The apostolic life of St. Francis and of his first companions started from their experience of “conversion” – a conversion that is expressed in a personal pledge of interior transformation and in a gift of illumination for others: to convert oneself and to preach conversion. For Francis, to convert oneself interiorily is to recognize the universal paternity of God over all creation and to recognize the universal fraternity of humankind with all creation.
Initially, Francis and his companions were known as “the penitents of Assisi.” Almost 800 years ago, Francis anticipated, so to speak, the contents of the II Vatican Council by recognizing the relevance of the ‘Theology of the Laity’ in his day. In drawing from the evangelical purity of the origins (those of Christ and the apostles), Francis restored the Church giving full citizenship to all components of the “human family” and the “Church” (clerics, men and women, religious and laity) for assuming their own responsibility for spreading the Gospel of Christ.
The Crucifix of San Damiano entrusted Francis with this mission: “Francis go, repair my Church, which, as you see, is all in ruins.” In order to pursue this mission, Christ inspired him to give life to a triple “militia.”
All three Orders founded by Francis are in fact heirs of the mission and of the charism to accomplish it. The raison d’être for Francis and his spiritual family is this mission, as Paul VI affirms: “The vision of Innocent III of Francis, which holds up the Lateran Basilica, that is, the Church, the mystical body of Christ, in its historical and central expression, hierarchical and Roman, has foretold the vocation and the mission of the great Franciscan family.” (General Chapter OFM, June 23 1967).
St. Francis was confronted with an unprecedented challenge as the First Order (apostolic) had to be built from scratch, while for the Second Order (monastic) and for the Third Order (penitential), he re-animated and characterized what already existed.
The new penitents wanted to tie their penitential renewal to the name and spirituality of St. Francis. The new Order of Franciscan Penitents bloomed in the hands of St. Francis. Consequently, the Franciscan penitents (now the Secular Franciscans of today) are the lay faithful of Christ pledged to the Gospel, applying the Gospel to life and life to the Gospel. This requires a full response to the call to follow the humble Christ, poor and crucified, as do the brothers of the First Order and the sisters of the Second Order, each one in his/her own state of life.
In the final analysis, St. Francis has given his three Orders (the Franciscan Trilogy) only one rule: a more perfect observance of the Gospel, according to their condition of life. Secular Franciscans, though not religious in the consecrated sense, solemnly and publicly promise themselves to a true and authentic “religious” Profession to give testimony by their living example, to the salvation bearing novelty of the Gospel. In their own vocation, the Seculars (and Third Order religious) associate themselves to the apostolates of the Brothers of the First Order and to the contemplation of the religious Clares, as equal members of the Franciscan Family.
For more information on the Franciscan Family “Tree” an its varied branches, check out the links below!