What is a Third Order?

Q. What exactly is a third order, and what must a person do to become a member of one?

B.C., via email

A. Here is a reply from Father Francis Hoffman, J.C.D.:

A third order is typically an association of the lay faithful who try to live the spirit of a particular religious order. The most well-known third orders are the Carmelites, Dominicans and Franciscans. As an association of the faithful, the members can be male or female, married or single, young or old, but they at least must be a practicing Catholic, and they live at home and not in the convent or monastery, and work in the most diverse occupations as is fitting to their state as laypeople.

Since the third orders are linked to religious orders, sometimes the members will distinguish themselves from ordinary laypeople by the garb or insignia they wear, or even by the letters after their name, as is common with members of religious orders. Their members, known as tertiaries, do not necessarily live in a religious community and yet can claim the right to wear the habit and participate in the good works of some great order.

Typically, members of third orders group themselves by region and participate in formative or devotional activities on a periodic basis for the edification of their spiritual life. Normally, a member of the sponsoring religious order would lead these reunions.

Down through the ages many great saints were members of third orders, such as St. Catherine of Siena (d. 1380), a Third Order Dominican, and St. Louis IX of France (d. 1270), a Third Order Franciscan.

Our readers might wonder, then, what are the first order and second order? In a nutshell, the first order, or the male religious, were often first in establishment. They were followed then by the second order, or the “nuns or sisters.” Finally, the third order, comprised of the laity, was established.