THE EVANGELICAL COUNSELS
The religious make public vows to the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. These vows are beautifully described in Lumen Gentium in the chapter entitled “The Religious.” How do the evangelical counsels apply to Secular Franciscans in particular but also to the whole Church in responding to the call to holiness?
The Secular Franciscan Order is an order in the Church, but is not, properly speaking, a religious order because it does not have the public profession of the vows to live the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience nor a requirement to live in community. The Secular Franciscan Order is a public association of the faithful. (See Canon 298 – Canon 320, click here.).
At profession, a Secular Franciscan makes promises to live “the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Secular Franciscan Order by observing its rule of life.” A Secular Franciscan makes promises, not vows as do religious at their profession; therefore, a Secular Franciscan is not bound to the Evangelical Counsels the same way as religious. (Of interest, “A Vow and an Oath,” Canon 1191 – 1204.)
The Evangelical Counsels are essential to a Gospel-centered life, lived according to one’s state of life, and for all in the Church responding to the universal call to holiness. They are present in spirit in the The Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order and the General Constitutions.
A deeper understanding of the universal call to holiness, the Evangelical Counsels, the laity and the religious may be obtained through a reading of Lumen Gentium.
The following writing, “The Evangelical Counsels and the Secular Franciscan Order,” was written by Fr. Michael J. Higgins, TOR. On May 27, 2007, the feast of Pentecost, Fr. Michael Higgins was elected General Minister of the Third Order Regular (TOR). Fr. Michael had previously completed a six-year term as General Assistant to the Secular Franciscan Order (SFO), during which time he had served as a member of the International Presidency and ministered to Secular Franciscans throughout the world.
THE EVANGELICAL COUNSELS AND THE SECULAR FRANCISCAN ORDER
Fr. Michael J. Higgins, TOR
The Gospels stories point out that Jesus touched people in ways that made them question the direction of their lives. Some refused to listen or turned away because his challenged seemed to be too hard. Many others were so moved by his mission and ministry that they were impelled to search for a more perfect way of living and being. This is exemplified in many Gospel passages like the one regarding the rich young man: “As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before him, and asked him, ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” (Mk. 10:17) It is also manifested in the Beatitudes in which Jesus teaches that the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers, and those persecuted for righteousness will inherit the kingdom of heaven (cf. Mt. 5:3-10).
The longing for eternal life or the “kingdom of heaven” has often been described as a desire for perfection. This is one of the motivating factors for the so-called flight to the desert and the birth of religious life in the early Church. The early ascetics found models for how to live their lives in the examples of Abraham, Moses, Elijah, and John the Baptist, and in the temptations that Jesus faced before and during his public ministry. The message that is conveyed by these Scriptural stories implies that any serious quest for God involves a separation from the world, the taming of one’s passions and human ambitions, and a constant struggle with the forces of evil. In their desire for spiritual perfection, the ascetics believed that the only sure avenue was an intensely close following of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience and a strict following of the example of Christ himself. They accepted the challenge of total surrender to the Master through the abandonment of all worldly goods, family relations and future plans.
From the first centuries of the development of religious life the evangelical counsels became one of its defining elements. The Rule of 1223, which stills serves as the foundational document for all the branches of the First Order, states that, “The Rule and Life of the Lesser Brothers is this: to observe the Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ by living in obedience, without anything of one’s own, and in chastity” (LR I:1). Similar statements can be found in the opening chapters of the Form of Life written by St. Clare as the rule for the Second Order, and the Rule and Life of the Brothers and Sisters of the Third Order Regular. The Secular Franciscan Order, as a public association of the faithful in the Church,  is not bound to the evangelical counsels in the same way that their religious brothers and sisters in the Franciscan family are. However, the rules and teachings that have guided the lives of secular Franciscans throughout its long history are replete with passages urging them to embrace a life that is poor, chaste, and obedient – lived, that is, according to the lay or secular state. This is particularly true in the Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order, approved by Pope Paul VI in 1978, and in the General Constitutions approved in 2000.
It is with this in mind that I would like to briefly explore how the evangelical counsels can be understood and lived within the Secular Franciscan Order.
St. Francis’ embrace of poverty grew out of an all consuming love for Jesus and an ardent desire to live in conformity to the Gospel. It was not just an external imitation of Christ, or merely a renunciation of material possessions, or even an attempt for social action and witness. St. Francis embraced poverty because Christ embraced it as a driving force behind his ministry and mission.
Poverty, lived as St. Francis lived it, recognizes that one is not self-sufficient and that everything ultimately comes from God, even life itself. As Thaddeus Horgan, SA, points out in his reflections on the TOR Rule,
Francis stripped himself not so much to set aside the things of this earth, but to free himself of all that is not God. Like Christ, Francis perceived the world as God’s gift to help us on the way to life’s fullness… As an interiorized value then, gospel poverty is an attitude of heart that proclaims hopefully and joyfully all people’s need for God and that the Lord alone is God. 
Poverty allows all of creation to stand on its own merit. Instead of being seen with functional or avaricious intent people and things are seen and respected as sacraments of an encounter with God.
The ideal of Franciscan poverty is best expressed as simplicity. Guided by this virtue one becomes attuned to the presence of the Divine in all things. It in turn encourages a life lived in loving abandonment to the all good God. Every event, every person can then be seen as an epiphany of the Divine. This can be seen in a dramatic way in the life of St. Francis when he embraced the leper and was able to see him as a child of God and not simply a diseased and frightful creature.
The key element behind this kind of understanding of poverty is the challenge to see all things and all people as they truly are – as God sees them – and then relating to them accordingly. When one lets go of the self as the measure against which everything must find its worth the world is set free to be itself. Wise and respectful use of the things of this life is an inevitable result.
In a wonderful way, article 11 of the SFO Rule captures the heart of the Franciscan understanding of poverty:
Trusting in the Father, Christ chose for himself and his mother a poor and humble life, even though he valued created things attentively and lovingly. Let the Secular Franciscans seek a proper spirit of detachment from temporal goods by simplifying their own material needs. Let them be mindful that according to the gospel they are stewards of the goods received for the benefit of God’s children. Thus, in the spirit of “the Beatitudes,” and as pilgrims and strangers on their way to the home of the Father, they should strive to purify their hearts from every tendency and yearning for possession and power.
Article 15 of the General Constitutions presents some of the practical implications of the “proper spirit of detachment” that the Rule requires. It starts by stating that,
Secular Franciscans should pledge them-selves to live the spirit of the Beatitudes and, in a special way, the spirit of poverty. Evangelical poverty demonstrates confidence in the Father, creates interior freedom, and disposes them to promote a more just distribution of wealth. 
The following paragraphs of article 15 are extremely challenging. They call secular Franciscans to “provide for their own families and serve society by means of their work and material goods, have a particular manner of living evangelical poverty.”  To do this they are to “reduce their own personal needs so as to be better able to share spiritual and material goods with their brothers and sisters, especially those most in need.”  Further, “they should take a firm position against consumerism and against ideologies and practices which prefer riches over human and religious values and which permit the exploitation of the human person.”  In a word, secular Franciscans are challenged to “see” the world through the filter of the Gospel and to act accordingly.
1 Cf. CC.GG.1: 5.
2 Horgan, Thaddeus, Turned to the Lord, Pittsburgh: Franciscan Federation, 1987: pp. 52-53.
3 CC.GG. 15: 1.
4 CC.GG. 15: 2.
5 CC.GG. 15: 3.
6 CC.GG. 15: 3.
Apart from the mention of the vow in the first chapter of the Rule for the First Order, St. Francis does not mention chastity in his other writings. Rather, he focuses on the need for the brothers to seek for the kingdom of God and to have a pure mind and spirit.
In several of his exhortations he stresses that God seeks, or desires, people who, with pure heart and mind, are willing to serve, love, honor, and adore him. In the Rule of 1221 he writes:
I beg all my brothers, both the ministers and the others, after overcoming every impediment and putting aside every care and anxiety, to serve, love, honor and adore the Lord God with a pure heart and a pure mind in whatever they are best able to do, for that is what He wants above all things… And let us adore Him with a pure heart. (ER XXII: 26, 29)
St. Francis repeats this challenge in the Second Letter to the Faithful, a document addressed to the tertiaries and most likely written during the time that the Saint was writing the Early Rule for the friars. He states,
Let us love God, therefore, and adore Him with a pure heart and a pure mind, because He Who seeks this above all things has said: True adorers adore the Father in Spirit and Truth. (2LtF: 19)
According to Francis, the only appropriate response to God is adoration, love, and a focusing of one’s attention on the Divine will.
In Admonition XVI, after quoting from Mt 5: 8, “Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God,” he writes:
The truly clean of heart are those who look down upon earthly things, seek those of heaven, and, with a clean heart and spirit, never cease adoring and seeing the Lord God living and true. (Adm XVI: 2)
For St. Francis, every relationship should be based on a love and adoration of God and guided by a pure mind and spirit. This is basis for a life of chastity, a life that should make one more loving.
Following the Saint’s lead, the Rule of the SFO does not specifically deal with chastity. It does, however, echo his exhortation to the friars and to penitents to love and adore God and to allow that love to flow out to others. Article 12 states,
Witnessing to the good yet to come and obliged to acquire purity of heart because of the vocation they have embraced, they should set themselves free to love God and their brothers and sisters.
As Article 17 points out, the first place this love should take root is in the family. It states that,
In their family they should cultivate the Franciscan spirit of peace, fidelity, and respect for life, striving to make of it a sign of a world already renewed in Christ. By living the grace of matrimony, husbands and wives in particular should bear witness in the world to the love of Christ for his Church. They should joyfully accompany their children on their human and spiritual journey by providing a simple and open Christian education and being attentive to the vocation of each child.
The General Constitutions are even more specific – it points out that secular Franciscans “should love and practice purity of heart, the source of true fraternity.”  And, in their families they,
should concern themselves with respect for all life in every situation from conception until death. Married couples find in the Rule of the SFO an effective aid in their own journey of Christian life, aware that, in the sacrament of matrimony, their love shares in the love that Christ has for his Church. The way spouses love each other and affirm the value of fidelity is a profound witness for their own family, the Church, and the world. 
Both the Rule and the Constitutions challenge secular Franciscans to love – love God, love their spouse if they are married, love the brothers and sisters in their fraternities, love the Church and its ministers, love all people, and love all creation. This is basically a challenge to love as God loves, with a pure heart and mind. What a tremendous challenge!
Of course, for the married brothers and sisters of the Order, one of the distinguishing characteristics of the secular embrace of the Franciscan vocation is more properly called conjugal chastity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church points that,
Conjugal love involves a totality, in which all the elements of the person enter – appeal of the body and instinct, power of feeling and affectivity, aspiration of the spirit and of will. It aims at a deeply personal unity, a unity that, beyond union in one flesh, leads to forming one heart and soul; it demands indissolubility and faithfulness in definitive mutual giving; and it is open to fertility. In a word it is a question of the normal characteristics of all natural conjugal love, but with a new significance which not only purifies and strengthens them, but raises them to the extent of making them the expression of specifically Christian values. 
The Pontifical Council for the Family put it this way:
Human sexuality is thus a good, part of that created gift which God saw as being “very good,” when he created the human person in his image and likeness, and “male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). Insofar as it is a way of relating and being open to others, sexuality has love as its intrinsic end, more precisely, love as donation and acceptance, love as giving and receiving. The relationship between a man and a woman is essentially a relationship of love: “Sexuality, oriented, elevated and integrated by love acquires a truly human quality.” When such love exists in marriage, self-giving expresses, through the body, the complementarity and totality of the gift. Married love thus becomes a power which enriches persons and makes them grow and, at the same time, it contributes to building up the civilization of love. 
The document goes on to state that without this love men and women become objects and children become a hindrance. It is only through respectful love that human sexuality can find its fulfillment. For this reason, an active and mutually respectful sex life can be seen and embraced as an essential element of conjugal chastity.
Through an often difficult and painful conversion experience, St. Francis discovered that life had meaning only when he listened attentively to the voice of God and followed his will. This attentive listening desire to follow the will of God in concrete and practical ways is what Franciscan obedience is all about.
In his Testament St. Francis reflected on the effects this kind of obedience had in his own life. It is clear that the Saint experienced God as an active presence and guide that led him beyond his own narrow view of the world to something newer and greater. He writes that, “The Lord gave me, Brother Francis, thus to begin doing penance… the Lord Himself led me among them (the lepers)… the Lord gave me faith in churches… the Lord gave me, and gives me still, such faith in priests… the Lord gave me some brothers… the Most High Himself revealed to me that I should live according to the pattern of the Holy Gospel… the Lord revealed a greeting to me… the Lord has given me to speak and write the Rule…” St. Francis reports that it was always the Lord who showed him what to do in the most important and decisive moments of life. The Saint responded to this Divine action with obedient collaboration.
St. Francis found in the life Jesus the fundamental example of obedience to God. As the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews points out so well, when Jesus came into the world he said, “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; holocausts and sin offerings you took no delight in. Then I said, ‘As is written of me in the scroll, Behold, I come to do your will, O God” (Heb. 10: 5-7). Every aspect of the life and ministry of Jesus was shaped by his intense desire to follow the will of the Father. Even when he faced a painful and humiliating death his obedience, his attentive listening, to the Divine will gave him resolve and courage: “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will” (Mk. 14: 36).
The foundation of Franciscan obedience goes beyond adherence to our rules of life or to the constitutions and statutes that guide our Orders. It flows from an intimate and loving following of Jesus, is empowered by the Holy Spirit, and leads to an intimate relationship with the Father. It is only with this in mind that the practical dimensions of obedience can be understood.
For St. Francis, one of the primary places where obedience is lived out is in the fraternity. The Franciscan fraternity is not just a group of people who have agreed to live together or share life. It is a reality born out of obedience to divine inspiration and an attentive listening to the Gospel. It is only then that it can become the “privileged place for developing a sense of Church and the Franciscan vocation and for enlivening the apostolic life of its members.” 
It is important to emphasize the profound evangelical character of Franciscan obedience. Both for individual Franciscans and for the fraternity as a whole, it requires a constant search for the will of God and a willingness to embrace that will and follow it – even when it is difficult and requires sacrifice. Obedience is nothing more than listening attentively and devotedly to the will of God as it is mediated to us through a variety of channels and a willingness to follow it. Foremost among these are, of course, the Sacred Scriptures, the tradition and Magisterium of the Church, the rules and constitutions of our respective Orders, the ministers of our fraternities, the brothers and sisters in our fraternities, and the spouses and families for our married brothers and sisters.
Once again, the Rule of the SFO captures the spirit of St. Francis in its presentation of obedience.
Uniting themselves to the redemptive obedience of Jesus, who placed his will into the Father’s hands, let them faithfully fulfill the duties proper to their various circumstances of life. Let them also follow the poor and crucified Christ, witness to him even in difficulties and persecutions. 
This article of the Rule is expanded in a wonderful way in the General Constitutions:
“Christ, poor and crucified,” victor over death and risen, the greatest manifestation of the love of God for humanity, is the “book” in which the brothers and sisters, in imitation of Francis, learn the purpose and the way of living, loving, and suffering. They discover in Him the value of contradictions for the sake of justice and the meaning of the difficulties and the crosses of daily life. With Him they can accept the will of the Father even under the most difficult circumstances and live the Franciscan spirit of peace, rejecting every doctrine contrary to human dignity. 
These documents are clear in stating that Jesus, who was always attentive to the Father’s will, is the exemplar of Franciscan obedience. He is the “book” that directs and guides the lives of Franciscans, seculars and religious alike.
The evangelical counsels challenge Franciscans to live a life based on the Gospels and the example of Jesus – who himself lived a poor, chaste, and obedient life. What better way to go “from gospel to life and life to the gospel”? 
With this in mind, and without simplifying this essential foundation too much, we can say that poverty, chastity, and obedience are constitutive elements of a Gospel centered life. They help define our relationship to God and the way we live our lives in the world.
Even though the way that they are lived out by religious and seculars are different, the understanding and spirit behind the evangelical counsels are the same for all Franciscans. Flowing from an intimate relationship with God they provide wonderful guidance for how to live our lives.
Poverty encourages us to value the world – and every one and every thing in it – as God does. It leads us to recognize the inherent dignity in all people and to a loving and respectful use of the world’s goods.
Chastity encourages us to love as God loves, with a purity of heart and mind, and challenges us to express our sexuality in ways that are consonant with our vocation and state in life. It leads to right loving.
Obedience encourages us to listen attentively to the will of God and to have the courage to allow that will to guide and inform every area of our lives. It leads to right living.
1 CC.GG. 15: 4.
2 CC.GG. 24: 1.
3 Catechism of the Catholic Church, Section II, Chapter 3, Article 7, Part 5, “The Goods and Requirements of Conjugal Love.”
4 The Pontifical Council for the Family, “The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality,” December 8, 1995, para. 11.
5 SFO Rule III: 22.
6 SFO Rule II: 10.
7 CC.GG. 10.
8 SFO Rule I: 4.
- All quotations, unless otherwise noted are from The Real Francis by Fr. Sergius Wroblewski, OFM. 1967 Franciscan Publishers, Pulaski, Wisconsin