Canons regular are canons (a category of clergy) in the Catholic Church who live in community under a rule (Latin: regula) and are generally organised into religious orders, differing from both secular canons and other forms of religious life, such as clerks (or clerics) regular, designated by a partly similar terminology.
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All canons regular are to be distinguished from secular canons who belong to a resident group of priests but who do not take public vows and are not governed in whatever elements of life they lead in common by a historical Rule. One obvious place where such groups of priests were required was at a cathedral, where there were many Masses to celebrate and the Divine Office to be prayed together in community. Other groups were established at other churches which at some period in their history had been considered major churches, and (often thanks to particular benefactions) also in smaller centers.
As a norm, canons regular live together in communities which take public vows. Their early communities took vows of common property and stability. As a later development, they now usually take the three public vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience though some Orders or congregations of canons regular have retained the vow of stability.
By 1125 hundreds of communities of canons had sprung up in Western Europe. Usually, they were quite independent of one another and varied in their ministries.
Especially from the 11th century, among the canons regular, various groupings called congregations were formed, which partly resembled religious orders in the general modern sense. This movement parallelled in some respects the kind of bonds established between houses of monks. Among these congregations of canons regular, most adopted the Rule of St. Augustine, hence taking their name from St Augustine, the great Doctor of the Church, "for he realized in an ideal way the common life of the Clergy". They became known as Augustinian Canons, and sometimes in English as Austin Canons (Austin being a form of Augustine). Where it was the case, they have also been known as Black Canons, from their black habits.
Nevertheless, there have always been canons regular who never adopted the Rule of St. Augustine. In a word, canons regular may be considered as the genus and Augustinian Canons as the species. Otherwise put, all Augustinian Canons are canons regular, but not all canons regular are Augustinian Canons.
In Latin, terms such as Canonici Regulares Ordinis S. Augustini (Canons Regular of the Order of St. Augustine) were used, whereby the term order (Latin ordo) referred more to a form of life or a stratum of society, reminiscent of the usage of the equestrian order or senatorial order of Roman society, rather than to a religious order in the modern sense of a closely organized body. Furthermore, within what we could call the pool of Augustinian Canons, some groups acquired a greater degree of distinctiveness in their style of life and organization, to the point of being in law or in effect autonomous religious orders. Examples include the Premonstratensian or Norbertine Order, sometimes known in English as White Canons, from their white habits. Yet another such order is that of the Crosiers. Encouraged by the general policies of the Holy See, especially from the late nineteenth century, some of these separate orders and congregations of Augustinian Canons have subsequently combined in some form of federation or confederation.
All the different varieties of canons regular are to be distinguished not only from secular canons but also from:
Writing at a time before the foundation of the mendicant orders (friars), Pope Urban II (died 1099), said there were two forms of religious life: the monastic (like the Benedictines and Cistercians) and the canonical (like the Augustinian Canons). He likened the monks to the role of Mary, and the canons to that of her sister, Martha.
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, a canon regular is essentially a religious cleric; "The Order of Canons Regular is necessarily constituted by religious clerics, because they are essentially destined to those works which relate to the Divine mysteries, whereas it is not so with the monastic Orders." This is what constitutes a canon regular and what distinguishes him from a monk. The clerical state is essential to the Order of Canons Regular, whereas it is only accidental to the Monastic Order. Erasmus, himself a canon regular, declared that the canons regular are a "median point" between the monks and the secular clergy. The outer appearance and observances of the canons regular can seem very similar to those of the monks. This is because the various reforms borrowed certain practices from the monks for the use of the canons.
According to St. Augustine, a canon regular professes two things, "sanctitatem et clericatum". He lives in community, he leads the life of a religious, he sings the praises of God by the daily recitation of the Divine Office in choir; but at the same time, at the bidding of his superiors, he is prepared to follow the example of the Apostles by preaching, teaching, and the administration of the sacraments, or by giving hospitality to pilgrims and travellers, and tending the sick. In fact, traditionally canons regular have not confined themselves exclusively to the functions of the canonical life. They have also given hospitality to pilgrims and travelers on the Great St. Bernard and on the Simplon, and in former times the hospitals of St. Bartholomew's Smithfield, in London, of Santo Spirito, in Rome, of Lochleven, Monymusk and St. Andrew's, in Scotland, and others like them, were all served by canons regular. Many houses of canons worked among the poor, the lepers, and the infirm. The clerics established by St. Patrick in Ireland had accommodation for pilgrims and the sick whom they tended by day and by night. And the rule given by Chrodegang to his canons enjoined that there should be a hospital near their house for this purpose.
Augustine of Hippo (354-430), also known as Saint Augustine, did not found the canons regular, not even those who are called Augustinian Canons. Although Augustine of Hippo is regarded by the canons as their founder, Vincent of Beauvais, Sigebert, and Peter of Cluny all state that the canonical order traces back its origin to the earliest ages of the Church. In the first centuries after Christ, priests lived with the bishop and carried out the liturgy and sacraments in the cathedral church. While each could own his own property, they lived together and shared common meals and a common dormitory.
From the 4th to the middle of the 11th century, communities of canons were established exclusively by bishops. The oldest form of canonical life was known as "Ordo Antiquus". In Italy, among the first to successfully unite the clerical state with the common life was St Eusebius, Bishop of Vercelli and St Zeno, Bishop of Verona and St Ambrose of Milan did similarly.
It was under St Augustine that the "canonical life" reached its apotheosis. None of the Fathers of the Church were as enthusiastic about the community life of the Apostolic Church of Jerusalem (Acts 4:31-35) or as enthralled by it as St. Augustine. To live this out in the midst of like-minded brethren was the goal of his monastic foundations in Thagaste, in the "Garden Monastery" at Hippo and at his bishop's house. The "rules" of St. Augustine intended to help put the vita apostolica into effect for the circumstances of his time and the community of his day.
From the time of his elevation to be Bishop of Hippo in 395 AD, he transformed his episcopal residence into a monastery for clerics and established the essential characteristics-the common life with renunciation of private property, chastity, obedience, the liturgical life and the care of souls: to these can be added two other typically Augustinian characteristics --a close bond of brotherly affection and a wise moderation in all things. This spirit permeates the whole of the so-called Rule of St. Augustine and at least in substance can be attributed to Augustine personally.
The invasion of Africa by the Vandals destroyed Augustine's foundation but we can deduce its nature as it almost certain that it took refuge in Gaul. The prescriptions which St. Augustine had given to the clerics who lived with him soon spread and were adopted by other communities of canons regular not only in Africa, but in Italy, in France and elsewhere. Pope Gelasius, about the year 492, re-established the regular life in the Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran. From there the reform spread till at length the Rule was universally adopted by almost all the canons regular.
Over time abuses crept into clerical life, including those of concubinage and independent living with the scandals and disedification of the faithful which followed. Vigorous reforms were undertaken during the reign of the Emperor Charlemagne (AD 800). Important milestones for the Ordo Antiquus form of canonical life include the reform and rule of the Benedictine Bishop of Metz, Chrodegang (763), and the Synods of Aachen (816-819), which established a rule of life for canons in the Carolingian Empire.
The ecclesiastical constitution or ordinance of Chrodegang, the Regula vitae communis (Rule of Common Life), was at once a restoration and an adaptation of the Rule of St. Augustine, and its chief provisions were that the ecclesiastics who adopted it had to live in common under the Bishop's roof, recite common prayers, perform a certain amount of manual labour, keep silence at certain times, and go to confession twice a year. They did not take the vow of poverty and they could hold a life interest in property. Twice a day they met to hear a chapter from the rule of their founder, hence the meeting itself was soon called "chapter". This discipline was also recommended shortly after by the Councils of Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) (789) and Mainz (813).
In 816 the Institutio canonicorum Aquisgranensis was drawn up at the Council of Aachen. This included a rule of 147 articles, known as the Rule of (Aix-la-Chapelle), to be applied to all canons. These statues were held as binding. The principal difference between Chrodegang's Rule and that of Aachen was their attitude toward private property. Both permitted the canons to own and dispose of property as they saw fit, but while Chrodegang counseled a renunciation of private property, the Aachen Synod did not, since this was not part of the tradition of the canons. It is from this period that there dates the daily recitation by the canons of the Divine Office or canonical hours.
In the 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries, laxity crept in: community life was no longer strictly observed, the sources of revenue were divided and the portions were allocated directly to the individual canons. This soon led to differences of income, and consequently to avarice, covetousness, and the partial destruction of the canonical life.
In the 11th century the life of canons regular was reformed and renewed, chiefly owing to the efforts of Hildebrand (c. 1020-1085), later Pope Gregory VII, culminating in the Lateran Synod of 1059. Here for the first time the Apostolic See officially recognized and approved the manner of life of the religious clergy as founded by bishops and others. Gregory VII's reform resulted in a distinction being made between clerics who lived in separate houses and those who still preserved the old discipline.
Toward the end of the 11th century, the more cathedral and other chapters of canons opted for the apostolic life after the example of St. Augustine, the more urgent became both a separation from worldy life and measures regarding those canons who held to private ownership, in contradistinction to Benedictine monasticism, which till then was the mainstay of the Gregorian Reform. Pope Urban II deserves the credit for having recognized the way of life of the "canonici regulares" as sharply distinguished from the principles of the "canonici saeculares", and at the same time as a way of communal perfection equal to monasticism. In granting numerous privileges to reformed houses of canons he clearly emphasized the nature and goal, the rights and duties of the canons regular. Thus from the renewal of the canonical life there inevitably arose a new "order"--which initially had not been the intention. In the privileges of Pope Urban II we find officially for the first time the new name Canonici secundum regulam sancti Augustini viventes, which would give the new ordo of canonical life a distinctive stamp.
The norm of life of the canons regular was concretized from the last third of the 11th century by a general following of the vita apostolica and the vita communis of the early Church based more and more on the precepts handed down by Augustine. Secundum regulam Augustini vivere, an expression first employed in Rheims in 1067, signified a life according to the example of Augustine as was known from his numerous writings.
From that time the Order of Canons Regular of Saint Augustine, as it was already beginning to be called, increased rapidly. A great number of congregations of canons regular sprang into existence, each with its own distinctive constitutions, grounded on the Rule of St. Augustine and the statutes which Blessed Peter de Honestis gave to his canons at Ravenna about the year 1100. In some houses the canonical life was combined with hospitality to travelers, nursing the sick and other charitable works. Often a number of houses were grouped together in a congregation. One of the most famous houses was the Abbey of Saint Victor, founded in Paris in 1108, celebrated for its liturgy, pastoral work and spirituality. Also worth mention are the Abbey of Saint Maurice of Agaune, the Hospice of Saint Bernard of Mont Joux in Switzerland, and the Austrian Abbeys.
The high point of the canons regular can be situated in the first half of the 12th century. During this time they contributed series of popes - Honorius II, Innocent II, Lucius II, as well as Hadrian IV shortly after mid-century and finally Gregory VIII in the second half of the century.
In the Middle Ages, some cathedrals were given over to the care of canons regular, as were certain places of pilgrimage. The shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in England was just such a shrine, and the cathedrals of Saint John Lateran in Rome, Salzburg and Gurk in Austria, Toledo and Saragossa in Spain, St. Andrew's in Scotland, were among many others to be reformed by canons regular. The canons also took a leading role in the intellectual life of the Church by founding cathedral and collegiate schools throughout Europe. For example, the University of Paris finds part of its ancestry in the famous Abbey school of St. Victor.
Later, congregations properly so called, governed by a superior general, were established within the order so as to maintain uniformity of particular observances. Among these congregations, which gave new life to the order, were the Windesheim Congregation, whose spirituality (known as the "devotio moderna") had a wide influence. During the 15th and 16th centuries the Lateran Congregation added to the Order's luster by its spirituality and scholarship. In the 17th and 18th centuries the French Congregation of Saint Genevieve and later the Congregation of Our Savior founded by Saint Peter Fourier (1566-1640), responded to new needs by combining the religious life with pastoral work. Finally, in the 19th century Adrien Grea (1828-1917), founder of the Congregation of the Immaculate Conception, in his writing put in its proper perspective the ecclesial dimension of the canonical life.
In their independence and their local character, the canons regular had some resemblance to the Benedictine monks, as they did in their maintaining the vow of stability to a particular house. The individual houses often have differences in the form of the habit, even within the same congregation.
Already in the Middle Ages canons regular were engaged in missionary work. Saint Vicelin (c. 1090 - 1154) took the Gospel to the pagan Slavs of Lower Germany; his disciple Meinhard (died 1196) evangelized the people of eastern Livonia. In the 16th century the Portuguese Congregation of Saint John the Baptist took the good news of salvation to the Congo, Ethiopia and India. At the general chapter of the Lateran Congregation held at Ravenna in 1558, at the request of many Spanish canons, Don Francis de Agala, a professed canon regular from Spain, who for some ten years had already laboured in the newly discovered country, was created vicar-general in America, with powers to gather into communities all the members of the canonical institute who were then dispersed in those parts, and the obligation to report to the authorities of the order. Especially from the 19th century onwards, the order has undertaken the work of evangelization.
By the 13th century, there was widespread adherence to the Rule of St. Augustine. This came in piecemeal fashion. There were in fact three different rules of St. Augustine from which to choose:
Of all the new monastic and religious groups to settle in the British Isles in the course of the 12th century the canons regular, known there as the "Black Canons", were the most prolific. At the heart of their existence was the vita apostolica, but even more than other groups the canons regular became involved in active spiritual care of local populations. Perhaps as a result of this feature they also enjoyed sustained support from founders, patrons and benefactors, and new foundations continued to be made long after the main force of the expansion of the monastic orders had declined.
In England, in the 12th century there was a great revival of canons regular, in the wake of various congregations newly found in France, Italy and the Low countries, some of them reaching England following the Norman invasion. In England alone, from the Conquest to the death of Henry II Plantagenet, no fewer than fifty-four houses of canons regular were founded. The first of these was at Colchester in 1096, followed by Holy Trinity, Aldgate, in London, established by Queen Maud, in 1108. From 1147, Andrew of St. Victor served as abbot of the newly founded abbey at Wigmore. The first General Chapter of the Augustinian Canons in England, intended to regulate the affairs of the Order, took place in 1217.
In the 12th century the Canons Regular of the Lateran established a priory in Bodmin. This became the largest religious house in Cornwall. The priory was suppressed on 27 February 1538. In England houses of canons were more numerous than Benedictine monasteries. The Black Death left the canons regular seriously decimated, and they never quite recovered. Between 1538 and 1540, the canonical houses were suppressed, and the religious dispersed, according to Cardinal Gasquet's computation, ninety-one houses in all.
In the early 20th century, the canons regular were represented in England by the Premonstratensians at Crowley, Manchester, Spalding and Storrington and currently Chelmsford; the Canons Regular of the Lateran Congregation at Bodmin, Truro, St Ives, and Newquay, in Cornwall; at Spettisbury and Swanage, in Dorsetshire; at Stroud Green and Eltham, in London; the Canons Regular of the Immaculate Conception at Epping, Harlow, and Milton Keynes and now Daventry. Besides the occupations of the regular life at home and the public recitation of the Divine Office in choir, they are chiefly employed in serving parishes, preaching retreats, supplying for priests who ask their service, and hearing confessions, either as ordinary or extraordinary confessors to convents or other religious communities.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle dated to 565 A.D., relates that Columba, Masspreost (Mass-Priest), "came to the Picts to convert them to Christ". St Columba (Columbanus, Colmcille) was the disciple of St. Finnian, who was a follower of St. Patrick. Both Columba and Finnian embraced the regular life which Patrick had established in Ireland. Tradition places the first landing of Columba on leaving Ireland at Oronsay, and Fordun (Bower) notices the island as "Hornsey, ubi est monasterium nigrorum Canonicorum, quod fundavit S. Columba" (where is the monastery of Black Canons which St. Columba founded), though this is clearly anachronistic. According to Smith and Ratcliff there was a homogeneity among the Augustinian houses in Scotland before 1215 which had much to do with King David I who gave them a common economic policy, and Robert, Bishop of St Andrews, himself a former Augustinian canon at the Priory of St. Oswalds, at Nostell and the founding prior of Scone, united the houses of canons through his patronage and by engaging them as his advisors.
At the time of the Reformation the chief houses were:
Many of the houses which claimed to have been founded by St. Columba remained in the possession of canons regular till the Reformation, including Oronsay and an alleged foundation at an unidentified locality in the Western Isles named as Crusay.
The Augustinian canons regular established 116 religious houses in Ireland in the period of church reform early in the 12th century. The role of the Augustinian Canons within the population was the main reason for their being the largest single order in Ireland. The canons regular did not practise the isolation from the general population operated by the Cistercians, and participated in a great variety of pastoral activities in parishes, hospitals and schools, as permitted by the Rule of St. Augustine. The revival also counteracted the decline of religious discipline which had set in among Irish monasteries. St Malachy, archbishop of Armagh, was a prime mover in the reform movement in the Irish Church in the 12th century and by the time of his death in 1148, there were forty-one Augustinian houses.
It is not improbable that at the outbreak of the dissolution by Henry VIII, some of the Irish canons regular retired to houses abroad. By 1646 the Irish canons regular on the Continent were sufficiently numerous to be formed by Innocent X into a separate "Congregation of St. Patrick", which the pope declared to inherit all the rights, privileges and possessions of the old Irish canons. In the year 1698 the Irish Congregation, by a Bull of Pope Innocent XII, was affiliated and aggregated to the Lateran Congregation.
Like the Order of St. Benedict, it is not one legal body, but a union of various independent congregations.
The Canons Regular of Saint Augustine (C.R.S.A. or Can.Reg.), also referred to as "Augustinian Canons" or "Austin Canons" ('Austin' being an anglicisation of 'Augustine'), is one of the oldest Latin Rite Orders. In contrast to many other orders of the Catholic Church, that of the Augustinian Canons (Canons Regular of St. Augustine, Canonici Regulares Sancti Augustini, CRSA) cannot be traced back to an individual founder or to a particular founding group. They are more the result of a process that lasted for centuries. Because of their manifold roots they have assumed various forms in medieval and modern Europe.
Though they also follow the Rule of St. Augustine, they differ from the friars in not committing themselves to corporate poverty, which is a defining element of the mendicant orders. Unlike the friars and like monks, the canons are generally organized as one large community to which they are attached for life with a vow of stability. Their houses are given the title of an abbey, from which the canons then tend to various surrounding towns and villages for spiritual services. The religious superior of their major houses is titled an abbot. Smaller communities are headed by a prior or provost.
The distinctive habit of canons regular is the rochet, worn over a cassock or tunic, which is indicative of their clerical origins. This has evolved in various ways among different congregations, from wearing the full rochet to the wearing of a white tunic and scapular.
On 4 May 1959 Pope John XXIII founded the Confederation of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine with his apostolic letter "Caritatis Unitas" on the 900th anniversary of the First Lateran Synod. The Confederation is a "union of charity" which binds nine congregations of canons regular together for mutual aid and support. The initial four congregations were:
Subsequently, other congregations of canons regular joined the confederation:
The abbot primate, who is elected by all the congregations and serves for a six-year term, works to foster contact and mutual cooperation among the diverse communities of canons regular in the Catholic Church. On 11 October 2016, Mgr Jean-Michel Girard, Abbot of the Congregation of St. Nicholas and St. Bernard of Mont Joux (Great St. Bernard, Switzerland) was elected as the 10th abbot primate of the Confederation of the Canons Regular of St Augustine.
The order has houses in Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Canada, the Czech Republic, the Dominican Republic, England, Italy, France, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Peru, Porto Rico, Spain, Taiwan, Switzerland, the United States and Uruguay.
Other orders sprang up which followed the Rule of St. Augustine and the canonical life. As canons regular became separated into different congregations they took their names from the locality in which they lived, or from the distinctive habit they wore, or from the one who led the way in remodelling their lives. Hence we have the White Canons of Prémontré; the White Canons of Saint John Lateran; the Black Canons of St. Augustine; the Canons of St. Victor at Paris and also at Marseilles.
The Premonstratensian Order was founded at Prémontré, near Laon, in Picardy (northern France), by St. Norbert in the year 1120. The order received formal approval from Pope Honorius II in 1126, the same year in which Norbert was appointed Archbishop of Magdeburg. According to the spirit of its founder, this congregation unites the active with the contemplative life, the institute embracing in its scope the sanctification of its members and the administration of the sacraments. It grew large even during the lifetime of its founder, and now has charge of many parishes and schools, especially in the Habsburg provinces of Austria and Hungary. The Premonstratensians wear a white habit, white biretta with white cincture. They are governed by an abbot general, vicars and visitors.
The origin of the Canons Regular of the Order of the Holy Cross appears to be uncertain, although all admit its great antiquity. It has been divided into four chief branches: the Italian, the Bohemian, the Belgian and the Spanish. Of this last very little is known. The branch once flourishing in Italy, after several attempts at reformation, was finally suppressed by Alexander VII in 1656. In Bohemia there are still some houses of Crosier Canons, as they are called, who, however, seem to be different from the well known Belgian Crosiers, who trace their origin to the time of Innocent III and recognize for their Father Blessed Theodore de Celles, who founded their first house at Huy, near Liège. These Belgian Croisier Canons have a great affinity with the Dominicans. They follow the Rule of St. Augustine, and their constitutions are mainly those compiled for the Dominican Order by St. Raymond of Penafort. Besides the usual duties of canons in the church, they are engaged in preaching, administering the sacraments, and teaching. Formerly they had houses in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, France, England, Ireland and Scotland. Until about 1900 they also served missions in North America, they had five monasteries in Belgium, of which St. Agatha is considered the mother-house. To these Croisier Canons belongs the privilege, granted to them by Pope Leo X and confirmed by Leo XIII, of blessing beads with an indulgence of 500 days. Their habit was formerly black, but is now a white soutane with a black scapular and a cross, white and red on the breast. In choir they wear in summer the rochet with a black almuce.
Extinct congregations also include the Order of Saint Rufus, founded in 1039, and once flourishing in Dauphiné; that of Aroasia (Diocese of Arras, in France), founded in 1097; Marbach (1100); of the Holy Redeemer of Bologna, also called the Renana (1136), now united to the Lateran Congregation; of the Holy Spirit in Sassia (1198); of St. George in Alga, at Venice (1404); of Our Saviour in Lorraine, reformed in 1628 by St. Peter Fourier.
As well as canons regular, there are also canonesses regular, the claim of an origin in the Apostolic Age being common to both. Communities of canonesses regular developed from the groups of women who took the name and the Rule of life laid down for the various congregations of canons regular. As with regard to origin and antiquity the same is to be said of orders of women both in general and in particular as of orders of men. St. Basil in his rules addresses both men and women. Augustine of Hippo drew up the first general rule for communities of women in the year 423.
The occupations of the canonesses down the centuries has consisted in the recitation of the Divine Office, the care of the church vestments, and the education of the young, often particularly the daughters of the nobility. For the most part, the canonesses regular follow the Rule of St. Augustine.
Some congregations still extant include:
Among the orders which sprang from the canonical life were the Order of Preachers or Dominicans, as well as the Order of the Most Holy Trinity, or Trinitarians. St. Anthony of Padua started his religious life as a canon regular in Portugal before becoming a Franciscan friar. St. Bruno was originally a canon living under the Rule of Aachen for over 20 years when, at the age of 51, he and several companions founded a new community at the Grande Chartreuse, and founded the Carthusian Order.