Carl Schafer OFM


The SFO General Constitutions say, in Art.35:


"§1. Priests who recognize that they are called by the Spirit to participate in the charism of St Francis within the secular fraternity should find in it specific attention in conformity with their mission among the People of God.


§2. Secular Franciscan priests may also gather in personal fraternities in order to pursue the ascetical and pastoral incentives which the life and doctrine of Francis and the Rule of the SFO offer them to live their vocation in the Church better. It is proper that these fraternities have their own statutes which envision concrete forms for their composition, their fraternal meetings and for spiritual formation as well as for making their communion with the whole Order living and functional."


The mention here of particular Statutes for Fraternities of priests was the Order's reply to the recommendations for the Constitutions that came from the Secular Franciscan priests of Emilia- Romagna.


The possibility of their being appointed as Spiritual Assistants is given in Art.89§4: "... the competent major superior can entrust the service of spiritual assistance to: …diocesan clerics …who are members of the SFO  (and to) other diocesan clerics”, given the previous authorization of the local ordinary.


After the Second Vatican Council, there was an idea widespread among the secular clergy and diocesan seminarians that they should cultivate a spirituality specifically suited to them as secular priests and not one identified with a religious Order. This could be the reason why Third Order Fraternities ceased to exist in the seminaries and why membership fell off among secular priests. A more important reason, I believe, is that the "affective" and "devotional" requirements of the Third Order of St Francis were vastly different from the "effective" demands of the Secular Franciscan Order, which is totally post-Vatican in its apostolic as well as in its contemplative inspiration.


Pope John Paul II, in Pastores dabo vobis, n.31, encourages secular priests to avail themselves of the Church's rich traditions of spiritual life. His exhortations are particularly favourable to the diocesan priest's vocation to the Secular Franciscan Order.


It could well be that many of the bishops and priests who still derive inspiration from their Third Order profession of many years ago have little understanding of the Secular Franciscan Order. We spiritual Assistants have the great responsibility to help them, through retreats and study days, but mostly through personal contact and friendship, to understand what the Third Order has become in the post-Vatican Church and to update their own Secular Franciscan vocation.





Excerpts from the Apostolic Exhortation of John Paul II, Pastores dabo vobis, 25 March 1992. These passages can be applied to diocesan priests as Spiritual Assistants of local Fraternities of the SFO and the Franciscan Youth Movement, and as SFO members themselves.




Today in particular, the pressing pastoral task of the new evangelization calls for the involvement of the entire People of God, and requires a new fervour, new methods and a new expression for the announcing and witnessing of the Gospel. This task demands priests who are deeply and fully immersed in the mystery of Christ and capable of embodying a new style of pastoral life, marked by a profound communion with the Pope, the bishops and other priests, and a fruitful cooperation with the lay faithful, always respecting and fostering the different roles, charisms and ministries present within the ecclesial community (Cf. Propositio 12 of 1990 Synod). (n.l8.)


Because their role and task within the Church do not replace but promote the baptismal priesthood of the entire people of God, leading it to its full ecclesial realization, priests have a positive and helping relationship to the laity. Priests are there to serve the faith, hope and charity of the laity. They recognize and uphold, as brothers and friends, the dignity of the laity as children of God and help them to exercise fully their specific role in the overall context of the Church's mission (PQ 7-9). (n.l7.)


It is particularly important to prepare future priests for cooperation with the laity. The Council says, "they should be willing to listen to lay people, give brotherly consideration to their wishes and recognize their experience and competence in the different fields of human activity. In this way they will be able to recognize with them the signs of the times" (PO 9; cf. Christifideles Laici, 61). The recent (1990) Synod too has insisted upon pastoral solicitude for the laity: "the student should become capable of proposing and introducing the lay faithful, the young especially, to the different vocations (marriage, social services, apostolate, ministries and other responsibilities in pastoral activity, the consecrated life, involvement in political and social leadership, scientific research, teaching). Above all it is necessary that he be able to teach and support the laity in their vocation to be present in and to transform the world with the light of the Gospel, by recognizing this task of theirs and showing respect for it" (Propositio 28). (n.59.)




Other insights or reference to other traditions of spiritual life can contribute to the priest's journey towards perfection, for these are capable of enriching the life of individual priests as well as enlivening the presbyterate with precious spiritual gifts. Such is the case with many old and new Church associations which welcome priests into their spiritual family: from societies of apostolic life to priestly secular institutes, and from various forms of spiritual communion and sharing to ecclesial Movements, (n.31.)


The Spirit offers to many young people opportunities to be educated in the faith and to grow as Christians and as members of the Church through many kinds of groups, movements and associations inspired in different ways by the Gospel message. These should be felt and lived as a nourishing gift of a soul within the institution and at its service. A movement or a particular spirituality "is not an alternative structure to the institution. It is rather a source of a presence which constantly regenerates the existential and historical authenticity of the institution. The priest should therefore find within a movement the light and warmth which make him capable of fidelity to his bishop and which make him ready for the duties of the institution and mindful of ecclesiastical discipline, thus making the reality of his faith more fertile and his faithfulness more joyful" (Address to priests connected with the Communion and Liberation Movement (12 Sept 1985): AAS 78 (1986), 256). (n. 68.)


The fact that seminarians and diocesan priests take part in particular spiritualities or ecclesial groupings is indeed, in itself, a factor that helps growth and priestly fraternity. Such participation, however, should not be an obstacle, but rather a help to the ministry and spiritual life that are proper to the diocesan priest, who "will always remain the shepherd of all. Not only is he a 'permanent' shepherd, available to all, but he presides over the gathering of all so that all may find the welcome which they have a right to expect in the community and in the eucharist that unites them, whatever be their religious sensibility or pastoral commitment" (Meeting with members of the Swiss clergy, Einsiedeln, (15 June 1984), 10: Insegnamenti VI I/I (1984), 1798). (n.68.)


Another help can be given by priestly associations, in particular by priestly secular institutes - which have as their characteristic feature their being diocesan - through which priests are more closely united to their bishop, and which constitute "a state of consecration in which priests by means of vows or other sacred bonds consecrate themselves to incarnate in their life the evangelical counsels" (Propositio  37 of 1990 Synod). All the forms of "priestly fraternity" approved by the Church are useful not only for the spiritual life but also for the apostolic and pastoral life. (n,81.)




We should also remember the numerous groups, movements and associations of lay faithful whom the Holy Spirit raises up and fosters in the Church with a view to a more missionary Christian presence in the world. These various groupings of lay people are proving a particularly fertile field for the manifestation of vocations to consecrated life, and are truly environments in which vocations can be encouraged and can grow. Many young people, in and through these groupings, have heard the Lord's call to follow him along the path of priestly ministry (cf. Propositio 16) and have responded with a generosity that is reassuring. These groupings, therefore, are to be utilized well, so that in communion with the whole Church and for the sake of her growth they may make their proper contribution to the development of the pastoral work of promoting vocations, (n.41.)