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A confraternity is normally a Roman Catholic or Orthodox organization of lay people created for the purpose of promoting special works of Christian charity or piety, and approved by the Church hierarchy. An archconfraternity is a "franchise" of confraternities, able to establish different groups using the same names and rules, such as the Confraternities of the Cord, Confraternity of the Rosary and others. Many of these are very widely spread. Especially in the cities of the Middle Ages, confraternities could be important and wealthy institutions for the elite, as in the Scuole Grandi of Venice. The Purgatorial societies and orders of flagellants were other specialized medieval types. The medieval French term puy designated a confraternity dedicated to artistic performance in music, song and poetry; the German meistersingers were similar, though typically imitating trade guilds in form.
The term may have other meanings: Confraternities in Nigeria began as a term for fraternities in the American college sense, university-based social organisations, but the term has spread and changed to become in many cases used by street gangs that have been accused[by whom?] of widespread crime.
The Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament is an example of an Anglo-Catholic confraternity established in the Church of England. Catholic confraternities of priests became common in the 19th century, fulfilling similar functions for the clergy.
The Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception is a renowned lay Marian apostolate in the Philippines known for administering the Grand Marian Procession parade on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
Each Confraternity organization has a set of rules or by-laws to follow which every member promises to live by. Even though the Catholic Church works in harmony with the confraternity, these rules are not religious vows, instead merely rules set up to govern the confraternal organization.
The religiosity of the members and their desire for a personal reward in the afterlife were reflected in confraternity activities, such as assisting with burials by donating burial robes or monetary payment, attending the burial mass, volunteering in the local hospitals, organization of and participation in religious fiesta days, giving dowries for local orphans, selling and preparing bread used for local religious holidays, escorting the condemned during the inquisition, burying the dead during epidemics and other charitable acts as deemed appropriate by the confraternity members or parish priest. Society could not function strictly through government programs because there was also a need to take care of matters such as burials, and provide for the poor and indigent. While government can and did maintain programs to handle these needs, they were better managed by lay organizations or the "neighbor helping neighbor" theory.
Each confraternity has its own regulations for membership, stipulating who may join. Some confraternities allow only men, while others allow only women or only youth. The confraternity of Our Lady of the Rosary allows universal membership without regard to race, creed or social status.
- Christopher Black and Pamela Grovestock, Early Modern Confraternities in Europe and the Americas, (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2006), 1.
- Black and Grovestock, Early Modern Cofradias, 19.
- George M. Foster, “Cofradia and Compadrazgo in Spain and Spanish America,” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, Vol 9 No. 1 (Spring 1953), 11-12.