As the Year of Consecrated Life approaches its conclusion, we celebrate members of religious communities and all of the wonderful things they have done, and continue to do, in the service of the Church.
There’s a form of consecrated life, however, that is as vital to the Church — but with which few people are familiar: secular institutes.
Like the other forms of consecrated life, secular institutes commit themselves to the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience. They hold to a prescribed lifestyle and dress code and also have the mission to share in the Church’s task of evangelization.
The primary difference, however, is that members of secular institutes combine the contemplative and the apostolic life while living in the world. This unique structure allows that members of secular institutes do not normally live together under one roof.
“Members of secular institutes are totally and inseparably consecrated and lay,” explained Danielle Peters, a post-doctoral research fellow at the Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. “This combination is a new phenomenon in the Church. Traditionally, the consecration of a person to the three evangelical counsels implied a fuga mundi, a flight from the world. Members of secular institutes, on the other hand, are consecrated for the world.” Peters joined the Secular Institute of the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary in 1984.
“St. John Paul II reiterated this distinct mission of secular institutes, saying that, to the extent that they succeed to permeate their profession in private spheres with the proper know-how and talent, the world will really be changed from within by the redemptive power of Christ. Blessed Paul VI considered secular institutes as ‘the advance wing of the Church’ and compared its members to ‘spiritual mountaineers.’ Secular institutes are the newest vocation in the Catholic Church, and possibly also the least known,” Peters said.
Pope Pius XII provided structure for secular institutes in 1947 through his proclamation Provida Mater Ecclesia. In the document, he stated that the aim of secular institutes is “to order temporal things according to God and inform the world with the power of the Gospel” (11).
Kathleen Tierney, a registered dietician and nutritionist from Indianapolis, knew that she was called to give her life to Christ, but even after a lengthy search, she could not find a religious order that suited her. Then she encountered the Secular Institute of St. Francis de Sales. Although she was attracted by the charism of St. Francis de Sales, whose feast day is Jan. 24, she was wary of secular institutes, because she didn’t fully understand them.
“Taking the same vows as religious but living in the world seemed suspicious to me,” she said, thinking it was “impossible; an inferior vocation — it’s for people who can’t cut the mustard of religious life.”
Yet she continued to feel a persistent, gentle call toward the institute.
“God kept calling me through the writings of St. Francis de Sales, who vigorously opposed the idea that surrendering to God’s will could only be carried out in religious life. His classic work, Introduction to the Devout Life, taught laypeople how to surrender their will to God, no matter what their station in life. He taught that not only can poverty, chastity and obedience be practiced by Christian laity, they should be. We are all called to holiness!”
Tierney could no longer resist the pull of her heart, and in January 2013, she joined the Secular Institute of St. Francis de Sales. Now, she’s eager to help others understand the identity and value of secular institutes.
“All of our popes since Pius XII have been very supportive of the secular institutes,” she said. “But because so few people who are consulted for vocational guidance know about them, I feel many Catholics are missing out on the tremendous graces that come from the formation and support they offer to devout Catholics who feel called to this way of life for the sake of his work.”
New Way of Community Life
The dawn of secular institutes has prompted the Church to reconsider its definition of consecrated life. It’s no longer a vocation confined to those who live in monasteries, cloisters or convents, but encompasses those who live community in a new way.
“The common model of community is to live in the same house, but community is deeper than that,” said Father Anthony Ciorra, director of Voluntas Dei Institute. “It’s the network of relationship. Community is how we work through our issues with each other, how we bond around a common mission — around how we become Gospel people in the context of the world. It doesn’t mean living in the same house.”
Like other secular institutes, Voluntas Dei Institute’s community is nurtured by contact between members, monthly meetings, plenary gatherings, recollection days, annual retreats and an annual congress.
“Our gatherings are joyful,” Father Ciorra explained. “We look forward to getting together. We don’t live together, but our community is expressed in this way. It’s expressed structurally [in our formal meetings and events], but the relationships continue to deepen even in between those. What we cultivate is authentic relationship that’s based on the Gospel. We strive to live consecrated life in the context of the world.”
Father Ciorra, a member of Voluntas Dei since 1994, believes that secular institutes are the answer to new needs emerging in the Church.
“I believe that secular institutes and new ecclesial communities as they are emerging now in the Church are the works of the Holy Spirit for the 21st century, imploring us to look at consecrated life in new, creative and energized ways,” he said. “The classical notion of consecrated life is a fleeing from the world, a leaving of the world, whereas secular institutes are the opposite: We’re not leaving the world; we’re going into the world and embracing it. We embrace that world, that we find God in the world.”
Embracing the world, in terms of the lifestyle of a secular institute member, consists of living a normal, everyday life, holding down a job or, in the case of a priest, serving in the parish or diocese. What they do is much like anyone else: It’s how they do it that makes the difference. All that they are and do is filtered through the spirituality of their institute.
Adrian Walker has been a member of the Community of St. John for 22 years. He is an editor, writer and translator currently living in the Black Forest, near Freiburg, Germany.
“The thing that attracted me — and attracts me still — is the kind of life that secular institutes pursue,” he said.
“It’s the fact that they devote themselves very seriously to the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, but seek to live them out at the heart of the world.”
Walker uses an analogy to the Book of Genesis to explain the mission of secular institutes for the Church.
“According to the Book of Genesis, God put man in the Garden in order to tend and keep it,” he said. “The Church is called upon to continue Adam’s original task: to tend the garden of creation so that it can bear fruit for God. Secular institutes, I think, can help the Church realize that call by working in the world together with Christ. The quiet activity of the secular institutes aids the Church in showing how redemption — the cross and the Resurrection — crowns God’s creation and brings it to its destined perfection.”
Marge Fenelon writes from Cudahy, Wisconsin.
There currently are more than 30 secular institutes in the United States, and each has its own rule, lifestyle, period of formation, way of cultivating community and charism. To find out about these secular institutes and about secular institutes in general, go to the website of the United States Council of Secular Institutes, SecularInstitutes.org/index.htm.