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 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).