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A Third Order is defined by the Code of Canon Law (c. 303) as an association 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. Such associations are called third orders or some other appropriate name. Thus the associations of men and woman living in the world, without vows, who share in the spirit of the Order of Preachers bears the title, the Fraternities of St. Dominic—the Priestly Fraternity for diocesan priests and the Lay Fraternity for the laity.


It is by the observance of the Rule of life approved for them that the children of the Fraternities of St. Dominic living in the world are to strive to attain Christian perfection. A glance at the calendar of Dominican Saints and Blesseds will suffice to show how many of the canonized and beatified members have belonged to what was formerly called the Secular Third Order. Conspicuous among these are St. Catherine of Siena, Seraphic Virgin, Counselor of Popes and Patroness of Rome; also, St. Rose of Lima, first flower of sanctity in the New World. Those who enter the Fraternities of St. Dominic, let it be remembered, do not form part merely of the fraternities, but of the whole Dominican Family, in the fruits of which they become sharers, while at the same time they enjoy their own special privileges and indulgences as tertiaries.


Father Richard K. Weber, OP, PhD was a visiting professor of Church History at the Aquinas Institute in St. Louis, Missouri during the spring term of 1985. For many years he was involved in ministry to and with the Dominican Laity. He died on Jan. 7, 1995. Click on the button to the the right to read two of his articles on the history of the Dominican Third Order: History of the Dominican Third Order and A History and Theology of Sharing Responsibility for the Church. See also Fr. Thomas J. Johnston, OP’s article on the Third Order (PDF).


No one has ever defined the spirit of the Dominican Fraternities better than Munio di Zamora: it is not a devotion, but religion. “Because the tertiary,” he said, “is the special son in Our Lord of Saint Dominic, he must strive before everything else, in the measure of his power, to be a zealous propagator of the Catholic Faith.” By entering into the Dominican Fraternities, he insists, one enters into religion. It is a third way, but a real way, of belonging to the Order founded by St. Dominic; when one receives a call into the Fraternities of St. Dominic, one spiritually abandons the world. Since therefore he is a religious who lives in the world, the tertiary has a Rule he must observe, superiors whom he must obey, and the vocation of an apostle to which he must respond in all his actions. The Statutes of 1285, which canonically established the existence, the nature, and the mode of life of the Third Order, were approved the following year by Pope Honorius IV in a Bull of the 28th of January, 1286. From that time onwards, the Secular Third Order became ever more numerous and more flourishing. Religious who were famous for sanctity, such as Blessed Raymond of Capua, devoted themselves to its diffusion and development. The Fraternity of Siena, for instance, which counted among its members Saint Catherine, Patroness of the Third Order, became an ardent center of spiritual life. One understands therefore why, on the 18th of January, 1401, Pope Boniface IX gave to the Third Order new and solemn approbation, and why on the 23rd of April, 1923, Pope Pius XI again gave it a Rule more suitable for the time. It is from examples such as these, and by having recourse to a living, strong, and austere tradition, that tertiaries may become increasingly conscious of the grandeur of their vocation.


In the light of its history, it is clear that the Dominican Fraternities is a branch of that great tree known as the Order of Preachers. The Dominican Fraternities are an integral part of that tree, and the sap sustaining it is that which vivifies the Order too. The spirit of the Dominican Fraternities is an apostolic spirit, and the tertiary does not fully understand his mission unless he practices the apostolate to the fullest extent of his power; and frequently his own power in this direction will surpass anything that he would have believed possible when he began the work.


One can comprehend therefore what a gross error it would be to regard the Dominican Fraternities as a simple confraternity, which one joins for the purpose of pious exercises or works of charity, perhaps to obtain spiritual favors, particularly indulgences, or to assist in the spreading of public devotions; of course all that is found in the Dominican Fraternities too, but there is more in it than that. What then precisely are the Fraternities of St. Dominic? It is a state of life in which seculars—whether they be priests or laymen—strive through vocation and until death, but without leaving the world, to attain to Christian perfection in their whole life and in all their actions, “according to the spirit and under the direction of the Order of Saint Dominic,” as Chapter I of the 1923 Rule expresses it.


Tertiaries then are the true collaborators of the Friars Preachers. Assuredly, they already know this well; throughout the whole world and especially wherever they can group themselves around a convent of friars or of nuns, Tertiaries offer themselves in service with a zeal and a generosity that frequently astounds and always evokes heartfelt gratitude. And yet this genuine, deep, and devoted love that they feel for the Order does not really find expression unless tertiaries unite together and gather along with themselves souls of good will who will receive through their means a stronger and more abundant spiritual life. The perfection that they draw from Dominican sources should be handed on by them in their turn; that is the point: if tertiaries are to learn, to receive benefits, and to acquire ardor in the Dominic household, it is in order that, when the moment comes or the occasion presents itself, they may communicate to others the superabundance of their own supernatural life.


This is the hour then when tertiaries especially should perfectly fulfill the duty to practice fraternal charity, in obedience to the hierarchy and in submission to both its decisions and its discipline, under the direction of the Order and in accordance with its spirit; in all places where they are grouped, they should make use of such connections as nature and circumstances offer to show themselves “true lights of the world,” exemplars, helpers of the Lord, in a word—Apostles.


The Rule of the Third Order of Penance of St. Dominic was published for the first time in 1285 by Father Munio di Zamora, seventh Master General of the Order of Preachers. It was approved June 26, 1404 by Pope Innocent VII, and again on May 14, 1439 by Pope Eugene IV. This latter approbation remained in force until it was modified in 1923 in accordance with the legislation of the Holy See and to meet the needs of the time. The 1923 Rule was approved by Pope Pius XI by a Decree of the Sacred Congregation of Religious dated April 23, 1923, under the title, the “Rule of the Brothers and Sisters of the Secular Third Order of St. Dominic.” The 1923 Rule was composed of twenty chapters divided into seventy-one articles.  After the Second Vatican Council, separate Rules were formed for the laity and for diocesan priests.  The Rule for the laity was promulgated on January 28, 1987 under the title: “Rule of the Lay Fraternities of St. Dominic” and the Rule for priests was promulgated on December 3, 1996 under the title: Rule for the Priestly Fraternities of St. Dominic.”

Concerning the 1923 Rule, the late Master General, Father Ludwig Theissling (served 1916–1925), wrote as follows:  


     “Without doubt, [the Rule] was that fountain of perfection and holiness that our Holy Father, Benedict XV, himself a member of the Third Order, had in mind, when in his encyclical on the celebration of the seventh centenary of St. Dominic, Fausto Appetente Die (June 29, 1921), he said: “This, too, we know from history, that when he was forming his first disciples to Christian perfection, St. Dominic thought of gathering a holy militia of pious and religious laymen both to defend the rights of the Church and to offer a strong resistance to heresies. That was the origin of the Third Order of Dominicans which, popularizing the way of perfection among people living in the word, was to bring great glory and assistance to our Holy Mother, the Church.”

     “But let us hear again Benedict XV writing in Italian on the Third Order: ‘In the midst of the grave dangers that from every quarter threaten the faith and morals of the Christian people, it is our duty to safeguard the faithful by pointing out to them those means of holiness that seem to be the most useful and suitable for their protection and progress.’

     ‘Among these means we see that one of the foremost, the most practical, and the surest is the Dominican Third Order, which the glorious Patriarch, Dominic Guzmán, who knew the snares of the world no less than the saving remedies to be found in the divine doctrines of the Gospel, was inspired to found, in order that in this, his spiritual family, every class of people might find the means to satisfy their desire for a more perfect life.’

     ‘Therefore we exhort the faithful of the entire world not to disregard the words which the wise Founder uttered centuries ago, and in virtue of our office of procuring the salvation of souls, we exhort the faithful to enroll themselves under the sacred banner of the Third Order of St. Dominic, which is adorned with so many flowers of virtue and made glorious in a particular way by the two precious gems of holiness, Catherine of Siena and Rose of Lima.’

     ‘And to all those who are enrolled in the Third Order, present and future, we impart with our whole heart the Apostolic Benediction, the sign of our paternal favor, the pledge of favors from heaven, the promise of eternal salvation.’

     What the Holy Father wrote from the Vatican on the 6th of September, 1919, in praise of the Third Order is also in praise and commendation of the Rule itself which affords our tertiaries such suitable aids to avoid the dangers of the world, and to produce the fruit of good works, not only for their personal sanctification, but also for the manifest gain of the Church.

     The Friars Preachers, therefore, will doubtless endeavor to spread the Rule among the Christian people; but in following it exactly let all members be true soldiers of Christ, who, filled with the apostolic spirit of their Father, St. Dominic, ardently desire to be good citizens and true Christians, all the while laboring for their own salvation, and for the salvation of others.”

​(Adapted from the Dominican Tertiaries’ Manual, First Edition, 1952)


For historical and study purposes, both the 1285 Rule of the Brothers and Sisters of the Order of Penance of Saint Dominic, promulgated by Father Munio de Zamora, OP, seventh Master of the Order, and approved and confirmed by Pope Innocent VII with the bull Sedis Apostolicae, and the 1923 Rule of the Brothers and Sisters of the Secular Third Order of Saint Dominic, promulgated by Father Ludwig Theissling, OP, seventy-seventh Master of the Order, and approved and confirmed by the Sacred Congregation for Religious are available for download below.

—The Rule of Munio de Zamora (First Rule, 1285) [PDF]

—The Rule of Ludwig Theissling (Second Rule, 1923) [PDF]

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