The Gathering of the Brothers and Sisters of Penance and their Early Rule of Life
The actual history of the Secular Franciscans is, like many things in life, muddled. We know very little of how Francis began to interact with people of all walks of life – married, single, male, female, lay and clergy, from all socioeconomic levels. We do know that many people came into contact with Francis and his small band of lesser brothers. People hearing their preaching and witnessing their personal commitment to a radical Gospel life often felt drawn to live their own life of “penance” (perhaps more clearly understood as conversion), often seeking to leave businesses, spouses and even families. Francis likely witnessed these people following him, and felt compelled to somehow create a way in which these people could follow his way while honoring their present life commitments. Francis eventually wrote a simple rule for these people, who would become known as the “Brothers and Sisters of Penance.” This original rule was called the First Version of the Letter to the Faithful or Earlier Exhortation (written around 1209 to 1215). From the earliest days of Francis of Assisi’s ministry, secular people who longed to live a deeper life of Faith were drawn to his message of conversion and penance.
Thomas of Celano, in his Life of Saint Francis, writes: “Many people, well-born and lowly, cleric and lay, driven by divine inspiration, began to come to Saint Francis, for they desired to serve under his constant training and leadership. All of these the holy one of God, like a fertile stream of heavenly grace, watered with showers of gifts and he adorned the field of their hearts with the flowers of perfection…Furthermore, to all he gave a norm of life and to those of every rank he sincerely pointed out the way of salvation.” Julian of Speyer, in his Life of Saint Francis, also states: “He founded three Orders …The Third, also an order of considerable perfection, is called the Order of Penitents, which profitably brings together clerics and laity, virgins, unmarried, and married persons of both sexes.” In the Major Legend of Saint Francis (IV,6) Bonaventure writes: “Set on fire by the fervor of his preaching, a great number of people bound themselves by new laws of penance according to the rule which they received from the man of God. Christ’s servant decided to name this way of life the Order of the Brothers and Sisters of Penance. As the road of penance is common to all those who are striving toward heaven, so this way of life admits clerics and lay, virgins and married of both sexes.”
A Story of the “First” Brother and Sister of Penance . . .
Blessed Luchesio Modestini was a merchant in the little town of Poggibonzi in Tuscany. More than most merchants, he was so entirely and solely concerned with material success that he was generally reputed to be an avaricious man. His wife, Buonadonna, was of a similar disposition.
Then the grace of God touched the husband. Blessed Luchesio realized how foolish it is to strive only for worldly goods, of which he could take nothing with him to eternity, meanwhile forgetting about his soul’s salvation, as he had, unfortunately, been doing until then. He began to practice works of mercy and to perform his religious obligations with fidelity; he succeeded in winning his wife over to a similar outlook on life.
Since they had no one to care for but themselves, and Luchesio feared that in conducting his business he might relapse into covetousness, he gave up his business entirely. He and his good wife divided everything among the poor and retained for themselves only so much acreage as would suffice for their support. Luchesio tilled this with his own hands.
About this time St. Francis came to Tuscany. After his sermon on penance, hosts of people desired to leave all and enter the convent. But the saint admonished them calmly to persevere in their vocation, for he had in mind soon to give them a special rule according to which they could serve God perfectly even in the world.
At Poggibonzi Francis visited Blessed Luchesio, with whom he had become acquainted through former business transactions. St. Francis greatly rejoiced to find this avaricious man so altered, and Luchesio, who had already heard about the blessed activities of St Francis, asked for special instructions for himself and his wife, so that they might lead a life in the world that would be pleasing to God.
St. Francis then explained to them his plans for the establishment of an order for lay people; and Luchesio and Buonadonna asked to be received into it at once. With this heartfelt and selfless request, according to tradition, they became the first members of the Order of Penance, which later came to be called the Third Order of St Francis.
If Luchesio and Buonadonna were really the first Tertiaries, they must have become such not long after St. Francis founded his First Order in 1209. The first simple rule of life, which St. Francis gave to the first Tertiaries at that time, was supplanted in 1221 by one which Cardinal Ugolino prepared in legal wording. And in the same year Pope Honorius III approved this rule verbally. For this reason the year 1221 is often given as the date of the founding of the Third Order of St. Francis. As to the place where the Third Order was first introduced nothing certain is known. The preponderance of opinion is for Florence, chiefly on the authority of Mariano of Florence, or Faenza, who cites the first papal bull known on the subject(Regesta pontificum). The less authoritative Fioretti assigns Cannara, a small town two hours’ walk from the Portiuncula, as the birthplace of the Third Order. Mariano and the Bull for Faenza (16 December 1221) suggest that 1221 was the earliest date for founding of the Third Order.
The Order of Franciscan Penitents – The “Third Order”
The name “third order” began to be used at the end of the 13th century. The Franciscan penitents never loved this definition and resisted it. In 1489 Pope Sixtus IV, with Romani Pontificis Providential, submitted the brothers and sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis to the regime of the Friars Minor. This meant the end of autonomy and the beginning of “obedientiality”. The Pope granted “superiority, power and authority on the minister and on the friars of the third order of penance”, even though this was contrary to the origin, the history and the nature of the Order of Penance and of the Order of Friars Minor and to the will of St. Francis, father and founder of both Orders. Thus the new name of “third order” assumes its entire meaning of accessory of dependence, of appendage of the First Order. This Papal Bull has regulated all relationships between the First and the Third Orders until the time of the Rule of Paul VI (1978). Leo XIII belonged to the Third Order Secular from 1882 when he was Archbishop of Perugia. He believed that, just as the early penitential movement had contributed to the renewal of society, so could the third Order of his day. His conviction was that: Only the Franciscan Third Order, lived in its genuine spirit, could have saved a society afflicted by so many individual and social problems.
In 1883 Leo XIII introduced a new Rule, Misericors Dei Filius, which was designed to attract as many people as possible. In the introduction to the Leonine Rule he says: “The Third Order is adapted to the multitude, and the records of past ages as well as the Order itself show how greatly it can promote just, honest and religious habits.” This new Rule placed few burdens on members, dress was to be modest, people were to be attentive to the suitability of their choice of reading and other forms of entertainments, they were not to swear and they were to pray regularly, to consume moderately, to keep the prescribed fasts and to be loyal to the church and their faith. It was hoped that fraternities would develop in every parish. The new rule led to a great increase in the number of tertiaries but there was little in it to make members aware of a Franciscan or penitential identity. However it encouraged members in the practice of their personal faith. According to the training manual Call to Commitment in the School of Saint Francis, the purpose of the Third Order was “one of sanctification of interior progress in the spiritual life of its members… ‘The Church provided this institution to enable you to attain a complete and balanced holiness proper to your own lay state…to maintain and spread Christ’s kingdom by setting before others a pattern of holiness’”.
What is the Secular Franciscan Order (OFS)
The apostolic life of St. Francis and of his first companions started from their experience of “conversion”. 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 interiorly 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.” Francis formed these secular penitents into the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, later called the Third Order of St. Francis. From this Penitential Order the Third Order Regular (TOR) emerged in the 15th century. The Order continued as the Third Order of St. Francis, Secular. In 1978, its name was changed to the Secular Franciscan Order (S. F 0.). In 2014, the acronym again changed from SFO to OFS (Order of Secular Franciscans), to better unify the identity of the Seculars throughout the world. Secular Franciscans, as their name implies, live ordinary lives in the world rather than in religious communities. They may be single or married, women or men, in all walks of life. They live the Gospel as consecrated laity in a Franciscan manner according to their own Rule which they profess after a period of initial formation. Profession as a Secular Franciscan is a lifelong commitment. Formation and profession of the Secular Franciscan takes place within a local community called a fraternity. Life in fraternity is an essential aspect of the Secular Franciscan vocation. The fraternity is a community of love, the privileged place for the sisters and brothers to develop their sense of Church and the Franciscan call.
Although a self-governing Order, each Secular Franciscan fraternity receives guidance in spiritual matters from a spiritual assistant, usually a friar of one of the other Franciscan Orders (OFM, OFM Conv, OFM Cap, and the TOR). These relationships are particularly strong between Secular Franciscans and the T.O.R. friars with whom they share common roots in the Franciscan penitential tradition.
What does it mean to be a Secular Franciscan?
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.
How is the Secular Franciscan Order structured?
The Secular Franciscan Order is a public association in the Roman 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 and the particular statutes. 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 and with the council, in accordance with the Rule, the Constitutions, and their own Statutes. These offices are conferred through elections. The International Fraternity is constituted by the organic union of all the Catholic Secular Franciscan fraternities in the world. 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.
How We Affirm Our Vocation
The Secular Franciscan publicly affirms their commitment to a life of penance (conversion) through two public (external) signs: our solemn promises, and our religious habit.Like any vocation, the true witness of our call is the way we live our lives – however, that life is lived under promises, made solemnly and publicly within a liturgy of Eucharistic celebration, to a Gospel centered life, and is visibly reaffirmed by the public wearing of our religious habit. For more information on these, check out these links:
Much of the information within taken from the publication: From “Order of Franciscan Penitents” to “Secular Franciscan Order” by Ursula Mott OFS, accessed 6/12/2017 at: http://www.tssf.org.uk/attachments/article /90/From_Order_of_