The roots of the monastic and mendicant Orders (the Benedictines, the Cistercians, the Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites, and Augustinians) were in part in protest against the socio-economic structures of their times. The friars in particular rejected the budding urban capitalism of the 13th centuries in favor of communal property. Both the monastic and mendicant movements were at first extra-canonical movements of the laity who were discontent with the options offered them by the clerical and institutional structures of their days. (Neither Benedict nor Francis was a priest and both their movements were originally lay movements that accepted priests among their members but only as equals to the lay monks (Benedict) or lay brothers (Francis). (The Carmelites and the Augustinians were also originally lay movements.) The mendicants understand their role to be a prophetic voice that warns about those elements in society—and in the Church—that contradict the values set forth in the Gospel. Moreover, from the beginning the mendicants rejected hierarchy and authoritarian government in favor of a radical democracy in which their superiors were not only elected by the brothers but were accountable to the brothers gathered in Chapter.
Ignatius used a different model in establishing the Society of Jesus. Drawing from his experience as a soldier and determined to effectively combat the inroads of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers, Ignatius imposed a military structure on his new Society and demanded unquestioning obedience to one’s superiors in the society. He also placed the Society at the disposal of the Pope for whatever missions the Pope required them to serve. But in that service they were given remarkable freedom. Ignatius did away with the choral recitation of the Divine Office—traditional not only for all religious up to that time but even for the secular clergy. He also chose that his men would not have a religious habit. While they normally wore a black cassock, standard clerical dress, they were free to abandon it for lay clothes as the mission required. When the first Jesuit missionaries arrived in China they abandoned western dress for the saffron robes of Buddhist monks but then as they understood the culture better, they adopted the silk gowns of Confucian scholars in order to be more effective in presenting their ideas to the Chinese. They celebrated Mass in Mandarin rather than Latin and adopted other elements of Chinese culture. They were wildly successful in their mission and served in the Imperial Court where they wielded immense influence until the Augustinians and Franciscans, jealous at their successes, complained to Rome about the “Chinese Rites.” Forced back to western expression by Rome, their mission failed as spectacularly as it had succeded.
Today most religious see their role in the Church very differently than do diocesan priests—and this is often a source of tension with bishops who are, for the most part, drawn from the diocesan clergy. A Benedictine or Trappist who is ordained will tell you he is a monk first and a priest second. They are usually reluctant to take on ministries that require them to leave their monasteries. Similarly a Franciscan or Carmelite or Augustinian will tell you that he is a brother who is ordained for the service of the Church but who takes his primary vocational identity from his religious community rather than from his being a priest. More and more religious look to serve in ministries that reflect the charism of their particular congregation and are anxious to leave parish ministry to the diocesan clergy. Many religious priests today wear their religious habits in the Church or around their monastery or school, but beyond that dress plainly in ordinary clothes. All this is fine, but to my mind it is the icing on the cake.
In the Civil Rights movement of the early and mid-sixties and in the anti-war movement of the late sixties and early seventies, the religious were first to get involved. Not the religious priests, however, but the Sisters. The world was shocked—and then delighted—to see Catholic Sisters marching with Dr. King from Selma to Montgomery. The women finally shamed the men into putting on their jock straps and joining them. Once into progressive causes, the men were not shy. The Jesuit Father Daniel Berrigan and his brother, the Josephite Philip Berrigan were the leading Catholic voices against the war in Viet Nam. Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, wrote thought-provoking books giving the spiritual roots of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. Bishops clamped down on the clergy—Cardinals Spellman of New York and McIntyre of Los Angles in particular—and while the diocesan guys had to cave, the religious, independent of the bishops, went on against the war, for open-housing, against American support for Latin American dictatorships, and for a series of social justice issues. When Liberation Theologian Gustavo Gutierrez fell afoul of the Peruvian hierarchy he found refuge in becoming a Dominican.
These social changes worked their ways into the curriculum of Catholic schools, colleges, and universities—again, for the most part the province of religious communities. Religious began to see that they had a role to play in being an alternative voice in the Church and for the Church—not contradicting the magisterium but raising the questions posed by the evangelical values laid out in the gospel even as Saint Francis had done in his day.
Religious often refer to this role as their “prophetic call.” I am not sure yet if that role has evolved to where it is truly prophetic. I think religious need to look at themselves long and hard and ask themselves if they themselves are faithful to the gospel. Frankly, I don’t think the renewal of religious life envisioned by the Council has reached anything near its potential. Religious are still often very much a part of the systems they decry. Nevertheless, I think someone needs to be a prophetic voice in and for the Church today. Whether it is bishops who spend millions on refurbishing their residences, or the failure of so many Church institutions to pay a just wage or allow their employees to unionize, or the lack of just processes in ecclesiastical trials, the Church needs to be held as accountable as the Church wants to hold secular institutions and it is often the religious who are most outspoken in “outing” the injustices.
On the other hand, we need to see that leading prophetic voices in the Church such as Dom Helder Camara or Archbishop Oscar Romero or John XXIII came from the diocesan clergy. How many secular priests staff inner-city parishes where they fight for better conditions for their parishioners and for their neighbors regardless of religion. And when these diocesan priests run afoul of their bishops for their social activism they don’t have the escape hatch of a supportive community and the possibility of a new assignment that religious have.
As a Jesuit Francis was never cutting edge. In fact, he played the game very safely working closely with the Argentine hierarchy and even turning a blind eye to much of the injustice in his native land during the years it was ruled by a military junta. Nevertheless, it is clear that Francis thinks differently than this predecessors. He is more spontaneous and far less attentive to the fine details of rubric or law. He is emerging as prophetic voice—not the radical Amos or even a Jeremiah—but prophetic none the less. It is clear that there is a new sheriff in town. When it comes to simple things like whether women can be included in the Holy Thursday Rite of the Washing of the Feet or the call for us all to look at how we live and can we scale it back a notch or two, Francis is setting a new pace. I don’t think there is much to fear, but then I don’t want to be a bishop who lives in a 41 million dollar Residenz.