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In Search of a Secular Franciscan Charism

In the early 1200s, St. Francis of Assisi inflamed the hearts of the faithful with the Gospel message. He did not just speak the Good News; he lived it, with a particular emphasis on poverty and simplicity. As he wandered Italy and farther abroad, people flocked to hear his preaching and marveled at his example. At a time of widespread corruption, confusion, and worldliness within the Church and throughout Christendom, his zeal for souls regenerated the faith of many. Multitudes asked to join his movement. In response, the Seraphic Father founded three orders: the Friars Minor, the Poor Clares, and the Brothers and Sisters of Penance. The Third Order was open to all lay men and women, and diocesan clergy, so that even those living in the world could follow St. Francis’s way of holiness.

St. Francis’s message is still essential. Not every Catholic is called to follow the Franciscan way. It is one way of living out one’s baptism; it is one path to heaven. But within the Third Order, now officially named the Secular Franciscan Order (or OFS – Ordo Franciscanus Sæcularis), there is apparently some confusion over the Order’s identity and future. Some international leaders of the Order have started a conversation about how to understand Secular Franciscan spirituality. They have circulated official texts intended to direct the spiritual formation of tertiaries.

One such text is a keynote speech delivered by Br. Benedetto Lino, a top OFS leader in Italy and internationally, at the General Chapter in 2011 called “A Specific Vocation for a Particular Mission.” Br. Benedetto lays out an interpretation of Secular Franciscan identity and makes a statement on mission that is inspiring but lacking. He suggests that the specific meaning of the Secular Franciscan vocation is unclear, and his explanation of Franciscan spirituality misses some key concepts.

The Secular Franciscan charism can be readily discerned from the Rule of the Order and the words and example of St. Francis.

Formation or Disinformation?

Br. Benedetto’s manifesto on Secular Franciscan identity is being distributed worldwide as recommended reading for all tertiaries. He lays out a framework for educating professed members, and those interested in joining, on the purpose and meaning of the Order. It is meant to spur thought and discussion and to be used for spiritual formation. While there is much to agree with in the text, there are some ideas that may be confusing or even misleading. Br. Benedetto has inspiring words about the fundamental call to holiness of all Christians, emphasizing that Secular Franciscan identity is based first and foremost on being good Christians, and secondly on being Franciscans.

However, Br. Benedetto seems to suggest that there is some kind of identity crisis in the Third Order that I am not sure exists. And if there is a lack of clarity for many tertiaries about what it means to be a Secular Franciscan, I am not sure that his text will help.

As I understand it, Br. Benedetto’s basic point is that Secular Franciscans must not pigeonhole themselves spiritually. Instead, they are called to no specific spiritual orientation or practices. They should simply be good Christians, just like everyone else. Indeed, to think of themselves as different is potentially dangerous. They are called to follow St. Francis, yes – but the saint was simply a Christian, with nothing particularly distinctive about his way of life, except that he was very passionate in his following of Christ. This point is made on page 5, where Br. Benedetto imagines the advice St. Francis would give his followers today: “My dearest brothers and sisters, in order to be my true and faithful disciples, you have to be only Christians, wholly Christians.”

This assertion seems to obscure or even deny the existence of any distinctive or meaningful Secular Franciscan charism. While Br. Benedetto does refer to the qualities typically associated with St. Francis – humility, poverty, and minority (on p. 3) – as well as the fact that St. Francis was humble, poor, chaste, and meek, and that he lived in fraternity (p. 6), Br. Benedetto says there is nothing distinctive about this because all Christians should have these attitudes and live this way. “Francis’ way of being Christian is characterised only by the intensity of his discipleship: radicalism, totality, permanence” (p. 16). “Our specific vocation is, therefore, to be Christian, as Francis was” (p. 6) (emphasis in the original). “Beyond this, there is nothing specific” (p. 6).

Br. Benedetto concludes (emphasis in the original):

What is, therefore, our mission? It is certainly not particular, unless we want to consider that its particularity consists precisely in its non-particularity, in its all-inclusiveness. The word “particular” is one which refers to a part of the whole and, it seems to me, that our mission, instead, includes everything (p. 10).

In response, I must ask: are there, then, no distinguishing marks of the Secular Franciscan life? I take the point that the fundamental vocation and mission of Secular Franciscans is the same as for all the faithful: to follow Christ. But is Br. Benedetto denying the existence of a Secular Franciscan charism – a particular and distinctive Franciscan way of following Christ?

It is odd that he formulates such a non-specific understanding of Franciscan spirituality when, on page 13, he quotes Pope Pius XI, who said, “If they are Christian faithful just like everyone else, there is no point in being Tertiaries … the Franciscan Tertiary is a special title[.] … [O]ne cannot usurp – and it would be a usurpation – such a title without something special to go with it.”

Well, is there anything special about being a Secular Franciscan?

Discerning a Secular Franciscan Charism

The historical record and living tradition of the Order together provide clear clues to defining the Order’s charism. We can look at the several historical Rules of the Order and the many documents in which St. Francis describes his calling and guides his followers. The original Rule was given by St. Francis in 1221 and has been updated a few times over the centuries, most recently in 1978.

Article 2 of the current Rule says Secular Franciscans “pledge themselves to live the gospel in the manner of St. Francis.” What exactly is the “manner of St. Francis”? I think there are numerous things that distinguish Franciscan spirituality. They are not exclusive to Franciscans, nor are they the only way to holiness. But from the time St. Francis himself established it, some of the Third Order’s defining characteristics have included:

  • Poverty – Not just an attitude of detachment, but actual voluntary material simplicity.
  • Peace – The original Rule specifies that tertiaries are not to bear lethal weapons.
  • Secularity – It is not a contemplative order; tertiaries are called to apostolic activity in the world.
  • Penance – In the Prologue to the Rule of 1978 (also called the Letter to All the Faithful) and other writings, St. Francis exhorted his followers in the strongest terms to “do penance” – to concrete acts of self-denial and self-sacrifice for love of God and neighbor. He advised mortification. The Rule of 1221 specifies many penitential practices (e.g., fasting, simple clothing) going beyond the minimum required by Church law.

The list could go on. The Secular Franciscan identity is not a mystery, and we do not need to cast about looking for answers to what it means to be Franciscan.

The pre-1978 rules provide perspective on how to be a good tertiary today. In fact, in a formation document called “The Nature of the Secular Franciscan Order,” Br. Benedetto agrees we can learn from the past: “[a]n examination of our old rules is most important to discover the purity of our vocation and to situate ourselves in a continuity of thought and intention with those who have gone before us and who have bequeathed to us the history and nature of our Order. From these rules it is often possible to infer riches that have fallen into oblivion and which need to be restored in order to really understand who we are as secular Franciscans.”

It was shown to St. Francis by God how he should follow Christ, marking a Franciscan path to sanctification. Again, this way is not exclusive. There are many ways to follow Christ within His Church. As far as I know, it is not sinful per se for a Christian to have money and property; to own a home – even a big house; to wear colorful, flashy clothes and jewelry; to be a leader of men, such as a public official or military officer; to drive a car – even an expensive car; or to be a highly educated professional. Presumably, any of the baptized can have or do all these things and be a good Christian – and yet St. Francis suggests for the sake of sanctity that his friars and tertiaries eschew such things and opt instead for voluntary simplicity.

Theoretically, Franciscan friars could wear white habits like the Dominicans, but St. Francis thought it was spiritually meaningful for his brothers to wear natural colors like brown. Benedictines have a rule of stability, while Franciscan friars and tertiaries do not. Why gloss over such differences? These are real distinctions. Some are called to one way of life, some to another. Thus, there is a clear Franciscan charism, and you can find it expressed in St. Francis’s writings and actions.

This leads me to a consideration of two things that are conspicuously absent from Br. Benedetto’s reflection but are key to a clear and full understanding of Franciscan spirituality and hence to good formation. These are sin and penance. An argument can be made that an acute awareness of personal sin and a keen sense of the need for concrete acts of penance were absolutely essential to St. Francis’s mission on Earth. Zeal for saving souls motivated St. Francis to ceaselessly and insistently remind everyone about the inescapable reality of the Four Last Things (death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell) – as he does with great earnestness in the Letter to All the Faithful. It is a surprising omission that Br. Benedetto’s treatise on Franciscan vocation and mission does not to mention the word “sin” once.

St. Francis and Sin

The writings of St. Francis are replete with urgent warnings of the dangers of sin and the threat of Satan. He had severe words for those who persisted in sin and with tender concern for their eternal salvation admonished them to conversion. Growth in virtue was a constant theme. Any discussion of Franciscan spirituality should include reference to this concern and acknowledge the reality that on this earth we are engaged in unceasing spiritual warfare with the world, the flesh, and the devil. St. Francis was preoccupied with sin and repentance, as can be seen in his writings such as the rules of life for the Friars Minor, his Admonitions, and the Letter to All the Faithful. Here are some examples:

Admonitions (no. 11): “To the servant of God nothing should be displeasing save sin. And no matter in what way any one may sin, if the servant of God is troubled or angered – except this be through charity – he treasures up guilt to himself.”

The First Rule (no. 5): “And let all the brothers, the ministers and servants as well as the others, take care not to be troubled or angered because of the fault or bad example of another, for the devil desires to corrupt many through the sin of one; but let them spiritually help him who has sinned, as best they can; for he that is whole needs not a physician, but he that is sick.”

First Rule (no. 13): “If any brother by the instigation of the devil should commit fornication, let him be deprived of the habit of the Order which he has lost by his base iniquity and let him put it aside wholly, and let him be altogether expelled from our religion. And let him afterwards do penance for his sins.”

First Rule (no. 21): “And if you do not forgive men their sins, the Lord will not forgive you your sins. Confess all your sins. Blessed are they who shall die in penitence, for they shall be in the kingdom of heaven. Woe to those who do not die in penitence, for they shall be the children of the devil, whose works they do, and they shall go into eternal fire. Beware and abstain from all evil, and persevere in good until the end.”

St. Francis and Penance

I don’t see how any discussion of our Secular Franciscan vocation, mission, and identity can exclude a consideration of the meaning of penance in Franciscan life. St. Francis referred to his Third Order as the Brothers and Sisters of Penance. The centrality of penance for tertiaries – not only an attitude of repentance or interior conversion, but a lifestyle characterized by outward, tangible acts of reparation and satisfaction prompted by awareness of personal sin and love of God – is made clear in texts such as the Prologue to the current Rule and throughout the text of the Rule of 1221.

The earliest Rule includes numerous detailed guidelines that define a way of living in the world that emphasizes concrete acts and signs of piety, poverty, peacefulness, and service. For example, tertiaries were required to abstain from meat and fast each week and during several periods throughout the year, to avoid theaters and shows, and to wear simple clothing of specified value, design, colors, and materials. For tertiaries to be distinct in terms of clothing and behavior was integral to his vision of the Order. Obviously, St. Francis would not have made such specific requirements if he did not think they were spiritually beneficial.

In his book St. Francis and the Third Order (1982), Raffaele Pazzelli, TOR goes so far as to say that penance is “the fundamental characteristic of the Third Order.” Speaking of the Rule of 1221, he explains:

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 conversio 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. (pp. 134-135)

I think the words of St. Francis in the Rule from 1221 are helpful for Secular Franciscans today. Many, maybe most, modern Secular Franciscans are unaware of St. Francis’s original vision for the Order and might be inspired to reflect deeply on the spiritual significance of their practical lifestyle choices – including family life, fashion, diet, personal finances, entertainment, hobbies and leisure activities, and pious practices – if they learned of it. As Br. Benedetto says, “[w]e must look to Francis, mindful not to yield to the world’s prevailing trends and vagaries, in order to learn how to realize our vocation. We must always go back to the beginning” (p. 9). He adds, “recently, there has been a tendency to distance oneself from Francis’ own experience as the irreplaceable cornerstone for all Franciscans, as if the fact that he belonged to the world of the thirteenth century unfitted him for the world of today.”

Of course, the 1221 Rule has been superseded, and the Rule of 1978 does not require such specific practices. However, we can take the words of St. Francis in the first Rule as an inspiration, as a helpful guide to understanding the Order’s identity today, and as a lens through which to interpret the Order’s current Rule and General Constitutions.

I like the motto for the OFS proposed by Br. Benedetto and other leaders: “Evangelized in order to evangelize.” It’s important, though, to be clear on what “evangelization” means. The core Truth of the Gospel – the Good News – is that Our Lord Jesus Christ is the Son of God, Who suffered and died to save us from our sins. This is the message that needs to be proclaimed throughout the world – by our actions, and with words when necessary. But I do not see such a message clearly stated in the formation materials being distributed from the central office. Br. Benedetto talks about Secular Franciscans “changing the world,” but not a word about saving souls.


In this essay, I have tried to contribute to the ongoing dialogue about what it means to be Secular Franciscan today, and about the identity and future of the Order. Br. Benedetto’s text is a starting point, but there is more to be said about Franciscan spirituality. It is possible to identify a Franciscan charism, and it is only with a clear sense of identity that tertiaries can live out their vocation. The OFS mission is the mission of the Church – but with a distinctive Franciscan twist that emphasizes poverty, simplicity, humility, and a penitential lifestyle.

All men are called to be Christians, to be members of the One True Church established by Our Lord – the Catholic Church. How will anyone know if he is called specifically to be Franciscan if the charism is not presented clearly and the spiritual formation is ambiguous?

Just as a cell needs a membrane to distinguish itself as a healthy, coherent organism in relation to its environment, Secular Franciscans – as an Order, and individually – need to have a clear understanding of their distinctive vocation in order to function and survive in the world, with the ultimate goal of getting to heaven and bringing along as many souls as possible. To be clear about their relationship with St. Francis and to follow his unique example does not close them off to the world; it makes them salty with a distinctive Franciscan flavor.

I want to conclude with some words from a formation text, The Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order with a Catechism and Instructions (1980), which show that my perspective is not unique. Fr. Conelio Mota Ramos and his co-authors write:

We must never lose sight of the reason for our Order’s existence. We are committed to the salvation of all through the Church, yet with a spirit that distinguishes us from other Orders. … Secular Franciscans are Christian apostles sent by the Church into secular society as a leaven of gospel living. Since the Church gives this responsibility to many others, we must justify our existence as a separate Order by permeating our methods and attitudes with the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi (p. 93).

4 thoughts on “In Search of a Secular Franciscan Charism”

  1. You are very charitable in the way you show the errors of modernism that have crept into the Secular Franciscans, as well as Oblates, and Third Order Carmelites.

    For example the call to poverty is glossed over. Why? Because it’s hard. And counter-culture. And those around us will think we are crazy.

    Yes, we are all called to holiness, but why be a secular anything if one is not going to live the life called for? The Oblate’s Commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict, for example, calls for turning away from the distractions of the world to the extent of giving up TV, newspapers, internet and all other worldly distractions. How easy it is to tell ourselves that we simply cannot do this in this modern era. Nonsense. We don’t want to do it. Thank you for your thoughtful article. It makes us ask the question: why is there so much “discussion” needed over something that is so simple?

  2. Thank you. I joined the order and have subsequently realised that I am called to give up everything and follow Christ. My human frailty aside, the order should be encouraging a deep commitment to a life of penance and forsaking everything for Christ. I think the Order, like many others in being asked to go back to its charism cf V11, is actually in danger of losing it.

  3. Thank you and God bless you for this article.

    I think the Rule of 1978, promulgated by Pope Paul VI, himself an SFO (or OFS) is what killed the original charism of penance and mortification.

    My husband and I joined the Order in late 1980’s and the formation we got was all about the Four Commissions: Family, Labor, the Environment, and Peace and Justice. There was hardly any mention of personal sanctification because it was a “given.” All good Catholics are suppposed to already be good at praying and fasting, going to Mass and receiving the sacraments frequently, and leading simple lives. Where we are supposed to be at this time is Social Justice. Why, we were told there is even an NGO of Secular Franciscans at the UN – how great is that?

    Unfortunately, the shift toward Social Justice may have been premature and confusing. Okay, so it was all a great fun to join the friars in championing the feeding and sheltering of the homeless and illegal aliens; in picketing with striking labor unions. Joining the friars in protest marches against nuclear proliferation and destruction of the environment. But joining the friars in promoting gay rights and ordination of women to the priesthood?

    There was a friar (God rest his soul) who worked with the Seculars closely, who was a good friend of Senator Nancy Pelosi and never missed mentioning her and her good works in his homilies each time he came home from visiting her in DC. None of the Seculars seemed to have been scandalized by this, save me. I was the songleader at his Masses and once I found myself alone with him, I dared to mention Pelosi’s rabid pro-abortion stance. I swear I saw him stop breathing and for a while I thought he was about to faint. I got so scared and never mentioned Pelosi to him again. Thankfully, neither did he mention her in his homilies again.

    No one knows exactly how many Third Order Franciscan Seculars there are in the world and, based on the membership of my own fraternity, a big chunk of them doesn’t know the catechism. You cannot really live a Gospel life unless you know the Gospel and what the Church teaches. How can you be a leaven in the world when Pope Francis himself distinctly disapproves of Catholics working to convert people to the Faith?

    My husband and I left our fraternity at about the time members of a neighboring fraternity of gay men were trying to influence our members. No, that was not why we left; we simply had to move to live in another city and would not be able to attend the monthly meetings anymore.

    The thing I really appreciate about having been an SFO was learning how to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. It almost made everything worth while.


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