The essential facts about secular institutes

By Patricia L. Skarda Members of secular institutes work in the heart of the world while dedicating themselves to God and taking vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience.

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Image: William Cardinal Keeler with (from left) Mary Jane McCarthy, national sponsor of Caritas Christi, Mary Devereux Weld, Betsy Fogler, and Diane Doria—members of Caritas Christi who made first or definitive dedications.

What are secular institutes?
 
Secular institutes are a relatively new vocation in the Catholic Church. They are now an official form of what is known as consecrated life, a state in which people have made public profession of vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Secular institutes are Catholic organizations that function much like religious communities of priests, brothers, or sisters, though usually without a house or building of any kind. Most members of secular institutes do not live together—though some do—and they lead their normal lives “in the world” while dedicating themselves to God. After a period of formation and preparation that usually lasts eight years, secular institute members “consecrate” or formally dedicate themselves to God, taking vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience.

Few secular institutes have a designated ministry. Instead each member gives witness to the Christian life through whatever it is he or she has been called to do. All members of secular institutes pray daily, attend Mass, make an annual retreat with the institute, and live a life in which God comes first even though they are working in the heart of the world. Like a leaven, members of secular institutes make Christ known and loved wherever they are, ever deepening their commitment to God and the church along with others in their institute.

Who belongs to secular institutes?
Each of the 30 secular institutes in the United States has a range of members in a variety of occupations—from hairdressers to lawyers to church staffers. Members can be single laypeople or priests (most priest members of secular institutes are diocesan priests, and some priests go on to establish permanent bonds with institutes). In the 50-plus years since secular institutes began to be formed, more than 60,000 people worldwide have found this way to heighten and deepen their faith.

How does belonging to a secular institute affect your life?
The point of membership in a secular institute is to transform the world by living a good Christian life within the world. Members, called “consecrated seculars,” do this in many ways.

A doctor might not explicitly preach or teach the faith, but by kind and gentle touch and extra time to listen or talk may lead the patient to a peace better even than health. A consecrated teacher may never come right out and say God comes first in his or her life, but advice from a faith-filled teacher may make a larger difference in a student’s life than does the course content. An employee who has learned to listen with care to coworkers and customers, a lawyer who prays for the client and judge, a manager who laughs at foibles and evaluates with compassion, a team member who suggests just the thing to band all together—these may be the signs of a consecrated secular.

Together each member of a secular institute is stronger because of the bond shared with other members. After a rough day at the office or a hard day’s service to the needy, a phone call or e-mail to another member connects the consecrated secular with someone who shares the same vision. Likewise, spiritual reading shared with another member magnifies the meaning for each. A feast day for the founder of a secular institute might lead to the next step up the spiritual mountain. It’s a mountain each consecrated secular climbs alone and yet climbs accompanied by others who share the same vocation and vision.

How do I know whether God is calling me to membership in a secular institute?
Those interested in the vocation of secular institute membership must contact individual institutes. Each institute has a particular spirituality shaped by its founders and leaders. Some institutes follow in the footsteps of saints such as Francis and Dominic. Is God calling you to remain in the world but not of the world? Is God asking you to transform the world from within? Is this the vehicle that can lead you to the holiness God intends for you? Ask God to show you the way.

How can I get more information?

The easiest way to learn more about secular institutes in the United States is to browse through the website of the United States Conference of Secular Institutes (USCSI), www.secularinstitutes.org. Links there will connect you with any one of the 30 institutes in the country. Or you may write to Margie Baker, Secretary to the USCSI, 1400 Collin Drive, Allen, TX 75002; e-mail: margebaker4@juno.com.

To learn how the pope encourages the secular institute vocation, read The Private Prayers of Pope John Paul II: Words of Inspiration (Simon & Schuster, 2001).

A member of Caritas Christi, Patricia L. Skarda is chair of the Vocation Committee of the U.S. Conference of Secular Institutes. She is also a professor of English.

2005 © TrueQuest Communications

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