Today we had our fraternity meeting for the month of May, and what a good meeting it was! We might have finally gotten a handle on setting up Zoom after, what, nearly a year of trials, errors, and frustrations. Two of our members who haven’t been able to join us in person—one for a few years—were able to participate, which was a real joy! Technology can be a curse, but it can also be a blessing; it all depends on how it’s used. Today was certainly a blessing, and I hope we can build upon it to allow others to share in such an important, central part of our life as Secular Franciscans.
For our ongoing formation work, we read through Pope Francis’ address to the Secular Franciscan Order made on November 11, 2021. Two words in particular made for fruitful discussions: penance and poverty. The Holy Father lays out an understanding of penance that “leads the penitent to places where he would never have wanted to go,” that penance is not simply something one “does” (fasting, almsgiving, etc.) but more importantly is the “opening of the heart to Christ.” This isn’t the usual meaning of penance that so many of us are familiar with. In my own admittedly limited understanding, I take this to mean that penance is the turning away from the life of the world and towards the spiritual life that we find in Christ. When I fast, I turn away from the physicality of food and my body’s needs so that I can more fully focus on opening my heart to God’s presence. The penitential act of fasting is the secondary “consequence of the decision to open one’s heart to God.”
Poverty for us Seculars is a topic of continuing discussion since we are not called to the same experience of poverty as our sisters and brothers in the first and second orders, and in the Third Order Regular (TOR). While I believe we all try to live materially simple lives, we work to bring spiritual poverty to the forefront of our Franciscan life. Pope Francis puts it this way: “The vocation of the Secular Franciscan is to live the Gospel in the world in the style of [St. Francis]; to take the Gospel as the ‘form and rule’ of life. I urge you to embrace the Gospel as you embrace Jesus. Let the Gospel, that is Jesus Himself, shape your life. In this way you will take on poverty, minority and simplicity as your distinguishing marks before all.”
It is one thing to profess that I “follow Jesus.” It is quite another to attempt to walk in His footsteps. Even St. Francis felt he failed in the effort, though we see in him one of the finest efforts to live as closely to the life Jesus lived as is possible. We have, like St. Francis, the gift of the gospels, and it is our embrace of the gospel life and all its challenges that makes up our identity as Franciscans—and as Catholics, as Christians, and as children of God.
The richness and depth of these ideas is what makes a way of life and not merely an intellectual exercise. Fortunately, we not only walk paths that others have walked before us, but we also have companions on the Way, our sisters and brothers in this life, as well as those who watch, encourage, and support us from His kingdom. Amen