Soon after Francis began his preaching, many men and women were moved by his message of radical conversion to the Gospel, but at the same time did not feel called to leave their livelihoods and families to join the Friars Minor or Clare’s Poor Sisters. Instead, they desired to convert their lives to the Lord while remaining in the midst of their daily activities.
By the early 1220s, these men and women were beginning to describe themselves as “Brothers and Sisters of Penance,” gathering in local fraternities for mutual support. Francis himself expressed his deep concern for them in documents traditionally called his Letters to the Faithful. Because the Friars Minor often served as their spiritual advisors, the penitents became known as the “Third Order” of St. Francis. The most famous of these early penitents was St. Elizabeth of Hungary, who was canonized in 1235.
In 1289, Pope Nicholas IV issued a uniform Rule for the Brothers and Sisters of Penance. Meanwhile, some penitents started banding together to share a common life. Eventually, a number of these communities took formal religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, thus beginning what became called the Third Order Regular way of life.
When Franciscan friars began working in the Eastern United States in the mid-1800s, they continued to foster and minister to both expressions of this broad Third Order tradition: local fraternities of lay people (Third Order Secular) and congregations of men and women religious (Third Order Regular).
Some congregations of Third Order Regular Franciscan sisters, such as the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany, N.Y., the Peekskill, N.Y., Franciscans, and the Franciscan Sisters of Peace have collaborated in the Province’s ministries for many years. Our friars have also developed connections with the Franciscan Brothers of Brooklyn and the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, based in Garrison, N.Y.
The friars of Holy Name Province have also been very devoted to the larger Third Order, today called the Secular Franciscan Order, helping to found local fraternities in our own ministries and elsewhere. Today we continue to serve as spiritual assistants to many Secular Franciscan fraternities. In addition, our friars became actively involved in bringing a new form of consecrated Franciscan life, the Secular Institute of the Missionaries of the Kingship of Christ, to the United States. We have also developed links with Franciscan-inspired communities in other Christian traditions, most notably the Society of St. Francis in the Anglican communion.
In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, the Third Order of St. Francis changed its name to the Secular Franciscan Order to better express the positive dimensions of its members’ vocation in the world, adopting a new Rule in 1978. The Third Order Regular religious congregations of men and women also developed a new Rule, approved in 1982.
Provincial spiritual assistant to the Secular
Franciscan Order and to the Missionaries of the
Kingship of Christ
Fr. Gene Pistacchio, OFM