Third orders secular offer laity alternative to religious life

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Benedictine oblate Kevin Chears speaks with a St. Gertrude parishioner in this 2017 file photo. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

People who have a strong attraction to the charism of a particular religious community but feel that religious life is not for them might want to investigate whether belonging to a “third order secular” is part of their vocation.

Many religious congregations, including the Dominicans, the Franciscans and the Benedictines, have secular orders or similar institutions for laymen and laywomen. Their members live in the world, often holding jobs and caring for spouses and families, while also committing themselves to the charism of their communities.

According to the Chicago-based Institute for Religious Life, canon law defines third orders as “associations whose members, while living a secular life, strive after Christian perfection by observing a papally approved rule, under the direction and spirit of a religious order” (Canon 702).

While some members of third orders, those in “third orders regular,” live their lives in community with practices similar to members of their founding religious congregations, those who are members of “third orders secular” don’t.

Still, they go through at process of spiritual discernment and formation, and make formal promises or vows before becoming “fully members of a religious family.”

Margaret Kleinschmidt, director of formation for her community of lay Carmelites in the Chicago area, said her vocation “gives me the opportunity to live the Carmelite spirit, the same Carmelite spirit that the Carmelite priests and nuns live. I can live it according to my single state of life in the world. I am just as much a part of the Carmelite religious order as the priests or nuns.”

Lay Carmelites go through a six-year period of discernment and formation before making permanent vows and are obligated to, as much as possible, pray the morning and evening prayers from the Liturgy of the Hours, do a half-hour of meditative prayer each day, attend daily Mass, read about Carmelite saints and attend monthly meetings, Kleinschmidt said.

“When people join our community, I tell them they are not joining a social club or a book study group,” she said. “It’s a God-given vocation. You have to be called by God.”

There are several communities of lay Carmelites in Chicago and more in the suburbs, all part of the Washington Province, which covers the eastern United States.

For Kleinschmidt, the call came soon after she became more interested in her faith in her 20s. She was already very familiar with the Carmelites; she’s one of nine children, and one of her older sisters is a Carmelite nun and both her parents were lay Carmelites, she said.

Nancy Michael, a secular Franciscan, said many members of her family are involved with the Franciscan community in one way or another, as her grandfather was abandoned at a Franciscan monastery in Poland.

She lives out the Franciscan charism of poverty and simplicity of life by, for example, not accumulating more things than she needs.

“We all have wants,” she said. “If I buy it then I have to house it. I might need a bigger place. At that point, your possessions own you. I have to ask myself, ‘Do I really need it?’ And if I don’t need it, I have to change what I want. It goes beyond living within your means. We don’t need tchotchkes everywhere.  … Where do these things go? It’s beyond poverty. It’s care of the earth.”

Most people meeting her, or other members of secular third orders, for the first time might not immediately recognize her vocation, she said, but they do come to see there is something unusual about her.

“I wear the tau cross, which is the habit of the secular Franciscans,” she said. “I kind of let it dawn on them that I’m different. I dress conservatively.”

She works to be in line with church teaching in what she says and does, Michael said, but not by being harsh or judgmental.

“I try to be a positive presence,” she said.

Some people learn about third orders simply by spending time around people in religious life.

Lay Dominican John Planek, athletic director at Dominican University in River Forest, came to know the Dominicans through his association with Fenwick High School in Oak Park.

“I went to Fenwick High School, my dad went to Fenwick, my three brothers went to Fenwick, and I have five children who graduated from Fenwick High School,” Planek said. “I know a number of Dominican priests and brothers.”

So when the Dominicans at Fenwick decided to start a lay Dominican chapter a dozen or so years ago, Planek was a founding member.

As in other third orders, it takes several years to become a fully professed lay Dominican, because doing so is something that should be taken seriously, Planek said.

But any lay Catholic adult who is interested in learning more about it is welcome to learn more, he said.

“For most people, it’s to continue their faith journey and to continue their understanding of the Catholic faith, and they’re looking for something that provides that to them,” Planek said.

For those who express interest in becoming a lay Dominican, the next step is to learn more about the charism.

“Dominicans are big on contemplation,” he said. “They contemplate the word of God, and then they share that contemplation with others. That was part of what St. Dominic did: ‘You’re well educated, and now you have to go out and share this with others.’

“How does that play out in action? As people who are in the secular world, married, single, wherever they find themselves in their professional lives, that’s where they bring St. Dominic in. Can we bring Christ’s light to those situations. What can we do to make that real?”

Benedictine oblates are similar to third orders, and they are members of groups attached to particular Benedictine monasteries.

Kevin Chears has been an oblate with St. Scholastica Monastery since 2005.

The main requirement, she said, is to live a life guided by the Rule of St. Benedict, something that has led to what she describes as an interior stillness and openness to other people.

“I think I was always a hidden Type A person,” said Chears, who is retired from a second career in lay ecclesial ministry following a career in business. “I didn’t come off as a very driven  person, but I was very task-oriented and very focused on getting things done. … Becoming a Benedictine softened those edges for me and let me to see ways of getting things done that were kinder and more generative for more people. We got to the same place, but we all got there together.”

She attributes much of that to the Rule of St. Benedict’s emphasis on hospitality and humility.

That humility does not mean being a pushover, she said, but it does mean recognizing one’s own limits and seeking God’s help to overcome them.

“Living by the rule is extremely hard,” Chears acknowledged. “Even though it’s a very simple rule and it’s common sense: To meet every person and every circumstance with an open heart and an ability to love. … It means you have to do that even with people you don’t want to listen to.”

While members are encouraged to pray as well as read and discuss Benedictine spiritual works, Chears said prayer is not limited to formal sessions.

“Prayer can take place anywhere you are, as a solid conversation with God, if you are open to God,” Chears said. “Everything that you do as work has an element of prayer in it. Every time I have an encounter with someone, it is my opportunity to be prayerful for them and with them.”

Chears belongs to one of three groups of oblates who are sponsored by St. Scholastica Monastery. The groups have been meeting mostly online since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, which allows members who have moved away from the Chicago area to continue to participate, said Benedictine Sister Benita Coffey, who coordinates the groups.

Sister Benita said the oblates might be the way the Rule of St. Benedict is carried on, as there are fewer and fewer vowed women and men religious.

“That seems to be a trend,” Sister Benita said, “We believe that the Rule of St. Benedict, which has been in existence for more than 1,500 years, is going to last. It will be carried into the future by the oblates.”

That’s because the oblates are drawn to the vocation by the rule.

“St. Benedict had some very clear teachings,” she said. “You find Christ in every individual — strangers, even. You look to find that presence in every individual that you meet. It’s there.”


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