in the Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order

Patrick Colbourne OFM Cap.


When I speak of charism in this paper, I intend to signify a gift of the Holy Spirit that promotes a response to the Gospel that involves a specific Gospel insight which is put into practice in a specific environment. We may refer to a person's response to the Divine as their spirituality. Within this general area, people are gifted with particular insights, particular vocations, to live within specific circumstances as they respond to God's presence in their lives. Although he admired saintly monks, St Francis was not a monk. Although he supported, challenged and encouraged lay people, he was not a Secular Franciscan. There is something very specific in every call from God to holiness, and it is that specific quality we seek to explore as it is described in the Pauline Rule of the OFS.

When promulgating the OFS Constitutions, Emanuela De Nunzio mentioned three specific characteristics of the OFS: secularity, unity and autonomy. [1] These qualities are all set out in the first two paragraphs of the Pauline Rule. The OFS is secular in so far as its members "strive for perfect charity in their own secular state" (Rule 2). The Secular Franciscan Order is one is so far as "it is an organic union of all Catholic fraternities scattered throughout the world" (Rule 2). It is autonomous in so far as it carries out its vocation within the Franciscan family, under the common fatherhood of St. Francis, "in various ways and forms but in life-giving union" with the other branches of that family (Rule 1).

The OFS Charism is a gift of the Holy Spirit

The opening of the Rule makes it clear that the life it is describing is the work of the Holy Spirit. The Franciscan family, which is only one of the many spiritual families in the Church, is "raised up by the Holy Spirit" (Rule 1) and the Secular Franciscans specifically are "led by the Spirit" (Rule 2). Nothing could be clearer than that this life is a gift of the Holy Spirit, a charism.

Father Carl Schafer OFM expressed this precisely in his article: "The Rule, Gift of the Spirit that leads to the Father" [2]. This article honoured the twenty-fifth anniversary of the approval of the Pauline Rule and married this occasion to the celebration of the second phase of preparation for the celebration of the Jubilee Year 2000. Chapter Two of the Rule states that Seculars should follow the example of Saint Francis of Assisi, who made Christ the inspiration and the centre of his life with God and people (Rule 4). The text of the Pauline Rule says explicitly: "United themselves to the redemptive obedience of Jesus, who placed his will into the Father's hands, let them faithfully fulfil the duties proper to their various circumstances of life"(Rule 10). Saint Francis longed for union with the Father and found the best way to the Father was through observing and imitating His Son. Recently, while meditating on Good Friday, I used the Office of the Passion and I was struck at how often the phrase "My Holy Father" appeared. Saint Francis saw the Passion as Christ's humble commitment to the plan of his Father, which was an act not only of submission but of faith that the Father's plan would achieve salvation. In his article, Father Carl quotes from Chapter Four of the SFO Rule: "Christ, the gift of the Father's love, is the way to him (that is, the Father; italics are mine), the truth into which the Holy Spirit leads us, and the life which he has come to give abundantly" (Rule 4). As a consequence of sharing the mind of Christ, Secular Franciscans will also share in Christ's unfailing hope and, having experienced it, will be able to pass it on to others. Quoting from the Admonitions of Saint Francis, the Rule states: "They should strive to bring joy and hope to others" (Rule 19).

The OFS Charism is inherited from our Common Father

The origin of the Franciscan charism lies within the Church of the time of Saint Francis. It had become clear at that time that new ways of evangelising the people of God were necessary. The new evangelisation was not confined to new methods of apostolate but to a new way of interpreting and living the gospel deep at heart. Saint Francis gave birth to a new approach and had his way of life approved by the Pope. Ancient sources including Celano and Julien of Speyer refer to three Orders of Franciscan inspiration. [3] Ben Brevoort O.F.M.Cap summarises the circumstances surrounding the founding of the Order of Brothers and Sisters of Penance concisely:

"The Third Order, or the Order of Brothers and Sisters of Penance (Legenda Major, St. Bonaventure, IV, 6. Bonaventure p. 210, Paulist Press, 1978), was born from Francis' commitment to open new ways for men and women who wanted to 'do penance' following his preaching and the example of his life. It certainly cannot be said that Francis instituted or founded the Order of Penitents, because it was already present in the Church from apostolic times. But he tried to show people, when they were touched by his message, how to "do penance" (Francis: Letter to the Faithful, pp. 41-44). The Order of Penitents gave rise to groups of brothers and sisters of penance inspired by his experience of the evangelical life. Francis continued to feel close to them and felt in some way responsible to strengthen them in their commitment and to associate them with his own vocation to restore the Church." [4]

Thus Francis constituted three Orders, institutionally autonomous and independent, for whom their own existence was conditional on each individual Order living together as one community. But their spiritual vitality needed to be closely related and supported in life-giving union with one another.

Josť Angulo Quilis TOR, who presided at the SFO General Chapter at Fatima in October 1990, when writing to the Seculars the following year, stated that the SFO was "renewed in its mentality and legislation, having come a long way in its awareness of being one single Order." [5] He also said that "the change of mentality has not only occurred in and among the brothers and sisters of the SFO, but also in the Constitutions of our Order (TOR) which dedicate four articles (157-160) to the SFO, and the General Statutes which explicitly point out our fraternal relation and service to the SFO in six articles." [6]

The TOR General makes an interesting practical proposal as a consequence of what he has just said. "This identity of charism should lead us to the point where some groups or individuals of the OFS could share with us our own life and, maintaining their autonomy in accord with their Constitutions, could strengthen the bonds of fraternity with the local TOR Fraternity (sic) taking part in some hours of prayer, collaborating in apostolic activities, in services, etc."

He went on to hope that a greater degree of creativity might lead to a common reflection with Seculars who were interested in how this could be a future reality. [7]

The OFS Rule bases its treatment on the relationship between the Franciscan Orders by speaking of a Franciscan Family:

"The Franciscan family, as one among many spiritual families raised up by the Holy Spirit in the Church, unites all members of the people of God - laity, religious and priests - who recognize that they are called to follow Christ in the footsteps of Saint Francis of Assisi.

In various ways and forms but in life-giving union with each other, they intend to make present the charism of their common Seraphic Father in the life and mission of the Church" (Rule 1).

Life-giving Union

In this passage, the Rule describes the relationship between the members of the Franciscan Family in terms of a life-giving union. Article 1, from which this passage comes, should be read in conjunction with Article 2, in which the Rule states that the Secular Franciscans form in themselves an organic union of all Catholic fraternities scattered

throughout the world. When discussing this topic, Ben Brevoort O.F.M.Cap. offers an interesting observation: "The relationship between religious and secular Franciscans is not one of seculars sharing in the charism of their religious sisters and brothers, but one of 'life-giving union with each other'". [8] This statement implies that the Seculars have their own specific charism, their own secular way of living a Franciscan life that is not the same as their religious sisters and brothers, yet it is precisely by the combined contribution of various gifts that the Church fulfils her mission. Vita Consecrata (Post Synodal Document 1996 Congregavit nos in unum Christi amor) develops this topic at length. Christ did not send the disciples only to preach but also to live together. Amongst other things it says that although this life-giving union will require asceticism, it will also be the concrete sign that charity and practical love is alive and well in the Church. To quote just one part of the Document: "Community that is not mystical has no soul, but community that is not ascetic has no body".

"Synergy" between the gift of God and personal commitment is required for building an incarnated communion for giving, in other words, flesh and concrete existence to grace and to the gift of fraternal communion." (23). In other words, the ability of the First Order and TOR and the Secular Franciscans, to acknowledge their specific charism and yet combine in expressing the Franciscan spirit in theory and in practice, will be a sign of how they really love one another, the credential by which the world is meant to recognise those who follow Christ. The OFS Constitutions say; "Fidelity to their own charism, Franciscan and secular, and the witness of building fraternity sincerely and openly, are their principal services to the Church, which is the community of love. They should be recognized in it by their 'being', from which their mission springs" (Const. 100.3).

Vita Consecrata follows two models when discussing fostering and implementing co-operation between religious and seculars: exchange of gifts and sharing the charism. We might look upon the exchange of gifts model as describing the situation when we contribute to another what he does not have, sharing what is different or specific. The Pauline Rule furnishes many examples of this model. Rule 13 speaks about conditions of life, Rule 18 on ecology, Rule 10 on detachment and ownership, Rule 11 about exercising power, Rule 12 about chastity, Rule 17 about living family life. Sharing a charism according to Vita Consecrata (54) applies when the laity are invited to share more fully in the life and mission of a religious institute. There are many examples of how a charism may be shared. In the OFS Constitutions, for example, there is reference to associate members (Const. 53.3).

A similar relationship exists between the OFS and the Franciscan Youth, which, though not the OFS, "is formed by those young people who feel called by the Holy Spirit to share the experience of the Christian life in fraternity, in the light of the message of St. Francis, deepening their own vocation within the context of the Secular Franciscan Order" (Const. 96.2).

Another way of "sharing a charism" is when the OFS has given birth to various Religious Congregations. There is an impressive number of Franciscan Religious Congregations that started off as small groups of the Secular Third Order and went on to follow the Third Order Religious Rule. Finally there are some "who commit themselves by private vows to live in the spirit of the beatitudes and to make themselves more disposed to contemplation and to the service of the fraternities" (Const. 36).

The concept of "sharing the charism" affirms a certain kind of leadership on the part of those sharing the charism with those participating in the charism, and throughout the history of the Church it has produced great fruits of sanctity. However, it may give rise to a notion that the religious are the real leaders and that there is a lack of autonomy on the part of the laity. The present OFS General Constitutions of 2000 seem to be reminding us of the autonomy of the OFS. Article 98.1 quotes Rule 1:

"Secular Franciscans should seek to live in life-giving reciprocal communion with all the members of the Franciscan family. They should be ready to promote common initiatives or participate in them with religious of the First, Second and Third Orders, with Secular institutes, and with other lay ecclesiastical groups that recognize Francis as a model and inspiration in order to work together to spread the Gospel, remove causes of marginalisation and serve the cause of peace" (Const. 98.1).

As a consequence of this concept of "sharing the charism", the OFS is no longer divided into the four so-called "obediences", and the General Assistants meet with the OFS without defining themselves as Friar Minor, Conventual, Capuchin or TOR. Vita Consecrata refers to religious being "experts in the spiritual life", and to the laity as offering "their specific service" in the context of the world. Taken as a whole, such a movement contributes to rebuilding the Church. [9]

Being "secular" is an essential part of the OFS charism

In a sense, this characteristic is the key to understanding the OFS charism as distinct from the Franciscan charism as it is lived by religious. The Rule exhorts Secular Franciscans to operate within the context of their lives but it also says something more specific. We read in the text: "Secular Franciscans, together with all people of good will, are called to build a more fraternal and evangelical world so that the kingdom of God may be brought about more effectively. Mindful that anyone 'who follows Christ, the perfect man, becomes more a man himself', let them exercise their responsibilities competently in the Christian spirit of service" (Rule 14. Cf. Gaudium et spes 78, 1-2).

Because Seculars live in the context of "the world", they are in a privileged position to demonstrate that there is no disjunction between life in the world and living the Gospel. The Gospel is not an artificial adjunct to human life, and one does not have to withdraw from human life to live the Gospel.[10]

The Rule exhorts them "to go forth as witnesses and instruments of her (the Church's; italics mine) mission among all people, proclaiming Christ by their life and words" (Rule 6). The Rule suggests that union with Jesus for the Secular Franciscans consists in their "faithfully fulfilling the duties proper to their various circumstances of life" (Rule 10).They must necessarily come into contact with the goods of the world, but they are exhorted in the Rule to simplify their material needs and to remember that they use material goods as stewards (Rule 11). In the spirit of the beatitudes, as pilgrims and strangers on their way home to the Father, they should mortify and tendency to possessions or power (Rule 11). In their families they are urged to promote peace, fidelity and respect for life and as husbands and wives they should bear witness to the world of the love of Christ for his Church (Rule 17). Finally, those friars who refer to the Secular Franciscans as a "Happy Death Society" should note Rule 19: "Since they are immersed in the resurrection of Christ, which gives true meaning to Sister Death, let them serenely tend toward the ultimate encounter with the Father" (Cf. Gaudium et spes 78, 1-2).

The Constitutions express the "secularity" of the OFS when they say: "The secular state characterizes the spirituality and apostolic life of those belonging to the SFO" (Const. 3.1).

One of the most important consequences of this charismatic characteristic of being "secular" is that the specific spiritual formation of the OFS must cater for those whose vocation is, "motivated by the dynamic power of the Gospel", to live in "secular" circumstances (Rule 7). Chapter Two of the Rule indicates how intimate union with Christ lies at the heart of the OFS vocation. "Secular Franciscans, therefore, should seek to encounter the living and active person of Christ in their brothers and sisters, in Sacred Scripture, in the Church, and in liturgical activity" (Rule 5). They do this by studying, loving and most of all by living in an integrated way the human and evangelical aspects of their life.

Twenty-first century Secular Franciscans can live out the secular aspect of their charism by paying attention to three things. Firstly, they should draw on the rich experience of Franciscan figures of the past, real men and women from the ranks of the Secular Franciscan Order, who were both contemplative and dedicated to so many activities as parents and single people, kings and craftsmen, recluses and people involved in welfare activities. Secondly, at the beginning of the third millennium, they face a test of their creativity when confronted by the new evangelisation. Thirdly, they should cultivate a deep knowledge of Francis the prophet, an example from the past, leading them into the future.

Fraternity an essential characteristic of the OFS charism

It is also interesting to note that this charism is not given to an individual person but to a group of brothers and sisters and that as times change it has to adapt to "the needs and expectations of the Holy Church" (3). Thus from the outset we are dealing with a group that is shaped by the Holy Church, and it is only in this context that the charism can thrive.

That the present understanding of the OFS is that one of its characteristic qualities is that of being a fraternity is quite clear from the text of the Rule in which no singular pronoun ever appears. Only once is an individual mentioned and that is the minister at different levels (Rule 21). That this is the present interpretation is even more clear in the Constitutions in which we read: "The vocation of the SFO is a vocation to live the Gospel in fraternal communion. For this purpose, the members of the SFO gather in ecclesiastical communities which are called fraternities" (Const. 3.3). They also state: "The fraternity of the SFO finds its origin in the inspiration of Saint Francis of Assisi to whom the Most High revealed the essential gospel quality of life in fraternal communion" (Const. 28.1. Cf. Testament 14). When it comes to initial formation the Constitutions speak very clearly: "Participation in the meetings of the local fraternity is an indispensable presupposition for initiation into community of prayer and into fraternal life" [11].

Article 53 of the Constitutions is dedicated to participation in the fraternity. Number 3 reads: "Insertion into a local fraternity and participation in fraternity life is essential for belonging to the SFO" (Const. 53.3).

Conclusion: Christifideles Laici

The theological principles behind the definition of the charism of the Secular Franciscans as contained in their Rule are based on the theology of Christifideles Laici (1988). [12] In that document, the prevailing Gospel theme is that of the vine and the branches. A definition of the specific charism of the OFS and a statement of its relationship to other Franciscan bodies is so important that the Pauline Rule starts with a consideration of the Franciscan family and a justification of the place of the Secular Franciscan in that family. This takes up the whole of Chapter One of the Pauline Rule. It is not until Chapter Two that the OFS way of life is dealt with. The vine and the branches is also a fitting Gospel figure to describe the Franciscan Family. Each family member is a branch of the same vine. Each draws life from the same source. Each, like members of the one body, has a specific function that contributes to the welfare and dignity of the whole. The Pauline Rule shows that the SFO's charism is that it is an autonomous, unified branch of the Franciscan family, living a specifically secular vocation in fraternity.


[1] Emanuela De Nunzio, Promulgation of the General Constitutions, Rome, 6 February 2001.

[2] CIOFS LIST v 4, n 7, 1998, February II.

[3] Francis of Assisi: The Saint: Early Documents, New City Press, 1999, 1 Cel 37, p. 216 and p. 338. Cf also Fr. Andrea Boni OFM, Tres Ordines hic ordinat, Edizioni Portiuncola, 1999, especially p. 186 s.

[4] CIOFS LIST v 6 n 21 2000, May IV.

[5] Letter 17/11/91

[6] Letter 17/11/91

[7] Letter 17/11/91

[8] CIOFS LIST v 5, n 50 1999, December II.

[9] On the autonomy of the SFO see also Zvonimir Brusac, "The Autonomy of the SFO" (Part 1), CIOFS LIST v 5 n 27 1999, July I, and "The Autonomy of the SFO" (Part 2), CIOFS LIST v 5 n 28 1999, July II. For a summary of the history of the autonomy of the SFO in the SFO Rule and the Constitutions of the First Order and TOR, see Carl Schafer's paper on the SFO and the Documents of the Friars, and Patrick Colbourne's "The Autonomy of the Secular Franciscans." The Letters of the Conference of the Franciscan Family (CCF) are examples of efforts to share life-giving union. On the unity of the SFO, see Valentin Redondo OFM Conv.:

"The Unity of the SFO" (Part 1), CIOFS LIST v 4 n 25 1998, June III;

"The Unity of the SFO" (Part 2), CIOFS LIST v 4 n 26 1998, June IV;

"The Unity of the SFO" (Part 3), CIOFS LIST v 4 n 27 1998, July I.

Here the author argues that it is the responsibility of the First Order and the TOR to accept the structural changes brought about by Christifideles Laici.

[10] On this point, see Mariano Bigi SFO, "'Secular' Franciscans in the Church and in the World".

[11] Constitutions 40, 3. Cf. also Constitutions 46, 2, where it is stated that a minimum of five professed members is required for the establishment of a new fraternity.

[12] For suggestions on reading this document, see Zvonimir Brusac TOR, "The Identity of the Lay Faithful" (Part 1), CIOFS LIST v 5 n 25 1999, June III, and (Part 2), CIOFS LIST v 5 n 26 1999, June IV.