The Rise of the Clerks Regular

A closer look at the Theatines, Barnabites and Adorno Fathers

“The Glory of St. Cajetan,” Austrian School, 18th century
“The Glory of St. Cajetan,” Austrian School, 18th century (photo: Public Domain)

I recently picked up a book called Theatine Spirituality for no other reason than that I wanted to know what it meant, exactly. Turns out one can’t understand what “Theatine” spirituality is without knowing a bit about Barnabite spirituality and Adorno spirituality as well.

So what is this sort of “spirituality?” And who are these Theatines, Barnabites and Adornos?

First, all three are groups of “Clerks Regular” or “Clerics Regular” — that is, clerics who follow a “rule” — “clerks” is simply a variant spelling of “clerics.” And clerics are, of course, bishops, priests and deacons, but for the sake of these groups, almost all are priests.

Second, all of these came to fruition in 16th-century Italy, and were the result of the Counter-Reformation that wanted to push back the tide of the heresies of John Calvin, Martin Luther and Zwingli — and keep them out of Italy in general and Rome in particular.

Third, they all were important at the time and continue to be important now, especially as regards the formation of priests.

But let’s take them separately.


The Theatines, or the “Clerks Regular of Divine Providence” (whose post-nominals are “C.R.”) were founded by St. Cajetan in 1524. The name “Theatine” comes from the fact that Bishop Giovanni Pietro Carraffa of Chieti (in Latin, “Theate”) was one of its founding members and by far one of the most powerful — and went on to become Pope Paul IV (1555-1559). St. Cajetan was certainly the spiritual father of the Theatines, but it was Bishop Carraffa who wrote The Constitutions of the Order.

Part of these Constitutions dealt with the Theatine charism, or mission, which was to form priests who would be examples of virtue to the laity. The Theatines also founded hospitals and oratories (chapels for prayer), and wore the simple black cassock of secular (diocesan) priests. One of the unique features of the Theatines is that they tended to attract wealthy vocations, which gave them an endowment to build and renovate many beautiful churches, especially in the Abruzzi region of Italy — and of course, minister to the needs of the poor.

In addition to producing a saint in their founder, and a pope, the Theatines also gifted the Church with a couple of important saints. Saint Andrew Avellino (1521-1608), rose to superior of the order and instilled in it a sense of ascetism to offset the many riches it possessed. He became a confidant of the influential reforming cardinal St. Charles Borromeo, as well. The Theatines also gave us the loveable Saint Giuseppe Maria Tomasi, who was Italian but of the Royal House of Spain, who became a powerful cardinal in his own right in the 18th century and became one of the great reformers of his day.

Today, the Theatines have fewer than 200 members scattered throughout the world.


The Clerics Regular of St. Paul (Barnabites). What the Clerics Regular of Divine Providence were to Chieti, the Barnabites (so called because their home church was dedicated to St. Barnabas) were to Milan: a group of secular priests — clerics — who followed a rule set down by a physician-turned-priest, St. Anthony Maria Zaccaria.

Even by the standards of 16th-century Italy, St. Anthony Mary was short-lived, dying at age 37, having spent the first part of his life as a doctor (he’d graduated from the University of Padua with a degree in medicine). However, as the “Protestant Reformation” was tearing across Europe like a plague, St. Anthony Mary soon realized that the people of Italy needed a physician of souls, rather than that of bodies. With the aid of his spiritual director, he moved from his hometown of Cremona to Milan where he joined the Oratory of Eternal Wisdom.

From this prayer group, whose purpose was the interior renewal of oneself — and encouraging it in others — St. Anthony brought about not only the Clerics Regular of St. Paul, but a foundation of women religious, the Angelic Sisters, as well as a group of laity who assisted both the priests and nuns. Often said to be alive with “The Light of Christ and the Lightning of Saint Paul,” St. Anthony Maria turned the casual attitude of the Milanese upside down, upbraiding them for their lukewarmness. Eminently quotable, with a bit of a mystic thrown into the mix, St. Anthony could say, “I want to live according to the spirit; I want to become one in spirit with God; I want my citizenship to be in Heaven.”

Soon, he was simply known in Italy as “The Reformer” and his Clerics Regular spread not only throughout the world, including Youngstown, New York, where they staff an enormous basilica.

Both Popes Pius XI and Benedict XVI have written about this unique saint and his accomplishments.

Barnabite saints include Alexander Sauli (1534-1592) who was, like many Clerics Regular, born to a family of royal lineage. He went on to become the bishop of Pavia. Also to be noted: St. Francis Xavier Bianchi, the Apostle of Naples (1743-1815). I personally have a devotion to Venerable Servant of God Fr. Karl M. Schilling of Norway, a convert, and known as “The Tall Saint” due to his great height.

Barnabites number about 400 members today, and are known by the post-nominals “C.R.S.P.” or sometimes just “B.”


The Minor Clerks Regular, are also known as the Adorno Fathers, after the Venerable Servant of God John Augustine Adorno, who first got the idea of a group of secular priests who would take the usual three evangelical counsels (poverty, chastity and obedience), plus a fourth vow of never seeking any office or dignity either within or outside their order.

The Adorno Fathers, like the Barnabites and the Theatines, were born in Italy, in the 16th century, and like both Barnabites and Theatines, they aimed to fight back the Protestant Reformation (though one could call it a “Revolution” given the amount of destruction and bloodshed it produced).

Venerable Adorno was, like the founders of the other two Orders, to the manor born, his father being a senator. Adorno found a kindred spirit in St. Francis Caracciolo (1563-1608), whose father was of the branch of Neapolitan royalty and whose mother was of the lineage of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Adorno and Francis and their company of 12 followers received papal approval June 1, 1588. However, Adorno died just three years later and it was up to St. Francis Caracciolo to steer the ship of the Minor Clerics.

He did an admirable job. He paid a couple of visits to Spain where he founded houses at Alcala, Madrid and Valladolid. His friend, the great saint of happiness, St. Philip Neri offered the Minor Clerks Regular a house at Agnone in the Abruzzi, Italy, which St. Francis gladly took and promptly died at in 1608.

The Minor Clerks Regular (C.R.M.) have a few hundred members throughout the United States, Italy, the Congo and the Philippines. Their motto, similar to that of the Society of Jesus, is simply “For The Greater Glory of The Risen God.” Amen.