π“€˜ A Religious Order within the Catholic Church is an organization of persons, either men or women, who profess the three evangelical vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and live that obedience under a superior within a community structure in accordance with a specific rule of life. Religious were frequently referred to as "regulars" from the Latin regula, 'rule', because they followed a specific rule. Benedict of Nursia (c. 480–547) is considered the father of religious life in the Western tradition, as all religious rules have been influenced in part by the rule he composed from 530 to 540. The many religious orders within the Catholic Church and their different ways of life reflect the specific recommendations and practices suggested by their founders regarding the best way to live their vows in response to the needs and contingencies of the times. There were periods of great revival within religious life, such as the Cluniac reform of the Benedictines in the early tenth century and the creation of the Dominicans and Franciscans in the thirteenth century. The beginning of the sixteenth century saw another revival of religious life and the creation of new religious orders. It was also a time when the condition of clerics and religious life received its severest criticism, especially from evangelical reformers, who hurled their strongest diatribes against the wrongdoing within convents and monasteries. Catholic reformers likewise criticized those monastic communities that showed little regard for the vowed life.

Amid all this controversy a flowering of religious life also occurred, its growth nourished by roots that grew deep in the Middle Ages. The sources that nourished this revival included the Modern Devotion (Devotio Moderna) established by Gerhard Groote (1340–1384) and a mid-fifteenth-century book accredited to Thomas Γ  Kempis (1379 or 1380–1471), The Imitation of Christ, which grew out of this tradition. Likewise, the Oratory of Divine Love, founded in Genoa in the late fifteenth century, gained inspiration from the Modern Devotion and encouraged many future reformers. These and other movements fostered a deeper devotion to the person of Jesus, greater participation in the sacraments of confession and Communion, an emphasis on techniques of prayer and Scripture reading, and an encouragement to perform corporal works of charity among the sick, homeless, and dying.

By the end of the fifteenth century several religious instigated reforms within their own orders. Luigi Barbo (died 1443) led a reform of the Benedictines that later became institutionalized through the creation of an alliance of communities known as the Cassinese Congregation (1515). The Augustinians experienced reforming fervor under the direction of Giles of Viterbo (1469–1532), who while prior-general of the Augustinians (1507–1518) enforced existing rules by establishing representatives with powers to remove ineffective superiors and to enforce the rules of community life. Giles's inaugural address at the Fifth Lateran Council (3 May 1512) demonstrated that his concerns went beyond the specific needs of the Augustinian order when he raised issues that would be acknowledged at the Council of Trent thirty years later. Tommaso de Vio (1469–1534), known as Cajetan, while serving as master-general of the Dominicans (1508–1518), stressed reform, studies, and a greater adherence to the common life. The Franciscan community attempted reform, but disagreements concerning the interpretation of poverty culminated in 1517 with a division between Conventuals and Observants, who by that year numbered twenty-five thousand and thirty thousand respectively. Further desires for a stricter observance of poverty and greater reforms further split the Observants into four major Franciscan reform groups: the Discalced, Recollects, Reformed, and Capuchins, of whom the Capuchins exercised the greatest influence.

The Capuchin branch began in 1525, when the Observant friar Matteo Serafini da Bascio (c. 1495–1552) desired to live a more austere life, one he believed conformed to the original rule of Francis of Assisi (1181 or 1182–1226). Soon others joined him, among them Ludovico da Fossombrone (died 1555?), another Conventual. Thanks to the interest and insistence of Caterina Cibo, the second cousin to Pope Clement VII (reigned 1523–1534), Ludovico's codifications of Matteo's ideals received papal approval in 1528. In 1542 the famous preacher and vicar-general of the Capuchins, Bernardino Ochino (1487–1564), left the order and embraced Protestantism, causing the Capuchins to nearly collapse. Only after a few decades did the order regain the papacy's trust. Surmounting this and other difficulties, the Capuchins became one the most important religious orders in promoting reform. The largest order, its membership numbered 8,003 in 1600 and 27,336 in 1700.


New religious orders formed alongside the older, reforming orders. A technical point may be made that not all these groups, when first formed, were actually religious orders. True membership in a religious order, in its strictest sense, meant professing the evangelical vows and living under obedience to a superior other than a bishop. Some of the new "orders" of the sixteenth century and early seventeenth century did not at their inceptions require their members to profess the evangelical vows; hence they were not strictly religious orders. This essay, however, considers the establishment of movements that eventually became orders, whether they were strictly "orders" at their foundations or not.

In 1524 Pope Clement VII approved the Congregation of Regular Clerics, established under the guidance of Gian Pietro Carafa (1476–1559), the future Pope Paul IV (reigned 1555–1559); Bonifacio de'Colli (died 1558); and Paulo Ghisleri (1499–1557). Carafa, the first superior of the group, was bishop of Chieti, Teate in Latin, hence the attribution of the more common name of Theatines to the group. These founders, deeply influenced by the spirituality of the Oratories of Divine Love, dedicated themselves to works of mercy, a rejection of benefices, and a revitalization of clerical life. By 1600 they numbered four hundred, and by 1700 they numbered seventeen hundred.

In 1530 Pope Clement VII approved a religious order founded by Antonio Maria Zaccaria (1502–1539). Abandoning the possibilities of a lucrative career as a medical doctor, Zaccaria worked with the poor, taught the catechism, and was ordained a priest in 1528. Officially named the Clerics Regular of Saint Paul, the group became known as the Barnabites, a name taken from their mother church of Saint Barnabas in Milan. The Barnabites, taking Saint Paul as their model, preached, heard confessions, and performed acts of public penance in an attempt to reform the corrupt morals of the time. In 1607 the group had 320 members; a century later it had increased to 726 members.

In 1540 Pope Paul III (reigned 1534–1549) approved the Society of Jesus—the Jesuits. Founded by Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556), a Spanish Basque nobleman and former soldier, the Jesuits advanced reform by means of education and preaching in urban, rural, and foreign missions. The Jesuits were known as the "schoolmasters of Europe," their system of education admired by Catholics and Protestants alike. By 1615 the Jesuits supported 372 colleges. By the first quarter of the seventeenth century Jesuit missionaries were located in North and South America, India, China, and Japan. In all their ministries the Jesuits promoted a greater participation in the sacraments of confession and Communion, suggesting reception of communion twice a month, an extraordinary frequency for the times. The Jesuits played a crucial role in the implementation of the ideals of the Council of Trent, as they directed most seminaries in Europe, guided the consciences of many Catholic monarchs, and were influential preachers and educators. In 1600 there were 8,519 Jesuits; by 1700 their number had increased to 19,998.

In the same year as the official establishment of the Jesuits, Pope Paul III approved the Clerks Regular of Saint Maol. Jerome Emiliani (1486–1537) established this group initially for the care of orphans. Emiliani was the only founder of a religious order who lived and died a layman. Like other reformers of the period, Emiliani was a member of the Oratory of Divine Love. The order's members became known as the Somachi, named after the town of Somasca, Italy, where their founder died. In 1547 Pope Paul IV, the former Gian Pietro Carafa and cofounder of the Theatines, attempted to merge the Theatines and the Somachi into one group. The union lasted until 1555. An attempt was made to unite the Somachi with the Jesuits, but this also failed. In 1568 Pope Pius V (reigned 1566–1572) raised the status of the Somachi to a religious order. By 1600 they numbered 438 members, and by 1700 they numbered 450 members.

In response to the sickness and mortality rampant in late-sixteenth-century Rome, Camillo de Lellis (1550–1614) organized a group of men dedicated to the care of the sick and dying around the year 1582. In 1591 the papacy elevated the organization to a religious order. At the death of Camillo, the order had 330 members living in fifteen communities throughout Italy.

In 1588 Pope Sixtus V (reigned 1585–1590) approved the Order of Clerks Regular Minor, commonly referred to as the Caracciolins after one of their founders, Ascanio Caraccioli (1563–1608). This new order practiced works of charity and was especially active in promoting devotion and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. By 1700 this order numbered five hundred.

John Leonardi (1541?–1609) founded the Clerks Regular of the Mother of God in Lucca, Italy, in 1574 which received papal approval as an order in 1595. Leonardi advocated a way of life that promoted secluded contemplation and active works of charity. At the death of Leonardi, the order had only two communities, one in Lucca, the other in Rome. They did not extend beyond the Alps until 1800.

The Spaniard JosΓ© Calasanz (1556–1648) in 1597 gathered a group of men, the Poor Clerks Regular of the Mother of God, who were approved by the church hierarchy as a religious order in 1617. The Piarists, as they became known, took as their only work the education of poor children. Although the Jesuits advanced free education, their emphasis on higher education and its necessary requirement of fluency in Latin made such an education impossible for the poor, who could not afford a good (Latin) grammar school education. The Piarists received official papal approval as a religious order in 1621. In 1646 the Piarists numbered five hundred in thirty-seven communities.

A former Portuguese soldier, John of God (Juan Ciudad; 1495–1550), established a hospital in Granada for the poor in 1537, and a community formed around this effort. After the founder's death, Pope Sixtus V approved the community as a full religious order in 1596. The Brothers Hospitallers, as they were known, expanded throughout Europe and Latin America. In 1600 they numbered 626 members; in 1700 there were 2,046 Hospitallers.

The Oratorians, founded by Philip Neri (1515–1595), were not established as a religious order. They were secular priests who formed a congregation (from the Latin congregare, 'to gather') for the purposes of spiritual growth and to serve as a model for other priests. Pope Gregory XIII (reigned 1572–1585) approved their rule in 1575. These associations or oratories became particularly strong in France, especially under the direction of Pierre de BΓ©rulle (1575–1629), through his work in seminary education.


During the same time women reformed their existing religious orders and created new ones. In 1536 Teresa of Ávila (Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada; 1515–1582) entered the Spanish Carmelite convent in Ávila. At this time Carmelite convents were microcosms of Spanish society, with particular attention to title, wealth, and status. After twenty years Teresa rejected this style of living and advanced a stricter observation of the Carmelite rule. Fundamental in her reform was the removal of all the privileges of class status, the implementation of begging, and the elimination of all endowments that provided a stable income. As a symbol of this new austerity, the sisters wore sandals and thus were shoeless or "discalced." To be discalced became synonymous with Teresa's reform project. Although cloister was strictly enforced, Teresa recommended that the sisters' prayer life have a missionary focus, the prayer of the contemplative providing spiritual support for missionaries and those working in Protestant countries. Teresa established the first convent manifesting these reforms in 1562. Inspired by her reforms, the Spaniard John of the Cross (1542–1591) established a discalced monastery for men in 1568. Both efforts at reform came under suspicion from religious and civil authorities, but the persistence of their founders extended the discalced reform throughout the Old and New Worlds.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries new religious orders for women were created, though they were not as numerous as their male counterparts. In 1535 Angela Merici (1470 or 1474–1540), on the feast of Saint Catherine Alexandria (25 November), gathered twenty-eight women around her under the dedication of Saint Ursula. They made private promises to live the evangelical vows and to perform works of charity. Identifying her group with Ursula (fourth century?), a female saint known and respected for her work outside the cloister wall, and Catherine of Alexandria (died early fourth century), who professed total dedication to the person of Jesus with the promise of chastity, Angela attempted to create a rule in which the women combined a celibate life with activities outside the cloister. At the founding of the order the Ursulines were not a religious order, as their promises were private and the organization not officially approved; the women lived at home under the protection of their parents. The idea of consecrated virgins outside of cloistered life did not appeal to church authorities, and after Merici's death, and in spite of efforts by her followers to adhere to the original ideal, the church authorities implemented Tridentine regulations concerning strict adherence to cloister for female religious.

Jeanne-FranΓ§oise de Chantal (1572–1641) established a way of life for women in France that was less cloistered and placed greater emphasis on the active apostolate. Under the spiritual direction of FranΓ§ois de Sales (1567–1622), Chantal's rule was a type of middle way for women who desired neither married life nor the rigors of strict monastic enclosure envisioned by the discalced reform. The Visitation sisters (Visitandines) did not take public vows; instead, they consecrated themselves as brides of Christ and lived under the authority of the local bishop. Such an arrangement did not meet with approval. Parents questioned the welfare of such an arrangement, since it lacked stability and financial security for their daughters' futures. Church authorities disapproved of the looser interpretation of cloistered life. In 1618 the papacy legislated that the Visitation sisters embrace the rule of Saint Augustine and strict monastic enclosure. By 1700 there were sixty-five hundred sisters.

Mary Ward (1586–1646) in England advanced the most radical rule for women who desired to live the vowed life outside the cloister. Ward argued that English Catholics could be best served by women who could move about society freely and unrecognized by authorities and therefore could not live in a cloister or wear a habit. Taking as a model the Jesuits, the English Ladies—or the Institute of Mary—desired to have no authority other than the pope. The idea of uncloistered women religious moving freely across the English countryside did not sit well with the papacy. Although their foundation received papal approval in 1616, they were suppressed in 1631.


Simple conclusions and summaries cannot be made concerning the religious orders of early modern Europe. Jesuits wanted to be known for their strict obedience, the Oratorians stressed individuality, and Teresa of Ávila espoused a "holy freedom" for her sisters in their selection of a confessor and spiritual guide. Some common themes, however, are discernable. All new and reformed orders found inspiration in late medieval spirituality, particularly the Modern Devotion. Religious embraced the vow of poverty with new vigor. These orders placed a great emphasis on education and care for the sick, a response to the demographic increase in the sixteenth century and the growing poverty and illiteracy of the lower classes. All the new orders and some of the reformed desired to transcend the traditional monastic enclosure in some manner. This was particularly true of the Jesuits and other male religious and was attempted by female religious, such as Mary Ward and Angela Merici. Although women religious were subject to strict enclosure, Teresa of Ávila insisted that their prayers breach the convent wall in support of missionary efforts throughout the known world. Active life outside the cloister for women religious had to wait until after the French Revolution.
πŸ‘‰ The Franciscans
πŸ‘‰ The Ursulines
πŸ‘‰ The Servites
πŸ‘‰ The Trappists
πŸ‘‰ The Passionists

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