The Charism of St. Francis
To speak of the charism of St. Francis, we must first clarify what is charism? Charism is a general term that indicates a personal gift of the Spirit used for the good of the Church. When a charism is approved by the Pope, the respective charism is said to participate in the official mission of the Church to make Christ present in the world. Seeking approving of his gift, St. Francis went to the Pope and Cardinals, but was met with hesitancy. Saint Francis' desire to live out the gospel life was thought of by some as some thing too difficult to attain. Eventually, all finally realized that by denying St. Francis' request they would denying the opportunity to imitate Christ. The entire Franciscan family has joined St. Francis in the common effort to aid and support the life and mission of the Church.
The initial difficulty that St. Francis encountered is not some thing specific to St. Francis as almost all true charisms at first run into some opposition one way or the other. A faithful person receives a charism, the gift of the Holy Spirit, when he/she opens himself/herself to God's grace. It is generally understood that the opportunity is given for a radical conversion and painful turning point in one's life. All saints have gone through this. At a minimum, the Holy Spirit usually puts every founder to a hard test of anti-conformity, which to their contemporaries, these chosen individuals seem strange or unusual.
In conjunction with the radical conversion is a profound evangelical experience, full of light and confidence. This prompts one to leave everything in order to conform one's life with the light that has been received. The charism urges one to bring to others the benefits of his/her own discovery. One feels a vital need to communicate the gift one has so freely received (1.Cor. 9: 16). The result is a new promulgation of the Gospel, a new vision, something that may even be particular to the historical moment.
Charism can be also defined as a particular way in which people respond to God's call. It is a quality that inspires allegiance and devotion. People, personalities or visions that fit their person attract people. The intellectual "charism" of St. Thomas Aquinas and his pursuit of truth might attract professional educators. The charism of St. Benedict's monastic lifestyle might attract people who love stability and liturgical prayer. Others who seek the seek service of the poor might follow the charism of St. Vincent de Paul. A Mother Theresa might attract individuals seeking to serve the sick and suffering. All of these founders followed the Gospel, yet each one expressed their commitment in a different and unique way. It is the individual focus that is referred as "charism". The more clearly people identify this charism, the sharper will be their identity in following the Gospel. In short, the variety of charisms reflects the universalism of the Gospel. Each charism serves a portion of the kingdom's gifts to humankind. The Body of Christ finds expression in a variety of groups. Together they build the kingdom and make the Body of Christ present to our world.
Franciscans contribute with their particular charism to the Body of Christ, dictated by the Secular Franciscan Rule which states, "The rule and life of the Secular Franciscans is this: to observe the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by following the example of St. Francis of Assisi, who made Christ the inspiration and the center of his life with God and people." (4) Saint Francis was very particular about keeping his charism intact. Anyone called to join the Franciscan family is called to do likewise.
The Franciscan Family
Secular Franciscans are called by grace to embrace the charism of St. Francis. They are admitted and professed according to the Rule of St. Francis as approved by the proper authority and in so doing share in the full Franciscan Family life.
St. Francis was very interested and desirous to bring the spirit of Christ into the secular world. With so many requests to enter the First and Second Orders, he soon realized that not all could become Friars and cloistered nuns. Some would have to follow the Gospel life in their secular state amongst everyone in the world. As a result St. Francis instituted the Third Order for the eager lay faithful. Saint Francis knew that Secular Franciscans would improve the world and continue the work of creation, sanctifying the universe as part of their service to God. Saint Francis wished that people living in the world would be strong in faith, hope, and love so they would be effective instruments for Christ and His work.
Many Secular Franciscans in the long history of the Third Order, have responded very positively to the call, so much so that the Church declared many as blessed and Saints. They have come from all social ranks, families and careers, royalty and peasants, martyrs and penitents, lawyers and businessmen, parents and youth, physicians and blacksmiths. They touched the lives of many people while in the world and further influenced them after passing away. Several founders and foundresses of other religious institutes began as Secular Franciscans and then enriched the Church with their great ideals.
Franciscans of the three Orders of St. Francis are commissioned to promote family life amongst each other. Living our respective vocations, we extend mutual charity, understanding, and patient service. At times, all can pray and worship together. On occasion, a meal or recreation can be shared. There has always been some participation in common apostolic undertakings. Such interaction is in complete accord with the Secular Franciscan Rule, where it states: "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 recognize that they are called to follow Christ in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi."