Throughout the history of the Church there have been different forms of consecrated life; varied ways of expressing a desire to follow Christ with an ‘undivided heart’ (1 Corinthians 7:34). Through vows of life-long celibacy and often through vows of poverty and obedience, men and women have sought to follow Christ’s own example as closely as possible. Consecrated life may be lived as a member of an institute, such as in a religious congregation, or individually, where vows are made to the diocesan Bishop.
Consecrated virgins; consecrated widows and widowers
Long before the emergence of religious life, consecrated virgins and widows had a distinctive identity in the Church. St Paul describes women who remained unmarried and devoted themselves to prayer (1 Corinthians 7) and records the personal qualities required to be eligible to be ‘enrolled’ as a widow (1 Timothy 5). However, as communal forms of consecrated life gradually became the central form of ecclesial consecration, these ancient Orders disappeared.
However, in the 1960s the Church reinstated the Order of Virgins, where women who have not lost virginity through voluntary intercourse and who have never married are consecrated to perpetual virginity, to a life of prayer and penance, and to the service of the Church under the guidance of their local bishop. Because consecrated virgins have no rule or community, own their own property and care for their personal needs, it is particularly important that those who are discerning this state of life are mature and self-reliant women.
While the numbers of those seeking consecration as widows and widowers appears to be growing, there is not currently a rite in the Western Church for this particular form of consecration.
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With the ending of the persecution of Christians in the fourth century, the first Christian hermits, known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers, experienced a call to leave ‘the world’ to seek God in solitude, austerity and prayer. While some remained hermits, others attracted small communities around them, which became the beginning of Christian monasticism.
Throughout the history of the Church there have been a small number of people who are called to the life of a hermit. Today most hermits are attached to a religious community, in which they have lived and grown to a mature understanding of their particular calling. For example, Thomas Merton lived in community as a Trappist monk for 25 years before becoming a hermit attached to his community.
Religious life is the form of consecrated life that Catholics are most familiar with. There are hundreds of different religious orders or congregations, each of which contributes a particular gift to the life of the Church. Within religious life the main distinction is between monks and nuns who live in an enclosed convent or monastery and religious who work outside the cloister, for example in education, health-care or evangelization.
Religious make vows of life-long celibacy, poverty and obedience (though these are named differently in some congregations.) They usually live in a community, where they support each other, in prayer, in ministry and in providing for the daily needs of each one.
Each religious congregation is a public witness to one particular way of following Christ. Some religious wear a distinctive clothing or habit, others express their solidarity with those among whom they live and work by wearing ordinary clothes, often with a cross or distinctive symbol of their religious congregation.
Many male religious are priests but there is also a strong tradition of religious brothers in the Church. The three types of male religious congregations are religious institutes of brothers (such as the De la Salle Brothers), clerical institutes (such as the Marist Fathers) and ‘mixed’ institutes, such as the Franciscan Capuchins, where members who are priests and those who are brothers express together the essential charism of the congregation.
For more information about religious life: http://religiouslife.com/
Societies of Apostolic Life
There are many forms of Societies of Apostolic Life, all of which resemble institutes of consecrated life, but to different degrees. Members usually live in community and are dedicated to a specific apostolic or missionary task.
In some Societies of Apostolic Life members take private vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, in others only the vow of chastity is taken, while in some there are no vows to the society at all. For example, the Mill Hill Missionaries commit themselves to the Society by taking a Missionary oath through which members dedicate themselves for life to be available for the mission of the Society. Others, like the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul each make annual private vows on a set date. Still others, like the Congregation of the Oratory, are groups of priests living in community without vows.
Consecration in a Secular Institute
Secular institutes are a relatively new form of consecration in the Church. They developed in the 20th century, enabling lay people to live entirely in the secular world of work and society while also promising to live in poverty, chastity and obedience according to the institute. Through this distinctive form of consecration in the world, members of Secular Institutes contribute in a particular way to the Church’s evangelizing mission by helping to ensure that the Church has an effective presence in society.
Members of secular institutes express their special consecration in apostolic activity, living either alone, in their families or in fraternal groups. Unlike many religious, they do not have a distinctive habit.
The different Secular institutes have distinctive spiritualities, such as the Dominican Secular Institute and Notre-Dame De Vie (Carmelite). Nourished by the spiritual riches of their Institute, members find strength to live and work in the ordinary conditions of the world and so contribute to the coming of God’s kingdom.