Religious Life

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

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 lifeemerged, these ancient Orders disappeared.However, in the 1960s the Church reinstated the Order of Virgins, where women who 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.

Consecrated Hermits

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. Others like Sr. Wendy Beckett are directly dependent on their local Bishop. She had been a religious sister in a teaching order for many years before leaving her congregation to become a hermit and a consecrated virgin.

Religious Life

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 evangelisation.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.

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 evangelising 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.

New Forms of Consecrated Life

In recent decades new forms of the consecrated life have emerged, often within new ecclesial movements such as Communion and Liberation and Focolare.The Canon Law of the Church envisages new forms of consecrated life being approved by the Holy See in the future.

The Second Vatican Council described how the Church presents different aspects of Christ through the variety of religious congregations: “Christ in contemplation on the mountain, in His proclamation of the kingdom of God to the multitudes, in His healing of the sick and maimed, in His work of converting sinners to a better life, in His solicitude for youth and His goodness to all people”.

Religious Vows


Just as Jesus remained celibate, open to loving all whom he encountered, religious do not get married or have sexual or exclusive relationships. This helps them to be available to others and to grow in freedom of heart. It also witnesses to the all-sustaining love of God; Pope Benedict XVI describes how celibacy cannot mean “remaining empty in love, but rather must mean allowing oneself to be overcome by a passion for God.


By their vow of poverty religious promise to share their time, talents and resources, both within their community, and with those who are in need. Like the early Christians who “placed all things in common” (Acts 2:44), any money earned or gift given to a religious belongs to their religious community, which provides them with all that they need to live a simple and modest life-style.


The Gospels frequently describe Jesus seeking solitude to be alone with his heavenly Father. In prayer he received knowledge of the Father’s will and the strength to follow it. By their vow of obedience religious imitate Jesus’ obedience to his Father, believing that God’s will is manifested through their religious superiors. However, religious obedience is not a one-way relationship of submission but one where each one is called to pray about decisions that need to be made and to share the fruit of this prayer with those who will make the final decisions. Religious obedience requires availability and detachment from purely personal desires.

Other vows

While all forms of religious life are marked by the public profession of vows which will include poverty, celibacy and obedience (which are named differently in some monastic congregations), some religious also take other vows. These include stability, to remain in the same monastery and vows which mark the particular charism of the religious congregation, such as the Jesuit vow to undertake any mission the Pope requests of them.


(Website of the National Office of Vocations UK)