Monday, October 6

Third Orders and Oblates

Oblates Day of Recollection, 12 July 2014
St. Joseph Abbey, St. Benedict, Louisiana
This is lightly edited from a presentation I gave on Wednesday, 1 October:

I.                  Introduction

A while back, Fr. Ryan Humphries of the Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Natchitoches, Louisiana, asked if I might be interested in taking one of the Wednesday night Adult Catechesis sessions at St. Mary’s School.  After a bit of thought and prayer – in part during a day-long “Oblates’ Day” retreat at St. Joseph’s Abbey down by Covington – I proposed that I talk about the ways in which Catholic laymen can associate themselves with a religious order, as I do as a “Benedictine Oblate.”  Father said that sounded good to him, so here I am.

The actual title for tonight is, “Third Orders and Oblates.”  Those are the two most common “popular” terms for what I’m talking about.  But in reading up on them, I quickly found something that surprised me:  There is remarkably little information handy on the subject as a cohesive whole, probably because the subject is not a cohesive whole.  It’s a bit more complex than I suspected.  I’ve made up some information sheets [appended below], and the first thing I would direct you to on them is an online article that is the nearest thing I have found to an overview and is what I used as a starting point in my research:  An essay by Elizabeth Scalia entitled “Oblates, Tertiaries, Professed Laypeople” [LINK].  It’s a very good short introduction to the subject.

II.               Basic Definition

But what are “Third Orders and Oblates”?  The best short definition I found is from the Code of Canon Law, Canon 303:  “Associations whose members share in the spirit of some religious institute while in secular life, lead an apostolic life, and strive for Christian perfection under the higher direction of the same institute are called third orders or some other appropriate name” [LINK][my emphasis].  “Some other appropriate name” means that there are nearly as many different terms for them as there are orders that have them.  I’m not going to cover them all here tonight – there’s not nearly time!  I’m going to focus on the four most “popular”:  Secular Franciscans, Dominican Tertiaries, Third Order Carmelites, and Benedictine Oblates like me.  And, of course, like most things that develop organically through time, there’s a wonderfully confusing lack of consistency … such as the fact that there are “Third Order Franciscans” who are fully professed religious, not laymen, called “Third Order Regular” (“regular” from regula, Latin for “rule”).  And the formal names of some of these “third orders” have changed through time.  What one might be called today is not necessarily what it was called a hundred years ago.

III.           General Description
Anyway, to continue with what they are, and what they have in common:  Membership in a third order – I’m just going to use that as a generic term – is a religious vocation, not just membership in a club or association.  I’ll talk a bit more about becoming one in a bit, but profession to a third order is not meant to be undertaken lightly, rather only after a period of prayer and discernment.   There is a period of directed formation for some period of time – a year or more – followed by full profession, which is considered a serious event.  It’s not just a sort of “fan club” – third order laymen are considered lay members of their religious order, with a copy of their enrollment documents forwarded to Rome for archiving [Scalia].  That imposes certain obligations, which vary according to order but can generally be summed up as “sharing in the work and the charism of the religious order within the limits of one’s state in life,” as well as entails certain benefits, such as knowing that your regular (i.e., monastic or professed religious) brothers and sisters are praying for you every day as part of their community and having the privilege of being buried in the habit of the order.

So, what do third orders do?  That varies according to the charism– the particular divine gift or grace or character or mission – associated with the religious order.  Boiling these down to their essences for the four third orders we’re looking at here, they are:
1.       Secular Franciscans – Living a life of simplicity and Service
2.      Dominican Tertiaries – Seeking knowledge and engaging in apologetics
3.      Third Order Carmelites – Contemplative prayer
4.      Benedictine Oblates – “Seeking God in association with a monastic community” … “Seeking God” is, however, a bit vague, so I would go to the unofficial “motto” of the Benedictine order:  “Ora et Labora” – “Prayer and Work” –Liturgical prayer – the Divine Office actually grew out of the monastic tradition; Work – which historically could be just about anything.  And “in association with a monastic community” is key.  I’ll talk more about the Benedictines and what drew me to them in a bit.
The specific obligations of third orders vary, but all include prayer – basically some form of the Liturgy of the Hours or Divine Office – and participation in the work of the order.

IV.            History of Third Orders

Let’s talk a bit more about the history of third orders.  Here, even though they’re really by far the oldest, I’m going to leave the Oblates of St. Benedict for last.  And the fact is that even though they’re conceptually very similar, Oblates are not really a “third order” in the sense the others are.

a.     Franciscans
The whole phenomenon of “third orders” really started about 800 years ago, around the year 1200, as part of the explosion of new religious orders that gave us the Franciscans and the Dominicans, as well as, for all intents and purposes, the Carmelites.  During Europe’s High Middle Ages (ca. 1000-1300), many had grown dissatisfied with the state of the Church, which had developed into the most powerful institution in western Europe.  It was incredibly wealthy, focused on worldly power and privilege – and there was a great deal of corruption extending to the highest levels.  We’re not going to get into the historical forces that had brought about this sad state of affairs, but during the 1100s there arose a new form of popular religiosity (“popular” as in “of the people”) that rebelled against the wealth, power, and prestige of the clerically-oriented Church.  Sometimes that new religiosity went “off the reservation,” so to speak, ending up in full-blown heresy – such as a guy named Peter Waldo and his followers the Waldensians in southern France, a little before 1200.  Now, Peter Waldo was a lot like his near contemporary Francis of Assisi, ca. 1200 in Italy – they both advocated something called “apostolic poverty,” trying to return to what they considered the purity and simplicity of the early Church, including the radical poverty of life they envisioned for Jesus and his apostles.  The big difference between the two is that Francis submitted himself to Church authority while Peter barreled on willy-nilly, proclaiming he knew better than the corrupt priests, bishops, even the Pope.  Peter Waldo ended up excommunicated as a heretic.  Francis ended up a beloved saint and the founder of a great religious order (although his followers sometimes slipped over the edge into heresy as well … the “Spiritual Franciscans,” for instance – but that’s not what we’re here to talk about). 

We all know something about St. Francis – his service to the poor, his call to penance, and so forth, that really exemplify the charism of the order he founded.  Or rather orders, because he actually founded three:  the First Order (the Order of Friars Minor, founded 1210  = “Little Brothers”), being the male religious, the friars envisioned to carry out the primary mission of the Franciscans; the Second Order, founded for his follower St. Clare (Order of Saint Clare, founded 1212 = “Poor Clares”), being the women contemplative religious associated with the Franciscans, whose mission is to support the friars primarily by their prayers; and a Third Order.  Basically, what happened was St. Francis’ example and message became overwhelmingly popular.  Everybody wanted to join in, including married men and women whose vocation to holy matrimony was incompatible with the fully professed religious life.  So in 1221 St. Francis wrote a rule for them as well, forming the “Order of Brothers and Sisters of Penance,” now called the Secular Franciscan Order.  It’s basically open to any Catholic who is not bound by religious vows to another religious order – including secular clergy (e.g. diocesan bishops, priests, and deacons).  As I said before, confusingly enough, some do feel called to make more formal religious vows and live in community, leading to the formation of the “Third Order Regular” in 1447.  I’m not sure exactly how they fit in beyond what I just said….  But the basic “Third Order Secular” Franciscans were immediately influential on medieval society through such things as their ideal of pacifism abating feudal violence and leveling social distinctions, both of which helped to erode the structures of feudalism – basically a society organized for war.  They have proven enduringly popular, and the post-Vatican II emphasis on the laity has only promoted membership.  Worldwide numbers are upwards of two million Secular Franciscans. [Wikipedia LINK].

b.     Dominicans
St. Dominic was a contemporary of St. Francis.  He felt called to preach against the rising heresies of the age – such as the Waldensians and worse (the Albigensians) – and similarly gave birth to a religious order devoted to that ideal – the Order of Preachers, only unofficially called “Dominicans.”  Like St. Francis, Dominic formed first of all an order of male religious, then a corresponding order of generally cloistered female religious as a “Second Order,” then … well, the development of the Third Order Dominicans is a bit more obscure than the Franciscans, and somehow related to the same, but it existed as a distinct group by the end of the 13th century.  They too share in the ideals of the “main” order, leaning toward the intellectual to continually reform the Church through knowledge of the Faith, to defend the Church through apologetics, and develop a communion of prayer. [Wikipedia LINK] (As far the identification of intellectualism with Dominicans goes, need I do more than point out that St. Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican, albeit of the “first order”?)

c.     Carmelites

The Dominicans are just one example of how the Franciscan innovation and example regarding structure was followed by other orders either founded or formalized during the period.  Of these, the only one I’m going to mention is the Carmelites.  Actually, the formation of the Carmelite Order itself is a bit mysterious.  There is no specific founder.  All we really know is that by this same period, ca. 1200, there were “Carmelites” already settled as Christian hermits on Mt. Carmel in the Holy Land, looking back to the Old Testament Prophet Elijah as their inspiration.  We don’t know how long that site may have been a center for the eremitical life – I suspect, a long time – but it was during the High Medieval Age of Crusades that these hermits formalized their way of life, under the direction of St. Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem, into the Order of Mt. Carmel.  From time immemorial, the hermits had gathered for devotions in a chapel dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and from the beginning the order was focused on three things:  Prayer, Penance, and Devotion to Mary.  One important service they performed was hospitality to pilgrims, but their most important ideal was contemplation.  Even as their order was formalized, however, the Holy Land won by the Crusaders a century and more before was being lost again, and in the face of mounting Islamic persecution the Carmelites migrated to the west and spread across Christendom, in the process taking on more the characteristics of a mendicant order like the Franciscans and the Dominicans. [“Origins” LINK]  And, like those, there have been from the beginning lay people seeking to live the ideals of Carmel within their own state of life.  There are a number of different expressions of Lay Carmel.  I’m going to just focus on the third order per se, which was established in 1476 as the “Third Order of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel.”  Any Catholic in good standing who feels called to the Carmelite charism and is between 18 and 69 years of age can seek entry.  There is a one-year period of formation via monthly classes to be eligible for reception into the novitiate, followed by another year of monthly classes to be eligible for profession.  Traditionally, lay Carmelites followed a very structured regimen, including full participation in the Divine Office or the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary (all seven canonical hours each day), daily meditation, and extensive fasting and penance throughout the year.  These guys mean business!  The typical obligation these days is Lauds, Vespers, and Compline (the traditional names for Morning, Evening, and Night Prayer) along with daily Mass and meditation.  There is no good data on numbers of Third Order Carmelites that I could find, but I think they’re pretty numerous.

One thing to be aware of:  The Third Order of Carmel is not the same thing as the Scapular Confraternity, which is simply a pious association of Catholics who have been invested with the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel as a sign of their devotion to Our Lady.  The Brown Scapular is the habit of the Third Order, who are expected to wear it, but investment into the Confraternity does not make you a Third Order Carmelite.  Two separate things.

Another thing to be aware of:  There are really two Third Orders of Carmel – just like there are two religious orders calling themselves Carmelites.  Part of the late 15th-16th-century reaction against … problems … within the Catholic Church that gave birth to the Protestant Reformation was, of course, renewal of the Catholic Church itself.  One such problem was a rather decadent state of affairs in certain religious orders, including the Carmelites, who had become kind of the “party school” of the age.  But as always happens, God raised up a reformer – or rather a pair of reformers – St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, devoted to restoring the ancient ideals of the Order of Carmel.  In this case, however, the Teresian reforms gave birth to a new order, called the Discalced Carmelite Order (O.C.D.), which basically means “Shoeless” Carmelites.  Don’t worry, the corresponding third order don’t ditch their shoes as part of their penitential observance!  And since the original Order of Carmel (henceforth O.Carm.) pretty much embraced the spirit of the Teresian reforms and got their own act together pretty quickly anyway, there’s not that much difference between the O.Carms and the O.C.Ds other than in name.  To quote from a F.A.Qs. page I found, “The reasons why one would choose the Lay Carmelites (TOC) or the Secular [Discalced] Carmelites (OCDS) is usually a matter of first exposure, whether or not there is a local community [or] chapter where they live, how they might relate to a local community,” and so forth [LINK].

(Discursus:  My Story)

I actually considered becoming a Third Order Discalced Carmelite, under the influence of our parish priest in the 1980s who was one, as well as talking to a young lady who was on the bus with us going from Lafayette to New Orleans to see the Pope in 1987, and was just weeks away from entering the Lafayette Carmel.  I did a fair amount of reading on it ‘way back when, but it really didn’t “feel right” for me.  During the same period, however, I went on a couple of retreats to New Subiaco Abbey up in Arkansas, and I asked one of the monks directing the 1987 Knights of Columbus Couples’ Retreat about a “third order” of Benedictines.  I don’t remember near thirty years later exactly how Fr. David Bellinghausen responded, but I still have the copy of the Rule of St. Benedict he gave me.  I really didn’t make any moves on it for a while, though – about the same time is when I decided to go back to graduate school in history, which took us to LSU Baton Rouge.  Then, in 1995 my wife and I joined a couples’ retreat at St. Joseph Abbey just north of Covington, and my interest was rekindled.  By that time, also, my studies in medieval history had made me much more cognizant of the importance of monks in the Middle Ages, and the fact is that before about 1200 in the western Church, all monks lived under the Rule of St. Benedict.  One of the most important contributions of Benedictine monks was scholarship – in fact, most of the sources for medieval history I was reading were written by Benedictine monks, most important to me as an early English historian being the Venerable Bede who wrote The Ecclesiastical History of the English People.  (I could probably name others all night … Alcuin of York, Orderic Vitalis, William of Malmesbury, Notker the Stammerer – I kid you not – but I won’t!)  The more I studied the Middle Ages and St. Benedict, the more I felt drawn toward the Benedictines, so I talked to the Oblate Director, Fr. Dominic Braud, over the phone a couple of weeks later (he happened to be unavailable during the retreat, but I left my name and my interest), and a couple of weeks after that I drove over, talked to him some more, and became an Oblate Novice (05 April 1995).  I read, studied, and prayed some more, and attended the summer and winter Oblates’ Days of Recollection as well as local meetings of a group of Oblates in Baton Rouge, and the next summer (13 July 1996 – the Feast Day of St. Henry, Emperor and Patron Saint of Oblates) I made my Final Oblation to St. Joseph’s Abbey, St. Benedict, Louisiana.

V.                Benedictine Oblates

Now, I go into all that detail for a couple of reasons – 1) to personalize this talk a bit for you; 2) to illustrate the process of becoming a “third order,” which includes discernment, prayer, and formation over time – discernment and prayer to determine if there is indeed a vocation and which order is the best “fit,” formation to solidify that conviction, “over time” so it’s not just done on a whim; and finally … 3) you may have noticed some odd terms.  Well, as I mentioned earlier, in addition to being the oldest and despite being conceptually similar to the later phenomenon of “third orders,” Benedictine Oblates are not really a “third order.”  It’s a term of convenience.  Of course, that’s related to the fact that there is really no such thing as a “Benedictine Order” in the sense that “other religious orders” are.  The difference is that whereas there is a jurisdictional hierarchy within the Franciscans, Dominicans, and so forth, there is not for the Benedictines – each Benedictine monastery or convent is an independent body.  “Order” in “Order of St. Benedict” refers to each monastery individually following the ordo or order of prayer and work established by St. Benedict – for all intents and purposes, his Rule.  Of course, it’s actually a bit more complex than that in the modern world, but the fact is that the independence of religious houses is part of the nature of Benedictinism.  And that extends to Oblates – notice I said “I made my Final Oblation (the Benedictine term for “profession”) to St. Joseph’s Abbey.”  Oblates are not members of overarching chapters or provinces affiliated with the main religious order as a whole, nor are we subject to some separate rule like the ones written specifically for Third Order Franciscans, Carmelites, etc.  We are fully members of a particular religious house.  Finally, the obligations are left rather vague:  Benedictine Oblates are simply encouraged to live the ideals of the Rule of St. Benedict – written for monks living in community – within the limits of their lay vocation.  Part of that is praying the Divine Office, or at least parts of it, again within the limits of the lay vocation.  More generally, following the spirit of the Rule which so quickly became the dominant form of western monasticism between 500 and 800 because of St. Benedict’s genius for common sense in constructing a rule neither too difficult for the weak nor too lax for the strong – striving for stability and fidelity in the Faith, supporting parish and Church missions, living a life of moderation and peace – Pax is more formally the Benedictine motto – and seeking God in association with their monastic community.  One of the things the different “structure” of Benedictine Oblates means is that while there's no difficulty with Third Orders moving from one chapter to another, transferring Oblation from one monastery to another is a bit more complicated and, again, not to be done “on a whim.”  Stability is one of the marks of Benedictinism, for Oblates as well as for monks and nuns.  Of course, it can be done, with the permission of both superiors, i.e., abbots or abbesses. 

But why are we called “Oblates”?  The word comes from the Latin word for “offering” – oblatus.  And here’s something interesting – and greatly humorous to some of my fellow graduate students who knew the term mainly in the medieval historical sense:  the original “Benedictine oblates” were all children, offered to religious life by, and with their vows taken in their name by, their parents, to be raised in the monastery.  St. Benedict’s rule, written about 530, takes this practice for granted – it was just part of medieval culture – although by a century of so later the Church had forbidden the practice for a child younger than ten, and mandated that the child Oblate be free to make their own decision to stay or go upon reaching puberty.  But the modern meaning was developing as early as the 11th century or before, as a description for laymen who associated themselves with the monastery, supporting it, vowing obedience to the abbot, and benefiting from the powerful intercessions of the monks – “The prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”  I mention the 11th century for two reasons:  One is that toward the end of that century St. William of Hirchau used the term “Oblate” in formalizing a “sort of” rule for laymen associated with his monastery – I say formalized because it recognized what was obviously an older practice often called “confraternity”; Most of a century earlier, Holy Roman Emperor St. Henry II was one such “confrere” who showed such love and devotion to the Benedictine monks that he is considered the special patron of Benedictine Oblates.  Four hundred years later, St. Frances of Rome oversaw a group of Roman women who strove to live lives of exceptional holiness under the Rule of St. Benedict in a somewhat more formal manner, as a sort-of community calling themselves Oblates of St. Benedict.  She is considered the patroness of Oblates. 

VI.            Some More General Remarks

Just a few more points, and these are in common between Oblates and Secular or Third Orders:  As a religious vocation being expressed within a lay state of life, membership is meant to be “for life.”  Generally, we strive to renew our professions at least once a year – either privately or publicly, such as at those semiannual “Oblates’ Days” at St. Joseph’s Abbey that I referred to.  Also, and this is in common with the full-blown religious life, one typically takes a new religious name upon profession or oblation, one generally chosen from the tradition of the religious order.  For instance, mine is “Gregory” (which also happens to be my middle name and Confirmation-name, but that’s not the point), from St. Gregory the Great, the first (probably) Benedictine monk to become Pope and the (probable) writer of the first biography of St. Benedict, just a half century after Benedict’s death.

VII.         Practical Matters

The last thing I’d like to do is sum up with some practical advice, drawn from another excellent article, this one “How to Join a Third Order” [LINK].  Hopefully you’ve already got a pretty good idea, but he succinctly lays out the steps as these:
1)      Discern whether you indeed have a calling to the lay expression of religious life embodied in the third orders.
2)     Research the charism of each religious Order that you feel drawn towards.  (And don’t ignore others which I didn’t mention – there are also Augustinian, Servite, and Premonstratensian Tertiaries, and the author mentions something called “Ignatian Associates” somehow related to the Jesuits.  I bet there are others as well….  I’m not sure how the St. Vincent de Paul Society plays into this, but I don’t think they’re quite the same thing.)  The long and short is that different personalities are more suited to different orders.
3)     Practice what “your” order preaches – read their Rule, and follow it within your state of life.
4)     Pray, Pray, Pray … and discern some more.
5)     When you feel the nudge, get in contact with the formation director of the Order – or monastery – you feel called to commune with.
6)     Be prepared to tell people what a Third Order is [my emphasis]. Actually, I’ve not found that all that hard.  I’ve found likening (however incorrect it is) Benedictine Oblates to Third Order Carmelites generally works when I’m talking to Catholics … or maybe they are just nodding, “Whatever…”; just saying “I’m a layman associated with a monastery” gets the idea across to Protestants – most likely telling them more than they want to know anyway….
7)     And stay consistent with your formation (which does not end with vows or oblation).  A vocation is meant to be for life.
As to that last, sure, there are times of greater and lesser resolution, and I readily admit there have been periods in my life when I have fallen ‘way short of the Benedictine ideal, especially in keeping up with regular prayer of even some parts of the Divine Office.  Life does get in the way.  But God is always calling me back.

VIII.     Conclusion

I hope you’ve all found this interesting.  Again, on the information sheet I prepared, I’ve listed a few of the main points as well as some Internet sources if you’re interested in finding out more.  And I’d be tickled to death to have company in July and December driving down to Covington if anybody’s interested in the Oblates Day at St. Joseph’s Abbey.


The following articles and web pages are good places to start for more information:

Third Orders in general
  • Wikipedia s.v. “Third order”
Secular Franciscans
Dominican Tertiaries
Third Order Carmelites: 
Benedictine Oblates
That last cited web site, Oblate Spring, has a convenient list and information about other “Third Order” type groups: 

Religious Order
Discalced Carmelites
Formal name of the Order, with abbreviation
Order of Friars Minor – O.F.M.
Order of Preachers – O.P.
Order of Mt. Carmel of the Ancient Observance – O.Carm.
Order of Mt. Carmel Discalced – O.C.D.
In a sense, there’s no such thing!  Each monastery is independent.  But … O.S.B does mean Order of St. Benedict…?
Date Founded
? before 1200
Ca. 529
St. Francis of Assisi
St. Dominic
Rule written by St. Albert, Patr. of Jerusalem
St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross
St. Benedict of Nursia
Simplicity and Service
Knowledge and Aplogetics
Contemplative Prayer
Contemplative Prayer and Penance
Communal Prayer and Work
Formal term for “third order” (modern), with abbreviation
Secular Franciscan Order – S.F.O.
(do not confuse with T.O.R.)
Lay Fraternity of St. Dominic (but still called “Third Order Dominicans”)
Third Order Carmelite(s) – T.O.Carm. or just T.O.C.
Third Order Carmelite(s) Discalced – T.O.C.D. or O.C.D.S. for O.C.D. Secular.
Oblate of St. Benedict --
Obl.S.B. or Obl.O.S.B.
Date “third order” estab.
By 1300
11th century or earlier
Estimated number of Tertiaries
2 million-plus
26,000 (1996)
25,000 total, 11,000 US
Famous examples, both historical and contemporary
Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain,
Christopher Columbus,
St. Joan of Arc, Louis Pasteur, Franz Liszt, John Michael Talbot
Bl. Margaret of Castello, St. Louis de Montfort, Michelangelo, Copernicus, Sigrid Undset, Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, Jane Wyman
Pres. Eamon de Valera of Ireland, Ramon Montero Navarro
? – one or both of the T.O.C.s at left might really be T.O.C.D.
HREmp St. Henry II,
St. Thomas Becket,
St. Frances of Rome,
St. Thomas More,
Walker Percy,
Pope Benedict XVI
             Data assembled from multiple sources.

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