Catholic Classroom: Religious Orders

Question: What is the difference between religious orders?

NunsLast week, we talked about the difference between diocesan and religious priests and introduced the spirituality of one community of religious priests, the Jesuits. There is a huge variety of religious communities and congregations, representing diverse spiritualities and various charisms. The members of these communities include priests, brothers, nuns, sisters, and tertiary members. They adhere to the rule of their order and seek to strengthen their spiritual lives by carrying out its work and following its model of prayer.

No one religious order is superior to another. They are simply different, and those differences serve two purposes: first, diverse charisms mean that the various orders carry out the many needs of the Church. Second, the differences allow people to seek a relationship with God in the way that best aligns with the gifts God has given them. St. Paul wrote, “If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body” (1 Corinthians 12: 19-20). God has called the founders of the various religious orders to build members that fulfill the needs of the Body.

Here is a sampling of some of the best-known orders and what makes them unique.

Order of Preachers (Dominicans)

Founder: St. Dominic
Spirituality/Charism: Sharing the truth of the Gospel with others
Prominent Dominican Saints: St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Albert the Great, St. Catherine of Siena

Dominicans are deeply committed to preaching the truth of the Catholic Faith to save souls. Like the great Dominican theologian and saint, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dominicans follow an intellectual path to God. They grow in relationship with God and help others to do the same by studying, reading, writing, and teaching.


Founder: St. Francis
Spirituality/Charism: Living the Gospel of Jesus Christ
Prominent Franciscan Saints: St. Clare, St. Bonaventure, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Maximilian Kolbe

A single Franciscan charism is impossible to pin down, as there are so many branches of Franciscans, including Friars Minor, Friars Minor Conventual, and Friars Minor Capuchin. But what Franciscans have in common is their devotion to simplicity and their love of all God’s creatures. Franciscans are especially known for penance and serving the poor.


Founder: St. Benedict
Spirituality/Charism: Prayer and work
Prominent Benedictine Saints: St. Scholastica, St. Hildegard of Bingen, St. Bede the Venerable

Benedictines are contemplatives, meaning that their lives are centered on prayer. They live in community and prayer several times a day together. Various branches of Benedictines have different levels of austerity of rule. Benedictines are perhaps best known for their devotion to the Scriptures and their hospitality.


Founder: unknown
Spirituality/Charism: Contemplation
Prominent Carmelite Saints: St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Edith Stein

Known for its great saints and mystics, the Carmelite tradition goes back to the ancient hermits on Mount Carmel, and perhaps even to the prophet Elijah. Modern Carmelites are contemplatives, with some congregations being active-contemplative. Carmelites follow the rule of St. Albert and have a deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Society of Jesus (Jesuits)

Founder: St. Ignatius of Loyola
Spirituality/Charism: The Spiritual Exercises; finding God in all things
Prominent Jesuit Saints: St. Francis Xavier, St. Aloysius Gonzaga, St. Paul Miki

The Jesuits seek to find God in all things. They do this by interacting with the world in a unique way that they describe as being contemplatives in action. As a part of Ignatian spirituality, they place great value on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. For many years, the Jesuits have been well known for their schools and universities.

Society of St. Francis de Sales (Salesians)

Founder: St. John Bosco
Spirituality/Charism: The education and evangelization of young people
Prominent Salesian Saints: St. Mary Mazzarello, St. Dominic Savio

In the 1800s, St. John Bosco noticed a great need for the care of young people who were living in poor conditions. To meet this need, he founded the Society of St. Francis de Sales. The Society grew rapidly because of his talent in communicating with young people and drawing them to the faith. Today, the Salesians continue to serve young people around the world.

Missionaries of Charity

Founder: St. Teresa of Calcutta
Spirituality/Charism: Service to the poor
Prominent Missionaries of Charity Saints: St. Teresa of Calcutta

One of the newer religious orders is the Missionaries of Charity. This congregation was founded by Mother Teresa, now St. Teresa of Calcutta, in the mid-20th century to serve the poorest of the poor. In addition to the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, Missionaries of Charity take a fourth vow to serve the poor.


Catholic Classroom: Religious Orders