St Francis Fraternity, Easton, Pa

Brief history of the Secular Franciscan Order

Who or What are Secular Franciscans?

The Order of Secular Franciscans is a Way of Life, approved by the Church, for men and women, married or single, who are called to take an active part in the mission of Christ to bring "the good news of salvation" to the world. Secular Franciscans commit themselves to a life in Christ calling for a positive effort to promote Gospel attitudes among their contemporaries. They are united with each other in Communities, through which they develop a sense of direction according to the Gospel spirit of Saint Francis of Assisi.

FRANCIS, the saint known and loved the world over, was born at Assisi, central Italy, in the year 1181, the son of a wealthy merchant. He died there in 1226, after a life in Christ that earned him the title "Poverello" (little poor man).

As a youth, like many young people today, Francis "discovered" Jesus. He found Him in the Gospel, poor and suffering. Francis made up his mind to identify himself with his crucified Lord. In the words of Pope Pius XI, "So lifelike and strikingly did the image of Jesus Christ and the Gospel manner of life shine forth in Francis, that he appeared to his contemporaries almost as though he were the Risen Christ." Saint Francis attained this marvelous ideal by making the holy Gospel, in every detail, the rule and standard of his life.

Others wanted to live as Francis lived, men and women, married and single. Eventually, his followers were gathered into three distinct Orders of the Church. The First Order was for men (brothers and priests, called friars); the Second Order was for cloistered nuns (Poor Clares); and the Third Order was for lay men and women, married or single, and the secular clergy. Francis made the Gospel, with Christ Crucified at its center, the supreme norm of life for all his followers. He gave each of the three Orders a written rule, which were summaries of the Gospel and guidelines to its perfect observance. But there is a difference between them. The first two are religious orders. Their members take the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and leave their homes to live in communities. The third is a secular order, whose members make promises of commitment and remain in their own homes. Yet they are motivated and formed by the same spirit of Saint Francis to fulfill the ideals and responsibilities of their state of life within the faith-community of the Church .

Francis formed his third order because of circumstances that he had not foreseen. As he preached penance in one place after another, devout lay persons who were bound by family responsibilities begged to be taught a more perfect way of life. He showed them how they must lead the Gospel life at home and at their work, and spread the Gospel teaching by word and example among their neighbors, in imitation of the poor and suffering Christ. These latter formed groups known as "Brothers and Sisters of Penance." They zealously practiced the lessons Francis had taught them concerning prayer, humility, peacemaking, self-denial, fidelity to the duties of their state, and above all charity. Like Francis himself, they cared for lepers and outcasts with the greatest compassion. They guided themselves always by the holy Gospel, which they pondered and prayed over constantly.

These groups, called fraternities, included Christians from every walk of life: clergy and laity, men and women, married and single, poor and rich, old and young, illiterate and learned. So many joined these fraternities that they wrought wonders in eradicating the great moral and social evils of the day, especially greed and hatred. Pope Honorius III, in 1221, approved the Brothers and Sisters of Penance as a secular order in the Catholic Church.

This same order, now called the Secular Franciscan Order, is still very much alive today, as it strives to renew itself according to the mind of the Church following the Second Vatican Council. Although membership has declined during the renewal, it is actually much stronger internally, and still numbers in the millions worldwide.

SECULAR FRANCISCANS, in local fraternities, continue to assemble each month as true spiritual families in order to share their commitment to the apostolic life of the Gospel. The Order forms them through prayer and study to be active in the work of their parishes and in every other area of the Christian apostolate possible to them.

It must be noted, however, that the Secular Franciscan Order does not promote a particular work, although in its long history it has sponsored every apostolic endeavor proper to the laity. Rather, the Secular Franciscan Order gives life and form to the efforts of its members as they apply the distinctive Gospel spirit of Saint Francis of Assisi to their daily lives.

That spirit motivates everything the devoted Secular Franciscan thinks, says, and does. Through the Franciscan way of life, we are joined with Jesus and joyfully walk with Him in peace and strength on the path of salvation.