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Third Order Regular: Third Order diversity

Fr James Puglisi SA

 We all know how diverse the Franciscan Family is!  However, the reality of the Roman Catholic Third Order Regular (TOR) confirms this even more.  When people speak of the Third Order many believe we are talking about lay women and men living a Franciscan spirit in the world.  They would not be totally incorrect but one would need to stress immediately the word ‘Regular’ in TOR.  Indeed these are women and men living a particular Franciscan charism in the world but by living a vowed life, a consecrated life.

It is believed that Francis of Assisi, desiring to avoid the complications of ecclesiastical structure, simply wished to restore the life of penance by living the Gospel almost literally.  In ancient times, there was the reality of the ‘order of penitents’; individuals who, after committing serious sins, were enrolled in this community and assigned a certain penance to be carried out over a period of time to demonstrate a real conversion of life.  This practice fell into disuse as the penitential sacramental system became more relaxed and people were re-admitted to communion by doing small acts of charity or by saying a certain number of prayers or by having a holy person do their penance for them (always at a small price to the sinner).

Since Francis of Assisi heard the basic message of the gospel as ‘repent and believe the good news’, he took this mandate literally.  For this reason, he encouraged men and women to do the same by a series of exhortations or letters to the faithful, laying out a simple rule for doing so.  History complicates what happens after the church leaders became involved in this growing number of people following Francis’ example.  To make this part of the history short, some of these people began to retire to abandoned churches or solitary places in extreme poverty to do penance.  It was difficult for the church leaders to see these people without anyone to govern them or without some ‘form of life’ given them.  Eventually these groups of individuals were gathered under a Rule of evangelical life by taking the Franciscan vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.  Hence with the passage of time they became known as the Third Order Regular.

As time marched on, very original and charismatic women and men responded to the exigencies and needs of the poor of each epoch.  New communities were being founded to answer these needs, but the Catholic Church did not usually approve new rules. However, many of these realities had adopted Francis of Assisi’s example and spirit and so the church aggregated these to what had been approved as the TOR Rule of life.  However this Rule was not based in the Franciscan sources.  After the Second Vatican Council’s call to all religious congregations to return to their roots and fundamental sources, the numerous communities of Friars and Sisters began to explore the origins of their calling and foundation only to discover that the basic Rule given them by the church had little Franciscan inspiration.  As a result of this resourcement or return to the sources, a new Rule was eventually approved by John Paul II in 1982 thus giving new resurgence to these communities.  Shortly after this approval, there was the realization that many communities of diverse charisms were following the TOR Rule and there was a desire to see how each congregation could support other very diverse congregations in the living of this renewed TOR Rule.  Hence the International Franciscan Conference of the Sisters and Brothers of the Third Order Regular (IFC-TOR) was established.  The Ministers General also expressed the wish that a permanent structure be set up to ensure that the common bond of their Franciscan heritage and the cooperation achieved would continue.  This structure was approved and established at a general assembly of 130 general superiors who met in Assisi in 1985.

The aims of the International Franciscan Conference are:

1) To promote genuine communion within and among the Institutes of the Third Order Regular throughout the world, by fostering Franciscan life and spirituality in harmony with the spirit and content of the Rule and its fundamental values which are based on the Gospel and in accordance with the teachings of the Church;

2) to create and maintain solidarity among the Institutes by: mutual assistance, spiritual and material, collaboration in the apostolate, mutual information and communication, assistance in the field of formation, special concern for smaller and more isolated Institutes, the creation and support of regional or national Franciscan federations or organizations wherever one or several of these means are desired;

3) to co-operate with the First and Second Orders and with the Secular Franciscan Order (the lay branch of the Third Order);

4) to encourage and disseminate research in Franciscan spirituality and history;

5) to represent the member Institutes of the International Franciscan Conference in the Church, within the Franciscan family and in the world; and

6) to support or initiate efforts to safeguard the universal rights of every human person according to the Gospel, with special regard and respect for life, freedom, justice and the environment.

The IFC-TOR is comprised of 455 institutes in over 51 different countries with a combined membership of Friars and Sisters numbering over 27,000.  The diversity of their ministries is incredible.  From teaching to hospital work, from prison ministry to AIDS care, from missionary to pastoral ministry, from serving the poor to contemplating the mysteries of salvation, the TOR communities are as diverse as their founders and foundresses were in meeting the needs of today’s world with the same compassion that Francis and Clare did in their world.

The theme of the 2013 General Assembly, “Rooted in Christ – On Fire with the Spirit – Go, Transform the World!” expresses the passion of these vowed women and men.  Come and visit us (in 6 languages) at www.ifc-tor.org.  f

 Fr. James F. Puglisi, SA is the Minister General of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement and President of the IFC-TOR.  He has attended C/SSF First Order Chapters as an ecumenical observer and as a speaker.