One of the great effects of the Second Vatican Council has been the renewal of religious life. Granted, what exactly that renewal means greatly differs from community to community with differently results. But there is no doubt that religious life is still an essential aspect of Catholic culture and life.
These men and women take on living out more fully the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The institutional Church role is to make sure that these are lived out in keeping with the teachings of Christ. (For example, she would put her foot down if part of obedience meant forced self flagellation. That would not be acceptable.) This way of life has always been so popular with some of our brothers and sisters that a great variety of forms of this way of life have grown up with the Church. Different rules, different charisms, community or solitary life appear helping individuals toward a holier life which in turn feeds the life of the Church.
Members join in order to receive help toward the call we have to be saints. It is not some sort of middle ground between the lay and ordained state, but a way of life all its own to which both lay and ordained may be called.
There is the story of a priest who went to visit a friend who had become a monk in a monastery. The friend lived his life within the monastery boundaries while his priest friend was free to come and go where he pleased. “I don’t know how you do it,” the priest exclaimed, “I could never live confined to these walls like you. You must have great spiritual strength.”
The monk replied, “Funny, I was thinking what great spiritual strength you must have to be out in the world with all of its distractions and temptations. I don’t know that I could do that.”
We are all called to certain ways of life that are best for us. The men and women of the religious order seek out this way of life, a community bound in poverty, chastity, and obedience, as their means for them to live the best lives possible.
They are also symbols for us of the spiritual promises made to us that are reaching out to us even in this life. They are visual reminders that we are built for the life to come where eye has not seen, ear has not heard what God has ready for those who love Him. The life they lead is an arrow pointing toward that heavenly life, the wedding feast of the Lamb.