Lay Fraternities and Third Orders in the Church

When we speak about Lay Fraternities and Third Orders in the Catholic Church, we generally mean lay members of religious orders. The Dominicans, Franciscans, Benedictines, Norbertines, Carmelites, and Missionaries of Charity are all examples of orders in the Church who have lay branches, although each order may have a different way of referring to its lay members. (For example, in the Dominican Order, we are called lay Fraternity members, or tertiaries. In the Missionaries of Charity, lay cooperators are called coworkers. It should also be noted that some orders receive professions from those in their lay branch, as with the Dominicans, while others simply invite laity to participate fully in the living of the order’s charism without making professions.)

Lay men and women in the Fraternities of St. Dominic do not necessarily live in community with each other but practice many of the same spiritual disciplines of the religious of that order. Any Catholic in good standing may join these associations.

The Beginnings of the Fraternities of St. Dominic

In the early days of the Dominican Order, neither St. Dominic nor the early Preachers desired to have under their jurisdiction-and consequently under their responsibility-either religious or lay associations. During his life, then, St. Dominic never wrote a rule for the Fraternities. Instead, it happened that a large body of laity who were living a life of piety found themselves attracted to St. Dominic and his initiative; they grouped themselves around the rising Order of Preachers and constituted on their own a “third order.”

In 1285, the need for more firmly uniting these lay people to the Order of Preachers and its direction led the seventh Master General, Munio de Zamora (at the suggestion of Pope Honorius IV) to devise a rule known as “The Third Order of Penance of St. Dominic.” Pope Honorius IV granted this new fraternity official Church recognition on Jan. 28, 1286.

In the rule written by Munio de Zamora, some basic points are: 1) the government of the Dominican Fraternities is immediately subject to ecclesiastical authority; 2) in the spirit of St. Dominic, those in the Fraternities should be truly zealous for the Catholic faith; 3) Fraternity members visit sick members of the community and help them; 4) Fraternity members help others through their prayers.

After the Fraternities of St. Dominic got off the ground, it drew many new members. Its fraternity in Siena especially flourished. Among the list of members of that fraternity was she who would become St. Catherine of Siena. Wherever the Dominican Order spread throughout the world, the fraternity chapters spread with it.

Further Information about Dominican History

The original purpose behind the Fraternities of St. Dominic was the preaching of penance. However, over time the Fraternities began to stress the importance for lay Catholics of having strong, solid formation in their faith. The Fraternities became, and continues to be, a group that strives to know their faith and to be well-formed and competent in sharing that faith with others. Persuasive communication of Catholic truth to the secular world is perhaps the most pressing mission of the Fraternities of St. Dominic.

We should mention too that, at its conception, the Fraternities served the Church in a military capacity, defending her from opposition. Now, certainly, Lay Dominicans do not serve militarily but instead defend the Church from error through preaching and teaching the truth about Catholicism.

St. Catherine of Siena is the patroness of the Fraternities of St. Dominic. Following her example, Lay Dominicans have always shown special devotion to the Church. Also in imitation of their patroness, who wrote profound mystical works and emphasized the truth of Catholic teaching in all of her letters, Fraternity members labor to know well their faith and to articulate it to others with persuasion.

Several saints and blesseds in the Church have been in the Fraternities, including St. Catherine of Siena, St. Rose of Lima, Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, and St. Louis de Montfort