Thoughts from the Regional Formation Director - April, 2019

Brothers and Sisters,

May the Lord give you peace!

I am humbled to have been elected to serve you as St. Katharine Drexel Region director of formation. I would like to continue the practice of my predecessor, our brother Ted Bienkowski, OFS, by posting something for formation on a monthly basis. My format will be a PDF file that can be printed out (two sides of one sheet) and used for individual reflection or as a discussion piece for ongoing formation in a fraternity meeting or similar setting. This month, I consider how early 13th century penitents influenced St. Francis and how penance became the founding charism of our own Secular Franciscan Order. I  welcome your questions, comments or suggestions. Thank you!

Pax et bonum,

Justin Carisio, OFS

Director of Formation

St. Katharine Drexel Region

Francis of Assisi, Penitent
One of the easiest ways to misunderstand Saint Francis is to overlook how much he was a man of his times influenced by the environments in which he found himself: family, city, culture, and church (including one of the great church councils). In the Secular Franciscan Ceremony of Introduction and Welcome (1), the person who is being introduced to the fraternity is handed a biography of Saint Francis by the formation director and told “to read it carefully, in order to learn how to live the gospel life of our Lord Jesus Christ by following [Francis’s] example.” One hopes if it is the first biography of the saint a potential inquirer reads, it will not be the last. There is always more to learn about his remarkable witness and the world in which he lived.

An aspect of his life we should not lose sight of is that before Francis was a friar, he was a penitent, and in a very real sense, he remained a penitent all his life. During the 12th and 13th centuries, the Church experienced a resurgence in penitential lifestyles as “vast numbers of the laity became voluntary penitents.” (2) Francis’s conversion took place in that context. It is likely his encounter with penitential groups influenced his vision of a life of penance and the expectations he had for penitents who later became associated with his own movement. What were some specific characteristics of Franciscan penitents? Consider a few described by Raffaele Pazzelli, TOR, in his history of the Third Order:

  • Adherence to Catholicism and fidelity to the Church. “[The penitents’] beliefs and lifestyle…correspond to Francis’s basic principle of complete adherence to Catholicism and absolute fidelity to the Church” (3)
  • High regard for the sacraments and the priesthood. “Francis understood that, according to the teachings of Christ, no spiritual life was possible without the Eucharist [and] without the sacrament of penance there would be no remission of sin. Eucharist and penance, in their turn, cannot exist without the ministry of the priesthood.” (4)
  • Penance is a journey to God. “The ‘life of penance’ is a road of ascent and a means for this ascent. This is a fundamental point of spirituality for Franciscan penitents, those of yesterday as well as today.” (5)
  • The spirit of love is part of the life of penance. The “relationship of love between God and man, between God and creation…is for Francis the only light, the only reality.”(6)

If we attend to this history, we readily appreciate that Francis’s own message of penance and conversion often fell upon fertile soil ready to receive it. Many Catholics of his day were ardent in their desire to imagine a way to live the gospel life in their own time and place and to do so literally. It is no wonder that the example of Francis and his brothers inspired so many. Francis went on to found the Order of Lesser Brothers—the Friars Minor—but in the Franciscan movement, penance would always remain the fundamental charism of the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, the progenitors of the Third Order and, by extension, of our own Secular Franciscan Order. Penance, especially in the form of joyful, ongoing conversion, retains a central place in the lives of Secular Franciscans to this day. As individuals and in fraternity we should seek ways to embody the love and zeal of those early Franciscan penitents.

From the Rule & General Constitutions:
United by their vocation as “brothers and sisters of penance” and motivated by the dynamic power of the gospel, let them conform their thoughts and deeds to those of Christ by means of that radical interior change which the gospel calls “conversion.” Human frailty makes it necessary that this conversion be carried out daily. On this road to renewal the sacrament of reconciliation is the privileged sign of the Father’s mercy and the source of grace. (Rule, 7) Secular Franciscans, called in earlier times “the brothers and sisters of penance,” propose to live in the spirit of continual conversion. Some means to cultivate this characteristic of the Franciscan vocation, individually and in fraternity, are: listening to and celebrating the Word of God; review of life; spiritual retreats; the help of a spiritual adviser, and penitential celebrations. They should approach the Sacrament of Reconciliation frequently and participate in the communal celebration of it, whether in the fraternity, or with the whole people of God.
(Constitutions, 13.1)
Questions for discussion:
1. “The term Penance in Franciscanism is equivalent to the biblical meaning of metanoia, understood as an intimate conversion of the heart to God, as a continuous state of being. It is not a question of doing penance but of being penitent.”(7) What are some of our present-day characteristics of being penitent?
2. During his time as a penitent, Francis was formed in part through the influence of others. Who has been influential in your journey of penance?

(1) Ritual of the Secular Franciscan Order, 10.
(2) Robert M. Stewart, OFM, “De Illis Qui Faciunt Penitentiam” The Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order: Origins, Development, Interpretation, Instituto Storico Dei Cappuccini, 1991, 120.
(3) Raffaele Pazzelli, St. Francis and the Third Order, The Franciscan and pre-Franciscan Penitential  Movement, Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago, 1989, 118.
(4) Ibid., 119.
(5) Ibid., 120-21.
(6) Ibid., 121.
(7) Lino Temperini,TOR, Penitential Spirituality in the Franciscan Sources, Franciscan Publications, July 1983, 41.

Copyright © 2019 by Justin Carisio, OFS

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