What it means to be in a Secular Order, and why Diocesan Priests need to understand us better.

“How One Community Brought Renewal to Religious Life”

This is a fantastic article about Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR, and his order, and how they truly embodied the call of Vatican II.

Of note is a concept Fr. Groeschel mentions called “pluriformity,” a concept that arose in the 1960s of Orders adapting to the cultures they’re in, much as the Jesuits have always done. Pluriformity in particular involves adapting the notion of “poverty.”

The notion of “poverty” in the US is much debated, but the government defines poverty, based upon a standard created in the 1920s or thereabouts, as 3X the average cost of food per person. The original notion was that food and housing should be 2/3 of a household’s income, and there should be another third available for other expenses. Of course, this standard did not include our modern utilities, such as electricity aAnd plumbing, or modern costs for cars, etc. If you look what’s required to function in the US and not get Social Services at your door, the cost is really like 4X the cost of food, minimally (and housing, as a percentage of people’s income, has increased drastically).

Anyway, “pluriformity” is the argument used when monks and nuns buy business suits at JC Penney or someplace. Good forms of “pluriformity” include monasteries that have adopted air conditioning, or cases like Fr. Stan Fortuna’s “rap ministry” (referred to in the above article). Ironically, many orders that are dying off for too much “pluriformity” have turned to one of the Medieval practices which led to the rise of Third Orders: retired laity paying rent to come and live in monasteries and motherhouses.

Now, the fruits of “pluriformity” are being seen in the current “crackdown” of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (CDF) on the Leadership Council for Women Religious (LCWR), but I bring all this up to highlight the irony of “pluriformity” when compared to the lives of many laity.

St. John of the Cross had a brother who lived in great poverty and had a large family. He had a close relationship with his brother and considered his brother one of the most saintly people he knew nad one of his trusted spiritual advisors.

My wife has often wished for an Order that would be founded specifically to help disabled and impoverished laity with our daily living. We were surprised to learn that this was the original reason Bl. Teresa of Calcutta founded her missionaries of charity: to go into homes and help poor and disabled families with their housekeeping, child care, etc., but when she saw the desperate need in Calcutta, the nature of their mission changed.

Again, the Missionaries of Charity show the true nature of “pluriformity.”

It is impossible to fully serve the poor unless one embraces poverty. Religious in America do some wonderful work–we received some fantastic help from nuns at Catholic Charities over the years–but they basically act as social workers. Mother Teresa’s nuns weren’t afraid to “get their hands dirty,” as it were, because they lived in such severe poverty.

Meanwhile, if the principle of pluriformity is applied equally, many laity live in greater poverty than many religious. My own family’s circumstances are partly due to my disability, but they’re also due to the choices my wife and I have made to try and serve God the best we can. And it dawned on me on August 1 that, between the “Chick Fil A controversy” and the HHS contraception mandate, if I had been able to get a job as a FT college professor, and if I hadn’t had to quit working due to my health, my career would have been practically over at this point, anyway. Knowing that college students around the country are protesting the presence CFA on campus, and knowing that I’d have probably been fired for standing up for CFA or against contraception or against “gay marriage,” and knowing that my obvious Christianity has been a hindrance throughout my career (it’s obvious on my resume given most of my extracurricular activities and my published articles), I realize I’m quite blessed that I’m already safely on disability.

I have several friends who are also Secular Carmelites, who also live happily in relative poverty. Some are divorced women. Some have never been married. They’re disabled or older. Again, they have made greater sacrifices in their lives than a lot of priests and religious, and they have a deep spiritual life.

I was talking to a friend at my daughter’s first communion party, and he said, “John, you’re kind of living like all the vocations except the priesthood in one: you’re married, but you’re kind of like a hermit because you spend most of your time at home, and you’re also a missionary on the internet, and you’re a secular Carmelite.”

That’s a good assessment of what it means to live the life of a Consecrated Secular to its fullest. People really don’t understand what a consecrated Secular is: sometimes we get talked about as if we’re just “playing at” religious life. We’re not a “fan club” or social club. We’re not “mini monks” or “mini nuns.” We’re living a distinct vocation in the church, trying to implement the specific spiritualities of our Orders in accord with our state in life, and trying to maximize the spirituality of our states.

Many seculars end up living in celibacy, either because of divorce or because they opt not to remarry after being widowed. Some choose to become consecrated hermits. In some ways, we’re just doing what all laity ought to do but elevating it, but that’s the point.

It’s just frustrating that people, especially clergy, don’t really understand what a Secular Order is or what it means, and think we’re “putting on airs” or something, especially when our brethren in the “First” (priests/monks/friars) and “Second” (nuns) Orders, as well as the Congregation for Religious and Consecrated Life, say otherwise.

We are obligated to say the Office, just like religious brothers and sisters and diocesan priests–this in particular is a common misunderstanding on the part of diocesan priests, who think we’re being scrupulous when we confess to violating our Rules. We are obligated to wear some kind of Scapular in our daily lives (and I can physically feel the difference when I fail to wear mine). We are obligated to practice certain other prayers and activities, which vary from Order to Order. These obligations are the same as our Religious brethren, but we get treated as if we’re just playing at it or something. It can be very frustrating. I see it often. On several occasions, I’ve seen Q&A priests answer questions from members of Secular Orders regarding the Office, and they dismiss the questions with “you’re not obligated to say it, so it’s not liturgical prayer for you.” YES WE ARE, AND YES IT IS.

“If I use this version [i.e., Magnificat Magazine or Universalis] is it OK?” “Yes, because you’re not obligated.”
“Can I use [the pre-Vatican II breviary or an Eastern Catholic version]?” “Yes, because you’re not obligated.”
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I am a secular Carmelite, and I have not been saying the Office [or mental prayer or whatever] like I should.” “You’re being scrupulous.”

I’ve even encountered religious priests who don’t understand what a Secular is, and it’s very challenging when it comes to confession or spiritual direction.

Being part of a Secular Order is Consecrated Life, and a Secular member of an Order is as much a member of that Order as any Brother or Sister. Indeed, once we’ve made our final promises, we are canonically bound and obligated to the Order as much as a religious, and the only way to leave an order after permanent promises is by the same canonical process by which a religious would “leave” the convent or monastery. We fall under the same fundamental rules as religious and diocesan clergy. We fall under the jurisdiction of the Congregation for Religious. Secular members often participate in the higher governing bodies of various Orders.

Among Carmelites, efforts have been made to fully integrate the OCDS into the OCD, to show that we are not a “separate group” from them–so we now all follow the same “Rule of Life” but with different statutes, where we used to have a separate “Rule of Life.” In the Franciscans, an equal and opposite move since Vatican II has been to emphasize the autonomy of the Secular Franciscans, that they do not exist as subservient to the Friars.

When special events are held for those in consecrated life–for example, bishops sometimes have special masses exclusively for consecrated life–members of secular Orders are invited to attend, and they wear their ceremonial scapulars. In some orders, Seculars still wear the full habit for special occasions, and as I understand it, a secular may receive permission from the local bishop to wear a habit, and some of my friends who are consecrated hermits do.


9 responses to “What it means to be in a Secular Order, and why Diocesan Priests need to understand us better.

  1. I’m beginning to think that seminary, like catechisis in general, went seriously downhill in the 1970s. I have trouble finding priests who bother to even read encyclicals; many seem to think that being “pastoral” means that sin doesn’t exist at all. Somebody actually following a third order (and my own Knights of Columbus is often referred to as a third order even though there are no 1st and 2nd orders of the Knights)

  2. Pingback: Catherine of Siena Spiritual Combat Homeschooling | Big Pulpit

  3. I am a 65 year old slightly disabled divorced woman who has lived the single life for almost 30 years. Could someone direct me to a secular order that would accept me? Thank you so much. God bless you.

    • Ms. Schultz, I don’t see any reasons why you would *not* be accepted by a secular order: a *religious* order may require an annulment process, but not a secular order. Just like with joining a religious order, there are practical as well as spiritual factors to consider. If you have your choice of secular orders (i.e., you live in a big city with a lot of communities), then start with thinking about what saints most appeal to you, which form of spirituality most appeals to you, etc. But just like with considering the priesthood or religious life, the best way to discern is to jump in.

      So, are there any secular communities near you, or anyone in your parish who commutes to a community (I began by carpooling to a Carmelite study group an hour from where I lived at the time). Do they meet at a time that is practical for you to attend? If so, pay your nearest community a visit.
      Then it’s a question of whether you “mesh” with the community.

      Most secular orders welcome guests to come and sit in on meetings while they discern whether they want to begin formation. I find a lot of people sit around and “think about it”–as I myself have done–rather than just jumping in because they think there’s some huge commitment involved from the getgo.

      Now, on the other hand, if you *have* visited your local community or communities, and they’ve specifically rejected you because of your background, I can’t really speak to that.

    • Mrs. Schultz, you might consider the Franciscan Missionaries of Jesus Crucified. They are an Association of the Faithful that offers to the disabled the opportunity to live a consecrated life. You can find them listed at the US Conference of Secular Institutes site. Also you might consider the Benedictine Oblates, you can contact any Benedictine abbey for information.

      • Fr. J.,

        It’s been a few weeks, but I just had this thought which sums up my point in this post:
        Is Catherine of Siena less a “Dominican” than Thomas Aquinas?
        (I tried finding a Dominican nun saint to compare her to, but all the female Dominican saints I could find were lay Dominicans).

  4. As a canonist I think you are mixing the juridic with the moral obligations. I hate to disagree, but you are not canonically bound in the same way as those who are consecrated Religious. Someone who is a member of a secular order, third order, or oblate of St. Benedict can leave without any canonical process. Those in secular orders do make promises that do not bind juridically, but may bind morally depending on the rule and the nature of the promise. Just because something does not bind juridically does not mean it is not a true promise or that it is not serious. For example the divine office is not obligatory in the juridic sense, but it may well bind one in conscience. I am an oblate as well as a priest and I do take it seriously. The vocation of the third orders is a wonderful one and I encourage those called to answer the call. But it is a different vocation from those in the first and second orders and that difference is a good one. I grant you that many do not understand secular orders and I agree that they should be better known in the Church.

    • Father, thanks for your comments. *Perhaps* “canonically” wasn’t the right term, but that’s how my Community’s founder and current president, who has been a Carmelite for over 30 years, as a doctorate in theology and is friends with several of the most prominent living Carmelite priests, put it in his most recent talk on the formation process and the importance of the promises. While I’ve been in and out of formal formation, I attended my first OCDS meeting in 1998, and everything I wrote is based upon the accumulated study of those years, the various formation books I’ve read, and the courses I’ve taken. And secular orders fall under the auspices of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life. As for any citations, I’d have to do some digging in my books.

    • Ryan Carnes, OFS

      Good evening Father and happy new year. If I may, the Secular Franciscans are a different canonical territory than any other secular order. The Secular Franciscans are an Order of Pontifical right, no other third order has this status, if one for some reason decided to leave it does have to go through a canonical process. The Profession of Secular Franciscans are equal to those of the 1st and 2nd orders.

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