Local lay Catholics find spiritual home in religious orders

There are nearly 400,000 Secular Franciscans worldwide. A local group consists of, clockwise from left: John Darnell, Ruth Entwistle, Jackie Monroe, Jean Finch, Monica Olivera, Bob Brill, Connie Ehrlich and Gini Shoulberg. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

by Marc and Julie Anderson
mjanderson@theleaven.org

TOPEKA — When you ask the average Catholic about Franciscans, Dominicans or Benedictines, it is priests and nuns that will jump first to mind.

But lay Catholics can become members of these religious orders, too, by making promises or professions — instead of vows — and practicing the order’s spirituality. The key difference is that lay members join what are known as third orders.

Within the archdiocese, the Discalced Carmelites of Topeka represent just one of the many third orders.

Local groups of third orders often belong to provinces. For example, the Discalced Carmelites in Topeka belong to the St. Therese Province (the Oklahoma Province).

In turn, provinces are part of the national and international Catholic Church. Each third order has different membership requirements and charisms or gifts they bring for the good of the church.

With more than 45,000 members worldwide, Discalced Carmelites promise to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, spend 30 minutes in daily contemplation, attend daily Mass (when possible), fast before the great Carmelite feasts such as that of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, study the lives of Carmelite saints and live the beatitudes. The group meets monthly in community to discuss assigned readings, receive spiritual formation and pray together.

For Patty Hurley, past president, being a professed Discalced Carmelite has brought a sense of purpose, order and structure to her life.

“It’s contemplative,” said Hurley. “It’s more of a deep and intense spiritual life. You’re drawn to a deeper meaning of your life.

“I learned, after I sought out a religious order that had a third order, [that] it provided all the structure I needed to develop a spiritual life. There was a guideline, and it was foolproof.”

Marian Ganser, current president, agreed.

“It’s a contemplation that gives you more of the ability to try to gradually prepare yourself to receive the graces that God gives you,” she said. “Our whole goal is to be silent and to open ourselves for the grace God will give us.”

For her, contemplation meant the difference between being a stagnant pew-warmer to someone who is always seeking to grow in holiness. In fact, she joined the order because she needed to grow.

One Lent, the time when the church focuses on conversion, she realized she was spiritually stuck.

“I remember thinking, ‘I’m still at the same place I was last year.’ I was not growing in my faith,” she said.

When Ganser saw a bulletin announcement about the Carmelites, she felt drawn to it.

“I didn’t really know what the order was about, but I was drawn to attend the meeting,” she said.

And she kept going back.

“I just kept being drawn there. God wasn’t letting me say no,” Ganser added.

After making her definitive promise about 10 years ago, she has “a deeper understanding of what a relationship with God can be and a deeper understanding of her own self — including her weaknesses.”

Growing in holiness, Hurley said, is for everyone.

“We’re all called to be saints,” Hurley said. “How do we become saints? The church gives us saints who founded religious orders in order to have as many people attain holiness as possible.”

For Ganser, that thought, of “Me? A saint?” never entered her mind — well, that is, until she began formation in the Carmelite spirituality. Now, she daily considers that call to holiness, especially as she reads the works of the Carmelites and learns about their spiritual struggles and triumphs.

Secular Franciscans

While Discalced Carmelites strive to imitate St. Theresa of Avila, other third orders pattern their lives after St. Francis of Assisi. Secular Franciscans are individuals who follow St. Francis’ example while still living in the world as laity.

Nearly 400,000 people are Secular Franciscans, including about 15,000 in the United States.

Here in the archdiocese, there exist at least two fraternities of Secular Franciscans. Both groups are part of the Juan de Padilla Province.

In Lawrence, the Brother Jacoba Fraternity of Secular Franciscans meets the first Sunday of every month to pray the Liturgy of the Hours and receive spiritual formation in Franciscan spirituality. Springing from the time spent in prayer and formation, the fraternity discerns opportunities for Christian service, especially to the poor and marginalized. Most important, according to members, is the spiritual clarity the order provides them.

Jean Finch, the group’s formation director, said it was the witness of the Franciscan Capuchins at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Lawrence that drew her closer to them and, in doing so, brought her closer to Christ.

“Watching the friars, listening to them preach, living next door to them and having them help me all the time — I wanted to know what made they tick,” she said.

Like Finch, member Patti Lyon said she, too, was touched by the kindness of the Capuchin priests at the parish, especially one priest, Father Charles Polifka.

“I had been away from the church for a long time,” she said. “He just met me exactly where I was with no judgment. I cannot have been received in a better way. And so, I had asked at the beginning if there was a third order.”

At the time, no such group existed in Lawrence.

Though Lyon missed the initial announcements of its formation, she later learned of the group and joined.

A convert of more than 25 years, Bob Brill and his wife, Ruth Entwistle, decided to join St. John the Evangelist Parish where they eventually met Finch and Lyon. Over time, he read at least 20 biographies of St. Francis of Assisi.

“I was just captivated by this guy,” said Brill. His reading started him thinking about life in a different way.

While the first order focuses on material poverty and the second on prayer and contemplation, the third order, the Secular Franciscans, concentrates on conversion.

With his mind and heart on overdrive, Brill found he yearned for more, especially as he eventually became a Secular Franciscan and started meeting with others in fraternity.

“Nothing accelerates conversion more than the concept of fraternity,” he said.

Daily, Brill said, he receives opportunities for conversion as he lives with others in a spirit of fraternity, appreciating everyone’s differences and tolerating faults.

“That’s part of your conversion — how to live in that fraternity,” he said. “It’s not a community, but it is pretty close.”

“There’s an expectation in a big way that you will help the poor, the marginalized,” he continued. “The friars were not monks. They were out [in the world].

“So, you have to be out doing things. You wouldn’t become a Secular Franciscan if you just wanted to pray.”

Fran Hudson, a member of the Sacred Heart Fraternity in Emporia, said that willingness to help the poor and marginalized has inspired her for decades.

Originally from Tularosa, New Mexico, Hudson said her grandmother was a Third Order, or Secular, Franciscan.

“My grandmother was one of the sweetest people, and I’ve often thought the reason why was because she was a Franciscan,” said Hudson. “She helped the needy, the poor. She would do anything for anybody.”

That early example inspired Hudson decades later. When Cecilia Torres, a woman who reminds her of her beloved grandmother, invited her to a fraternity meeting, it was easy for her to accept the invitation.

In 2006, she became a Secular Franciscan. Now, she cannot imagine her life any different, and she finds volunteering her time in Christian service at a soup kitchen and pregnancy resource center to be extremely fulfilling.

“To give as much as you can to other people is amazing. It really comes back as a blessing to you,” she said. “It’s really gratifying to be able to help someone.”

With nearly a dozen members, the Sacred Heart Fraternity’s eldest member made promises nearly 60 years ago in another state.

In 1949, Mary Lou Young, the fraternity’s formation director, who was then 17 years old, received instructions to become Catholic.

Ten years later, a classified ad in St. Anthony Messenger magazine, provided contact information for anyone wishing to become a third order member. Wasting little time, she wrote for more information.

Now 86, Young said she remembers having a longing or hunger for more in her life.

“When I found the church — or the church found me — I had been a Methodist. I was looking for a closer union with Our Lord,” she said.

After seeing the ad, she enrolled in a correspondence course and learned “all about St. Francis and the way he lived.”

Inspired by what she learned, she eventually made her profession to the order, something she has never regretted.

“It’s not just another organization,” Young said. “It’s an order. It’s really something to hold onto when life gets hard.

“And it will.”

For example, when her husband of nearly 50 years passed away, she learned the value of belonging to the fraternity.

“I just really, really relied on my Franciscan sisters,” she said.

“You wonder what people do when they don’t have faith of any kind,” she added. “I was really richly blessed that I could rely on my faith and be a Secular Franciscan. It gave me strength.”

Recently, Young moved from a house into an apartment and said she learned she has a long ways to go on the path to detachment from stuff in perfect imitation of St. Francis’ poverty.

“I learned that sometimes you talk the talk, but you don’t always walk the walk,” she said. “But it’s a goal.”

Hudson agreed.

“Whatever [St. Francis] had, he would give to someone else who he felt needed it more than he did,” she said.

Franciscans, in general, lead “a very, very simple life.”

That simplicity is what drew followers to St. Francis, members said, something St. Francis never expected to happen but is what eventually led to the formation of the order.

“He didn’t expect followers. That was a surprise to him,” Brill said.

“He didn’t know what to do with these married people who were coming to him and wanted to live that life,” Lyon said.

In explaining the third order’s beginnings, St. Francis, Brill explained, set up a rule to provide for the spiritual needs of the people in a way that fit their station in life.

And for Lyon, it’s that rule, especially as it relates to living in a spirit of fraternity, that gives her life clarity.

“I think it’s given me the community that I needed,” said Lyon, “so that, when I am struggling with an attitude or whatever’s going on in my life, I have members that I can go to.”

Deana Kaminksi, minister of the Sacred Heart Fraternity, said the Franciscan spirituality provided her strength and support in her professional career. She worked with kids with drug and alcohol addictions and other heavy challenges, such as suicidal tendencies.

“I think the prayer life the Franciscan group practices kept me balanced,” she said. “It really balances out your life so you can go forward, stay positive and do your best.”

Family of the Apostles of the Interior Life

While Discalced Carmelites and Secular Franciscans have centuries of tradition, one newer group is the Family of the Apostles of the Interior Life, the lay movement of the Apostles of the Interior Life.

Founded in 1990, the Apostles of the Interior Life focus on four pillars: prayer, community life, intellectual formation and apostolate. The group seeks to spread the Gospel as missionaries throughout the world by evangelizing on college campuses, providing retreats and missions for parishes, and doing one-on-one spiritual guidance and direction.

It’s a group with which Troy Hinkel and his wife Laura were well-acquainted.

While Troy was working at the St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center in Lawrence, Laura started a mother’s group with former students who had married and had young children. Sister Tiziana Mazzei of the Apostles of the Interior Life joined them on Saturday mornings for spiritual formation, offering them a regular meditation.

Sometime later, Troy and Laura were reminiscing about the sense of community they’d experienced at an earlier point in their life, and they realized something.

“We longed for community,” Laura said. “We longed for order in our life.”

Later, conversations with Mike Scherschligt of the School of Faith led them to a deeper conversation. That’s when they learned many college students were graduating and drifting away from their Catholic faith. However, those who stayed active in the church had strong prayer lives.

So, eventually, the Hinkels invited people familiar with the Sisters and their spirituality and charism to their home to discuss the idea of a lay movement of praying spouses and families. At the time, the Hinkels had a busy household of five kids. (They now have six.)

The Hinkels wanted to “encourage this to be aimed at both spouses at the same time.”

It was important, Laura said, to not divide the couples into men’s and women’s groups, but to focus on the domestic churches, the families.

Troy and Laura were two of the first to join the Family of the Apostles of the Interior Life. Now, within the archdiocese alone, there are around 60 members with another 50 or so in Texas, Illinois, Colorado, Ohio and Italy.

Members make promises to pray daily, have an active sacramental life, provide and seek spiritual direction, take interest in others’ spiritual lives and evangelize.

“Personally, when we started out,” said Laura, “I met with my spiritual director and said, ‘I don’t know how I can pray with all these kids. My prayer is based on St. Thérèse and offering little things to Jesus.’”

A suggestion from her spiritual director to try a few minutes at first and then grow the amount of time changed her mindset.

“She made it doable. It transformed my life. It made me grow in virtue. It made me want to spend time with Jesus,” Laura said.

Within a week, Troy said, Laura was praying both in the morning and evening.

“I noticed it, and I saw how it took off in her life,” he said.

It made him realize that he, too, needed to work on his prayer life.

Prayer is a challenge for many in his profession, he said.

Those who minister full time often become consumed with evangelization and other tasks, sometimes to the detriment of their own prayer lives.

Later, as he witnessed Laura instruct their children in opening their hearts to God, it almost took his breath away.

“It’s the greatest thing I have seen in my marriage,” said Troy. His children are now in the habit of praying daily.

Laura said they’ve both been blessed to watch other couples and families grow, too, especially as they move from having virtually a nonexistent prayer life to spending time in a weekly hour of eucharistic adoration, a practice encouraged and recommended by the Apostles of the Interior Life.

“It seems as if they grow together as a couple. It forms your bond so deeply by spending this time with Jesus together,” Laura said.

“It’s really an honor to witness the work of grace and their response to it,” agreed Troy. “It’s so beautiful.”

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