Franciscan Politics

Gianluigi Pasquale OFM Cap., "Franciscan Politics: 800 Years after the Birth of the Secular Franciscan Order"


1. Tracking the Secular Franciscan Political Footprint from its birth

“I took his name [Francis] as a guide and inspiration at the moment of my election as Bishop of Rome. I believe that Francis is the example par excellence of care for what is weak and of an integral ecology, lived with joy and authenticity. He is the patron saint of all those who study and work in the field of ecology, and is loved by many who are not Christians. He showed particular attention to God's creation and to the poorest and most abandoned. He loved and was loved for his joy, his generous dedication, his universal heart. He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived with simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself. In him we find the extent to which nature, justice towards the poor, commitment to society and interior peace are inseparable.”[1]

These words, at the beginning of the Encyclical Laudato Si ' (LS, n.10), written by the first Pope in history who chose to take the name of the Poverello of Assisi, of Saint Francis (1182-1226), clearly affirm that it is important for every man and woman to know how to inhabit their own world and their own city, without dominating them (LS, 67). This happens in particular for a Franciscan who, in this sense, has his own “political vocation” because Francis of Assisi is “loved even by many who are not Christians” (LS, 10). That is to say: Francis’ proposal to inhabit the world and the city is universally recognized as suitable because it is applicable in various contexts and in different historical periods. In this first place, however, I would like to point out, that if there is a “Franciscan politics.” the credit for having applied and spread it belongs to the Secular Franciscan Order, or rather to the Third Order of St. Francis, and not to the Poor Clares of the Second Order or to the friars of the First Order -- although, the one who is expressing this is one of their own. This is the only way to avoid getting stuck in that heated debate, however interesting, which attributes the authorship of this singular policy to the Friars Minor,[2] or denying it for them,[3] or attributing it to beggars in general[4] -- that is, “beggars” who absolutely renounce the use of money as an instrument of political control.[5] It is clear that such a claim needs to be proven.

The Secular Franciscan, in fact, lives in the city as he lives in the Church. He lives there politically -- in the best sense of the term, that of Plato's Republic.[6] He is aware that the two cities, the earthly and the heavenly one, are intermingled, as St. Augustine wrote (354-430). It will be like this, inevitably, until the end of time. And for this reason, the earthly one must be governed with the spirit of the heavenly one. And he is also aware that, if the earthly city is not identified with any (current) system of government, likewise the Church cannot be made to coincide with the “heavenly city,” which is always in the future. However, it is not a good idea to repeat the error of Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704).[7] In short, Secular Franciscans possesses their own “Franciscan politics,” rooted in the will of St. Francis of Assisi himself, and carried out with tenacity and creativity for eight hundred years to the present day. On the occasion of the VIII Centenary of the birth of the Secular Franciscan Order (OFS), also designated as the “Franciscan Third Order,” it is appropriate to reaffirm – and this is precisely our thesis - that in history the real architect of that civilization of love is eminently Franciscan because it is ascribable to the identity, to the charism and to the works of the Secular Franciscan Order. To give just one example, the “Franciscan tertiary” Chiara Silva Lubich (1920-2008) was a luminary between churches, nations, peoples and rulers, secular and religious. The link between “politics” and St. Francis of Assisi will be seen, if anything, by confirming if “the brothers and sisters of penance” were desired and “conceived” as such by the heart and the mens (mind) of the Poverello. It is better to start from here.

2. St. Francis: founder of the Third Order?

There is no doubt that in the beginning, at the core of the so-called Franciscan Third Order,[8] there is a group of ”faithful” who were searching solid ties with the friars minor, sometimes calling themselves penitents.[9] The tertiaries of St. Francis were and are the witnesses and messengers of his spirituality at the very heart of the daily life of women and men of all walks of life; they were closer to the world because they themselves lived in the world, as lay people, married, celibate or priests. Francis and his companions choose the life of penance “according to the form of the Holy Gospel” (2Test 1,14)[10] and present themselves to the people as “penitents of Assisi” (AnP 12, 3Comp 37). Like the “apostolic squad” they travel through cities and the countryside preaching penance to all (1Cel 22-23). In this dynamic context, a spiritual movement closely linked to the charismatic figure of St. Francis of Assisi gradually comes to life: the Order of the Brothers of Penance (LegM 4.6), later also known as the “Third Order of St. Francis.”[11] This is a new reality, not to be confused with the voluntary penitents and other ecclesial groups of the time, as can be noted in the clear testimony of the source documents.[12] These show that the Franciscan charism has also extended to the laity, that is to the seculars which also include clerics who can belong to them, who have constantly represented an essential component of the Franciscan family and are determined to express the fullness of the charism.

The Franciscan penitential movement was designated “Third Order” not in a chronological sense, but for its juridical and ecclesial structure, according to the Trinitarian doctrine of Saint Augustine and then of Saint Gregory the Great (535-604), who considered Christian people arranged in three classes or states of life: laity, clerics, monks/nuns with a growing hierarchy. The theory of the “three Orders” was adopted in 1161 within the Knightly Order of Santiago, approved by Pope Alexander III (1100-1181) in 1175. The members of the Order are listed from the lowest to the highest degree of importance: First Order for the married knights married or those open to marriage; Second Order for celibate knights with the obligation of perpetual continence; Third Order for chaplains and tutors. In 1201 the Humiliati from Lombard also adopted the original trinitarian idea of the “three Orders” applied to all Christians. Innocent III (1161-1216), however, wants to invert the traditional hierarchy of the three Orders, moving from the maximum to the minimum (highlest level to the lowest level): First Order for clerics and monks; Second Order for lay brothers and lay sisters; Third Order for men and women living in the world (secular). The Franciscan nomenclature is inspired by this historical-juridical structure, with some variations: First Order for clerics and religious men with vows; Second Order for cloistered consecrated women; Third Order for men and women living “in the world,” celibate/single or married, lay and secular clerics.[13]

2.1 From the “Earlier Rule” to “Memoriale propositi”

There is no consensus of opinion, therefore, about the link between St. Francis of Assisi and the Secular Franciscan Order. Some even go so far as to deny the decisive part played by St. Francis in the genesis of this group in the Catholic Church, currently (still) the most numerous among all the groups of lay people present in it,[14] having conceived a form of life which was then taken up by other founders. Others assert exactly the opposite: relying on a manuscript from the Guarnacci Library of Volterra[15] which contains, not in Latin but in the vernacular, an ancient version of the Letter to all the Faithful drawn up by St. Francis, perhaps making it possible to return to the tradition that presented the Poverello as the founder of the “Order of Penance,” as can be deduced from the ancient Lives of Francis and from certain traditions where historical criticism is difficult to control. Among the leading experts on Franciscanism, Paul Sabatier (1858-1928), Kajetan Esser (1913-1978) and Raffaele Pazzelli (1922-2011) identify in the first version - the earlier one - of the 1Lf the original spirit of the Exhortation to the brothers and sisters of penance, whose secular Order was formalized by Cardinal Ugolino of Ostia (1145-1241), precisely through the “Memoriale propositi.”[16]

Taking this confusing question to the extreme, the fact that between the two chapters making up the 1Lf, the Memoriale propositi only considers the first chapter (of an optimistic nature) and not the second (of a less optimistic nature), and declares that: a) the 1Lf, in its first version, is the original spirit of the Memoriale propositi (and therefore of the Rule for Secular Franciscans); b) that the recipients are the “brothers of penance” (because, in fact, it is an invitation to do penance, but not a threatening reprimand for those who do not); c) St. Francis of Assisi, author of the 1Lf, is also the founder of the Third Order. Until a student of Franciscanism decides to create a safe correlation between the 1Lf and the “Memoriale propositi,” two questions will always remain open: a) what did Francis write for the Secular Franciscans; b) whether Francis of Assisi is (or is not) the founder of the brothers and sisters of penance. Now, the burden of proof lies with those wishing to consider this last question with a negative outcome, which, however, will prove very difficult to support. We understand the reason better.

The Propositum or “plan of life” (1221) is drawn up on the footprint of the outlines already adopted by ecclesial groups and contains the spirit that Francis left us in his Letters, but also with elements taken from the Propositum - as mentioned - of the Humiliati of Lombardy , approved by Innocent III in 1201. It summarizes the basic provisions for the penitents. With the “Memoriale propositi” the spontaneous movement of penitents becomes, in short, “formalized” as “Ordo poenitentiae.”[17] It should be noted, in fact, that the inscription “started in the year of the Lord 1221” does not indicate the historical beginning of the Franciscan penitential movement, but its juridical classification in the ecclesial fabric.[18] The subsequent regulations of the penitential movement will draw inspiration for their juridical form and spiritual content from this fundamental text. In this sense it is called the “earlier rule” (Ra). The “Memoriale propositi” has reached us in only four manuscripts.[19] And this should not be surprising because, after the Supra montem bull - as we will see - the Ra will be set aside and replaced by the new version. In reality, under the strictly juridical formulation, an intense soul pulsates, of biblical origin and full of inspiration. The substance, still, will remain the same. In fact, the Ra was, by now, basic and character-defining as a Rule, which could not be changed in its internal structure, even if updating additions could be made.

2.2 From the “Memoriale propositi” to the bull “Supra montem”

The narrative sources clearly indicate, therefore, that there was a causal link between St. Francis and the lay penitential movement, sparked by his preaching and by his first companions.[20] In the bull of approval of the Rule of the brothers and sisters of the Order of the brothers of penance, the Supra montem (1289), Nicholas IV (1227-1292) uses the expression “Blessed Francis, founder of this Order” (beatus Franciscus huius ordinis institutor).[21] In this regard, two fundamental questions are raised: What exactly does the term institutor mean? And, furthermore: Why did the pope use it?

We have confirmed that a good number of scholars agree that St. Francis is also the founder of the Franciscan Order of Penitents. “Founder” (institutor), like some verbs used in various ways, such as order, begin, establish, institute, constitute (ordinare, inchoare, statuere, instituere, constituere), is not always used with one unequivocable meaning. That said, it does not seem logical, however, to even hypothesize a coup d'état by the pope who, coming from the Order of Friars Minor, would undoubtedly have annexed the motley penitential world to it on the pretext that the two Orders had the same founder. The hypothesis that Nicholas, precisely because of his minority origin, knew the situation of the penitents and the role played by the Friars Minor among them, following the example of Francis, and knowing these things better than they are known today, and that he carried out a formal, juridical arrangement of a situation that had already existed, seems more plausible.

Certain documents attest to the fact that, before the Supra montem, the actual presence of brothers of penance of the “Order of St. Francis”, or of the Order of Minors sancti Francisci (of St. Francis), or Conjugati Tertii Ordinis beati Francisci (Married of the Third Order of blessed Francis), were already present in various cities. The most likely opinion, therefore, is that the relationship of St. Francis with the penitential movement was very concrete, albeit a more charismatic-spiritual one than juridical-formal one. The same sources essentially converge on the name of this movement: Ordo Poenitentiae (Order of Penitents), with some variations: Ordo Fratrum de Poenitentia (Order of the Brothers of Penance), Ordo Fratrum et Sororum de Poenitentia (Order of the Brothers and Sisters of Penance). However, it is not possible to derive the date and place (or places) of birth of the movement from them,[22] nor can we draw definitive conclusions on the first phases of its development, which was certainly spontaneous and which expanded more and more during the thirteenth century, which became, an Order open to all: men and women, laymen and clerics, married and celibate, rich and poor, noble and plebeian.[23]

2.3 A relationship as spouses, brothers and mothers of our Lord Jesus Christ

In the Letter to all the faithful (1Lf), according to its first version, in chapter I, penance appears to be exulted, a song of the penitents, while chapter II is a strong call for sinners to do penance, in a refrain that continuously echoes in the ears. The whole body of the purported 1Lf resembles a typically Franciscan sermon. Compared with the model of a sermon offered in Rnb XXI, we note that the 1Lf corresponds in tone and structure exactly to that “praise and exhortation (laus et exhortatio), which all my friars, whenever they like, can share with every category of persons”(Rnb 21,1: FF 55). Kajetan Esser, with his booklet entitled “Exhortatio ad fratres et sorores de poenitentia” (Exhortation to the brothers and sisters of penance), may not have respected the laudatory and exultant character of the first chapter and, moreover, seems to have narrowed somewhat the circle of recipients.[24] In fact, the sermon is not only an exhortation, but also an exaltation, a praise on the life of penance; and for this reason it is addressed not only to the friars, but also to the sisters of penance - the nucleus of the nascent Third Order - as well as to all men, and in the first place to those who live in sin.[25]

3. Franciscan politics from the beginning and throughout history

The Order of Penance was configured in the following way in the early centuries: as a fraternity of not many members, self-governing, with its own council and its own autonomy, open to all classes, very active, socially influential and wellsprings of holiness.[26] This common call to holiness is the first noteworthy element. Entering into fraternity, then, involves a solemn commitment; the very name “memoriale propositi” implies a resolution, a stable purpose, a plan of life, to bring back to the heart the purpose of being faithful to the Gospel. Entering into fraternity implies in particular the duty of mutual reconciliation, of living in peace, of acting for peace, freeing oneself from the logic of the world, that of the Nietzschean will to power - just to be clear -, of possessions, of power, of the affirmation of oneself, so that one can live according to a different logic, the logic of the children of God (Gal 4: 6). And all this accompanied by rather concrete behaviors with a strong social and ecclesial impact: “do not bear arms”, “do not take an oath”, “make a will of one's possessions”. Gestures of reconciliation with justice, of repayment of debts, living the law of poverty according to one's state, periodically distributing superfluous wealth and, above all, putting the wealth of one's talents at the service of the least, who are placed at the center of one's daily attention with solicitude, with love, with all the creativity that the Spirit knows how to give.

The first Secular Franciscans were constantly stimulated, nourished, confirmed by a solid fraternity, where they would celebrate the Word of God and the Eucharist together, where they would help each other to continually retrieve the goal of evangelical penance, through continuous comfort and exhortation to persevere in the way of conversion and to do works of mercy, as well as to decide together how to do them, putting into play all personal and fraternal life potential. All this particular method of following the Gospel has been able to embody Franciscan spirituality in relationships among men, in the economy, in social and civil structures, deeply affecting the transformation of society, or rather by promoting a “Franciscan politics.” We can see this by sharing some salient aspects of the expressiveness of Secular Franciscanism.

3.1 Conscientious Objection ante litteram (before the term existed)

While Francis was still alive, he professed a Rule for peace. Lay Franciscans worked hard in relation to this value.  In respect to the feudal system and the burgeoning Community, “not to bear arms” and “not to swear an oath” to the Lord or to the authority, constituted a disruptive and clearly innovative force. Entire cities were placed in a situation of “conscientious objection” ante litteram, causing a weakening of the feudal power first, and then of the expansionist aims of the municipalities.

Let's just consider the prophetic significance of not going around armed, which was completely absurd for a free man of that period, who, instead, saw that his new status as a citizen meant the possibility that he could carry arms. If one was a citizen, he was armed. In addition, the Franciscan penitents knew how to address even the consequences that the civil power imposed on them because of the stance they took on the issue in favor of the men of the time. As an alternative to military service, the municipalities imposed a kind of “civil” service which was very demanding on the tertiaries, and extended over a long period of time. The tertiaries were required to give proof of their credibility and reliability because they were required to hold important positions.

They were entrusted with the tasks of controlling bridges and roads, the supervision of supplies and food, the delicate responsibility of choosing certain figures of government for the Municipality, and other important tasks. There is another significant aspect on the plan for reconciliation: coming together as brothers, nobles, plebeians, artisans, traders, clerics and laity, men and women of all conditions, sharing the same vocation, which posed an new alternative life with respect to a society structured in classes such as in medieval society. In the new fraternity of St. Francis one’s difference in origin did not carry weight. And if this already had a profound significance in the experience of the friars and the Poor Clares, one can guess what wide-ranging testimony it produced among those who practiced penance while remaining in the world, in their work, in their family, in society.[27]

3.2 Penance and poverty: another way of passing from the municipalities to the bourgeoisie

To understand the spiritual and political contributions of the Secular Franciscn Order to the Christian society of the Middle Ages, it is necessary to observe it in the context and the structure of that society. Those engaged in the daily reality of the life of the world -- be they traders, artisans, intellectuals, knights or jurists -- these first tertiaries find themselves in an ambiguous situation. Although their tertiary commitments do not include religious vows and they do not fall into the category of praying clerics (oratores), nevertheless they draw traits from that kind of life that unite them to monks and clerics. Although they may be knights (bellatores - warriors), they refuse to use offensive weapons; despite being an active part in feudal or communal structures, they refuse to take an oath under certain conditions; despite being workers of the land, artisans or unskilled workers (laboratores - laborers), they are careful not to become the slaves of profit, from trading in money, from competition in commerce, and avoiding the use of banks. Could this spiritual ideal be fully lived in an evolving world, where municipalities were acquiring more and more power, the bourgeoisie was becoming stronger and stronger, and all relationships were regulated by the use of money? Evidently, this ambiguity risked “normalizing” the situation, pushing the life of the Order to adapt to traditional forms and then to the guilds. However, neither solution corresponds to the initial intention.[28]

It is very difficult, however, to accurately assess the significance of Franciscan spirituality lived in the Secular Order of Penance, on the daily life of society, and therefore in its political implications. We should remember many names, starting with the “first tertiary,” the blessed Lucchesio di Poggibonsi († 1260), agriculturist, with his wife Buonadonna, and the comb maker Pietro da Siena († 1289). As often happens, great personalities are better known than ordinary people. But it is right to think that while so many nobles entered the Order of Penance and became sanctified, husband and wife together, who were there with them, there were also even more simple Christians who became tertiaries among the populations of the cities and countryside where the Friars Minor would travel on their apostolic pilgrimages. The hunger for the Eucharist and the word of God was the evangelical ideal in reaction against the disorders of the time, which pushed them. Above all this was the requirement: to be able to read and understand Sacred Scripture, in its Old and New Testament. The social conditions remain different and hierarchical, but in the “fraternity” or “confraternity” of the Third Order, a true encounter between brothers, which facilitates mutual knowledge and the common search for a more evangelical and Catholic life, is possible.

3.3 The fascination for simplicity at every social stratum

This begins at the highest level of responsibility, that of the princes of the time. The great-grandson of St. Louis of France, brother of St. Louis of Toulouse († 1295), Robert of Anjou († 1343) king of Naples is a tertiary. In this family of the Angevins, alongside brutal and corrupt characters, are found many Franciscans, tertiaries, Friars Minor or Poor Clares. The king of Castile Saint Ferdinand († 1252), the queen of Portugal Saint Elizabeth († 1336), are peacemakers, thanks to their Franciscan spirit. Saint Elzeario of Sabran († 1323) and his wife the blessed Delfina of Puymichel († 1360) lived their few years of marriage in love and perfect chastity. Blessed Galeotto Roberto Malatesta (1411-1432) embraced the Rule of the Third Order and lived a pure, dignified and serene life with his wife Margherita d’Este at the depraved court of Rimini. Saint Rocco of Montpellier († 1337), a very popular saint, spent his life serving the plague victims. Blessed Henry, Prince of Denmark of the fifteenth century, left the court wearing the tertiary habit, retired to the woods to live there as a hermit, and then became a wandering beggar until he died in Perugia while on a pilgrimage († 1415). On the other hand, Giacomo of Borbone (1370-1438), brigand prince, dishonor of his house, converted, under the influence of Saint Coletta from Corbie (1381-1447), and died obscurely, wearing the habit of tertiary, as a servant in the convent of the Friars Minor.

We don’t have to draw up lists of eminent personalities of religious or secular history to provide a reason to demonstrate its value. However, it leads us to think of the fact that the Third Order Franciscan spirituality has penetrated directly and indirectly into all social environments. That St. Louis King of France († 1270), venerated as patron of the Third Order, or Dante Alighieri († 1321), or Giotto of Bondone († 1337), or Christopher Columbus († 1506) were tertiary, and, at least legally, so was Joan of Arc († 1451) who is still being researched. And, Philip III of Spain († 1621), who wanted to be buried with the Franciscan habit, according to a tradition of certain princely houses, and the Queen of France Maria Theresa of Austria († 1683) certainly were part of it. It is above all, in the nineteenth century, however, that we find a good number of men of action, who draw the strength for their commitment from the Franciscan Rule, as lived in the Third Order. This phenomenon of this Catholic re-awakening extends to all of Europe, in opposition to materialism and agnosticism. In France we find Frederick Ozanam († 1853), the founder of the “Conferences of St. Vincent de Paul;” Charles Forbes of Montalembert (1810-1870), the intrepid defender of the political rights of Catholics; Imbart de La Tour († 1925), historian. In Germany, men of the Church such as Bishop Ketteler († 1877), spokesman for ecclesial freedom and advocate of social policy; Canon Kolping († 1865), educator of poor children and protector of apprentices and boy aprentices; the politician Windhorst († 1891), founder of Christian democracy. In Spain, the great politician Donoso Cortes († 1853). In England, the poet Coventry Patmore († 1896), Cardinals Manning († 1892) and Gibbons († 1921). In Italy, Giuseppe Toniolo († 1918), who introduces “Social Weeks” in Italy and France and collaborates, as a sociologist and politician, in the preparation of the great social encyclical Rerum novarum; and others who educate the national and Christian conscience.

The Third Order is also connected to the apostolate of the laity and to Catholic action, which it predates and preceeds. Leo Harmel († 1915) and his foreign correspondents share the idea of Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903)[29] who wants to make the Third Order more within the reach of all lay people, in accordance with the original intention of St. Francis. For a long time it was believed that the Third Order was simply a transposition of religious life into the world. This was made evident according to the title given by Pier Benedetto Giovannini d'Urbino (1646-1709) to his work on the Third Order.[30] This was a doctrine shared by Father Claudio Frassen († 1711). However, with his Apostolic Constitution Misericors Dei Filius (30 May 1884) Leo XIII wants to make it clear that the Franciscan fraternity is a school of spirituality open to all, and not only for personal sanctification, but also for the social, family and parish apostolate.[31] During the period of persecutions at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, Franciscan Associations of all forms came to the aid of the Friars Minor and the Poor Clares, and they themselves, through the press, conferences, advocacy in the courts, defended the rights of the Church and religious congregations. This encounter between spirituality and action - apologetic or apostolic - is perfectly logical of the spirit that inspired the founding of the Order of Penance.

3.4 The turning point in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries

The twentieth century brings the Secular Franciscan Order to the awareness that it is not only the secular, “worldly” branch of Franciscanism, but an “autonomous” Franciscan community.[33] In all countries it is organized, at the national level, with its own management structures, reviews and houses of formation. After the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), various initiatives arise, including the drafting of a new Rule  adapted to today's world. This is the result of many years of work in collaboration between the First and Third Orders and is confirmed by Pope Saint Paul VI (1897-1978).[34] During several conferences in Assisi, the story of the Third Order was studied and enriched. Finally, under the leadership of Manuela Mattioli (1936-1992), a dynamic tertiary from Venezuela, and the first minister general of the Secular Franciscan Order, the organization of the Secular Franciscan Order (formerly TOF) was established on the world level.[35] Transitioning from the twentieth to the twenty-first century, specifically from the years 1996 (VIII General Chapter on the unity of the SFO) to 2002 (with the X Elective Chapter on “Vital reciprocal communion in the Franciscan Family”) the Secular Franciscan Order pushed forward on a rather difficult process of unification. They wanted a sense of belonging or connection with respect to the “three obediences,” with the Friars Minor Conventuals, Observants and Capuchins, wishing to become one unique witness within the entire Franciscan movement.[36]

The Decree of the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life of 1998 (43297/1988)[37] makes a rather interesting conclusion on October 4, 2009 after approval by Benedict XVI (* 1927), declaring the perfect historical continuity between the Secular Franciscan Order and the “Order of Franciscan Penitents.”[38] It also asserts that St. Francis is the “institutor” of the OFS.[39] Not surprisingly, the Order of Penance does not cease to be in the hearts of the people of God. It is one of those movements of evangelical life on which the bishops and Roman pontiffs know they can count, and it is ready to assume its responsibilities in the world and in the Church. Its dynamism expands above all in the countries of the Third World.

4. “Francis, the whole world is running after you”: the one created and creation

We have observed that “Franciscan politics is that way of living in the city and the world for which the Secular Franciscans, first and foremost, since their birth, have learned to create the spirit and charism of the Poverello of Assisi everywhere.” This was possible thanks to the awareness of a clear identity of belonging, which constitutes the litmus test of perpetual fidelity to the charism -- yesterday and today. We also know that the identity of the Secular Franciscan was suggested by Francis of Assisi precisely in the Letter to the faithful, in the first draft. Any doubts that may still exist regarding the fact that 1Lf constitutes the source text of the Secular Franciscan Order, will be easily unraveled if we consider that that Letter to the faithful found its first recipients in the brothers and sisters of penance and that, in them and by them, it was fulfilled and honored: then as now. It is no coincidence that the 1Lf contains the original spirit of the identity of every Franciscan who lives in the world, even a priest, a bishop or a pope: to be “spouses, brothers and mothers of our Lord Jesus Christ” for the faith, as this text declares, which is extremely rich in the Christological and anthropological perspective.[40] In fact, we all desire a spouse, a brother/sister, a mother/father. St. Francis says: They not only “can be,” they “are.” This is the only possibility that gives meaning to life. This implies a gradual process. Through a life of “penance” the works of the Lord are accomplished, day after day; vice versa, by conforming oneself to Christ, or passing from an ever “less image” to an ever more “similarity,” penance is lived as a persevering reconciliation to God, to brothers and to creation.[41]

In short, the Franciscan mission corresponds to the awareness of having been called by the Holy Trinity to this fascinating and peculiar proposal of Christian life in the Franciscan form: to show the world that Jesus Christ suffered the passion of the Cross because he loved his sheep (Am 6 , 1, FF 155) thus demonstrating how much the Son of God loves the world. It might be interesting to note how this secular spirit of the Poverello is pervasive among the Christian Churches and religious traditions. It is no coincidence that in England and the United States, to give just one example, there is a Secular Franciscan Order that germinates from the Anglican Church, inspired by the “Memoriale propositi.” Likewise, many non-Christian religious traditions consider their “evangelical seed” to be congruous, precisely that spirit of universal kinship, as Pope Francis has suggested that we do in the Encyclical Fratelli tutti (Brothers All):[42] it is what enhances “Franciscan politics” for what it is -- Christ's love for man, for the city, for creation. And viceversa.


By analyzing the source documents, the article illustrates the intentions, content and purposes of “Franciscan politics” as a spiritual, Christian and social re-awakening of the πoλις -- of the City. The occasion is motivated by the VIII Centenary of the “birth” of the Secular Franciscan Order. In fact, three theses are formulated. The first is intended to demonstrate that the effective penetration of the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi into all strata of society was made possible, first of all, by the Secular Franciscan Order, living the Rule and witnessing it, even before the friars of the First Order or the Poor Clares of the Second. The second thesis aims to demonstrate that St. Francis of Assisi is also the initiator of the Order of Penitents and, therefore, of the “Third Order.” Finally, with the last thesis, the source and founding spirit of the subsequent Rule of the Franciscan tertiaries is identified in the text of the first Letter to the faithful, within which is found the identity and mission of every Franciscan who lives in the world: from eight hundred years ago to today (1221-2021). Two encyclicals by the first Pope to bear the name of Francis serve as the time frame for this article: Laudato si and Fratelli tutti. In reality, they propose a “Franciscan politics” worthy of this attribute.

Gianluigi Pasquale OFM Cap. (*1967) has a PhD in Theology and Philosophy. He is Professor of Theology at the Pontificia Università Lateranense (Pontifical Lateran University) and in the Studio Teologico “Laurentianum” (“Laurentianum” Theological Study) of the Capuchin Friars Minor of Venice, in the Milan division. In 2018 he obtained the National Scientific Qualification as Associate Professor of Moral Philosophy. He is a writer, editor of book series and translator. He has been a priest since 1993.


[1] Francis, Encyclical Laudato si’ [n. 10], May 24, 2015, in «Acta Apostolicae Sedis» 107 (2015), 847-945, qui 850-851.

[2] This is the position that, albeit with “captivating” titles, is found in Giacomo Todeschini, I mercanti nel tempio. La società cristiana e il circolo virtuoso della ricchezza fra Medioevo ed età moderna (The merchants in the temple. Christian society and the virtuous circle of wealth between the Middle Ages and the modern age). Bologna 2002, Id., Ricchezza francescana. Dalla povertà volontaria alla società di mercato (Franciscan wealth. From voluntary poverty to a market society), Bologna 2004. It allows us to grasp the first debates around the methodological proposal of the Lombard historian Giacomo Todeschini (* 1950), the anthology edited by Ovidio Capitani, Una economia politica nel Medioevo (A political economy in the Middle Ages), Bologna 1987, 37- 104.

[3] See Jacques Dalarun, Francesco dAssisi. Il potere in questione e la questione del potere. Rifiuto del potere e forme di governo nellOrdine dei frati Minori (Francis of Assisi. The power in question and the question of power. Refusal of power and forms of government in the Order of Friars Minor), Milan 1999, 6-78 [tr. from the French and edited by Luigi Canali Id., François d’Assise ou le pouvoir en question (Francis of Assisi or the power in question), Paris-Brussels 1999].

[4] The Venetian historian Paolo Evangelisti (* 1962) raises the question of the distinctive Franciscan contribution of something original to the establishment of a political discourse, only because the Order of Preachers, or the Dominicans, have also implemented their own: Paolo Evangelisti, I Francescani e la costruzione di uno Stato (Franciscans and the construction of a state), Padua 2006, 53-98. The Marche colleague Roberto Lambertini (* 1958) reinforces the conviction that the Dominicans also had their own “political thought,” from which they drew: Roberto Lambertini, Un nuovo approccio al «discorso politico» francescano (A new approach to the Franciscan “political discourse”) in “Reti Medievali Rivista” 9 (2010), 21-25.

[5] Some, in fact, note the massive presence of Franciscan authors in this sector, going so far as to wonder why the Order of Absolute Poverty is the one that most intensely dealt with the wealth, power and “political” management of both: Odd Langholm, Economics in Medieval Schools, Leiden-New York-Köln 1992, 167. Of this Norwegian scholar, the following should not be overlooked: Id., The Legacy of Scholasticism in Economics. Antecedents of Choice and Power, Cambridge 2003, and Id., The Merchant in the Confessional. Trade and Price in the Prereformation Penitential Handbook, Boston-Leiden 2003.

[6] In exercising justice: one is right if, knowing the good, he makes it work, he brings it to the city. Knowing the good and conveying it is a “political” exercise. The result is a collective happiness, at the expense of any form of individualism and individual freedom or inclination. Evidently, the first step to take is to know, even before practicing, the good: cf. Plato, Repubblica (Republic) [IV, 433a], Introduction and notes by Piergiorgio Sensi (Classics of Philosophy 4), Armando Editore, Rome 2007, 143-145.

[7] Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet made a fatal mistake, which consisted of an improper, and rather naive, syllogism. Since in the seventeenth century the then known world seemed to have been completely Christianized (a), the Church, the earthly city, could be said to coincide with the celestial city (b), drawing the conclusion that the celestial city coincided with the earthly one (c). It was, perhaps, true that the world seemed entirely Christianized. However, Bossuet's error consists in forcing the interpretation of the Augustinian De civitate Dei (City of God). In fact, his brother Bishop Augustine of Hippo does not speak of two cities, the earthly one and the heavenly one as if they overlapped, but “perplexae quippe sunt istae duae civitates invicemque permixtae” (Since these two cities are complex and both local): Agostino d'Ippona, De civitate Dei, 1, c. 35, edited by Bernardus Dombart - Alphonsus Kalb, (Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 50/a), Turnholti 1962, p. 34; ibid., l. 11, c. 1, 321-322. It is my belief that Bossuet's diagnosis lies at the origin of the modern process of secularization, understood as a progressive erosion of faith in God and in the Catholic Church, in the Western world: cf. Jacques-Bégnine Bossuet, Discours sur l'histoire universelle à Monseigneur le Dauphin (Speech on Universal History to Monsignor the Dauphin), Paris 1681.

[8] See Raffaele Pazzelli, San Francesco e il TerzOrdine (Saint Francis and the Third Order), Padua 1982, 33-41

[9] For this first section, I’d like to refer to my own work: Gianluigi Pasquale, Saint Francis of Assisi. At the Dawn of a Joyful Existence, translated by Edward Hagman, illustrated by Gianni Bordin, (Studi Religiosi 3), Rome 2020, 98-146.

[10]From now on, all the acronyms are taken from Fonti Francescane (Franciscan Sources), present in the “editio prior” of the Fonti Francescane, edited by Ernesto Caroli, Padua 20045, 21-24, cited as FF.

[11]St. Bonaventure’s secretary (1221-1274) Bernardo da Bèssa (de Besse, † 1304) was the first to designate these penitents as “Third Order” in his Liber de laudibus Sancti Francisci (A book in praise of St. Francis) [c. 7]. We are informed of this in his Writings in the Chronica XXIV Generalium Ministrorum Ordinis Fratrum Minorum (Chronicle XXIV General Minister of the Order of the Friars Minor), («Analecta Franciscana» 3), Ad Claras Aquas (Quaracchi) 1897, 513-569.

[12]See Lino Temperini, Testi nomativi dellOrdine dei fratelli e delle sorelle della penitenza (Normative texts of the Order of the brothers and sisters of penance), Assisi (PG) 19942, 34-52.

[13]See André Vauchez, I laici nel medioevo (The laity in the Middle Ages), Milan 1989, 55-60; Giovanna Casagrande, Un Ordine per laici. Penitenza e penitenti nel Duecento, in Francesco dAssisi e il primo secolo di storia francescana (An Order for the laity. Penance and penitents in the thirteenth century, in Francis of Assisi and the first century of Franciscan history), (Biblioteca Einaudi 1), Turin 1997, 237-255; R. Pazzelli, San Francesco e il Terz’Ordine (St. Francis and the Third Order), 78-79.

[14] The Secular Franciscan Order has half a million perpetually professed in 111 nations, spread over the five continents.

[15]A certain importance for the history of the text of the Scritti (Writings) covers the cod. 225 (mid-thirteenth century) of the Guarnacci Library of Volterra (Esser: Vo) which contains the end of the 1Lf, the Am, the LOrd and a 1Lcus that is normally missing in the classic list of the collections of the Writings of St. Francis: cf Leonhard Lehmann, La dimensione universale negli scritti di san Francesco, in Due volti del francescanesimo (The universal dimension in the writings of St. Francis, in Two faces of Franciscanism). Miscellaneous in honor of Optatus van Asseldonk and Lázaro Iriarte, edited by Andrzej Tomkiel, Rome 2002, 89-125.

[16]The beginning in Latin is, «Haec sunt verba vitae et salutis quae si quis legerit et fecerit, inveniet vitam et hauriet salutem a Domino de illis qui faciunt poenitentiam» (“These are the words of life and health, for if anyone reads it and acts accordingly, shall find life, and shall obtain favor of the LORD: for those who do penance”) cf. R. Pazzelli, The title of the “First review of the Letter to the faithful”, in Analecta TOR 19 (1987) 229-241, line 236. It is well known that Ugolino dei Conti di Segni is the same Ugolino born in Anagni, then elected to the papal throne in 1227, assuming the name of Pope Gregory IX.

[17]The first document that has come to us that speaks of penitents as a grouping is the bull of Honorius III (1150-1227), Significatum est (16.12.1221), sent to the bishop of Rimini, asking to protect penitents against the civil authorities who want them to they take up arms, under oath, for the defense of the city. He also sends another bull: Cum illorum (1.12.1224). With these apostolic letters, these groups of penitents are recognized as approved. Gregory IX will renew this approval with the apostolic letter Nimis Patenter (26.5.1227), addressed to the bishops of Italy, and the letter Detestanda (30.3.1228), addressed to the Brothers and Sisters of Penance.

[18] See L. Temperini, Testi normativi dellOrdine dei fratelli e delle sorelle della penitenza (Normative Texts of the Order of Brothers and Sisters of Penance), 81.

[19] The codes (rules) are named after the respective places where they were discovered: the Florence code (1221), initials V; Capestrano code (1228), initials C; the Regiomontano code (1350), initials R; the L’Aquila code, initials A: see L. Temperini, Testi normativi dellOrdine dei fratelli e delle sorelle della penitenza (Normative Texts of the Order of Brothers and Sisters of Penance), 77-81.

[20]For this part we refer, but only in part, to Antonio Fregona, LOrdine Francescano Secolare. Storia, legislazione, spiritualità (The Secular Franciscan Order. History, legislation, spirituality), (Tau Series 3), Padua 2007, 84-85.

[21]Nicholas IV, Bull Supra montem, August, 18, 1289, issued in Rieti. This is the “Rule of the penitents” (RP), subsequent to the Ra: cf. FF 3365-3390. The text, as revised, will constitute the basic legislation for the Secular Franciscan Order until 1883 (Leo XIII) and for the Institutes of the Third Order Regular until 1927 (Pius XII). In essence, therefore, the Rule of Nicholas IV is the same text as the “Memoriale propositi” (1221), as Nicholas IV himself states: Mariano d’Alatri [Vincenzo Raponi], Aetas poenitentialis. Lantico Ordine francescano della Penitenza (Age of the Penitentials. The ancient Franciscan Order of Penance), (Bibliotheca Seraphico-Capuccina 42), Rome 1993, 47-61.

[22]In this regard, more than a few words have already been said in Gianluigi Pasquale’s Il movimento francescano tra fedeltà alle origini e adattamento al tempo (The Franciscan movement between fidelity to origins and adaptation to time), in Kajetan Esser’s Origini e inizi del movimento e dellOrdine francescano (Origins and beginnings of the movement and of the Franciscan Order), (Already and not yet 319), Milan 20093, I-X.

[23] See Gilles-Gérard Meersseman, Disciplinati e Penitenti nel Duecento (The Disciplined and Penitents in the thirteenth century), in Il movimento dei disciplinati nel settimo centenario del suo inizio (The movement of the disciplined in the seventh centenary from its beginning) (1260-1960). Proceedings of the Conference (Perugia 25-28 September 1960), Perugia 1962, 89-123.

[24] This is the disputed statement: “The recipients of this writing, as well as the relationships of the recipients among themselves, cannot refer to all Christians in general, but must be understood as individuals and communities united in a particular way to Francis who gave them a forma vivendi (form of life) very close to the form of life of the Friars Minor”; K. Esser, LOrdine della Penitenza di San Francesco dAssisi nei documenti pontifici del sec. XIII (The Order of Penance of St. Francis of Assisi in the pontifical documents of the XIII century), Assisi (PG) 1973, 71.

[25]Therefore, the statement of Leonard Lehmann (* 1947) that argues the lack of the mention of chapter II of the 1Lf from the Rule for the Third Order Regular approved by St. John Paul II (1920-2005) in 1982 should be considered with caution. Thus: “If the words had been addressed only to the Penitents, the second part could have been left out because it was too severe and threatening for them,” arguing that the first Letter to the faithful is not (only) for the brothers of penance. This is true, provided that chapter II of 1Lf is also attributable, in the will of the Seraphic Father, to the brothers and sisters of Penance. Otherwise: who, then, would Francis of Assisi have had in mind as recipients? The deduction of the German Capuchin, in reality, is ex-post (771 years later), not ex-ante, as everyone can easily argue (and would have expected to do so): L. Lehmann, La dimensione universale negli scritti (The universal dimension in the writings), 75- 76.

[26] As for what follows, the research by Alexander Patschovsky is documented and interesting. Beginen, Begarden und Terziaren im 14. und 15. Jahrhundert: das Beispiel des Basler ?(Beguins, Begarden and Terziaren in the 14th and 15th centuries: the example of the Basel Beguinaage dispute), in Id., Fromme Frauen oder Ketzerinnen? (Pious women and heretics), Freiburg in Breisgau 1998, 195-209.

[27] Only the movement headed by Francis, Dominic and the apostolate of their Orders was able to meet Christians animated by evangelical ideals, but who remained in their homes, and was able to direct their energies and fill their religious needs, finally giving a new form, consistency and subsistence to the non-monastic evangelical life in an ‘Order’ of simple penitents:” Alfonso Pompei, Il movimento penitenziale nei secoli XII-XIII, in Atti del Convegno di Studi Francescani (The penitential movement in the XII-XIII centuries, in Proceedings of the Conference of Franciscan Studies), edited by Giuseppe Ermini, Assisi ( PG) 1972, 20-21.

[28] Cfr. G.-G. Meersseman, Disciplinati e Penitenti nel Duecento (The Disciplined and Penitents in the thirteenth century), in Il movimento dei disciplinati nel settimo centenario del suo inizio (The movement of the disciplined in the seventh centenary from its beginning), 7-26.

[29] “Leo XIII himself, in his encyclical Auspicato Concessum, revealed that he had been wearing the cord since 1872, as had his predecessor, Pius IX, a tertiary since 1821, who in 1871 had celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of his profession with great pomp”: Sandra Migliore, Mistica povertà. Riscritture francescane fra Otto e Novecento (Mystical poverty. Franciscan rewritings between the 19th and 20th centuries), (Bibliotheca Seraphico-Capuccina 64), Rome 2001, 185.

[30] See Pier Benedetto Giovannini, La vita religiosa nello stato secolare: ovvero modo di vivere religiosamente anco per le dame stabilite nel secolo (Religious life in the secular state: that is, a religious way of living even for women established in the century), Urbino 1706, 23-64.

[31] “The Third Order, however, was born, made for the people, and its effectiveness in forming good, integral, pious habits, is intrinsically clear in itself, and as a testimony of past times”: Leo XIII, Apostolic Constitution Misericors Dei Filius, in «Acta Sanctae Sedis» 15 (1883), 505-511.

[32] Significant research is found in Marco Asselle, Limpegno sociale del TerzOrdine Francescano Secolare a fine Ottocento in Italia (The social commitment of the Secular Franciscan Third Order at the end of the nineteenth century in Italy), in Italia Francescana (Franciscan Italy) 2010, 113-127; cf. also: Prospero Rivi - Andrea Gasparini, Limpegno sociale del TerzOrdine Francescano. Lepoca di Leone XIII: da un frammento di storia, alcune considerazioni per loggi (italiano), (The social responsibility of the Franciscan Third Order. The era of Leo XIII: from a fragment of history, some considerations for today) (Italian), Assisi (PG) 2018, 14-53.

[33] See Willibrord-Christian van Dijk, Storia della spiritualità francescana in Vivere il Vangelo. Francesco di Assisi, ieri e oggi (History of Franciscan spirituality, in Living the Gospel. Francis of Assisi, yesterday and today), edited by Anton Rotzetter - Willibrod van Dijk - Thaddée Matura, Padua 1983, 173-288.

[34] Cf. Mariano Bigi - Luigi Monaco, Magistero dei papi e fraternità secolare: da Pio IX a Giovanni Paolo II (Magisterium of the popes and the secular fraternity: from Pius IX to John Paul II), Rome 1985, 9-26; cf. also Acta Apostolicae Sedis » (Act of the Apostolic Seat) 75 (1983) 544-557; Regula et vita Fratrum Sorumque Tertii Ordinis Regularis S. Francisci (The rule and life of brothers and sisters Third Order Regular), in Analecta Ordinis Fratrum Minorum Capuccinorum (Selections Order of the Capuchin Friars Minor) 99 (1983) 159-166. La Regola del Terz’Ordine Secolare (The Rule of the Secular Third Order) begins with the entire 1Lf in Acta Apostolicae Sedis 70 (1978) 454-467; Tertius Ordo (Third Order) 49 (1978) 109-111; The Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order: with a Catechism and instructions, edited by Cornelio Mota Ramos - Felipe Baldonado - Zachary Grant, Chicago 1980, 21-23; Feliciano Olgiati, Commento alla Regola dellOrdine Francescano Secolare (Commentary on the Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order), (Presence of St. Francis 3), Milan 1986, 11-14.

[35] Cf. Raniero Garcia de Nava, Manuela Mattioli: laica franciscana que marcó época: en el vigésimo quinto aniversario de su muerte (Manuela Mattioli: a lay franciscan who marked an era: on the twenty-fifth anniversary of her death), Madrid 2017, 67-98.

[36] For this, please refer to Allegato n. 1 (Attachment no. 1), published for the first time.

[37] Please refer to Allegato n. 2 (Attachment no. 2)

[38] “All those who have made profession in the Secular Franciscan Order, according to the norms issued by the Holy See, belong, therefore, to the only Secular Franciscan Order that the Holy See recognizes as the only and authentic continuation of the Order of Franciscan Penitents established by Blessed Francis and cannot belong to any other denomination, which is now obsolete or a separated division of it:” Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, Decree of October 4, 2009, p. 1.

[39] “The Secular Franciscan Order is one and only (John Paul II, 22 November 2002) and exists in uninterrupted continuity with the Order of Penitent Brothers and Sisters established by Blessed Francis of Assisi (Nicholas IV, Rule Supra Montem, 1289). Despite its historical variations, the Order has always maintained its basic unity and, with the Rule of Pope Paul VI, has recovered its primitive autonomy, and obtained from the Church its full structural unity with a centralized system throughout the world”: Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, Decree of October 4, 2009, p. 1.

[40] Cf. G. Pasquale, Antropologico in filosofia (Anthropological in Philosophy). Preface by Umberto Galimberti, (Antropologia Culturale) (Cultural Anthropology) 65), Armando Editore, Roma 2020, pp. 87-96.

[41] What the Oxford (UK) academic Stratford Caldecott (1953-2014) is asking is quite interesting: “What would a [member of the] Franciscan Third Order be like today? They would live a life based on the Eucharist and the sacrament of Reconciliation. They will devote themselves in particular to the careful reading of the gospel, going from the gospel to life and from life to the gospel. They would seek to encounter the living and active person of Christ in their brothers and sisters, in Sacred Scripture, in the Church and in liturgical activity. And they will devote themselves energetically to living in full communion with the pope, bishops and priests, fostering an open and trusting dialogue of apostolic efficacy and creativity”: Stratford CALDECOTT, Not As the World Gives. The Way of Creative Justice, New York 2015, 76, with our English translation.

[42] Francesco, Encyclical Letter, Fratelli tuttiSulla fraternità e lamicizia sociale (Brothers all. On fraternity and social friendship), October 4, 2020, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City 2020.