Part 1 - a school of Christian perfection imbued with the genuine Franciscan spirit.
Pope Pius XII in his 1956 Address to Tertiaries said: "Although the Third Order is not a body of people who are already perfect, it is above all a school of Christian perfection imbued with the genuine Franciscan spirit. For it was instituted for this purpose: to satisfy fully the sincere desires of those who had to remain in the world but who do not wish to be of the world. The Third Order directs its appeal to those who burn with the desire of striving for perfection in their own station in life."
Even though, the good Pontiff wrote this statement 52 years ago, to date, I believe it is still valid this day. Perhaps even more so, as the Secular Franciscan Order now has even better formation guidance and texts, and the whole Order of Franciscans show greater unification of charism and purpose.
Recently, there has been greater emphasis on the Secular Franciscan having a spiritual opportunity to be more contemplative in prayer. In the "Formation program for the Eighth Centenary of St. Elizabeth of Hungary," Year 2, Month 10 this is discussed:
"In her hospital work, just as in her married life, Elizabeth’s active life also included contemplative prayer. Our Rule (II, 8) specifically asks us to "make prayer and contemplation the soul of all we are and do." This means giving contemplative prayer a greater part in our prayer life.
But what is contemplative prayer? We who follow the active life are often told that all of our work, if it is offered up to God, is prayer. We also have the Mass and our daily office, the liturgical prayers of the Church. But both of these are different from contemplation, lifting of our hearts and minds to God. This is a type of prayer we often find difficult. How can we, absorbed as we are by all the cares of family and work, and distracted by the TV, the Internet, and the daily chatter around us, find sufficient time to lift our souls to God?
We can take comfort from the fact that the definitive words of Jesus in the Gospels about the life of contemplation were addressed to a busy housewife. Jesus has come to visit Martha and Mary. Martha, who is an accomplished hostess, waits on Jesus with food and drink and comfortable cushions – these, the things we do for Jesus, represent the active life of service to others in the world. Mary, on the other hand, has chosen to sit at Jesus’ feet, listening to his words, and being content in his presence. This is contemplation.
Martha insists to Jesus that contemplative Mary is not pulling her weight, and should get up and help with the serving. Jesus tells Martha "you are anxious and worried about many things," but he adds that only one thing is truly necessary – to listen to his words (Luke 10, 41-42). The contrast between the two sisters has often been used in the Church to differentiate between the active and the contemplative life as two different vocations – the one for the laity and those religious whose lives are spent in service to others, and the other for religious engaged in lives of contemplative prayer. But Jesus is also telling Martha, who lives the active life, that she needs more room in her life to listen to and contemplate Him. All Christians should combine these two things. As St. Augustine says:"No one should be so contemplative that he does not think of the good of his neighbor, nor so active that he does not seek the contemplation of God" (On the City of God, xix, 19)."
As stated above, Rule 8 of the Rule of Saint Francis for the SFO, refers to this way of life. Contemplation is something you may pray for that Our Lord give you this Grace, but the gift is only His to make. You can be predisposed to contemplation by finding a quiet place to pray and to repose, without distractions, and in time, as a result of a daily drawing back from life for the purpose of communicating with Our Lord, you may be favored with this Grace. At the same time, there is suffering involved in this way of life. Satan can get very unruly for those who strive for perfection or greater perfection, and there are numerous examples of this, particularly in Religious Orders. Now, why would you want to strive for perfection when the status quo might perhaps be good enough?
The status quo is never good enough because man is burdened by original sin and the effects of it - concupiscence, and we are in a constant tug-of-war discerning between good and evil. For those already serving in an Order, be it religious or lay in nature and affiliation, the opportunity to excel is there. We know that the greatest command of Our Lord is to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, right? To see the trees for the forest as Saint Francis does so well, and to be 100% there for all those people you are privileged to meet along the way of this pilgrimage of life. If we are 100% for people, then certainly we should be there 100% for the Father. For we are told, by Jesus, to love Our Father in heaven, and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. The loving of neighbor is contingent on loving the Father, as we learn in the "Lord's Prayer" - "...forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." If we cannot forgive others, we will not be forgiven ourselves.
The Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order, as well as other Rules (for other parts of the Franciscan Order) follows the same goal. Today the world has become increasingly materialistic and unbelieving. Franciscans are needed to take the joy of the love of Christ to people. The message is still of total love of God, our fellow man who, and wherever he is, and indeed all of creation. A simple message that calls for a simple life, and a reassessment of our values. In this way although the Order is 800 years old, the message is modern and for today. There are about 15,000 professed Secular Franciscans in the United States alone, and in 2002 there were 400,000 professed worldwide. The latest figure stands at 430,000! It makes the SFO an enormous order, and very much worldwide. The entire Franciscan Order numbers 580,000 men and women. This takes a great deal of communications and planning to make sure that all Franciscans get the formative messages from the top down.
"We are a body composed of some 430,000 professed, who, together with the over 150,000 male and female Franciscan religious must accomplish in time and in history the mission that the San Damiano Crucifix entrusted to St. Francis.
"We will be able to fully accomplish all this by developing, living and letting grow within us, in every part of the world, a deep Sense of Belonging and a living awareness of the Grace of Profession that has made us Franciscan, fully realizing our Baptismal vocation and introducing us into the body of the Secular Franciscan Order and of the entire Franciscan Family.
Fred Schaeffer, OFS
Article #1, 11/01/2008 rev. 2014
Secular Franciscan Order
Ordo Franciscanus Sæcularis
Divine Mercy Fraternity
Vero Beach, FL
Officers as of 1/10/2016
Fred Schaeffer, OFS
Helen Caldarone, OFS
Mary "Jean" McGovern, OFS
Jack Reddy, OFS
Donna Haro, OFS
Joanne Giordano, OFS
Fred Schaeffer, OFS