Religious communities dedicate themselves to living the evangelical counsels of poverty, obedience and chastity in a community that practices these counsels in their unique way. They are neither lay nor clergy, although some religious communities have ordained ministers (clergy) living in these communities.
Ever since the early Church, people tend to come together as a community. St Benedict went to the desert to be a hermit, but later founded an order that would be the oldest order in the Western world. Since then various other men and women founded communities where they will live by certain rules in the community. In the case of Benedict, he wrote the Rule of St Benedict, that is still being followed by the Benedictines.
One of the ideas that is being circulated today is the Benedictines were formed to save civilization because the Roman Empire at that time was crumbling. The truth is St Benedict established that order so people can live holy lives in a community. As the community grew and as the civil structure of the Roman empire collapsed, the monasteries became the center of society. It was not uncommon for the Abbot to also be the head of the village. Since the monasteries became the center of society, it was responsible for educating, feeding and looking after the members of the village. There was no intent to form a community to save society. They saved society because of the need to do so.
Likewise, there is a mistaken notion that Franciscans serve the poor. The fact is Francis set up his order so they can live in poverty and be free to preach the Gospel. All the other religious communities then were established because the founder wanted a way to live as a community so they can grow in holiness. This desire to grow in holiness is seen in the vows each community keeps which is based on the three evangelical counsels.
These communities show us that everyone is called to holiness. We strive for holiness based on the charisms God gives us and on our personality. Jesus is the Only Way to holiness. He leads us to a holy life. But where he leads me is different from where he leads you. Everyone is called to holiness, but each one needs to determine how Jesus wants them to live that call.
Lord, lead me in your path.