Christopher Shorrock OFM Conv.



Research is still being carried out today into the origins of what is commonly known as the Third Order of St. Francis; today the Secular Franciscan Order. The position that existed at the end of the nineteenth century, maintaining that there was initially a nucleus of "penitents" grouped around Francis, from which the Friars Minor and the Poor Ladies later broke away against the founder's wishes in order to lead a canonical religious life, has now been abandoned. The opposite position has been also put forward, particularly by a Dominican G.G. Meersseman, who, after comparing the many papal documents relating to the penitential movement from 1221 onward, concludes that, though Francis may not have been the actual founder, he at least deserves recognition for imparting new vitality to already existing groups of brothers and sisters of penance by his urge for evangelical renewal.

If we were to look at the known sources by today's authorities, it would lead to the following conclusions. For many years there had been groups of penitents, who were a product not only of the Church's penitential discipline, but also of a communal commitment - propositum - to evangelical perfection. Thus, at the end of the twelfth century, the order of clerics and the order of monks were joined by the order of penitents, which was given official recognition by the Church. In fact, Francis and his first companions took the name of "Penitents of Assisi" before their Rule received papal approval. Some of these groups placed themselves under the direction of a monastery, or joined new regular institutes such as the Premonstratensians or the Humiliati, forming a "third order" of married or celibate lay people. The commitment of conversion involved a series of renunciations and exemptions, and a distinctive penitential habit, as well as greater strictness than was observed by ordinary Christians regarding fasting and frequency in receiving the sacraments.

Under Innocent III, and even more so under honourius III, mainly owing to the initiative taken by Cardinal Ugolino, the Holy See was at pains to give the penitential movement greater cohesion and even a properly defined canonical status; attempts were also made to immunise it against heresy. The truth was that this movement was now emerging as a new phenomenon under the revitalising influence of St. Francis and his Order. The lay Christians of the Italian municipalities were beginning to express their desire for a more radical form of Christianity. It was precisely this note of secularity that distinguished the Franciscan fraternities from the older ones, even the Humiliati.

The first "official" papal bull which clearly recognises St. Francis as the founder of the Order of Penitents is Nicholas IV's Supra Montem of 1289; but as early as 1238, in a letter to Saint Agnes of Bohemia, Gregory IX mentions the three orders founded by Saint Francis, "the Friars Minor, the Enclosed Sisters, and the Penitents." This testimony is all the more valuable as it comes from the man who took the main initiative in the direction of Franciscan institutions as Cardinal Protector.

The role of Francis as "founder" of the "Third Order" is under wide discussion today. The best and fairest summary is Casagrande (1997). To summarise the two positions, it could be said that some scholars do not deny that Francis might be responsible for the paternity of his own Order of Penitents in the role of founder, promoter or spiritual animator (Rivi 1989, pp. 157-58; Stewart 1991, p. 215; D'Alatri 1993, p. 87), while other scholars hold that Francis did not found any kind of Order of Penance although pious faithful spontaneously gathered around Francis in fraternities, setting in train a relationship that ended in an institution. (Rivi 1989, pp. 156-57 gives a good summary of this position).

D'Alatri (1993, p. 87) puts it as follows:

"Personally I am of the opinion that this Order of penance, in so far as it was an institution, rather than being the fulfilment of a specific plan of Francis, should be considered as the result of his penitential animation: then, after many attempts, both he and the official Church saw the necessity of establishing precise "norms" and a "way of life" for these new penitents, who claimed to be connected to Francis and to share his charism."


Since the middle of the nineteenth century several important factors have played their part in the development of a new and unexpected prosperity for the Franciscan Third Order, later the Secular Franciscan Order: the restoration of the First Order in all its different branches with a more social and practical sense of its apostolate, and a keener awareness of Franciscan modes of action; the wave of sympathy for St. Francis which began in intellectual circles; and firm papal support.

The first step was to make use of the printed word through periodicals, which would spread Franciscan ideals and create links between the different fraternities. There was a much greater increase in the number of these publications during and after the pontificate of Leo XIII, so that by 1919 there were as many as 164 throughout the world, a figure which increased still further over the next ten years.

Once again, persons of distinction considered it an honour to wear the Seraphic cord, and sanctity, too, flourished once more in the Franciscan Third Order, producing some outstanding figures. The following tertiaries devoted themselves to practical work: Joseph Benedict Cottolengo (d. 1842), Vincentia Gerosa (d. 1847), Vincent Pallotti (d. 1850), Jean- Marie Vianney (d. 1859), Joseph Cafasso (d. 1860), Mary Joseph Rossello (d. 1880), John Bosco (d. 1888), Frances Xavier Cabrini (d. 1917), the Blessed Contardo Ferrini (d. 1902).

Of recent popes, all from Pius IX to John XXIII belonged to the Franciscan Third Order before their accession to the pontificate, and all have singled it out for special attention. But it was Leo XIII who gave it preference and founded upon it his best hopes for the regeneration of Christian society. While still Bishop of Perugia he had used every possible means to encourage its growth in all the parishes of his diocese; this enthusiasm increased when he ascended the papal throne. He took advantage of the seventh centenary of the birth of St. Francis in 1882 to issue the encyclical Auspicato concessum, which was a fervent eulogy of the Franciscan Third Order Secular and a strong exhortation to promote its expansion in every part of the world.

This Pope realised, however, that the old Franciscan institution would never become an effective worldwide force capable of uniting all lay people of good will unless the spirit which had given birth to it was adapted to meet the demands of modern life; he therefore decided to modify the Rule. It was not just a question of modernising it; the essential was to make it acceptable to the greatest possible number.

The new Rule was promulgated in the apostolic constitution Misericors Dei Filius, of May 30, 1884. 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 as could be adapted to the life of any keen Christian, and modified or completed whatever parts of it seemed outdated or excessively harsh.

These were the most important articles: members should wear the small scapular and the cord; they must go through a year's novitiate before profession; their dress was to be simple and quiet; they must stay away from profane spectacles, and exercise moderation in eating; they should confess and take communion once a month, and say twelve "Our Fathers", the Hail Mary and the Gloria daily, unless they had attended the Divine Office or the Little Office of the Virgin Mary; they were to make their wills in good time; they should examine their consciences every day, and, whenever possible, attend daily mass and the monthly assembly: they were to pay their voluntary contribution toward the fraternities' expenses and the relief of the poor. There was to be a redistribution of offices every three years; and an annual visit was to be carried out as a duty by members of the First Order or the Third Order Regular appointed by the Guardian in charge of the fraternity.

Having taken this momentous step, the Pope lost no opportunity during the next few years of involving the whole Catholic episcopate in the propagation of the Franciscan Third Order Secular, either by encyclicals or by exhortation 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 movement even spread outside the Catholic Church. The Third Order of St. Francis was particularly successful in recruiting members of the Anglican Church at the end of the nineteenth century, using a different Rule, but the same name. The Calvinist Monod, founder of a Franciscan Third Order in France, ended his speech at the unionist congress in Stockholm in 1927 by expressing the wish that "in all parts of the Christian world a new St. Francis might inspire missionaries of the Third Order Secular to preach the moral, social, and spiritual Gospel which alone can preserve us from the dreadful spectacle of another world catastrophe ...."

The centenary celebrations had been inaugurated on January 6 that year by Benedict XV with his encyclical Sacra propediem, in which he exhorted those who had charge of souls to ensure that the already existing tertiary fraternities became steadily more prosperous, and that others were created where as yet there were none. The result was a fresh increase in the number of tertiaries and in the patronage extended by bishops to the Franciscan Third Order, acting on the unequivocal guidelines laid down by the Holy See. Large congresses were held in 1926 to mark the seventh centenary of the death of St. Francis; it was also commemorated by Pius XI in the encyclical Rite expiatis, which ended with another exhortation to bishops to encourage the faithful as energetically as they could to join the Third Order. Later these solemn assemblies were succeeded by more practical and effective national meetings, in which only provincial delegates took part. Pius XII added words of his own to the chorus of praise and the injunctions of his predecessors in an audience which he granted to 4,000 representatives of the fraternities under the jurisdiction of the four branches of the Franciscan family, on November 20, 1945, and on August 15, 1952, when he commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of his entrance in the Franciscan Third Order. John XXIII, in his allocution of July 2, 1961 to the national congress of Italy, and Paul VI in his allocution of June 23, 1968, and another of May 20, 1971, to a large international gathering of Franciscan Tertiaries, also expressed their regard for the Franciscan lay movement.

From the beginning of this century there had been a steady decline in the number of Tertiaries. This trend did not pass unnoticed by the superiors of the Franciscan families, who for years had been studying ways of revitalising the Franciscan Third Order Secular by improving its organisation and uniting their common efforts. The four ministers general of the Friars Minor, Friars Minor Conventual, Friars Minor Capuchin, and Third Order Regular had from time to time sent out circulars to their respective families urging superiors to fulfil their responsibilities to the Third Order. At the same time general, national and provincial commissariats were created to centralise authority within each Franciscan family, and organisations formed to establish better liaison and cooperation among them. Interdisciplinary meetings were held, like the international assembly of lay directors in 1950, and another in 1975, coinciding with the great world pilgrimage in Holy Year.

One important event was the publication in 1957 of the Third Order's General Constitutions by decree of the Sacred Congregation for Religious. These stressed the secular nature of their vocation - secular holiness, secular apostolate - and outlined a program for committed Christian living that was realistic and up to date, especially as regards witnessing and working for peace and social justice. The possibility of replacing the scapular and cord with a medallion or badge was accepted. A distinction was drawn between external authority, exercised by the four Ministers General of the First Order through general, national, provincial and zonal Commissaries and local Directors, and the internal authority of local, zonal, provincial, national, general, and inter-obediential chapters.

In 1973 the World Council of the Franciscan Third Order was established.

At the Second Vatican Council, which strongly emphasised the lay person's vocation in the Church and set lay organisations committed to the Christian apostolate on the road to gradual independence, it was also felt necessary to recognise the autonomous nature of the Franciscan Third Order.

The drafting of a new general Rule was begun in 1968, and the difficult task was finally completed when Pope John Paul II promulgated it on June 24, 1978. The Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and for Societies of Apostolic Life approved the revisions of the General Constitutions on 8th September 1990. At the General Chapter of the Secular Franciscan Order held in Madrid, Spain, in October 1999, further revisions to the General Constitutions were discussed. These were approved on December 8, 2000.