Difference between third order and secular institutes

What is the difference between third order and secular institutes?
I heard of Secular Franciscans but looking them up it said a third order. In this months Columbia magazine is introduced the Secular Institutes and a link to them but Secular Franciscans are not listed. Is there a difference?

Must have been a tough question.

Yeah, it’s a tough one. My (limited) understanding is this…

My girlfriend is a member of the Lay Community of St. Benedict. It’s a Lay Community rather than a Third Order because, while it’s based at Worth Abbey, it’s members don’t have the same obligations (tithing etc…) to the Abbey that they would if they were real Tertiaries in the OSB. Further, Tertiary members are more likely to be ‘attached’ to a local house or abbey (in our case, Ampleforth), rather than being members of a national organistion like the LCSB.

There are certainly very strong Lay Communities in the OSB, OP and the Carmelites here in the UK, but I’m not aware of any proper Third Orders.

Hope that helps

Hi. I am a candidate of the Secular Franciscan Order. From what I know, members of secular institutes are required to make private vows, and work in the world without revealing their identity as members of secular institutes. They remain ‘nameless’ but try to sanctify the world through their words and actions. Members of secular orders follow a rule of life, and make solemn promises upon profession, but have the option to make private vows. Members wear a sign of their order (i.e., the Tau for the SFO). In effect, they then become visible signs of the order.

I, personally do not know who the members of the Franciscan Secular Institute are in our area.


From what I understand, a secular institute is basically a religious order (under vows of poverty, chastity, obedience) of people who live in the world. They don’t live together, but live by a rule, just as a religious order would. Their charism is their own. I think examples of these would be Regnum Christi (a lay institute) or the Institute of Christ the King (a clerical institute).

A Third Order is a group of lay people attached to a ‘First Order’ of religious brothers or sisters. The Benedictines, Carmelites, Dominicans, Franciscans, Salesians and various others have Third Order groups. Since Vatican II, many of these groups have dropped the title ‘Third Order’ (the Dominicans and Franciscans both dropped the term), because they see the lay order as an order in its’ own right, with its own mission and apostolate, not just ‘friends of the monks’.

The two can sort-of merge into eachother - for example, there are the Franciscan Third Order Regular, who are a Third Order but live under vows, Third Order Carmelites can also, after a number of years, profess vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

That’s what I understand, but it might not be 100% correct.

A secular institute is a community of secular men, women or both. They are secular, because they do not belong to a religious family. Some make private vows. Some live in community and others live in their own homes. The follow a common spirituality and often have a common apostolate. Members of secular institutes are celibate, whether they make vows or not. The institute has a constitution that describes their spirituality, their formation, their government and their role in the Church.

The most famous secular institute right now is the SSPX, despite their irregular status. They are an institute for secular priests. They do not make private or public vows. Therefore, they are not religious. But they have a constitution and a common bond.

Like them there are many institutes that are much older.

Secular Orders are part of a religious family. The members have a rule of life. They have a formation program that lasts about five years. At the end of that period the candidate makes a solemn promise to live according to the rule of the founder and live the Gospel life in the manner of the founder. The members can be married, single, deacon, priest, or bishop. The single members can be celibate. The members can profess private vows of chastity, poverty and obedience.

The members of secular orders usually live in the secular world. However, they are bound to live in the world by the same rule and life as the other members of their religioius family: Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites and Missionaries of Charity.

Secular orders are not lay orders. A lay order is one in which all the members are lay men or lay women, such as the Christian Brothers. In secular orders, some members are clerics: deacons, priests, bishops, popes. For example, Pius XII and John XXIII were Secular Franciscans.

I believe that either Paul VI or John Paul II was a Secular Dominican.

The members of a secular order make a religious profession in a liturgy. The profession is solemn and it is public. The profession is received by the Church and by the superior in the name of the order. Secular Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites are not members of the same order as the friars and the cloistered nuns are. They are their own order. Their attachment is a fraternal and a spiritual one. Usually, a friar or a nun serves as the spiritual assistant to the Secular brothers and sisters. However, this is not always necessary.

Today, more than ever, there are secular brothers and sisters who are trained theologians and trained spiritual directors. They serve as spiritual directors to their own brothers and sisters, provided that they are not members of the same local fraternity.

While the profession of a member of a secular institute is private, the profession of a member of a secular order is public and equivalent to that of the profession of friars and nuns in the same family.

In the case of the Franciscans, the Secular Franciscans were actually founded by St. Francis of Assisi. Their original name was the Brothers and Sisters of Penance. Pope Paul VI changed the name to the Secular Franciscan Order in 1978. Their rule was written by St. Francis and can only be changed by a pope, not by the friars or by the secular brothers and sisters. Their rule dates back to 1209. This year the Franciscan family celebrated its 800th birthday.

To the best of my knowledge, the Secular Franciscan Order is the oldest secular order in the Church. But not too old . . . the Secular Dominicans and Secular Carmelites were founded shortly after. Tradition has it that they borrowed the idea from the Franciscans. But they do not live the same life. Each order lives according to its own charism. Each is a gift to the Church from the Holy Spirit.

Secular Orders wore traditional religious habits until the 1800s. Then the habits were modified and gradually disappeared. But there is no reason why they cannot be recovered. It is up to the order.

In a nutshell, secular orders have a rule, a constitution, a religious tradition and are part of a religious family. They have a public profession that binds them to live according to the rule until death.

Secular institutes have a constitution or statutes. They make private vows. Their vows may be temporary and renewed every year or can be for life. Unlike secular orders who always make their commitment for life.

Both have a place in the life of the Church and are a gift to the Church.



Hi Br. JR,

Thanks for the information. It seems that Secular institutes come in different forms. For instance, that the ‘Volunteers of Don Bosco’ is a secular institute for women and is under the Salesian Family. They make private vows but are not supposed to make their identity known to others - even to members of their spiritual family (the Salesians). I know that there is a secular institute under the Franciscan Family, but I am not sure how they are called.


Wow Brother JReduction! Good Answer.

Thanks for the helpful explanation, Brother.

(John Paul II was a Secular Discalced Carmelite.)

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