THE ROLE OF THE SPIRITUAL ASSISTANT IN SFO FORMATION
Michael J. Higgins TOR, General Spiritual Assistant
In the following presentation, I will refer frequently to the General Constitutions of the Secular Franciscan Order, a document which, along with the Rule of the Order, forms the framework which guides the life of the Secular Franciscan Order on all levels. A familiarization with these documents is essential for anyone who is entrusted with the spiritual and pastoral care of the SFO.
As has been stated many times during the present meeting, the Spiritual Assistant plays an important role in the formation process of Secular Franciscans. The richer his or her personal knowledge and embrace of Franciscanism, the Sacred Scriptures, and the basics of the Catholic faith, the richer the Spiritual Assistant’s contribution to formation on all levels will be.
From the Statutes for Spiritual and Pastoral Assistance to the SFO:
1. The principal task of the assistant is to foster a deeper insight into Franciscan spirituality and to co-operate in the initial and continuing formation of the secular Franciscans.
2. In the Council of the fraternity and in elective and ordinary Chapters the assistant will be respectful of the responsibilities and role of the secular Franciscans, giving them priority with regard to the guidance, co-ordination, and animation of the fraternity.
3. The assistant participates actively and votes in the discussions and decisions taken by the Council or by the Chapter. He or she is specifically responsible for the animation of liturgical celebrations and spiritual reflections during the meetings of the Council or of the Chapter.
1. The local Assistant, together with the Council of the fraternity, is responsible for the formation of the candidates and expresses his or her assessment of each of the candidates before profession.
Council meetings, formation meetings, and fraternity gatherings are where the Spiritual Assistant provides his or her special service to the Franciscan fraternity. It is done in collaboration with the local fraternity council and formation people. The council and the Spiritual Assistant work hand-in-hand to provide initial and ongoing formation for the fraternity.
From the General Constitutions of the Secular Franciscan Order
1. Rule 23 Membership in the Order is attained through a time of initiation, a time of formation, and the profession of the Rule.
2. The journey of formation, which should develop throughout life, begins with entrance into the fraternity. Mindful that the Holy Spirit is the principal agent of formation and always attentive to collaboration with Him, those responsible for formation are: the candidate, the entire fraternity, the council with the minister, the master of formation, and the assistant.
3. The brothers and sisters are responsible for their own formation, developing in an ever more perfect way the vocation received from the Lord. The fraternity is called to help the brothers and sisters in this journey by means of a warm welcome, prayer, and example.
4. The elaboration and adoption of means of formation, adapted to the local situations and offered as a help to those responsible for formation in the individual fraternities, belong to the national and regional councils in common agreement.
As is allowed by the Constitutions, the progression of initial formation and the time recommended for the time of initiation is set by the national statutes of each national fraternity (cf. Constitutions, art. 37:4; 38:2; 40:1). This is a sign of the recognition on the part of the Order that regional and cultural differences need to taken into consideration by each nation. As article 37 of the Constitutions points out, the entrance into the Order involves at least three distinct stages: "initiation, a time of formation, and the profession of the Rule." These can be adjusted by national fraternities in order to address local and cultural needs.
As an example, the following outline is taken from the United States of America. The steps delineated in the process of initial formation include the following: orientation, inquiry, candidacy, and ongoing formation.
Orientation is a time in which the local fraternity begins to discover an applicant’s call (vocation) to be a Secular Franciscan. The formation material used in this period should allow for comprehensive personal disclosure. It enables formation people to discover the person’s reason for wishing to be a Secular Franciscan. Personal motivations should be discussed and explored – including the religious education of the applicant, his or her "brand" or understanding of theology, and the applicant’s personal religious ideology. It is very important for the fraternity to get a sense of the kind of person who is applying. A healthy and open spirit is to be esteemed. A rigid and negative spirit may indicate the lack of vocation to the SFO.
The goal is to discern, early in the formation process, the call or lack of a call to the SFO. In the United States, this period can last from four to six months.
The period of inquiry is a serious and prayerful time for discerning the vocation of the applicant. It explores more deeply the ways of discernment and some of the elements that are part of a Secular Franciscan’s life and perspectives. The formation team should determine the reality of the applicant’s call to the SFO. The applicant, too, can come to a prayerful decision about continuing initial formation. With a common positive decision by the formation team, fraternity council, and the applicant, the individual can move on to the period of candidacy.
In the United States, this period must be at least six months in length, but can be lengthened, if necessary, by the local fraternity.
Having finished the inquiry stage of initial formation, an applicant sets out on the candidacy program of initial formation. This period lasts at least one year (cf. Constitutions, art. 40:1) - in the United States, it lasts from 18 to 36 months depending on the local council’s determination. This is a time for integrating the human, Christian, and Franciscan elements of formation. Different dimensions of the Franciscan life are studied, discussed, and absorbed during candidacy. It is especially important to gain an understanding of the SFO Rule as well as participating in fraternity life and the regular gatherings of the fraternity.
The Spiritual Assistant serves as brother or sister in St. Francis and as a teacher and guide "in the person of Christ" and "in the name of the Church."
1. He or she shares the same ideal; partakes, though in a different way, of the same charism; and shares in the same mission of St. Francis. In this way, he or she lives and facilitates that vital and reciprocal communion among all the followers of St. Francis.
2. As a teacher and guide, the Spiritual Assistant reveals the Christ who saves, and communicates in such a way that candidates may be able to exercise their common priesthood, the gift of all the baptized. In this way, the Spiritual Assistant fosters communion with the Church, guaranteeing the integrity of the faith and of ecclesiastical discipline. 
The Spiritual Assistant tries to be present at the initial formation sessions and works with the fraternity formation. He or she assists with the formation, but does not dominate. The insights and knowledge of a Spiritual Assistant are shared with the formation team and those in formation. Above all, the Spiritual Assistant shares and promotes the understanding of Franciscanism for those joining the SFO.
Interaction among the participants should be encouraged. Lectures have their place, but active participation and discussion is essential. The use of quality formation materials is highly recommended.
1. Rule 23 The time of formation lasts at least one year. The national statutes can establish a longer period. The purpose of this period is the maturation of the vocation, the experience of the evangelical life in fraternity, and a better knowledge of the Order. This formation should be carried out with frequent meetings for study and prayer and with concrete experiences of service and of apostolate. These meetings should be held, as far as possible and opportune, in common with the candidates of other fraternities.
2. The candidates are guided to read and meditate on Sacred Scripture, to come to know the person and writings of Francis and of Franciscan spirituality, and to study the Rule and Constitutions. They are trained in a love for the Church and acceptance of her teaching. The laity practice living their secular commitment in the world in an evangelical way.
3. Participation in the meetings of the local fraternity is indispensable presupposition for initiation into community prayer and into fraternity life.
4. A style of teaching which is Franciscan in character and which fits the mentality of the persons concerned should be adopted.
Continuing education is important for the life of the fraternity and for the growth of its members. This has an importance that is at least equal to that of initial formation. Any fraternity that ceases to learn, both intellectually and with the heart, will find gatherings to be boring and fraternity life to be stagnant.
Throughout life, it is good to develop and deepen the content of initial formation, to update it continually in line with the teaching of the Church, and to allow it to evolve in the daily interchange with our society.
Ongoing formation never ends. The fraternity council must give it special attention in order to assure healthy and progressive growth in the living of the Franciscan way of life. As a member of the fraternity council, the Spiritual Assistant contributes ideas and creativity, and shares knowledge and insights to enhance the Franciscan fraternal life.
In regard to the animation of liturgical celebrations and spiritual reflections, the Spiritual Assistant should avoid an overdose of monastic styles of liturgy and be open to creative liturgical celebrations. The Spiritual Assistant’s spiritual reflection should focus on the needs of the fraternity members and be filled with the Franciscan spirit.
Do not use liturgical celebrations as a replacement for ongoing formation. Liturgical celebrations should support and continue the spirit of ongoing formation. Let your words enrich the ability of Secular Franciscans to influence the secular world in which they live. Avoid using ongoing formation time, or any fraternity time, to propagate private devotional practices.
Obviously, the Spiritual Assistant needs to be present at gatherings in order to be involved with the ongoing formation of the fraternity.
1. Begun by the preceding stages, the formation of the brothers and sisters takes place in a permanent and continuous way. It should be understood as an aid in the conversion of each and everyone and in the fulfillment of their proper mission in the Church and in society.
2. The Fraternity has the duty to give special attention to the formation of the newly professed and of the temporarily professed, to help them become fully mature in their vocation and develop a true sense of belonging.
3. Ongoing formation – accomplished by means of courses, gatherings, and the sharing of experience – aims to assist the brothers and sisters:
— Rule 4 in listening to and meditating on the Word of God, "going from Gospel to life and from life to Gospel";
— in reflecting on events in the Church and in society in the light of faith and with the help of the documents of the teaching Church, consequently taking consistent positions;
— in discerning and deepening the Franciscan vocation by studying the writings of Saint Francis, Saint Clare and Franciscan authors.
Several times during this presentation, it has been pointed out that the ministry of spiritual assistance to the SFO should be done in collaboration between the Spiritual Assistant, the formation people of the fraternity, and the fraternity council. That is, the Spiritual Assistant should not have to do everything him or herself and, when possible, should be a member of a team. Having said this, it is obvious that the amount of direction that an individual Spiritual Assistant gives to the formation of new members of the SFO is going to be determined to a great extent by the readiness of local formation people to take on the responsibility of this important task. In some places, the Spiritual Assistant may be the only one with sufficient training and expertise in Franciscanism and formation. These situations must be handled on a case by case basis. However, everything should be done in order to involve the Secular Franciscans in the formation process. Some ways this can done may include one or more of the following:
Involve formed members of nearby fraternities in the formation process as much and as often as possible.
Give serious consideration to having a number of local fraternities engage in a shared or joint formation program.
Do everything you can do to encourage the members of the local fraternity to go on for further studies in formation and/or Franciscanism. This can be done through retreats, workshops, private study, distance education such as correspondence courses, etc…
In the final analysis, the work with the Secular Franciscan Order can be enriching for everyone concerned – the Spiritual Assistant as well as members of local fraternities. This is, after all, part of what is "ours to do." Let us do it well – and with love.
 This presentation was freely adapted from Life Giving Union: A Course for Local Spiritual Assistants, prepared by the Conference of National Spiritual Assistants to the Secular Franciscan Order in the United States of America, revised in 2003 by Lester Bach, OFM Cap.; Loren Connell, OFM; Stephen Gross, OFM Conv., and Patrick Seelman, TOR.  Taken from "Elements of Formation: A Reflection on the Formation Process," 1992, p. 30.