A History of Religious Life and the Catholic Church (Church Restoration Series II) By Fr. Anand Muttungal


The history of the origin of the religious life records that the individual hermits lived a life in isolation as an imitation of Lord Jesus' forty days’ life in the desert. They lived as dedicated monks without sharing the ministerial priesthood. It was by the 2nd century religious life began to take shape. They began to live on the edges of inhabited places but practicing asceticism and striving for union with God. Slowly guidelines for daily life were made. And separate monasteries were established for men and women. They began to strictly practice poverty, chastity and obedience. They practiced community-based living under the superior with strict obedience and the accountability. The abbots and a few began to get ordained to take care of the religious requirements of the members of the organizations.
Since monks lived a life within the four walls they concentrated on learning different branches of sciences and scriptures. Thus the monasteries became centres of knowledge. Monks brought out interpretations of Gospel, theology and philosophy. They concentrated on prayers, specified a diet and emphasized work as a valuable act in itself. They got trained in oratory, writing, reading wide range of books and secular topics as well. People began to flock to them for advices thus they shared their knowledge with faithful. Their acceptance among people increased in short time. The second stage monasticism began with the taking charge of social services such as education, healthcare, pharmacies, medicine, development of agricultural techniques, developed arts, music etc. Other than these they began to involve them selves in services like serving the sick, poor, orphan, widows etc.
The monasteries became point of attraction to the laity and kings as well. Slowly it emerged as the entrance to the corridors of religious and secular power. As a result many men and women from the royal families joined monasteries and some of them founded religious orders too. Some religious orders also started their branches for men who came from the peasantry and less privileged classes. They called them “Brothers”, a little above the laity in status but equated them with the laity in theory.
The religious leaders and political leaders found availability of learnt men available in good number. Many of the office bearers of these religious organizations were from the rich noble families. It gave an added advantage to the spread of religious life. So when need arose for any important religious office, the religious and political leaders always looked towards the monasteries for suitable personnel. The rulers had a major say in the appointment of the religious heads as abbots, superiors or bishops etc. As the kingdoms spread, the religious orders were entrusted to preach the word of God into those newer places. It helped them to expand their congregation along with the Gospel. It also gave a new momentum to religious orders to look for new places and it helped the religious order expand and spread the Gospel too.
They began to take over important parishes and centres of formations. The canon law and other Church policies were made in the monasteries so the religious orders had an inbuilt upper hand in all matters of the Church. Whenever a Bishop was needed the authority looked towards the monasteries and slowly they became bishops and administrators. People did not understand that the vocation of a religious priest is thought of primarily as the commitment to a community and a specific style of spirituality and way of life. They took it as the sole the spirituality of Christianity. It over shadowed the spirituality of the diocesan priests, nuns and the lay people as well. (To be continued)

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