Consecrated life through the ages (Religious Life Timeline)

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From ancient desert monasticism to contemporary forms of religious life, a small band of Christian men and women in every generation choose to consecrate their lives to God with unique vows of love and service that give radical witness to the gospel.

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SINCE THE CALL of the first disciples, some followers of Jesus have sought a different way to live their faith. In the early church, groups of widows gathered to dedicate themselves to prayer and good works. Others craved solitary prayer, so they fled to the desert to commune with God and guide others in the pursuit of holiness. Monasteries, cloisters, and religious houses eventually came into being, and religious life as we know it began to take shape.

Consecrated life—in its diverse expressions around the globe—is a gift to the church and world and always has been. Cistercian Doctor of the Church Saint Bernard of Clairvaux said of religious orders: “I admire them all. I belong to one of them by observance, but to all of them by charity. We all need one another: the spiritual good which I do not own and possess, I receive from others.”

The prayer of religious communities lifts the entire church. Likewise, good works and the pursuit of justice shape society to more closely resemble the reign of God. A life of chastity, poverty, and obedience gives powerful witness to faith in Jesus without a word being uttered. “Consecrated men and women,” according to the 1996 apostolic letter Via Consecrata, “are sent forth to proclaim by the witness of their lives the value of Christian fraternity and the transforming power of the Good News, which makes it possible to see all people as sons and daughters of God, and inspires a self-giving love towards everyone, especially the least of our brothers and sisters. Such communities are places of hope.” That hope is what attracts new members.

Inspired by the Holy Spirit, religious communities of men and women rise up, serve a purpose, thrive, and live on or come to an end. This ebb and flow has occurred for 2,000 years and will continue for millennia to come as new members around the world take vows and join their lives to communities to live out the gospel in radical ways in joyful hope.

What follows is a timeline of the major events in the history of consecrated life through the ages.

consecrated life timeline

Download a pdf of the Religious Life Timeline: in English (updated), in Spanish, in French


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A version of this article originally appeared in VISION 2015. 

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