Giotto's Fresco: St. Francis preaching to the birds


The origins of the Third Order is wonderfully connected to the discovery of Saint Francis' vocation. Below is a concise summary of how the first group of lay people became the Brothers and Sisters of Penance.


St. Francis who at the beginning of his conversion had already gathered many companions and received them into the Order, was in doubt as to what God wanted him to do, to give himself only to continual prayer or to preach. Saint Francis wanted very much to know which of these pleased Jesus the most, so in humility he entrusted not himself, but St. Clare, one of her purer and more spiritual companions, and Brother Sylvester to pray for him. St. Francis had Brother Masseo go to St. Clare and Brother Sylvester and deliver his message to them. When God had answered their prayers, Br. Masseo returned to St. Francis and revealed God's will and said, "He wants you to go about the world preaching, because God did not call you for yourself alone but also for the salvation of others." After hearing God's will, St. Francis was all aflame with divine power and said to Brother Masseo with great fervor, "So lets' go in the name of the Lord!" Saint Francis wasted no time. He took as companions, Brs. Masseo and Angelo, and set out like a bolt of lightening in his spiritual ardor. The three friars set off on their travels not paying attention to the road or path and arrived at a village called Cannara.


When the three brothers arrived at Cannara, St. Francis began to preach, but he first ordered the swallows who were twittering to remain quiet until after he finished preaching to the town’s people and they obeyed him. Saint Francis preached so fervently that as a result of his sermon, together with the miracle of the swallows, the crowd in their great devotion wanted to abandon the village and follow St. Francis. In his response, St. Francis said to them, "Don't be in a hurry and don't leave, for I will arrange what you should do for the salvation of your souls." Saint Francis realized that not everyone could join the First or Second Order, so to facilitate the salvation of all people, he organized and instituted the Third Order.


After having left the towns people of Cannara much consoled and disposed to do penance, St. Francis and his brothers traveled to Bevagna. In that area, he saw trees filled with a multitude of birds and a variety of species. There was a great crowd of birds in the same field where those trees existed. Moved by the Spirit of God, he told his companions to wait for him as he was going to preach to the birds, "Wait for me here on the road. I am going to preach to our sisters, the birds." Saint Francis approached the tree and as soon as he began to preach, all the birds came down to him and remained motionless. The substance of St. Francis' sermon was the following:


My little bird sisters, you owe much to God your Creator, and you must always and everywhere praise Him, because He has given you freedom to fly anywhere--also He has given you a double and triple covering, and your colorful and pretty clothing, and your food is ready without your working for it, and your singing that was taught to you by the Creator, and your numbers that have been multiplied by the blessing of God--and because He preserved your species in Noah's ark so that your race should not disappear from the earth. And you are also indebted to Him for the realm of the air which He assigned to you. Morever, you neither sow nor reap, yet God nourishes you, and He gives you the rivers and springs to drink from. He gives you high mountains and hills, rocks and crags as refuges, and lofty trees in which to make your nests. And although you do not know how to spin or sew, God gives you and your little ones the clothing which you need. So the Creator loves you very much, since He gives you so many good things. Therefore, my little bird sisters, be careful not to be ungrateful, but strive always to praise God.


There they remained and did not move until St. Francis motioned with his permission to do so. When he completed his sermon, all the birds began to open their beaks, stretch out their necks, spread their wings, and reverently bow their heads to the ground, showing by their movements and their songs that the words which St. Francis was saying gave them great pleasure. And when St. Francis noticed this, he likewise rejoiced greatly in spirit with them. When Francis had finished preaching, he made the Sign of the Cross over the birds and gave them permission to leave.


After the blessing of St. Francis, all the birds rose up simultaneously and sang a wonderful song and when they finished, they formed into a Cross, the Cross which St. Francis had made over them. They separated in an orderly way and formed four groups, with each group flying off into a different direction, north, south, east and west, singing marvelously as they flew away. In so doing, it signified that the preaching of the Cross of Christ, which had been renewed by St. Francis, was to be carried throughout the world by him and his friars, who like the birds, possess nothing of their own in this world and commit themselves entirely to the Providence of God.


St. Francis' preaching and way of life continues to inspire many to join the Franciscan family of the First, Second and Third Orders. The Third Order which began in the year of 1221 with the original group of towns people from Cannara, first called the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, has expanded on an international level and exists in many countries throughout the world.