Secular Franciscans are lay Catholics who have accepted the call to follow Christ in a closer way, through the example of Saint Francis of Assisi. Our earthly pilgrimage is a Franciscan journey, one where we live out our vocational call to embrace Franciscan Spirituality. The Third Order, comprises primarily of lay men and women, young and old, single and married from all walks of life, who "preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words!" We have been inspired to follow the same spiritual path taken by many Franciscan saints, blesseds, and other holy men and women throughout the 800 year history of the Franciscan Family. By doing so we carry on a tradition that originally began with the initial group of Secular Franciscans, the "Brothers and Sisters of Penance".
By following in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi, Secular Franciscans embrace the charism of St. Francis, that is to live the Gospel life. Charism refers to a personal gift of the Spirit used for the good of the Church. Charism requires the approval of the Holy Father and once given, the charism is said to participate in the official mission of the Church to make Christ present in the world. Throughout the Church’s history, God has called many people to follow Jesus. The particular way in which these individuals responded to God’s call is their charism which inspired many to allegiance and devotion. For example, the charism of St. Thomas Aquinas was an intellectual one that attracted professional educators. The charism of St. Benedict was of a monastic life that attracted people who loved stability and liturgical prayer. The charism of St. Francis was simply to live the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
As a Secular Order in the Church, we do not live in community with each other as the First and Second Orders. Instead, we are laity living a Christian life amongst all in the world. We are invited by our calling and challenged by our circumstances to live the Gospel life amongst our family, friends, colleagues at work, and with all those who we communicate and come into contact with. In so doing we provide a personal witness of the Gospel life in our joys and sufferings, in our associations, with our fraternal relationships, with all creatures and in our participation in society. The Secular Franciscan Order is structured into four levels: internationally, nationally, regionally and locally. The local fraternity level is the privileged place where Secular Franciscans interact on a regular basis. It is at the local level that frequent meetings take place where planning, praying and socializing occur. To help us be better organized and effective in living out the Gospel life, we have regulations and guidelines. The Secular Franciscan Order is governed by The Rule, General Constitutions and Ritual, which represents for each of us, a point of reference for daily fulfilling our vocation and living our identity.
The history of the Secular Franciscan Order resulted in the development of Four Rules, each attempting to update and improve upon the previous. Part of the need to improve upon previous rules resulted from friction between the Third and First Orders. For approximately four centuries, the Third Order suffered a reduced autonomy at the hands of the First Order, whose proper role is only to serve as Spiritual Assistants to the Third Order. From 1471 to 1978, the Secular Franciscan Order was in a state of substantial inferiority, subject to the First Order and the Third Order Regular. It was not until the most current rule, The Rule of Pope Paul VI in 1978 that established the proper autonomy for the Third Order.
As an autonomous part of the Franciscan Family, Secular Franciscan fraternities are entitled to establish their our own initiatives, and decide how to best utilize the human and other resources available to them. This is by no means is a "carte blanche" to exclude any proposals or recommendations from the First Order. Keeping an open mind and charitable attitude is a healthy way to interact with all our brothers and sisters in the Franciscan family.