The National Catholic Review
Thomas J. Shelley

Forty years ago David Knowles, who was a Benedictine monk prior to his appointment as the Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, wrote a splendid popular survey of Christian monasticism. Elizabeth Rapley, who quotes Knowles with respect, has set a more ambitious goal for herself with this popular history of the religious orders of the Catholic Church. She has succeeded admirably in this informative, judicious and fast-paced narrative that is a pleasure to read.

The first impression one brings away from this book is the seemingly endless variations that religious life has assumed in the church over the course of almost two millennia as devout Christians sought to perfect their spiritual life through the traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. At least one religious order even gave a unique spin to the seemingly inflexible vow of chastity. The Spanish military Order of Santiago welcomed married knights, allowing them to substitute a vow of conjugal fidelity for the usual vow of celibacy.

Rapley acknowledges that some forms of religious life offend every modern sensibility, especially the medieval military orders like the Templars and the Teutonic Knights, whose spirituality had little in common with the Sermon on the Mount or the contemporary preaching of St. Francis of Assisi and his followers. Even the theologically astute David Knowles threw up his hands in bewilderment rather than try to explain the spectacle of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the oracle of his age, blessing the Second Crusade and sending thousands to their death. In 1187 the Spanish military order of Calatrava affiliated with the Cistercians without abandoning their own bellicose charism, leading one observer to declare that “they were wolves at the sound of the trumpets, lambs at the sound of the bells.”

An unusual and welcome feature of this book is the attention that the author gives to women religious, who have a long if neglected history. The origins of Christian monasticism are usually traced to the Desert Fathers in fourth-century Egypt. Rapley informs us that when Antony arrived in the desert to establish his hermitage, he found that his sister was already there. Pachomius founded communities of women as well as of men. When St. Jerome (“one of the church’s original misogynists,” according to Rapley) decamped to the Holy Land to lead a quasi-monastic life, he was accompanied by two aristocratic Roman ladies.

For most of Christian history, male religious far outnumbered female. Not until the 19th century was the ratio reversed. Because of the lowly legal status of women in medieval society, the Poor Clares, and even St. Clare herself, found it considerably more difficult to embrace a life of apostolic poverty than did the male followers of St. Francis. Perforce for a thousand years nunneries were largely aristocratic institutions where social class sometimes trumped gender even in liturgical celebrations. Professor John McManners tells the revealing story of a convent of snobbish Benedictine nuns in 18th-century Angers. At Mass each day, before Communion, the priest was obliged to leave the altar and appear before the choir stall of the abbess, who presented him with the key to the tabernacle.

Not until the foundation of the Daughters of Charity by St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac in 17th-century France did it become possible for poor women without a dowry to serve other poor people as religious in schools, hospitals and other charitable institutions. Even then, in order for these women to accomplish their good works, it was necessary to circumvent the restrictive legislation of the Council of Trent that would have confined them to the cloister. The Ursulines and Visitandines, to say nothing of the indomitable Mary Ward and her “English Ladies,” had tried to do so earlier and failed.

A recurring theme in the history of the religious orders is the disappointing but all too human experience that nothing fails like success. Rapley provides abundant evidence of this phenomenon. One of the great events in the history of medieval monasticism was the founding in the year 1098 of the Cistercians, an order of reformed Benedictine monks who were dedicated to recovering the poverty and asceticism of the Desert Fathers. But despite their best efforts to remain true to their ideal, and ironically because of their efficient work ethic, within a century the “poor men of Christ,” as the Cistercians originally called themselves, became the most successful agricultural entrepreneurs in medieval Europe. “Proto-capitalists,” Rapley calls them.

Nevertheless, a few centuries later, the Cistercians produced their own reform movement, which is forever associated with the abbey of La Trappe and its thundering abbot, Armand-Jean de Rancé. Perhaps the best example of the phoenix-like ability of religious orders to rise from the ashes is their recovery from the catastrophe of the French Revolution. The 19th century witnessed a remarkable and totally unexpected flourishing of religious life. For much of the century in France at least one new religious order appeared each year. In officially anticlerical Italy Don Bosco established a new religious order dedicated to St. Francis de Sales that became the third largest order in the Catholic Church.

Rapley, adjunct professor of history at the University of Ottawa, regrets that she was unable to devote more space to the history of the religious orders in her native Canada. She gives generous attention to the role of women religious in the United States, but she might also have mentioned that that they were largely responsible for the creation of what Sister Patricia Byrne, C.S.J., has called (without exaggeration) the largest system of private education in the history of the world.

One can hardly fault the author, however, for failing to cover every aspect of this vast topic in a modest survey of a little over 300 pages. There are no footnotes or bibliography, and unfortunately no mention of monasticism in the Eastern Orthodox Churches, but there are helpful suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter and a glossary of technical terms.

At a time when virtually all religious orders in the United States are in steep decline, this book supplies needed historical perspective and spiritual encouragement. It reminds American Catholics of their debt to the religious orders and offers hope for the future because of the legendary ability of men and women religious to revitalize not only their own communities but the church itself during some of the darkest moments of its history.

Msgr. Thomas J. Shelley, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is professor of church history at Fordham University.