Religious orders have saved the church before—and they can do it today

The Church of San Damiano would be a strong choice for the cover of a “churches of Italy” calendar. It sits at the outskirts of the little town of Assisi, perfectly framed from behind by the rolling Umbrian hills. In front, farmland opens out like a patchwork quilt. It hosts a steady stream of pilgrims, but somehow the place still feels peaceful, untouched by time.

According to legend, this chapel was in serious disrepair eight centuries ago when Francesco Bernadone, a local delinquent, came to the altar seeking insight. Kneeling before the crucifix, he was told in a vision to “rebuild my church, which as you see, is falling down.” He threw himself wholeheartedly into the work of repairing the chapel, only to realize that his true call extended far beyond stones and mortar. Today, St. Francis is recognized as one of the greatest of Christian reformers.

I visited San Damiano nearly two decades ago, amid my own personal turmoil. I was not Catholic at the time. I wanted to be. Conversion would only be possible if I first laid aside the Mormon faith, which was shared by my entire extended family, most of our friends and four generations’ worth of ancestors. I felt a real kinship with St. Francis (who also had some family problems), and my brain seemed to be on fire that day in Assisi as I wrestled with questions about tradition, revelation, grace, piety, divine justice and eternal truth. Strolling up to San Damiano, an odd thought popped unbidden into my mind. “Wouldn’t this church look rather charming, actually, as a ruin?”

It was a deeply ironic moment, for reasons I could not appreciate at the time. Converts enjoy some strange privileges, and this is one: We may actually remember a time when the church appeared to us to be neither more nor less than the Bride of Christ, without spot or blemish. To my pre-Catholic self, Rome looked like a safe haven, a shining city and a beckoning adventure all rolled into one. That vision powered me over the Tiber, but almost the very day that I donned my neophyte’s white garment after my baptism, I had to confront a new battery of difficult questions. What does it mean to live an ancient faith in a modern world? From afar, the situation seems good. The church has more than a billion members and a treasure trove of philosophical and spiritual resources. After settling into the Catholic life, though, converts may look around and start to wonder: “Isn’t this place falling down a bit?”

All practicing Catholics have wrestled with these questions. Are there any among us who have not felt the sting of shame, seeing the ineptitude, corruption and sinful weakness of so many of our figureheads and authority figures? Nearly all of us have at one time or another experienced bitter disappointment, when hopes were raised by a particular event or leader, only to be dashed again. However much we yearn for renewal, it seems as though the pews become more empty, fresh scandals keep emerging, and our communities remain intractably divided by the same stale debates. Where is our St. Francis? Who will repair this church?

It is some comfort to recall that Catholics have already survived many difficult periods like our own. Sometimes our institutions flounder, and it seems as though the bride of Christ has completely lost her way. Eventually, she finds it again, in God’s time and often in surprising ways. When this happens, it is a tremendous blessing, not only for the Catholic faithful but for the entire world. In deep and important ways, the church’s problems are truly the world’s and vice-versa. To renew our own communities, we must return to our Gilead, the living waters of Christ. In time, we may find there a balm that can heal our suffering brothers and sisters.

In periods of relative anarchy, the benefits of maintaining some vestige of ordered community can be immense.

All Catholics should contribute to this effort as we can, but in our eagerness to reform our hierarchy and empower the laity, we sometimes forget that Catholicism has its own particular path to renewal. In many cases, the catalyst for Catholic renewal is found not in the corrupt hierarchy nor the laity but in religious orders. This could very well happen again. Religious orders have often been God’s hands and limbs on this earth, especially in times of great spiritual need.

At first glance, this suggestion might seem bizarre and fanciful. To modern people, few things scream “out of touch” like a cassock or religious habit. Looking across history though, we can see religious communities rising to the occasion again and again when spiritual entrepreneurs were especially needed. Occupying a special place both within and outside mainstream life, the vowed religious have historically shown a special ability to diagnose and treat the particular maladies of each age. They have brought food to the hungry, knowledge to the ignorant and hope to those who were mired in despair. There is no human need that they have not at one time or another worked assiduously to fill. We owe them a great deal already, but in a demoralized age, we seem to need them as much as ever.

The Rule of St. Benedict

Christians have formed communities since the earliest days of the church, but until the time of St. Benedict, they generally did not identify specifically as religious orders. In the first centuries after Christ, Christians nourished their faith with the blood of martyrs. After Rome embraced Christianity, desert hermits and radical ascetics filled a similar role, fostering a rich mystical tradition while reminding the faithful of the transformative nature of Christ’s call. Some early Christians continued living together in isolated communities in the desert or the wilderness even after their lifestyle received official recognition.

Still, the world was in flux when St. Benedict of Nursia stepped onto the scene in the sixth century. The Roman Empire was collapsing and with it the peace and stability that had anchored Western Christianity for the previous two centuries. Benedict himself was educated in the Roman style, but he chose to lay aside secular achievements in favor of a solitary, ascetic life. His holiness and luminous personality drew other men to his doorstep, and in time he accepted that he was not called to the life of a hermit. His talents would be used in another way: to lay the foundation for communal, monastic life.

The Rule of St. Benedict makes for fairly dull reading, but set in the context of history, we can see that it was truly an inspired work. It strikes a masterful balance between discipline and compassion, between holiness and practicality. It is specific enough to give meaningful direction to community life but still general enough that people from many different regions, classes and backgrounds were able to use it. It is also remarkably succinct. A modern-day paperback can easily print the entire rule in under 100 pages.

These guidelines would prove invaluable for small communities of Christians who, in the centuries to come, would work assiduously to build and maintain a unique way of life that society at large could not have sustained. Benedictines lived in community, embracing an ethic of work and prayer that enabled them to endure when so much else in their world was collapsing. Fifteen centuries later, their founder is widely credited with preserving Christian culture across those chaotic centuries. In popular imagination, the early monasteries are remembered as oases of peace and stability, where important texts and customs were preserved from the ravages of a changing world.

It was a perilous moment for Christianity. Scholars are not famous for their humility, prudence or compassion.

As romantic narratives go, this one is reasonably accurate. Without the Benedictines, our cultural memory would be greatly impoverished. It would be unjust, however, to view the monasteries as little more than cultural storage facilities, where Benedictine monks saved civilization by hiding from it. Monasteries served their own societies in many important ways. They offered hospitality to travelers in need of safe lodging. They made great advances in agriculture, viticulture and cheese-making. They domesticated animals, kept beehives and made important discoveries as inventors, architects and metallurgists.

In periods of relative anarchy, the benefits of maintaining some vestige of ordered community can be immense. There is no particular reason to think that St. Benedict saw this as his mission. He was focused primarily on the needs of the monks themselves. But in addressing their needs with such wisdom and discernment, he managed to concoct a kind of recipe that fed countless hungry souls and stomachs across the troubled centuries.

For all their tremendous achievements, however, the Benedictines had an Achilles heel. They were too prosperous. Even for those who have left the world, hard work and discipline can yield great worldly benefits. By the 11th and 12th centuries, Europe was pulling itself back together, and the Benedictines had become accustomed to a level of comfort that bred corruption and insularity. Across Europe, cities were growing and expanding, and with them came the challenges of urban poverty, civic unrest and a rising demand for education. The Benedictines, settled in their monasteries, were ill-equipped to address these concerns. By the 13th century, the world was ready for a new kind of religious order. It was ready for St. Francis and St. Dominic, founders of the mendicant orders.

The mendicant path

In many ways, the early Dominicans seemed like mirror opposites of their Benedictine forerunners. Benedictines were drawn to rural areas, while Dominicans were found almost exclusively in the cities. Benedictines put down roots and tilled the soil. Dominicans wandered and begged for their supper. For the mendicants, poverty replaced industry as the defining discipline. They lived simply, moved frequently and labored to respond to the needs of a rising, restless urban population.

Francis-Casa
The face of St. Francis of Assisi and other details are seen on a mural at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale, Ariz. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec) 

St. Francis attracted followers through the sheer force of his personality. St. Dominic was less charismatic, but he had more of a knack for organization, and his goals were more specific. He wanted his Order of the Preachers to combat heresy not with violence but with persuasion and sound teaching. His friars were to live simply and travel light, much like the evangelists of the Gospels. Soon Dominicans were preaching in cities across Europe. But they also established themselves in the universities, and it was there that they made their most lasting contributions.

Universities were among the greatest achievements of the high Middle Ages. For the most part, they grew out of smaller cathedral schools, but once established, they quickly gained fame and influence. Talented men rushed to Oxford, Paris, Bologna, Padua, Cambridge and Salamanca, to participate in the scholarly discussions that were shaping and defining Christianity in a whole new way. Their goals were not modest. They wanted to explain how Christianity could be compatible with the best known philosophical work of their own day and of all ages past. They hoped to lay a foundation for Christian philosophy and theology for all periods to come, proving that Christian faith and human reason could indeed be harmonized.

St. Francis and St. Dominic inspired St. Ignatius of Loyola to found the Society of Jesus. 

It was a perilous moment for Christianity. Scholars are not famous for their humility, prudence or compassion. The scholastics could have compromised Christ’s radical message, sacrificing Christian charity in favor of something more human. They could have strayed too far from orthodoxy and triggered a furious reaction, thus initiating several centuries of fundamentalist oppression. But somehow, the spirit of St. Dominic saw them through. They managed to find a reasonable balance between cleverness and humility, between nuance and simplicity. From the 13th century onward, universities have never ceased to be important and respected institutions. Catholics have clearly understood that we can use our God-given reason without undermining our faith.

Contemporary religious life

mother-teresa
St. Teresa of Calcutta, the foundress of the Missionaries of Charity, is pictured in a 1979 photo. (CNS photo/KNA)

Mendicants and monastics helped build civilization. They were the architects of innumerable institutions and customs that we may take for granted today. For example, St. Francis and St. Dominic inspired St. Ignatius Loyola to found the Society of Jesus. It is difficult even to imagine what our world would now be like but for their assiduous efforts to promote peace, security, public health, general education and the systematic pursuit of knowledge. We tend to lose sight of this because secular institutions have mostly assumed these functions in our day. We still have schools, hospitals, courts, food banks, insurance companies, homeless shelters and scores of universities, but few of these now depend in any significant way on the labors of the vowed religious. Might the golden age of religious orders be behind us? Are monks and nuns simply becoming obsolete?

It might seem so, but for the obvious and immense reality of unmet human needs. We have solved at least some of the problems of St. Benedict’s day or St. Dominic’s. But the poor are still with us, and their continued suffering makes our other social achievements feel hollow. Somehow, modern societies seem to lack the will or capacity to address the real needs of their most marginalized citizens. When we recognize this, we may also see that religious orders are still on the front lines, testing innovative solutions to the most pressing problems of modern life. No single person illustrates this truth better than St. Teresa of Kolkata.

She lost her father at the age of 7, which only increased the influence of her strong and devout Albanian mother. Drana Bojaxhiu worked tirelessly to care not only for her own children but also for the poorest and most desolate residents of their native town. Inspired by her example, Agnes, too, wished to serve the poor and desolate, in the most complete way possible. When she came of age, she entered the novitiate of the Sisters of Loreto and found herself taking passage to India. There she taught schoolchildren, surrounded daily by a deep and crushing poverty such as her childhood self could hardly have imagined.

What happened next is the stuff of legend, familiar but still mysterious. Mother Teresa received a second “call.” She told her spiritual director, Celeste van Exem, S.J., that she was to leave the relative security of her convent and go out to the very poorest Indian citizens, embracing them in their vulnerability and ministering to their needs. Initially, her superiors were dubious. Could a young, European woman really endure the hardships that this life would entail? Would she be able to do any real good? In time, and with the help of Father van Exem, she obtained the necessary permissions.

History suggests that reformers can emerge at surprising times, usually offering solutions that are both simple and utterly transformative. 

She marked the transition by buying three white saris, normally worn by Indian widows. She looked for the cheapest material she could find, but she also selected saris with blue stripes, to honor the Blessed Virgin. Soon she was working daily with Kolkata's poorest, bandaging lepers and lifting the dying from the gutters. Her eye was ever drawn to the most marginalized and dispossessed: refugees, prisoners, orphans, beggars or those with physical deformities. Other charities tended to do a kind of triage with their supplicants, diverting resources toward people who seemed most able to benefit. Mother Teresa employed the opposite strategy. As she told her sisters, charity does not wait.

Like St. Benedict and St. Dominic, Mother Teresa seemed to draw followers naturally with her luminous personality. Local women came to join her, and she gladly put them to work serving the poor. She seemed to take a stubborn pleasure in tackling tasks that others deemed impossible: softening angry hearts, finessing legal and political challenges and magically finding the resources for schools, orphanages and clinics. Her Missionaries of Charity now number in the thousands. They still serve the neediest and most destitute citizens in 133 countries around the world.

Kolkata is less impoverished today than it was in Mother Teresa’s time. Indeed, crushing poverty on that scale has become less common in most regions of the world, for reasons that have very little to do with the Missionaries of Charity. Nevertheless, St. Teresa’s story still feels relevant to us today. She understood that the poverty of our age is first and foremost spiritual. To her eyes, the bodily needs of the people she served were a kind of physical manifestation of a deeper neglect. Of course, they needed food, shelter and medicine. But they hungered even more for love, compassion and recognition of their intrinsic dignity and worth. By serving the poorest of the poor, she drew out a truth that resonated around the world. Every soul is precious to God. Every soul needs God. God thirsts for souls, longing to draw them back to himself.

America’s spiritual impoverishment

Looking around us, we can see that Americans are, in this deeper sense, just as impoverished as the residents of Kolkata's slums. Most have food and clean water, but they are ravenous for companionship, compassion and a sense of dignity. Leprosy is easily curable today, but addiction, mental illness, suicide and despair are ravaging our communities. Solutions seem few and far between. Some religious orders are working hard to address these problems, and their efforts have made all the difference for certain individuals and communities.

These initiatives are certainly encouraging, but their impact may seem small considered against the backdrop of existing social problems. The harvest is so immense, and the laborers so few. We understand that modern people suffer grievously from alienation, loneliness and personal neglect. But how can we bring God’s love into every individual life, in a world with nine billion people? We can learn much from holy men and women like St. Teresa of Kolkata. We need to acknowledge, though, that many riddles and challenges remain unsolved.

Who will repair God’s church? History suggests that reformers can emerge at surprising times, usually offering solutions that are both simple and utterly transformative. Initially, they tend to focus on a particular problem: a spiritual community lacking direction, a chapel whose walls are crumbling, a dying person yearning for a compassionate touch. By addressing these needs with discernment and charity, these men and women became catalysts for dramatic change. The church is healed because the world is healed or at least much comforted by God’s love. This is exactly the sort of reform we should desire and expect from a church that is charged with bringing Christ’s light to every land and nation.

Renewal will happen in God’s time, not our own. Still, we can watch for it, and we can pray. The vowed religious have served God in unique ways, acting as his hands and feet upon this earth. We seem to need them as much as ever.

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