Brief Catechesis on the Religious Life

Jesus called the Rich Young man to follow Him, and Jesus promised this man blessings and eternal life. Unfortunately, “possessed by his own possessions,” the rich man departed from Jesus sad. He preferred his things, his wealth above and beyond the treasure of Jesus’ friendship in this life as well as in the next, heaven forever. (Mk. 10:17-31)

This Gospel passage relates, at least indirectly, to the call to the Religious Life, to the radical following of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The fact of the matter is that Jesus calls and invites the person to follow Him, but Jesus is never going to force the person. He respects the freedom of the individual.

In this short essay, we would like to present for your reflection, education, and meditation some of the most salient points and aspects of some of the key constitutive elements of the RELIGIOUS LIFE.


All of us are called universally to become saints. The words of Jesus, the “holy of holies,” are both clear and unequivocal: “Be holy as your heavenly Father is holy.” (Mt. 5:48) Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium Chapter V has as a title: “The universal call to holiness.” However, it must be said that every person has their own unique vocation. Most are called to the married state, others to the single state, still others to the priesthood, and finally there are those who are called to the RELIGIOUS LIFE. This will be the topic of our brief essay.

1. Essential Primary Purpose

The ecclesial document from Vatican II on Religious Life is titled Perfectae Caritatis. This Latin title exemplifies and incorporates the primary purpose of entering the Religious Life or the Religious state of life—that is to say, to arrive at perfect charity. In a word, the most important virtue in the life of the follower of Jesus is that of charity—meaning a supernatural love for both God and our brothers and sisters. One enters the Religious state with the ultimate purpose of arriving at a state of a dynamic growth and development of one’s love for God, overflowing into one’s love for one’s neighbor. Indeed, if we truly love God, then we must love our neighbor. (A constant reminder in the Letters of Saint John.)

2. Freedom

Once again, with reference to the refusal of the Rich young man, the call to the Religious Life must be accepted freely, totally and unreservedly—no ties or strings attached. In a word, God wants to be loved not by force but by a free act of the will, a loving choice.

3. Founder

Religious Orders and Congregations have specific founders that transmit and leave as a patrimony and legacy the specific spirit that God has endowed them with. Examples of founders are multiple: St. Ignatius and the Jesuits, Saint John Bosco and the Salesians, Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta and the Missionaries of Charity, Saint Francis and the Franciscans, Saint Dominic and the Order of Preachers (Dominicans), Saint Alphonsus and the Redemptorists, Saint Benedict and the Benedictines. There are many more, but we have left you with a few brilliant examples.

4. Charism

Each and every one of these founders have left a specific charism to the Congregation, meaning a specific physiognomy or characteristic note that distinguishes it from other congregations. Indeed, it is incumbent upon the members in each Congregation to get to know both the Founder (their spiritual father or mother), as well as their specific charism.

5. Vows

These are solemn promises made to God by the individual to arrive at a greater freedom of spirit and facility in following Jesus more radically and with a more intense love. Remember the document Perfectae Caritatis—the radical call to love Jesus fully and completely. In most Congregations, the solemn promises are Chastity, Poverty, and Obedience. Let us explain.

6. Chastity

This is not simply a renunciation of the state of Holy Matrimony, but rather a desire to love Jesus fully and completely. In a word, Religious Life is truly a love affair between Jesus, the Bride Groom, and His Beloved, the Bride. Women Religious actually wear a ring, aware of the fact that they are mystically united to Jesus, the Bridegroom of their soul. Jesus appeared to Saint Catherine of Siena and gave her a ring which was invisible to the eyes of others but visible to the saint.

7. Poverty

This vow allows the Religious to renounce the pervasive and inherent danger of becoming overly attached to material things and materialism as a whole. For this reason, the Rich young man failed to follow Jesus because he had many possessions. He became possessed by his own possessions. In a word, with the vow of poverty, Jesus becomes the treasure of their life. Biblically, Jesus becomes the pearl of infinite value. If one possesses Jesus and is possessed by Jesus, he is richer than a multi-billionaire. Jesus warns the world: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Mt. 6:24)

8. Obedience

By this vow, the Religious surrender their will to God by willfully choosing to obey their Local Superior, Provincial, and Rector Major (Head of the Congregation). This is done in imitation of Jesus, the model in all ways. In fact, Jesus was obedient even to death and death on the cross. (Philippians 2:8) By embracing this vow, the Religious are able to overcome one of the greatest enemies and obstacles for growth in the spiritual life—an overweening pride so characteristic of these modern times!

9. Community

The early Christians, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, lived in community and were of one heart and mind and shared all in common. They were united in love for Jesus and love for one another. The onlookers were impressed by their lifestyle and commented on how they loved one another. “Love one another deeply from the heart.” (1 Pt 1:22) This witness of love was a powerful force of attraction, motivating others to become Christians. So it is with Religious Life, which entails living in common with one’s brothers or sisters. Venerable Bruno Lanteri (Founder of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary) stated shortly before his departure from this life to the next, these heart-warming but challenging words: 

Love one another and do all you can to never break the bonds of love among yourselves.

10. Religious Habit

The Second Vatican Council emphasized the importance of the Religious Habit as a sign of one’s consecration to God. Also, the Religious Habit is an Eschatological sign, meaning it is a concrete sign and reminder that this world is passing, and there indeed is a world that goes beyond this short and ephemeral life on earth. In other words, it points to our destiny which is heaven.

11. Prayer in Common

Another salient characteristic of Religious Life is that of prayer. A Religious has as their first duty the contemplation of divine things—that is to say, dedication to a serious life of prayer. They pray individually but also find specific times to pray with their brothers or sisters. In the words of Jesus: “Where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am midst in the midst of them.” (Mt. 18:20)

12. Apostolic Life and Charism

Religious that are dedicated to a more active life are called to carry out their charismatic grace by exercising a specific apostolate. In fact, if a Religious truly loves Christ, then they necessarily will love what Jesus loves—the salvation of immortal souls gained through prayers, penance, but also an active apostolate.

13. Marian Dimension

Religious Founders have Jesus as the primary purpose and focus of their lives. Jesus indeed is THE WAY, THE TRUTH, AND THE LIFE. However, Religious Orders have Mary, a model for all Religious, as their spiritual Mother and Guide. Some examples of the different Marian charisms in the Religious Life are: Saint John Bosco and Our Lady Help of Christians, Saint Dominic and Our Lady of the Rosary, Saint Alphonsus and Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Saint Augustine and Our Lady of Good Counsel, Saint Bernard and Stella Maris/Our Lady Star of the Sea, Saint Mother Teresa and the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

We will close our short essay on Religious Life by taking the last few words from the Decree on the Renewal of Religious Life, Perfectae Caritatis October 25, 1965—words of great comfort and encouragement:

All religious, therefore, with undiminished faith, with charity towards God and their neighbor, with love for the cross and with the hope of future glory, should spread the good news of Christ throughout the whole world, so that their witness might be seen by all men and our Father, who is in heaven, and will be glorified (Mt 5:16). Thus through the prayers of the gentle Virgin Mary, Mother of God, whose life is a model for all (St. Ambrose, De Virginitate 2, 3, n. 5) may they increase daily and may they bring more abundant fruits of salvation.

Photo by Kyle Petzer on Unsplash

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Father Ed Broom is an Oblate of the Virgin Mary and the author of Total Consecration Through the Mysteries of the Rosary and From Humdrum to Holy. He blogs regularly at Fr. Broom's Blog.

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