Several times recently, I have been asked about commitment to Fraternity meetings, specifically to the monthly meeting.
When asked questions like this, I look for the answers first in the SFO Rule and General Constitutions, since these are the authoritative sources that define the secular Franciscan way of life. Some interpret this approach as legalism. However, the Rule and Constitutions provide a solid foundation on which to build an answer.
Article 24 of the Rule states: “To foster communion among members, the council should organize regular and frequent meetings of the community ... and encourage everyone to a life of fraternity.” The General Constitutions speak of “Participation in the Life of the Fraternity.” Article 53.1 fills out the Rule: “The fraternity must offer to its members opportunities for coming together and collaborating through meetings to be held with as great a frequency as allowed by the situation and with the involvement of all its members.”
Neither the Rule nor the Constitutions specify a “monthly” meeting. Rather, they speak of “regular and frequent meetings”, “with as great a frequency as allowed by the situation.” Where, then, did we get the idea of the “monthly” meeting?
The rule for penitents of 1221, Memoriale propositi, states: “All the brothers and sisters of a local fraternity should come together once a month to assist at Mass” (Chapter VII, 1). The Rule of Nicholas IV, Supra montem, states: “Let all the healthy brother and sisters of each city or place ... assemble each month in the church or place, in which, and/or to which the ministers have taken care to point out, to hear Solemn Mass there” (Chapter XIII). These directives are reflected in the present General Constitutions in Article 53.2: “The fraternity should come together periodically, also as an ecclesial community to celebrate the Eucharist in a climate that strengthens the fraternal bond...”
Leo XIII’s Rule of 1883 simplified and minimalized the previous rule. Misericors Dei Filius, states: “Let them attend the monthly meetings called by the Prefect” (Art.11). This is where we got the idea of a “monthly” meeting. We have seen that this idea was not adopted by Paul VI in his Rule of 1978, Seraphicus Patriarcha. The present Rule advocates “regular and frequent meetings”.
The National Fraternity of Oceania is one of the few that maintains the Leonine structure of the monthly meeting. Most have adopted the Pauline structure and meet more often than once a month. They have learnt that fraternity life cannot thrive on a monthly meeting but needs more frequent gatherings. Although this is not possible for many local Fraternities whose members are gathered from wide areas, it is possible for some and is worth considering.
However, my inquirers are concerned about the commitment of the members to the “monthly” meetings of their Fraternity. They have made a reasonable effort to bring their records up to date by offering non-active members the options of returning to meetings, or applying for a transfer to another more conveniently located Fraternity, or applying for a definitive withdrawal.
They haven’t overlooked the National Statutes regarding justifiably absent members: “The councils of fraternities with members who are unable to participate actively in fraternity life shall make provisions for the unity and care of these brothers and sisters... (Art. 8.5.1). They are concerned rather with the unjustifiably absent members (Art. 8.5.2).
First of all, it is important to keep an accurate record of attendance at meetings.
Most non-active members do not warrant dismissal, which is only for “serious causes, provided they are external, imputable, and juridically proven” (Gen.Const. 58.2). At most, they would be open to suspension owing to “the repeated and prolonged default in the obligations of the life of the fraternity” (Gen.Const. 56.3). Suspension “involves exclusion from the meetings and activities of the fraternity, including the right to active and passive voice, but membership in the Order itself is not affected.”
The most important clause here is exclusion from voting. A list of active members should be drawn up before an election. If any non-active persons present themselves at an election expecting to have active or passive voice, then the Minister and another Council member together should speak to the person privately before the election. If the person insists on voting, that vote is not counted. The Council has serious reason for suspending that person, but should seek competent civil legal advice before proceeding with suspension. The Council could decide prudently not to take action.
But if non-active members present no problems by their non-attendance then I would advise that nothing more be done about them after three reminder notices, but to keep a record of non-active members.
Does this qualify as a “spiritual” message? When we consider that fraternal life is essential to any form of Franciscan life, and that the commitment of the members is essential to the life of the SFO local Fraternity, then we are certainly concerned about the spiritual life.
It is the spirit of the fraternity members that builds the appropriate structures to express themselves as a local Fraternity, and also as a regional and a national fraternity. How often do they need to meet in order to create and experience a genuine fraternity life? The answer will differ “as allowed by the situation” (Gen.Const. 53.1). Some may have to be satisfied with the structure of the “monthly” meeting and may find even that much a big effort. Some other Fraternities already meet more frequently because they have felt the need to do so. Some have no difficulty meeting as Secular Franciscans weekly because they all attend the same parish church and get together afterwards. But those who think that a monthly meeting for an hour or so is all there is to SFO fraternal life are sadly missing out.
Carl Schafer OFM
National Assistant SFO –