Franciscans, Third Order Secular

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An autonomous lay order, properly called the Secular Franciscan Order (formerly "Third Order of St. Francis"). It is open to men and women, married and single, as well as to diocesan bishops, priests, and deacons who are not members of religious orders. It is the only lay Franciscan order. Its members are bound by a life commitment to live the gospel according to their state of life. They are organized into local self-governing "fraternities" assisted by regional, national, and international fraternities. A minister general, elected by the S.F.O. general chapters, leads the S.F.O. with a general council at the international level. Each level of fraternity also has a spiritual assistant from one of the religious orders of Franciscan men and women.

Origins. When Francis of Assisi decided to enter into conversion (penance), in his own words, he "left the world," that is, he began reducing his personal material needs in order to be free to love and serve the Lord. St. Francis was the first of a long line of "Penitents from Assisi"all within a larger penitential movement which dates from the beginning of the Church. Some Franciscan Penitents became celibate brothers (friars) in a religious order of men (the "First Order"), and women like St. Clare became cloistered sisters (the "Second Order"). Most Franciscan Penitents were not called by God to leave their marriages and children, nor their ordinary lives. Francis's Letter to All the Faithful, describing what it means to be part of the penitential (conversion) process, is used to introduce the new S.F.O. Rule.

Various editions of a Rule and other instructions for lay Franciscans were approved by the Holy See to help them in their conversion process. In 1893 Pope Leo XIII issued a new Rule for the "Third Order Secular of St. Francis." This new Rule changed the direction of growth in the Order from an autonomous lay order to a quasi religious order subject to the authority of Friars of the three branches of the First Order and the Third Order Regular. This artificially divided the one S.F.O. into four orders. "Third Order Secular" Franciscans took up many customs of religious orders, none of which were appropriate for a lay order.

The New Rule. In 1976 Pope Paul VI approved a new Rule of the S.F.O. that reasserts the basic autonomy and unity of the order and its interdependence with other Franciscan men and women in the world. At the same time it affirms the independence of the S.F.O. from the Friars' Orders. The Holy See approved the General Constitutions of the S.F.O. in 1995. These were revised by the S.F.O. General Chapter of 1999, and the revisions were approved in 2000.

Franciscan brothers and sisters of the various Franciscan religious orders now help S.F.O. Fraternities as "spiritual assistants." A tangible sign of their decision to convert their hearts, usually a Tau cross, is worn by the Seculars to show who they are. However, the testimony of their love for one another, their dedication to living the gospel of Jesus within the Catholic Church, and their care for the poor are the clearest signs of conversion.

Model for Lay Spirituality. The Second Vatican Council called all the orders in the Church, religious and lay, to study their roots in order to renew their life within the Church. The new Rule of Paul VI for the S.F.O. enables lay Franciscans to return to their original calling within the Church. The focus of the new Rule is on conversion, on opening hearts to the work of the Holy Spirit, to enable Franciscan laity to live their baptismal vocation. The new S.F.O. Rule sets the gospel of Jesus as the anchor of spiritual life. Secular Franciscans are to read and live the gospel, "going from Gospel to life and life to Gospel." In the Rule there are five specific areas of ministry for Secular Franciscans: (1) formation of each other in gospel living, (2) promotion of family life, (3) working for peace and justice for all peoples, (4) protection of all of Creation, (5) reverence for work as a gift from God. Secular Franciscans are to be active members of their parish churches and dioceses, leading by their good example. Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours, active care for the poor, and a desire to be leaven in society are marks of Secular Franciscan life.

Bibliography: r. pazzelli, St. Francis and the Third Order (Quincy, Ill. 1982). r. armstrong, j. hellmann, w. short, eds., Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, v.1 and 2 (Hyde Park, N.Y. 19992000). r. stewart, De Illis Qui Faciunt Penitentiam: The Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order (Rome 1991). l. bach, Catch Me a Rainbow (Lindsborg, Kan. 1990).

[n. f. thompson]

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Franciscans, Third Order Secular

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