Ben Brevoort OFMCap

1. Introduction

The Rule of the SFO says: "As a concrete sign of communion and co-responsibility, the councils on various levels, in keeping with the constitutions, shall ask for suitable and well-prepared religious for spiritual assistance. They should make this request to the superiors of the four religious Franciscan families, to whom the Secular Fraternity has been united for centuries" (Rule 26).

ased on the Rule, the General Constitutions of the SFO establish that: "By virtue of the vital reciprocity between the religious and the secular members of the Franciscan Family and in regard to the responsibilities of major superiors, spiritual assistance to the fraternities of the SFO at all levels must be assured as a fundamental element of communion"(Const. 89.1).

2. To walk together in the way of the Lord

In the letter of consignment of the renewed Rule, the Ministers General of the First Order and TOR declared: "We, the Franciscan Ministers, with all our Friars, are ever ready and open to offer you all our assistance so that we may walk together in the way of the Lord" (Letters of Ministers General, Rome, 4th October 1978). This expression gives clear evidence of the service requested from the religious Ministers and owed by them. "This service of the religious ministers completes but does not substitute for the secular councils and ministers to whom belong the guidance, co-ordination, and animation of the fraternities at the various levels" (Const. 86.2). It is a matter of obligation to walk together in the way of the Lord. "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).

At the base of this vital reciprocal communion there is the common Franciscan vocation, given to all the followers of Francis without distinction of language, culture, education or state within the Church. St. Francis used to say that the Holy Spirit comes down equally on the novice of one day and an elder brother of the Order. The pastoral care and assistance to the SFO in founded on the Franciscan charism and is based on the common Franciscan vocation, lived in different ways and forms, but of equal dignity and value.

The immediate consequence of this view is that "The spiritual assistant is the person designated by the competent major superior to carry out this service for a specific fraternity of the SFO" (Const. 89.2). In order to carry out the service of assistant no distinction is made on the basis of ecclesiastical state (cleric or lay; religious or secular). It is necessary, however, that the Assistant be a "suitable and prepared" person and has the capacity to "communicate Franciscan spirituality and of cooperating in initial and on-going formation of the brothers" (Const. 90.1). It is the duty of the major Superior to see "that capable and well-prepared persons are appointed for the service of spiritual assistance" (Const. 88.1). The major Superior has the responsibility to judge the suitability and preparation of each Assistant appointed by him and to oversee the "quality of the pastoral service and spiritual assistance" (Const. 90.4).

The General Constitutions of the SFO express, however, some preferences in function of the vital reciprocal communion between the SFO and the First Order and TOR. Preferably, "the spiritual assistant should be a Franciscan religious, member of the First Order or the TOR", because only such an Assistant can fully "be a witness of Franciscan spirituality and of the fraternal affection of the religious towards the secular Franciscans, and be a bond of communion between his Order and the SFO" (Const. 89.3). If this is not possible, a religious belonging to another Franciscan Institute would be preferred (Const. 89.4a) because the religious way of living the Franciscan charism fits in better with the secular way of living "the gospel in the manner of St. Francis" (Rule 2). The members of the SFO, who can be diocesan priests or other secular Franciscans specifically trained for this service, come next (Const. 89.4b). Finally, there are "other diocesan clerics or non-Franciscan religious" (Const. 89.4c).

3. The spiritual Assistant

The specific field of the Assistant is to: foster communion with the Church, give witness to Franciscan religious spirituality, cooperate in the formation of the brothers and further the Christian life of the Fraternities (Statutes for Assistance 3I).

a. Fundamental element of communion

The spiritual assistant should consider spiritual assistance as a "fundamental element of communion" (Const. 89.1). The local assistant should promote communion both within the Fraternity and between it and the First Order and TOR and the active presence and sincere communion with the local Church (Statutes for Assistance 28). On the other levels, the Assistants, "if they are more than one, they form a conference and give their service collegially" (Const. 90.3). In elective Chapters, the Assistant of the higher level is present "as a witness of the communion with the First Order and the TOR" (Const. 76.2). On pastoral visitation, the Assistant visitor "will meet the pastors (bishop or parish priest) when this is opportune for fostering communion and service for building up the Church". He will also promote "collaboration and a sense of co-responsibility among the secular leaders and the religious assistants" (Const. 95.2-3).

All this signifies that the Assistant should be a person of dialogue, of listening, disposed to giving way to the seculars responsible for the coordination and animation of the Fraternity. His duty is to create and encourage communion, to be the meeting point for whoever seeks to live the Gospel after the manner of Francis together with the brothers.

b. To Communicate Franciscan spirituality

The main duty of the assistant is "to communicate Franciscan spirituality" (Const. 90.1) with his testimony of life and, if he sees that it pleases God, with the word also (Rule 1221, 16). In this regard Emanuela De Nunzio, on the occasion of a General Chapter of the Friars Minor Conventual, expressed herself thus: "There is need of a very profound spiritual relationship with us, Brothers of the First Order, because it is you who have responsibility for our journey in faith. It is necessary that you be for us 'enlightening teachers and guides', enlightened by the Word of God and the example of Francis. It is you who have the duty of leading us along the path to sanctity, teaching us to read the signs of the times and giving us the necessary spiritual charge through the appreciation and application of Franciscan culture and concrete indications for our formative journey, in relationship with the other components of the Franciscan family, in the orientation of our work for the construction of a more fraternal and gospel world (Rule 14). Teach us to be authentic and credible bearers of Francis's message in order to be able to give witness in the ordinary conditions of our life as laity:

-- the poverty of the journey;

-- the courage of the cross;

-- the challenge of love;

-- the risk of hope;

-- the contemplative dimension of life" (Bulletin of CIOFS, 1995, n.1).

The same conviction was expressed by another secular Franciscan, Argia Passoni: "The Assistant should stimulate the SFO to live its life, to help it develop fully and to give it solid nourishment for this. (...) The Assistant must be strongly convinced of his duty to provoke the SFO in its Franciscan and secular vocation, of Franciscan gospel radicality, in order to cultivate it in close relationship with responsible secular people. This attitude will protect the animation of the SFO from simple pragmatism and support the Council in its role of guiding the evangelizing Fraternity. In the General Constitution of the SFO, assistance is always spoken of in terms of collaboration, of being with the laity in their specificity, in an attentive and respective interaction that makes both grow (SFO and assistance)" (cf. Koinonia, 1995, n.3).

c. To cooperate in initial and ongoing formation

The spiritual Assistant cooperates in a special way in the initial and ongoing formation of the brothers (Const. 90.1). A general Assistant, Antonio Morichetti TOR has written: The Assistant "must collaborate in the formation of all, especially in initial and ongoing formation. He will find the way of exercising his role of formator in meetings of the Council, in assemblies, in spiritual direction, in celebrations and when he animates prayer (...) in order to help new members prepare themselves for the definitive 'intention'; and to accompany the professed in persevering and going deeper into it".

He will do this "in living Franciscan example and testimony; collaborating as a member of the formation group, without imposing his own ideas; and forming the group itself, helping it especially in dealing with a discipline that often is not familiar to seculars; evaluating the path trodden and that to be walked together; offering support by his word and training" (Koinonia, 1995, n. 4).

In initial formation especially, the Assistant must enter into personal dialogue with the candidates, help them to clarify their vocation, to purify and make it precise. He accompanies the candidates along the path of living according to the Gospel in order to introduce them progressively and methodically towards immersion into the truth of faith and knowledge of Franciscan spirituality.

The assistant cooperates with the Council in the ongoing formation of the brothers. He will contribute his culture and experience, helping and accompanying the brothers in the constant conversion required by the Gospel. He collaborates in order to form all for the fulfilment of their mission in the Church and society through their testimony and evangelization. He educates the fraternity in knowing how to discern the signs of the times.

d. A Member of the Fraternity Council

The spiritual assistant is by right, with vote, a member of the council of the fraternity to which he or she gives assistance and collaborates with it in all activities. The spiritual assistant does not exercise the right to vote in financial questions" (Const. 90.2).

The participation of the spiritual Assistant in the meetings and works of the Council is articulated in different ways according to the requirements and concrete situations of the Fraternity. His role in the Council meetings will be more articulate in a Fraternity that is being formed or revived, and less so in a Fraternity formed and operating fully. But in every case the Assistant will give to the seculars "priority with regard to guidance, coordination and animation of the fraternity" (Statutes for Assistance 10). His main role is always that spiritual one of nourishing the Christian and Franciscan life of the Fraternity (Statutes for Assistance 3) and of helping the Council to discern what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Fraternity.

The meetings of the Council will be about the different elements of Fraternity life: the Franciscan and Christian life, apostolic and charitable activity, initial and ongoing formation, fraternal life and the relationships among the members. The subjects to be dealt with will be various: the preparation of Fraternity meetings, the planning and evaluation of the activity of the Fraternity, evaluation of the candidates in view of their admission to the Order or to profession, the preparation of the Chapter or of special meetings of the Fraternity, formation sessions for those responsible, present and future, and for the members of the Fraternity. The role of the spiritual Assistant in the meetings of the Council is normally limited to an active participation in the debate, proposing suggestions that come from his religious and Franciscan sensitivity.

It is important that the meetings of the Council be prepared and have a clear agenda. The Assistant should also prepare himself in order to help the secular Councillors with his spiritual vision of the subject to be dealt with. Previous contact between the Minister of the Fraternity and the Assistant will serve to put him in the picture and help him to carry out his role better during the meeting of the Council.

e. Discernment of the spiritual path

In all his activity, the spiritual Assistant should develop in himself and in the Fraternity an attitude of listening, of attention to the signs of the times, of discerning what the Holy Spirit is saying to the individual brother and to the Fraternity.

The national Council of the SFO in France has defined the role of the Assistant, the companion, the brother who "walks with them along the path of the Lord":

"He is before all and above all at the service of the spiritual growth of the group, attentive to the discernment of its spiritual journey. With his listening to and re-reading of what has been lived, the companion permits the group to accept better the presence of God and the calls of the Spirit.

He is there to encourage interiorisation, to help each one to enter into a deeper relationship with God. He should bear within himself a solicitude for the spiritual development of each of the members.

He is a witness to the mercy of God and can help the group and individuals to be cured of their wounds" (cf. Bulletin of CIOFS, 1998, n. 1).

The Assistant, therefore, together with the Minister, plays an important role, not only in formation, but also in the accompaniment of the brother in trouble (Const. 56.1; 58). He will help the brother in discerning his spiritual path and in the difficult process of being cured of spiritual and psychological wounds.

4. Conclusion

Finally, here are the qualities required of the ideal Assistant, as given by the National Council of France (Bulletin of CIOFS, 1998, n.1):

The ideal Assistant should:

-- have a great quality of spiritual life, a strong interior life animated by regular prayer;

-- have a sense of mystery, and know how to recognize that all comes from God;

-- have a certain interior coherence (clarity within himself);

-- have humility, and a sense of service;

-- know his limitations and accept them;

-- have a positive outlook on people and a deep respect for the experience of others;

-- know how to listen and wait;

-- have a good dose of good sense;

-- be concretely committed in life;

-- allow himself to be formed by the Fraternity;

-- have a good knowledge of St Francis."