The Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association Home Page
The Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association Home Page

Father John A. Hardon, S.J. Archives


Religious Life

Return to:  Home > Archives Index > Religious Life Index

History of Religious Life
The Decline and Reformation of Religious Life after St. Benedict

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The Institute on Religious Life and the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence of Chicago bring you the following conference in a series of conferences given by Fr. John A. Hardon S.J. on the theme: The History of Religious Life. Father John Hardon is a Professor of Theology at St. John’s University in New York. He is a well-known lecturer and consultant to various national, religious and educational enterprises, and is renowned as a retreat master and spiritual director. Father Hardon is the author of many articles and books including Holiness in the Church and The Catholic Catechism which has been strongly endorsed by Holy Mother Church. In this next conference Father Hardon speaks on the subject The Decline and Reformation of Religious Life after St. Benedict. Father Hardon.

First, Some Observations: Why Was There A Need for A Reformation?

There was a need for reformation because there had been a decline which is a nice word for saying that there had been a secularization of religious life.

What were some of the features that became prominent and for which all those reformers, and I just chose the biggest, struggled to overcome?

With Increased Wealth Was Increased Pride

First was poverty. Monasteries became wealthy. With increased wealth a number of things happened. They would get people of prominence and wealth into the community which in itself wouldn’t be bad except that often, then, they would set the norm or the pattern for the way of life in that community. Moreover while keeping the principle of sharing it was no longer in not a few monasteries sharing the poverty but sharing the wealth! It’s not bad, the kind of poverty that anybody would enjoy. Moreover, with increased wealth came increased pride. A part of it was created by the primitive conditions among which the early monastic missionaries worked. As you know they would go into a previously uncivilized territory. Number of monks or nuns, as the case may be, might establish themselves and then somehow would attract the people, be taught some trade or some means of improving their crop or whatever and gradually the gospel would be preached and in time the countryside would be converted. That was all very well except that the property, then, became the property of the monastery and the abbot became the prince abbot. He became, in effect, a civil ruler because the people who needed spiritual direction needed other kinds of direction too. And often instead of doing what would have been more reasonable to train leaders from among their own ranks, the monks themselves would be the leaders. Do you follow the misstep that was taken? This is all well-intentioned and often very necessary.

Moreover, along with increased wealth there was a great deal of leisure, and with leisure there was increased hired help. May I suggest to communities that have a large number of people working for them or for that matter anyone working for you, to take a long hard look! This, I consider in all good communities that have to do it often because the state requires it, to be one of the most serious threats to the future of religious life in a country like ours. So you’ve got the money or you get the money, so you hire. So what do religious become? Well, they are the ones in charge. Grand ladies. Or they go off and get specialized degrees because they have to qualify for those positions which the state requires. All I know, I’ve taught too many good minds not to know this, you put too much education in the wrong mind and you inherited a problem. She may be bright, that’s not the point. Is she humble? If she’s not, God help that community! So that’s what happens and, by the way, that’s what’s happening now.

The Real Idea of Spiritual Combat Is to Engage in Spiritual Combat

Still again with the increased leisure, the spiritual combat that we spend so much time talking about, you know what the monks would do? They would read about it. Well, it’s good to read about the spiritual combat but the real idea of the spiritual combat is to engage in a spiritual combat. I’ve listened to people talk about mysticism, you’d think they were, well, the latter day Teresa of Avila! They’re not.

The Fervor of A Community on Fire with Love of God Is Breathtaking!

Leisure. With leisure comes laziness and with laziness any sin, including sins of the flesh. And this is where now that I’m working have been for the last four years with the Missionaries of Charity in New York both groups the active and contemplative one every week for 3 hours at least with the contemplatives and I know what’s happening to other Missionaries of Charity in other parts of the world. How I wish! There’s no way, you’d have to experience it, there’s no way you can really describe it, the fervor of a young community on fire with the love of God. It’s breathtaking! Honest. I’m really not sure what I’m teaching those young women more or they’re teaching me more. Grace grips them, and by the way don’t stay more than about three days, they find out if they belong. Some stay a bit longer but in time you find out, you can’t keep up with the others. Well this is true I suppose of all life. We’ll arise, we develop, reach a peak and then the inevitable decline. But unlike a human body, the spirit can be rehabilitated.

Religious Communities Have to be Reformed to Survive

We’re going through one of those periods in history. That’s why I wanted to say a little bit about this. When Religious communities have got to be reformed to survive. The only communities that are going to survive into the 21st century – the only ones – are those that will radically reform, radically. Poverty, real poverty: Chastity – no cheating, no cheating. And can religious ever cheat on chastity.

And obedience. And living a community life that is community life. If a person can’t take it, she doesn’t belong. Period. So what’s the fuss! She’ll save her soul maybe become a saint, but not here. So that’s the reason there was a reformation, because there was need for one.

Every Religious Community Begins with Poverty

Another area of observations. You will notice the life spread of the saints and I deliberately chose such a wide coverage; England, Italy, France and I might have gone elsewhere. It indicates that there is something inherent in religious life that unless people watch and keep examining their collective consciences – no country has a monopoly on the crises that befell religious life then as befalling religious life today. The Society of Jesus is now down to one province for the whole of France. However, the main feature I want to bring out is the fact that in each case, the reformation was achieved by some outstanding person or persons. The fact that I have them identified is just my way of making clear that we can see exactly when, under whom a previously secularized community was reformed. On what areas did these reformers mainly concentrate? They all concentrated on the lack of poverty. Hear this! The reformation of every religious community begins with poverty, because where there are possessions, where there is wealth there will be leisure and all the rest. There would be no following.

Secondly, there is a reformation in terms of the quality of the candidates that were accepted. By now I think you’ve all read the story of St. Bernard, maybe more than once, to know that what he was especially looking for in his immediate followers was persons who were deeply convinced of the monastic way of life. In other words, that reformation begins with people.

No Community Has Been Reformed without Reformers

I got a call long distance yesterday just before I left New York from a religious deeply concerned over what’s happening to her community and she’s trying to hold on. She asked if I could help, could she see me. I said well I’m leaving the city in a couple of hours which I’m just in New York for a day or so. Can I see you? Well, I said, sister, I don’t think it’s realistic, let’s just talk over the telephone. Well she said people standing around here. Well, put your hand to your mouth or something, don’t talk so loud so they won’t hear you and nobody is standing around me. So, she told me the story. The community, the typical story of so many communities, a mid-western community, by the way, where the administration has, well, taken to the things of this world. So then I said well, are there others like you that think the way you do? She said, “Yes, but they’re afraid.” I said, “Afraid of what?” Well afraid something would happen to them if they talked too loud or say too much because they’re under, under authority. So I told her, Well Sister, there no question your community needs is a reformation and my reading of the whole history of religious life is; no community has been reformed without reformers. And reformers are people. So I told her, Sister you have one of two things to do. Either pray for a miracle or resign yourself to the inevitable. Right?

So each of these, the first thing they did and this is what I’m telling you communities today, this is not history of religious life to be kept over there, is to bring it to ourselves. A community will be as strong as those who it takes now are strong, and no better. And if ever we could afford to either compromise or qualify or say well, she might change or well there are certain things that obviously as a person develops she should change but certain basic qualities must be there. In other words, all, every one of these reformations every one of them was not done by speeches. It was not done by a lot of writing, it was not done by severe laws, or you get a pronunciamento with a papal seal, you know, embossed in molten wax from Rome telling the monks or nuns to behave themselves. Isn’t this good to hear? All reformations begin with the new recruits being men and women of deep, strong commitment to the ideal for which that community was founded.

So Bernard would go back with his monks and quote Benedict to them – this is what Benedict, this is the way we should live. Do you believe this? We do some five or six centuries later or in Bernard’s case, six centuries. In other words, a community does not die as long as someone still keeps and is willing to pay the price, for keeping the spirit of their Founder. With Benedict’s passing away, date 547 A.D., the middle of the sixth century, monasticism spread throughout Europe, the only possible figure of speech is like a wildfire.

There Was a Call for Reformation and Development

In any case, within four or so centuries, there was call for both reformation and development. I distinguish reform from development because reform has to do, rather, with something that has to be changed, corrected and I checked it in the dictionary and the verb is reform accent on the second syllable when it’s correction. When you merely reshape; it’s re-form with a hyphen in between re-form. I’m talking about reform – change with a view to improvement or correction.

There were especially three reasons why monasticism, in the centuries following St. Benedict, needed reformation. The first was the dwindling spiritual life of many of the monks and nuns. That was due, in some measure as least to the large numbers that flocked, in hundreds, to the monasteries. It is further due to the fact that not a few came from well to do families and without the proper control of poverty, it was understandable that some of these monasteries became quite wealthy. Well, now a wealthy religious community is a liability. It would not be too bad for a community to pray to stay poor. Moreover, there were problems built into the, you might say, relatively simple. Now some of you put down and compare for example your rules with St. Benedict. You thought he was too detailed. Well, no. Normally I didn’t make any particular comments on your papers but anytime anyone criticizes a man like Benedict, I come to his defense. No! Detail – if anything, he was under detailed. And, in fact, so generic that many problems later on arose that he just didn’t provide for.

Secondly, the Church’s needs. With the expansion of population, mobility, the break-up of the Roman Empire, the wars, the rise of feudalism, the Church’s needs had to be met. And Benedictine monasticism needed to be somehow changed to meet those needs. And finally, the strong stress in St. Benedict on liturgical prayer left much to be desired. For many who may have been quite expert in liturgical, say, chant and would faithfully show up for the Divine Office, six, seven, or more times a day, but then he could not pray, especially mental prayer. So the life of union with God needed to be reformed.

Five Areas That Called for Development

So much for reformation; now development. There were especially five areas that called for development, partly because there was need for improvement, but partly because, well, the Church grows on in monasticism, religious life went on things had to improve. As a matter of fact, not a few monasteries disappeared or became so lax that either the Pope or the secular powers had to suppress them.

Government Had to Be Clarified and Developed

The first stand in the major area of development was government. In St. Benedict’s vision of the superior, he was as the word implies, a father. Well that’s all right, you can be a father to a dozen or twenty or even a few hundred monks but you begin to multiply that and it’s remarkable what happens to fatherliness. For one thing, the contact between the abbot and the subjects was necessarily minimized. With the growing numbers a question arose, an unsolved question that had to be resolved. What was the precise relationship of a daughter monastery to the parent monastery? Was there dependence? If so, how much? And they had some sad experiences of daughter monasteries, well, becoming wayward daughters, going off on their own, doing their thing quite alien to the spirit of the parent monastery.

Moreover, since the monks helped the people to also civilize and not just teach them the Faith, the abbots often became the civil rulers of a large territory. This created some major problems as to their authority: Is it just civil or civil and ecclesiastical? What kind of obedience do the people of the countryside owe the abbot? He may be an abbot to the monks but what is he to us? The government had to be clarified and developed.

Second, asceticism. As you recall from your reading of the Rule of Benedict, and what we know about original monasticism, the asceticism was, indeed partly asceticism of the spirit, of the will, especially through obedience. But the heavy emphasis in asceticism was placed on bodily mortification: on watching the diet, on sleep, getting up, for example in the early hours of the morning, curtailing the sleep to recite the Divine Office.

Intellectually the Mind Needs Asceticism

Moreover, with the passage of time, more and more of the members of these institutes were either educated or, at least, naturally gifted people. Now you may, indeed, mortify yourself by hard work but intellectually the mind needs asceticism. That means mortification. When I’ve taught intellectuals for enough years to know, you’d better give them the equivalent of a pick, a shovel and a hoe to train their minds, otherwise, they may be handy with a hoe or a shovel but they can be just impossible to live with because of their stinking pride! Intellectuals, with no exception, no exception unless specially graced by God, are all proud people. Period. I’ve been living with them for too many years. Because anyone with brains knows he’s superior. He doesn’t even have to tell anybody – He knows it. And his mind can control other minds and that’s the worst kind of pride. So some kind of asceticism had to be developed – for which Benedict did not quite provide – for the spirit especially the intellect.

Labor, that needed development. Benedict was strong on manual labor; hours in the field. Now you might often have to leave whatever you were shoveling or hoeing with, I guess a shovel and a hoe to answer whatever bell would sound across the field to show up for whatever the hour was. And it was hard labor. But two problems arose. One, hardworking people who worked industriously accumulate. The monasteries accumulated all kinds of property. Things they produce, they could sell. People gave them money for that. So it affected poverty.

And the second was: Which comes first? Is it manual labor or is it the Divine Office? Now as many of us know in the midst of religious life is one thing to say we’re to have a nice balance between prayer and labor but except for it being nice on paper, it’s the hardest thing to work out in real life. That had to be developed.

Fifth, the apostolate. The apostolate refers to those who already have the faith. It is well to know that all the monasteries both of men and women for a thousand years, from the middle of the sixth to the beginning of the sixteenth century, were in large measure havens, schools, you might call them nurseries for the young who would be placed there by their parents, and among those who were there not a few would then join the respective communities. This is Boderick writing about Boniface: "He found his vocation very precociously, for we are told he made up his mind to be a monk cum esset honorem chuiter quartuor seu quinque" - he made up his mind to become a monk when he was about four or five years old. "And a monk he became. At the age of seven he left home, to the great sorrow of his father who had pinned all his worldly hopes on this extraordinary child. And he lived to the ripe old age of seventy-seven; he never lost sight of his Benedictine vocation."

What I wanted to point out, however, is that there is need for the Apostolate to go beyond the confines of the monastery. There were faithful all around. What do we do with them? Do we just pray for them? In other words, education as an apostolate in the Catholic Church grew out of Benedictine monasticism after it was discovered, no great discovery, that many more needed a good religious training than the few that could squeeze into where a boy of seven would be put into a monastery. And that, by the way, was common practice.

One thing we need to look into since this is a course on History of Religious Life – We should all re-examine, especially Major Superiors, the preparing of young people when they’re still very young for a future religious life. Today’s world and its pressures are too much, I’m afraid, for many what would otherwise have been good vocations.

Finally, Evangelization. Evangelization differs from the Apostolate in that it is addressed to those who are not yet Christians. And thus and Boniface would be a case in point. All the great missionaries of the early Church, I’m talking about after Apostolic times with Paul and Barnabas and the rest of them. They were after the liberation of the Church under Constantine and certainly after Benedictine monasticism became established they were always too strong. Most of them were religious who heard by that time of the number of people who had never heard of Jesus and Mary whom they sought out often to uncharted and unknown lands, cutting down the forests, building some semblance of a hut and beginning to recite the Divine Office with just the wind blowing through the trees around them and, in time, people were first curious, then interested. And by the way, the number of martyrs that the Church had from those early monks and nuns, much of that we don’t even have record of. All we know is they kept pouring in more – one wave would die or be killed, another wave would come in, in order to evangelize a still heathen people. That’s what Boniface did. Can you remember? What color vestments do we wear for St. Boniface? Who remembers? Red. He’s one of the thousands, literally of martyr monks, who in seeking to evangelize paid with their lives. Ok?

Reformation Took Three Principle Forms

The either Reformation or Re-formation: It took three principle forms and all future derivatives somehow come from these three. There was first of all the Benedictine tradition itself, purified, amplified, but essentially Benedict. And all we’ve seen about St. Benedict applies here. Second, the Cluniac Reform and the third, the Cistercian; Let me say just a word about the second two because we have already handled the first one except for such adjustments as we implied in the last fifteen or so minutes.

The Cluniac reform is named after Cluny, a city in France to be exact in the district of Aquitaine made of it’s beginning 909A.D., Founder Blessed Berno. What the Prince of Aquitaine did was to recommend – and Berno took him up on it – that he, the Abbot of Cluny would be exempt both from his civil jurisdiction and from the jurisdiction of the Bishop and to be directly responsible only to the Pope. What the Cluniac reform did was especially to cope with the problem of dismemberment and disarray through a lack of authority with monasteries mushrooming all over, often ill-formed, poorly conceived, with abbots who shouldn’t have been abbots and monks that shouldn’t have been monks, or nuns.

Cluniac Reform

Here are some features of the Cluniac reform which, of course, the fact that both the men and the women, all the members of all the monasteries, no matter how they were formed, and one figure that I have in my mind is seven hundred at one time. We were all subject, subject to Cluny. Well that was a far cry from the abbot as Father. You don’t run 700 monasteries as just a loving Father; you exercise jurisdiction. You give orders; You become, in effect, the General of an Army. Moreover, not only were the monasteries subject to the Abbot of Cluny; all the abbots were appointed by him and I’d like to say, they could also be disappointed by him meaning they could be removed by him. The vows which were pronounced by all members of what later came to be known as the Cluniac Order or the Order of Cluny were the vows were to be taken and received by the Abbot of Cluny. Another reason for going in this direction was to take care of the evangelization and the apostolate. Then the Abbot of Cluny could say there are people in need in whatever town or country. You go there, the Church needs you and they went. They better go! And not just to Christian people but to foreign, pagan lands. The monks, therefore, became in large measure teachers and missionaries. At the same time – perhaps we might think somewhat strangely – the Cluny reform elaborated and developed the Divine Office, made it more solemn, to be sung in choir. And talking to monks who sing their Office in choir they tell me four hours is not unusual; fours a day with all the ritual that, for a solemn Office this requires. Of course, their Churches became Cathedrals and the stress in their relationship to God was on the Divine Majesty. And some of the great figures in the Cluny Order, which was a Benedictine derivative, are among the greatest intellectuals in the Church’s history. I happened to have mentioned three outstanding names; Dunston, Oswald and Epiwald, that’s for England.

Cistercian reform

The other was the Cistercian Reform; the date here is 1098, the place, of course is Citeaux, again in France but in the district of Burgundy. And the one who began it was the Abbot St. Robert, originally of Molesme. To see what happened, if you can place the Cluniac Rule into a mirror and look into the mirror, that’s the Cistercian. It’s just the opposite. The very things that the Cluny people stressed, the Cistercians opposed; The first major polarization in the history of religious institutes. Thus, instead of expanding monasteries and then centralizing them under one head who then became for all practical purposes a Superior General, the very expression we owe to Cluny. Now as you can see, for example, you speak of Mother General, don’t you? We talk about Father General. You see what we’ve done? We’ve combined the Cluniac and the Cistercian ideal somehow. Do you get it? But the combination is not easy to live out in practice, especially as communities become large like my own.

There were several emphases in the Cistercian Reform. First, the asceticism of St. Benedict was if anything, intensified and bodily mortification became part of the Cistercian way of life. What well known branch of the Cistercians is well established in the United States? The Trappists, all right? Asceticism, especially on its bodily side, was intensified and it reminds you a great deal of Antony – remember his struggles in the desert? Correspondingly, solitude and as much as that could be done that the solitude of the eremitical life would be preserved even though you had a community. And one way to preserve the solitude was forbidding the monks to talk. So the stress on the eremitic, the solitary, the denial of communication which is a means of recreation, as we know and more than that a great pleasure and legitimately. So the whole spectrum of asceticism.

Secondly, the tendency toward the more eremitical view. Thirdly, and with great emphasis, poverty.

The third large area of reform and development in the Cistercian tradition was poverty; therefore simplicity, the bare necessities in food, clothing, shelter. Who is one of the outstanding Cistercians of all time? St. Bernard. I don’t know how much of him you’ve read – I think you’ve read a great deal. You got the idea? Even the house of God was not to be too elaborate, right? And he had some really strong homilies about fancy churches. Well, it’s good to hear that! This is a way of life. So, poverty in all of its forms was stressed in the Cistercian tradition.

Apostolate of Holiness

Manual labor. Where in the Cluniac reform they became interested, understandably, in preaching and evangelizing, the Cistercians not being so concerned, as we’ve just earlier said, in traveling; in fact, quite the contrary – in staying put. Their apostolate would be mainly the apostolate of holiness. They did not entirely exclude the apostolate of service, but they felt that it was not their charism. You see how important it is to know the charism of these founders? Take, well, the saints, well in both cases we’ve got some of the greatest saints in the monastic history; their founders or early pioneers in the Cluniac tradition and in the Cistercian tradition: the ones couldn’t make their Churches elaborate enough, ornate, all the silver, marble and gold you can get. Nothing is too good for God. The Cistercians: bare walls, plainness, nothing that should delight the eye: it must all be spiritual. Right? And believe me, if you have a vocation to one, you don’t have a vocation to the other. All right? How important it is nowadays to know who we are.

For the Cistercians and St. Bernard would be a classic instance. It is said of him for twelve years everyday he meditated on the Infant Jesus: littleness, helplessness, poverty, simplicity. All right? But this same Christ Child is the Lord of Heaven and Earth. God wants to be worshipped and Christ wants to be followed by different people in different ways. Am I clear? They would make no mistake provided their sincerity are seriously intent on loving God and becoming like Christ. Communities are supposed to be different. But it is well to know that each community understands what it is supposed to be. And when you mix breeds - You’ve got trouble.

Manual labor, therefore, to close with that in the Cistercian tradition was and remains to this day the idea – the Divine Office and work with one’s hands. This I think I indicated earlier, was one of the reasons for the crisis in the Trappists who were the Cistercian tradition, as I learned from personal experience, having worked with the Trappists and the history shows it. The largest loss of any major Order in the church in modern times has been among the Trappists, percentage wise larger than the Jesuits, though numerically ours is the biggest because of our sheer numbers. And their problem, almost the center of their problem, not a few vocations enter them highly gifted, articulate, talented people. In any case the Cistercian tradition, I am confident, is once more recovering itself. It is an authentic tradition of the Church, and if we said what we did regarding St. Benedict – that he is the father in God of all religious since. So these two branches of the Benedictine monasticism are our respective parents in God, and you can tell immediately communities more along the active, external apostolic, evangelization, educational line and those morally interior, the contemplative, the cloistered, the secluded, the sacrificial life.

Conference transcription from a talk that Father Hardon gave to the
Institute on Religious Life

Institute on Religious Life, Inc.
P.O. Box 410007
Chicago, Illinois 60641

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

search tips advanced search

What's New    Site Index

Home | Directory | Eucharist | Divine Training | Testimonials | Visit Chapel | Hardon Archives

Adorers Society | PEA Manual | Essentials of Faith | Dictionary | Thesaurus | Catalog | Newsletters

Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association
718 Liberty Lane
Lombard, IL 60148
Phone: 815-254-4420
Contact Us

Copyright © 2000 by
All rights reserved worldwide.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval
system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic,
mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior
written permission of