The Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order: A Short Meditation on the Call to Penance


The Tau Cross of the Secular Franciscan, and Assisi, Italy

Today there is a new international discussion about Secular Franciscan identity, and the future direction of the Order. The General Chapter of 2014 asked for a “period of serious reflection, involving all members of the Order,” on the future challenges to the Order, from practical management to personal spiritual formation. Tibor Kauser, the General Minister, said “that the most important aspect of managing the Order is the conversion of Secular Franciscans to Christ.” The number of Secular Franciscans has been dropping, and many believe a deeper knowledge and understanding of the Rule and Franciscan spirituality is vital.

The Secular Franciscan Order (Ordo Franciscanus Saecularis, or OFS) is the Third Order founded by St. Francis of Assisi in 1221 for lay men and women, and diocesan clergy, who feel called to the Franciscan way of life, but who remain with their families, and at their jobs rather than joining the First Order (the Friars Minor) or the Second Order (the cloistered Poor Clares). It is a challenge to follow the way of St. Francis while remaining in the world, especially in the 21st century with so much confusion, both inside and outside the Church. It is my thesis that one helpful guide to the future is to look back at the original Rule of the Third Order to see what St. Francis himself wanted for his tertiaries. I am not a theologian or historian, so this is just one layman’s attempt to contribute to the dialogue, only a short meditation that I hope may provoke others to think about these questions for themselves.

The Original Rule of the Franciscan Third Order
The original Rule, written by the seraphic father, St. Francis, and approved by the Pope in 1221, still has the potential to inspire contemporary Franciscans. The first Rule has been superseded on a number of occasions, most recently with the “Pauline Rule” of 1978, approved by Pope Paul VI. We can see big differences between the first Rule and today’s version.

The current Rule begins with a prologue written by St. Francis called “Exhortation of Saint Francis to the Brothers and Sisters in Penance.” Thus, from the very start of the Rule, the concept of penance is front and center. The Prologue is an encouragement for those who “do penance” and a dire warning of eternal damnation for those who “do not do penance.” Thus, penance is not just an attitude or state of mind (or heart), it involves action. Why this emphasis on penance? The Franciscan charism of poverty, of voluntary simplicity—in other words, of humility and self-denial —is not an end in itself; it is rather a way of conforming to the example given by Christ, and a way of living out the gospel, a means of seeking first the kingdom of God.

Article 7 of the Rule of 1978 calls tertiaries to conversion. Otherwise, there is no explicit call for penance, or specific plan of action for Secular Franciscans to make penance an integral part of life. In contrast, the original Rule is full of detailed lifestyle requirements. They are clearly intended to activate and reinforce a distinctly Franciscan approach to life. The Rule of 1221 suggests that St. Francis wanted his followers to practice a rigorous spirituality of well-defined acts of self-sacrifice in a spirit of trust in God. He wanted them to be set apart from the world in some visible ways. The text is short and emphasizes specific practices that, taken together, encourage what can be called a “penitential lifestyle” for Secular Franciscans. I believe that in both the original and current Rules, St. Francis’ urging to “do” penance means taking action—actions that grow out of an inner conversion of heart, and that, in themselves, can also prompt spiritual growth. The first Rule imposed strict requirements that St. Francis obviously thought would help Secular Franciscans grow in holiness.

The first chapter of the Rule of 1221 defines the kinds of clothing tertiaries can wear. The regulations for dress are very precise, limiting the cost, materials, and colors to be worn. Clothing must be of “humble quality” and “simple fashion,” and tertiaries “are not to wear silken or dyed veils and ribbons.” The second and third chapters deal with food. Year round, meat can be eaten only on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. From Easter to All Saints Day, Fridays are days of fasting. From All Saints Day to Easter, there is fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays. From the feast of St. Martin until Christmas Day, there is daily fasting. Lent is a time of daily fasting, too. Other requirements include tithing, drawing up a legal will, a prohibition on use of lethal weapons, the avoidance of formal oaths, and a rule against attending shows or dances.

These guidelines sound strict and rigorous, but St. Francis allowed flexibility in their observance as needed. For example, exceptions to the food rules include feast days; times of illness, pregnancy, weakness, travel, and fatiguing work; and permission to eat whatever is served to you by others. In fact, in the USA, a group has received Church approval to follow the original Rule of 1221. It is called the Confraternity of Penitents. Their website says they try to “live this holy and freeing Rule of Life as closely as possible to its original intent.” So don’t let anyone say it is not possible to follow St. Francis’ original vision for the Third Order!

“Brothers and Sisters of Penance”
One name given by St. Francis to the Third Order was “The Brothers and Sisters of Penance.” I think this name is a good indicator of St. Francis’ intentions, and suggests what kind of spirituality should characterize the Order, even today. St. Francis proposed specific penitential acts that should order the lives of his tertiaries. Even if modern Franciscans are no longer bound by the original Rule written by his hand, perhaps some advice about how to live today as individuals, and the identity of the Order, can be derived from his original vision. Indeed, Pope Pius XII said that over the centuries, the enduring marks of the OFS have been simple living, mortification, and acts of charity.

Already, I have mentioned several key words, such as “penance” and “conversion.” It may be useful to distinguish these terms. The Catholic Encyclopedia defines penance as a virtue arising from awareness that we have sinned, and need to turn to God. Penance is “a supernatural moral virtue whereby the sinner is disposed to hatred of his sin as an offence against God, and to a firm purpose of amendment and satisfaction. The principal act in the exercise of this virtue is the detestation of sin, not of sin in general, nor of that which others commit, but of one’s own sin.” Penance is thus an inward virtue of character put into practice through patterns of behavior, with its origins, above all, in the painful realization that we are all sinners. The connection between inner disposition and outward lifestyle can be seen in Ezekiel’s command to the people:

Each by his own life you shall be judged, men of Israel, the Lord God says. Come back, and make amends for all this guilt of yours, that shall else be your undoing; away with them, your defiant rebellions against me; a new heart, a new spirit. (Ez 18:30-31).

The meaning of penance is also revealed in the New Testament. In the parable of the prodigal son, not only does the son realize his errors, feel remorse, and seek reconciliation with the father, but there is a concomitant change in his behavior. Jesus says: “ No, I say to you; but except you do penance, you shall all likewise perish.” (Lk 13:5). The Encyclopedia explains, “In the New Law, therefore, repentance is as necessary as it was in the Old, repentance that includes reformation of life, grief for sin, and willingness to perform satisfaction.” It defines repentance as “heartfelt sorrow with the firm purpose of sinning no more.” Performing satisfaction—doing something for God to show sorrow for your sin—is part of penance.

Distinct from penance, the Encyclopedia defines conversion as “a moral change, a turning or returning to God, and to the true religion.” Conversion is a change of attitude, a change of heart, a change of faith. The Encyclopedia adds, “In the Middle Ages, the word conversion was often used in the sense of forsaking the world to enter the religious state. … The return of the sinner to a life of virtue is also called a conversion.” The current OFS Rule points out, helpfully, that due to human weakness, this is a daily task (Rule no. 7).

Finally, it is useful to get a clear understanding of mortification, a word that has negative connotations for many today. The Catholic Encyclopedia describes mortification as “one of the methods which Christian asceticism employs in training the soul to virtuous and holy living. The term originated with St. Paul, who traces an instructive analogy between Christ dying to a mortal life and rising to an immortal life, and His followers who renounce their past life of sin and rise through grace to a new life of holiness. ‘If you live after the flesh,’ says the apostle, ‘you shall die, but if through the spirit you mortify the deeds of the flesh, you shall live.’” (Rom 8:13)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has some helpful paragraphs about the meaning of penance. Basically, penance is a turning away from sin, and turning towards God. This involves acts of self-denial that are linked to the sacrifice of the cross. Conversion shows itself in outward signs, such as prayer, fasting, and works of mercy. Ultimately, penance is about love: loving God, and loving our neighbor. In the Catechism (§1430-39), we read that penance “does not aim first at outward works,” but rather “interior conversion.” The Catechism states that this interior conversion will produce fruits. Conversion is expressed “in many and various ways,” especially fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. Conversion involves “gestures,” or concrete acts directed towards ourselves, others, and God, including reconciliation, concern for the poor, fraternal correction, revision of life, examination of conscience, acceptance of suffering, and endurance of persecution. Further penitential practices listed by the Catechism include penitential liturgies, pilgrimages, voluntary self-denial, such as fasting and almsgiving, and charitable and missionary works.

The American formation book, To Live as Francis Lived: A Guide for Secular Franciscansexplains that for Christians, self-denial:

…is not a grim and prideful domineering of their bodies as a matter of personal achievement. Rather it is the commonsense insurance against anything that threatens—and many dangers do threaten—their relationship with Christ. This penance is … saying ‘no’ when we need not so that we can courageously say it when we must.”

It is not punishment, but “spiritual exercise” that unites us to Christ in this world, and wins us the imperishable crown in the next.

However, not everyone agrees that mortification is a useful addition to our “spiritual toolbox,” or that it should be a part of Secular Franciscan life. In addition, some experts today basically equate penance with conversion, and downplay acts of self-sacrifice and mortification. Although I agree on the primacy of interior conversion, and that mortification can be dangerous to both body and soul, the simple and humble point I want to make is that penance is not only an interior conversion to God, but involves outward action.

St. Francis never wanted his followers to masochistically pursue self-punishment as if this could compensate God for sin. While the word “mortification” can conjure harsh images of self-flagellation, or the wearing of a hair shirt, seemingly small acts like forgoing sugar in coffee, or patiently waiting in line or a traffic jam, without complaining, can also be considered mortification. St. Therese of Lisieux teaches that such small acts are often most pleasing to God. Such practices of self-denial and acceptance of suffering may be part of our “spiritual toolbox” as a means to growing in our relationships with God, and with others. The ultimate motive for mortification is something positive: love for Jesus Christ and his commandments.

Our Lady of Fatima confirmed this. She made three simple requests—for personal penance, prayer, and devotion to her Immaculate Heart—to strengthen the faithful in these modern times. Sister Lucy, the Fatima visionary, wrote:

Many persons, feeling that the word ‘penance’ implies great austerities, and not feeling that they have the strength for great sacrifices, become discouraged and continue a life of luke-warmness and sin.

But, Jesus explained to her:

The sacrifice required of every person is the fulfillment of his duties in life, and the observance of My law. This is the penance that I now seek and require.

I have been speaking as if acts of penance must arise purely from of a spirit of conversion, but in my experience the opposite is also true: acts of self-denial can encourage conversion. The causality works both ways. Acts of mortification can promote growth in the love of God and neighbor. That is an important truth of the spirituality of Lent, and a reason for the traditional Friday discipline of abstinence.

Conclusion: The Franciscan Penitential Lifestyle
What does it mean to be a “brother of penance” or “sister of penance”? What did penance mean for St. Francis? Clearly, St. Francis thought that particular acts of self-denial would be spiritually beneficial for his followers. The original Rule of the Third Order emphasized both private and public aspects of penance. The act of fasting might be classified as a more private act. As we have seen, a key public expression of the Franciscan vocation, as St. Francis originally envisioned it, relates to clothing, which can be related in principle to other consumption habits, too.

While with prayer we may do well to retreat to a room where only our Lord in heaven will see us (Mt 6:6), and our fasting should not be obvious to others (Mt 6:18), and with alms-giving one hand should not know what the other is doing (Mt 6:3), the choice of clothing is something that is not hidden, and indeed can be an external expression or living out of the commitment to follow St. Francis. However, specific guidelines on dress are no longer required of today’s tertiaries and, therefore, this injunction by St. Francis, which is so strongly emphasized in the Rule of 1221, may simply serve as an inspiration for faithful choices in the practical living out of voluntary modesty, as the current Rule enjoins (Rule no. 11). You could say that the current Rule, by encouraging voluntary modesty in only general terms, gives freedom to each individual Secular Franciscan to decide for himself how to live a penitential lifestyle.

The original Rule’s requirement for Secular Franciscans to wear only simple, inexpensive clothes of certain colors was one way they were encouraged to set themselves apart from the worldliness of their times. While times have changed, the principle of being prepared to be judged by others as different, or even unfashionable (not just in clothing style, but in ways of thinking, working, family life, and politically), as a consequence of faith in Jesus Christ, and commitment to following his gospel, has not. Indeed, these days, simply being faithful in the public sphere often involves self-sacrifice, humiliation, and worse. The original Rule may not be a precise roadmap for Franciscans today, but St. Francis’ call to penance echoes through the ages, and provides just as trustworthy a signpost toward holiness as it did in the past. Let us recall that Our Lady appearing at Lourdes, as well as the angel in the vision of the third secret of Fatima, emphatically beseech the faithful with the words, “Penance! Penance! Penance!”

Benjamin J. Vail, OFS About Benjamin J. Vail, OFS

Benjamin J. Vail, OFS, is an American Secular Franciscan living with his family in Brno, Czech Republic.


  1. Avatar FA Hudson says:

    very interesting and oh so true to live ‘simply’ in this day. One of our deceased members used to say ‘when you go looking for something you need to buy..a tv, car, etc., you may look for the very best, but then buy the 2nd or 3rd best”. Somewhere I read where someone suggested buying the ‘not so perfect fruit or vegetable’. Certainly we don’t need to serve rotten food to our families but we can get by, especially in America, with a few imperfections.

  2. This was great! For me, hearing the priest-moderator of my fraternity constantly associate acts of penance with mental illness led to my distancing myself from it. Acts of penance are a sacramental :

    There should not be any shaming of a pious person who wants to do them, as long as it is inspired by the Holy Spirit.

  3. Avatar Fr. Matt Russick, TOR says:

    Dear Benjamin, I’d love to speak with you about your reflections on the most recent Secular Franciscan Rule. To be blunt, I find it to be so watered-down that I believe a new rule should be written. It will be tough to renew the SFO with such an ambiguous text. While the Memorial Propositi to which you refer is surely dated, at least it has ‘teeth’ and challenges one to live a life of penance, metanoia, in a specific way. Are you familiar with the Third Order Regular rule, i.e. the St. John Paul II approved edition from 1982? As a TOR friar and student of things Franciscan, I find this much more in keeping with the spirit and original charism of our Holy Father St. Francis that the SFO Rule. Please respond.

    • Dear Reverend Father, thank you for your comment. I am not familiar with the TOR Rule, but I would like to learn about it. I have been developing a thesis similar to yours: that the drop-off in OFS vocations, and the apparent lukewarmness and confusion among the professed about our vocation and mission, is due in part to a vague Rule. Frankly, from a purely natural psychological perspective, I think people are motivated by a challenge and inspired by difficult demands. The OFS Rule promulgated by Pope Leo XIII was blessedly short and simple and direct, and prescribed distinctly Franciscan practices. Perhaps the OFS would benefit from a new Rule, but when I broached this possibility with an international OFS leader, Benedetto Lino, he basically told me it’s not going to happen. Lino and a Capuchin priest named Fr. Fernando Ventura spearheaded a new initiative for OFS formation and spirituality at the 2011 General Chapter. I have commented on their keynote addresses at the Chapter, which I think are problematic. One of my commentaries is online here:, and the other you can read here: As I researched my responses to their proposals, I learned about traditional OFS spiritual disciplines and devotions which led me to write a short summary of advices, which you can read here: I know that’s a lot of links to follow, but I’ve been wrestling lately with questions similar to yours. Pax tecum, Benjamin Vail