Fr Carl Schafer ofm
Goulburn March 2001


Secularity characterizes the whole text of the SFO Rule and General Constitutions. These texts are not a re-reading of the spirituality of the Secular Franciscans in a modern or post-Vatican II key. These texts are the fruit of the awareness of the past, a return to the origins and an evaluation of the purest tradition of the Third Order of St Francis inherited by the Secular Franciscan Order.

In our modern disoriented world, Secular Franciscans are given the opportunity to renew the great adventure of revealing and proposing a life-style inspired by the gospel of Jesus Christ and rooted in the fatherhood of God, in the brotherhood of all men and women, in harmony with nature.

Precisely through Baptism we were all initiated into Christian life in the world. At that moment God called us "to follow Christ" (cf. Rule SFO 1) in the secular condition, in secularity.

You who are seculars, laity or clerics, are "led by the Spirit" to strive for perfect charity in your own secular state. By your profession, you pledge yourselves "to live the gospel in the manner of Saint Francis" by means of the SFO Rule (cf. Rule SFO 2).

We who are Franciscan religious are no longer seculars. We pledge ourselves by religious Profession to live the Gospel in the manner of Saint Francis and by means of the Rule of our religious Order.

See how diverse are the Franciscan vocations. Together we form an enormous Franciscan Family. We make present "the charism of (our) common Seraphic Father in the life and mission of the Church", but "in various ways and forms" (Rule SFO 1). The secular vocation is different from the religious vocation. The Secular Franciscans should not behave as though they were religious. The friars and Sisters should not behave as though they were seculars.

All vocations that come from God are holy and lead to holiness. What matters is to recognize one's own vocation and to follow it faithfully. This is the purpose of the Franciscan Youth Movement: to help young people to discern their vocation and to guide them to do the will of God with regard to themselves (cf. The Franciscan Youth: A Franciscan Vocational Journey, 14).

We were all called in Baptism to holiness in the world, in secular conditions, in secularity. The call to holiness in the religious life comes to some later on. Now let us concentrate on secularity and the secular vocation.

The secular vocation

Pope Paul VI developed the Council's theology of secularity in his Apostolic Exhortation on the Evangelization of the People of Our Time, (Evangelii nuntiandi), in 1995.

The Holy Father wrote: "Lay people, whose particular vocation places them in the midst of the world and in charge of the most varied temporal tasks, must for this very reason exercise a very special form of evangelization. Their primary and immediate task is ... to put to use every Christian and evangelical possibility latent but already present and active in the affairs of the world. Their own field of evangelizing activity is the vast and complicated world of politics, society and economics, but also the world of culture, of the sciences and arts, of international life, of the mass media. It also includes other realities which are open to evangelization, such as love, the family, the education of children and adolescents, professional work, suffering" (EN 70).

Although the SFO Rule of Paul VI in 1978, does not refer to the Exhortation, it follows it in Articles 14 to 19: build a more fraternal world; promote justice; esteem work as a gift; cultivate the Franciscan spirit in the family; respect all creatures; bring peace, joy and hope.

The SFO General Constitutions of 1990 stress that the Secular Franciscans should be first of all evangelized through: following their secular vocation; conversion; initial and ongoing formation; spiritual assistance and animation (cf. Letter to the Assistants, 1992 n.2, p.13-15). Then they should evangelize others in the family, at work, in secular society and in the church community, both in the SFO local Fraternity and outside the SFO (cf. Letter to the Assistants, 1992 n.1, p.11-12).

Role of the Assistant and Animator

The SFO Rule and General Constitutions are based, necessarily, on the Code of Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church. According to the canon law now effective, the spiritual Assistant is always a priest, preferably a Franciscan. Instead, the spiritual Animator is either a religious or a secular, but not a priest.

In the SFO General Constitutions finally approved on 8 December 2000, the distinction between spiritual Assistant and spiritual Animator has been dropped, but we can't adopt the text until we have the official English translation readily available, so until then we follow the Constitutions that we have.

The Statutes for Spiritual and Pastoral Assistance to the SFO, published in 1992, summarize the contents of the Rule and General Constitutions that concern Assistants and Animators. It is important that the Superiors and Assistants study them.

At the level of the SFO local Fraternity, the role of the spiritual Animator in the spiritual journey of the seculars is the same role as that of the spiritual Assistant, except that the priest can offer an additional sacramental service, for example, the Eucharist and Reconciliation.

The SFO General Constitutions say: "It is the particular task of the Assistant to cooperate in the initial and continuing formation of the brothers and sisters" (GC SFO 89.4).

In view of the SFO Rule and General Constitutions and drawing on your own experience:


In the SFO Rule and General Constitutions, the functions of internal government of the Fraternities at all levels are reserved exclusively to the elected secular leaders. These functions are precisely delimited from the functions of pastoral and spiritual assistance and animation entrusted to the friars of the four designated Franciscan Orders.

Belonging to a single Franciscan Family stands firm, as also does the life-giving union of seculars and religious that expresses the community of spiritual goods, the unity of intents, and the mutual help for bringing to life in our days St Francis's ideal of peace and good for everyone.

When I think of the autonomy of the individual members of the Franciscan Family, "in life-giving union" (Rule SFO 1), I find obstacles to the autonomy of the Secular Franciscan Order.

According to the legislation of the Rule and General Constitutions, the SFO is autonomous because it is a single Order guided by elected secular leaders and financed by the professed members.

The key to the unity of the SFO is the Regional Fraternity. The General Constitutions define it as: "the organic union of all the local Fraternities existing in a territory or which can be integrated into a natural unity .... While respecting the unity of the SFO and with the collegial integration of the various Franciscan Obediences which may provide spiritual assistance within the area, it assures the link between the local Fraternities and the national Fraternity" (GC 61).

With regard to the internal direction of the SFO, the General Constitutions say: "The local Fraternity is animated and guided by a Minister and a Council elected by the professed members of the Fraternity" (GC 49.1). "The Council of the local Fraternity is composed of the following offices: Minister, Vice-Minister, Secretary, Treasurer, and the person responsible for formation" (GC 49.2).

The Rule lays down the financing of the Order and the General Constitutions repeat it: "Regarding expenses necessary for the life of the fraternity and the needs of worship, of the apostolate, and of charity, all the brothers and sisters should offer a contribution according to their means. Local fraternities should contribute toward the expenses of the higher fraternity councils" (Rule SFO 25; cf. GC 30.3).

Obstacles to autonomy

The law lays down the autonomy of the SFO very clearly. The SFO is autonomous on paper, in its Rule and General Constitutions. But in reality, the SFO will not be autonomous until: it is united as a single Order in every regional and national Fraternity; the Councils at the various levels are capable of governing the corresponding Fraternities; it is financially self-sufficient.

These conditions require: overcoming the obediential divisions of the Franciscan Secular Third Order introduced by the Orders of friars in the course of history; independence from the friars in the internal direction of the Fraternities; financial independence.

However, autonomous government of the Fraternities on the part of elected secular Ministers an Councillors has made considerable progress. Restructuring and autonomy have borne fruit for the vitality of secular Franciscan life.

Financial autonomy has a long way to go. The idea that everything must come cost-free is still strong, not only in those countries where foreign missionaries provided everything free of charge, but also in the rest of the world where the friars often provided for the slight financial requirements of the local Fraternities.

Few Secular Franciscans, even in the "rich" countries, are themselves rich. The majority belongs to the middle bracket, and many are economically poor. St Francis did not attract many rich people to follow him, and so it is today. In fact, he attracted many marginal people. There would be something seriously out of order if the SFO attracted mainly rich people and gave a slight welcome to poor and unimportant people.

Role of the Assistants and Animators

Given the responsibility for the altius moderamen (that is, for a certain external direction of the SFO) which the Holy See places on the four religious Orders, it is difficult for the friars to avoid being "Directors" of the Fraternities, as they were by law before 1978. It is not easy to fit into the Fraternity Council as a "Spiritual Assistant", in accordance with the new legislation and in the new spirit of collaboration with the laity, "giving them priority with regard to the guidance, coordination and animation of the fraternity" (Stat.Assist. 10).

Recognition of the responsibility that belongs to the seculars should not turn into a passive attitude of "leave them to it", but it should lead to an active attitude: to promote the secular vocation and to cooperate with the seculars so that they will realize their proper mission.

According to the SFO General Constitutions: "The Spiritual Assistant is a member of the Council of the Fraternity to which he gives assistance and collaborates with it in all its activities" (GC SFO 89.4). "The Spiritual Assistant does not exercise the right to vote in financial questions" (GC SFO 89.5).

Here is a question for discussion:


The unity of the Secular Franciscan Order was present at its beginning and never disputed on the theoretical level. On the practical and organizational level, on the contrary, the successive historical evolution introduced the distinction between the various branches deriving from the respective Orders of Franciscan friars, whom the Holy See held responsible for giving spiritual assistance to the Secular Franciscans.

Not only the unity of Christians but also the unity of Franciscans has been lacking in the second Christian millennium. At present, with the approval of the Holy See, the friars are constituted in four distinct Orders. Instead, with the Rule of 1978 and the General Constitutions of 1990, the Secular Franciscans are structured in one single Secular Franciscan Order, in local, regional and national Fraternities, independently from the Provinces of the friars.

More important than unity of structures is unity of spirit. In fact, structural unity must be built on spiritual unity of minds and hearts. Otherwise, unity is a fiction and structural unity is an imposition. Unity of structures follows spiritual unity automatically because the spirit creates the structures that are best adapted to express itself.

So, basic to genuine unity is unity of spirit. I am convinced that, in every country and at every level of Fraternity, even in those countries where structural unity has been achieved, much hard work has yet to be done in order to achieve unity of mind and heart.

The Holy Father wrote: "We are all however aware that the attainment of this goal cannot be the fruit of human efforts alone, vital though they are. Unity, after all, is a gift of the Holy Spirit... It is essential ... to be more committed to prayer for Christian unity" (TMA 34).

Here we have one of the most demanding tasks for the SFO. If not completely united by 2001, you are much closer to overcoming the divisions of the second millennium.


So I would ask a few questions along those lines:

Enquiries to Jack Smith : phone 61-2-6258 3824