THE vocations of men and women who want to live a life dedicated to God in the world without joining a religious congregation was officially recognised by the Church in 1947, with Pius XLL's Provide Mater Ecclesia,
Within a couple of years, the first secular institute was set up, and now there are dozens in different parts of the world. Things are still developing and Catholics have become less clerically minded since Vatican II, but many remain ignorant of the vocation which a secular institute
For example, the Grail is linked with their beautiful translation of the Psalms in many people's minds, but its work as a secular institute for women goes far beyond this. Apart from its catechetical, liturgical and adult literacy publications, it runs Family Circles and parish groups. It is also active in ecumenical and youth work and specialises in helping the deaf and adult nonreaders.
As Norah Melia, the author of a useful booklet on the institutes, published by the Carmelite Press, Faversham, Kent. writes: "The question has been asked of members of Secular Institutes — "Why don't you become proper nuns?" This reveals a lamentably mistaken idea of the quality of a vocation to a Secular Institute. It cannot be over-emphasised that Secular Institutes are not substitutes for religious life."
There are Secular Institutes set up by religious orders. They are not quite so forthcoming as the Grail, but they have been approved by the Church and are easy to contact. The Dominican Secular Institute is at 19, Sunningwell Road, Oxford. The Leaven (Carmelite) give 'their headquarters as 2, Pine Cottages, Allington Castle, Maidstone, Kent. The Servite Secular Institute is at 17, The Boltons, London SW10. What then is the way of life of a member? First, they live in the world, and there they try to sanctify their ordinary work and the other things, including recreation, that make up their day. They realise that by Baptism all Christians are called to be Apostles. They keep in touch with God through times of prayer, and by realising the presence of God in all they do.
Vows have a place in their lifeplan — poverty, chastity and obedience. But these do not have the same public nature as the vows of religious. It all sounds like the sort of life many lay people have tried to live on their own account, and that is quite true. The difference is the help of their institutes with their local centres to back up their efforts.
By a strange quirk, the first association to be approved as a Secular Institute, Opus Dei, does not really fit into the same category at all. Its own constitution and practice mean that de facto it falls into a slot of its own.
Thousands of people all over the world, though, have been helped by Opus Dei, and Pope John Paul spoke in its praise at the end of August. The Catholic Directory defines it as: "An international association of Catholic faithful, who, in virtue of a definite vocation, dedicate themselves to seeking sanctity and to carrying ourthe apostolatc within their state, and each one in the practice of his or her own profession or job in the world."
Sometimes parish priests despair of getting the laity to do things on their own initiative. The Secular Institutes are beginning to do just that. The work of the Chaplaincy at Oxford, for example would be impossible without the help of the Teresians. At last the laity are more able to freely associate, and their energy is building up the Church's muscles in the world. THE PAST 20 years have seen a revival of interest in the West in various forms of mysticism and meditation. Often this has meant that people have turned away from Christianity towards eastern religions because ther have found that the Church has neglected this kind of spiritual experience.
Awareness of this gap in the Church's life led, in 1973, to the setting up of the movement called the Julian Meetings, which is dedicated to "fostering the practice and teaching of contemplative prayer within the Christian tradition."
1 he movement derives its name from the pre-Reformation mystic, Mother Julian of Norwich.
Its founders were concerned to reintroduced the practice of contemplative prarer as something for ordinary people rather than as a complex thing suitable only for those living in monastic seclusion. There are now nearly 40 groups in England, Scotland and Wales.
The activities 01 the groups are set out in a descriptive pamphlet produced by the J Lilian Meetings. It says: "The average group probably consists of about 20 people, clergy and laity, of various denominations, with a monthly, meeting in a church or house: a brief talk, or reading, followed br half an hour's silent prayer together, ending with a period of coffee and conversation."
But groups do vary considerably and this freedom is held to be important; the only stipulations for a group being that it should he ecumenical, and Christ-centred, and based on contemplative prayer.
Those who attend are normally expected to take full part in the life of their Church; though, at the same time, people who belong to no Church are also welcomed.
The pamphlet also discusses the use of silent prayer and says: "Basically it is a form of prayer in which the individual seeks to be aware that he is in the presence of God. Words are not only unnecessary, they mar even get in the way; just as a babble of conversation mar prevent to people from being really aware of each other. Children often practice this form of prayer quite instinctively. So did the old peasant who, asked what he did sitting at the back of the church hour after hour, said simply,: "I look at Him, Ile looks at me."
Details about the movement and about where your nearest group may be can be obtained from Mrs Hilary 1Vakentan, Billingford Lodge, near Dereham, Norfolk, NR20.