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Blessed Pope Paul VI, who saw consecrated seculars as "the advance wing of the Church," characterized members of secular institutes as "spiritual mountaineers."
Members of secular institutes are "in the world and not of the world, but for the world." They live in whatever providential circumstances God gives them, but they wholly consecrate their lives to God through the evangelical counsels of poverty, obedience, and chastity. They are the newest vocation in the Catholic Church, and many say they are the vocation of the new millennium.
Pope St. John Paul II said that secular institutes provide "evangelical yeast" to leaven all the dough of the world through the radical living out of the baptismal promises and so change the world from within by becoming "life-giving leaven." The treasure of secular institutes is a new gift of the Spirit, combining consecration and secularity. The result is an apostolate of testimony, Christian commitment to society, and evangelization. The institute provides a genuine fraternity that, without being defined by a shared life, is a true communion.
Each consecrated secular immerses his or her entire life in special consecration, totally available to the will of the Father. Together in one of the 30 secular institutes in the United States, consecrated seculars are an "experimental laboratory, in which the Church tests the ways she relates concretely to the world (Blessed Pope Paul VI).
Secular institutes 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 a singular missionary purpose in which all participate; instead they are committed to encouraging 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.
Over 80 percent of the secular institutes in the United States and throughout the world are lay women, though 20 percent are for lay men or for diocesan clerics who wish to profess vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity without entering a religious congregation or community. Over 200 institutes exist in the world, with as many as 60,000 members. Pope Pius XII, who first recognized secular institutes in ''Provida Mater Ecclesia'' (1947), described them as "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. Later documents like ''Cum Sanctissimus'' and ''Primo Feliciter'' (1948) characterize secular institutes as "salt and light" to the world. Canon Law recognizes secular institutes in canons 710-730. ''Christifideles Laici'' (1988) 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 have received." And in 1996, ''Vita Consecrata'' noted that secular institutes, each in accord with its specific nature, "help to ensure that the Church has an effective presence in society."
Perhaps Lydia at Philippi (Acts 16:11-15) formed a group to live the life prescribed by secular institutes today. Historically, the way of life in a secular institute dates back to the sixteenth century, when St. Angela Merici in Italy envisioned a group of women who were consecrated to God by the evangelical counsels but who lived and exercised their apostolate in the world without habit or life in common. During the French Revolution and the suppression of the Society of Jesus in France, French Jesuit Pere Pierre-Joseph Picot de Cloriviere (1735-1820) founded 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. Pioneering foundations multiplied, especially in nineteenth century Italy and twentieth century Germany. The Italian Franciscan Agostino Gemelli (1875-1959) founded the Missionaries of the Kingship of Christ; Dominican Joseph-Marie Perrin (1905-2002) founded Caritas Christi; German Father Joseph Kentenich (1885-1968) founded five institutes within the Schoenstatt Movement, two of which (one for priests and one for lay women) are in the United States.
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, doing the work of their ordinary circumstances, but using the means of the world to make Christ known and loved. 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.
Each secular institute bears the unique charism of its founders and traditions, and each celebrates its "communion" by annual retreats, meetings, common daily prayer, and friendships that evolve quite naturally from living a similar life in God despite differences in profession or work in the world. A web of connectedness grows over time, linking the members to one another inextricably. For all consecrated seculars, the vocation undergirds all they undertake because it becomes the essence of what they are in God's eye.
For more information on secular institutes...turn to a wonderful compilation of all Pope St. John Paul II has said about secular institutes: ''The Private Prayers of Pope John Paul II: Words of Inspiration'' (NY: Simon and Schuster, 2001). The last is God's gift to consecrated seculars and to the world, where Catholics who find that the parish is not enough will turn to this newest form of consecrated life: secular institutes.
Patricia Skarda is Chair, Vocation Committee, United States Conference of Secular Institutes.
For more information about Secular Institutes check www.secularinstitutes.org.