With the Holy Spirit guiding her, the Catholic Church is full of options when it comes to living out different charisms.

While religious priests, brothers or nuns literally vow their lives to a particular spirituality, that commitment and dedication is not just limited to them. Since the days of St. Francis of Assisi, Third Orders have allowed the laity to be closely united as well to the spirituality of their choice. But what exactly is a Third Order? 

To answer that question, one must journey back to the days of St. Francis of Assisi whom many consider to be the founder of third orders. For St. Francis, the vision was simple and clear. He wanted to develop a new spiritual path of life where laymen and women could participate more intimately in the Franciscan spiritual way. This new order would complement the first order of men in the religious order, the Franciscan priests, or the Friars Minor. It would also be connected to the second Franciscan order consisting of women, who were known as the Poor Ladies. They would later be called the Poor Clares, named after their foundress, St. Clare of Assisi. 

The year 1221 is most associated with the founding of this Franciscan third order; for it was then that a rule of life for its members (commonly known as tertiaries) came into existence. Among the rules that the lay members were expected to follow were simplicity in dress, prayer of the canonical office or the Liturgy of the Hours, and they were prohibited from taking up arms. 

This new order would be further divided between those who were members of the Regular Third Order and those of the Secular Third Order. The Regulars consisted of religious communities of either men or women bound by vows, while the Secular Third Order members were laypeople who lived in the world and made promises to the founding order. This distinction between these two groups still exists today. 

Catchy Spirituality

It would not take long before other religious orders would recognize the need to honor the spiritual friendship that existed between their foundations and their local community of supporters or benefactors. In 1285, the Brothers and Sisters of the Penance of St. Dominic came about. These local groups, which followed the spirituality of St. Dominic, were also known as fraternities. They were formed under the direction of the local Dominican priest and wore a habit of black and white. 

The Third Order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel was established in the middle of the 15th century. Originally, the rule of this new order was that of the friars, with some adaptations given to one’s state in life. In the 1670s, the Superior General of the Carmelites revised the Third Order rule. Among the rules prescribed were a half-hour meditation every morning and evening, and fasting on all Fridays and on Wednesdays and Saturdays from Sept. 14 until Easter. 

Today, the Church recognizes 12 different third orders. Each has its own distinct charism or spirit, which connects it to its founding religious institution. Membership is open to any practicing Catholic who has reached a prescribed age and is eligible for membership. 

Ministry and Mission

In 1956, Pope Pius XII said the following in an address to a group of Franciscan tertiaries: “The Third Order of St. Francis was born to satisfy this thirst for heroism among those who, though having to remain in the world, did not wish to be of the world. The Third Order, then, seeks souls who long for perfection in their own state.” 

While the path toward Christian perfection is expressed in various forums through the particular charism of a third order, there are several common traditions that are part and parcel of any third order.  

One of these traditions is that each community has a time of formation. This period is often similar to the steps one would take if joining the first or second order of the particular congregation. For instance, candidates to the Third Order go through an aspirancy, or a novitiate, where they are introduced to the founder’s writings, the Rule and the practice of praying the Liturgy of the Hours. 

After a designated period of formation, the individual may request to make temporary promises which commit them to the Third Order’s rule of life. In the Secular Carmelite community, those making promises state the following: “I promise to tend towards evangelical perfection in the spirit of the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty, obedience and of the beatitudes, according to the Rule of the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites, for three years.” After three years, an individual may request permission to make final promises, where the phrase “for three years” is replaced with “for all my life.” 

As for an apostolate or a ministry given to members of a third order, it is often associated with prayer. Members strive to deepen their personal spiritual lives through daily recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours as well as attending daily Mass and making frequent use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. 

The wearing of a particular scapular also identifies a member as belonging to a specific order. Members are usually obliged to take part in monthly meetings that are of a spiritual nature and consist of Mass or prayers and a conference or talk on the order’s spirituality. All of these practices are done in hopes of living a more Christ-like life in the midst of the world. TCA

Eddie O’Neill writes from Green Bay, Wis., where he works as a freelance writer and media producer.