Steve and Lillian White have always been drawn to St. Francis of Assisi. When they were invited to attend a lay Franciscan fraternity gathering, they immediately accepted.
“We were hooked,” Steve, a Springfield, Ohio, social worker, told Our Sunday Visitor. “We could see the love the fraternity members had for one another and their concern for helping those in need.”
They joined the community, and after a time of formation, made their final profession in 2000. As professed Franciscans, they follow in the footsteps of St. Francis by striving to live in joy and simplicity.
“Our formation, leading to our solemn profession, felt like a second conversion, opening our minds and hearts to our Lord and Savior, and to all people,” Steve White said.
The Whites are among the increasing number of laypeople — both married and single — who have discovered a parallel vocation to a consecrated lifestyle as part of a religious order or Catholic association.
‘Facets of a jewel’
For 2,000 years, Catholics have felt the call toward more rigorous spiritual striving. In pursuit of that call, they’ve left the world behind, entering monasteries, abbeys, convents, friaries and priories all over the world, living a life of contemplative prayer, work and penance. Following the example of holy men and women such as St. Francis, St. Dominic, St. Benedict and St. Teresa of Avila, they’ve formed communities of like-spirited people who would walk beside them on their path to holiness, sharing in the same charism.
Within the past 300 years, apostolic orders began to emerge, sensing a need to work in the world while at the same time keeping their religious character and lifestyle. They offered a unique aspect and service to the Church, and they added to its vitality and variety.
In recent Church history — especially since the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council in 1965 — new developments have opened the door to lay faithful (those not called to the priesthood or consecrated life) who want to live the charism of a consecrated community while at the same time living in the world, and this lifestyle is quickly catching on. This includes both those who are single and married, and those who work in ministry and professions. All of the communities interviewed for this story agreed that lay vocations are on the rise, particularly over the past 10 years.
“It’s like facets of a jewel,” said Sister Catherine Schwemer, former executive director of the North American Conference of Associates and Religious. “They [the orders and communities] are all beautiful, and we need them all to make the jewel what it’s meant to be.”
Sister Catherine said that, although the various communities may differ in structure and how they are viewed canonically, they all have a common thread: to live the spirit of the evangelical counsels and to “take the Gospel to the streets.”
During the 1987 Synod of Bishops on the role of the laity, the synod fathers echoed the plea of Vatican II for all lay faithful generously and promptly to follow the impulse of the Spirit by discovering and fulfilling their God-given vocation and mission.
In his 1988 post-synodal exhortation, Christifideles Laici,Pope John Paul II wrote: “In recent days the phenomenon of laypeople associating among themselves has taken on a character of particular variety and vitality. In some ways, lay associations have always been present throughout the Church’s history as various confraternities, third orders and sodalities testify even today. However, in modern times such lay groups have received a special stimulus, resulting in the birth and spread of a multiplicity of group forms: associations, groups, communities, movements. We can speak of a new era of group endeavours of the lay faithful. In fact, ‘alongside the traditional forming of associations, and at times coming from their very roots, movements and new sodalities have sprouted, with a specific feature and purpose, so great is the richness and the versatility of resources that the Holy Spirit nourishes in the ecclesial community, and so great is the capacity of initiative and the generosity of our laypeople’” (No. 29).
Strong community life
Ted and Louise Ramey live in Wales, Wis., and are parents of two sons, ages 13 and 15. They have completed the first two of a 10-year formation period for the International Apostolic Federation of Schoenstatt Families, a branch of the International Schoenstatt Movement. Ted is a customer-service manager and Louise is a stay-at-home mom. At the end of their formation, they’ll make a lifetime consecration to the Blessed Virgin Mary and to the federation community of families.
“We wanted to participate in something that challenged us as a family, as a couple and as individuals to live holier and more fruitful lives,” Louise Ramey said. “We also wanted to be part of a community that was committed to developing personal sanctity and that encouraged apostolic outreach and leadership within the Church.”
Even in this early stage of formation, the Rameys believe they’ve built the foundation for a strong community of families and the tools to become stronger followers of Christ.
“In an increasingly more secular world, Christians need those close friendships to live as a faithful witness to Christ’s love,” Ted Ramey said. “We also have quickly learned that we are each ultimately responsible for our self-education, and the road to sanctity is a life-long process.”
For as many lay groups that exist — and there are hundreds in the United States alone, with new ones continuing to emerge — there are as many structures, spiritualities and types of work that come from various sources and correspond to different demands. For example, some lay groups devote themselves to a renewed appreciation for prayer, contemplation, liturgical and sacramental life or the reawakening of vocations to Christian marriage and family, catechesis, corporal or spiritual acts of mercy, Scripture study or fostering devotion to Mary.
Regardless of their structure or charism, all lay groups must follow the same criteria:
◗ The universal call to holiness.
◗ The responsibility of professing the Catholic faith.
◗ The witness to a strong and authentic communion through loyalty to the pope and bishops.
◗ Conformity to and participation in the Church’s apostolic goals, living the Gospels in all spheres of life.
◗ A commitment to a presence in human society, placing themselves at the service of others.
Vicki Wherry, mother of three grown children and dietitian-turned-writer, is a member of the Secular Discalced Carmelites and lives in Manchester, N.H. She’s found a perfect blend of contemplation and activity in the Carmelite spirituality. “I have always had a deep love for Our Lord and Lady and a longing in my heart and soul for quiet and contemplative prayer,” she said. “While our lifestyle is outside the cloister and our commitment to daily prayer, meditation, Mass attendance and so on are less stringent as far as time, we do promise certain things equal to what our cloistered priests, brothers and nuns do.” She’s been a member of the order for three years and makes her temporary profession in October.
The variety of names and structures among lay communities can be confusing. In general, lay groups fall into one of the following categories: personal prelatures, third orders or oblates (also known as lay fraternities), associations of the Christian faithful, secular institutes and associations. All require a period of initial and then ongoing formation; each is defined differently by canon law.
With so many choices, how does one know to which community he or she is called? The category under which a lay group falls is less important than its charism and how that charism touches one’s heart.
“This is truly empowerment of the laity,” said Marianne Jablonski, member and president of the Lay Fraternities of St. Dominic, who lives in Philadelphia.
She’ll celebrate her silver anniversary as a professed Dominican this year and stresses that the vocation to a lay community is one that requires solemn discernment.
“People sense a void in their lives and seek to fill it,” Jablonski told OSV. “When they find the object of their longing and dare to embrace it, it starts a positive metamorphosis that is a beautiful thing to see.”
Marge Fenelon writes from Wisconsin.