Fr. Benitius Brevoort, OFM.Cap.

1.         Introduction   

The Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order starts with this bold affirmation: “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 recognise 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” (SFO Rule, 1978, Art. 1).


Having said this, I should perhaps step down and leave this hall where you are reflecting on ways and forms in which seculars are participating in the charisms of religious institutes. The Secular Franciscan Order has its own specific way of living the Franciscan charism, just as the Friars Minor, the Poor Clares and Third Order Religious men and women have their own way of living this common charism. Strictly speaking, the Secular Franciscan Order should not be included in your reflections, because it has its own secular way of living the Franciscan charism and does not participate in the specific charism of any religious Franciscan institute. It has its own special place in the family circle, being an organic union of all Catholic fraternities scattered throughout the world, where “brothers and sisters, led by the Spirit, strive for perfect charity in their own secular state and … pledge themselves to live the gospel in the manner of St. Francis” (SFO Rule, Art. 2). The relationship between religious and secular Franciscans is not one of seculars sharing in the charism of their religious sisters and brothers, but one of “life-giving union with each other” (SFO Rule, Art. 1), of living the Church as communion, where we unite our efforts “with a view to co-operation and exchange of gifts, in order to participate more effectively in the Church’s mission”, to render more effective our “response to the great challenges of our time, thanks to the combined contributions of the various gifts” (Vita Consecrata, n. 54).


Practical experience in assisting the Secular Franciscan Order all over the world has shown me the importance of having clear ideas about what we really want in encouraging various “experiences of communion and co-operation” (Vita Consecrata, n. 55) of Religious and Laity. It is also important to know the basic views underlying relationships between Religious and Laity inspired by the same spiritual vision. Two basic models can be distinguished: the first based on the concept of “exchange of gifts” and the second on “sharing a charism”. In everyday life, of course, the two models are most often mixed in the way religious relate to seculars.


2.         Exchange of gifts

The term “exchange of gifts” appears six times in the apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata, (VC n. 47, 54, 62, 82, 85, 101) all of them in the context of inter-related independent entities, who are able to enrich each other and to be enriched the one by the other. This “exchange of gifts” can “contribute to an inculturation of the Gospel which purifies, strengthens and ennobles the treasures found in the cultures of all peoples” (VC 47). It will make Religious and Laity “participate more effectively in the Church’s mission” (VC 54), in renewed “faithfulness to the Holy Spirit, who is the source of communion and unceasing newness of life” (VC 62), and who gives the Church “a unity of fellowship and service; furnishing and directing her with various gifts, both hierarchical and charismatic” (VC 85). The “exchange of gifts”, mutual knowledge and “co-operation in common undertakings of service and of witness, … show the will to journey together towards perfect unity along the path of truth and love” (VC 101).


Thus, Secular Franciscans are called to live the gospel in the manner of Saint Francis in the world, just as their religious brothers and sisters are called to live the same gospel by leaving the world. “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 centre of his life with God and people” (SFO Rule, Art. 4). In the same way, “the rule and life of the Lesser Brothers is this: to observe the Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ by living in obedience, without anything of one’s own, and in chastity” (Franciscan First Order Rule, 1223, Ch. 1) and “the form of life of the Brothers and Sisters of the Third Order Regular of St Francis [is]: to observe the holy gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, by living in obedience, in poverty and in chastity” (TOR Rule, 1982, Ch. 1).


Secular Franciscans in fact have their own Order, with its own Rule of life, approved by the Pope, its Ritual and General Constitutions, approved by the respective Roman Congregations. They have their own leaders, elected by themselves, at all levels: local, regional, national and international. The General Minister of the Secular Franciscan Order is one of the members of the Conference of the Franciscan Family, together with the four religious Franciscan General Ministers and the President of the International Conference of Franciscan religious. It is evident that such a situation has profound effects on the relationships between secular and religious Franciscans.


Travelling the ways of the Lord together with my Secular Franciscan brothers and sisters has taught me much about my own religious way of life. They are Franciscans, as much as I am, not more, nor less, but different. It is only together – in various ways and forms but in life-giving union with each other – that we are able to make present the Franciscan charism in the life and mission of the Church. Both Religious and Seculars try to live the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ as sisters and brothers, having but one Father, who is in heaven. All of us try to place our will in the will of the Father (St. Francis, Second Letter to the Faithful), to live without anything of our own (St. Francis, Rule 1223, Ch. 1) and, with a clean heart and spirit, never cease to adore and to see the Lord God, living and true (St. Francis, Admonition 16).


Indeed, Secular Franciscans have their own way of living basic Franciscan values, as expressed in their Rule: “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” (SFO Rule, 13). “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” (SFO Rule, 18). “Uniting themselves to the redemptive obedience of Jesus, who placed his will into the Father’s hands, let them faithfully fulfil the duties proper to their various circumstances of life” (SFO Rule, 10). “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” (SFO Rule, 11). “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” (SFO Rule, 12). “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” (SFO Rule, 17).


Inspired by these basic values, Secular Franciscans have always seen their personal witness in the environment in which they live and their service for building up the Kingdom of God within the situations of this world as their preferred apostolate (SFO Constitutions, art. 17). They have been and are most active in the field of practical charity: care for poor and destitute people, care for the sick and the aged. One of the oldest hospitals in Madrid is owned and run by the local SFO fraternity of San Francisco el Grande. I have had the occasion to visit several old people’s homes owned and run by local Fraternities in various countries: Venezuela, Guatemala, Spain, Italy, Brazil. But most often, Secular Franciscans co-operate in programs run by others, like feeding school children in Caracas, helping in the soup kitchen in Dublin, collecting and sorting used clothing in Milan, preparing tables for the poor at San Salvador, visiting people at the old people’s home at Brno, etc. A special characteristic of secular Franciscans is their ability to see specific needs and offer simple and concrete solutions. They will take their own initiatives but often prefer to collaborate with existing organisations.


This exchange of gifts benefits both secular and religious Franciscans in manifold ways. On the spiritual level, it helps both religious and seculars to become more conscious of their own specific calling in the Church. Serving as a spiritual assistant to the Secular Franciscan Order has been and still is a marvellous occasion to inspire people to engage in politics and economics based on the Gospel. It has challenged me to face problems of bio-ethics, of abortion, of euthanasia, of exploitation, of wanton destruction of nature, of consumerism, of racism and religious fanaticism. Assisting Secular Franciscans means also to help young people prepare themselves for marriage, to discuss about educating youngsters today, to listen to the stories of elderly people. Being an Assistant to the Secular Franciscan Order means above all meeting people, inspired by Saint Francis, celebrating the beauty of life and dancing together with children, being with youngsters of pure eyes and chaste bodies, dining with national leadership, sitting at the bedside of sick and old brothers and sisters. My service has opened many doors, from the entrance of the UNO headquarters in New York to the shack of a poor leper on the shore of the Indian ocean. It has made me cover many miles together with my Franciscan brothers and sisters in the relative comfort of an aeroplane or a private car, but also in the cramped space of a bush-taxi or tracking along the road to nowhere.


This “exchange of gifts” has taught me one thing, that I need to be a genuine Capuchin Franciscan religious, desiring above all things “to have the Spirit of the Lord and Its holy activity”. My ears are still ringing with the cry of one of my secular Franciscan sisters: “Tell me of God!” Our task as religious is to be people of God, to give Spirit and life to our secular brothers and sisters. All other things they can manage, what they need from us is inspiration, enthusiasm, love, yes, being madly in love with God.


In exchange, our Secular brothers and sisters will give us religious, their love and sympathy, their material support and help. They will be with us, defending us and helping us to get out of trouble, as they have done already on so many occasions. They are long-suffering, courteous, humble and accommodating with us religious. They will help us in our apostolic activities and charitable ventures. They will even give us their own sons and daughters to join our ranks. On one condition, however: that we are truly religious, people of God, living our own specific calling the best we can.

3.         Sharing a charism

The concept of “sharing a charism”, as formulated by the apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata (54-56), refers to a different kind of relationship between religious and lay people from the one presented above under the heading of “exchange of gifts”. The concept of “sharing a charism” implies a closer participation in the life of a religious institute than the one of “exchange of gifts”. “The laity are […] invited to share more intensely in the spirituality and mission” of the various Institutes of consecrated life (VC, 54). It promotes a more “intense co-operation between consecrated persons and the laity in view of the Institute’s mission” (VC, 55). It can develop into forms of associate membership or of sharing fully, “for a certain period of time, the Institute’s community life and its particular dedication to contemplation or the apostolate” (VC, 56). Please note the much closer participation in the internal life of the Institute than the one considered before.


It is worth noting that the concept of “sharing a charism” is present in the Secular Franciscan Order not only in their relationship with Franciscan religious, but also in their relationship with “those who, without belonging to the SFO, wish to share its experiences and activities” (SFO Constitutions, 103). The Franciscan Youth, with a world-wide membership of about 50,000 young people, for whom the SFO considers itself to be particularly responsible, “is formed by those young people who feel called by the Holy Spirit to share the experience of the Christian life in fraternity, in the light of the message of St. Francis of Assisi, deepening their own vocation within the context of the Secular Franciscan Order” (SFO Constitutions, 96,2). “The members of the Franciscan Youth consider the Rule of the SFO as an inspirational document for the growth of their own Christian and Franciscan vocation either individually or in a group” (SFO Constitutions, 96,3). These young people are animated and assisted by Secular and Religious Franciscans together. Apart from the youth, a certain number of people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, want in some way to share in the charism of the SFO and to participate in its life and activities. The Presidency of the International Council of the SFO, as long ago as 1995, felt the need to give some guidelines for associated membership of the SFO ( and for “friends of Saint Francis” who feel attracted by Francis of Assisi and want to be close to the Franciscan Family (


Another perhaps unexpected way of “sharing a charism” is the fact that the SFO in the past and in the present has given birth and is giving birth to various Religious Congregations. We can see the same thing happening in a number of new lay movements in the Church. I haven’t done any formal research on the topic, but an impressive number of Franciscan Religious Congregations started out as small groups of Secular Franciscans who decided to pool their resources, to live and pray together and to consecrate themselves to God by private vows. Most of them were following the Rule of the Brothers and Sisters of the Third Order of Saint Francis living in Congregation, approved by Pope Leo X in 1521, and nowadays follow the Third Order Religious Rule, approved by Pope John Paul II in 1982. But even today some Secular Institutes do follow the Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order, approved by Pope Paul VI in 1978. Apart from the members of these Institutes of Consecrated life, there are also Secular Franciscans, “who commit themselves with private vows to live in the spirit of the Beatitudes and to make themselves more disposed to contemplation and to the service of the fraternities (…). These brothers and sisters may gather in groups according to statutes approved by the national council, and when these groups spread beyond the borders of a nation, by the International Council of the SFO (SFO Constitutions, 36).


It is worthwhile noting that the concept of “sharing a charism” affirms the leadership of those sharing the charism in relation to those participating in the charism. For religious sharing their charism with lay people, it means that the religious are expected to be the leaders in their relationship with the laity. Religious appear as models to be imitated as far as possible. “Moved by the examples of holiness of the consecrated members, lay men and women will experience at first hand the spirit of the evangelical counsels, and will thus be encouraged to live and bear witness to the spirit of the Beatitudes, in order to transform the world according to God’s design” (VC 55). The religious are not only seen as “expert guides in the spiritual life” (VC 55), but also as those bearing final responsibility. Any “initiatives involving lay persons at the decision-making level, in order to be considered the work of a specific Institute, must promote the ends of that Institute and be carried out under its responsibility. Therefore, if lay persons take on a directive role, they will be accountable for their actions to the competent Superiors” (VC 56).


This relationship between religious and lay people will be to the benefit of both, and “the participation of the laity often brings unexpected and rich insights into certain aspects of the charism, leading to a more spiritual interpretation of it and helping to draw from it directions for new activities in the apostolate” (VC 55). This sharing in the charism of a religious Institute, “which draws from the richness of the consecrated life, should be held in great esteem” (VC 56). “Consecrated persons should remember that before all else they must be expert guides in the spiritual life”, whereas “the laity should offer Religious families the invaluable contribution of their ‘being in the world’ and their specific service” (VC 55).


This view of the relationship between religious and laity has in no way been absent in the history of the Secular Franciscan Order. It is still lingering in the mind of quite a number of both religious and secular Franciscans all over the world. It has produced fruits of sanctity and great works of charity in the past and in the present, but it has been and still is the cause of much misunderstanding and even conflict between religious and secular Franciscans.


The first and most important consequence of this view is the affirmation of the religious as the real leaders and lack of autonomy on part of the laity. Initiatives either originate with the religious or need to be approved by them. Secular Franciscans living this view look to Religious as their models and leaders, inwardly and outwardly. They offer valuable assistance to Franciscan religious, participate in their activities, in their prayer, and even at times share in their community life. I have met Secular Franciscans helping in mission offices, in retreat houses, in centres of care for poor and homeless people, run by Franciscan religious. More than once I have found a Friar in the director’s office, a Sister in the administration and a Secular Franciscan in the kitchen or in the basement.


According to the Rule given in 1883 by Pope Leo XIII to the SFO and even more according to its General Constitutions of 1957, the Secular Franciscan Order was animated and guided by the Religious. “The Superiors of the four Franciscan Families govern the Third Order normally through the general, national, provincial and regional commissaries, and through the local directors ” (SFO Constitutions 1957, Art. 105). “The internal government of a fraternity, as a moral person within the Third Order, belongs to the council of the fraternity. This council consists of the minister prefect and councillors, and constitutes also the advisory board of the director” (SFO Constitutions 1957, Art. 120). It is only with the Rule approved by Pope Paul VI in 1978, that the SFO regained its autonomy. Its present General Constitutions, approved in 1990, formulate this autonomy in more detail and see it clearly related to both unity and secularity.


This shows us a second consequence of the model of “sharing a charism”, which is specificity and lack of unity. In this view, each religious Institute sharing its charism with the laity should have its own lay movement. The Secular Franciscan Order was divided into four so-called “obediences”, according to the four religious Orders assisting them. The division has formally been overcome in all countries of the world, with the partial exception of Italy, where it still causes much suffering and conflict. But it still continues in the mind of many religious and secular Franciscans. Often enough my Capuchin brothers ask me: “How many Secular Franciscans are there in the world?” When I answer them: “About 400,000”, the next question is often: “Yes, but how many are ours?” Then, of course, I start to explain that there are no “Capuchin” Secular Franciscans and that the Secular Franciscan Order belongs to itself and not to us Friars. All four of us General Assistants, have met with Secular Franciscans defining themselves as Capuchin or Conventual or Friar Minor or TOR.


A third consequence of “sharing a charism” is special attention to aspects of the charism important to religious, often overlooking elements specific to seculars. Taken to the extreme, it would deny a specific secular spirituality to the Secular Franciscan Order and make it live a mirrored spirituality and a charism received from religious Franciscans. According to this view, to be a real Franciscan, you need to be a religious, as Saint Francis was, together with his brothers, the first Friars Minor. If this is not possible, you still have a second choice, to enter the Third Order, founded by Saint Francis himself, for those who would like to follow him, but cannot leave their family, their house or their children. Most often, in this view, the personal and devotional aspects of Franciscan spirituality are dominant, and little attention is given to active social and political involvement. This view is often implied in the insistence of certain Secular Franciscans or their spiritual Assistants to allow Seculars to wear a religious kind of habit. I have met with Secular Franciscans in four out of the six continents wearing a religious style of habit, often complete with cord, rosary, cross and veil. The point in question most often is not the habit itself, but the confusion of ideas which causes the attachment to this outward sign of belonging to the Franciscan family.


To conclude, I would like to stress again the need for clear concepts and goals in this field of the relationship between religious and lay persons inspired by them. “In whatever activity or ministry they are involved, consecrated persons should remember that before all else they must be expert guides in the spiritual life, and in this perspective they should cultivate ‘the most precious gift: the spirit’. For their part, the laity should offer Religious families the invaluable contribution of their ‘being in the world’ and their specific service” (VC 55). Only thus can we unite our efforts, “with a view to co-operation and exchange of gifts, in order to participate more effectively in the Church’s mission. This helps to give a clearer and more complete picture of the Church herself, while rendering more effective the response to the great challenges of our time, thanks to the combined contributions of the various gifts” (VC 54).


Courtesy of Vidimus Dominum – The Portal for Religious Life

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