The past five decades have seen religious life in the Catholic Church go into two very different directions. On the one hand, in the wake of Vatican II, many orders – especially of women – jettisoned their unique habits and rules (and in the case of the Dominicans and Carmelites, their liturgical rites). This revolutionary era was immediately followed by an enormous drop off in vocations, especially among those bodies most radically altered. An enormous sale of real estate was one byproduct of these trends; another was the recruiting of layfolk to teaching and hospital positions once monopolized by sisters.
But at the same time, there was an eruption of new orders and religious families of all conceivable ideological varieties: the Fraternity of St. Peter; Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest; Missionaries of Charity; Community of St. Martin; Miles Jesu; Miles Christi; Community of St. John; Communities of Jerusalem; Heralds of the Gospel; Communion and Liberation; Neo-Catechumenal Way; Canons Regular of St. John Cantius; and on and on. Regardless of what one thinks of any one of them, taken in toto, their appearance and growth shows that the religious life in its many forms has not lost its appeal.
The term “religious life” is used here broadly. Not all of the communities mentioned are religious congregations or orders. Some (e.g., the Fraternity of St. Peter, the Institute of Christ the King) are priestly societies of apostolic life whose members are clerics but do not take vows. Others (e.g., the the Heralds of the Gospel) are secular institutes whose members do take vows but live “in the world” and not in community as religious do. The Canons Regular of St. John Cantius are both clerics and religious who live the canonical form of religious life — one of those ancient realities that is making a comeback in our day.
Moreover, many older orders are regaining an interest in their own traditional ways of life – returning to their “original charisms,” as Pope after Pope has urged every established order to do since Vatican II. A number of provinces of the Dominican Order (especially those of St. Joseph and The West in the United States, and Poland abroad) and the Dominican inspired Society of St. Vincent Ferrer have revived use of the Dominican Rite. Among the Carmelites, their own Rite too has begun to creep back into use: the Order’s hermits at Lake Elmo, Minnesota, and Christoval, Texas have begun using elements of it; St. Joseph’s Church in Troy, New York offers a Mass in the Rite; and the independent Carmelite Monks in Wyoming use it exclusively. Formally called the Rite of the Holy Sepulchre, this liturgical use was employed by all the priests of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem – including those of the orders founded within that realm, in addition to the Carmelites: the Order of Malta, the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, the Teutonic Knights, the Order of St. Lazarus, and so on. Seeing that it is, so to speak, the “ancestral” liturgy of all those bodies – which all exist still in one form or another today – its revival might well eventually have a far greater impact that one might suppose.
While on the subject of knightly orders, both the Teutonic and Mercedarian Orders eliminated their lay, chivalric elements: the former in response to World War I’s outcome, the latter at the request of Pope Pius XI. But in recent years their laity have been revived in a major way: the Teutons in Germany, Rome, and Sicily; the Mercedarians in the German-speaking lands, Spain, and Italy. Moreover, those knightly orders who still have nuns deriving from them, such as the Order of Malta in Malta and Spain, and the Spanish Orders of Santiago and Calatrava.
Difficult as things have been for religious life since the Council – they have had worse struggles before. The Reformation, French Revolution, 19th century Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian sequestrations, and the onset of Communism saw countless monasteries seized by governments and religious orders dissolved. But the impulse toward the religious life is perennial; chop it down, and it will rise again – and each order appeals to a different sort of individual. Often enough, the male branch of an order will die out, leaving the female side to carry on. But in time some individuals – in love with the vision of the founder – will attempt to restore a long dead outfit to life, often with the prayers and help of the persevering sisters. So it has been with the Birgittines (although, very sadly, their sisters’ historic house in England closed this year), the Order of the Holy Ghost, and the Hieronymites. The first two were to be found all over Europe before the Reformation, but by the time of the Council were reduced to a few scattered convents of nuns here and there. The last named was confined pretty much to the Iberian peninsula, but enjoyed royal favor from the Iberian kings, and staffed some of the most impressive churches in Spain and Portugal. Despite the best attempts of various governments, these orders are back among the living.
Are you a fan of Thomas a Kempis? Well, the congregation of Canons Regular of Windesheim that produced him was severely damaged by the Reformation and lost its remaining houses to the French Revolution; but its last member did not die until 1865. Canonically, an order may be revived without a new constitution within a century after its last member’s death – and so it was under Pius XII. The Canons Regular of St. Victor produced some of the greatest minds of the Middle Ages, and succumbed to the horrors of 1789 – only to resurrect in the 20th century. So too with the Brothers of the Common Life. But perhaps the most extraordinary recovery from the Reformation is the convent of Helfta, Germany. This monastery, where the Sacred Heart was first revealed to Ss. Gertrude and Mechtilde, was also the first to be closed by Martin Luther. But since the fall of the Soviet Union, it is re-inhabited by Cistercian nuns.
Indeed, the end of the Iron Curtain brought forth a whole spurt of growth, as dispossessed orders regained both properties and ministries. The Teutonic Knights regained their places in Slovenia and the Czech Republic, while Hungary saw Norbertines back at Csorna and Cistercians at Zirc. The romantically-named Knights of the Cross with Red Star, the only chivalric religious order to be founded in Bohemia, has regained not only its role in the Czech Republic but its church in Vienna as well. Our Lady of Częstochowa fans will be aware that their favorite shrine has for centuries been staffed by the Pauline Order. Founded in Hungary, the Paulines were banished from their homeland by Joseph II in the 18th century, and further restricted (though not dissolved) by the Communists. But in recent years, they too have made a comeback in their native land. Three Frenchmen are trying to revive the Order of Grandmont, and there are several similar attempts in American and Britain to resurrect the Gilbertines.
But what of the most famous dissolved order of all, the Knights Templar? Beloved of conspiracy theorists, renowned in song and story, loved as holy crusaders and hated as heretical perverts, they have become, like the Maltese Falcon, the stuff that dreams are made of. When they were initially dissolved, the Kings of Portugal and Aragon reorganized the Templars in their domains into the Orders of Christ and Montesa – which survive today, and are the only bodies that can claim actual descent from the old order. Under Napoleon, an attempt to create a body that would live in the “Templar Spirit” was made – this soon exploded into many fragments, the largest of which is called the Knights Templar International. Billing itself as an “Ecumenical Christian” organization, it makes no claim to descend from the original order, but to carry on its spirit. There are several specifically Catholic spinoffs from it in Germany, Italy, and Spain, and, of course, the Freemasons run a “Templar” group of their own.
But most interesting is a Templar revival group in Italy that – unlike the others that claim the name – while asserting no connection to the original order lives by its rule and is a recognized order within the Church. Its Grand Master notably prevented Tony Blair, while Prime Minister and before he became a Catholic, from receiving Communion at the Cathedral in Siena. They have branches in several countries, including the United States.
Other groups have used the canonical rules to gain the legal standing of an order that has passed on. The Opus Sanctorum Angelorum, for example, was able to revive the Canons Regular of the Holy Cross, dispossessed in Portugal in 1834, as a legal structure for its priests – a job made easier by the fact that the old Order’s spirituality resembles that of the new.
Of course, there many extinct orders out there awaiting resurrection: the Celestines, Antonines, Gesuati, and Crutched Friars, to name a few. So if you want to make a study of their founders, saints, and rules, do so happily. As both the new orders and the revived ones show – despite the massive falloff in numbers for congregations that have abandoned their founders’ paths – there is a real growth in the religious spirit today. So who knows? You may end up reviving the work of St. Celestine V!