What Are The Differences Between Religious Orders?

The differences between religious orders are fewer than one might initially expect. For someone who is beginning their discernment process, this may come as a surprise, as it is easy to feel a little overwhelmed at the number religious orders in existence today (Franciscans, Benedictines, Dominicans, Carmelites, Trappists, etc.). However, they all bear common features that are the hallmark of religious life, such as; community prayer (primarily the Divine Office), community meals, labor/work, private prayer, meditation, study, and of course religious vows (the vows of the evangelical counsels; poverty, chastity, and obedience). There also may be similarities in the formation process as well, which is often divided into five "stages"; observant/aspirant, postulant, novice, simply professed, and solemnly professed (or perpetual vows). The discernment process usually continues for about 5-8 years until solemn profession. A person is free to leave any time prior to solemn profession (It is important to note that although these external similarities exist, much still depends on the unique dynamic within each community, which is governed largely by its superior.

Benedictine of Barroux

The schedules of religious communities may also share basic similarities. An example horarium (daily schedule) of a contemplative community may be fairly regimented, such as;

Ccontemplative Community (example)
5:00 AM, Rise
5:30 AM, Office of Readings (Matins) / Morning Prayer (Lauds)
6:30 AM, Holy Mass
7:45 AM, Breakfast
9:30 AM, Morning Chores / Classes
12:50 PM, Mid Day Prayer (Terce/None)
1:30 PM, Lunch (with spiritual readings)
2:30 PM, Free Time / Siesta
4:30 PM, Vespers, Meditation
6:00 PM, Private Study
7:30 PM, Supper / Free Time
8:30 PM, Night Prayer (Compline)
9:30 PM, Lights Out

Typically, orders that are more "contemplative", such as the Benedictines, tend to allot more time to community prayer, and have a more rigorous schedule (as shown above). Conversely, orders that are more "active", such as the Franciscans, Dominicans, or Jesuits, tend to allot more time to an apostolate (serving the community in some capacity). However, whether a religious community is more active or contemplative, they all share this fundamental component, that is; heart of their life is prayer, and of self-conversion and renunciation for the sanctification of the Church. Every religious community in the world recites the same prayers of the Divine Office each day, breathing together in the same rhythm of prayer. According to Saint Therese, the existence of religious communities are so vital that, if one were to draw an analogy to the Mystical body of Christ, they would be considered the heart. Saint Faustina confirms this reality; "I learned that the world's existence is maintained by chosen souls; that is, the religious orders." (This reality is all the more disconcerting for us today, with the number of religious sisters in the US plummeting by 120,000 just in the past forty years!)

At first glance, such a schedule as the one shown above may seem repetitive and constricting. For those of us living in the world and still influenced by a utilitarian wordlview, we may be tempted to think that nuns and monks are wasting their time. One might hear the argument; "Prayer is important, yes, but what are they doing to contribute to the world?" (as if prayer is not the greatest contribution one can perform). And yet, as Our Lord told Saint Faustina, more souls are saved through prayer and sacrifice alone than through missions and preaching. And it is precisely behind the walls of the enclosure that enables religious to accomplish this work of Christ, whether active or contemplative. It is in this rhythmic exchange of prayer, labor, and rest, that religious are liberated from the distractions of the world, free to devote themselves wholly to God alone. As Our Lord said, it was not Martha who chose the better part, occupying herself with many concerns, but Mary, sitting at the feet of her Jesus (Lk 10:42). This is the life of chosen souls, of alter-Magdalene's, who, lost in the gaze of Our Lord through prayer, are lifted to greater heights where love becomes easy, ready to die to self-love by degrees through the vow of obedience and a thousand small sacrifices for souls. In this sense the schedule itself is a perpetual sacrifice of great merit, since religious are bound to it by the vow of obedience, and cannot deviate from it unless given permission do to so. Sacrifice is, by design, built in to the life of a religious. It requires the strength of a warrior, but his battlefield is the ordinary and mundane of daily life. It demands the mighty perseverence of a hero, who unbeknownst to him may spend his years never seeing the fruits of labor or the countless souls he saves.

Saint Faustina, diary, 1933, ¶.61: "O life so dull and monotonous, how many treasures you contain! When I look at everything with the eyes of faith, no two hours are alike, and the dullness and monotony disappear. The grace which is given me in this hour will not be repeated in the next. It may be given me again, but it will not be the same grace. Time goes on, never to return again. Whatever is enclosed in it will never change; it seals with a seal for eternity." [...] "My life is not drab or monotonous, but it varied like a garden of fragrant flowers, so that I don't know which flower to pick first, the lily of suffering, or the rose of love of neighbor, or the violet of humility."


"Contemplative orders" (such as Benedictines, Carmelites, Trappists, Carthusians, Cistercians, etc.) are those who primarily focus on inward conversion; to grow in union with Our Lord for the love of God and the salvation souls. Such communities typically have little interaction with the world, so that they may devote themselves to more wholly to prayer and penance for the sanctification of the world. As the angel said at Fatima; "Penance, penance, penance! [...] Make everything you do a sacrifice, and offer it as an act of reparation for the sins by which God is offended, and as a petition for the conversion of sinners". Saint Faustina, who spent her life isolated from the world behind the walls of a convent, describes this life of toiling and battling for souls as a preeminent and necessary function.

diary, November 1935, ¶.539: "By prayer and mortification, we will make our way to the most uncivilized countries, paving the way for the missionaries. We will bear in mind that a soldier on the front line cannot hold out long without support from the rear forces that do not actually take part in the fighting but provide for all his needs; and that such is the role of prayer, and that therefore each one of us is to be distinguished by an apostolic spirit."

Author's Note; The following summaries were compiled as general overviews of some of the more prominent religious orders. The content is not intended to be exhaustive, but only provide a basic introduction to some religious orders. We have thus excluded organizations that do not take consecrated vows, such as priestly societies, and lay organizations.

Author's Note: When discerning religious life, it is important to bear in mind the fact that no two communities are alike. Even within orders, the differences can be significant. No two Benedictine communities are exactly alike. No two Franciscan communities are exactly alike, etc. One may even find a Benedictine community spending more time in an apostolate than a Franciscan community. Or one may find a Trappist community to be more lenient than a Benedictine community. Suffice to say, this is why it is important to visit communities first hand, in order to get a more accurate sense of their life.


"Active" orders (Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits, Missionaries of Charity, etc.) are those who tend to have more direct interaction with the world than contemplative orders. In addition to prayer, active orders may devote some of their "work" time to external apostolates (teaching, preaching, soup kitchens, missions, youth retreats, media apostolates, etc.) rather than to self-supportive ends (gardening, bee farming, candle making, etc.). In this sense, they tend to follow Scripture in a more literal way; to "feed the hungry", "give drink to the thirsty"; to be in the world, but not of the world. Active orders tend to be less bound by the walls of a monastery, and may reassign its members to different locations abroad. Some of the most active orders, such as the Jesuits, may not even be required to live in community, and are thus the most "free" in terms of possible assignments within the Church. Just as a sparrow requires only a few moments of rest on a small branch before taking to flight again, so too are such members called to obediently go where they are told, be it a professor in a school, a spiritual director in a seminary, a manager of a retreat house, or a missionary in a far off land. Typically, active orders are also Mendicant orders, meaning; they live off of the charity of others, rather than trying to be self-supportive (note; Carmelites and Poor Clares are technically mendicants as well).

Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate

It is really "Active-Contemplative"
It may be worth noting most active orders are not "active" in the strictest sense of the word, just as many contemplative orders are not strictly cloistered. Rather, they are more precisely active-contemplative, comprising a relative balance between prayer and their apostolates. Saint Thomas Aquinas believed that these mixed orders (orders that have both an active and contemplative dimension) are the most perfect form of religious life--though it is important to again stress the wide variance within orders, with some placing more emphasis on prayer (closer to being strictly cloistered) while others placing more emphasis on work (closer to being strictly active), and everything in between. Much depends on the community; in how much religious fervor they possess, and how well they guard themselves against the spirit of the world, which can be more influential in active life. As Saint Francis of Assisi noted, one cannot be in the world without getting "a little dust on his shoulders". It is thus that mixed orders need to be all the more vigiliant in keeping prayer in its proper place. Padre Pio, for example, was a Capuchin friar--the most active branch of the Franciscans--and yet he spent much of his free time in prayer; even skipping meals to remain in prayer. It was through prayer that he was able to draw on the graces of God, and go out into the world to distribute those graces according to the needs of souls. Even Saint Francis retreated to the mountains to be alone in prayer. In this sense, the heart of the life of every religious--whether active or contemplative--is prayer. As Saint Maximilian Kolbe said, "only prayer obtains the grace of conversion" [...] "All the fruit of our labors directed to the conversion and sanctification of souls depends on prayer".

Author's Note: The following summaries were compiled as general overviews of some of the more prominent religious orders. The content is not intended to be exhaustive, but only provide a basic introduction to some religious orders. We have thus excluded organizations that do not take consecrated vows, such as priestly societies, and lay organizations.

Author's note: Like many of the major religious orders, the Franciscans and Dominicans have suffered greatly in recent times. It is not uncommon today to see friars watching television, or going to the movies and eating ice cream on a Friday night. The spirit of sacrifice, a hallmark of religious life, has largely been obscured over years, as the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction to a kind of secularized love, absent of any austerities. However, like the Benedictines, the communities of lax traditions tend to be dying away, as new young communities take their place, devoted to a more authentic renewal that Vatican II called for.


The above orders are considered "main body" of major religious orders, due in large part to their historical prominence. Yet there are many new orders emerging in recent history with unique charisms offering wide and rich panapoly of options for those seeking to live a religious vocation. Some of these new orders are quite striking in their charisms; some focus on the Passion of Our Lord for example, others on Christ as Bridegroom, still others to Our Eucharistic Lord in perpetual Adoration, or to promoting the culture of life, or to devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Certainly there is much need in the Church today, and many of these new orders are seeking to fill that need.

Please note; There are other orders that have been excluded from the list above. Please use this webpage as a general primer/guide only, for conducting further research.


Davide A. Bianchini, Contact