As a youthful conscientious objector to military service, Stuart Sandberg spent the early 1960s in New York laboring alongside Dorothy Day at the Catholic Worker, preparing daily meals and producing the social-justice movement's eponymous newspaper.

"I was looking for the best way to live the Gospel in the world," he told Our Sunday Visitor.

It was there that he met Father Virginio Zeroli, a member of the secular institute Company of St. Paul, who was recruiting for vocations and "didn't mind that I was probably going to jail" for refusing the draft. As it turned out, Sandberg was tried for draft evasion, received a one-year suspended sentence, joined the Company in 1965, went to study at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and later was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

"Living in the Company has meant living with the discipline of a spiritual life, participating in Mass and practicing meditation twice a day," said Father Sandberg. "Practicing faith has been the source of strength that has kept me centered through the various challenges I have encountered."

Joan Brown (not her real name) found her secular vocation in the late 1970s after a conversion experience during a directed 30-day retreat that a friend had urged her to attend.

"Near the end of this time spent with God, I wanted to devote my life entirely to the God who loves me as I am," Brown told OSV. "I thought about making private vows, but decided I needed the support of other women who shared my deep love for the God who called me by name."

When she spoke of her retreat experience with a priest friend, he gave her a flier about the secular institute Caritas Christi. "Once I read it, I knew I was hooked," she recalled. She entered the institute in 1979.

A misunderstood entity

Many Catholics probably are not familiar with the idea of secular institutes or confuse them with religious congregations. A secular institute, however, is a different type of vocation from the consecrated life. It is a relatively new form, having attained official status just 62 years ago, but its roots go back much further. Centuries before the Second Vatican Council would place renewed emphasis on the universal call to holiness, figures like St. Angela Merici and St. Francis de Sales were already teaching laymen and laywomen that they can achieve sanctity in their ordinary lives without entering religious life (see sidebar).

Some of the confusion about secular institutes is understandable. Men and women Religious generally live in community and wear a religious habit, while members of secular institutes do not; however, there are exceptions on both sides. Both live according to the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, but secular-institute members generally make private rather than public vows.

Religious congregations also normally have an institutional apostolate, such as teaching, health care or foreign missions, while secular institutes leave their members free to pursue an apostolate of their own choosing. Unlike religious men and women, secular-institute members live in their own homes and are completely self-supporting. Some secular institutes even include married men and women, who live the evangelical counsels and charisms of the institute in keeping with their state of life; others include diocesan priests, like Father Sandberg, who wish to profess the evangelical counsels without joining a religious order.

One key distinction is that while religious life involves a degree of separation from the world, members of secular institutes lead ordinary lives immersed "in the world." Those who live relatively near one another get together often for prayer and friendship, and entire institutes gather periodically for annual retreats and meetings. Daily Mass and regular prayer are part of the secular vocation, but each member develops his or her own habits of prayer and devotions.

Apostolate in the world

The lack of an institutional apostolate in secular institutes allows members the freedom to choose exactly how they will live out their commitment as "leaven in the world," as Pope Pius XII once called their members in Provida Mater Ecclesia, his 1947 apostolic constitution establishing the secular institute as a canonical form.

Father Sandberg describes his daily work as a ministry of holistic healing, helping people "in 'becoming Catholic,' which literally means 'toward the whole'" -- using methods ranging from prayer and meditation to diet, nutrition and dealing with stress. "The spirit and truth of prayer and the Gospel has been the inspiration for my looking into the meaning of healing for us today," he said.

Joan Brown uses her computer skills to design websites for nonprofit organizations and is also active in advocacy for making churches and public buildings more accessible for people with disabilities. She said that being a member of Caritas Christi allows her to give herself entirely to God out of love -- as did Christ, who was a layperson himself.

"Total love is the only gift I can offer the Triune God," she said. "This is what gives meaning and spice to my life in spite of all the ups and downs I encounter along life's many paths."

The means to help integrating holiness in ordinary life is what led Greg Kremer to join Voluntas Dei. While going through an "unsettled time in my life," he came across the writings of Pope John Paul II on secular institutes and the "new evangelization" and immediately began seeking information on the Internet. Drawn in part to Voluntas Dei's emphasis on peacemaking, he became an inquirer in 2004 and took vows last August.

"Being single seemed to be a temporary state, not a vocation, so I was relieved and excited when I learned that there was a way within the Church to live a consecrated life 'in the world and for the world, but not of the world,'" Kremer told OSV.

As an assistant professor of engineering at Ohio University, Kremer practices his apostolate by teaching his students about service, including work in developing new assistive technologies for the disabled, finding new forms of sustainable energy, and improving water quality for remote villagers in Ghana. An avid environmentalist, he bicycles to work daily and has a wind-powered generator in his yard that provides more than enough energy to maintain his home.

"The best thing about being part of a secular institute," Kremer said, "is the opportunity to witness to the joy of a life consecrated to God in the midst of the daily struggles and concerns of life and the opportunity as a celibate layman to build relationships with men and women, young and old, the powerful and marginalized . . . the many faces of God in this world."

How secular institutes developed

1527: St. Angela Merici, foundress of the Ursuline Sisters, establishes the Company of St. Ursula, a teaching community of young women who practice the evangelical counsels but live at home, a forerunner of today's secular institutes

1609: St. Francis de Sales publishes definitive edition of his "Introduction to the Devout Life" for Catholic laity who want to seek holiness in their secular lives

1791: During the religious repression of the French Revolution, Jesuit Father Pierre-Joseph Picot de Clorivière and Adelaide de Cicé found the Daughters of the Heart of Mary, so women could lead an active religious life without a cloister or habit so as not to draw the ire of the government

1800s: Many new institutes established on the secular model, particularly in Italy

1900s: Secular institutes proliferate in Germany and elsewhere

1947: In the apostolic constitution Provida Mater Ecclesia, Pope Pius XII establishes the secular institute as a canonical form

1948: Additional Vatican documents, Cum Santissimus and Promo Feliciter, describe secular institutes as "salt and light" to the world and iron out details for their definition

1983: Secular institutes enshrined in the revised Code of Canon Law

1996: In his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata, Pope John Paul II says that secular institutes "help to ensure that the Church has an effective presence in society"

2009: Some 200 secular institutes with some 60,000 members exist worldwide; more than 30 institutes are active in the United States

A 'secular' vocabulary

Pious union: Any of a wide variety of public or private organizations to which Catholic laypersons, clergy and Religious may belong under certain provisions set in the Code of Canon Law; also called an association of the Christian faithful. Secular institutes often evolve from pious unions that are well established and have the endorsement of the local bishop.

Secular institute of diocesan right: A local pious union that has been raised to a secular institute by the bishop of the diocese in which it is established.

Secular institute of pontifical right: A secular institute that has grown beyond a local diocese and is recognized by the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

Gerald Korson writes from Indiana. For more information, visit www.secularinstitutes.org.