COME & SEE: Discerning your vocation to become a Secular Franciscan
by Fred Schaeffer, OFS
Fraternity Minister, Divine Mercy Fraternity, Vero Beach, FL
You've met a lay Franciscan at your parish and you think you might be interested too. Your friend has invited you to one of our meetings, and now you are there as a visitor or observer. You listen to all that is said, and you pray with us as we pray. There's usually a social in the middle or end of the meeting, so you talk to some people. When you go home you have a faint idea that perhaps you ought to come back to the next meeting. But you really do not know why. You're already so involved and perhaps you're cautious about joining yet another committee or club.
The call to enter the Secular Franciscan Order (OFS) is a gift of God. To enter any Order of the Church (Franciscans, Benedictines, Carmelites, Augustinians, and their lay components. There are many more.) takes discernment. We know in our everyday lives that without exercising discernment we would be in jail, probably. When we get an inspiration to do something, we discern whether that thought came from ourselves, from evil forces or from the Holy Spirit. If the inspiration is self-serving, forget it. Discernment to enter an Order is something like that. Principally we must find out if the call to enter a specific Order or way of life came, indeed, from the Holy Spirit, from God.
The OFS is not a club nor is it a social organization. It is one of the Orders of the Church and it is for people who feel called by God to serve Christ and his Church in the footsteps of Saint Francis of Assisi as Secular Franciscans. In the old days, when there were fewer of us, and especially when St. Francis founded the Order as the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, the fraternities that grew out of that initial group, became known as the "Third Order of Saint Francis." (TOSF) They were motivated and animated by friars from the First Order, and those good friars made all the decision, which worked well. There came a point however, when the TOSF grew and grew, since it was an extremely popular Order all over the world (I learned of it, when I was about six years old, in Europe), it turned out that our numbers quadrupled the number of friars. And, before long, the friars asked for help. On June 24, 1978, the four Ministers General of the First Orders (OFM, OFM Conv., OFM Cap., and TOR) sent a communication to the OFS which includes the following: "We joyfully inform you that the Holy See, by means of the Apostolic Letter Seraphicus Patriarca, dated June 24, 1978, and "under the ring of the Fisherman," has approved the revised Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order which abbrogates and takes the place of the preceeding rule of Pope Leo XIII. This was a splendid gift from Pope Paul VI, renaming the TOSF to be the Secular Franciscan Order. Moreover, this was not just a change in name, but the Order was brought gently up to date, the 20th Century. So the OFS is truly an Order of the Church, founded by Saint Francis of Assisi in 1226, which exists worldwide and numbers around 1 Million. The OFS in the United States is structured into 31 geographic regions; the Minister (president) of each Region is a member of the National Fraternity Council, as are the members of the National Executive Council and four members of the Conference of National Spiritual Assistants, one from each of the four Friar Obediences. There are approximately 741 local fraternities which have a total of approximately 17,000 professed members, and there are approximately 1400 people in formation. Each fraternity has a Spiritual Assistant, who is usually a First Order, or Third Order Regular, Friar, but could be a religious, diocesan clergy, or a certified lay Secular Franciscan.
The organization of OFS consists of a Minister General in Rome, and the CIOFS (General Council OFS). Each country then has a National Minister and a similar Council. In USA, Dcn. Tom Bello, OFS, is the National Minister. Since the USA is so large, it is divided into Regions (similar in idea to the Provinces of the First Order) . . . [with a] Regional Minister. Each Region contains a number of Fraternities, each of those have a Minister as well. . . . Together with the friars of the First Order, the sisters of the Second Order, (the Poor Clares) and many Third Order sisterhoods (OFS is also a component of that Third Order) , we are all Franciscans.
"To be admitted into the Order a candidate must be of tried fidelity in the practice of the Catholic Faith and in absolute loyalty to the Roman Church and the Apostolic See." What does that mean? Well, new applicants must be Roman Catholics who go to Holy Mass on Sundays, Holidays of Obligation, and perhaps also during the week. Your faith must be strong and you must fully endorse the actions of the Holy Father, Pope Francis, and the Magisterium (Cardinals, Bishops, etc.). If you are a Catholic who only goes to Sunday Mass now and then, and you figure once you join OFS, it'll help you sin less, then perhaps you should look elsewhere. The OFS is not for you. Converts to the Roman Catholic Church are accepted after proper formation.
The OFS has a required formation period set by Canon Law. Usually, you would observe us for a couple of meetings, perhaps 3 or 4. Then, if still interested, you may become an Inquirer for six or more months (depending if our Formation Director feels you're ready to be admitted to Candidacy (e.g. Novitiate). There is reading and study involved in the Inquirer and Candidacy time. And, we will not ask you if you wish to become an Inquirer, a Candidate or to be Professed - that initiative has to come from you and it must be the result of much prayer and discernment. We will let you know when you have completed the lessons for the next step. Candidacy is one and a half year long thus the total process of formation is about two years. (Effective 7/4/2003)
When professed, I promise "by the grace of God to renew my baptismal promises and to consecrate myself to the service of his Kingdom. Therefore, in my secular state, I promise to live all the days of my life the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Secular Franciscan Order by observing its rule of life. May the grace of the Holy Spirit, the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and our holy father Saint Francis, and the fraternal bonds of community always be my help, so that I may reach the goal of perfect Christian love."
It takes a lifetime to reach that goal of perfect Christian love but we must seek continual perfection. A Christian life is never still. It takes daily discernment of our thoughts and actions and daily conversion in striving to live a holy life. Religious Orders make vows of Obedience, Poverty and Chastity, and their life is lived in celibacy and as their rules provide. But the OFS is an Order for the laity, single or married (a priest not already in another order can join us as well) and our focus is somewhat different. Our Profession promises cover all that because the Secular Franciscan rule of life includes calls for moderation, frugality, purity, and obedience as well.
There is a strong bond between Franciscans anywhere and the OFS is no exception. We work closely with each other on the Fraternity level, help each other as much as possible. But it cannot stop there. We must involve ourselves in a quiet and understated way with all we meet, in all social situations, in committees, other groups. We must do that to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ and to set a good example. Lots of advertising does not bring us new Inquirers. Our way of life and how we practice this, that is what brings new people in.
I hope this little writing is useful to "would-be" Inquirers, who have only a vague idea what the OFS is all about, and if you continue to discern a vocation to our way of life, please contact us soon. If you do not live in the area served by our local Fraternity, then please call 1-800-FRANCIS (USA only) to ask where your nearest fraternity is located. For those in other countries, perhaps you could ask your priest or pastor or check on the internet.
Pax et Bonum:
Peace and Good
Note: This is an old article, written in 2002 or earlier. Fred Schaeffer, OFS
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