THE ROLE OF THE SPIRITUAL ASSISTANT
In the Local Fraternity
Fr. Irudaya Samy, OFMCap
Francis and his brothers felt led by the Spirit to serve the penitents, who for their part looked more and more to the friars for guidance and spiritual animation. Francis’ Letter to All the Faithful is a remarkable witness to the teaching and spiritual direction that he provided for the laity. The evidence of Celano, the Anonymous of Perugia, St. Bonaventure, the Legend of Three Companions, Pope Gregory IX and others, proves that from the beginning ‘the lay people desired to associate themselves with the Franciscan movement, to share in the charism of the Poverello while leading their own life as laity in the world.’ Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Francis responded to the appeal of the crucifix of St. Damian by bringing forth an evangelical way of life which, lived by his friars, sisters and the laity ‘rebuilt’ the Church and must still carry on with its restoration.
The ministry to the SFO is truly ‘assistance’ and not control of the SFO. This responsibility, which is clearly accentuated in the Statutes for Spiritual and Pastoral Assistance to the Secular Franciscan Order, is already referred to by Pope Benedict XIII. In his Bull Paternae Sedis Apostolicae, he reminds the Minister General that ‘as successor of St. Francis he has the duty of rendering spiritual assistance to the Third Order.’
The renewed legislation of the Secular Franciscan Order places the spiritual Assistant in a new light, very different from that of the past, i.e., it places him in his true dimension. If the work of the Assistant seems reduced as regards direction and organization, it acquires greater depth in the area of spiritual accompaniment and in the formation of the brothers and sisters. However, these changes must not harden the heart of the Assistant so that he adopts a passive approach, but rather they should lead him to an attitude of greater responsibility and commitment.
II. The Spiritual Assistant as Animator
‘Assistant’ comes from the Latin verb ‘adsistere,’ meaning: to stand next to, to help through one’s own active participation, to protect, to favour. The Assistant is the one called because of his competence to assist the SFO.
The General Constitutions also provide for the person of the Animator. ‘Animator’ from ‘animare’ means: to plant life, to give courage, to promote, to give expression, movement and warmth, to invigorate, to transfigure. The Animator is the one who inspires and promotes intellectual life; he is the spiritual guide of a movement.
From article 13 of the Statutes for Spiritual and Pastoral Assistance to the SFO, we come to know clearly the role of the Spiritual Assistant:
1. The principal task of the assistant is to foster a deeper insight into Franciscan spirituality and to cooperate 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, coordination, 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.
The Spiritual Assistant should have the ability to develop in the SFO an authentic Franciscan spirit, so that all SFO brothers and sisters can carry that spirit into the world. Hence, it is necessary to help the laity grow in dialogue with the world, to offer secular Franciscans a way to view the world differently, and to inculturate the faith truly in a Franciscan way. The assistant plays a pivotal (central) role in the pastoral care entrusted by the Church to the First Order and the TOR in relation to the SFO. It is a special responsibility. The Spiritual Assistant is a symbol of the unity and collaboration of the Franciscan Family because by his mere presence with the secular Franciscans he expresses that we are one and complementary, that we are together striving for the same goals, come from the same roots, are motivated by the same charism, and are shaped by the same legacies and traditions..
On the role of the assistant, Pope John Paul II says: ‘the mission of the ecclesiastical assistant is directed toward educating in the faith and promoting growth in the interior life… in such a way that the laity respond joyfully and generously to the call to holiness and to their specific mission according to the Gospel… The mission of the Assistant then achieves its goal in the promotion among the members of the Fraternity of their particular lay vocation in all its implications and specific nature… Your action, your specific apostolate, your mission as spiritual fathers and educators in the faith for individual people, are fundamental elements for the formation of all members, including leaders and animators.’
III. The Spiritual Assistant to a Fraternity
The Assistant is by right a member of the Council; his role consists in being the privileged formator of the entire Fraternity. He must be entirely aware of this fact if he is to convey widely his understanding of ‘things Franciscan’, with the presence and the competence required of him. He also participates in the meetings of the Fraternity, being actively present and alert to the dynamics of the group.
The Statutes for Spiritual and Pastoral Assistance to the SFO clearly state:
1. The Spiritual Assistant is the person designated by the competent major superior to carry out this service for a specific fraternity of the SFO and of the Franciscan Youth.
2. In order to be a witness of Franciscan spirituality and of the fraternal affection of the religious towards the secular Franciscans, and to be a bond of communion between his Order and the SFO, the spiritual assistant should preferably be a Franciscan religious, a member of the First Order or the TOR.
3. The Spiritual Assistant is by right a voting member of the council and of the chapter of the fraternity to which he or she gives assistance and collaborates with it in all activities. Only in economic matters and in elections at any level does he or she not enjoy the right to vote.
As regards the role of each, he concerns himself with pastoral and spiritual formation as well as with the liturgical and sacramental life of the Fraternity. He is the guarantor of the biblical-theological content of formation: he speaks of God and is sensitive to such spiritual aspects as prayer, listening to the Word and spiritual direction. As witness to fraternal life, he becomes the bond of unity within the Fraternity, with the community of the friars, with the other Franciscan religious communities to be found in the area, and with the ecclesial community. He is on the look-out that the Fraternity does not close in on itself and become a ‘parish group’; he enlivens the Fraternity's interest in the life of the local Church, through collaboration in diocesan and parochial initiatives. In being the spiritual and ‘prophetic’ counsellor of the government of the Fraternity, it falls to him to encourage all towards ‘unity in charity’ and the sensus ecclesiae.
The Assistant is not to be the ‘director’ or the ‘factotum’; but he is not simply a chaplain or a priest, according to the terminology used by some Church groups, who limit his presence to celebrating the Eucharist and administering the sacraments. Like all the members of the Council, he has the duty to ‘serve’ as best he can, as the Rule requires. He is pastor, guide and teacher; he must get to know the members of the Fraternity, one by one, and form them by harmonizing the education and abilities of each so that no one remains isolated or on the periphery. I am talking about a profound work that is carried out discreetly and quietly, yet very effectively for the growth of the Fraternity in all its members. The Assistant often has to make people feel that they belong to a fraternity and that above all their own talents are given rein. At times some spiritual Assistants underrate the members of the SFO. Many of our brothers and sisters have special gifts and capacities which often they do not see and realize; at times it is enough to encourage them and give them the chance.
IV. The Spiritual Assistant in the formation team
In the General Constitutions we find:
- ‘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. It is the particular task of the Assistant to cooperate in the initial and continuing formation of the brothers and sisters’ (Const. 90: 1, 2,);
- the Assistant is responsible for formation as spiritual guide (cf. Const. 37,2);
- before admitting someone to profession, the Council must listen to the Formator and the Assistant (cf. Const. 41,1);
- in the pastoral visits, the Assistant ‘will give special attention to programs, methods and experiences of formation’ (Const. 95,4).
On the role of the Assistant as educator, we have an authoritative comment by Pope John Paul II: ‘For those who have specific responsibilities in the Secular Franciscan Order, I hope for unity of purpose and identity of determination, so that they can be enlightened animators and guides, by leading the way for the brothers and sisters in the love of the Gospel and fidelity to the Church... I thank the Father Assistants who are your teachers and guides’.
The Assistant’s task is to give witness to the authenticity of the charism and to be a safe and enlightened guide. Therefore he neither commands nor directs, neither administrates nor organizes. Rather he gives witness to the Word of God of which he is the representative and signpost.
Spiritual Assistants assist the seculars in maintaining a healthy idea of Church, Gospel, the role of theology, the integration of gospel and life, and honesty in challenging people to new growth and life. Reasonable care and consistent reflection on Gospel ideals and values are more important than looking for ‘what’s wrong.’ A spiritual Assistant who fights with seculars will not be a blessing to the Franciscan family. There is no need to dominate and become dictatorial in serving the Franciscan family. The authority of a spiritual Assistant is a servant authority. Jesus was clear on this when he washed the feet of the disciples at the last supper (Jn -17). Franciscans are light bearers, engaged in life, and confront issues with a Gospel sense. Spiritual Assistants and councils must consistently develop fraternities with a positive outlook. To spend energy on negative attitudes can only diminish our energy for good. Spiritual Assistants are not policemen who become fear-inducers in the fraternity - they are amicable persons and are challenged to build up a positive fraternity atmosphere.
As a member of the formation team, the Assistant is not the only leader nor should he behave as if he were: there is also the Formator, and even though they are not present, the Minister and the Council with their guidelines.
He must collaborate in the formation of all, especially in initial and ongoing formation. How he is to exercise his role of formator, he will find out in meetings of the Council, in assemblies, in spiritual direction, in celebrations and when he animates the prayer, if he keeps the following factors in mind:
- to help new members prepare themselves for the definitive ‘proposal’;
- to accompany the professed in persevering and entering more fully into their commitment.
- By the example and witness of one who lives as a Franciscan;
- By collaborating as a member with the formation group, without imposing his own ideas; rather by forming the group itself, helping it particularly in dealing with subjects which are often unfamiliar to the seculars;
- By evaluating together the progress already achieved and that still remaining;
- By proffering support through what he has to say and what preparations he makes.
Period of Initiation
The Assistant has the principal duty of:
Counsellor: he enters into personal dialogue and, if requested, sacramental dialogue with the aspirant. He helps the aspirants clarify their own vocation, purifying it and bringing it to greater clarity. He offers them service as a spiritual guide, in prayer and in the journey of conversion. He accompanies them along the way of living the Gospel.
Guide: together with the Council, he organizes the course of formation which he, together with the Formator, will help develop and make faithful to the Franciscan charism. Naturally he will enter into dialogue with the aspirants so as to introduce them progressively and methodically to a deepening of the truths of faith and the knowledge of Franciscan spirituality.
The Assistant will seek to collaborate with the Minister and Council by giving his support as a person of education and experience, so as to provide the brothers and sisters with a programme of ongoing formation:
- as a help and accompaniment to the continual conversion requested by the Gospel;
- to form all in bringing them to the completion of their proper mission in the Church and society by means of witness and evangelization;
- to educate the Fraternity in learning how to discern the signs of the times.
In everything suggested by the Constitutions (cf. Const. 44) and in all initiatives of a formative nature taken by the Council, he should be present and should lend as much support as will be required of him.
Spiritual Assistants should never forget that the SFO is a secular Order
and that this quality constitutes its contribution and specific gift to the
Franciscan Family, to the Church and to the world. Assistants therefore should
always be conscious of this essential element of the life of the SFO in its
totality. To safeguard the secular nature of the SFO, a basic mentality and
orientation is required of all those who give this service of assistance. The
Franciscan fraternity is one. Our pastoral service must not be an obstacle to
unity. It should support and develop this unity. The diversity of obedience
must be a source of richness and not a hindrance to our pastoral care of the
secular Fraternity. We spiritual Assistants must renew our understanding of the
Secular Fraternity, with a serenity and confidence. The most outstanding
positive sign is the perennial vitality of the message of St. Francis of
Spiritual assistance is a special vocation and the spiritual Assistant is a sign of the charism lived in the First Order and TOR and passed on as a stimulus to the laity of the SFO. Therefore, I would like to make a direct plea to the Ministers Provincial that they encourage their own religious to specialize in Franciscanism and that they facilitate the sending of local assistants for courses in Franciscanism. Above all, in our theological seminaries there must be courses on the history and spirituality of the SFO that are lively and formative. It is time for giving a new thrust that will unite the strength of the First Order and TOR to the prayers of the Second Order and to the help of the SFO in order to review and reestablish our own Franciscan apostolate. This is the special service for the SFO and a special vocation for Spiritual Assistants. The degree of vitality of the secular fraternities will be a reflection of our own vitality. We progress or grow TOGETHER.
 O. Schmucki, ‘II Terz’Ordine Francescano nelle biografie di san Francesco,’ Collectanea Francescana 43, 1973, p. 139; K. Esser, ‘Un documento dell’inizio del Duecento sui Penitenti’ in I Frati penitenti di san Francesco nella Società del due e trecento, Roma, 1977, p. 95.
 Handbook for Spiritual Assistance, Conference of
National Spiritual Assistants
 Ibidem, p. 178.
 Statutes for the Spiritual and Pastoral Assistance to the Secular
 Discourse of
 Statutes for the Spiritual and Pastoral Assistance to the Secular Franciscan Order, Art.12.
 Handbook for Spiritual
Assistance, Conference of National Spiritual Assistants
 Discourse of
 Handbook for Spiritual Assistance, Conference of
National Spiritual Assistants
 Handbook for Spiritual Assistance to the Secular Franciscan Order. Conference of National Spiritual Assistants USA, 1996, p.181-182.