The Holy Spirit is the Formator of the Order, as St. Francis said. So what part does the Rule play, and why is it necessary?
A Rule is a way of life, just as the Tao in Taoism is "the Way". True, Christ is our "Way"; "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life". The Gospels are inspired reminders of that "Way". This is why St. Francis said that his followers were to be "Disciples of the Gospel". Indeed, at the beginning of his Order, he said: "You have the Gospel, what more do you need?" Experience taught him that fragile human nature needs a little help to shore up its good intentions, for the road to Limbo (so to speak) is paved with good intentions. Hence the Rule; hence the guidance on the "Way"; hence the novitiate and subsequent profession and promises ... for those who wish to do so.
In its own way, this mirrors the story of the Church, from Gospel to Creed to Councils of the Church (over 20 of them) as it learns, and adapts to the beliefs and morality of Christ, and over 4,000 years of Judaeo-Christian understanding of religion. The Church must answer in every age: "How shall I live the Gospel in today's daily life?" Thus the title of the Franciscan Rule: "From Gospel to Life". The Gospel presents a VISION but not necessarily a daily blue-print. So too, the Franciscan Rule (and Constitutions) attempt to interpret the Franciscan vision to daily life. For example the Gospel and Franciscan legend speak of humility and minority in elections; we are servants of Christ and of each other; the Constitutions spell out how to go about elections in such a spirit. Thus we avoid confusion, disillusion, not to mention the odd bit of bickering. After all, in one of the early Councils of the Church, a notice had to be displayed: "Bishops shall not trample over each other as they leave the Basilica"! Obvious from the Gospels? .. Yes .. in practice?.. No.
So the Rule is a promise, a commitment to a deeper following of the Gospel in daily life. But are we not all so committed by Baptism and Confirmation? True. This brings us to the question of charisms. The acceptance of Christ in Faith, Hope and Charity is a Charism: the free gift of God, which cannot be "earned", but may be (sadly) rejected. One must correspond to this grace .... Which is itself another grace ... that is poverty of spirit.
Equally, Franciscanism is a charism, neither better nor worse than other charisms in the Church, but different. Either the vision of life of St. Francis & St. Clare resonates in one's soul, or it doesn't. If it does, then one is sympatico with this vision, one corresponds with this gift, this charism. The degree of correspondence varies from Buddhist-like fellowship with Nature, to those who join the Franciscan Orders, and profess their commitment. The choice, like the charism, is free.
Of course, all Charisms are the work of the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul tell us: "There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit gives them. There are different ways of serving, but the same Lord is served. There are different abilities to perform service, but the same God gives ability to everyone for their particular service. The Spirit's presence is shown in some way in each person for the good of all." (1 Cor 12:4-7). The whole chapter rewards reading and meditation.
Profession in the SFO, then, is a charism for those so called; "summoned by St. Francis" as the then Minister General OFM put it, to the assembled novice masters OFM (106 of us world -wide) in Assisi in 1988. It is for Ministers, formators and members to discern, respect, and encourage that SFO charism in each other. St. Francis had "an incredible curiosity about the gifts of each of his brothers (and sisters), so as to know and contemplate God's gifts in each one" (Minister General OFM 1988).
Which brings us to the question; What are the Franciscan charisms? A whole library - a book of books - has been written on that subject. Perhaps it can be narrowed down, temporarily, to a few topics: Gospel oriented, Christocentric, Franciscan-leavened, Poverty of Spirit, Fraternity, Catholicity, "sentire cum Ecclesia to think WITH the CHURCH.
GOSPEL-ORIENTATED: "Summoned by St. Francis to be disciples of the Gospel " that says it all, and that is why the reading and contemplation of Scripture, especially the Gospels are of the essence of all SFO meetings (Chapters) at every level; it revives our early longing to live the Gospel without evasion or accommodation: "sine glossa" (without gloss) said Francis.
CHRISTO-CENTRIC: centered on Christ, the God-made-man; the Image and Plan of the Father. This shows itself in an AFFECTIVE love, personal and committed, between Christ and the Franciscan, individually and collectively. This reaches its apogee in the Eucharist, as is clear from the Testament of St. Francis. Read it and re-read it.
FRANCISCAN-LEAVENED: For the Franciscan charism to grow, one must know something about the life and mind-set of Francis and Clare, and their followers. Thus, some Franciscan reading ought be part of every chapter, integrated with and illuminated by the Scripture reading, reflecting its own insights on Gospel living. The writings of Francis and Clare are the obvious starting points, particularly the Rule, the Testament, the Admonitions, plus some reading of the life of both Francis and Clare.
As for the various legends, one learns to look through the legend and its poetic beauty, to its essential Gospel message (The Medium is NOT the message!). Some of the legends had their own special agendas, as groups within the Order disagreed about the Rule and their way of life.
POVERTY OF SPIRIT: The "kenosis" (or emptying of self) of Christ. Poverty is one essential note of Il Poverello, which is where most of the early disagreements began but it is Gospel (not early Marxist!) poverty of Spirit that mainly concerned St. Francis, based particularly on Philippians Ch 2:5-11 "Let the same mind be in you as it was in Christ Jesus ... (who) though in the Form God Emptied Himself So St. Francis described his followers as "Minores" ... the little or lesser ones of society .... Society's and the Church's servants. Cf. Admonition 14 on Poverty of Spirit. Caring and sharing is what it's about, especially wit the poor and marginalised of society.
FRATERNITY: "It was the Lord Himself who gave me brothers" said Francis about the origin of the Order; and also, "you should love and nourish one another as a mother loves and nourishes her child ..." Half the world loves Il Poverello, but only some join his Order (family) but the union is the mystic one described by St. John's Gospel, Ch 17, quoted by St. Francis in his Rule of 1221 (Ch. 22) "that the Love with which You loved Me, may be one in them and I in them that they may be one as You, Father and I are ONE ..." That union is the aim of fraternity, and only the Holy Spirit, in Christ, builds such a community. The business segment of our chapters, necessary but secondary, have also this ultimate union in mind: to preserve Agape.
CATHOLICITY: Francis and Clare were totally Catholic and their reforms remained within the Church, where other radical movements did not. As the minores, they followed Lateran IV as we follow Vatican II. Part of the Franciscan charism is "Sentire cum Ecclesia" to think WITH the Church, as is clear from Chapter 1 of the SFO Rule. As a Lay Order in the Church, the SFO is uniquely poised to balance the TRADITION of the Church with the "aggiornamento" of Vatican II and Papal documents is part of the charism.
The SFO as an Order exists to serve the Church and the Kingdom of God; "seek first the Kingdom of God..."; the ORDER enables us to be FOCUSSED on this; to be focused on our main charisms in minority. Contemplative, Evangelical, Ecumenical. Respect all, but remain focused on your own specific SFO charism.
Fr. Alban Mitchell OFM