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 fraternity.

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 that fraternity.

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. [1]


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 Laici. [2]

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. [3] 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. [4] 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). [5] 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."


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". [6]


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 Conference.(46).

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., TOR). [7]


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. [8]

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.


Life-giving union

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."


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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".

[4] The Job Description of the Local Spiritual Assistant 1.3.

[5] See CIOFS LIST "The Agents and Those Responsible for Formation", Vol. 2- N. 3- 1996 -January- III.

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

[8] 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.