Accepting an unusual vocation often creates a certain amount of tension in the family of the one called. Consecrating oneself in Caritas Christi may cause more tension than most.

“Once you say Yes to a vocation, lots of things intervene to challenge you and tempt you to change your ‘yes’ to 'maybe’ or ‘almost,’” says Patricia Skarda, commenting on her own experience of the cost of discipleship. “And a total consecration does, I think, carry with it opposition.”

An English professor at a distinguished liberal arts college in New England, Skarda vividly recalls an unpleasant confrontation that preceded her 1993 final dedication as a member of Caritas Christi, one of the more than 200 secular institutes in existence worldwide.

As John Paul II has said, the “originality” of these Church-approved associations is that their members are “fully laity,” living in the world and working for its transformation from within, but also “consecrated — bound to Christ by a special vocation” in “the humble profession of chastity, poverty and obedience.”

On the eve of her departure for her final dedication retreat, Skarda confided to her sister that she was about to cap eight years of formation in Caritas Christi by making a commitment involving a vow of celibacy.

Never mind that this would involve no outward change in profession, residence or lifestyle: Skarda's sister was “horrified” and showed up at the airport the next morning in an effort to dissuade her. “She wanted me to marry,” Skarda explains. “For her, taking this vow meant that I would now be no longer a part of the world that she was familiar with.”

Skarda persisted, because “to me, it was a commitment to God, and there was no way I was going to say No.” But there was a price. “I think that my relationship with my sister will never quite be the same, because she does now perceive me as different.”

To avoid misperceptions and labels that can hamper their “leaven in the world” witness to Christ, many secular institute members exercise discretion about revealing their identity as consecrated persons.

Kathleen Devlin, a retired grade-school teacher from the Bronx in New York City, has been a Caritas Christi member for 34 years. “No one in my family knows. If they did,” she laughs, “they might have impossible expectations for what I should be like!” On a more serious note, she points out that a public connection to the Church “can limit your access to people who are turned off by the institutional Church.”

But this “reserve” does not preclude a bold, courageous Christian witness, stresses Father Charlie Hurkes, communications director for the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. His first contact with Caritas Christi — in the 1950s when he was a seminarian and heard a talk by one of the group's first U.S. members — was eye-opening, he says.

“This was the first I'd ever heard of groups of laypeople living consecrated lives in the world. I think all the secular institutes are really great,” he says. “But Caritas Christi's track record is very good. It's a pioneer in the consecration of laywomen to the work of the Church in bringing the message of Christ to the workplace.”

Every evening Linda Patti of Newman, Ga, reaffirms her Yes to this goal by reflecting on the first article of the Caritas Christi constitutions: “The whole reason for our lives is to live in the love of God, to love him and make him loved, in the place where he has put us.”

She prays that she might seize every opportunity for Christ — “to bring him to whomever I meet,” whether that's by coordinating a program that reaches out to estranged Catholics or by taking advantage of everyday social contacts.

Mostly, Patti's witness of love and truth happens in ordinary ways and settings, among people who know her as a committed Catholic but never suspect that she is a consecrated woman.

How successfully anyone reveals Christ's presence is not anything that can be measured. But occasionally, says Patti, there are gratifying moments. Once, during a time of great racial tension at a school where she was teaching biology, she received a Christmas card from a school counselor she didn't know well.

That he is black and Patti white made its message all the more striking: “You are Christ's love among us,” he had written.

Contemplative Apostles

Caritas Christi originated in France in 1937, out of the prayer and discussions of a Dominican priest, Father Joseph-Marie Perrin, and 10 single women who were seeking a new way to consecrate themselves fully to Christ in the context of their individual jobs and families. Pius XII's 1947 apostolic constitution Provida Mater Ecclesia gave official recognition to the secular institute vocation, and in 1955 Caritas Christi became a secular institute with pontifical status.

Normally open to unmarried women and widows from 20 to 40, Caritas Christi aims “to form and give to the Church apostolic and contemplative laywomen in every walk of life.”

Vera Avery, who works in radiation therapy at a veterans’ hospital in Chicago, appreciates this twofold thrust of prayer and action. “I'm not terribly bold in my personality, but at the same time I take seriously this command of Christ to go out and make disciples.”

The first step, she says, is “to start in on our own selves. As St. Paul says, our minds must be transformed [Romans 12:2]. Coming to God in prayer, offering your will and saying, ‘yes, Lord, I want to think as you do’ — that's what being consecrated is all about.”

Formation in the Caritas Christi way of life includes help for developing patterns of personal prayer and comes through regular meetings, retreats, and a one-on-one “sponsor” relationship with a more experienced member.

All this encouragement is important, says Avery, because “disciple-ship has a cost. It might be something small, like giving away a coat — or perhaps it might mean the Lord saying one day, ‘Give your life.’ Whatever it is, I've got to be ready!”

Two things especially strengthen her for this, Avery explains: daily prayer “for transformation, for the grace to love as Christ would have me love,” and also “the lovely sense of belonging to this communion of women who are trying to live the same kind of witness in their own circumstances.”

There is, indeed, tremendous support in being united with women who are saying yes to Christ, Patricia Skarda agrees. At her 1993 dedication retreat — the one she attended over her sister's objections — Skarda was struck by other Caritas Christi members’ “cost of discipleship” stories. “God came first, and they didn't regret their choices.”

Neither does Skarda, as she continues to put God first in her very secular college environment — whether by reaching out to a student in a crisis pregnancy, declaring herself Catholic at a cocktail party where institutional religion is being put down, or “talking to your most atheistic colleagues on your way to Ascension Thursday Mass and walking right into church as they watch.”

This firmness of purpose combined with “genuine charity and clarity of vision” has its effect, observes Madeleine Pack, of Northampton, Mass.

Not herself a member of Caritas Christi, she finds its emphasis on “ordinary lives — but lived with such zest and faith” both winning and effective. Her contacts with the group “have inspired me to try in my own way to be more faithful to Christ,” says Pack.

“They have made me more aware of the practicality of my faith — that it's a way of seeing the world and applies to everything. Understanding that God is not restricted and limited to what we perceive as 'religious’ ministry, I go about my ordinary business in a more expanded way. It's as if my heart has been enlarged.”

Leaven in the dough is “a very fit image” for how Caritas Christi members serve the Church and the world, says Park. It's quiet, ordinary-looking, indirect, almost imperceptible. At the same time, as she and many others have discovered, “these women definitely affect the people that they live and work with. They become a presence you cannot discount!”