Religious Orders For The Rest Of Us

I’ve always been at a loss for words when it comes to religious orders.  I didn’t know how many there were, or what types – even what sets them apart.  I’ve always been curious, but never took the time. It’s a little embarrassing, considering my Aunt is a retired Dominican Sister.

When my oldest son asked me recently about a particular order, I knew it was time to dig in.

Let’s see… Jesuits, Franciscan, Dominican, Little Sisters of the Poor, Carmelite, Order of Malta, (original) Templar, Benedictine, Trappists? Not a bad list from the top of my head back then.

Now, how about a more comprehensive list, and solid distinguishing features?

As it turns out Spring Hill College has a pretty complete (158) list of religious orders, including (but not counting) sub orders like the Capuchin Franciscans or ecumenical religious communities like Taize. The list at Spring Hill College also has links to all of the orders’ websites.

In addition to the religious orders, you can find information on military orders at the Catholic Encyclopedia at New Advent.

But which are the major ones?  What are the key characteristics? Are they monastic? Do they wear special attire?  Among the places I’ve looked over the years at this question, the Religious Vocation website does a great job highlighting the differences between religious orders.

Contemplative Orders
Contemplative orders are primarily focused on inward conversion, prayer, penance and sanctification of the world.  Some such orders are the Benedictines, Carthusians, Carmelites, and Poor Clares. There really are people praying for you this very moment – even if you don’t know it.

Active Orders
These orders have more interaction with the public, serving in some capacity to the community through an apostolate. Orders like the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits.

My goal is not to reinvent the wheel. Others have come before me to provide the information, but here it is – consolidated at your fingertips. They’re authentically Catholic, but each has a particular way to bring Christ to the world; often through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

One of my fond memories growing up was when my Aunt invited my sister and I to stay the night in the local convent with her. It since has been torn down, but the wonder and memories remain. What’s your experience and interaction with religious? Have you met Christ through a consecrated brother or sister? Do you know or maybe you are a secular member (also called tertiary) of an order?


  1. David Noller

    I would like to welcome you to visit the Carmelite Monastery to learn more about the Secular Carmelites. We meet once a month, and as a contemplative order, are focused on prayer. There is a day coming up soon when the public is invited. I will let you know when I have the date!

    • AJ Anderson

      David, I know you’re a busy guy – but I’m going to inquire anyways. Do you have time or interest on writing a short guest post about what distinguishes Carmelites? Or do you have something already written that I can link my readers to here or in another post?


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