If you are like me, the first time you heard that the laity could be members of a religious order, what went through your mind was a group of people who cook and clean for the priests! Even though that may be a great relationship for at least the priests, it’s not how is works. The laity, as we all know, are those members of a religion that are not ordained. I am certainly a lay person, as many of you probably are, as well. We are part of the body of Christ that does not have a more specific functional name, unless we delve further into the working parts of our beautiful Church.
What is intriguing is that you or I could belong to a religious order that we are attracted to and still retain our life as we know it regarding marriage and our relationship to our family; much as a Catholic deacon. We can live the life of the order to the extent that we are able to do so and with a simpler set of rules intended for just those persons. The original Franciscian Rule called “Memoriale Propositi” (lost but recreated later) stated, “..for the Brothers and Sisters of Penance living in their own homes, begun in the year of our Lord 1221, is as follows…”.
So What Is This All About?
Having this interest, I asked a new friend, Robert Buschine, who is a lay member of the Franciscans, to tell me more about them. He invited me to one of their meetings as an observer. He is a member, along with his wife, of the Secular Franciscan Fraternity within the Diocese of Reno, Nevada. They were founded in 1939 as local fraternity of the Secular Franciscan Order. The whole organization in this western United States has grown since that time into a Regional Fraternity of local ones in 2004.
The family tree growing from Saint Francis himself in the 12th overlapping into the 13th century started with a first order of Friars then a second order of Nuns around St. Clare then the third order of secular Franciscans and also more Friars, Sisters and Cloistered Nuns. St. Francis’ followers observe the rules St. Francis formulated for life in the Order named after him, and for this new third order created a simpler set of rules in 1221. Since that time there have been modifications approved by Popes Nicholas IV, Leo XIII, and Paul VI.
The rule (which is normally what we would call a set of rules or a set of directions) is divided into 3 chapters of 26 paragraphs describing “The Secular Franciscan Order, ” “The Way of Life,”, and “Life in Fraternity.” A summation of their purpose taken from the rule that says, “…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 center of his life with God and people.”
The meeting I observed had about 18-20 people with 4 in the process of joining or who are interested in the order. The first stage is orientation for 3 to 6 months where one observes and discerns. Inquiry stage of 6 to 9 months then candidacy period which lasts approximately 2 years then the candidate may with the local fraternity council’s approval become a professed member of the Order. It is a lifelong commitment and must be taken fully aware of what the life asks of one.
Their monthly meeting consisted of a last minute move to a temporary location, because of a mix-up when booking a meeting room. This unfortunate and frustrating experience can be handled may ways. These people are guided by Catholic teaching, and the example of Saint Francis so naturally this small bump in life brought a brief reflection on how best to handle it. New faces were then introduced, and some routine business discussed. The rest of the opening time was spent with a beautiful a cappella rendition of “Amazing Grace” lead by my new friend, Robert, where anyone could join in singing; a wonderful song to bring a mind to the place where it can reflect on God’s grace. Not wanting to shift the experience into a competition as to who could sing the worst rendition of that song, I just soaked up the moment and sort of hummed.
The bulk of the meeting was filled by their Formation Director leading a group discussion. I was very impressed by the groups understanding of Catholic doctrine. This approach is certainly a time of learning and sharing, as not everyone is at the same level of understanding.
How Can One Actually Use The Example and Words of St. Francis?
While visiting my family over the Thanksgiving holiday, I read “The Little Flowers of Saint Francis,” a Dover thrift edition translated by Thomas Okey. This book gives a person a good intimate view of the life of Saint Francis. It contains short stories of what he did and said during his life with the first group of Friars – The First Order. In place of the usual thanksgiving prayer, or as some do, ask those around the table to tell in turn what they are thankful for, I read a passage from that book as follows:
And journeying one day they came to a city sore a-hungered, and went, according to the Rule , begging bread for love of God: and St. Francis took one street and Friar Masseo another. But forasmuch as St. Francis was a man of mean appearance and short of stature, and therefore looked down as a poor vile creature by those who knew him not, he collected naught save a few mouthfuls of dry crust; but to Friar Masseo many large pieces of bread and even whole loaves were given, for he was fair and tall of body. And after they had begged their food, they met to eat together at a place outside the city where was a fair fountain, and beside it a fair broad stone, whereon each laid the alms he had collected. Now when St. Francis saw that the bread and loaves brought by Friar Masseo were finer and larger than his own, he showed forth joy exceeding great, and spake thus, “O Friar Masseo, we are not worth of so great a treasure.” And having repeated these words many times, Friar Masseo answered, “Dearest father, how can that be called a treasure where there is poverty so great and such lack of needful things? Here is neither cloth, nor knife, nor trencher, nor bowel, nor house, nor table, nor man-servant nor maid-servant.” Then said St. Francis, “And this is what I hold to be a great treasure: where there is no dwelling made by human hands, but all is prepared for us by divine providence, even as is made manifest by the bread we have collected on this table of stone so fair and this fountain so clear. Therefore I desire that we pray unto God that He may make us love with all our hearts this noble treasure of holy poverty that hath God for its servitor.”
Another Much More Involved Expression of our Faith
I received an email, sent to the whole group, in which a woman from our area and a candidate for the Order, Betty Bishop, updated everyone on her experiences during November while settling into her new living quarters and service at a Franciscan mission in Liberia. This mission has the purpose of, “Self-help through education for children living in poverty”.
Liberia, as you may know, has gone through a horrendous civil war from 1980 until about 2003. U.N. Peacekeepers still maintain a large presence there. Betty describes the conditions that exist now in 2013 in the mission. She tells of a Liberian woman at the mission who during the civil war saw her Uncle’s throat slit and many of her close relatives killed, including her brother. During her escape from Liberia, she walked for 18 days with her grandchildren. During that time she was struck “across the face” with the butt of a gun, and still has damage to her cheek that can be seen. Betty’s living conditions are primitive with no running water in her bathroom, frequently no water at all except going to a well and pumping it. Malaria is a constant threat to the mission and the missionaries, even though they have a preventative medication available. She says, “The kids are seriously lacking in academic skills…I have been targeted to work with a little guy that was abused by is entire village and tied with wire to a bed.”
I have lived in West Africa, specifically Gabon, during my Peace Corps service in the early 1960’s. Our group suffered about a 10-percent malaria rate with only Quinine available to take. We had an attempted military coup then, but it didn’t last for more than a week before the French Air Force and Army took control of the country. The conditions she describes are of a people who have suffered a long war in a non-industrialized nation. Recovery from such an experience is a more difficult task than just repairing infrastructure and going back to normal. The normal was being in need of medical care and education. Now what little they had has been taken away.
If you feel the desire to help this mission you can find out more and donate here.
Anyone interested in joining this order should contact their local fraternity who have the responsibility through a council to introduce new members to this very unique secular life. Your diocesan office will, I am sure, be able to put you in contact with them or start here with the National Organization or here with the Junipero Serra Region of northern and central California and northern Nevada.
Acknowledgement: Thank you to Audrey Tellers, OFS, for providing me with much needed information for this article.
© 2013 Howard Duncan All rights reserved.