Summer 1985, Vol. 37, pp. 120-129.

Donna Marie F. Kaminsky:
      Secular Franciscans: Bearers of Peace, Messengers of Joy

Members of the Secular Franciscan Order are recapturing the spirit of St Francis handed down through the centuries and are realizing more fully their essentially secular vocation.

Mrs. Kaminsky, mother of five children, lives m Akron, Ohio. She is vice-minister of the National Fraternity of the Secular Franciscan Order and teaches theology and Franciscan spirituality at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

The rule and life of the Secular Franciscan is this: to observe the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by following the example of St. Francis of Assisi, who made Christ the inspiration and the center of his life with God and people. (S.F.O. Rule, 4)
On June 24, 1978 Pope Paul VI approved and confirmed the revised rule of the Secular Franciscan Order.(1) This revision and updating of Secular Franciscan legislation occurred over a period of ten years of "intensive toil wrought through self-denial and passionate searching in behalf of the task of the Rule's aggiornamento"(2) beginning in March, 1966. As the four ministers general of the Franciscan family wrote to all secular Franciscans announcing the long awaited approval, "the hope of renewal hinges upon returning to the origins and to the spiritual experience of Francis of Assisi and of the brothers and sisters of penance who received from him their inspiration and guidance."(3)

Gospel living in the spirit of St. Francis is and always has been the kernel of spirituality for all Franciscans regardless of which branch of the family one belongs to. Secular Franciscans are those who discern that God is calling them "to burn with the spirit of Christ and to exercise [their] apostolate in the world as a kind of leaven,"(4) to put down roots in the world, to build the kingdom of God in the family, in the office, in the classroom -- wherever they live their everyday life, and in the special relationships which form the fabric of their life.(5) This is precisely what St. Francis envisioned for the women and men, single and married, who aspired to follow him and live his gospel life-style. In his desire to restore the church and gospel to the common person Francis exhorted these women and men to stay in their homes and witness to Christ and the gospel by "a holy manner of working"(6) and living. Thomas of Cleland, commissioned by Pope Gregory IX in 1228 to write the first official biography of St. Francis, relates: "Many of the people, both noble and ignoble, cleric and lay, impelled by divine inspiration, began to come to St. Francis, wanting to carry on the battle constantly under his discipline and under his leadership . . . . To all he gave a norm of life, and he showed in truth the way of salvation in every walk of life."(7)


The spiritual pilgrimage of secular Franciscans began over 700 years ago and is probably best understood in relationship to the rule, or way of life, which has been the norm and point of departure for secular Franciscan spirituality. In the more than 700-year history of the Secular Franciscan Order, there have been four rules: the rule of Cardinal Ugolino, 1221 of Nicholas IV, 1289, of Leo XIII, 1883 (later updated by the General Constitutions of 1957), and the new rule of Paul VI, 1978.

Although the date of 1221 was once given as the official founding of the third order of Saint Francis, it is now generally accepted that St. Francis founded the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, as it was originally known,(8) around the year 1209 or 1210, shortly after Francis received the oral approbation of Pope Innocent III for the first rule of the friars minor, or "lesser brothers."* [*EDITORS NOTE For a more comprehensive new of the complex origins of clearly defined third orders out of the common medieval order of penance see the articles of Richard Weber and Thomas Johnston in this issue.]

The text of the rule of 1221, no longer extant in its original form, is attributed to Cardinal Ugolino, close friend and adviser to St. Francis. It is thought that Cardinal Ugolino (later to become Pope Gregory IX), together with St. Francis, took Francis's earlier oral exhortations to the penitents and organized them in a legislative or canonical form. This text, known as the Memoriale propositi, was orally approved by Pope Honorius III in the year 1221 and is clearly directed to the "brothers and sisters of penance living in their homes."(9)

This document is preserved in four ancient versions,(10) the oldest and most unadulterated of which is the Venice rule, which dates back beyond 1228, and which was preserved at the Dominican priory in Venice.

To what did the first brothers and sisters of penance commit themselves? After a year of probation each new member made a written promise to observe the rule which prescribed in detail exactly what should be the life of the Franciscan penitent. Tertiaries promised to observe simplicity in dress, wearing clothing made of poor, undyed cloth (1). Anything that smacked of luxury or finery was to be avoided (3, 4). The penitents avoided distasteful amusements (5) and practiced moderation in food and drink, taking only two meals daily, unless engaged in hard work or traveling (6). Penitents were also required to abstain from meat on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays; fast every Friday from Easter to All Saints; but fast continually during the forty days from the feast of St. Martin of Tours (November 11) to Christmas, and during the great Lent from Carnival Sunday to Easter (9). Dispensed from fasting were ill or pregnant women (10).

A tertiary's prayer life was also directed: confession of sins at least three times a year, and reception of the Eucharist on Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost (15). The recitation of the canonical hours was required for those who could read; for those who could not read, the praying of a specific number of our Fathers for each hour was substituted.

The penitents of each locality gathered monthly for a celebration of the Eucharist and instruction in the word of God by a suit able religious who would also encourage and admonish them to penance, perseverance, and the performance of the works of mercy (21).

Important values emphasized in the rule of 1221 were justice charity (or the apostolate), peace, and universal brotherhood. A necessary condition for entering the fraternity was the practice of justice. All legal debts had to be paid; all past and current taxes were to be satisfied; any ill-gotten goods were to be restored to the rightful owners (15, 29). Only after one year and clear evidence that all this was fulfilled could one be received into the fraternity (30).

The works of charity (apostolate) prescribed by the rule were ,.,almsgiving, especially to the poor brothers and sisters of the fraternity, to the infirm, to those who would not have funeral services, to"other poor" and to the church in which the penitents gathered (20). Visiting and nursing sick members (22) and assisting at the funeral of deceased tertiaries (23) were other important ministries of the early Franciscan penitents. From the earliest days, Franciscan tertiaries provided lodging for pilgrims, but were especially involved with caring for the poor, the lepers, all those living on the margins of society. St. Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-31), patroness of the order is an outstanding example of the early penitent's dedication to the poor and lepers.

This early rule also prescribed concrete, practical directives in accord with St. Francis's desire that his followers be peacemakers, or reconcilers, in a conflict-ridden world. People could not be admitted to the fraternity until they were reconciled with their neighbors (15), and only if they could live in harmony with other members of the fraternity. If anyone within the fraternity caused dissension, the rule directed that the matter be resolved among themselves through recourse to the minister (lay leader), or through the visitor (priest), without giving scandal (26). The rule also specified that if the local mayor caused trouble by not respecting the brothers' and sisters' rights and privileges, recourse should be sought from the local bishop. Any matter should be resolved without going to civil court.

The rule enjoined members not to "take up lethal weapons or bear them about, against anybody" (16), and to refrain from formal oaths (17). This radical prohibition contributed to the collapse of the feudal system. Without the solemn oath necessary to Pledge loyalty to a noble, and without men to serve in the military, the feudal lord's power was significantly diminished. Conflict over this issue arose between civil authorities and the tertiary men in Faenza, Italy, in 1221. When Pope Honorius learned that the civil authorities were not respecting the rights of the Franciscan men penitents to refuse military service and the fealty oath, the pope wrote to the bishop of Rimini directing the bishop to intervene on behalf of the Franciscan penitents and to protect them from further harassment from the municipal officials. Later, in 1227, Pope Gregory IX extended this ecclesiastical exemption to all the brothers of penance throughout Italy. A third papal privilege extended to the Franciscan penitent men by Pope Gregory IX in 1228 was exemption from certain public offices.


The next sixty-seven years were the formative period in the evolution of the rule. The rapid spread of the third order and the issuance of many bulls and edicts pertaining to the order of penance, some of which affected only local regions, resulted in various localities appending specific statutes and customs to the existing rule. Therefore, at the request of tertiaries to standardize the rule, Nicholas IV, the first Franciscan pope, promulgated the second rule by the bull Supra montem, August 18, 1289, at Rieti.(11)

Without changing content, the new rule provided a more orderly arrangement and eliminated local regulations. However, two mitigations appeared. Men of the fraternity could now bear arms in defense of the Roman church, of the faith, and of their country, or with permission of the minister. One could swear a solemn oath to maintain peace, in defense of the faith, against calumny, and when making a contract for the purchase or sale of an item, or for a donation. The rule of 1289, moreover, counsels that the "visitor and instructor" be taken from the Order of Friars Minor and further stipulates that "we do not want a congregation of this kind to be visited by a lay person" (16).

During this period there was also an increasingly strong movement towards community life.(12) Some suggest that the social and economic factors which gave rise to the guilds also influenced groups of ternaries and other lay women and men to embrace community living.

The rule of 1289 remained in effect until 1883. Throughout this time, the Popes Innocent XI, XII, XIII, and Benedict XIII issued various constitutions and statutes to adapt the tertiary way of life to the needs of the times. Essentially, however, the rule remained intact and its strictness discouraged many persons from adopting this way of life. Finally, Pope Leo XIII, himself a member of the Third Order of St. Francis,(13) charged a commission of cardinals to thoroughly revise the rule of Nicholas IV. Thus, on May 30, 1883, tertiaries received their third formally approved rule promulgated by Leo XIII in his Constitution Misericors Dei Filius.

The Leonine rule streamlined the former rule of twenty chapters to three chapters. To make the order more accessible to a greater number of persons, particularly the young, the age for entrance was established as fourteen years.

A major criticism of this rule has been that Leo XIII so extenuated the requirements of the rule that, with increased membership, the third order became more of a devotional society than a way of life. It was not the rule alone, however, that affected this change. Leo XIII expressly stated in Misericors Dei Filius that he saw the third order as one means of social reform which society badly needed. Between 1897 and 1912, groups of tertiaries in Europe interpreted Leo XIII's words to mean that tertiary fraternities should become involved in social, economic, and political projects and programs.

Pope Pius X, however, saw this European development as a deviation from the original purpose of the third order and issued the letter Tertium Franciscalium, September 8, 1912, to recall the true purpose of the order. He maintained, as previous pontiffs before him, that is was a religious order and that it differed from the first two orders only in the manner in which it strove to attain its purpose, the personal sanctification of its members. The letter detailed what individual tertiaries and tertiary fraternities could do. They were obliged by the rule to undertake religious and charitable activities and were encouraged to support all social action agreeable to the Holy See. Although individual tertiaries were exhorted to join Catholic societies that pursued economic and political ends, tertiary fraternities were prohibited from doing so.(14) These directives, together with the subsequent statements of later popes, continued the emphasis on personal conversion and sanctification as the means of reforming society, rather than any definitive group action or presence.

The development of Catholic Action during the pontificate of Pope Pius XI and the pope's view of all third orders as "auxiliaries" to Catholic Action reinforced the fraternities' view of themselves as primarily places of personal spiritual growth. To become involved in Catholic Action, ternaries joined other groups specifically organized for that purpose.


The rule of Pope Paul VI enables the Secular Franciscan order to conform more fully to Vatican II. Whereas the earlier rules were prescriptive, the Pauline rule is a spiritual, inspirational document. It begins with a prologue, an authentic letter of St. Francis, entitled "Exhortation to the Brothers and Sisters of Penance."(15)

The Pauline rule itself is divided into three chapters: chapter one deals with the place of the Secular Franciscan order in the church and in the Franciscan family; chapter three, "Life in Fraternity," outlines the organization and governance of fraternity life at various levels; chapter two sets forth the "Way of Life;" situating it in the heart of the gospel, in intimate union with Jesus Christ. Within the sixteen paragraphs of this section emerge key Franciscan values and attitudes which have been part of Franciscan living for many centuries.

  1. A call to a penitential life-style, in the true biblical sense of the word of turning to Christ and the sustaining of that "radical interior change" daily by conforming thoughts and deeds to those of Christ (7).

  2. Affirmation of the Franciscan ideal of universal brotherhood, or family, as secular Franciscans "accept all people as a gift of the Lord and an image of Christ" (13) and "respect all creatures, animate and inanimate, which 'bear the imprint of the Most High' " (18).

  3. Dedication to justice because secular Franciscans are called to work with all people "to build a more fraternal and evangelical world so that the kingdom of God may be brought about more effectively" (4). A significant change in this rule are the words: "Let them individually and collectively [emphasis added] be in the forefront of promoting justice by the testimony of their human lives and their courageous initiatives" (15).

  4. Dedication to being joyful peacemakers: "Mindful that they are bearers of peace which must be built up unceasingly, they should seek out ways of unity and harmony through dialogue. . . Messengers of perfect joy in every circumstance, they should strive to bring joy and hope to others" (19).

  5. Pledge to serve the poor and oppressed: "A sense of community will make them joyful and ready to place themselves on an equal basis with all people, especially with the lowly for whom they shall strive to create conditions of life worthy of people redeemed by Christ" (13).

  6. Willingness to embrace a simple life-style after the manner of Christ and his Mother Mary, "by simplifying their own material needs. . . mindful they are stewards of the goods received for the benefit of God's children." An important aspect of this simplicity is the recognition that we are "pilgrims and strangers" who should strive to "purify our hearts from every tendency and yearning for possession and power" (11).

Secular Franciscans have rediscovered that their way of life is a gift and a call to share in the Franciscan charism, and that not everyone receives the same invitation. Consequently, formation programs now help candidates discern through a period of prayer, study, discussion, and ministry whether or not they are being called by God to embrace this Franciscan gospel life.

Another concern of secular Franciscans since the new rule is to extricate themselves from the model of religious life when explaining their own spirituality and to accept their secularity. Because a theology of the laity is still in its embryonic stages, so, too, there is a certain awkwardness as they try to articulate their experience. A reflection of this new awareness is the identification of I the stages of formation no longer as postulancy and novitiate but the inquiry phase and the candidacy phase.

A solemn, public, permanent profession or commitment marks the end of the formal period of initiation. Recognizing that the permanent nature of the commitment should be an adult choice to embrace freely a particular manner of living, the age of profession in the United States has been raised to twenty-one ordinarily.

Secular Franciscans are making great strides in the self-governing of the order. The local fraternity is the basic unit of the whole order. Within this community the charism of Francis is shared and nurtured; and through the loving and trusting relationships between members, new candidates are formed. The fraternity is the place where leadership guidance, and motivation are given by the fraternity council, the secular leaders. Every fraternity is animated and guided by a council of seculars an elected minister (president), and a spiritual assistant from the first order or the third order regular. Groups of fraternities within a given region form a province and are under the spiritual assistance of a particular branch of the Franciscan family. The United States has a National Fraternity comprised of the provincial spiritual assistant and the secular provincial minister of approximately thirty provinces. Finally, the order is guided by an international Fraternity composed of representatives from the nations around the world.

At the First General Chapter of Elections in the long history of the secular order, held in Madrid, Spain, April, 1984, Mandela Mattioli from Venezuela was elected first minister general of the Secular Franciscan Order. She had been one of the key seculars working on the new rule.

At every level the relationship between the friars and seculars is one of interdependence, co-responsibility, and vital reciprocity. Jurisdictions and authority previously maintained by the friars has now been returned to the secular leaders. It is the secular minister who receives new members and accepts their profession. The friar provides very valuable spiritual assistance.

Today 33,000 secular Franciscans in the United States embrace the penitential gospel life-style modeled by Francis of Assisi. Francis challenged the false values of the thirteenth century by actively and courageously changing his own life-style, attitudes, and values. He preached the gospel with his life. He encountered the living and active person of Christ in his brothers and sisters. He loved so intensely that he is known as the Seraphic Lover. This is the challenge which secular Franciscans take up today.

  1. Apostolic Letter Seraphicas Patriarca. The official name was changed from Third Order Secular of St. Francis (T.O.S.F.) to Secular Franciscan Order.
  2. Manuela Maltioli, S.F.O., International President, Letter to Members of the International Council, Easter, 1977.
  3. Letter of the Four Ministers General of the Franciscan Family to the Brothersand Sisters of the Secular Franciscan order on the Occasion of Granting the New Rule: Fr. constantine Koser, Min. Gen. O.F.M., Fr. Vitale Bonmorco, Min. Gen, O.F.M. Conv., Fr. Pascal Rywalski, Min. Gen. O.F.M. Cap.; Fr. Roland Faley, Min. Gen. T.O.R., Rome, 4 October 1978.
  4. Vatican Council II, Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, II, 2
  5. See David Knight, His Way (Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1977), for an excellent presentation of secular spirituality.
  6. St. Francis, "Exhortation to the Brothers and Sisters of Penance" in Regis J. Armstrong, O.F.M.. Cap., and Ignatius C. Brady , O.F.M., Francis and Clare: The Complete Works (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), p. 63.
  7. 1 Celano 37; English translation, Marion A. Habig, O.F.M., ed., St. Francis of Assisi: Omnibus of Sources (Chicago Franciscan Herald Press, 79721, p. 259.
  8. 8 The original name of this branch of the Franciscan family was The Brothers and Sisters of Penance, or simply the Penitents. St. Bonaventure writes that Francis himself called the new group of women and men who adopted the "new rule of penance" the Order of the Brothers of Penance (Legenda Major 4, 6). It was called the Third Order of St. Francis for the first time in the bull Cum dilecti, 7 June 1230 (Bull. Franc., I, 65-66). Cf. Freaegand Callaey, The Third Order of St. Francis An Historical Essay (Pittsburgh: St. Augustine Monastery, 1926), p. 13.
  9. Memoriale propositi.
  10. The Latin texts of these four versions may be found in the Archivmm Franciscanum Historicum, Vol. 6, pp.242-250; Vol. 13, pp 3-77; vol. 14, pp, 109-21 The English translation of the Venice rule is found in Habig, Omnibus, pp. 168-75. Numbers in parenthesis in the text refer to paragraphs of the Venice version of the rule as found in Omnibus.
  11. A literal English translation of the Latin text of the Nicholas rule of 1289 is found in Theodore Zaremba, O.F.M., Franciscan Social Reform (Pulaski, Wisconsin: The Franciscan Printery, 19471, pp. 123-31. The lalin text may be found in Bull. Franc.IV, 94-97. Zaremba's book also contains the official English translation of the Leonine rule of 1883, pp. 141-44.
  12. Although the vast majority of ternaries continued to live the gospel life in their homes, theneodlowardcommunitycontinued finally resulting in the canonical eslablishment of the Third Order Regular (women and men) by Pope Leo X, 20 January 1521, by the bull Inter coetera nostro regimini.
  13. Pope Leo XIII became a member of the Third Order of St. Francis at the Franciscan Friary of Monteripido near Perugia , May 30, 1872.
  14. The official Latin text is found in Acta Apostohcae Sedis IV (1912): 582-86; Acta Ordinis Fratrum Minorum 31:281-84, For Enghsh translation, see Zaremba, Franciscan Social Reform, pp. 753-88.
  15. It is called the Volterra Letter, because the original manuscript was discovered by Paul Sabatier in Volterra, Italy, in the Guarnacci Library. Scholars date the letter c. 1213-15. English translation in Armstrong and Brady, Francis and Clare, p. 62