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Secular Institutes

The ecclesial and theological reflection on Secular Institutes and on their way of being in the world and in the Church has a rather recent history. The most significant event in the history of Secular Institutes took place during the Second Vatican Council. All the events that unfolded throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, as well as the experience of the FRA, in some ways “prepared” the way for a reflection on laity, which was discussed during the Second Vatican Council with several important outcomes. One need only think of documents such as Lumen Gentium, Gaudium et Spes, Apostolicam Actuositatem, to mention the most pertinent and best known. From the Second Vatican Council, these “foundations”, which were already in and of themselves a novelty in the Church, were given new life and profoundly renewed: the founders had prepared the way to a certain extent and now the path taken was once again revived, renewed and strengthened.

The novelty of secular consecration

 

Secular consecration is a vocation that was recognised only a few decades ago by the Church and its distinctive characteristics need to be understood.

In this regard, the words of Pope Paul VI are invaluable, who clearly understood and explained the novelty of this form of Christian life, defining it as an “experimental laboratory” and the “advanced guard”, in which the Church tests the modes of its relations with the world.

One of his speeches from 1972 to the heads of the Secular Institutes reads:

 

“You stand at the confluence of two powerful streams of Christian life and your own life is enriched by both. You are lay people, consecrated as lay people by baptism and confirmation, but you have chosen to underline your consecration to God with the profession of the evangelical counsels, accepted as binding, and the bond is firm and enduring and recognised by the Church. You are still lay people, committed to the secular values of the lay state of life... but with you it is a matter of ‘consecrated secularity’, you are both secular, living as lay people in the world and consecrated.

There is a difference between your situation and that of the other lay people. You are indeed committed, as they are, to the secular values but as consecrated persons: that is, your commitment not only asserts the authenticity of human values, it also directs them towards the evangelical beatitudes. On the other hand you are not ‘Religious’: yet there is a similarity between your life and theirs because by your consecration you tell the world that spiritual and eschatological values count more than anything else and that Christian love is your ‘absolute’. Indeed the greater your love the greater its power to show that secular values are but relative and at the same time to help you and everybody to make the most of those values.

Neither of these two aspects of your spiritual image can be overestimated without damaging the other. They are essential to each other. ‘Secularity’ means that your place is in the world. ‘Consecration’, on the other hand, indicates the personal, unseen structure supporting your inmost self and all you do.”

 

In light of this novelty, the concept of “evangelical counsels” takes on particular significance, which, when practised in secularity, becomes the language of choice to bear witness to the Gospel. In the continuation of the same speech to the members of the Secular Institutes, the Pontiff, with singular wisdom, illuminated the meaning of the evangelical counsels on poverty, chastity and obedience as it applies to secular life:

 

“Your poverty tells the world that it is possible to live with this life's good things and that we can make use of what makes for a more civilised life and progress without becoming slaves to any of it; your chastity tells the world of a selfless love, fathomless as God's own heart from which you draw it. Your obedience tells the world that a man can be happy without digging in his heels over the things which just suit him, and can be always completely open to God's will as seen in the daily grind, in the signs of the times and in the world's need, here and now, of salvation.”

Consistent witnesses of true Christian holiness

Pope John Paul II also had strong and encouraging words, especially on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Provida Mater, with a challenging speech in which he invited consecrated secular persons to be “consistent witness[es] of true Christian holiness”.

 

“...the members of Secular Institutes, in history, are the sign of a Church which is the friend of men and can offer them comfort in every kind of affliction, ready to support all true progress in human life but at the same time intransigent towards every choice of death, violence, deceit and injustice. For Christians they are also a sign and a reminder of their duty, on God's behalf, to care for a creation which remains the object of its Creator's love and satisfaction, although marked by the contradictions of rebellion and sin and in need of being freed from corruption and death.”

 

The Church today looks to men and women who are capable of bearing renewed witness to the Gospel and its radical demands, amid the living conditions of the majority of human beings. Even the world, often without realising it, wishes to meet the truth of the Gospel for humanity's true, full progress, according to God's plan.

 

For this reason, Pope John Paul II explains that:

 

“members of Secular Institutes are by their vocation and mission at the crossroads between God's initiative and the longing of creation: God's initiative, which they bring the world through love and intimate union with Christ; the longing of creation, which they share in the everyday, secular condition of their fellow men and women, bearing the contradictions and hopes of every human being, especially the weakest and the suffering.”

 

The Church, therefore, expects much from the Secular Institutes and from their testimony in history. As Pope Benedict XVI also reminded the members of the Secular Institutes on the 60th anniversary of the Provida Mater:

 

“In this way, the process of your sanctification is clearly marked out: self-sacrificing adherence to the saving plan manifested in the revealed Word, solidarity with history, the search for the Lord's will inscribed in human events governed by his Providence. And at the same time, the characteristics of the secular mission are outlined: the witness to human virtues such as ‘righteousness and peace and joy’ (Rom. 14: 17), the ‘good conduct’ of which Peter speaks in his First Letter (cf. 2: 12), echoing the Teacher's words: ‘Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in Heaven’ (Mt. 5: 16). Also part of the secular mission is the commitment to build a society that recognizes in the various environments the dignity of the person and the indispensable values for its total fulfilment: from politics to the economy, from education to the commitment to public health, from the management of services to scientific research. The aim of every specific reality proper to and lived by the Christian, his own work and his own material interests that retain their relative consistency, is found in their being embraced by the same purpose for which the Son of God came into the world. Therefore, may you feel challenged by every suffering, every injustice and every search for truth, beauty and goodness. This is not because you can come up with the solution to all problems; rather, it is because every circumstance in which human beings live and die is an opportunity for you to witness to God's saving work. This is your mission. On the one hand, your consecration highlights the special grace that comes to you from the Spirit for the fulfilment of your vocation, and on the other, it commits you to total docility of mind, heart and will to the project of God the Father revealed in Jesus Christ, whom you have been called to follow radically.”

 

Pope Francis, in 2014, showed us a way and gave us valuable suggestions for our lives:

 

“I hope that you will always retain this attitude of going beyond, not only beyond, but beyond and in between. There, where everything is at stake: politics, the economy, education, family... precisely there! Perhaps you are tempted maybe to think: ‘But what can I do?’.  When you are tempted like this, remember that the Lord spoke to us about the grain of wheat! Your life is like a grain of wheat... precisely; it is like leaven... precisely. Doing everything possible so that the Kingdom may come, grow and be great, and also so that it may shelter many people, like the mustard tree. Think about this. Small life, small gesture; normal life with a leaven, a grain that produces growth. And this may reward you. The outcome of the Kingdom of God cannot be foreseen. Only the Lord allows us to divine something...”

 

And again, in 2017, he outlined a beautiful and intense spiritual path for us:

 

“I would like, finally, to suggest spiritual attitudes that may help you on this path and that may be summarized in five verbs: to pray, to discern, to share, to give courage, and to have sympathy.

 

Pray, to be joined to God, close to His heart. Listen to His voice, before every event in life, living a luminous existence that takes the Gospel in hand and takes it seriously.

 

Discern, to be able to distinguish essential things from ancillary ones; this means refining that wisdom, cultivating it day by day, to enable you to see what responsibilities it is necessary to take on, and what the priority tasks are. It is a personal but also a community path, and so individual effort is not enough.

 

Share the fate of every man and woman: even if the world's events are tragic and dark, I do not abandon the fate of the world because I love it, as and with Jesus, unto the end.

 

Give courage: with the grace of Christ never lose faith, who knows how to see the good in everything. It is also an invitation we receive in every Eucharistic celebration: Lift up your hearts.

 

Have sympathy for the world and for the people. Even when they do everything to make you lose it, be animated by the sympathy that comes to us from the Spirit of Christ, that makes us free and passionate, that makes us ‘stay within’ like salt and leaven.”

Aware of all this, the FRA are also joyfully committed to being the salt and leaven in everyday life, alongside the men and women they meet and with whom they share a stretch of the road.

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