Secular institutes a ‘hidden leaven in the world’

| April 7, 2015 | 0 Comments

In her 20s, Jane Lynch knew she was called to a vocation other than marriage, but didn’t feel like the convent was the right fit. It wasn’t until she was in her late 30s that she discovered secular institutes, a form of consecrated life in which members live and work in society but share commitments to prayer and their institute’s community.

At age 38, Lynch joined the Secular Institute of the Missionaries of the Kingship of Christ, a secular institute for women founded in 1919 in Italy. It is among 36 established and aspiring secular institutes in the U.S., according to the U.S. Conference of Secular Institutes.

“There was a feeling of a calling for something deeper, and to get my religious life structured,” said Lynch, 74, a parishioner of the Cathedral of St. Paul and a retired South St. Paul public school teacher. However, she said, “I wanted to stay in the world. I wasn’t interested in community life.”

Like men and women religious, secular institute members take vows or make promises of poverty, chastity and obedience, but they are not religious brothers or sisters.

Members of secular institutes are self-supporting, work in a profession and typically live alone. They pray Liturgy of the Hours, attend daily Mass and meet monthly with other members of their secular institute. They also attend an annual retreat.

Secular institutes are diverse; most are open to either single men or women, but at least two in the U.S. include married couples. Most members are laymen and women, but a few include priests or deacons.

Their charisms also vary; the Secular Institute of the Missionaries of the Kingship of Christ, for example, takes inspiration from St. Francis of Assisi and Franciscan spirituality.

Although Lynch doesn’t wear anything symbolizing her vocation, people often sense there’s something different about her, she said.Sometimes, people ask if she’s a religious sister. The question gives her a chance to introduce others to secular institutes, which she said are generally unknown in the U.S., even by Catholics.

“We’re supposed to be a hidden leaven in the world,” she said. “We are to be an example [and] transform life from within, wherever our circumstances are.”

Most secular institutes, including the Secular Institute of the Missionaries of the Kingship of Christ, began informally in the early 20th century. Some trace their roots to other communities that began centuries ago.

The Church did not formally recognize secular institutes until 1947 when Pope Pius XII issued an apostolic constitution that established the secular institute within the framework of canon law. By 1950, about 40 secular institutes existed worldwide; five decades later, there were more than 200 institutes with about 60,000 members worldwide, according to the USCSI.

When the secular institute was established, the difference between its lifestyle and that of religious brothers and sisters was more pronounced than it is today, said Jessica Swedzinski, secretary for the U.S. Conference of Secular Institutes and a member of the Secular Institute of the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary, who lives near Sleepy Eye. Changes in some religious communities’ lifestyles in recent decades have muddled the overt distinction between their members and those of secular institutes, she said, but it exists.

“The framework of the secular institute is to live the three counsels [poverty, chastity and obedience] right smack dab in the world,” she said. “That’s the major difference between us and religious orders.”

The vocation to a secular institute typically appeals to single Catholics in their 30s and 40s who have established careers who seek to deepen their commitment to Christ, Lynch said.

For her, the Year of Consecrated Life offers a chance to make secular institutes better known.

“I think as laity become more involved in the Church, this vocation might appeal to more people,” she said. “You can still live in the world and lead a vowed life.”

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