CatholicNews begins a series on the religious communities in the Singapore Archdicese with this report by Sister Wendy Ooi, fsp, on what religious life is like and how it all began.
THERE ARE VARIOUS states of life encouraged by the Catholic Church to live the baptismal call to holiness. While most people are called to marriage, some are called to the lay single state, or to the ordained ministry or to the consecrated life. Among those called to the consecrated life are members of secular institutes and religious priests, sisters, and brothers.
Religious life thus refers to the vocation of men and women who are called to dedicate or consecrate themselves totally to God through profession in a religious community. They usually join a religious order and share a common life of prayer and service, according to the charism (the particular spirituality and mission) of their founder.
A religious priest is different from a diocesan priest in that the diocesan priest is ordained for a certain geographical area (the diocese) and promises to lead a celibate life, to respect and obey his bishop and to live a simple lifestyle. A religious priest, on the other hand, belongs to an order (e.g. Carmelite, Redemptorist) and professes the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. These vows are also known as the Evangelical Counsels.
"Evangelical" means "contained in the Gospel"; the word "Counsels" implies that the vows are an invitation - not a compulsion - to live the Gospel in a radical way. While each order has its own way of expressing the vows, generally, poverty entails sharing all things in common (without personal ownership), chastity is the choice to live a life of celibate loving rather than enter into a conjugal relationship, and obedience indicates a preference for the common good over personal desire.
All three vows help the religious to live the Gospel in freedom. When they are lived well, the vows lead them to live in the best possible way the commandment to love God and neighbour.
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Origins of religious life
The call to live Gospel values in a radical way can be traced back to the third century when anchorites and hermits started to withdraw from "the world" to settle in the outskirts of villages and cities, or in the deserts (of Egypt and the Middle East). Many of them eventually came to live together in loosely structured communities.
This led to the development of monasticism with monks living in cloister and devoting themselves to contemplation, prayer and work. This monasticism, which was prevalent mainly in the East, soon spread to the West and influenced it.
By the sixth century, Benedict of Nursia had founded a community on Mount Cassino, Italy and the "Benedictine Rule" became the standard for West European monasteries. They eventually grew to be centres of culture, art and spirituality in a milieu of feudalism.
After the turn of the first millennium, Europe suffered several political and religious crises. Reform in the church affected monastic life and reformed monastic orders, like the Cistercians and Carthusians, came into being.
However, cloistered monks could not adequately address the challenges caused by changes in civilisation and the growth of towns and cities which brought with them new social problems.
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A new type of religious life was needed and this came in the form of Mendicant Orders, notably the Franciscans and the Dominicans. (The term 'mendicant' means dependent on alms for a living.) These new orders went beyond the confines of their communities to preach and conduct apostolic service in cities and towns.
"Ministry" became a service to the people, "out in the world". Religious life thus began to touch the various spheres of society - through pastoral care of the poor and sick, education and other services.
Since the time of Jesus, who was accompanied by a group of women, religious women have also come together as communities. Like their male counterpart, over the centuries, female apostolic congregations also sprouted to meet the changing circumstances of society and the church even as contemplative monasteries remained (and some expanded).
At the end of the 18th century, the church faced another major crisis that was triggered by the French Revolution - laicization. The anti-clerical movements that forced the separation of the state and the church not only in France but also across Europe weakened the temporal powers of the church.
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It responded in various ways to the problem, one of which was to make mission work beyond the European Continent an urgent priority for the church and religious orders. One beneficiary of this expanded missionary activity outside Europe was Singapore.
Religious arrive in Singapore Christianity came to Singapore (known then as Temasek) from Peninsular Malaysia around 1811 (several years before the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819). By 1832, there were around 300 Catholics on the island and Father Julien Marc Clemenceau of the Paris Foreign Missions (MEP) was appointed to shepherd them by Bishop Bartholomeu Bruguiere, coadjutor of Vicar Apostolate of Siam.
In 1839, Father Jean Marie Beurel built the Good Shepherd Church (now, the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd). Father Beurel invited the first religious orders to Singapore. The De La Salle Brothers and the Infant Jesus Sisters came in 1852 and 1854, respectively, to establish schools.
The next religious orders did not come until the next century. The 1930s saw the arrival of several orders: CICM Scheut Missions (1931), Redemptorist Fathers (1935), Sisters of the Poor (1935), Gabrielite Brothers (1936) and Carmelite Sisters (1938). The 1940s, perhaps because of the Second World War, saw only the Good Shepherd Sisters (1940) and the Canossian Sisters (1941) arriving.
The 1950s was a period of growth with the arrival of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood (1950), Jesuits (1951), Marist Brothers (1955), Franciscan Friars (1957)
and Fathers of the Sacred Heart (1958).
and Fathers of the Sacred Heart (1958).
More recent arrivals include the Missionaries of Charity (1985), Daughters of St. Paul (1994), Brothers of Mercy (1995), Carmelite Fathers (1996), Verbum Dei Missionaries (1997), Religious of Cenacle (1997) and Dominican Friars (2000).
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At the service of the church
Religious orders were established to meet certain needs of the church and society. Throughout the centuries, orders whose mission and charism respond to ongoing concerns survived while others gradually ceased to exist due to their mission becoming archaic. Many new orders are still being founded today to meet the new challenges in society and the church.
Since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), religious life has also moved gradually closer to the life of the laity. Some religious priests, brothers and sisters have established smaller communities and become neighbours to their lay brothers and sisters. (This is prevalent especially in the USA.)
Some orders have put aside their religious habit or garb for ordinary clothes. But, with or without their habits, the religious continue to be a force at the service of the church, witnesses in striving to live the Gospel radically and a light to lead others to Christ.