In the first of a major series on the different spiritualities of the religious orders of the Church, Fr Thaddeus Horgan examines the beliefs of the followers of St Francis
"JUST who is a Franciscan!?!" was the response to my reply to the Larlier question, "How many kinds of Franciscans are there?" There are, after all, Friar's Minor and they are of three kinds: Capuchin, Observants and Conventuals. Then there are Poor Clares, the enclosed Franciscan order of women. There are four kinds of them! Then there is the Third Order Regular to which no fewer than 100,000 religious sisters, brothers and priests belong through more than 425 congregations. And do not forget the Secular Franciscan Order, the largest of them all. It is made up of some 250,000 lay men and women. Worldwide there are almost 400,000 Franciscans. In face of that array it can rightly be asked, "Who is a Franciscan?"
The answer, like the saint of Assisi, is disarmingly simple. A Franciscan is anyone called by God to follow Christ as St Francis did. His inspiration and insight into Christian living was to appreciate the meaning of the humanity of Christ. As Francis perceived Christ, He was human, like us in everything but sin, to show us how to achieve our ultimate destiny which is unity with God.
Francis believed deeply in God's word found in John 1:1-4, in Ephesians 1:3-10, and in Colossians 10-23. All creation is for Christ and its destiny too is unity in God. Bringing all who are, and all that is into harmony, prefigures the totality of that reconciliation God wills for everything. Peacemaking in all its dimensions and expressions was for Francis the role of the follower of Christ in this world.
The key to being an authentic Christian and to fulfilling this role was the human Christ depicted in the Gospels. "The Rule and Life" of all Franciscans, as the four Rules note, is "to live the Holy Gospel. . ." St Francis and his most faithful follower, St Clare, project this as the only viable lifestyle. They saw it as a way of life for all men and women. Franciscan lifestyle is not limited to priests, or to religious brothers and sisters, but to all.
Over the past eight centuries since the time of Francis and Clare millions have become followers of Christ after their example. From time to time some have sought to bring Franciscans more and more back to the simplicity of lifestyle that marked Francis, Clare and their first followers. This explains the various kinds of Friars Minor and Poor Clares. Within a lifetime of Francis and Clare some secular Franciscans began living in community professing religious vows and engaging in corporate works of charity. This was the origin of the Third Order Regular. Since then, when Franciscans felt the call to give new expression to gospel living, or to apply the gospel's mandate that Christians do the deeds of charity when confronted by new needs, they established new congregations. This explains the multiplicity of Franciscan religions. Secular Franciscans have also undergone reform, renewal and rebirth in new ways especially in our own day.
In 1978 Pope Paul VI issued a new Rule of Life for them. Their newest expression are secular insititutes or communities of lay people without vows who choose to follow the Secular Franciscan Rule. Because gospel living is for all in every age, and because the Holy Spirit is ever active, these developments should not surprise us, rather one should expect them.
But what precisely is "gospel living?" Too readily the reply is, "it's imitating Christ". Although St Francis has been called "the mirror of Christ" and "His closest imitator," the fact is Francis never imitated anyone. He tried to do in his day and way what he knew Christ did. Only in that sense can he be called Christ's imitator.
One of the attractions of Francis is that he was true to himself and never destroyed his personality. Rather he assimilated the attitudes and values of Christ depicted in the Gospels. As with any person our values and attitudes dictate or determine what we will or won't do. Francis made Christ's values his own. This is how he, and all Franciscans, become formed by the gospel. It begins by being poor in spirit, or recognising one's own and everyone's need for God. This awareness is the grace of conversion or turning to God as God wills, which is "in Christ."
Christ came into time to show us how to be totally and continuously turned to God. Christ entered time by an act of the Holy Spirit. He was alive in the Spirit, moved by the Spirit, and guided by the Spirit. (Matthew 12:28; Mark 3:29) No wonder then that "conversion" for Francis meant letting the Spirit do to us what the Spirit did to the humanity of Christ (Luke 4: 16-30). Francis believed in the presence of the creative Spirit in our world and particularly in the gifts of the Holy Spirit present in the baptised. After all, Jesus did promise to send the Spirit of truth on the disciples (John 16:7-15) to make them His witnesses to the ends or the earth. Jesus' deeds, done in the power of the Spirit, Francis felt, could be manifested as well by all who are in Christ. This is why Francis is always hopeful.
Because of the gifts of the Spirit, Jesus had certain attitudes which Francis embraced. During his period of conversion Francis learned to regret sin and anything that could separate him from God or others. He became confident of God's love, compassion and forgiveness. He spoke boldy of God, yet humbly before people. He yearned for justice and its fruit, peace. He lived like a man at one with God.
This witness preceded his preaching peace and conversion of heart to others. In a word, he became a Beatitude person (Matthew 5:1-14). In him the gifts of the Spirit became manifest in what are called the fruits of the Spirit, charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness and reverent love for God.
Francis also specifically points to two attributes of Jesus that one can say characterises all Franciscans. Once he wrote, "He must cling to the words, life, deeds and Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ". What captures all this for Francis was Christ's poverty and littleness. Gospel poverty requires one to reject the pursuit of status, wealth and the misuse of power as Jesus did (Matthew 4:1-17). Positively it requires one to live simply, to have only what one needs to develop the gifts of the Spirit, share these with others, and to exercise stewardship over all that is good.
Historically Franciscans, especially Secular Franciscans and Third Order Regular Franciscans, have done the deeds of charity. They wish to live the ideal of gospel poverty as a lifestyle, and to manifest its fruits namely the signs of God's reign over the hearts of women and men; helping the underclasses and underprivileged to help themselves, nursing the sick, educating children, ministering to the imprisoned, being with the elderly, and caring for the dying (Matthew 25:31 ff).
Jesus' littleness really was a form of self confidence because it meant that His self perception was that He in His humanity was loved by God (childlikeness) and so too were all His brothers and sisters. He identified with them, especially the least. Jesus saw
Himself as a servant bringing all to that fullness of life which is God's destiny for them. For Franciscans this implies that one should be a contemplative yet active, bringing that love to others as the Lord did.
Therefore Franciscans are where the poor are, are with this world's perceived unwanted like people's with Aids and street people, and are engaged in preaching ministries that herald the goodness of God. Some Franciscans will stress one or other aspect of these gospel characteristics. The Poor Clares, for instance, live enclosed lives of prayer of praise and thanksgiving, as well as of intercession for all in this world and their needs.
Among themselves Franciscans are distinct, but not different. There are three Franciscan traditions: the minorite, the clarissan, and the penitential. The minorite followers of Christ are friars who view Francis' style of gospel living primarily in their witness to fraternal life which makes credible their service of preaching peace and conversion of heart to others. The Clares are enclosed nuns whose gospel living is principally rooted in contemplation, evangelical poverty, and community life. The penitential tradition, from the Order of Penance, includes priests, sisters, brothers, nuns and lay women and men.
They live, if you will, in the marketplace. There they try to give expression to conversion of heart, the actual religious meaning of "penance". Their purpose is to witness by their peaceable lives that God loves the world and that the world needs God. Each of these emphases is intrinsic to Franciscan spirituality. Differences among Franciscans then are not essential, but based on specific aspects of the same spirituality.
Perhaps the one element, after appreciation for Christ's humanity, which is equally cherished by all Franciscans is their love for Christ crucified. The cross for Francis was more than a devotional object; it was a real sign of the Good News that Christ has redeemed the world. On the cross Christ died to everything that was not of God. There Christ in His humanity turned totally and completely to God and achieved the destiny God originally gave all creation, unity with God. There Christ united to Himself all women and men making it possible for all to be His body if we would only accept Him. In Him all can be at one with each other.
It is no wonder that there is a Franciscan congregation, the Friars and Sisters of the Atonement (at-one-ment), whose primary purpose is ecumenism, the ministry of restoring unity to churchdivided Christians.
Because of what Jesus accomplished on the cross Francis saw all reality in a relationship to God and to one another, not only by creation but by re-creation. This led him to speak of everything in relational terms: eg mother earth, sister star, brother fire. For all there is only one who is called "Father," namely God. It is for this reason that Francis is the patron of ecologists.
The Franciscan lifestyle and message because they are so deeply rooted in the gospel are ever new. Newness is that quality which this 800 year old spiritual tradition holds out for every age and place. It is a newness that is as old as our loving God, and as new as God is creative.
Fr Thaddeus Horgan, an Atonement Friar, was from 1979 to 1982 a member of the Franciscan Commission which prepared the text of the Rule of the Third Order Regular of St Francis. In 1988 he became associate director to the US bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Affairs. His latest book, "Turned to the Lord", was published in America in 1987.