The history of contemplative religious sisters and brothers can be traced back to biblical times, when figures such as Elijah and John the Baptist sought intimate relationships with God in the solitude of the desert. Early Christian hermits who lived in the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine during the second and third centuries followed their examples. These men and women shunned the material and denied themselves all but the most basic possessions and links to the outside world, including family and sexual relations. In this isolation, they devoted their lives to prayer and to contemplation of spiritual matters.
The history of active religious sisters and brothers can be traced back to the original 12 disciples of Christ. They were the first missionaries, and among their followers were men and women devoted solely to serving God through the church, caring for the sick, helping the poor, and teaching the Gospel. By the fourth century, monasteries where monks lived together were established. St. Jerome was a prominent organizer of monasteries, setting up both male and female communities.
St. Benedict of Nursia, who lived during the fifth and sixth centuries, organized monastic communities that spread throughout Western Europe over the next several centuries. Known as the Benedictines, these religious lived in a community, working together within the monastery while still maintaining a prayerful atmosphere. They were required to take solemn vows of obedience, permanence within the monastery, and adherence to poverty and chastity.
Other important male and female religious communities within the church followed the Benedictines. The 13th century saw the emergence of the mendicant orders of the Carmelites, Dominicans, and Franciscans. Unlike those in earlier communities, mendicants commonly traveled, sometimes great distances, to preach their Christian messages. Many were involved in the newly created universities of the Middle Ages.
The Jesuits, formally known as the Society of Jesus, were formed in the 16th century. St. Ignatius, their founder, introduced the practice of simple (as opposed to solemn) vows. Less stringent simple vows allowed for the ownership of personal property and made a more active mission possible. The Jesuits were especially important in the development of educational institutions and missionary work.
When female counterparts to these orders were initiated, they were usually of a cloistered contemplative nature. By the 17th century, groups of women religious, or sisters, also began to take simple vows, allowing them to forgo cloistered life if they so chose. Sisters increasingly devoted themselves to aiding the sick and poor and teaching children religion and basic educational skills. The Daughters of Charity, formed in France during the mid-17th century, was one of the first active orders for women and became a model for later communities.
Contemplative religious life underwent an important renewal in the 16th century when St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross reformed the Carmelite order in Spain. They believed that both the male and female branches of the order had become too lax and were no longer true to the ideals of the desert fathers, so they formed the much stricter Discalced Carmelite order ("discalced" means barefoot, a reference to their commitment to poverty). This and other reforms, like the Colletine reform of the Poor Clares in the 15th century, have kept contemplative communities vital and faithful.
In the 20th century, the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), known as Vatican II, unleashed far-reaching reforms for the religious communities, affecting such aspects of religious life as the wearing of habits and the selection process of new religious. Consequently, many brothers and sisters adopted a more comfortable, more publicly accessible lifestyle, while maintaining their vows and the missions of their orders. This was especially true of the active religious orders, who have since expanded their missions to include such modern concerns as caring for AIDS patients and those suffering from addictions. Cloistered contemplative orders are among the most traditional religious orders, but they have also made necessary changes after Vatican II.
A 2009 study sponsored by the National Religious Vocation Conference found that while religious institutions in general were "experiencing aging membership, diminishing numbers, and few, if any, new vocations, some continue to attract new members and few are experiencing significant growth." The study also found that new vocations and future brothers and sisters would likely come from a more diverse range of ethnic and social backgrounds than in the past. Statistics available in 2016 noted a slight increase in the number of men's orders with at least one initiate, rising from 78 percent in 2009 to 80 percent, while women's orders remained flat at 66 percent. Also, the average of age potential ordinands and those who reached final profession dropped by three years, shifting new vocations slightly younger. The same statistics also showed greater ethnic diversity among those entering religious orders.
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