living by manual labour and begging. Eventually three Franciscan orders came into being which differed from each of the others in their interpretation of the obligation of dispossession. The Friars Minor allow no corporate ownership of property, the Conventuals permit corporate ownership of property, and the Capuchins are the most austere.

Over 50 Franciscans have been canonized, including St Maximillian Kolbe who gave up his life for that of another prisoner in the Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz. The most famous Franciscan theologian is St Bonaventure, known as the Seraphic Doctor of the Church.

The Franciscans were always strong defenders of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady, even before the Church officially defined the dogma in the nineteenth century. They have also been associated with spreading the devotion of the Way of the Cross, of the recitation of the Angelus Prayer, and the custom of building Christmas Cribs.

For women there is a female Order of the Franciscans known as the “Poor Clares”. This is because they were co-founded by St Francis and St Clare. This is a contemplative order.

There are many Franciscan communities throughout Australia and there special apostolate is to the poor and to the care of the natural order, including the conservation of flora and fauna. In many communities throughout the world on the feast of St Francis of Assisi the Franciscans bless farm animals and pets.