Secular Third Orders

The Coming of the Tertiaries

The Third Orders Secular, or what are known usually today as Secular Orders, where born during the glory days of the middle ages, at the time of the foundation of the universities and the advent of new forms of religious life. One can see as their predecessors the “oblates” of the Benedictine monasteries. Oblates were basically laypersons who gave themselves in differing ways to a monastery. They shared in the life of the monastery or at least in the prayers, and in turn offeredto various degrees themselves and their goods. In the 12th century there came into existence areligious movement called the humiliati or the “humbled ones”. The Humiliati had a third order which consisted of laypersons who lived a rule of life while remaining in the world. The Humiliati third order rule was approved by Pope Innocent III in June of the year 1201. This third order of the humiliati can thus be seen as some of the very first tertiaries.

Around this same period of time the was born the Order of the Holy Trinity and Captives (the Trinitarian Order) and not long after came the Order of Friars Minor (the Franciscan Order) and the Order of Preachers (the Dominican Order). These orders were radical new movements in the Church which sought to live an evangelical life in a new way and with a particular apostolic dimension. It is from these orders (and others like them) that we have the tertiary vocation as it exists in the Church today. Third Orders began basically with laypersons in the world being drawn by the charism and spirituality of these new orders. They wanted to share in their way of life and their apostolic mission while remaining in their secular state. The life of the tertiary simply put has been: to live by a rule of life in the world under the direction of the higher superiors of order, seeking Christian perfection while sharing in the charism and spirituality of the order. A number of orders have had tertiaries historically. Some of the orders that have traditionally had third orders are the Franciscans, the Dominicans, Trinitarian, the Carmelites, the Discalced Carmelites, the Mercedarians, the Servites, the Augustinians,the Minims. Often tertiaries were present in both the Calced and the Discalced (if such existed).

The Definition

The Church defines what a third order (secular order) is as follows:

Associations whose members lead an apostolic life and strive for Christian perfection while living in the world and who share the spirit of some religious institute under the higher direction of that same institute are called third orders or some other appropriate name” (CIC 303).

It is a very succinct definition but one that is very rich in substance. Let us look at the different aspects of the definition.


The first thing to note is the use of the term association. Secular Third Orders are “associations”. Associations are basically groups of Christians who join together for some common purpose or way of life. Associations can take various forms and can have various purposes. Some are “public” like third orders and some are private. They can be directed to a particular work, a particular devotion, to Christian perfection or to several purposes at once.

Apostolic Life

The definition continues by stating that the members of the association lead an apostolic life (vita apostolica). While every Christian is called to be an ‘apostle’ by baptism and to live an active Christian life, the tertiary embraces a particular way of living an apostolic life. They live this life both as a Christian and according to the spirituality and charism of the Order they belong to. Introducing others to Christ in evangelization, feeding the poor, catechesis etc, are all aspects of living an apostolic life. They very much commit one to live in this way as a life not simply as part of say a prayer group or club.

Christian Perfection

Jesus called all his disciples to “be perfect”. All are called to this Christian perfection, all are called to be holy. One of the purposes of third orders is to “strive for Christian Perfection”. The tertiary vocation is a calling to a particular way of following Christ. It is a vocation that commits the tertiary to “strive” by the grace of God for Christian perfection, to seek to more and more to “put on Christ” as St. Paul put it in his letters (i.e. Gal 3:27). Being a member of a third order provides ways to do this and help from ones brothers and sisters. One commits oneself to ‘conversion of life’ as a disciple of Christ and as a tertiary.

In the World

This next aspect is also of great importance. For the tertiary is not called to live the life of a religious but rather is called to be a Christian in the world. A tertiary is called to live his ‘secular character’ and while he may draw certain things from the traditions of the Order and its spirituality that other Christians would not embrace normally --the tertiary is by his very call from God a lay person in the midst of the world. Let me quote from the document from Pope John Paul II on the Vocation of the Lay Faithful, speaking of the “Secular Character” of the layperson he writes:

“…the lay faithful “live in the world, that is, in every one of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very fabric of their existence is woven”. They are persons who live an ordinary life in the world: they study, they work, they form relationships as friends, professionals, members of society, cultures, etc. However, the Council considers their condition not simply an external and environmental framework, but as a reality destined to find in Jesus Christ the fullness of its meaning…The lay faithful, in fact, “are called by God so that they, led by the spirit of the Gospel, might contribute to the sanctification of the world, as from within like leaven, by fulfilling their own particular duties. Thus, especially in this way of life, resplendent in faith, hope and charity they manifest Christ to others… The lay faithful’s position in the Church, then, comes to be fundamentally defined by their newness in Christian life and distinguished by their secular character.”(CF 15).

Spirit of a Religious Institute

This would refer to the sharing of the charism and spirituality of the order by the tertiary. Tertiaries share authentically in a secular manner in the spirit of the religious institute they belong to. The secular dimension of the charism forms part of who they are in the Church and in the world and guides their apostolic works.

Under the Higher Direction of that Same Institute

Tertiaries though they are ‘autonomous’, are under the higher authority of the Order they are associated with or part of. For instance they have often some of the same superiors as do the religious of the institute i.e the Provincial, and the General. This authority is regarding only the things that involve their lives as tertiaries, and is one of the great means towards holiness.

The Name

The name Third Order generally speaking, distinguished the lay order from the ‘first order’ of the male religious and the ‘second order’ of the female religious. This ‘first’ ‘second’ and ‘third’ is regarding the order of timing of their foundation. Though this is not the actual sequence in all cases it is taken as a general ordering (based I think on the Franciscans). The laity often came into existence after the male and female religious –hence they were called a “third order”. They were called third orders “secular” because their members lived in the secular world. Indeed to further complicate things there are some “third orders regular” which are called “regular” because they are actually religious, not laypersons. They got the “third” put in their name since they were founded later than the “first” and “second” orders. This all is very important to note, for the numbers in the name are not about the order of importance but the order of foundation. The use of the name tertiary basically comes from the Latin word tertiarius meaning “third”. Just as members of religious Orders have been called religious, members of third orders came to be called tertiaries over time.
Historically, third orders and tertiaries have had various names in various places (Brothers and Sisters of Penance, oblates, fraternities etc) but eventually the name third order secular stuck and has been used for some time. After the Second Vatican Council brought out into glorious light the nature of the lay vocation, the official names of the various third orders began to be changed. They are largely now called Secular Orders (or similar) to bring out the fact that tertiaries are called to live their vocation in the world as leaven and that laypersons have a “secular character” as their very nature and calling from God. Hence we now have officially: the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites, the Secular Franciscan Order, the Secular Order of the Servants of Mary (Servites) and the Secular Order of the Most Holy Trinity etc.
This does not mean that the name third order is not still used side by side with the new name, for it often is. And of course members of ‘secular orders’ are still known as ‘tertiaries’, for this name bears an ancient and noble history. But it is very important to understand that this new official name is very fitting and very aptly describes the secular nature of the tertiary vocation in the midst of the world. It calls tertiaries to “become what they are”, to live as Christians in the world, in the mist of every kind of secular reality as a leaven, consecrating these realities and the very world to God. For as the second century Christian writer wrote in the Letter to Diognetus, “what the soul is to the body, Christians are in the world” (6:1).

Vocation and Commitment

Two other aspects I would like to touch on in this series of articles is vocation and commitment. The tertiary vocation is simply that, a vocation, a call from God to a certain way of life. The term “vocation” was often used in the past in common speech for only those called to the priesthood or religious life. This is certainly not the only way the Church uses the term. There are all sorts of ways the term can be used. For instance a lay vocation, a married vocation, or even the many varied factors that make up a person’s personal vocation. The third order or secular order can be said to be a particular vocation within the lay vocation. Granted it does not require as much discernment as a religious vocation or who you are going to marry (both of which are very binding), but it is indeed a vocation within the Catholic Church and the lay state (though I should note that secular priests, bishops and even popes can have a tertiary vocation and there have been many in history. So for them one would say it is a vocation within their vocation as secular clergy). It is something that informs ones life. First and foremost one is a Christian and one is perhaps married with a family…but one is also a tertiary when one makes ones commitment. It is part of what one is. This is very different from say, joining a prayer group or a social club (as good as these are). They are an aspect of ones life and what one does but they are not so much what one becomes. When a person becomes a tertiary they are becoming something, they are embracing a way of life, a vocation. This is very much reflected by the fact that a person seeking to become a tertiary must first be admitted and then must spend some time in a novitiate or period of formation, then must apply to make their profession or commitment, and finally if accepted one makes a formal solemn commitment. One also receives some sign of belonging to the order at some point. Normally this is in the form of the habit, which is a scapular (one small for under ones clothes and one large for meetings). In addition a person also is then permitted, after being admitted, to wear other signs of the order such as a small pin or a particular kind of cross.
Regarding the commitment, the different secular orders have different ways of making it, but in each case it is seen a solemn commitment to live ones baptismal commitment to Christ and to live according the way of life of the third order. For most, the commitment is in the form of a promise or commitment made to the order or the community but which does not bind further in conscience (does not add any moral weight) to live their baptism and the rule of life (or even the evangelical counsels in their state in life). A few orders permit one to add to this promise a form of vows which do bind in conscience and add both greater merit and greater moral responsibility (and grace to live them) for they are a promise made to God. These vows are all according to ones state in life (secular and married or single etc) and do not prevent changing ones state (ie getting married). The Church if very clear that any Christian can make a vow (as did St. Paul) for vows are not something restricted to religious life but something simply Christian. It should be noted to avoid confusion, that the vows here in question are tertiary vows not religious vows. The person who makes them is does not become thereby a religious. But like all vows they involve the virtue of religion, that is, they offer what is vowed to God as worship (latria). Which is why living them is both more meritorious and involves greater moral responsibility if one sins against ones vows (this would be a circumstance one would have to mention in confession).

The tertiary vocation then, is an authentic vocation approved by the Church. The secular third order is way of life and not simply a prayer group, a social club or even simply a group involved in helping the poor. It is a way of following Jesus of Nazareth and seeking to become more like him and a vocation and commitment to live according to the charism and spirituality of the order one belongs to. It is something that informs ones very way of living and being in the Church and in the world.

Historical Third Orders

Secular Franciscans (Franciscan Tertiaries)
Lay Dominicans ( Dominican Tertiaries)
Secular Order of the Most Holy Trinity (Trinitarian Tertiaries)
Mercedarian Third Order (Mercedarian Tertiaries)
Lay Carmelite Third Order (Carmelite Tertiaries)
Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites (Discalced Carmelite Tertiaries)
Secular Servites (Servite Tertiaries)
Secular Augustinians (Augustinian Tertiaries)
Secular Augustinian Recollects (Augustinian Recollect Tertiaries)
Minims Third Order
Praemonstrian Third Order

Some Orders that have only one branch today…had more than one in history. Such as a discalced branch. The above however all exist currently.

Great info!

How do some of the Salesians fit into this? Such as the Salesians Cooperators?

They would be later kind of association that I imagine has emerged in the 20th century…there are many associations that are attached etc to an Order etc without being a Secular Order.

Close … 1876! :smiley:


Ah…whats 15 years :slight_smile:

This is great information, Bookcat! Would you mind if I put some of it on my association’s website? This would be a clear, concise explanation of who we are - and what it means to be a third order secular.

The OFS is the only order that is autonomous, ie, our superior is an OFS, not a member of one of the religious orders.

Just an FYI:D

One can be autonomous in various degrees …I have not looked that SFO documents lately but they would still be under the Higher Direction beyond themselves.

A number of orders have had tertiaries historically (as well I should add there were donati and conversi who gave themselves to the order or monastery in varying ways). Often these tertiaries existed much earlier than any formally approved third order rule (even going back to the beginning of the order) even though not yet known as tertiaries. Some of the orders that have traditionally had third orders are the Franciscans (rule 1221), the Dominicans (rule 1285), the Carmelites (Papal approval 1452), the Discalced Carmelites (rule approved 1921), the Mercedarians (Laity from 13th Century), the Servites (rule c.1424), the Augustinians (1399, declared a third order 1512), Trinitiarian Order (Several early papal documents make reference to laity being received into the institute from at least 1198-1199), the Augustinian Recollects (1655), and the Minims (rule 1501).

Here is a nice breakdown of the formation process to become a Lay Dominican in case anyone is interested.

The goal of Dominican formation is to continuously assist members in Christian formation, thereby deepening their response in faith, enabling them to receive, live and proclaim the Word of God more perfectly.

The stages of formation include:

Getting to know one another: Above all else, this first step allows the candidate to get to know the Order better. This step is normally conducted through regular meetings with one of the local chapters in the candidate’s area. The vocation director at the candidate’s local chapter will help the candidate discern whether or not he or she is made for Dominican life. If there is a positive response at the end of this step, the candidate will be invited to proceed to the next step.

Inquiry Period: One must be Catholic for at least two years before beginning the inquiry period. Through a series of classes over the course of one year, the local chapter presents an overview of what it means to be a Dominican. As this period of formation ends, the candidate may decide to request admission to the Order.

Novitiate: The duration of the novitiate is twelve months. The novitiate begins with the Dominican Order recognizing the candidate as a member of the Order. This is a more formal formation period in the life of a fraternity member. This period includes diverse activities: the study of the life of St. Dominic and other great Dominican figures; the study of the Constitutions, the history of the Order, and the Rule of the Fraternities of St. Dominic; and the general practice of the commitments of a lay Dominican (e.g., daily Mass, Morning and Evening Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours, daily Rosary).

Simple Profession: As the novitiate ends, candidates and the Order make a decision as to whether the candidate should make a commitment as a lay Dominican. Temporary profession is a commitment to live according to the Rule of the Fraternities of St. Dominic for a period of three years. Formation in Dominican life and spirituality continues during this time. At the end of this period, the candidate and the Order decide if the candidate is prepared to make final or permanent profession.

Final Profession: When the decision is reached to move ahead and make final profession, the individual makes a commitment to live according to the Rule of the Fraternities of St. Dominic for the rest of his or her life.

On-going Formation: Dominicans are particularly committed to on-going formation both in the chapter and individually. Even though one has made a permanent commitment to be a Dominican, on-going study continues in the area of Dominican spirituality, the Scriptures, the teachings of the Church, etc. Dominicans are always concerned about growing in understanding of both their faith and their Dominican vocation.

Great info! Thanks

I miss daily Mass so much.:frowning:

Same formation for the discalced carmelites. 6 years in all…although we have the choice after one year of permane promises to take permanent vows…

Interesting. Could you explain how Carmelites view permanent promises differently than permanent vows? I’m not sure I am understanding what you are suggesting.


Lay Carmelites may take a Vow to deepen their commitment to Carmel.
Think of a vow as a solemn promise, ex… marriage as opposed to a promise , not as severe, not as binding. Vows should not be taken lightly!
The Vows are private vows and should not be confused with the public vows of a Religious.
One vows Obedience and Chasity according to ones state in life, until death.
I think this is a singular issue only granted to the Third Order of Carmel.

Br JR (JReducation) is the one to talk to about all this. He can explain it very well.

[FONT=Times New Roman][size=3][LEFT]Hence, in our Secular Order, the 1979 [/size][/FONT][FONT=Times New Roman][size=3]Rule of Life [/size][/FONT][FONT=Times New Roman][size=3]introduced us to the new reality of
“promises”. If Vows are taken after a year has passed since final promise, this legislation
notes, in Article 15: “These Vows are understood and interpreted in the same way as the
promises in articles 12 and 14.” These two articles refer to the promises of chastity and
obedience. Article 15 also notes: “The Vows add to the observance of chastity and
obedience the merit of the virtue of religion. They constitute a more complete offering of
oneself and therefore entail a greater moral responsibility.” We note in the profession
formulas used for Vows and Promises this difference: Vows are made “to God in the
hands of the superior…”, whereas Promises are made “to the Superior of the Order …”.
This difference is vital for the understanding of the Vows: their special merit consists in
the fact that they are made directly to God; hence they link us up with the virtue of
religion. It is here that we need to be precise: they oblige in accordance with the virtue
of religion, but they do not make us religious; and this is made abundantly clear in our
present legislation.[/LEFT]
[/size][/FONT]*[FONT=Times New Roman][size=3][/size]

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