Friday, July 6, 2012

Order's History Chaotic with Vitality

Br. Bill Short, OFM
"We're so diverse…and beautiful."
That was one of Br. Bill Short's opening comments during his plenary talk about the Franciscan Family July 6 on Day 4 of the Q. The theology professor tried to put the Secular Franciscan Order, originally called Third Order, in the context of the family's history, which, he noted, one historian referred to as chaotic, but nonetheless showing vitality because it has flourished for 800 years.

Br. Bill Short, OFM
"If we were doing the history of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), this would be quick and clear," Brother Bill quipped to peels of laughter.

Despite the tensions among branches in the early years, and later oppression and suppression by secular states in Europe in later centuries, the Franciscan movement is a model of inclusivity. And it's all based on a far-reaching innovation that Francis and Clare introduced to society and the church -- to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It's an indelible mark on all the branches and orders -- the first, the second, the third orders, whether religious or secular or something in-between.

The Third Order history is replete with a combination of religious, secular and something-in-between; and the secular and something-in-between had profound impact on society through their front-line apostolic works (especially among the poor and sick). Seculars (known as brothers and sisters of penance)  tried to live the Gospel while living at home with their families and going to work. Some, especially women, tried living in lay communities, and were independent, which brought suspicion because they were not under male authority, so many adopted the Third Order Rule to stave off persecution.
Br. Bill receives t-shirt gift from Nat'l Min. Tom Bello

Brother Bill, an OFM Franciscan who has taught at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, CA, since 1983, pointed to major examples of women lay communities that eventually evolved into religious communities still in existence today. They took their inspiration from Francis and Clare and saintly Third Order members like St. Elizabeth of Hungary. Male religious communities rose similarly. A major player was what was to become known as the Third Order Regular (TOR) friars.

The Third Order tertiaries (which today comprise the Secular Franciscan Order) went through periods of growth and decline over the centuries. The Great Plague decimated fraternities, whose members were usually in the forefront of caring for the sick and burying the dead. Later, several popes encouraged the spread of the Third Order, thinking it would help revitalize the church. While membership swelled, formation wasn't always what it should have been, Brother Bill pointed out.

Despite its seemingly fractured structure, the Franciscan Family has strength in its diversity, inclusiveness, and in a common charge to live the "holy Gospel of Jesus Christ" in the footsteps of St. Francis.