One day, I received a call asking what a canoness was. I confess I could not answer the question except that I supposed that they were associated with canons. The only canonesses I know of are members of the flourishing and rapidly growing community (they are building a convent to house 48 sisters) of Norbertine Canonesses in Tehachapi, California. According to a Catholic dictionary, a canoness is a woman who lives a vowed religious life according to the Rule of St. Augustine followed by the Canons Regular.
The next obvious question is: what is a Canon Regular? Canons regular are a community of men following the Rule of St. Augustine who seek to fulfill the Church’s obligation and privilege to worship God through the public celebration of the Divine Liturgy. Hence, canons are usually priests and associated with a particular church. There are also Canons Secular who do not profess vows and may own their own property. St. Bruno, founder of the Carthusians, was a Secular Canon of the Cathedral in Rheims, France.
Pope Pius X, when approving the Constitutions of the Canons Regular of the Immaculate Conception said: “This type of priestly life that unites the pastoral ministry and the religious life, is truly admirable and is to be commended. Far from being opposed to each other they strengthen and fortify each other … to the great advantage of the people.”
St. Thomas Aquinas says: “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,” The clerical state is what distinguishes the Canons Regular from monks who may or may not be priests.
Canonesses are also asked to lend “their voices to Him and to His entire mystical body so that Heaven’s eternal canticle may resound also on earth. Therefore, they dedicate themselves to an individual Church of their order.” The Norbertine canonesses are associated with St. Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California. Their life is one of sacrifice and prayer, especially liturgical prayer, ie, the Mass and Divine Office. For a history and current status of Norbertine canonesses around the world, check out the Norbertine website in Chelmsford, England.
There are four IRL Affiliate Communities that are composed of Canons Regular.
- The Canons Regular of the Immaculate Conception
- The Canons Regular of St. John Cantius
- The Order of Canons Regular of the Holy Cross (Opus Sanctorum Angelorum)
- Canons Regular of Premontre (Norbertines)
May the Canons Regular and canonesses, by their prayers and witness, strengthen parish and family life across our country.