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What are religious “orders” in the Catholic Church?

“The presence of religious “orders” in the Catholic Church can be confusing to folks outside the Catholic Church – and to young 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. Another example is 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… the list goes on. 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 USA; and the Order of St. Francis, Conventuals (O.F.M. Conv.).  And a few others!”

– This excerpt is from The Detroit (USA) Interfaith Council written by Michael Hovey

“Basically, there are different religious orders in the Church because each order has its own purpose. For example, the Franciscans have a special love for and identification with the poor. Dominicans are especially interested in preaching, as is indicated by the fact that the official name of the order is the Order of Preachers. Other groups, such as the Benedictines, are monastic rather than active in the world like the Franciscans and Dominicans.”

– This excerpt is from Catholic Answers blog based in San Diego California

The Archdiocese of Birmingham lists all the religious orders presently active in the West Midlands.

And so we have the letters SCJ which comes from the words “Societas Sacratissimi Cordis Jesu” in the Latin language which when translated into English means: Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The Pyrenees is a range of mountains in southwest Europe that forms a natural border between France and Spain. Near the Pyrenees there lies the village of Betharram.

“The little village of Betharram is nowadays best known for its grottos. But it is also a place of pilgrimage, hence the shrine and the wayside…Betharram wasn’t spared by the French Revolution. But a saint, Michel Garicoïs, brought the shrine back to life and prosperity. He helped the needy people, and also listened to Bernadette Soubirous’s confidences.”

– From http://www.lourdes-fr.com/en/attractions/betharram-sanctuarie.htm

Michel Garicoïs (Michael Garicoïts) founded the congregation of the Priests of the Sacred-Heart, or also known as the Betharram Fathers and Brothers who are today active in three continents

The Holy Name of Jesus Parish here in Great Barr Birmingham is in the care of the Fathers and Brothers of The Sacred Heart of Jesus (Betharram).