Why Do Catholics Have Religious Orders? *
To indicate that he was consecrated to God for a special work, Samson never cut his hair (see Jgs 13:2-5; 16:17). In similar ways, other men and women in Scripture set themselves apart for God by taking vows, wearing distinctive clothing, eating a distinctive diet, or living alone in the wilderness. The ancient nazirities, for example, took vows and promised not to cut their hair, come near a human corpse, or consume alcohol (see Nm 6:1-21).
In the early centuries of the Church, many men and women who sought to give themselves completely to God similarly practiced strict spiritual disciplines such as fasting, prayer, and vigils while remaining part of their local assemblies. Their consecrated lives in some ways resembled that of Anna, the prophetess present when Jesus was presented in the temple (see Lk 2:36-38).
In time, however, many of these dedicated believers began moving out to the wilderness to devote their lives exclusively to prayer, penance, and works of charity. They took vows: to remain single as St. Paul had advised (see 1 Cor 7:32-34); to live in voluntary poverty, as Jesus had counseled those who wished to become "perfect" (see Mt 19:21); and to obey the spiritual fathers and mothers who helped them become holy (see Heb 13:17). The sacrificial way of life they practiced helped to focus and purify them.
These "ascetics," as they were called (from the biblical Greek word for "discipline"), looked to several scriptural figures as their inspiration and model: in particular, Elijah the prophet (see 1 Kgs 17:1-9); St. John the Baptist and his disciples (see Mt 3:1-4; 9:14-15), and our Lord himself, who had spent forty days alone in the wilderness, to pray, fast, and do battle with the Devil (see Lk 4:1-13). Over the following centuries, most of these Christians organized into religious orders--like-minded communities with a common life of prayer and discipline. New groups emerged, each with its own "charism" (special gift).
Today, a wide variety of Catholic orders serve the Church and the world. Some are more secluded (cloistered), dedicated exclusively to prayer, meditation, and social work. Still others specialize in evangelization, teaching, or communications media. Whatever their specific gifts, all share a vocation from God to serve as men and women set apart for a special task.
Other related scriptures: 1 Kgs 19:1-18; Mt 4:1-2; Mk 1:2-6, 12-13; Lk 5:33-35; Acts 21:23-24; 1 Tm 6:17-19; Heb 11:37-38; Rv 14:4.
Catechism of the Catholic Church: 914-933; 944-945; 1672.
*Quoted from The New Catholic Answer Bible. Wichita, Kansas, Fireside Catholic Publishing, 2005. www.firesidecatholic.com #D-4
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