CARE OF INQUIRERS
Carl Schafer OFM, National Assistant SFO- Oceania
Over the past five years, I have received a number of inquiries from lay people who want to know about St Francis and his way of life, and specifically about the "Third Order".
I have become aware of the great need to provide these people with the information that they seek, and to offer them Franciscan formation.
Inquiries about the “Third Order of St Francis” come unsolicited and unexpectedly. Those that come to my attention are at times addressed to the Franciscan Provincial Office or to a Friary, or to the Provincial Vocation Director. They are forwarded to me as National Assistant, and eventually, hopefully, they reach a receptive Secular Franciscan.
It is regrettable if the only contact an inquirer about the Third Order has is with a friar. It means that the Franciscan spiritual parent of this person is a particular friar and not a particular Secular Franciscan who belongs to a particular local Fraternity. The sooner the inquirer makes contact with a Secular Franciscan and a local Fraternity, the better are his or her chances of identifying with the SFO.
The friars' Vocation Director forwards inquiries to me, for example:
I am looking for information on what it means to be a Third Order Franciscan, if there is such a thing. I understand that there are lay Dominicans. I am 24, and I want to know a little more about the different ways someone can serve as part of your order.
If the inquirer lives in a capital city, he or she can be sent information by post, fax, email, or phone. Inquirers should be answered immediately and satisfactorily. The address and phone number of the Minister of a suitable local Fraternity should be provided, and the inquirer should be encouraged to make contact. The Minister of the local Fraternity should be informed about the inquirer, and could take the initiative of contacting him or her, in order to show warm, personal interest.
But inquiries often come from persons who live outside the capital cities, sometimes in the larger country towns, or even on remote properties. A typical remote inquiry came from Bourke NSW:
I am writing to inquire about the Third Order of St Francis. Would you have any information about it? I would be grateful if you could forward some to me at the above address, or point me in the right direction where I might learn something about it.
Another category of inquirers comprises those in nursing homes. Others need full-time care in their own homes. They express interest in joining the Third Order, but they are unable to attend meetings. Although it is not possible for them to join the SFO, possibly they can be put in touch with a local Fraternity who can visit them and provide some Franciscan formation. If there is no local Fraternity nearby, the Regional Executive should be geared to provide Franciscan information and formation for these people.
The inquirer may need to be informed that the Third Order Secular of St Francis (TOSF) became the Secular Franciscan Order (SFO) in 1978, with the Rule of Paul VI. The TOSF had an arrangement for isolated members, who had no connection with a local fraternity. That arrangement was followed until the approval, in the year 2000, of the General Constitutions of the SFO.
The recent General Constitutions, Art. 53.3 state: "Insertion into a local fraternity and participation in fraternity life is essential for belonging to the SFO. Appropriate initiatives should be adopted ... to keep those brothers and sisters united to the fraternity who - for valid reasons of health, family, work, or distance - cannot actively participate in community life."
This is the present-day SFO's idea of "isolated members". It refers to professed members of a local fraternity who have become unable to attend the meetings of the fraternity. It has excluded the former practice of admitting persons who cannot belong to a local fraternity.
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For persons who are unable to attend a local SFO fraternity's meetings, the SFO National Executive needs to find ways of enabling them to live the Franciscan way of life, by themselves, or preferably with others.
In their initial inquiry, they often ask for information about the SFO. We have twelve promotion pamphlets, as well as the A4 sized “Do You Want to Live the Gospel?” and “Come As You Are”.
The inquirer from Bourke replied, after receiving samples of the abovementioned material:
Thank you for the letter containing information regarding the SFO. It was most enlightening. I'm afraid that I would be going "solo" in my endeavours to try and live the Franciscan way, as my neighbours are Anglican and my other Catholic friends are at a long distance from me. Father, if you think that it would be possible for me, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit and St Francis, I would at the least like to read the formation material.
The SFO National Executive, and eventually a Regional Executive and a local Fraternity, may need to purchase formation material for them to read and reflect upon. It would be the same material that is used in the period of initiation and of initial formation of SFO candidates.
An appropriate course of initial formation can be selected from Come and See, Catch Me A Rainbow Too, or To Live As Francis Lived. These books and their freight from U.S.A. involve expense, and Australian postage adds $4.00. The inquirer may or may not offer to cover the costs. The contact person or Fraternity needs to be generous, in the interests of promoting the Franciscan way of life among lay people, whether within the SFO or outside it.
The "solo" inquirers may never be able to join the SFO, unless they happen to move closer to a local Fraternity. They need to have some contact with the Franciscans, not only with the friars but also with the laity, at least by correspondence, perhaps at Christmas, Easter and St Francis Day. The Oceania Newsletter, the regional newsletter, the Monthly Spiritual Message, and a local fraternity newssheet could all be sent to them if they so wish. The National Executive could give directives in this regard.
These isolated inquirers could be encouraged to be "Friends of St Francis". The National Executive could look at the possibilities of organizing "Friends of St Francis" in a way that the members are not required to attend meetings, but are made to feel that they belong to St Francis and the Franciscan Family.
Whenever we receive an inquiry, we should encourage the person to look for other people nearby who may also be interested in the Franciscan way of life for the laity. Fraternity life is essential to Franciscans, so we encourage them to build up a fraternity of three or more members. We can offer these groups membership of "Friends of St Francis". We can put them in touch with an SFO local fraternity, however far away, who will maintain at least postal correspondence with them. Usually, it takes some years for these groups to consolidate. But there are great advantages if even two persons share their formation in the Franciscan way of life.
A set of audiocassettes of a course of initial formation, called, "To Live as Francis Lived" is available from Franciscan Resources, Menahga, MN 56464, U.S.A. The advantage of tapes is that a number of people can listen to them and then discuss the material and pray about it together.
Sometimes, an isolated Tertiary will approach a resident friar about the possibility of starting a group in a place where there is no local SFO Fraternity. In one case, the Tertiary gave the name of another isolated Tertiary living in the same town, Tamworth.
I wrote to the friar:
Are you, as a friar, willing to accompany a group of people from the beginning until they can become a canonically established local fraternity within the Regional Fraternity? This development would take at least two years, but probably longer. The group from the beginning would need to be in touch with an established local Fraternity designated by the SFO Regional Council, who would receive the group's members into a "time of initiation", and later into a "time of initial formation", before receiving their "profession" into the SFO. When the group includes five or more professed members, they can ask their "foster local Fraternity" to arrange to have them established as a local SFO Fraternity.
The first move in this direction would be for the two isolated members to interest at least three other persons in forming a Franciscan group. To arrive at gathering a group of suitable and serious-minded persons could take some time, and there are bound to be some who fall out of the commitment. You would not approach the Regional Council to ask for a foster local Fraternity until the group has definitely settled down to at least five committed members. Please let me know if you and the two men intend to go ahead.
The friar was not in fact well enough to undertake the responsibility, and nothing came of this inquiry. Neither the friar nor the isolated Tertiaries realized what is involved, since the promulgation of the Rule in 1978 and of the General Constitutions in 2000, in forming an SFO local Fraternity. But if the National Executive had a programme in place for the ongoing formation of isolated members, perhaps something could have been done for the two isolated Tertiaries.
A promising Franciscan group has developed since 2003, from a phone call I received from a woman in Orange. A woman in Bathurst inquired at the same time, through West Pymble Fraternity. I put them in touch with each other. After I sent them the usual packet of information (some promotion pamphlets, as well as “Do You Want to Live the Gospel?” and “Come As You Are”), the inquirer in Orange wrote:
After receiving your information, I have discussed with my Parish Priest my intentions to become a Secular Franciscan, and the possibility of involving other parishioners in my quest. He is very excited about this, and has invited me to speak to the Pastoral Council at next month's meeting. The inquirer in Bathurst has contacted me (thank you!). When I asked her why she wanted to become a Secular Franciscan, she used almost exactly the same words that I have!
Would your Parish Priest be able to accompany your group at a monthly meeting, once you get a group together? I don't expect that he will be able. Could he or you suggest a suitable person, preferably a priest, Sister or Brother, who would be a competent spiritual assistant, and with a Franciscan approach to life?
I would really like to know the process of becoming a Secular Franciscan once I have a group together. I know the Pastoral Council will ask me this question. Sooner than that, the Parish Priest will be asking me.
I sent her the article, "Process for Establishing a New Fraternity", in the Handbook for Spiritual Assistance to the SFO, and the book, Come and See, for formation in the period of initiation. She replied:
I've had a lovely time reading the material and feel quietly excited about it all. Already I have two members, the inquirer from Bathurst and my husband! Word seems to be spreading and there is some interest. Two others and two other couples are interested to come and hear about it. My husband and I have decided to invite those people over for a "casserole" night, so that we can discuss our plans. I've let the Parish Priest know that I have received the information from you. I will see him next week.
I'm interested to learn that the inquirer from Bathurst is lining up with your group. She is in touch with West Pymble SFO Fraternity, so that Fraternity would be the one to foster your group through your years of formation. It's important for you to keep in touch with the local Minister, even at this very early stage. At the next meeting of the SFO National Executive (in July, 2003), I'll mention briefly that there is interest being shown in Orange and Bathurst and that you're in touch with West Pymble Fraternity. No more needs to be said or done at this stage.
Since then, all their contact and correspondence has been with the West Pymble Fraternity. The two women are coming to West Pymble on 12 June 2004, to be received into the local Fraternity.
WHAT CAN THE NATIONAL EXECUTIVE DO?
1. The National Executive already publishes a Directory of Fraternities. It includes information about the date, place and time of the monthly meetings of the local Fraternities. This information is necessary when one is advising inquirers who ask about the local Fraternities closest to them. Attempts are being made to keep this information up to date.
2. For immobile inquirers, put them in touch with a local Fraternity who can visit them and provide some Franciscan formation. If there is no local Fraternity nearby, provide Franciscan information and formation for these people.
3. For persons who are living too far away to attend a local SFO fraternity's meetings, find ways of enabling them to live the Franciscan way of life, preferably with others, or else by themselves.
4. Organize "Friends of St Francis" in a way that the members, whether "solo" or in groups, are made to feel that they belong to St Francis and to the Franciscan Family. Put them in touch with an SFO local fraternity, who will maintain at least postal correspondence with them.
5. Purchase formation material, and have it readily at hand for when requests from inquirers are received by the National Executive, directly, or through a Regional Executive or a local Fraternity.
6. Maintain contact with "solo" inquirers at least by correspondence, perhaps at Christmas, Easter and St Francis Day. Ask them whether they wish to receive material such as the Oceania Newsletter, the regional newsletter, the Monthly Spiritual Message, or a local fraternity newssheet.
7. Have a programme in place for the ongoing formation of isolated members. For example, send them the Monthly Spiritual Message.
8. Formulate and publish directives for Regional Executives and local Fraternity Councils. For example:
(a) Reply to inquirers immediately. Provide the address and phone number of the Minister of a suitable local Fraternity.
(b) Maintain readily available stocks of information about the SFO, including the twelve promotion pamphlets, as well as “Do You Want to Live the Gospel?” and “Come As You Are”.
(c) Be prepared, in the interests of promoting the Franciscan way of life among lay people who cannot join a local Fraternity, to cover initial expenses if the inquirer does not cover the costs of formation material.
9. Designate a National Executive member and a National Assistant to work as a Committee for the Care of Inquirers. The Committee could co-opt other persons, to be approved by the National Executive, to work with them.