When did the Religious Life begin
The idea of the religious life is as old as Christianity. Our Lord Himself might be called its Founder, for it was He who formulated the fundamental principles of this life of the Evangelical Counsels. During the years of His earthly ministry, He Himself lived a community life with His apostles. It is in imitation of Him that men and women ever since have sought to embrace this way of life.
In the early Church there were "ascetics", as they were called, who lived dedicated lives in their own homes. In order to escape the distractions around them, many of them later went into the Egyptian deserts. There, in the solitude of the desert, they developed the eremitical or hermit life. These men went as individuals, but eventually some of them gathered around a leader, or superior, and then quite naturally cenobitic communities were formed. St. Paul the first hermit, St. Anthony the Great and St. Pachomius are personalities that belong to this period.
During the same period there was a corresponding development among women. The New Testament mentions virgins devoted to the things of God, widows who are "widows indeed" and deaconesses. In these phrases is implied a special consecration. Women such as these, dedicated to the service of God, at first continued to live with their families, but as early as the end of the third century there were community houses existing for them. St. Jerome has made famous the community life lived by St. Paula and her spiritual daughters in Bethlehem.
In Western Christianity the religious life for men has gone through five cycles of development, that of monks, canons, friars, clerks regular and the so-called "congregations" or modern institutes of religious. The development of the religious life among women has in general followed this same pattern.
St. Benedict is looked upon as the founder of monasticism in the Western Church. His followers were not hermits, but monks. The Rule which he wrote in the sixth century became the basis for religious houses which later grew and spread all over Europe. Even to this day this same Rule is observed in Benedictine communities, and countless other communities have based their rules upon it. The monastery in which St. Benedict lived at Monte Cassino is world famous. St. Scholastica, his sister, founded and governed a Benedictine community of women under his direction.
The special spirit of the monks was dedication to the virtue of religion. They were not all in Holy Orders. Those who were, were monks first and priests afterwards. But not all religious became monks. Another form of the religious life developed under St. Augustine. He gathered priests around him to live a life of special priestly dedication. Such religious were afterwards called "Canons" because they lived by rule or canon. And their spirit was said to be the spirit of the Church. They were priests first and religious afterwards. With both monks and canons the individual monasteries were likely to be autonomous. The idea of a widespread Order under a single superior was a later development.
The Church has always fostered religious communities suited to the times. During the dark ages the monks and canons preserved learning, science and art. They gave a meaning to Christian labor. When the Muslim invaders threatened to engulf Christianity, the Military Orders were raised up to defend the Church. Then came the thirteenth century, with its luxury and laxity, an age much like our own. The life of the friars was raised up to combat this luxury.
St. Francis and St. Dominic were contemporaries. Their followers, the friars, combined some of the characteristics of the monks and canons. With them the modern idea of an Order came into existence. After them other Orders of friars developed. Both the Franciscans and the Dominicans were organized in Congregations of three Orders, the First for the friars, the Second for women, and the Third for tertiaries living in the world. The famous St. Catherine of Siena was a Dominican tertiary. St. Clare of Assisi, the friend and spiritual daughter of St. Francis, was the foundress of his Second Order, the Poor Clares.
Just as the canons were priestly monks, so there developed priestly friars, called priests regular or clerks regular. The Jesuits are the best known, loved and hated of clerks regular.
From this time on the development of the religious life took the form of either imitating previous Orders, or raising up communities to do some special work such as preaching, teaching or nursing. It is customary to call such religious institutes "Congregations", using the word in a somewhat different sense from above.