Summer 2002

Secular Institutes According to Hans Urs von Balthasar

Juan Sara

“God and the world share with each other what each has and is. This mutual communication constitutes the ecclesial form of life of the secular institutes . . . as the eucharistic way of being characteristic of Christ, the concrete analogia entis.”

And if these world secular institutes are today forming the avant- garde of the Church in the modern world, this is so only by virtue of the living paradox that is none other than the paradox of Christ’s Church herself: holding fast to Christianity’s fountainhead and point of origin, she flows out into the world, bringing with her this very fountain of life. This in fact was the way Christ ultimately accomplished the will of the Father: firmly rooted in it, he went out and brought the movement of this will to the very last sinner (“the least of my brethren”).1
John, leaning his head on the Lord’s breast, confesses wordlessly to him that he is ready to help raise everyone, even the most lukewarm, even the most distant, from human to divine love. This is the johannine form of love. Even though John has no doubt that he is loved as a friend, that the Lord has a special predilection for him, he knows that the Lord therein loves the others, too, and that his privilege is to bear something that will underscore that all are included in the Lord’s love.2

The present article attempts to bring into focus some central features of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s understanding of secular institutes (instituta saecularia). The Weltgemeinschaften [“world communities”], as he preferred to call them,3 occupied the center of his mission, giving a unifying force to his life and work. They increasingly became the focal point of his interest, indeed, his very existential “source-point.” It was to the task of founding and promoting this incipient form of Christian life that he dedicated his personal gifts.4

By way of introduction, we can say that, for Balthasar, the importance of the secular institutes lies in their proposal of a new unity between “the worldly state and the state of God [Weltstand und Gottestand],” between the original impulse of the Gospel and the needs of today’s post-Christian world. The secular institutes are constituted by their integration of an exclusive service of God and the world as a form of Christian life. “Integration” is thus the key term on which Balthasar relies in order to characterize the being and the mission of the “world communities.” For the same reason, we will move, in what follows, within the wide precincts of this integration, in the attempt to unfold some of its central aspects.


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1. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Explorations in Theology, vol. 4: Spirit and Institution (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 287–288.

2. Adrienne von Speyr, Erde und Himmel, vol. 3: Die Späten Jahre (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1975), 322.

3. Jean Beyer, S.J., ed., Die kirchlichen Urkunden für die Weltgemeinschaften (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1963), 8–9. This volume contains the most important pontifical documents concerning the secular institutes. It was also the first in a series (published by Balthasar) called, appropriately, “the new way” [Der neue Weg].

4. Hans Urs von Balthasar, My Work in Retrospect (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 47, 58.