The essential facts about secular institute vocations

The essential facts about secular institute vocations

By Patricia L. Skarda, c

If you don’t know what a secular institute is, you’re not alone. But when you learn of this, the newest and perhaps the fastest growing vocation worldwide in the church today, you may look at members of secular institutes with a kind of holy envy. Secular institutes were made official in the Apostolic Constitution Provida Mater Ecclesia in 1947 by Pope Pius XII, who recognized them as a true form of consecrated life in the church.

Let me begin by saying what secular institutes are not. They are not a club with occasional social or purposeful meetings; they are instead a vocation, a call as clear as that to the priesthood or religious life. They are not apostolic societies with singular missionary purpose in which all participate; instead they are committed to individual striving for holiness in a vast variety of apostolates with common gospel values. They are not religious communities with a common house and public vows and financial responsibility for members; instead they are organizations of like-minded Catholic laity or clerics who share a certain vision lived out personally, not communally. Most institutes refer to the “communion” of their commitment to the ideals of the institute, whether distinguished by a particular charism or spirituality (Franciscan, Dominican, Salesian) or by commitment to a particular devotion (to Eucharistic devotion or Marian devotion, for example) or to a particular ministry (to the poor, to adolescents, to the sick).

“Secular” yet embracing the faith

The very term “secular institutes” is itself something of a misnomer, confusing because in saeculo, “in the world,” is often defined in contradistinction to the church, non-ecclesiastical, non-religious, and even non-sacred. But we have “secular priests,” for clergy not subject to a religious rule, but certainly devoted to the service of religion. The term is made more slippery by such clichés as “secular humanism.” The specific and particular character of secular institutes is secular, but far from an outgrowth of “secularism.”

I once decided to share my membership in a secular institute with an openly Catholic colleague at a large public university. The moment is memorable because I had thought and prayed about sharing my commitment with this colleague solely because his public Catholicism might be useful in making known the vocation to secular institutes. So I girded myself and said, “There is something about me I’ve been wanting to tell you. I belong to a secular institute.” His response genuinely surprised me, for he answered, “I too am a member of a secular institute. The University of ________ could not be more secular.” I laughed at my feeble attempt to describe my life of total consecration to God and his church, but I winced at the fact that this distinguished and very Catholic colleague did not know that secular institutes are a vocation in the heart of Roman Catholicism. Neither did he recognize that I had bared my soul by announcing that I lived by a constitution approved by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and for Societies of Apostolic Life. I am not a member of a religious community; I am, however, a consecrated secular, and I have given all of my life to God in the service of his church in a vocation on par with religious congregations but distinct from them by rule and application.

Firmly planted in the church

Here is how Pope Pius XII—who first recognized secular institutes—described them: “Societies, clerical or lay, whose members make profession of the evangelical counsels, living in a secular condition for the purpose of Christian perfection and full apostolate shall be distinguished from all other associations by the name of Institutes or Secular Institutes....”

Further documents in 1948 (Cum Santissimus and Primo Feliciter) characterize secular institutes as salt, light, and yeast in society to bring a “harvest of sanctity” both to the members of the institutes and the world they serve in their professions and activities. In spiritual matters, time, place, and circumstances neither limit nor prescribe the particular work members do with genuine sincerity for God and church. In 1988 Christifideles Laici further endorsed this form of vocation based on 1 Peter 4:10: “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received” (NRSV). And in 1996 Vita Consecrata notes that secular institutes, each in accordance with its specific nature, “help to ensure that the Church has an effective presence in society.”

The unique synthesis of consecration and secularity that distinguishes secular institutes from religious life is far from new. Perhaps Lydia at Philippi (Acts 16:11-15) formed a group to live the lifestyle prescribed by secular institutes today. Likeminded Catholic Christians who want to consecrate the whole of their lives to God without leaving their professional responsibilities now have a vocation recognized and endorsed by the church.

Historically, the way of life in a secular institute dates back to the 16th century. In Italy, St. Angela Merici envisioned a group of women who were consecrated to God by the evangelical counsels (celibate chastity, poverty, and obedience) but who lived and exercised their apostolate in the world without habit or life in common. Later, during the French Revolution and the suppression of the Society of Jesus in France, French Jesuit Père Pierre-Joseph Picot de Clorivière (1735-1820) was inspired to found societies which, at first, he envisioned as a new type of religious, professing the three evangelical counsels, but living fully in the world, religious before God but not before men.

Thriving international phenomenon

In still another century and nation, the Polish Capuchin priest Onorato Kozminski (1829-1916) founded 26 institutes following the ideal of the hidden life of the holy family of Nazareth. The institutes of Kozminski were designed in part to keep persons desiring a consecrated life from leaving Poland. Examples of pioneering foundations multiplied, especially in 19th-century Italy and 20thcentury France and Germany. The Italian Franciscan Agostino Gemelli (1875- 1959) founded the Missionaries of the Kingship of Christ; Dominican Joseph- Marie Perrin (1905- ) founded Caritas Christi; German Fr. Josef Kentenich (1885-1968) founded five secular institutes, two of which (one for priests and one for lay women) are in the United States. Thirty secular institutes (80% for lay women, 20% for lay men or for diocesan priests) now thrive in the United States; 210 secular institutes exist in the world, with as many as 60,000 members, by some counts.

In canon law, statutes 710-730 pertain exclusively to secular institutes, preceding the canons concerning societies of apostolic life, which are another form of lay spirituality altogether. Secular institutes require profession of the evangelical counsels and so require celibacy, which thus excludes married people of either gender and of all ages. But so attractive has been the term “secular institutes” that some third orders, associate groups, and pious unions often erroneously say that they are secular institutes to attract members, even married couples.

Slow to speak about ourselves

The confusion that has grown up around secular institutes can be ascribed in part to the characteristic of “reserve” or “discretion” that has been part of the constitutions of approximately 50 percent of secular institutes from their beginning. Many members of secular institutes refrain from identifying themselves as consecrated seculars precisely because doing so might limit their effectiveness in the various arenas of their active life. The quiet pursuit of “the perfection of charity and work for the sanctification of the world especially from within” (Canon 710) can be less effective if the members are viewed as different from other members of the laity or, in the case of diocesan priests, from their brother priests. Pope John Paul II recognized the hallmark of secular institutes as being “to change the world from the inside” (1980).

Members of institutes remain lay persons or secular clerics, sharing in the mission of the church, proper to their respective conditions. By professing the evangelical counsels in a manner approved by the church, members are totally consecrated, but they do not become religious nor are their institutes religious. Most secular institutes have no common house or even headquarters because the work of the institute is not centralized. In fact, the work of each individual member constitutes not the work of the institute but the work of the consecrated secular. A teacher in northern California and a nurse in New Hampshire and an artist in Missouri share the same commitment: that of living their baptismal promises to the full and bringing Christ to their families and workplaces, parishes and civic organizations, boardrooms and reading groups. They are very certainly in the world, though not of the world. They work in the ordinary circumstance of the world and use the means of the world to make Christ known and loved.

Individual, not communal

Their community life with one another is usually non-existent. Instead, they share a communion of common constitution, faithful formation throughout their lives, plus regional and national gatherings in days of recollection, weekends of renewal, and annual retreats. They are, or should be, known to their bishops but may, or may not, make themselves known as consecrated seculars to their parish priests and fellow parishioners. In an ideal world, their lay status is not compromised and their consecration remains a matter between them, their institute, and God. They are, however, Catholic to the core, and may be serving next to you in a variety of quite ordinary ways with extraordinary love and deep devotion.

Unlike religious, members of secular institutes usually wear no sign or symbol of their profession. They blend into their various social, political, and civic communities with marked unobtrusiveness. Yet their lives are marked by prayer, daily celebration of the liturgy, and concentration of purpose. It is not what they do that matters so much as what they are. Like ideal Christians, they act as leaven “to imbue all things with the spirit of the gospel for the strengthening and growth of the Body of Christ” (Canon 713). Clerical members through the witness of their consecrated life “help their brothers by their special apostolic charity and in their sacred ministry among the people of God they bring about the sanctification of the world” (Canon 713).

Many bishops have come to admire secular institutes not so much for what their members can do for the dioceses but for what they are in their secular lives. Bishops do not turn to members of secular institutes to run programs or campaigns so much as to recommend secular institutes to priests and lay people desiring more than a diocese or parish can provide by way of continuing formation in the Catholic tradition. As one bishop put it, “I am reasonably certain that priests, lay men, and women who have exhausted institutional and academic resources for developing a spiritual life would be better off in a secular institute than going it alone.” In 1972, the World Conference of Secular Institutes (CMIS) was founded to promote the consecrated life as part of the ecclesiastical mission and to provide for the communion among secular institutes.

In 1976, the United State Conference of Secular Institutes (USCSI) was founded to promote the consecrated secular vocation, to share information among institutes, to assist groups aspiring to be secular institutes, and to do research. Vita Consecrata, issued by Pope John Paul II in 1996, encouraged national and international conferences of secular institutes, so that in the aggregate, as well as individually, they may “be a leaven of wisdom and a witness of grace within cultural, economic, and political life.”

For more information about secular institutes

U. S. Conference of Secular Institutes

P. O. Box 4556, 12th Street NE

Washington, DC 20017



Patricia L. Skarda is a member of Caritas Christi Secular Institute and a professor of English at a New England College.



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