How many people do you know who occasionally wear the Tau? How many people do you know who sometimes jot “0 ES” after their names? I’m going to hazard a guess that the answer to the first question is greater than the answer to the second.
It is a bit of puzzle to speak about vocation to the Secular Franciscan Order within a wider Franciscan context. This is not because such a vocation is difficult to describe. It is because the call to this way of life exists within such a rich multiplicity of possibilities for those who are attracted to the charism but are not called to religious life.
Here and there, all over the planet, we find women and men who take the Franciscan movement seriously, who allow the Gospel to shape their lives, and who work with the Spirit that stirred Francis and Clare. Many of them are Secular Franciscans, but many are not. The truth (and it is a great blessing) is that there are many ways for people to live a Franciscan-inspired life. So we might reasonably ask: among all the possibilities for affiliation and identification with the Franciscan family, what does it mean to have a vocation as a secular person in the family’s Third Order?
Vocation and Formation/Space and Time
As I give this question a bit of thought from my own tiny corner of the world, St. Elizabeth Fraternity in the Blessed Junipero Serra Region in the western United States, it occurs to me there are so many things about Secular Franciscan vocation I cannot speak to with any certainty at all. For example, I do not know what it is like to practice this life in China, Malawi, Indonesia or Kazakhstan. The accounts I receive through the order’s international leadership tell me that all over the world Seculars live and serve, as they always have, a long- side their First, Second and Third Order Religious spiritual siblings.
They live the Gospel in circumstances I can only imagine, following our Lord Jesus Christ and receiving the Holy Spirit’s gifts each day. What vocation might mean to them, or how formation happens, I would not dare to say, but I know that their stories are shaping my own vision of what Franciscan life might be.
Neither do I have the decades of faithful witness experienced by so many of my OFS brothers and sisters in my own part of the world. For the most part, the people who nurtured my own vocation, the ones who spotted some vague spiritual family resemblance between me and Francis of Assisi, made their own profession long before I came along. My formation in the order was to some extent in the hands of those who professed under the Third Order Rule promulgated by Pope Leo XIII more than one hundred years ago.
These good lay Franciscans have remained in fraternity to assimilate the changes, hopes and expectations of the Second Vatican Council. They have undertaken life under the 1978 Rule promulgated by Paul VI. Like those who have remained in religious life over the last few decades, some Seculars have not only persisted in their vocations, but have actually allowed themselves to be converted over and over again. Along these lines, I have come to greatly appreciate the patience of my formation director, Hermina Weir, OFS, who taught me many things, including how to pray the office and the Crown Rosary, and who made me learn the Rule and the Constitutions of the Order. I keep in mind that it was also Hermina who insisted I read Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes so that I might, as she put it, “understand the church you claim to belong to.”
These sisters and brothers appear to me to have received and acted on this exhortation of St. Paul’s:
May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened, that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, striving to preserve the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace: one body one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call. — Eph 1:1849; 4:1-4
This perhaps does not sound like much of a call “bearing with one another in love” until you try to live it.
So I bumble along in my vocation, considering all that our loving and gracious God reveals to each of us within our own place and time, and I grow in gratitude. I come to love this (by no means the only, or perhaps even the best) way of Franciscan life. While there is so much I do not know about following Christ in a “Franciscan” way, and it is clear that so many people who are not Seculars live the Gospel more faithfully than I do, perhaps I can identify a couple of distinct OFS tendencies worth describing here. This may help us to understand the place OFS vocation might hold in the Franciscan world today.
Of course these tendencies appear within the much larger Franciscan spiritual and intellectual tradition. Therefore, as they are presented, you can and should assume that every Incarnational-Trinitarian-Bonaventurean-Scotist inclination shared by the rest of the family lurks behind them. The tendencies I would like to highlight show up in the form of two related commitments: to the fraternity and to the church. I have come to feel that, among many contemplative and active Franciscan ways of being, this dual commitment to particular community and universal belonging help make the Secular Franciscan vocation what it is. And like the words of Paul above, the tenacious tendencies in this branch of the family don’t look like much until you begin to unpack them.
Life in Fraternal Communion
When it comes right down to it, this is it: the vocation of the Secular Franciscan “is a vocation to live the Gospel in fraternal communion” (OFS Constitutions, 3.3). With very rare exceptions, there’s no such thing as an isolated professed lay Franciscan. Life outside of fraternity doesn’t make any sense. At this point, we might observe: “So the OFS vocation is a matter of life lived in familial terms. So what? That’s hardly unique within the larger tradition.” However, the commitment a lay person makes to a particular fraternity shapes, nurtures and challenges spiritual growth in some fairly strong and often countercultural ways.
To live in actual (not idealized) fraternal communion means that my notion of what it is to follow Jesus will always be brushing up against the expectations of my brothers and sisters in the fraternity, month after month, for the rest of my life. While the utter uniqueness of each person is a matter of respect and delight, Secular Franciscan community might not be a happy place for someone who greatly values rugged individualism. It may also hold many surprises for the person handle on what Francis and Clare “really” meant.
In the Seculars, we don’t live together. In my limited experience, the year-to-year reality of “fraternal communion” is either attractive or repellent to those considering profession as a Secular, and the significant blessings and challenges presented by this kind of Franciscan community should not be overlooked. This insistence on some kind of life together is, of course, shared by our religious brothers and sisters, and the monthly fraternity meetings, be they ever so humble, are simply our way of interpreting the words of Francis in his Testament — namely, that we grow spiritually with the brothers and sisters that the Lord has given us. If some brothers and sisters are no longer able to actively serve, they are no less treasured. If we disagree over which ministry the group should undertake, we must work it out. The countless ways we disappoint each other must be met with humility, gentleness, patience and love. It turns out to be the work of a lifetime.
I offer this innate tendency to value particular community as one small example of what identifies OFS life today. If it sounds a bit settled for true Franciscan life, bear in mind how very scattered our relationships can be nowadays. The act of being physically present to one another every month is its own kind of Christian witness. So many of our families are separated by economic necessity, immigration policies, or by choice. Very few of us are completely untouched by some form of itinerancy. When the Seculars insist on fraternal life in the midst of much movement, they offer something authentic and perhaps, in some small way, healing to the rest of the world.
Living Members of the Church
Another aspect of this vocation also turns out to be a bit distinctive when we consider the wonderful variety of Franciscan-hearted people. I introduce it here because it is clearly not necessary for many people who are otherwise drawn to the charism. The Secular Franciscan vocation is one located within the church universal. It is by no means the only path open to the lay person called to follow the Poverello’s example. There are Anglican, Lutheran, ecumenical and other vibrant forms of committed Franciscan life. However the vocation I know and live is the one sustained and constrained by a pretty clear understanding of being an order (“lay” but “real” as a few of our popes have put it) in the Catholic Church. This means that the OFS way of life has the freedom that comes of belonging to a much larger body. It also means that ecclesial structures and complexities are part and parcel of this calling. In their life today, Seculars profess to having
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. — OFS Rule, 6
Well and good, perhaps, but have you noticed lately that being a “living member of the Church” calls for some very well-developed relational skills? A Secular Franciscan approach to being church might look something like an inclination to fraternity. While not denying the real need for ongoing conversion and growth in holiness, in someone who identifies as “OFS,” we would hope to find at least something of the humility, gentleness, patience and love that scripture, Francis and Clare all name for us.
In the matter of “going forth” mentioned above: to whom shall we go these days as “witnesses and instruments”? Here Seculars need not look far at all — our very families have become as spiritually diverse as any official interfaith gathering. Many of us find ourselves proclaiming Christ in a thousand unspoken ways to our children, in-laws and grandchildren. This may be the gentle, subtle task Seculars and other Christians are given today. That lovely icon of Francis and the Sultan embracing? That’s not an image from 800 years ago, that’s your next family reunion.
Like life in fraternity, life in the church is not uncomplicated, but it can be beautiful and oh-so-joyful. For those who have this vocation, taking a break from the church and all the associated human shortcomings is not really an option. Since the OFS Rule tells us we are called “like Francis to rebuild the Church,” a clear-eyed, faithful, Gospel-based response is always the expectation, if not the accomplishment, of our lives.
Gospel to Life, Life to Gospel
The rule and life of the Secular Franciscan 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 center of his life with God and people. — OFS Rule, 4
With these musings of merely one lay Franciscan, I have tried to describe just a couple of tendencies around the idea of fraternity and church that might mark an OFS vocation in relationship to the larger Franciscan movement. I’ve done so, I hope, without idealizing this branch of the family I love. From their earliest days as part of a multifaceted European penitential movement (and yes, I know the history is not uncontested), it seems to me that Secular Franciscans have always been odd ducks, even in a church loaded with flocks of peculiar birds.
Through the centuries, the Secular Franciscans have accompanied the friars on some of their wildest adventures, yet they have the reputation of being rather tame and pious. Their documents stress the secular quality of their vocation, yet their profession ritual looks and sounds like a rite for the religious. It’s an interesting way of being Franciscan — not for everyone, to be sure — but a way I believe is open to God’s goodness in the world.
By Donna Foley, OFS, a member of the St. Elizabeth Fraternity of the Secular Franciscan Order. She has served the Secular Franciscans in a broad range of ministerial roles on both the local and the regional level. A graduate of the Franciscan School of Theology, she is currently director of spiritual formation for the school.