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."
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.
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).
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).
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 is 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).
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).
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).
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.
Donna Marie F. Kaminsky: Secular Franciscans: Bearers of Peace, Messengers of Joy
SPIRITUALITY TODAY – Summer 1985, Vol. 37, pp. 120-129.