The Secular Franciscan Order is a community of Catholic men and women, of any of the Rites in communion with Rome (Latin, Byzantine, Melkite, etc.), in the world who seek to pattern their lives after Christ in the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi. Secular Franciscans are tertiaries, or members of the Third Order of St. Francis founded by St. Francis of Assisi 800 years ago. Originally known as the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, the Order is approved and recognized by the Holy See by the official name of Ordo Franciscanus Saecularis (OFS). It is open to any Catholic not bound by religious vows to another Religious Order. It is made up of the laity (men and women) and also secular clergy (deacons, priests, bishops). Although Secular Franciscans make a public profession, they are not bound by public vows as are religious orders living in community. The Third Order Regular (TOR), which grew out of the Third Order Secular, do make religious vows and live in community. The Holy See has entrusted the pastoral care and spiritual assistance of the Secular Franciscan Order, because it belongs to the same spiritual family, to the Franciscan First Order (Friars Minor) and Franciscan Third Order Regular (TOR).
Origin and development of the Secular Third Order
The preaching of St. Francis, as well as his own living example and that of his first disciples, exercised such a powerful attraction on the people that many married men and women wanted to join the First or the Second Order, as is witnessed to in some writings of Francis addressed to them: the two Letters to the Faithful as well as the contents of Chapter 23 of the Regula non bullata, which constitute the basis and spiritual reference for what would become, in time, The Franciscan Third Order. Francis formed his third order because of circumstances that he had not foreseen. As he preached penance in one place after another, devout lay persons who were bound by family responsibilities begged to be taught a more perfect way of life. He showed them how they must lead the Gospel life at home and at their work, and spread the Gospel teaching by word and example among their neighbors, in imitation of the poor and suffering Christ. St. Francis found a middle way: he gave them a rule animated by the Franciscan spirit. In the composition of this rule St. Francis was assisted by his friend Cardinal Ugolino, later Pope Gregory IX.
As to the place where the Third Order was first introduced nothing certain is known. Of late however the preponderance of opinion is for Florence, chiefly on the authority of Mariano of Florence, or Faenza, for which the first papal Bull (Potthast, "Regesta Pontificum", 6736) known on the subject is given, whilst the "Fioretti" (ch. xvi), though not regarded as an historical authority, assigns Cannara, a small town two hours' walk from Porziuncola, as the birthplace of the Third Order. Mariano and the Bull for Faenza (December 16, 1221) point to 1221 as the earliest date of the institution of the Third Order, and in fact, besides these and other sources, the oldest preserved rule bears this date at its head.
The Fioretti di San Francesco, or Little Flowers of St. Francis, Chapter XVI, which also contains the famous story of St. Francis preaching to the birds, relates that St. Francis, Friar Masseo and Friar Agnolo traveled to and preached at a city called Saburniano (Cannara). Those that heard them were so inflamed by their message that they desired to leave the city and follow these friars into the wilderness. St. Francis told them that such a thing was not necessary, but instead he established the Third Order "for the universal salvation of all people." St. Francis had already been concerned about the expansion of his order at the expense of families. He refused entrance to his order by married men (and the women from admission to the Poor Clares) who sought to follow the Franciscan way, because families should not suffer. He wrote a rule that was simple and clear, so that the lay person could live within the bonds of the Sacrament of Marriage and love and serve the Lord by serving their fellow human beings.
Another story tells of Luchesio Modestini, a greedy merchant from Poggibonzi, who had his life changed by meeting St. Francis about 1213. He and his wife Buonadonna were moved to dedicate their lives to prayer and serving the poor. While many couples of that era who experienced a religious conversion chose to separate and enter monasteries, this couple felt called to live out this new way of life together. St. Francis was moved to write a Rule for them which would allow them to do so. Thus began the Brothers and Sisters of Penance in the Franciscan movement, which came to be called the Franciscan Third Order. The Chiesa della Buona Morte in the city of Cannara, (Church of the Good Death, previously named, "Church of the Stigmata of S. Francesco") claims to be the birthplace of the Third Order. Another contender from the same city is the Church of S. Francesco which bears a 16th century plaque on the Fasçade of the Church which reads:
D(omino) Francisco poenitentium ordinis hoc in oppido secularium priusquam alibi institutori sacrum: Master Francis instituted the order of secular penitents in this town before doing so anywhere else.
This way of life was quickly embraced by many couples and single men and women who did not feel called to the stark poverty of the friars and nuns, especially widows. They zealously practiced the lessons Francis had taught them concerning prayer, humility, peacemaking, self-denial, fidelity to the duties of their state, and above all charity. Like Francis himself, they cared for lepers and outcasts. Even canonical hermits were able to follow this Rule and bring themselves into the orbit of the Franciscan vision. The Order came to be a force in the medieval legal system, since one of its tenets forbade the use of arms, and thus the male members of the order could not be drafted into the constant and frequent battles cities and regions waged against one another in that era.
The earliest Rule was found in the Guarnacci Library in Volterra. This primitive document is known as the Earlier Exhortation, or the Earlier Version, of "The Letter to All the Faithful" and was likely composed before 1215. An expanded version, the Later Exhortation, was completed by about 1220. Both have been established as having been composed by St. Francis. Both documents call the lay faithful to a life of penance, i.e., of turning away from sin and toward God. In the Earlier Exhortation, Francis describes the elements of the conversion process:
1) love God 2) love one's neighbor 3) turn away from our sinful tendencies 4)"receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ" and, as a result of the above, 5) producing worthy fruits of penance - a renewed life characterized by charity, forgiveness and compassion toward others.
Francis speaks in ecstatic terms of those who embrace this way of life: "Oh, how happy and blessed are these men and women when they do these things and persevere in doing them since the Spirit of the Lord will rest upon them and He will make His home and dwelling among them. They are children of the heavenly Father whose works they do, and they are spouses, brothers and mothers of Our Lord Jesus Christ."
The "primitive rule" was approved by Pope Honorius III in 1221 with the Memoriale Propositi. Then, the rule was revised in 1289 by the Franciscan Pope Nicholas IV with the Supra montem and by Pope Leo XIII approving in 1883 Misericors Dei Filius. The current rule was given by Pope Paul VI in 1978 with the Apostolic letter Seraphicus Patriarcha. It is designed to adapt the Secular Franciscan Order to the needs and expectations of the Church in the conditions of changing times.
The spirit of the Rule can be found in Article 4:
- The rule and life of the Secular Franciscan is this: To observe the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by following the example of St. Francis of Assisi, who made Christ the inspiration and the center of his life with God and people.'Christ, the gift of the Father’s love, is the way to him, the Truth into which the Holy Spirit leads us, and the life which he has come to give abundantly. Secular Franciscans should devote themselves especially to careful reading of the gospel, going from gospel to life and life to the gospel.
The Secular Franciscan Order is a public association in the Catholic Church. It is divided into fraternities at various levels: local, regional, national, and international. The OFS is governed by the universal law of the Church; and by its own: the Rule, the Constitutions, the Ritual, and the particular statutes. The interpretation of the Rule and of the Constitutions belongs to the Holy See. The practical interpretation of the Constitutions, with the purpose of harmonizing its application in different areas and at the various levels of the Order, belongs to the General Chapter of the OFS.The clarification of specific points which require a timely decision is the competence of the Presidency of the International Council of the OFS. The International Council of the OFS has its own proper statutes approved by the General Chapter of the OFS and confirmed by the Union of the Franciscan Ministers General. National fraternities have their own statutes approved by the Presidency of the International Council of the OFS. The regional and the local fraternities may have their own statutes approved by the council of the higher level. The fraternities at different levels are animated and guided by the minister or president, with the council, in accordance with the Rule, the Constitutions, and their own Statutes. These offices are conferred through elections. NAFRA reports that in the United States, there are currently 30 regions, 700 fraternities, and 14,500 professed members. In 2002, the CIOFS reported a worldwide membership of 400,000 professed members.
The International Fraternity is constituted by the organic union of all the Catholic Secular Franciscan fraternities in the world. It is identical to the OFS. It has its own juridical personality within the Church. It is organized and it functions in conformity with the Constitutions and its own Statutes. The International Fraternity is guided and animated by the Minister or President with the International Council (CIOFS), that has its seat in Rome, Italy.
The Form of Life
The Secular Franciscans commit themselves to live the Gospel according to Franciscan spirituality in their secular condition. The Secular Franciscan must personally and assiduously study the Gospel and Sacred Scripture to foster love for the word of the Gospel and help the brothers and sisters to know and understand it as it is proclaimed by the Church with the assistance of the Spirit. Secular Franciscans, called in earlier times "the brothers and sisters of penance", propose to live in the spirit of continual conversion. Some means to cultivate this characteristic of the Franciscan vocation, individually and in fraternity, are: listening to and celebrating the Word of God; review of life; spiritual retreats; the help of a spiritual adviser, and penitential celebrations. Secular Franciscans should pledge themselves to live the spirit of the Beatitudes and, in a special way, the spirit of poverty. Evangelical poverty demonstrates confidence in the Father, affects interior freedom, and disposes them to promote a more just distribution of wealth. They must provide for their own families and serve society by means of their work and material goods, have a particular manner of living evangelical poverty. To understand and achieve it requires a strong personal commitment and the stimulation of the fraternity in prayer and dialogue, communal review of life, and attentiveness to the instructions of the Church, and the demands of society. They pledge themselves to reduce their own personal needs so as to be better able to share spiritual and material goods with their brothers and sisters, especially those most in need. They should give thanks to God for the goods they have received, using them as good stewards and not as owners. They should take a firm position against consumerism and against ideologies and practices which prefer riches over human and religious values and which permit the exploitation of the human person. They should love and practice purity of heart, the source of true fraternity.
Following the example of St. Francis, Patron of Ecology, they collaborate with efforts to fight pollution and to conserve all that is valuable in nature. This conservation keeps in mind that the exploitation of the environment often puts disproportionate hardships on the poor, especially if they live in the affected areas.
Secular Franciscans are called to make their own contribution, inspired by the person and message of Francis of Assisi, towards a civilization in which the dignity of the human person, shared responsibility, and love may be living realities. They should firmly commit themselves to oppose every form of exploitation, discrimination, and exclusion and against every attitude of indifference in relation to others. They promote the building of fraternity among peoples: they should be committed to create worthy conditions of life for all and to work for the freedom of all people. Secular Franciscans attempt to be in the forefront in the field of public life. They should collaborate as much as possible for the passage of just laws and ordinances.
Work and Leisure
For St. Francis, work is a gift and to work is a grace. Daily work is not only the means of livelihood, but the opportunity to serve God and neighbor as well as a way to develop one's own personality. In the conviction that work is a right and a duty and that every form of occupation deserves respect, the brothers and sisters should commit themselves to collaborate so that all persons may have the possibility to work and so that working conditions may always be more humane. Leisure and recreation have their own value and are necessary for personal development. Secular Franciscans should maintain a balance between work and rest and should strive to make meaningful use of their leisure time.
Secular Franciscans are called to be bearers of peace in their families and in society The renunciation of the use of violence, characteristic of the followers of Francis, does not mean the renunciation of action. Peace is the work of justice and the fruit of reconciliation and of fraternal love. While acknowledging both the personal and national right to self-defense, they should respect the choice of those who, because of conscientious objection, refuse to bear arms. However, the brothers and sisters should take care that their interventions are always inspired by Christian love.
Secular Franciscans should consider their own family to be the first place in which to live their Christian commitment and Franciscan vocation. They should make space within it for prayer, for the Word of God, and for Christian catechesis. They should concern themselves with respect for all life in every situation from conception until death. Married couples find in the Rule of the OFS an effective aid in their own journey of Christian life, aware that in the sacrament of matrimony their love shares in the love that Christ has for his Church. The beauty and the strength of the human love of the spouses is a profound witness for their own family, the Church, and the world.
Out of the conviction of the need to educate children to take an interest in community, "bringing them the awareness of being living, active members of the People of God" and because of the fascination which St. Francis can exercise on them, the formation of groups of children should be encouraged. With the help of a pedagogy and an organization suitable to their age, these children should be initiated into a knowledge and love of the Franciscan life. National statutes will give an appropriate orientation for the organization of these groups and their relationship to the fraternity and to the groups of Franciscan youth. The Franciscan Youth is formed by those young people who feel called by the Holy Spirit to share the experience of the Christian life in fraternity, in the light of the message of St. Francis of Assisi, deepening their own vocation within the context of the Secular Franciscan Order.
Entrance into the Order and Formation
Conditions for admission are: to profess the Catholic faith, to live in communion with the Church, to be of good moral standing, and to show clear signs of a vocation. Membership in the Order is attained through a time of initiation, a time of formation, and the Profession of the Rule. The journey of formation, which should develop throughout life, begins with entrance into the fraternity. Mindful that the Holy Spirit is the principal agent of formation and always attentive to collaboration with Him, those responsible for formation are: the candidate, the entire fraternity, the minister with the council, the master of formation, and the assistant as spiritual guide. Profession is the solemn ecclesial act by which the candidate, remembering the call received from Christ, renews the baptismal promises and publicly affirms his or her personal commitment to live the Gospel in the world according to the example of St. Francis and following the Rule of the OFS. Begun by the preceding stages, the formation of the brothers and sisters takes place in a permanent and continuous way.
(1) ^ Such as Thomas of Celano, "Vita prima", I, 15; Julian of Spires, "Office of St. Francis: Third Antiphon at Lauds"; Gregory IX, Bull of 7 June 1230 (Bull. Franc., I, 65); St. Bonaventure, "Leg. Maior", IV, 6; Bernard of Besse, in "Anal. Franc.", III, 686.
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- Pope Paul VI. "Seraphicus Patriarcha (in Latin)". The Vatican. Retrieved 2 June 2011.