by Therese Ivers, JCL
Think that the woman pictured on the left was a religious sister? Think again. She was a dedicated laywoman, who was a member of what is now a Society of Apostolic Life. This particular lay person came from a simple farming family. She entered a community that was designed by its canonized founder (St. Vincent de Paul) to remain lay, rather than become religious. Her Society of Apostolic Life (SAL) is known as the Sisters of Charity. Sr. Catherine was not a religious or a consecrated person. However, unlike many a religious or consecrated person, she had visions of Our Lady. After living her call in life to the fullest, she became a saint in Heaven. This pious laywoman’s body is incorrupt- has been for several centuries.
St. Catherine Laboure, the woman who introduced us to the Miraculous Medal, was not a religious. She was not a sister, although the members of her community and many other Societies of Apostolic Life for women are often called sister. She was a member of a kind of institution many Catholics do not really understand. Worse, as it turns out, some fledging SALs don’t appear to fully understand themselves either.
Let’s get some things straight from the get-go. Members of SALs are NOT “consecrated persons”. It is a myth to think they are. They are either diocesan clerics or they are lay persons. They do not receive a consecration that transforms their being to sacred persons like members of the consecrated state do. Instead, their form of consecrated life entails a special dedication through Church approved promises or other sacred bonds for apostolic mission living in community. They, in a certain sense, “imitate” consecrated life but are not consecrated. How can you understand this? Well, one example will be military boarding school. It is not truly military but it imitates military life to a certain extent with drills and discipline. But no one would confuse a member of the armed forces with a student in miltary school. Likewise, SALs imitate many aspects of consecrated religious (or secular institute) life, but are not themselves consecrated or in the consecrated state.
By definition, SALs are not religious with all that religious profession and consecration entail. A very remarkable difference lies in how the evangelical counsel of poverty is lived out. A diocesan hermit, a religious, and a member of a secular institute give up certain rights with regard to property by their vows. They simply give up the right to administer their property which they own, or they give up the right to own and administer property, depending on the rules. A member of an SAL owns and administers their own property and can acquire property! (By the way, this is something that a LOT of people misunderstood when commenting on the Corapi case.) This is what canon law has to say about property of members of SALs:
According to the norm of proper law, members are also capable of acquiring, possessing, administering, and disposing of temporal goods, but whatever comes to them on behalf of the society is acquired by the society. 741.2
SALs are a blessing in the Church. They allow clerics and laypersons to band together for apostolic purposes and lead lives designed for growth in charity. There is a lot of flexibility in how they are set up and organized. This is why they are not part of the consecrated state nor are members considered consecrated persons. For example, true consecration entails a permanent commitment. Did you know that St. Catherine Laboure’s commitment was one year at a time? That she could have walked away a dozen years after entering the Sisters of Charity at the annual expiration of vows?
SALs are not religious life nor are they stepping stones to religious life (or secular institutes for that matter). Because they are neither religious nor secular institutes, they get a lot of leeway in how they live. Here is a SAL of Pontifical Right:
Did you notice that these women members of the Regina Virginum SAL are wearing a habit? They were founded recently, and this is part of their statutes.
From the famous “coronette” (a headdress adapted from French peasant dress) topped habit, the Sisters of Charity have returned to their origins (no habit). iWhy? First, because St. Vincent de Paul did not want his daughters to wear a habit. Second, because they are not religious, there is no obligation for there to be a habit. Two very good reasons why they went from
Let us now turn our attention to a well known SAL that has been in the public eye for many reasons, including the media frenzy triggered by the actions of a famous TV personality, Fr. (?) John Corapi. The Society of Our Lady of the Trinity, or the SOLT, is a SAL of diocesan right. They want to be of pontifical right. However, it appears from their public statements that there is a strong possibility that they do not know what it is that they really want to be. Let’s take a closer look, shall we?
The SOLT describes itself as a family embracing its priests, sisters, and lay members. Unfortunately, they are blurring the lines between consecration and dedication. For example, the sisters are not religious. But, on their website, they say things that manipulate women into thinking they are religious. For example, they say that profession of vows makes them “brides of Christ”, and they direct “inquiries of religious life” to their sister contact. A woman may unwittingly become convinced that these laywomen are consecrated women because of the terminology they employ. The same goes for their dedicated widows branch. They call their group of widows “consecrated widows”, again, misleading the good women into believing that they are truly consecrated.
It seems to me that the SOLT needs to do some deep introspection and decide whether the women groups should be religious/secular institute or if they should remain a society of apostolic life. Given their way of life, I’d guess that it’d be much more appropriate for them to apply to become a religious institute. Or, on the other hand, because they do have widows who do not live in common, maybe they should be a secular institute that has a common life branch and an in the world branch.
Until then, while it remains a Society of Apostolic Life, they need to drop the religious life terminology (they aren’t religious), the bride of Christ terminology (they aren’t brides of Christ the way consecrated persons are), and the consecration terminology (they aren’t consecrated persons). Interestingly, if you take this away, they will have nothing substantial left to describe their life on their website because they haven’t tapped into the theology of dedicated life as a Society of Apostolic Life! Either there is a profound lack of understanding of their own way of life in the Church or there is a deliberate deception for luring women into their way of life under the pretense of them being just as consecrated as consecrated persons! I prefer to think that it is a lack of knowledge that prompted their fuzzy theology on their website.
Very seriously, SOLT needs to rethink its theology! Here’s another example of erroneous theological categorization. Under LAITY tab are listed PERMANENT DEACONS! Since when are DEACONS with HOLY ORDERS lay men? They are clerics!!! Their “brothers” are not consecrated any more than their “widows”. As for consecrated widows, Our Lady was not one. You can’t be Virgin, Bride, and Mother and simultaneously be a consecrated widow (goes against being a bride!).
While we’re at it, I should also point out in advance that to my knowledge, there is NO such thing as a consecrated widow in the Latin Rite unless you’re referring to a widow who is a member of a religious institute of diocesan/pontifical right, a secular institute of diocesan/pontifical right, or a diocesan hermit. A widow who is a member of an association of the faithful, or a society of apostolic life is a dedicated widow. Period. By definition a member of an association of the faithful or a society of apostolic life is not a consecrated person (even if they make vows or promises). Therefore, they cannot be consecrated widows! On the other hand, the Eastern Catholic Churches do have consecrated widows. They make a vow of chastity (unlike consecrated virgins who make no vows) in the hands of their bishop and receive the consecration of widows, thereby entering the Order of Widows. It is to be hoped that one day Rome will open the door to this to the Latin Rite widows/widowers as well.
(c) 2013 by Therese Ivers, JCL
All Rights Reserved.