The Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order was approved and confirmed by Pope Paul VI on June 24, 1978, and delivered over to the Order on October 4, 1978, by the four Ministers General of the Franciscan Family. The Prologue, written by Saint Francis, and Rule are provided below. Also on this page, the origin and development of the Rule is outlined, including an examination of early documents, beginning with Saint Francis.
THE RULE OF THE SECULAR FRANCISCAN ORDER
Prologue: Exhortation of St. Francis to the
Brothers and Sisters of Penance (cira 1210-1215)
Concerning Those Who Do Penance
All who love the Lord with their whole heart, with their whole soul and mind, with all their strength, and love their neighbors as themselves and hate their bodies with their vices and sins, and receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and produce worthy fruits of penance.
Oh, how happy and blessed are these men and women when they do these things and persevere in doing them, because the spirit of the Lord will rest upon them and he will make his home and dwelling among them, and they are the sons of the heavenly Father, whose works they do, and they are the spouses, brothers, and mothers of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We are spouses, when by the Holy Spirit the faithful soul is united with our Lord Jesus Christ, we are brothers to him when we fulfill the will of the Father who is in heaven .
We are mothers, when we carry him in our heart and body through divine love and a pure and sincere conscience; we give birth to him through a holy life which must give light to others by example.
Oh, how glorious it is to have a great and holy Father in heaven! Oh how glorious it is to have such a beautiful and admirable Spouse, the Holy Paraclete.
Oh, how glorious it is to have such a Brother and such a Son, loved, beloved, humble, peaceful, sweet, lovable, and desirable above all: Our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave up his life for his sheep and prayed to the Father saying:
“Oh holy Father, protect them with your name whom you gave me out of the world. I entrusted to them the message you entrusted to me and they received it. They have known that in truth I came from you, they have believed that it was you who sent me. For these I pray, not for the world. Bless and consecrate them, and I consecrate myself for their sakes. I do not pray for them alone; I pray also for those who will belive in me through their word that they may be holy by being one as we are. And I desire, Father, to have them in my company where I am to see this glory of mine in your kingdom.”
Concerning Those Who Do Not Do Penance
But all those men and women who are not doing penance and do not receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and live in vices and sin and yield to evil concupiscence and to the wicked desires of the flesh, and do not observe what they have promised to the Lord, and are slaves to the world, in their bodies, by carnal desires and the anxieties and cares of this life.
These are blind, because they do not see the true light, our Lord Jesus Christ; they do not have spiritual wisdom because they do not have the Son of God who is the true wisdom of the Father. Concerning them, it is said, ” Their skill was swallowed up ” and ” cursed are those who turn away from your commands “. They see and acknowledge, they know and do bad things and knowingly destroy their own souls.
See, you who are blind, deceived by your enemies, the world, the flesh and the devil, for it is pleasant to the body to commit sin and it is bitter to make it serve God because all vices and sins come out and ” proceed from the heart of man ” as the Lord says in the Gospel. And you have nothing in this world and in the next, and you thought you would possess the vanities of this world for a long time.
But you have been deceived, for the day and the hour will come to which you give no thought and which you do not know and of which you are ignorant. The body grows infirm, death approaches, and so it dies a bitter death, and no matter where or when or how man dies, in the guilt of sin, without penance or satisfaction, though he can make satisfaction but does not do it.
The devil snatches the soul from his body with such anguish and tribulation that no one can know it except he who endures it, and all the talents and power and knowledge and wisdom which they thought they had will be taken away from them, and they leave their goods to relatives and friends who take and divide them and say afterwards, ” Cursed be his soul because he could have given us more, he could have acquired more than he did. ” The worms eat up the body and so they have lost body and soul during this short earthly life and will go into the inferno where they will suffer torture without end.
All those into whose hands this letter shall have come we ask in the charity that is God to accept kindly and with divine love the fragrant words of our Lord Jesus Christ quoted above. And let those who do not know how to read have them read to them.
And may they keep them in their mind and carry them out, in a holy manner to the end, because they are spirit and life .
And those who will not do this will have to render an account on the day of judgment before the tribunal of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Secular Franciscan Order
- The Franciscan family, as one among many spiritual families raised up by the Holy Spirit in the Church, unites all members of the people of God–laity, religious, and priests– who recognize that they are called to follow Christ in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi. In various ways and forms but in life-giving union with each other, they intend to make present the charism of their common Seraphic Father in the life and mission of the Church.
- The Secular Franciscan Order holds a special place in this family circle. It is an organic union of all Catholic fraternities scattered throughout the world and open to every group of the faithful. In these fraternities the brothers and sisters, led by the Spirit, strive for perfect charity in their own secular state. By their profession they pledge themselves to live the gospel in the manner of St. Francis by means of this rule approved by the Church.
- The present rule, succeeding Memoriale Propositi (1221) and the rules approved by the Supreme Pontiffs Nicholas IV and Leo XIII, adapts the Secular Franciscan Order to the needs and expectations of the Holy Church in the conditions of changing times. Its interpretation belongs to the Holy See and its application will be made by the General Constitutions and particular statutes.
The Way of Life
- The rule and life of the Secular Franciscans is this: to observe the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by following the example of Saint Francis of Assisi, who made Christ the inspiration and the center of his life with God and people.
Christ, the gift of the Father’s love, is the way to him, the truth into which the Holy Spirit leads us, and the life which he has come to give abundantly.
Secular Franciscans should devote themselves especially to careful reading of the gospel, going from gospel to life and life to the gospel.
- Secular Franciscans, therefore, should seek to encounter the living and active person of Christ in their brothers and sisters, in Sacred Scripture, in the Church, and in liturgical activity. The faith of Saint Francis, who often said ” I see nothing bodily of the Most High Son of God in this world except his most holy body and blood,” should be the inspiration and pattern of their eucharistic life.
- They have been made living members of the Church by being buried and raised with Christ in baptism; they have been united more intimately with the Church by profession. Therefore, they should go forth as witnesses and instruments of her mission among all people, proclaiming Christ by their life and words.
Called like Saint Francis to rebuild the Church and inspired by his example, let them devote themselves energetically to living in full communion with the pope, bishops, and priests, fostering an open and trusting dialogue of apostolic effectiveness and creativity.
- United by their vocation as brothers and sisters of penance, and motivated by the dynamic power of the gospel, let them conform their thoughts and deeds to those of Christ by means of that radical interior change which the gospel itself calls conversion. Human frailty makes it necessary that this conversion be carried out daily.
On this road to renewal the sacrament of reconciliation is the privileged sign of the Father’s mercy and the source of grace.
- As Jesus was the true worshipper of the Father, so let prayer and contemplation be the soul of all they are and do.
Let them participate in the sacramental life of the Church, above all the Eucharist. Let them join in liturgical prayer in one of the forms proposed by the Church, reliving the mysteries of the life of Christ.
- The Virgin Mary, humble servant of the Lord, was open to his every word and call. She was embraced by Francis with indescribable love and declared the protectress and advocate of his family. The Secular Franciscans should express their ardent love for her by imitating her complete self-giving and by praying earnestly and confidently.
- United 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.
- 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.
- 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 the Father sees in every person the features of his Son, the firstborn of many brothers and sisters, so the Secular Franciscans with a gentle and courteous spirit accept all people as a gift of the Lord and an image of Christ.
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.
- Secular Franciscans, together with all people of good will, are called to build a more fraternal and evangelical world so that the kingdom of God may be brought about more effectively. Mindful that anyone who follows Christ, the perfect man, becomes more of a man himself, let them exercise their responsibilities competently in Christian spirit of service.
- Let them individually and collectively be in the forefront in promoting justice by the testimony of their human lives and their courageous initiatives. Especially in the field of public life, they should make definite choices in harmony with their faith.
- Let them esteem work both as a gift and as a sharing in the creation, redemption, and service of the human community.
- 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.
- Moreover they should respect all creatures, animate and inanimate, which bear the imprint of the Most High, and they should strive to move from the temptation of exploiting creation to the Franciscan concept of universal kinship.
- Mindful that they are bearers of peace which must be built up unceasingly, they should seek out ways of unity and fraternal harmony through dialogue, trusting in the presence of the divine seed in everyone and in the transforming power of love and pardon.
Messengers of perfect joy in every circumstance, they should strive to bring joy and hope to others.
Since they are immersed in the resurrection of Christ, which gives true meaning to Sister Death, let them serenely tend toward the ultimate encounter with the Father.
Life In Fraternity
- The Secular Franciscan Order is divided into fraternities of various levels–local, regional, national, and international. Each one has its own moral personality in the Church. These various fraternities are coordinated and united according to the norm of this rule and of the constitutions.
- On various levels, each fraternity is animated and guided by a council and minister (or president) who are elected by the professed according to the constitutions.
Their service, which lasts for a definite period, is marked by a ready and willing spirit and is a duty of responsibility to each member and to the community.
Within themselves the fraternities are structured in different ways according to the norm of the constitutions, according to the various needs of their members and their regions, and under the guidance of their respective council.
- The local fraternity is to be established canonically. It becomes the basic unit of the whole Order and a visible sign of the Church, the community of love. This should be the privileged place for developing a sense of Church and the Franciscan vocation and for enlivening the apostolic life of its members.
- Requests for admission to the Secular Franciscan Order must be presented to the local fraternity, whose council decides upon the acceptance of new brothers and sisters.Admission into the Order is gradually attained through a time of initiation, a period of formation of at least one year*, and profession of the rule. The entire community is engaged in this process of growth by its own manner of living. The age for profession and the distinctive Franciscan sign are regulated by the statutes. [* changed to 18 months in USA eff. July 2003]
Profession by its nature is a permanent commitment.
Members who find themselves in particular difficulties should discuss their problems with the council in fraternal dialogue.
Withdrawal or permanent dismissal from the Order, if necessary, is an act of the fraternity council according to the norm of the constitutions.
- To foster communion among members, the council should organize regular and frequent meetings of the community as well as meeting with other Franciscan groups, especially with youth groups. It should adopt appropriate means for growth in Franciscan and ecclesial life and encourage everyone to a life of fraternity. This communion continues with deceased brothers and sisters through prayer for them.
- Regarding expenses necessary for the life of the fraternity and the needs of worship, of the apostolate, and of charity, all the brothers and sisters should offer a contribution according to their means. Local fraternities should contribute toward the expenses of the higher fraternity councils.
- As a concrete sign of communion and coresponsibility, the councils on various levels, in keeping with the constitutions, shall ask for suitable and well-prepared religious for spiritual assistance. They should make this request to the superiors of the four religious Franciscan families, to whom the Secular Fraternity has been united for centuries.
To promote fidelity to the charism as well as observance of the rule and to receive greater support in the life of the fraternity, the minister or president, with the consent of the council, should take care to ask for a regular pastoral visit by the competent religious superiors as well as for a fraternal visit from those of the higher fraternities, according to the norm of the constitutions.
Blessing of St. Francis (1226)
May whoever observes all this be filled
in heaven with the blessing of the most high Father,
and on earth with that of his beloved Son,
together with the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.
THE GENERAL CONSTITUTIONS
OF THE SECULAR FRANCISCAN ORDER
A profound document which further explains the Rule and the Secular Franciscan Order. A must read for all OFS’s and those seeking a deeper understanding of this Order. Click General Constitutions of the Secular Franciscan Order.
Statutes of the National Fraternity of the Secular Franciscan Order in the United States of America
We, the National Fraternity of the Secular Franciscan Order in the United States of America, called to follow Christ in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi, in order to provide for the life of the Order and specifically for its organization and function, do establish and adopt these Statutes.
All regulations not in accordance with these present National Statutes are abrogated [cf. General Constitutions of the Secular Franciscan Order (hereafter General Constitutions), article #7]. Click here.
OF THE SECULAR FRANCISCAN ORDER
ORIGIN AND DEVELOPMENT OF THE RULE OF THE SECULAR FRANCISCAN ORDER
Compiled by Ouida Tomlinson, SFO
The First Life of Thomas of Celano refers to a “norm of life” that Saint Francis gave to all who came to him (“To all he gave a norm of life, and he showed in truth the way of salvation in every walk of life.”). As to the “norm of life,” Rafffaele Pazzelli, T.O.R., (St. Francis and the Third Order: The Franciscan and pre-Franciscan Penitential Movement) states that we do not have sufficient information to identify the forma vitae positively from any of the documents we possess, but we have irrefutable sources which enable us to know the directives, the new ideals and aspirations which Francis wanted to give to groups of penitents who became the Third Order.
They are mainly two documents. First, there is the Recensio prior, known as the Volterra text and included in “The Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order.” It is also referred to as “First Letter to All the Faithful” (quoted here as the Prologue to The Rule) and generally considered as an earlier version of the more famous one, “The Letter to All the Faithful”). Second, there is the “Letter to All the Faithful,” which probably was written around 1221. It deals with much the same themes as the First Letter but in a more detailed way. Both of these documents were written by St. Francis. Robert M. Stewart, O.F.M., in The Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order, states that the “primitive rule,” in its narrowest sense, refers to the First Letter. (To read “The Second Letter to All the Faithful,” go to The Writings of St. Francis: The Letters.)
There is a third document, the “Memoriale Propositi” (“First Rule of the Third Order”), also written in 1221. According to Fr. Pazzelli, “these three documents should be studied minutely, because without them and their historical progression, we can understand only very little of the Third Order as Francis wanted it.”
The “Memoriale Propositi” (1221)
(To read the Rule of 1221, click here.)
“The ‘Memoriale Proposit’ was written by Cardinal Hugolino, Protector of the Order of Friars Minor, and given to the Order of Penitents. It was orally approved in 1221 by Pope Honorius III, and marks the first legislative text of the Third Order of St. Francis. The Rule is presented as ‘the memorial of what is proposed for the Brothers and Sisters of Penance living in their own homes’. It is made up of 8 chapters, dealing with (1) the daily life of the Penitents, regarding their dress, and prohibition to take part in public entertainment; (2) rules of abstinence; (3) rules of fasting; (4) prayer and the divine office; (5) sacramental practice, prohibition to carry arms and to avoid oaths; (6) the Eucharist and meeting of the fraternity once a month; (7) visiting the sick, burying the dead and offering prayers for them, obligation to make the last will, rules regarding the reception of new members in the fraternity; (8) the visitor and disciplinary rules, election of the officials of the fraternity.
“The ‘Memoriale Propositi’ is built upon the notion of fraternity. The Penitents are truly Brothers and Sisters, bound together by mutual charity. The prohibition to carry arms was a courageous witness of evangelical peace in a quarrelsome society, and it certainly dealt a blow to the feudal regime and to the petty quarrels between rival Comuni in the Italian peninsula. The acts of charity and mercy, including burial, and assisting the sick and lepers, were aimed at eradicating poverty and misery. The spirit of sharing of resources and the obligation to make the last will were a defense against hatred and violence between rival families or even between individuals within the same family. The Penitents were often persecuted for their evangelical witness of peace. Gregory IX had to intervene on 30 March 1228 with the Bull ‘Detestanda’, in which he defended the Penitents’ right not to carry arms and to be free of military service. In this Bull the Order of Penitents is called Third Order for the first time.”
Hugolino dei Conti di Segni, the writer of the Rule of 1221,
as depicted in frescoes in the St. Gregory’s Chapel
at Speco, Italy
The Rule of Pope Nicholas IV (1289)
(To read the Rule of 1289, click here and go to Documents.)
The year 1289 marks the date when the Third Franciscan Order was given a new Rule by Pope Nicholas IV, who issued the Bull ‘Supra montem’ in the town of Rieti . Nicholas IV had been a Minister General of the Order of Friars Minor. He was Girolamo da Ascoli Piceno, Minister General from 1274 to 1279.
The Rule of Nicholas IV does not add any new material to the ‘Memoriale Propositi’ of 1221, but it gives a more legislative style to this document. Nicholas IV made use of the ‘Memoriale Propositi’, as well as of a Rule for Penitents written by a certain Friar Caro, a minorite from the convent of Santa Croce in Florence, who was also a visitator to the Franciscan and Dominican Penitents in 1284. For the first time in its long history, the Third Order was given a Rule included within a Papal Bull. The Rule is addressed to the Brothers and Sisters of the Order of Penitents.
Ancient Book of the Hours
The Law of the Sodality
of the Franciscan Third Order
which is called Secular
(Misericors Dei Filius
The Rule of Leo XIII—1883)
(To read the Rule of 1883, click here.)
Pope Leo XIII, a Third Order Secular, had a great devotion to St. Francis. Both as bishop and as pope, he fostered the growth of the Franciscan Third Order. In his encyclical Auspicato, sent to all bishops of the world in 1882, he requested that they encourage all Catholics to enter the Third Order. In this encyclical, he said that the Way of Life proposed by Francis for the laity was appropriate for all Catholics in the 19th century. He proposed that the Franciscan Third Order was especially advantageous because it called its members to live the Gospel within the world.
In his attempt to rekindle the Gospel within the world, Pope Leo actually presented his interpretation of that Way of Life. He promulgated a new Rule for Secular Franciscans in the papal constitution Misericors Dei Filiuis, dated May 30, 1883 . In it, he modified the Rule of 1289 to remove obstacles to membership in the Order. He greatly simplified the regulations of the Rule of 1289 in order to make it acceptable to the greatest possible number. He diluted the original call to radical metanoia and transformed the Rule of Life into a simple praxis of the faith.
. . . Whereas Francis challenged people to the true spirit of penance, whereas Francis exhorted his followers to a radically different wisdom, struggle, and sense of power in response to God’s love, here the Rule of 1883 merely exhorts these same followers to the simple and ‘not too burdensome’ praxis of Catholicism.
The dilution of the demands of the earlier Rules has drained the Rule of 1883 of the unique spirit or contribution of Francis. The gospel life that Francis has rediscovered in all of its radicality has not been translated well in the Rule of 1883. . . . Leo has reduced the radical demands of Gospel metanoia announced in the Later Exhortation [Letter to All the Faithful] to the ‘practices of piety and good works’. Thus, rather than preserving the Way of Life preached by Francis ‘altogether and unchanged and intact’, the Rule of 1883 allowed for the evolution from a Franciscan Order of Penitents to a Franciscan sodality [i.e., fellowship, association, lay society for religious and charitable purposes].
Source: Stewart, Robert M. “De Illis Qui Faciunt Penitentiam”: The Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order: Origins, Development, Interpretation. Roma: Istituto Storico Dei Cappuccini, 1991.
The Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order
Issued by Pope Paul VI, June 24, 1978
Vatican II was the turning point for reform of the Third Order. The process of drafting a new Rule officially began in November 1965. Then on March 9, 1966, the four Comissaries General [composed of four friars, one from each of the four branches of the Order (OFM, OFM Cap., OFM Conv. and TOR) and appointed by the Minister General] sent a circular letter, announcing the work and outlining the process to be used. The letter limited discussion with the restriction that the base of the new Rule would be the Rule of 1883. So at the beginning of the process, others were not empowered to return to one or several 13th century documents as sources for the basis of the re-examination, and the resultant Rule of 1978 bears little resemblance to the primitive Rule. The drafting of a new Rule, meetings, and other events from 1965 until 1978 are described by Robert M. Stewart, O.F.M., in his book noted below.
During the period of drafting the new Rule, volumes of research emerged concerning the origins of the Secular Franciscan Order, unfortunately near the end or after the Rule Project. For example, there were five major historical congresses which focused specifically upon the Franciscan Order of Penitents, held in 1972, 1976, 1981, and 1987. The most significant research that emerged was probably that of Kajetan Esser, O.F.M. He made an extensive study of the Volterra text [i.e., the First Letter to All the Faithful], which first appeared in Germany in 1975. He concluded that the text concerns the brothers and sisters of penance living in their own homes and that it must have been written many years before the “Letter to All the Faithful.” Fr. Esser advanced the hypothesis that the “norm of life,” spoken of by Thomas of Celano, can be identified as the Volterra text.
As to the new Rule, after the April 1977 Redaction, the Final Redaction of the Rule of 1978 was sent to the Ministers General. They introduced one very significant change in the text sent to the Curia, a change which profoundly altered the Rule. Without explanation, they included as a Prologue, St. Francis’ First Letter to All the Faithful, the primitive Rule. They later defended their decision to the Sacred Congregation who suggested that the First Letter be replaced with “The Letter to All the Faithful.” The Ministers General defended their choice with an implicit reference to Esser’s research, arguing that the First Letter had been accepted as the earlier version of “The Letter to All the Faithful.” They also claimed that the First Letter was preferable because it was “more concise and more adapted to the needs of today.” The Sacred Congregation accepted the decision of the Ministers General and officially approved the Rule of 1978 with the Prologue.
Source: Stewart, Robert M. “De Illis Qui Faciunt Penitentiam”: The Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order: Origins, Development, Interpretation. Roma: Istituto Storico Dei Cappuccini, 1991.