THE ROLE OF THE SFO SPIRITUAL ASSISTANT IN FORMATION
Patrick Colbourne O.F.M.Cap
The SFO Constitutions describe the spiritual assistant as being a person
designated by the competent major superior to be a witness of Franciscan
spirituality and of fraternal affection of the religious towards the secular
Franciscans and to be a bond of communion between his Order and the SFO (Const.
89.2-3).They go on to say that the principal task of the assistant is to
communicate Franciscan spirituality and to cooperate in the initial and
continuing formation of the brothers and sisters (Const. 90.1). Following the
present structures of the SFO, assistants are appointed to local fraternities,
regional fraternities, national fraternities and to the international
The role of the spiritual assistant is very complex. At all levels within the
structure of the SFO, the assistant exercises his office as a delegate of the
competent superior who made the appointment and who carries the ultimate
responsibility for spiritual assistance to the SFO. As a delegate, the spiritual
assistant can only act within the terms of his delegation, which vary in
different cases. For example, although the appointment is temporary, a spiritual
assistant has no fixed term of office other than that the term be not longer
than twelve years (Statutes for Assistance 11).
In the case of an appointment to a local fraternity, the spiritual assistant
has to cope with a complex of relationships with the Minister, the local
Fraternity Council, members of the formation team, and with all the members of
the local Fraternity, both as a group and as individuals. At the local level,
the appointed spiritual assistant is the only spiritual assistant for that
Fraternity, since only one branch of the Franciscan First Order or TOR has
established that fraternity, although he is not the only agent of formation in
At levels of the SFO other than the local level, spiritual assistance is
provided collegially to the SFO. At these levels, all branches of the First
Order and the TOR may be involved (Const. 88.5). The Statutes for the
Spiritual and Pastoral Assistance to the SFO were written in part "to
determine the service of spiritual assistance to the SFO in a uniform and
concrete manner, taking into account the unity of the same Order as well as the
pluriformity of the First Order and the TOR to whom the pastoral and spiritual
care is entrusted" (12). In this case, both the SFO and the individual regional
assistant have to find a way to cope with balancing the unity of the SFO with
the pluriformity of the First Order and TOR.
This paper will confine itself to the local and regional levels and will deal
with the role of the spiritual assistant in formation, although many other
aspects of the roles of the spiritual assistant will be mentioned in passing.
There are also aspects of the life of the SFO, such as its secularity, unity and
autonomy, that affect the spiritual assistant, but they will only be brought
into this paper in so far as they touch on the role of the spiritual assistant
in formation. 
THE "STATUS" OF THE SFO SPIRITUAL ASSISTANT
In the mind of the Church
In general, the present understanding of the role of the spiritual to the SFO
is based on the ecclesiology of Vatican II, which described the Church as the
people of God, and in particular on theological insights into the identity of
the laity in the Church as expounded in documents such as Christifideles
Canon law defines Third Orders as associations whose members lead an
apostolic life and tend towards Christian perfection by sharing in the world in
the charism of a religious institute (can. 303). It goes on to state that all
associations of the faithful are subject to the vigilance of the competent
ecclesiastical authority to safeguard the faith, their practices and to prevent
abuses of ecclesiastical discipline (can. 305).
The SFO Constitutions respect and accept this canonical ruling when they say:
"The spiritual and pastoral care of the SFO, entrusted by the Church to the
Franciscan First Order and the TOR, is the duty above all of their general and
provincial ministers. The altius moderamen, of which canon 303 speaks,
belongs to them. The purpose of the altius moderamen is to guarantee
the fidelity of the SFO to the Franciscan charism, communion with the Church and
union with the Franciscan family, values which represent a vital commitment for
the secular Franciscans" (Const. 85.2).
By saying this in their Constitutions, the SFO are stating that they do not
see such "vigilance" as being contrary to their autonomy. In fact, the SFO
eagerly turns to the friars for Franciscan spiritual formation.
In the mind of the Franciscan Family
After seeing how the SFO has accepted this canon, it is interesting to see
how it has been accepted in the Constitutions of the three First Orders and the
TOR.  In their relations with one another, all the Orders stress that
Franciscans are a family. Although the expression altius moderamen
appears in the Constitutions of the SFO, none of the Constitutions of the four
Franciscan Orders repeats the expression altius moderamen. When they
legislate about service to the SFO, the Constitutions of all the Orders say that
it is offered in accordance with the regulations of the SFO or the input of the
SFO. They all picture the whole Franciscan family as partners in a spiritual
heritage in which the relationship of the partners is that of mutual service
rather than subjection. In fact, in the job description of the local spiritual
assistant composed by Carl Schafer OFM on behalf of the Conference of National
Spiritual Assistants, when dealing with can. 305 and Const. 85.2, he introduced
the item by saying the spiritual assistant is a servant of the whole SFO
fraternity.  It is quite clear, then, that Franciscans regard their efforts
to contribute to the formation of the SFO as service, not subjection.
Agents of formation
Having established something concerning the "status" of the spiritual
assistant in the context of the secular Franciscans, we may focus on the role of
the spiritual assistant in formation.
As each branch of the Franciscan family worked on revising their
Constitutions, all put much time and effort into describing the agents of
formation. The Presidency of the International Council of the SFO published the
fruits of its discussions in chapter three of the Guidelines for Formation
(Rome 1992).  The list of agents included: the Holy Spirit, the candidate,
the whole fraternity, the minister with the council, the master of formation and
the spiritual assistant.
Although it appears in the last place, the position of the spiritual
assistant in this list is not meant as relegation, for, indeed, the same
document refers to the spiritual assistant as a brother, a teacher and a guide.
The term brother is intended to convey the idea of communion and
co-responsibility in sharing a common Franciscan charism, both among the members
of the family and with the world at large. As members of the one family, we
support and nourish each other. The idea is well captured in the SFO
Constitutions when they say that the spiritual assistant is
"to be a witness of Franciscan spirituality and of the fraternal affection of
the religious towards secular Franciscans, and to be a bond of communion between
his Order and the SFO" (Const. 89.3).
If this is so, why can't the spiritual assistant be the only formator in the
SFO fraternity? The way I answer this question for myself, and this is only a
personal opinion, is that I am not a secular Franciscan. I am best at sharing
the Franciscan charism as it is lived by a religious. I need the laity to be
responsible for showing me how this charism is lived in the "world", for example
in a family, in the work environment, in public office, in the field of sport
and in the sphere of morally healthy entertainment on the stage, at the cinema,
on the box and at the club. Even in the matter of spirituality, I need a
layperson to help me understand lay spirituality and a form of prayer and
spiritual exercises suitable to the layperson. In these fields, I am the pupil
who needs to listen with respect and humility, because the Holy Spirit has not
called me to live the "secular" dimension of the Franciscan charism.
If I were asked to rewrite the passage from the SFO Constitutions I have just
quoted, I would write: to be a witness of Franciscan SECULAR spirituality.
Although all branches of the Franciscan family share a common inspiration, each
has a specific element in its charism and for the SFO that is being "secular."
THE LOCAL SPIRITUAL ASSISTANT
Appointment and formation
It is the responsibility of the major superior of the First Order or TOR to
provide and train a spiritual assistant for a local fraternity that he has
established. Once a fraternity has been established, it is the duty of the First
Order to provide spiritual assistance. This means that the person appointed is
doing the work of the First Order, in other words, is working for the First
Order, not for the Secular Franciscans. He is working with the Secular
Franciscans for the First Order.
There are certain practical problems that arise from the principle that a
local fraternity is the sole responsibility of the Order that establishes it. In
the past, the SFO was fractured into local fraternities under one or other
"obedience". The Seculars have tried to go beyond this by asserting their
essential unity. At times they would like to cast aside the complexity of a
multiplicity of "First Orders" and draw from an "ecumenical (or should that be
interobediantial) pool" of friars to assist with their formation. In fact,
things are not that simple. A specific branch of the First Order establishes a
given fraternity and is individually and exclusively responsible to provide both
for the provision and training of a spiritual assistant.
The situation becomes more complex if we compare the local fraternity to the
regional fraternity. At the local level, spiritual assistance is offered
exclusively by a given branch of the First Order. At the regional level,
spiritual assistance is offered collegially where in a sense an "ecumenical
pool" of friars is lawfully and validly at work. It is when the regional pool
tries to move towards a local fraternity that problems arise. For example, if a
regional or a national fraternity produced a programme for training local
spiritual assistants, the Order that established that fraternity could say with
equal rights "mind your own business", "what right have you got to impose on
me?", or "thanks for your help". This might be discouraging for people who would
otherwise be willing to offer help at a regional or national level. This
difficulty does not only apply to spiritual assistance. For example, regional
formation or promotion initiatives hold little more weight than that of being
suggestions once they reach the local level. It would be sad if we have reached
a point where good and helpful initiatives are frustrated by structures.
Perhaps one might question the reason for having spiritual assistance
provided collegially to the SFO at all levels except the local. However, when I
raised this question myself, I was assured that experience proved that often
when a local fraternity had no specific branch of the First Order bound to
provide assistance, no assistance or formation was provided. So the regulation
is based upon malpractice.
Duties with respect to formation
Carl Schafer OFM has produced a Job Description of the local spiritual
assistant and this has been placed in the Handbook for Spiritual Assistance
to the SFO. It is comprehensive, including what a spiritual assistant is
and what he is not. It includes his pastoral and fraternal responsibilities and
the desirable qualities he should possess. However, it might be well to say
something specifically concerning the duties of the spiritual assistant with
regard to formation.
The SFO Constitutions say:
"By virtue of the vital reciprocity between the religious and the secular
members of the Franciscan Family and in regard to the responsibilities of the
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).
Communion is such a fundamental element that we might say that while the
services of the spiritual assistant do not substitute for the formative elements
that come from the SFO fraternity, formation would be incomplete without the
presence of the spiritual assistant. Without this presence, how could there be
any "vital reciprocity"? When speaking about the Franciscan family, the very
first number of the SFO Rule says:
"In various ways and forms but in life-giving union with each other, they
tend to make present the charism of their common Seraphic Father in the life and
mission of the Church" (Rule 1).
Article 90 of the SFO Constitutions says that communicating Franciscan
spirituality, both in initial and continuing formation, is the primary task of
the assistant. The presence of a spiritual assistant at an elective chapter is
precisely to express communion with the First Order (Const. 76.2). This would
imply that the First Order has a special task when preparing non-Franciscans to
serve as spiritual assistants to the SFO.
Finally, with respect to the role of formation, the spiritual assistant
should be prepared to enter into dialogue with members of the SFO, both
personally and as a group, to assist in the process of spiritual discernment at
various points along their spiritual journey. It is interesting to see that the
National Council of the SFO in France has defined the role of the spiritual
assistant as the brother "who walks with them along the path of the Lord". 
THE REGIONAL SPIRITUAL ASSISTANT
The regional fraternity is a group of local fraternities "which can be
integrated into a natural unity". The national council, according to the
Constitutions and the national statutes, determines its composition (Const.
61.1-2). Obviously, a regional fraternity is a division of the SFO and it may or
may not coincide with the territorial limits of a religious province of the
First Order or TOR and so the appointment and co-ordination of spiritual
assistants has to take this into account. "The secular leaders establish the
number of regional assistants that form a part of the regional council" (Statutes
for Assistance 43). The Ministers Provincial of the various obediences with
jurisdiction in the territory of the SFO region are to seek collegially,
together with the SFO regional council, how best to provide spiritual assistance
for a region (44). If there is more than one spiritual assistant, they form a
Collegial spiritual assistance
The spiritual assistance that is provided for divisions of the SFO other than
the local fraternity is offered in the form of collegial assistance. This
follows a principle laid down in the SFO Constitutions.
"For all that concerns the SFO as a whole, the altius moderamen must
be exercised by the general ministers collegially" (Const. 87.1).
Thus, in matters pertaining to the SFO "as a whole", as distinct to matters
pertaining to a local fraternity, spiritual assistance is offered collegially.
The reason for this is that a local fraternity is established by one specific
branch of the First Order or TOR, and that branch is responsible for the
provision and training of its spiritual assistants.
One of the ways in which the Ministers General express the characteristic of
being a college is by meeting in the Conference of Ministers General of the
First Order and the TOR. In fact, the SFO received approval of the Constitutions
through the President of this Conference.
To implement this principle ideally, it would be desirable for Major
Superiors to meet in similar conferences at a national and regional level.
Without prejudice to what the Major Superiors do, both national and regional
spiritual assistants in Australia meet as conferences to provide collegial
spiritual assistance at the national and regional level.
Putting this collegial spiritual assistance into practice is governed by a
set of Statutes for the Spiritual and Pastoral Assistance to the SFO, a
document this is common to the four Franciscan Orders (OFM, OFMCap, OFMConv.,
In Australia, the SFO have never limited the number of regional spiritual
assistants but have, instead, welcomed the regional spiritual assistants that
have been appointed by the various obediences.
The collegial aspect of the service offered by the First Order to the Secular
Franciscans is dealt with in the third part of the Statutes. For the most part,
the Statutes deal with cooperation between the SFO and the First Order and TOR,
and say little about cooperation between branches of the First Order. This
remains a challenge for us as friars and this challenge is put to us in the SFO
Constitutions (Const. 88.5). Strictly speaking, according to the SFO
Constitutions, neither the national nor the regional councils should have to
deal with all the major superiors when they need a spiritual assistant. Rather,
the Conference of Major Superiors should appoint one of their number to deal
with this business (Const. 91). This would presuppose fairly close communication
between the major superiors. At the moment, such Conferences of major superiors
have no juridical standing in the legislation of the First Order or the TOR.
They are simply fraternal exchanges. For example, the President of such a
Conference would have no jurisdiction over any friar belonging to a specific
Province. As such, "Conferences" have no juridical standing, so that there is no
juridical exercise of the altius moderamen at levels of the SFO beyond
the local level. Obviously, more work needs to be done in this area to increase
communication between major superiors and to define how a regional spiritual
assistant can be more effective in dispensing his role as formator for the SFO
region as a whole and not be just the formator to the regional council.
Rights and duties with respect to formation
When considering the rights and duties of spiritual assistance in a regional
fraternity, we are not dealing exclusively with individual spiritual assistants,
as many of the tasks in this area fall upon the conference of regional spiritual
assistants who share the work and the responsibility. The Conference of Regional
Assistants is faced with a challenge of developing new ways of promoting
effective formation. At the moment, whatever it does is achieved only be
invitation and good will. This may explain the reluctance of some regional
spiritual assistants to become involved at depth.
The Statutes require that the regional spiritual assistant be a bond between
the religious community and the SFO regional council. The assistants are
required to provide spiritual assistance to the regional council, to promote the
formation and fraternal unity of assistants and to promote the interest of the
SFO in the plans of the local Church (Statutes for Assistance 48)] At
the time of visitation, they are also to enquire about relationships between the
local Bishop and the SFO (Const. 95.2).
With respect to formation, once again the spiritual assistant has input to
the regional council meeting and often to the regional newsletter, but has no
authority to enter the realms of local fraternities. He could provide resources,
but these would be used by invitation only. In Australia, some local spiritual
assistants have even questioned the right of the national spiritual assistants
to circulate a monthly message, although the national assistants were requested
to do so by the SFO national leaders. Some local assistants thought this was
either a lack of faith in their ability to deliver a message himself or herself
or an unwelcome intervention. The SFO had asked for this exercise, in fact, to
assist local fraternities that do not have the regular presence of a spiritual
assistant at their meetings. It also provided for the supply of material in
languages other than English and was intended to be a help to the local
assistants, not a substitute for their services.
Personally, I have found that being a regional spiritual assistant enriched
my spirituality deeply. I saw initiatives that were undertaken in different
dioceses. I came to admire the Franciscan witness given by members of the SFO
where they are the only Franciscan presence in a particular diocese. In their
retreats, they frequently threw the time open to all the locals. I experienced
the difference between rural and urban Australia, and came to appreciate the
spiritual needs of each.
However, there are also undeniable difficulties with providing collegial
spiritual assistance as it is something new to us all. 
Collegiality should provide the SFO with an opportunity to observe our unity
and fraternity among brothers of the First Order. It should help to overcome the
feeling that the Secular Franciscans sometimes have, that although they have now
become one they are still dealing with a multiplicity of First Orders. They want
to call upon the resources of all branches of the First Order. They are not
interested in the politics of our divisions.
The purpose of the pastoral visit should be to revive the Franciscan
evangelical spirit and to help to animate the progress of the fraternity. It
would be a pity if the SFO fraternity saw it only as an inspection to put our
house in order, or a dispute over the interpretation of legislation. Surely,
they are thirsting for something spiritual, and if we do not give it we are
presiding over the demise of the SFO. What is more, with the competition in the
Church from other lay ecclesial groups, we will be judged by the way in which we
provide spiritual formation.
From what we have said, it should be obvious that there are some "loose ends"
that still need to be tidied up with respect to the legislation for providing
spiritual assistance, and specifically formation, by the friars to the SFO. But
let us hope that such lacunae do not frustrate the work of the spirit in the
service of the SFO.
The formation that a spiritual assistant should offer should be a lesson in communion, life-giving union. Christifideles Laici is based on the figure of the vine and the branches. The post-conciliar exhortation, Vita Consacrata, invites us to a re-reading of the relationship between religious and seculars in the light of an ecclesiology of communion. The SFO spiritual assistant, while respecting the secularity of the spirituality of the Secular Franciscans, can be a potent agent of reciprocal vitality within the context of the SFO. Living the same charism in a secular or religious manner within the Church should achieve what the author of the Legend of the Three Companions put so well: "And thus, through blessed Francis, the Church of God was renewed in three Orders."
 For further information on these aspects of the SFO, see Patrick Colbourne O.F.M.Cap., The Autonomy and Unity of the Secular Franciscan Order: The Legislative Evolution of the Franciscan Secular Order from Its Beginning to the Rule of Pope Paul VI, Franciscan Institute of Oceania, Sydney 2002. See also my earlier paper at this seminar.
 See Zvonimir Brusac TOR, "The Identity of the Lay Faithful: Reading Christifideles Laici", CIOFS LIST Part 1 Vol. 5- N. 25- 1999- June- III, and Part 2 Vol. 5- N. 26- 1999- June- IV.
 Extracts from the Constitutions appear in the Appendix. See also Patrick Colbourne O.F.M.Cap., The Autonomy and Unity of the Secular Franciscan Order: The Legislative Evolution of the Franciscan Secular Order from Its Beginning to the Rule of Pope Paul VI, Franciscan Institute of Oceania, Sydney 2002, under the heading "Developments in the Legislation of the First Order and the TOR".
 The Job Description of the Local Spiritual Assistant 1.3.
 See CIOFS LIST "The Agents and Those Responsible for Formation", Vol. 2- N. 3- 1996 -January- III.
 On Spiritual Assistance, see CIOFS LIST "Spiritual Assistance to the SFO", Ben Brevoort O.F.M.Cap. Part 1, Vol. 8- N. 10- 2002- March- II, Part 2, Vol. 8- N. 11- 2002- March- III. Part 3, Vol. 8- N.12- 2002- March- IV.
 On Collegial Assistance, see CIOFS LIST "Collegial Assistance to the SFO", Ivan Matic OFM Part 1, Vol. 8- N. 4-2002- January- IV, and Part 2, Vol. 8- N. 5- 2002- February- I.
 See CIOFS LIST, "Experiences and Difficulties in the Collegial Assistance to the SFO", Valentine Redondo OFM Conv., Part 1, Vol. 8- N. 6- 2002- February-II, Part 2, Vol. 8- N. 7- 2002-February-III.