ST FRANCIS AND FORMATION
I. ST FRANCIS, FORMATOR OF ALL FRANCISCANS
The formator is meant to model the Franciscan way of life for those whom he or she is forming. St Francis is the "forma minorum", that is, the model of the friars, and the formator of all Franciscans.
Article 1 of the SFO Rule provides the outline of the essential points for
formation of all Franciscans: Franciscan vocation; Franciscan charism;
Franciscan Family: "The Franciscan Family... unites all members of the
people of God ...who recognise that they are called to follow Christ in
the footsteps of Saint Francis ....they intend to make present the charism
of their common Seraphic Father...."
a. Franciscan vocation
The call to the person and to the Fraternity (both religious and secular) comes from God. The seculars receive their vocation from the Holy Spirit, through St Francis and the Church, and often through the instrumentality of a Franciscan religious, but not necessarily so.
The call to Franciscans, both religious and secular, is to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the manner of St Francis.
With regard to the Secular Franciscan vocation, the SFO General Constitutions state, "'Christ, poor and crucified' is the 'book' in which the brothers and sisters, in imitation of Francis, learn the purpose and the way of living, loving and suffering." (GC 10). This is true of all Franciscan vocations.
However, the secular Franciscan vocation and the religious Franciscan vocation are clearly distinguished. The SFO Rule says of the secular Franciscan vocation: "In these fraternities, the brothers and sisters, led by the Spirit, strive for perfect charity in their own secular state" (Rule 2). The secular state was clearly and positively outlined by Vatican II: "the secular character is proper and peculiar to the laity ... but by reason of their special vocation, it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God's will. They live in the world, i.e., they are engaged in each and every work and business of the earth and in the ordinary circumstances of social and family life which ... constitute their very existence" (Lumen gentium 4, 31).
In the initial and ongoing formation of both religious and secular Franciscans, a substantial Franciscan formation should be ensured. The three volumes of Francis of Assisi: Early Documents and their Index provide excellent Franciscan material for formation. The Omnibus is still of great value as well.
Belonging to a Franciscan fraternity, whether religious or secular, is essential to the Franciscan vocation.
The universal Church recognizes a person's Franciscan vocation when it is expressed in the liturgy, publicly, before the Fraternity, through vows by religious or through a promise by seculars.
However, the authenticity of the Franciscan vocation is not guaranteed merely by a ritual profession; it requires an adequate formation, acknowledgment by the Fraternity, and a lifelong practical response.
b. Franciscan charism
The Franciscan charism is the sum of gifts that God gave to St Francis to "rebuild my Church". References to the "specific charisms" of the different Orders of friars are untheological and divisive.
With regard to the "various ways and forms" (SFO Rule, Art. l), there is a great variety of Franciscan spiritual emphases, customs, habits, histories, legislation, and states of life that distinguish one Franciscan Order, Institute or association from another.
Professed Secular Franciscans are full participants in the common Franciscan charism, as are professed friars and Poor Clares. The numerous other lay faithful who are attracted to St Francis's way of life participate in the Franciscan charism very much (e.g., Secular Institutes), or to some extent ( e.g., the Franciscan Youth Movement, Franciscan Children).1
c. Franciscan family and fraternity
The SFO General Constitutions state, "As an integral part of the Franciscan family and called to live the charism of Francis within the secular dimension, the SFO has particular and close relations to the First Order" (GC 85.1).
The First, Second and Third Orders (regular and secular) are equal members of the one Franciscan Family. The concept of the "four Franciscan families", developed in the history of the friars, is now outdated because it divides Franciscan religious and seculars into four separate camps and is no longer constructive.
The union of the various components, their complementarity and vital reciprocal communion (life-giving union) does not adversely affect their autonomy.
A Franciscan Family Union already exists in many nations, and is open to all who call themselves Franciscans: priests, religious and laity. Its main concern is to promote the Franciscan formation of its members. In Australia, we have the Franciscan Federation of Australia, which has an annual general meeting and organizes large functions. The members are the various Franciscan Orders, Institutes and associations active in Australia. Individual Franciscans who belong to these bodies in NSW meet every second month as Franciscans of New South Wales.
Living a fraternal life and belonging to a local Fraternity is essential to Franciscan life. The SFO General Constitutions say: "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" (GC 28.1). "The journey of formation, which should develop throughout life, begins with entrance into the fraternity" (GC 37.2), that is, the local fraternity (cf. GC 39.1).
II. ST FRANCIS, FORMATOR OF SPIRITUAL ASSISTANTS
St Francis is the formator of spiritual Assistants to the Secular Franciscans.
To prepare myself to be a spiritual assistant, and to be properly formed for the task, I go to the Franciscan sources, and there I find myself in the position of Brother Francis among the laity.
Friar Thomas of Celano, who knew St Francis, wrote his First Life of St Francis, in 1228. It's worth reading all of nn. 36 and 37, which includes the following:
... many, casting aside earthly concerns, gained knowledge of themselves in the life and teaching of the most blessed father Francis and aspired to love and reverence for their Creator. Many people, well-born and lowly, cleric and lay, driven by divine inspiration, began to come to Saint Francis, for they desired to serve under his constant training and leadership. ... through his spreading message, the Church of Christ is being renewed in both sexes according to his form, rule and teaching, and there is victory for the triple army of those being saved. Furthermore, to all he gave a norm of life and to those of every rank he sincerely pointed out the way of salvation.
God gave St Francis of Assisi and his way of life as a gift to the Church.
This is what the Church is saying when it confirms the Rule of the founder of a
religious Order. The founder is recognized as a "charismatic" person, that is,
one whom the Holy Spirit has gifted, not just for his own benefit, but so that
he can help to build the Body of Christ, the church community. St Francis was
gifted to father not just one religious Order but a family of Orders, both
religious and secular.
We need to see the Secular Franciscan Order as an integral member of the Franciscan family. St Francis inspired an Order of secular men and women, as well as one for friars and one for contemplative nuns. The Secular Franciscans are not just friendly hangers-on to the Franciscan religious. That would betray the gift that God has entrusted to his Church. Through St Francis, God gave an entire spiritual family to the Church.
Thomas of Celano describes the determining factors in the conversion of the laity as the life and teaching of Francis, his discipline and leadership, and his rule or the norm or way of life that he gave them. It is important to note, also, that they were impelled by divine inspiration.
Our second source is the Legend of the Three Companions, which dates from 1246. The three companions were Leo, Angelo and Rufino, followers of St Francis since his conversion. We read, in n.54:
From this time onward [that is, after the approbation of the first short rule of the friars in 1209], Saint Francis wandered through cities, villages, and hamlets, and began to preach with increasing perfection... Many of the people, nobles and commoners alike, were touched by divine inspiration and began to imitate Francis' way of life, and to follow in his steps. They abandoned the cares and pomps of the world, desiring to live under his direction, guidance, and discipline.
This passage underlines the importance of Francis's preaching, identified with his example. The laity, touched by divine inspiration, sought his direction, guidance and discipline.
The Secular Franciscan Order was bound, in its birth, life and growth, and in its spirit, to the regular Franciscan Orders of friars and nuns. The three Orders grew spontaneously out of the life and preaching St Francis and his friars. The secular Order grew out of the intimate personal and spiritual relationships of certain lay persons, men and women, to St Francis and St Clare and their companions.
Nearly eight hundred years of Franciscan experience show that the rise and decline of the First Order of friars correspond to the rise and decline of the Second Order of nuns and the Third Order of seculars. The Secular Franciscan Order flourishes when the friars preach and live St Francis's way of life.
In the Legend of Perugia, written also round 1246, we read:
The brothers of the friary of Greccio were virtuous and poor, and the inhabitants of the country ... were more pleasing to blessed Francis than those of the rest of the province ... His example, his preaching, and that of his brothers were the reason, together with the grace of God, why many of the inhabitants entered the Order... The brothers at Greccio .. sang the praises of the Lord in the evening. Then, men and women, great and small, would come out of their homes, stand on the road before the town, and alternate with the brothers ... Even the little children who hardly knew how to talk praised God according to their ability.
This passage is important for the history of the Third Order (see Omnibus, note 67 on p.1095). Where it says that "many of the inhabitants entered the Order", we would say that they joined the Franciscan family, either as friars or nuns or most frequently as seculars. The reasons why they joined are given, namely, the example, preaching and liturgical prayer of Francis and his friars. Again, the grace of God is stressed.
St Bonaventure, Minister General of the friars, wrote his Major Life of St Francis in 1263, and this became the officially approved biography. In Chapter 4, n.6, we read:
Carried away by the force of his preaching, great numbers of people adopted the new rule of penance according to the form instituted by St Francis which he called the "Order of the Brothers of Penance". The way of penance is common to all those who are on the road to heaven and so this way of life includes members of both sexes, clerics and lay-folk, married or single. How meritorious it is in the eyes of God is clear from the numerous miracles worked by some of those who followed it.
The three Franciscan Orders taken together can best be understood as the Franciscan family, fathered by St Francis and mothered by St Clare. Pope Paul VI launched his new Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order, in 1978, with this insight:
1. 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.
2. The Secular Franciscan Order holds a special place in this family circle
The three Orders, from their common beginning, formed a dynamic movement that brought new intensity to living the Gospel in the Church. The Franciscans, whether friars, nuns or laity, were fired by the Word of God. They experienced in their own lives what the Bible said about the lives of men and women of faith, hope and love.
In the Little Flowers of St Francis, written round 1330, we have a colourful picture of Francis, animating the laity spiritually:
They arrived at a village called Cannara. And St Francis began to preach, first ordering the swallows who were twittering to keep quiet until he had finished preaching. And the swallows obeyed him. He preached there so fervently that all the men and women of that village, as a result of his sermon and of the miracle of the swallows, in their great devotion wanted to follow him and abandon the village. But St Francis did not let them, saying to them: "Don't be in a hurry and don't leave, for I will arrange what you should do for the salvation of your souls." And from that time he planned to organise the Third Order of the Continent for the salvation of all people everywhere. And leaving them much consoled and disposed to do penance, he left them there and came between Cannara and Bevagna. (Omnibus, p.1335.).
I like the little touch at the end. St Francis disposed the laity to conversion but he knew when to leave and let them get on with the job for themselves. He didn't make the laity dependent on himself and he didn't make himself indispensable as a companion. The wise spiritual assistant does the same.
In these passages, it is always the example of prayer and discipline of St Francis and his friars that attracts the laity. Through his preaching and teaching, and by his presence among the laity, he guides them in their spiritual life, not detached from their everyday life but integrated into it. Above all, the grace of God attracts the laity to the Franciscan way of life.
The first members of the Franciscan family were outstanding, not because they lived according to a strict set of rules, or because they adopted a particular body of teachings, or fostered certain devotions. They were outstanding as witnesses to Jesus Christ poor and suffering among them, and at the same time a living person, the risen Lord of the universe. The gospel came to life in the Franciscan family. The friars not only preached the Word of God; they lived it, or rather Him, Jesus Christ, before the eyes of the people, who immediately recognized God's pilgrim people, the joyful poor, who suffered but were free.
Like St Francis, we friars are called to be inspiring animators and guides
among the laity today. We are not their bosses but their brothers. We are not
their privileged directors but their servants. In a word, we are their spiritual
assistants. We carry a gospel message in our preaching and teaching, but we
ourselves are our message. We are witnesses of the gospel. As delegates of our
Major Superior, we are the most obvious bond of the unity that should exist
between the seculars and the religious in the Franciscan family.
The friars' task of spiritual assistance is necessary, but not always for the Secular Franciscans. In many countries, there are local SFO fraternities that have existed for years and have flourished without friars as their local Assistants. Many local fraternities, with the permission of Franciscan Major Superiors, have already found suitable spiritual assistants who are not friars or priests.
The task of spiritual assistance is always necessary for us friars so that, like St Francis, we may live and share our Franciscan charism. God wants us to go about the world preaching, because he did not call us for ourselves alone but also for the salvation of others (Cf. Little Flowers, Ch.16).