by FELICITY O'BRIEN
MEMBERS of Third
Orders are usually given "Cinderella" treatment when there is talk of vocation. But membership of a Third Order can provide many lay people with an ideal means of responding to the constant call by the Church to all Catholics to deepen and broaden their spiritual lives in order to grow in the love of God and our fellow human beings.
It is surprising how many Catholics have misconceived ideas about Third Orders. Some see them as groups of people who cannot or will not go "right into" the Religious life. Others regard Third Orders as being no different from the many excellent societies for lay people in the Church. Again, many imagine membership to be exclusively female.
It must be stressed that membership of a Third Order is a vocation — a way of life to which one is called by God: not an organisation which is joined as an alternative to other lay societies.
Lay people who join a Third Order (Secular) retain their lay status. At the same time they are as much members of the Order they join as are those who are priests and nuns in the Order, and can truly call themselves Carmelites, Dominicans or Franciscans, etc., as the case may be.
Normally, members live in their own homes and go about their own daily work, in "ordinary" clothes (a small scapular is often worn beneath the clothes.)
Unlike secular institutes, which call for a different vocation, a vow of celibacy is not taken as an integral part of membership (although some members do take this vow privately). Therefore, members are free to marry, and many married people are to be found in the ranks of Third Orders.
Men and women are eligible for membership, a n d , generally, the age at which one can be admitted is around 17 or 18 years. It is preferable that members be attached to a Group or Chapter in the Order in question and attend the
meetings, usually held monthly.
But if circumstances, such as distance,' make this impracticable then it is possible to be admitted as an "isolated" member. Normally a year's novitiate follows admission, during which time instruction is given and the candidate is able to test the strength of his/her vocation.
A rule of life is prescribed which is firm, yet flexible enough to be adapted to the varied circumstances of people living "in the world". The rule may vary slightly from Order to Order, but the following may be taken as a guide.
There is daily Mass where possible; the frequent reception of Holy Communion; the daily recital of at least part of either the Divine Office, or the Shorter Breviary, or the Little Office of Our Lady.
The Rosary and some spiritual reading and mental prayer are advocated each day; the practice of some form of penance and self-denial, particularly that which is to be found in the exact fulfilling of the duties of each one's state in life, is seen as an essential for those wishing to follow Christ more closely.
The rule does not bind under sin, except, of course, where the law of God or the Church may be concerned. Obviously, a member of a Third Order would try to do all that is prescribed — we should not skimp in the service of God, but each individual must exercise commonsense and discretion.
Some might say they couldn't possibly "fit all that in" each day, but buses and trains provide many busy people with an opportunity for reciting the Office or getting on with some "spiritual reading," and one can "meditate" while gazing out of a railway carriage or bus window. In many towns and cities lunch-time and evening Masses are available, and these are a great help.
It might be thought that Third Orders place too much accent on "personal" sanctification, and encourage an "inward-looking", selfish form of "religion."
However : "The Lord has said : 'He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit; for without me you can do nothing.' (John 15:5.) It is evident, then, that the laity's apostolate will be fruitful to the extent that they are in living contact with Christ." (Vatican II, Decree on The Apostolate of the Laity, pp. 89, C.T.S.) It must never be forgotten that genuine love of God cannot but overflow into love for our neighbour. This is abundantly clear from the Scriptures and in the lives of the saints.
Members of the Carmelite Third Order were reminded by Dr. E K. Lynch, O.Carm., that: "The Third Order must never divorce the santification of others from that of its own members. A spirituality of this kind is sterile, narrow and out of harmony with the mind of the Church."
Third Order members are encouraged to play an active, indeed a leading, part in the lay apostolate Applicable to all Third Order members are the words of the great pontiff, Pope Pius XII, to Franciscan Tertiaries : "Hasten all of you to help the world : defend the Church."
Why join a Third Order when it is possible to do all the exercises recommended without joining? Apart from the considerable benefit and comfort to be derived from the fact that one shares in a particular way in all the merit and good works of the Order joined, and the opportunity which the monthly meeting provides of meeting people with similar ideals, the solemn promise made at Profession is an incentive to keep up the resolve to follow Christ more closely.
One could, perhaps, compare the basic minimum which the Church requires of Catholics to a foundation on which we build our spiritual lives Third Orders provide additional scaffolding. It is scaffolding upon which countless saints have climbed to heroic heights : at the same time, scaffolding which assists and supports those of us who are weak, but trying to be strong.