History of Our Rule of Life

229386f97499ec755ba8d27f4e7333e9“May whoever observes all this be filled in heaven with the blessing of the most high Father, and on earth with that of his beloved Son, together with the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.”

~ Blessing of Francis from the Testament


For those who are “called to follow Christ in the footsteps of Saint Francis of Assisi” (Rule, art. #1), particularly through the Secular Franciscan Order, the rule of life becomes the central focus and basic font for setting forth the evangelical goals of life, for unraveling the meaning of the gospel commitment, and for detailing the means to be evangelized and to evangelize others with the supportive context of life in fraternity.   For this reason, the rule needs to be read, understood, digested, and absorbed into the personal and communal existence of every Secular Franciscan.

~ Benet A. Fonck, OFM, Called to Follow Christ


Introduction to the Rule(s) . . .

The Rule of life presents a way for us to enter more deeply into our faith, and our relationship with God and with our sisters and brothers, while doing so through the example and model of Francis. The Rule is a document that sets us on the path to holiness, drawing us back should we wander too far from The Way. The Rule establishes the nature, purpose, and spirit of the OFS (Const., art. 4.2).

The “Rule of Life for the Secular Franciscan Order” has a history that is not as clear as we modern people would like to have. Francis himself spent years developing his own style of spirituality, so it should not be surprising that a “rule of life” would not have been as quickly written as it might be in today’s world.

When we speak of the Rule, most people are referring to the most current rule of the Order. However, this rule is only the latest of several ruleswriting a known to Secular Franciscans over the centuries since Francis first recognized those penitents coming under his spiritual care – here we will look at the evolution of our present Rule. Unfortunately we do not possess the forma vitae which, according to the explicit affirmation of the biographers of St. Francis, the saint gave to those groups of penitents – old as well and new – who desired to follow him; or, at least, we do not have sufficient information to identify it positively from any of the documents that we do possess. “Nevertheless, we have irrefutable sources which enable us to know the directives, the new ideals and aspirations which Francis wanted to give to those groups of penitents. They are mainly two: the Recensio prior and the Letter to All the Faithful. In regard to the organization, even their externals, of these same groups of penitents we have a third document: the Memoriale propositi (or Regula antique Fratum et Sororum de Poenitentia) of 1221 – 1228.

 First Letter to All the Faithful (Earlier exhortation or Recensio Prior)    (c. 1209 – 1215)

TEXT – First Letter to All the Faithful (Earlier exhortation or Recensio Prior)

Francis’ first Letter to the Faithful, “contains Francis’ very first teachings that he set in writing. It is addressed, in letter form, to the penitents who, in ever greater numbers, turned to him for directions…” This is the “Earlier Exhortations To the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, the first version of the Letter to All the Faithful (1209 – 1215) …The earliest manuscript of this writing, located in the city of Volterra, introduces it with these words: ‘These are the words of life and salvation. Whoever reads and follows them will find life and draw from the Lord Salvation.’ Paul Sabatier first published the First Version of the Letter to the Faithful in 1900, from the codex of Volterra. He gave it the title Verba vitae et salutis (Words of life and salvation). Franciscan scholars thought that it was a later extract of what is today known as the Second Version of the Letter to the  Faithful, but when Kajetan Esser studied the manuscripts containing the letter, he found that the Volterra manuscript was truly unique, and that it merited a study on its own, just as Sabatier had insisted. Esser concluded that the actual Second Version of the Letter to the Faithful is the development of the document which contains its original nucleus, namely, the manuscript of Volterra. He compares this development to the same process of maturation which occurred between the primitive Propositum of 1209 and the Earlier Rule of 1221.

Regarding the persons to whom this Letter was directed, generally called fideles (faithful), Esser is of the opinion that they include a specific category of Christians, namely, the Order of Penitents. He takes his cue from the Legend of the Three Companions: “Similarly, both married men and women given in marriage, unable to separate because of the law of matrimony, committed themselves to more sever penance in their own homes on the wholesome advice of the brothers.” Similarly the Anonymous of Perugia says: “Similarly, married men said: ‘We have wives who will not permit us to send them away. Teach us, therefore, the way that we can take more securely.’ The brothers founded an order for them, called the Order of Penitents, and had it approved by the Supreme Pontiff.” Since the Volterra Codex contains no title for the letter, Esser suggests that the title be given taking into account the contents of the Letter. Now the Letter speaks about those Christians “who produce worthy fruits of penance”. Therefore he chooses the title Exhortatio ad fratres et sorores de poenitentia (Exhortation to the Brothers and Sisters of Penance). In fact, judging from the contents, the Letter is simply divided into two sections, one regarding those who do penance, and the second one regarding those who do not do penance. [In] 1976, …Kajetan Esser brought the text into prominence…[It presently serves] as a Prologue to the Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order.” Robert Stewart, O.F.M., refers to David Flood’s The Commonitorium published in Haversack in 1979. Flood uses the word to describe Francis’ intentions in writing the First Version. “In Medieval Latin, the term commonitorium signified a letter which was both an exhortation and a reminder in order that a commitment be followed.”

Regarding the date of this Writing, Esser proposes a period of time before the Earlier Rule and before the Second Version of the Letter to the Faithful. Since it is a Letter dedicated to the Penitents, one is tempted to regard it as the oldest document we possess which regards the penitential Franciscan movement. Now, the first document we know of, directed to the Franciscan Penitents, is the Memoriale Propositi, of Cardinal Hugolino, dated 1221. This version of the Letter to the Faithful comes before this date. Esser suggests that this Letter could very well have been the original forma vivendi, or way of life, which Francis gave to the Order of Penitents, on the basis of what the Franciscan Sources suggest.

Second Letter to All the Faithful (Later exhortation)   (c. 1221)

TEXT – Second Letter to All the Faithful (Later Exhortation)

“The addresses of this work, as well as the relation between them, cannot refer to all Christians in general, but must be understood to have been individuals and communities united in a special way to Francis, who had given them a forma vivendi closely resembling the form of life of the Friars Minor…the most probable date for the composition of this work is around 1221.” “The writing may have been written upon Francis’ return from his journey to the Middle East in the Spring of 1220, for not only does it speak of his weakened condition but also suggests the post-conciliar concerns of Pope Honorius III. At the same time, it recalls Francis’ earlier exhortations to the Brothers and Sisters of Penance and encourages its observance in light of many of the teachings of the Fourth Lateran Council.” Robert Stewart writes, “The emphasis has shifted somewhat in the Later Exhortations [as compared with the Earlier Exhortations]. Francis describes in much greater detail the way of penance for his followers. Most of the development in the Later Exhortation concerns elements which characterize the penitential movement in the Middle Ages, among others: charity, humility, service, prayer, fasting and abstinence, and the restitution of goods unjustly acquired. In part, these emendations can be attributed to Francis’ concern to keep the movement orthodox, that is, to avoid the heretical positions to which some of the other thirteenth century penitential movements had evolved. In fact, given that Francis uses the stron g injunction ‘we must’ (debemus) in speaking of those obligations, Esser suggests that Francis must have been addressing abuses that had crept into the movement. But for whatever reason, in the later text Francis continues to exult and to exhort others to penance by becoming more specific concerning the life of penance.”

Memoriale Propositi    (1221 – 1289)

TEXT – Memoriale Propositi

“The increase in numbers of penitents following the preaching of Francis and his early companions in the period between 1210 and 1220 must have been enormous…” It should also be noted that special privileges were granted to the penitents. “The fraternities were asserting their exemption from the obligation of pledging loyalty, bearing arms, and assuming civil positions. The first pontifical bulls, written between 1221 and 1228 in favor of the penitents, are indisputable proof…” These privileges, in time, angered the civil authorities. In 1221, an “official” rule, Memoriale propositi , was promoted by Cardinal Ugalino and verbally approved by Pope Honorius III. According to Robert Stewart, O.F.M., “While Francis presented an exhortation to penance, the Memoriale propositi presents juridical norms regulating the life of penance for those followers of Francis. Apparently the Memoriale propositi was the official Church’s response to the need for more organizational structure and control among these penitential groups. Prior to the approval of the Memoriale propositi for Franciscan  penitents, other ‘rules’ or the ‘Way of Life’ of other penitential groups had received papal approval. In fact, the test of the Memoriale propositi for the Franciscan penitents evidences a dependence upon the propositium of the Humiliati (1201), of the Poor Catholics (1206) and their Penitents (1212) and of the Poor Lombards (1210, 1212) “Thus, no serious scholar today would attribute the authorship of the Memoriale propositi to Francis. Most scholars assume the text comes from the hand of Cardinal Hugolino or a group of jurists connected with Hugolino.writing b “The Memoriale propositi of 1221, is no longer extant as it must have come from the hands of Francis, [Cardinal] Ugolino, and, perhaps, some of his jurists. The earliest extant copy is that of the final edition of 1228… “…A quick overview of the contents of the Memoriale propositi shows that: the organization of the Order of Penance and its insertion into society are based on an austere principle of personal sanctification.“The rule is strict and demands vocation and dedication. The law of poverty, as we have seen,  the foundation of the whole penitential movement of the eleventh through thirteenth centuries, contradicts the ‘worldly’ life because conversion demands a renunciation ‘of the world.’ Humility in dress and abstention from entertainment and dancing, abstinence and fasting, prayer and frequent reception of the sacraments, examination of conscience and religious instruction of the Brothers and Sisters of Penance are fundamental characteristics of their identity. “Like the other two Franciscan orders, the Third Order is ‘the school of the gospel’ and demands adherence to it of thought and action. “Most of all, it demands a life of prayer and more intense sacramental life than is asked of ‘plain Christians.’ Those who know how to read will say the canonical hours, as clerics do, and the others will say the office of the Paters and Aves. All will nourish spiritual growth through daily examination of conscience and monthly instruction. “On those spiritual foundations the Brothers and Sisters of Penance will carry out in a very special way the main Christian virtues, beginning with justice and charity.” “There is no written proof that Pope Gregory IX gave written approval to the Memoriale propositi, (in 1228). However, there is circumstantial evidence that it was assumed to be a forma vitae, a rule for the brothers and sisters of Penance. The legislative text did  include the word tale est, the usual formula the popes used to introduce a Propositum that they approved with a papal bull…It is also generally accepted that the extant Memoriale propositi is not identical to the original one of 1221…it obviously underwent modifications and additions from 1221 to 1228. It is, however, equally well known that, from 1228 on, the Memoriale propositi was considered an unchangeable rule, one that should not be touched in the same way as the rules of St. Augustine and St. Benedict.”

The Third Order Rule of Nicholas IV (Supra Motem)   (1289 – 1883)

TEXT – Supra Motem – Third Order Rule of Nicholas IV

The Rule, however, was indeed changeable. Nicholas IV became the first Franciscan Pope on February 15, 1288. Shortly after his election to the papacy, he received requests from some local communities of penitents that he grant his official approval to their Rule. Thus, on August 18, 1289 he issued the bull Supra Montem which contained the Rule for Franciscan penitents.” “What the pope had approved in fact, was the rule of Friar Caro, with some modifications. Metanić observed that the texts of both are almost identical; there are a few noteworthy differences. The Rule of Nicholas IV is, most of all, more ‘Franciscan’ because it affirms that the present way of life (of the penitents) had its beginning in blessed Francis. “Consequently Nicolas IV, in contrast to the norm that the visitor could be ‘of any approved religious order’ and that, in the monthly meetings the penitents should receive exhortations of ‘a religious who is informed in the word of God’ advised that these persons, both visitators and instructors should be members of the Order of Friars Minor. “It seems, however, that there were complaints and opposition against this fact…[but] Nicholas IV reasserts his desire that a ll the penitents belong to an order ‘begun by St. Francis’ should have visitators and directors of the Order of Friars Minor. “Another ‘Franciscan’ detail included the Rule of Nicholas IV concerns the color of the habit. The Memoriale made no mention of it, but the Rule of 1289 stipulates that it be neither ‘all black nor all white.’ That is, gray. The Rule of Nicholas IV, accepted universally,writing c remained the ‘Magna Carta’ of the Franciscan movement of penance, which from that time on was commonly called ‘The Third Order of St. Francis.’ This rule, in fact, remained in effect for the Secular Franciscans until 1883.” “The promulgation of the Rule of the Third Order by Nicholas IV was an important factor for the development of the common life among Franciscan penitents. This rule, with its more orderly and organic organization, also gave greater emphasis to the religious nature of this order, gave it a partially new configuration in which the two pre-existing realities within it, namely, the life in domibus propriis and community life, could develop. “…Around the turn of the century the practice of profession of religious vows developed among those penitents living in community. This was the decisive step in the complete ‘regularization’ of the order. Pope John XXII, with the Bull Altissimo in divinis of November 18, 1323, approved and praised this action which represented an approval of the ‘regular religious life’ within the Third Order.”

The Rule of Leo XIII     (1883 – 1978)

TEXT – The Rule of Leo XIII

THIRD ORDER BOOK COVERSPECIAL TEXT!  1883 Book – Rule and Ceremonial of the Third Order of St. Francis, According to the Constitution of Leo XIII and the Decree of the Sacred Congregation of Rites (published by the Franciscan Fathers, Stratford, London) – PDF

“The political situation in the 1700s and 1800s (suppression of Religious Orders and of the Third Order – the Austrian -Hungarian Empire, France, Italy, etc.) as well as the religious situation (Protestantism) played their part in the decline of the Third Order. “…The friars of every family, as soon as they were able to recover from the suppression, undertook a lot of activity to put the Third Order back on its feet. However, this did not occur haphazardly. Two factors certainly played a decisive role in the rediscovery of interest in the Third Order; on the one hand there was the desire on the part of the religious to make a contribution to reconstructing the fabric of Christian society…, on the other there was the strong encouragement of Pope Pius IX (1846– 1878), who was the first of a succession of seven Popes who were Secular Franciscans. Our brother the Pope said: ‘Promote, promote the Third Order. You cannot image the amount of good it is destined to produce.’” “Cardinal Giacchino Pecci, Archbishop of Perugia and the future Pope Leo XIII, was a convinced, enthusiastic and tenacious supporter of the necessary role of the Third Order for the society of his time.” Pope Leo XIII, in 1883, in an effort to recreate the Franciscan movement during his time, wrote a rule that was shorter and less rigorous than the Rule of Nicholas IV. “My Social Reform is the Third Order,” proclaimed the pope. His purpose for a new less rigorous rule was to make it more accessible, and more appealing, to more Catholics. “The new Rule was promulgated in the apostolic constitution Misercors Dei Filius, of May 30, 1883. The text consisted of three chapters, followed by another three in the form of an appendix, setting out the indulgences and privileges of Tertiaries. Reduced to the bare essentials, it retained as much of the old Rule [Rule of Nicholas IV] as could be adapted to the life of any keen Christian, and modified or completed whatever parts of it seemed outdated or excessively harsh. “…Having taken this momentous step, the Pope lost no opportunity during he next few years of involving the whole Catholic episcopate in the propagation of the Franciscan Third Order Secular, either by encyclicals or by exhortations and encouragement. The hierarchy responded obediently to the Pontiff’s wishes, ordinary Christians were fired with enthusiasm, and within a short time there were several million Tertiaries.”

The Rule of 1978

TEXT — The Rule of 1978

In March, 1966, shortly after the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, the Ministers General gave their blessings to begin work on the formulation of a new Rule for the Third Order. The letter included an invitation to the national fraternities to participate by making suggestions as to the content of a new Rule. Surveys were taken in the United States and forwarded to the rule project commission in Assisi. An international Obediential Council reviewed the input from the contributing national fraternities.The rule project commission took these very perspicacious and revealing critiques into consideration. Many deliberations were conducted and redactions made during the twelve year process of formulating a new Rule for the Third Order. The Rule Commission met again in January 1969. At that meeting they recognized that there were no Third Order people present. To correct this oversight, Tertiary leaders, both men and women, were invited to participate in the next gathering – the Assisi Congress held in October of that year. Allowing laypersons to participate in the writing of their Rule was unprecedented. It would be proven that this inclusion made a world of difference. A special commission that included both friars and lay men and women was assigned the task of producing essential elements for a new rule. They came up with 17:

1.   To live the gospel according to the spirit of St. Francis
2.   To be converted continually (metanoia)
3.   To live as brothers of sisters to all people and all creation
4.   To live in communion with Christ
5.   To follow the poor and crucified Christ
6.   To share in the life and mission of the Church
7.   To share in the love of the Father
8.   To be instruments of peace
9.   To have a life of prayer that is personal, communal and liturgical
10.  To live in joy
11.  To have a spirituality of a secular character
12.  To be pilgrims on the way to the father
13.  To participate in the Apostolate of the Laity
14.  To be at the service of the less fortunate
15.  To be loyal to the Church in an attitude of dialogue and collaboration with her     ministers
16.  To be open to the action of the Spirit
17.  To live in simplicity, humility, and minority

Rule of the OrderThese elements were to become the essence of the new Rule. One of these elements, dear to the layman, was that the rule should have a spirituality of a secular character. After seven or eight redactions, the new Rule was promulgated by Pope Paul VI in June of 1978, twelve years after the Rule Project was inaugurated. The rule called us to “go from Gospel to life and life to Gospel.” Paragraphs on Peace and Justice, Ecology, Work and Family were included as essential paragraphs in this Rule. The Rule challenged the Secular Franciscans to interface with the world in which they lived. The Rule presents “the spirituality of the Secular Franciscans, at least as it had been defined within the Rule Project:

1.  To Live the Gospel
2.  Following Francis
3.  Through Conversion/Metanoia
4.  In Community
5.  As Seculars
6.  In Life Giving Union with All Franciscans”

“The Rule of 1978 followed the guidelines initially set by the Assisi Congress in 1969. Essentially, the Rule of 1978 represents the results of several years of refining, organizing, and integrating the seventeen essential points of Franciscan spirituality outlined by the Congress. The only exception within the process was the insertion, by the Ministers General, of Francis’ Earlier Exhortation as a Prologue to the Rule.”




~ Material for this page from “A Brief History of the Secular Franciscan Order and  its Rules” by William Wicks, OFS. Please consult this publication for complete citations and references (left out of this text for brevity).