What Does it Mean to Belong to A "Lay Religious" Order?

Most members of the Order of Malta would agree that they belong to a “lay religious” order, but the agreement may very well stop right there.  A minority may have a full and accurate understanding of what it means to be a lay religious order.  Others only partly grasp the fullness of this reality.  Still others are entirely mistaken in their assessment of what it means to belong to a lay religious order.  There are very likely a significant number of Knights and Dames who do not fully grasp this concept.  Therefore, it may be useful to explain briefly what it means to be part of a lay religious order.

From its founding almost 1,000 years ago, the Order of St. John of Jerusalem (its original name) was considered by its members to be a religious congregation, a fact which was confirmed in 1113 by Pope Paschal II who granted the Order freedom from the oversight of local bishops.  Over time, the independence granted by Paschal developed into territorial sovereignty, an entirely unique feature of the Order which remains to this day.   It was, in part, the Order’s decision to add a military function to its original Hospitaller charism that spurred the development of its sovereignty.  The recognition of its territorial suzerainty, particularly over Rhodes and subsequently Malta, by secular princes and papal exemptions from oversight by local bishops combined to form a religious order with an unusual degree of independence from both church and royal authorities.

It is important to note that the Order’s Founder, Blessed Gerard, was a lay religious, as were all his followers.  This means that Blessed Gerard was not a cleric.   He did not take Holy Orders.  He and his followers were not priests.  Within a century of its founding, the charisms of the Order had developed into caring for the sick and poor and protecting pilgrims and Christendom from its adversaries.  Its members did not join the Order to become cloistered monks.  Nor did their vocations lie in administering the sacraments or preaching the Word.  They were not called to say Mass for the people, bless their marriages, hear their confessions, baptize their children, or bury their dead.   In short, they were not clerics or priests.  They were, like the Professed today, lay religious or laymen who lived the “consecrated life.”

In the over 2,000 year history of the Catholic Church, the number of clerics and lay religious has fluctuated significantly.  Over the past 50 years, many of us have witnessed this fluctuation in vocations both to the priesthood and to lay religious life.  In 1965, there were 7,800 religious Brothers and nearly 200,000 religious Sisters in the United States.  Today, those numbers are vastly reduced with only 3,800 Brothers and 45,100 Sisters remaining, Still, however reduced in number, these lay religious congregations remain familiar to many American Catholics.  To name just a few:  among the lay religious orders of women, the Sisters of Charity, Sisters of St. Joseph, Madams of the Sacred Heart, and Felician Sisters; while among the lay religious orders of men, the Xavierian Brothers, Irish Christian Brothers, LaSalle Brothers, and Marist Brothers. 

There are scores of other lay religious congregations around the world, each with their own individual charisms, apostolates, and spirituality.  Despite their obvious differences, they all have one common element.  That is, they are lay religious orders.  Specifically, the order’s leadership and the overwhelming number of its members are lay religious.  If professed clerics are permitted entrance to the order, which is not the norm, they are not eligible to serve as superiors.  The lay religious, men and women alike, profess the evangelical vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in accordance with their congregations’ particular charisms.   In contrast, clerical religious orders, like the Jesuits, Dominicans, and Augustinians, are led exclusively by ordained priests.

Of course, this may be a simplification of the situation.  Women religious frequently saw their lay religious orders made subject to clerics in the persons of local ordinaries, especially in the years following the deaths of their charismatic founders.   Although these Sisters’ apostolates spread across diocesan lines and even national frontiers, male ecclesiastics in Rome attempted to place them under the authority of diocesan bishops.   Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton’s Sisters of Charity, the first religious congregation founded in the United States in 1809, is a good example of this.  Pressured by the hierarchy, the order relatively quickly broke up into separate foundations under independent superiors with their own educational and social ministries.  These separate foundations were made subject to the authority of local hierarchs, to whom they owed obedience.  Consequently, their status as genuine lay religious congregations were, in some small measure, undermined when they were removed from the oversight of the Mother House in Emmitsburg, Maryland. 

Leaving aside the treatment of women’s lay religious orders, it should be clear that the juridical definition under canon law of a lay religious congregation has nothing to do with combining the laity with the religious to comprise a “lay religious” leadership of the SMOM.  Despite large numbers of members who think this is the case, it is false.  Very simply, the lay religious, in sum and substance, are the Knights of Justice.  It is their existence that makes the Order a lay religious order, and without them the Order would be unable to continue. 

As the Order grew and prospered, it began to accept persons as confreres or companions to assist in the works of the Order. These companions or confreres were drawn to the charisms of the Order, but they did not have a religious vocation.  This development, however useful in serving the poor and sick, has been the inadvertent cause of much confusion about the nature of the Order.  Confreres, who have been invited to work in the Order’s ministries, have been known through the years as donats, knights and dames of the third class and second class, knights and dames of grace and devotion, and knights and dames of honor and devotion.  As discussed above, the actual lay religious congregation is comprised of the professed who have invited others to share in the charisms of the Order, to toil in its vineyards, and to seek through it grace and personal salvation.

The involvement of non-religious in the Order has undoubtedly been a blessing of inestimable magnitude.  However, because of the large number of non-religious active in the life of the Order, some confusion has arisen not only about its nature, but also in terminology.   The term “confreres” (literally meaning “with the Brothers”) signified that these volunteers were not full members of the Order, but they worked side-by-side, whether men or women, with (con) the Brothers or the professed (freres).  Thus, the term, confreres, is not gender specific.  It does not refer only to knights of the second or third class or exclusively to males.  It refers to all men and women affiliated with the Order who have been invited by the professed to share in the work of the Order and to seek personal salvation through it.  Consequently, the term “consoeurs” (“with the Sisters”) has no meaning in the Order, and it is used erroneously to signify Dames.  The term confreres applies to all non-professed, regardless of gender, who are companions to the “Brothers,” “Frates,” “Freres” or Fras in building the Kingdom of God.  We are not divided into two groups:  those with the Sisters (consuores) and those with the Brothers (confreres).  Simply put, we are all “with the Fras” in the Order of Malta.

“With the Fras in the Order of Malta” is a phrase that reflects a striking, even beautiful, reality.  The professed are few in number, but we draw courage from the fact that God is with us, and He has shown us His love and mercy for nearly 1,000 years.  He has also helped us to grow and develop our lay religious order by relying on the dedication and commitment of our confreres all over the world.  We – the Fras and our confreres – have come together under the banners of the Order to serve the poor and sick of our troubled world.  The professed have opened the doors of the Order to men and women, confreres all, who seek holiness through service to the weak and forgotten.  They have encouraged men and women to live the Order’s spirituality of service and to share in the still evolving 1,000-year-old vision of Blessed Gerard.  In many ways, we are blazing the trail for other religious congregations.  Notwithstanding the juridical realities of our lay religious order, ours is a shining example of the professed and confreres coming together, “forgetful of ourselves,” to care for others in Christ’s name.