Why consider a secular institute?
This form of consecrated life can help diocesan priests live more fully and faithfully
As a young man, I entered a religious community of priests and brothers and was ordained to the priesthood in 2004. During the nearly 20 years that I was a religious, I was graced with many friendships and a preparation for pastoral ministry that I value to this day. As I approached midlife, however, I discerned that God was calling me to transition to the diocesan priesthood for several personal reasons.
I received many confirmations that this was the right decision, but once I was incardinated into my archdiocese, I realized that I didn’t know how to be a diocesan priest. I had received no formation for it, and my priestly identity was suspended in a kind of limbo. I trusted that things would resolve, but I had to place the specifics of how into God’s hands.
Only two things were certain. First, I knew that God had called me to the diocesan priesthood. Of that, I had no doubt. But I also felt that I was called to somehow continue my vowed consecrated life as a diocesan priest. As soon as I was incardinated into my archdiocese I privately renewed my vows, resolving to live the evangelical counsels in my new state of life. But something was still lacking.
These types of conflicted feelings are understandable. At one time, diocesan priesthood and consecrated life were mutually exclusive vocations. Traditionally, religious priests professed vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and lived a common life together, whereas diocesan priests promised celibacy and obedience to their bishop and lived in a rectory, possibly with other priests. They were separate vocations, albeit with much in common.
What I found in my own vocational journey was a challenge that many diocesan priests face: While religious priests by definition share a communal life and founding spirituality, diocesan priests are left to figure out on their own how to build priestly fraternity and develop a spirituality that is unique to their vocation.
Due to the structure of diocesan life, this has always been a challenge, but in recent decades it has become even more so. Diocesan priests are now more likely to find themselves living alone in a rectory, and an ever-increasing workload limits opportunities to gather. The Church recognizes the importance of intentional community and a strong spiritual life for diocesan priests, so much so that it is written into canon law.
Canon 278.2 explicitly states: “Secular clerics are to hold in esteem especially those associations which, having statutes recognized by competent authority, foster their holiness in the exercise of the ministry through a suitable and properly approved rule of life and through fraternal assistance which promote the unity of clerics among themselves and with their own bishop.”
Various associations of secular priests offer such opportunities, including Jesu Caritas and other more informal groups. Less known is a unique form of consecrated life specifically suited for diocesan priests: secular institutes.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines consecrated life as follows: “The state of consecrated life is one way of experiencing a ‘more intimate’ consecration, rooted in Baptism and dedicated totally to God. In the consecrated life, Christ’s faithful, moved by the Holy Spirit, propose to follow Christ more nearly, to give themselves to God who is loved above all” (No. 916).
Consecrated life always involves a canonical juridic bond, normally in the form of a vow, to live the evangelical counsels of poverty, celibate chastity and obedience. The Church has traditionally recognized four forms of consecrated life: religious institutes, consecrated virgins, widows and hermits. In 1947, Pope Pius XII added a fifth form, that of secular institutes (discussed in Canons 710-730 of the Code of Canon Law). These institutes of consecrated life permit celibate laymen, laywomen and diocesan priests to profess the evangelical counsels in vows that are recognized by the Church.
Consecrated lay members live in their own homes and do not use religious titles or garb. They are free to work in secular professions. In the case of diocesan priests, they continue to live and work in their dioceses and wear the clothing of the local presbyterate. (In fact, priests in secular institutes in no way distinguish themselves from their fellow diocesan priests and often refrain from revealing their membership except for recruitment purposes.)
Regarding poverty, both the consecrated laity and diocesan priests continue to own their own property while committing to live simply. Obedience is vowed to the institute’s basic rule of life, but this commitment in no way conflicts with their primary obedience to their bishop (in fact, it strengthens it). The vow of chastity for both the priests and laity includes a lifelong commitment to celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of God.
In short, members of secular institutes are fully consecrated in the state of consecrated life while living an entirely “secular” life as laity or diocesan priests. The goal is to bring the leaven of the Gospel to those places in secular society that members of religious orders are normally unable to reach.
One might ask, what is the benefit for a diocesan priest to enter a secular institute if he continues to live and function fully as a member of the local presbyterate? First and foremost, it is a supernatural vocation from God — the priest simultaneously feels called to diocesan priesthood and consecrated life.
In no way is it a quasi-religious order; the sole focus in a secular institute is to live the diocesan priesthood fully and faithfully. While the vows are the same as those taken by religious, it is not in imitation of them, for all members of the faithful, including diocesan priests, are called to live the evangelical counsels. Secular institutes assist the diocesan priest in living them specifically as diocesan clergy.
There are other aspects of secular institutes that are well-suited for the diocesan priesthood. Chief among them are these three: fraternity, spirituality and ministry.
As I have found in my own transition from religious to diocesan life, fraternity is perhaps the greatest challenge diocesan priests currently face in healthily living their vocations. Diocesan priests frequently live alone and busy schedules prove to be obstacles to fraternity. Secular institutes can help in this area.
While members do not live the common life of religious, there is still a strong emphasis on community outlined in the rule of life. Such is the case in my community, the Society of the Priests of the Heart of Jesus (see sidebar below).
Spirituality is an important aspect of life in a secular institute. Each institute is required to have its constitutions approved by Rome and must include a basic outline of a spiritual life (with plenty of room for flexibility). In the case of the Priests of the Heart of Jesus, in addition to the daily Mass and Divine Office expected of all priests, members commit to a daily hour of personal prayer, normally before the Blessed Sacrament. For me, this was a practice I began only after I entered the institute, and I wasn’t sure I would be able to fulfill it in the course of a busy schedule. I will be eternally grateful for the challenge to be faithful to that hour of prayer; it has radically transformed how I live my priesthood. It has led me to encounter Jesus on a much deeper level than in my early years of priestly life.
Finally, ministry is a major focus of clerical secular institutes. The ministry of each member is always his normal diocesan assignment received from his bishop. The institute has no say in the matter and would never try to interfere. What the institute offers the diocesan priest is a means by which he can renew his zeal for sacramental and pastoral ministry after the heart of Jesus.
Priestly zeal is not unique to consecrated life; every priest in apostolic ministry has the same goal. Some diocesan priests reach it through increased study or programs of priestly renewal. Others attain it through ongoing formation courses offered by their diocese. Members of secular institutes get there by encouraging one another and reflecting on how to more effectively live out their pastoral care for the People of God. It is one more opportunity the Church provides to ensure that priests minister with holiness and integrity.
A challenge I faced when discerning to enter a secular institute is that of proximity. Most dioceses do not currently have local members living within their boundaries; such was the case in my archdiocese. The normal pattern for establishing a local chapter of a secular institute is for one priest (or a small group of priests) within a diocese to contact the institute and request admission. Formation can be done long-distance, and the advent of Zoom and other means of communication have opened new opportunities for communal gatherings. (My community has monthly online meetings.)
In the case of a member who is isolated in a geographic region, once he has completed formation he can invite other priests in his diocese to consider joining. This is the normal process of development for nearly every secular institute of priests or laity, and the structure exists within canon law for it to work well.
Every diocesan priest must discern for himself what is the best means whereby he can maintain good fraternal relations, a strong prayer life, fidelity to the evangelical counsels and a vibrant ministry. None of these are unique to secular institutes. What I discovered on my own journey was that the secular institute I entered provided me with a lens through which my vocation and identity as a diocesan priest were brought into focus. Clerical secular institutes go to the very heart of what it means to be a diocesan priest: to live the life of Jesus among his people, ministering to them and witnessing through the evangelical counsels that there is nothing to be preferred to the love of Christ.
FATHER SCOTT JONES is a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis and a member of the Priests of the Heart of Jesus. To learn more about his institute, go to www.uspcj.org. More information on secular institutes is available at www.secularinstitutes.org.
About the Society of the Priests of Heart of Jesus
The Society of the Priests of the Heart of Jesus was founded in France in 1791 by Father Pierre Joseph de Clorivière, a secularized Jesuit. (The Jesuits had been suppressed by the pope in 1773 and all religious orders were banned in revolutionary France.) Father Clorivière founded the Priests of the Heart of Jesus specifically so that diocesan priests could live the “state of perfection” in their dioceses. From the beginning, he required that members gather monthly for a Review of Life and annually for a communal retreat.
The Review of Life provides members with the opportunity to share their joys and struggles in an atmosphere of trust and confidentiality. It also helps members to hold one another accountable for spiritual and ministerial integrity. In my institute, some members have walked with each other for over 40 years through the deaths of parents, the transition between ministries and the diminishment of health.
In no way has it proven to be a “clique” that separates them from other priests; in fact, one of the areas of accountability is how members build fraternity with the rest of the presbyterate. On a personal level, it has challenged me to extend generosity to fellow priests in a way that I often neglected to do in religious life.