On October 4, the Roman Seraphic Liturgy celebrates the solemnity of Our Holy Father, Francis of Assisi, Deacon, Founder of the Three Orders. The reference is to the Order of Friars Minor, the Order of the Poor Ladies of San Damiano, better known as Poor Clare nuns, and the Order of Penance for secular people. “Secular” includes both clergy and laity.

            Thomas of Celano, in The Life of Saint Francis (FA:ED I, p. 216-7), wrote, “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.”

            The “triple army” may refer to the three ranks of the medieval Church, clergy, religious, and laity, or to the three Franciscan Orders, Lesser Brothers, Poor Ladies, and secular Penitents. The text clearly confirms that St Francis gave a rule or norm of life to all three entities. On the strength of such an early witness, in 1228, and of many other documents, all three Orders claim that they were founded by St Francis.

            There can be no doubt that St Francis founded the First Order of the Friars Minor. Not only did he give his friars a way of life by his lived example but he also compiled an earlier Rule between 1209 and 1221, and wrote a later Rule in 1223, which was sealed by Pope honourius III.

            St Clare gave her Sisters a way of life also by her lived example and she wrote a Rule for them that was sealed by Pope Innocent IV in 1253. She qualifies without a doubt as the foundress of the Poor Clares. However, she asserted in the very first line of her Rule that “Blessed Francis established” “the form of life of the Order of the Poor Sisters.” Some would conclude that this statement does not assert that St Francis was the “founder” of the Second Order.

            The question is raised whether St Francis was strictly the “founder” of the Order of Penitents, later called the secular Third Order, and out of which the Third Order Regular also developed. After his conversion in 1205, he did not live the life of a secular person. Although he was spiritual father to a host of secular people, he did not write a Rule for them that was sealed by a Pope. The first such Rule for them was written and sealed by Pope Nicholas IV in 1289.

            The friars of the Third Order Regular vigorously defend their being founded by St Francis of Assisi just as much as was the First Order and Second Order. The following segments, written by Fr Lino Temperini TOR, have been downloaded from the web site of the friars of the Third Order Regular: (


            In the encyclical letter Sacra propediem, dated January 6, 1921, Benedict XV affirmed: from the testimony of the sources one can deduce from the evidence that, "St. Francis was the true founder of the Third Order in the same way that he was of the First and the Second, and thus, without doubt he was their wise legislator. The assertion from this pontifical document places us in step with a long line of such declarations from the historical writings that deal with the Third Order, it is also tied closely with the ancient and authentic writings of Franciscan history.

            Nevertheless, some researchers have expressed some doubt as to the role of St. Francis in the foundation of the order of penitents, in some cases denying his paternity or reducing his role to one of marginal importance. Among the questions that have been put forward in this regard include: Can St. Francis be understood as the true and direct founder of his penitents, or did the movement spontaneously develop after (or as a result) of the itinerant apostolate of the first Franciscans? Did St. Francis simply give new energy and direction to an already ancient penitential movement in the Church?

            According to some of these hypothetical questions it is posited that it might be more exact to refer to the movement as the "Third Franciscan Order" rather than the "Third Order of St. Francis"! Some have even written that the merit of huius ordinis institutor (founder of this order) should be attributed not to St. Francis but to Nicholas IV in 1289!

            The verification of the title "founder" for St. Francis can be cleared up in the sources. The ancient texts, historical and juridical, consistently maintain that the Franciscan Order of Penance, or the Third Order, was intentionally founded by St. Francis. The distinction, made by some, between "institutor," "legislator," and "founder" is much too sophisticated and alien to the mind of the biographers. These use the same terms when they speak about the rapport that St. Francis had with the brothers of the First Order, with the sisters of the Second Order, and with the brothers and sisters of the Third Order. The causal connection is identical in all three cases. According to the biographers and chroniclers, St. Francis was the true founder and master of a triplice milizia and thus has the same connection with each.

            One look, even a hurried one, at the historical sources clearly sheds light for those who, "from the sources," arbitrarily deny to St. Francis the institution or foundation of this his "Masterpiece”.

            First of all, Francis himself wrote a fitting "forma di vita" for his penitents, sending them the First (1215) and Second (1221) Letter to All the Faithful. Also for this group, Card. Hugolino codified and compiled the ancient Menoriale propositi (1221).

            Further, the following biographers and writers affirm with certainty the direct paternity of Francis: Thomas of Celano (First Life of St. Francis, 1228/29); Gregory IX (Caput draconis, 1228); Julian of Speyer (Officium rhythmicum, 1231/32); Pseudo-Abrincese (Legenda versificata, 1232/33); Julian of Speyer (Vita, 1232/35); St. Bonaventure (Major Life of St. Francis, 1260/63), and Sermo II de S. Francisco (1267); the Anonymous of Perugia (1266/70); the Legenda monacensis (1275); Bernard of Bressa (Liber de laudibus, 1276); the Catalogus pontificum (limited to the 13th century); the Legend of the Three Companions (1290/1380); the Catalogus generalium (from the early 14th century); Ubertino of Casale (Arbor Vitae, 1305); the Legend of Perugia (1311); and finally the Fioretti (1327/1380), in order to end with a work that is well known and popular. To these and other historical witnesses can also be added papal documents, as well as documents from local churches and civic institutions.

            This most abundant, clear and consistent documentation does not permit us to doubt the direct paternity of St. Francis in regard to the "brothers and sisters of penance," or the Third Order.


            [T]he Holy Spirit chose the Poverello as a focal point of gathering and as a reference for many who wished to respond in a similar way to the gospel message. The early companions, Clare and other women, and a crowd of laity all came to Francis and he received them as gifts from God. In this way three Franciscan orders were born, each destined to express [its] own unique gift of gospel spirituality and each graced by God with many vocations. As always, the driving force of these orders was the Lord (cf. 2 Cel 204), but Francis intentionally cooperated with the plan of God and became the father of many people, almost a new Abraham. The connection and rapport between Francis and three institutions is identical, he is the founder, father, and teacher of the First, Second, and Third orders.

            There is no justification to simply relegate to Francis, as some are wont to do, either the role of a re-animator of a pre-existent group, or as a champion of a[n] organization of laity involved in personal and ecclesiastical renewal, while at the same time denying him the title of the true founder of his penitents. To hold such an opinion would be like building a bridge in mid air. Those who do so depart from the foundation of historical truth and negate the paternity of Francis and his influence on the foundation of the First and other orders. They unfortunately either ignore the strong witness of history, are not aware of it, choose to ignore it, or try to explain it away without allowing it to speak on its own. It serves us well to recall only some reliable historical sources to prove this point.

            Thomas of Celano, an eyewitness of the first Franciscan experience, presents Francis as an "excellent craftsman " of the evangelical life who founded a "threefold army" each branch of which "he gave a norm of life, and he showed in truth the way of salvation in every walk of life (I Cel 37)." Gregory IX, already a friend and collaborator of St. Francis when he was simply Cardinal Hugolino, affirmed that the Poverello "sent into the battle three battalions of valiant soldiers (AF X 401).

            Julian of Speyer, also a direct witness of the early Franciscan movement, wrote that Francis, "organized three orders: the first named the friars minor, the middle those who are poor women, and the third of penitents" (Officium AF X 383). He further asserts that St. Francis was the author of "three celebrated orders" and "the third, of no mean perfection, is called the order of penitents, made up of clerics and laity, single, celibate and married, heartily comprising all at the same time" (Vita in AF X 346, n. 23).

            One finds similar affirmations in official documentation, such as the early text for the liturgy of the feast of the saint. Pseudo-Abrincense also clearly attributes "three orders" to St. Francis, and further gives the first place to the "order of penitents" Leg. vers., app. 11, lib. 7, vv. 60-66 in AF X 509). St. Bonaventure spoke about a great number of people "clerics and laity, virgins and married of both sexes" who were bound to the "new laws of penance according to the rule which they received from the man of God" and that Francis "decided to name this way of life the Order of the Brothers of Penance" (LM 4:6). The same affirmation is given in Sermo II, where the Seraphic Doctor writes that Francis, "instituted the Third Order, called the Order of Penitents" (Opera IX 576).

            It is important to note the consistency of this documentation and the fact that none of the early sources den[ies] the influence Francis had on three orders. Nor should we overlook two passages in the Acts of the provincial chapter held in Bologna in November of 1289, only three months after the Rule of Nicholas IV. The Acts show that the brothers and sisters of penance had a clear idea of their Franciscan identity and their connection with St. Francis. Two times the text[s] identify Francis as the "father of the penitents"...(AFH 18, 1925: 348, 350).

            The historical texts place the Third Order firmly in the Franciscan movement and affirm that the early members of the order recognized this fact. Those who approach the literature with an open mind must be convinced that the biographers, chroniclers, and bulls consistently affirm Francis' direct paternity of three orders in the same way and without discrimination.