Today, 25 November 2015, is the 480th anniversary of the foundation of the first Secular Institute - The Company of St Ursula by St Angela Merici. What is a Secular Institute as the Church now understands it?
There are two kinds of Secular Institutes: those whose mission is one of immersion in the world, to transform it from within. The members of these Institutes live a "hidden" life for they use neither title, nor distinctive dress, and in their professional life may exercise an element of reserve with respect to the Consecration that is the foundation of their life. Other Secular Institutes are more overt and may collaborate for a particular work.
As indicated in the previous post, the distinctions envisaged at the time of the New Code of Canon Law in the 1980s is no longer as clear cut. What we might see now are polarities that draw different Institutes - Religious and Secular - and it is this balancing of polarities that reveals the distinctive charism of each Institute. The following diagram is a preliminary simplistic way to begin to ponder these polarities (and the solid lines are no longer solid but very "fluid").
In our diagram above, those Institutes that have an overtly apostolic character, and so occupy the top part of our diagram, still need to balance the pull of withdrawal from the world and immersion in it. For some, their ministry is a mode of engagement with the world. The world is an "other" in the relationship. There is a sense therefore, that while engaged with the world, they are "apart" or "other". For some of these Institutes, the temporal sphere is a distraction to that which is core in their life. To varying degrees therefore, they will develop structures that protect a certain "apartness" in order to nurture and nourish the core relationship a the centre of their life. In the past such structures have included, but are not limited to, dress, insignia, title, common residence, common order of the day, These Insitutes possibly find themselves in the top right hand corner of the diagram above.
Institutes in the top left hand corner may see themselves as not quite so separate to the world, but rather as part of the world. They seek God in the temporal domain, rather than finding it a distraction and something from which they need to stand apart from. This does not mean that prayer is not an important and necessary part of their life. However, they find themselves more "a-part-of" rather than "apart-from" the world. They are freer in the work they undertake, but find identity/communion/cohesion in the work in which they collaborate specifically for the Gospel. With Secular Instiutes, this work may or may not define the whole of their lives. It may be additional to their ordinary employment.
In the lower right hand corner we might readily recognise those contemplative monastic institutes for whom monastic enclosure is intrinsic to their way of life, with their ministry being that of prayer, not merely nurturing their own relationship to Christ but praying with the Church with and for the world and its needs.
Finally, in the lower left hand corner of this diagram we find perhaps Secular Institutes of immersion. Members of these Institutes have no identifying title, insignia, place of residence, work in which they collaborate. The work they do may not even be specifically "church related" in a public sense. Drawn into the temporal or secular domain as the entire locus of their life, they live in constant discernment of the traces of God in our world, ever seeking to nurture that which is of the Spirit and challenge that which is not of the spirit. They constantly endeavour to live the Gospel in every facet of what they do and say. They are perpetually on mission. But this is not possible unless they also are deeply contemplative and committed to their own life of prayer. They try to live as yeast, to be salt and light for the world.