(This article originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of the Tau-USA)

The Prologue: Lens of the Rule

by Justin Carisio, OFS

When we speak of the Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order, we tend to mean the 26 articles of the Rule of 1978 that describe the nature of the order, the way of life a Secular Franciscan commits to, and life in fraternity. Seldom do we have in mind the stunning document that precedes those articles, what we know as the “Prologue: Exhortation of St. Francis to the Brothers and Sisters of Penance.”[1]  Yet careful consideration suggests that the Prologue should be the starting point for any study, discussion, or meditation on the Rule.

The Prologue is an original document written by St. Francis sometime between 1209 and 1215. The translation that accompanies English publications of the Rule is that of Marion A. Habig, OFM[2]. A translation more reflective of contemporary scholarship can be found in Francis of Assisi, Early Documents, Vol. I, where it is called the Earlier Exhortation to the Brothers and Sisters of Penance[3]. (Historically, different titles have been assigned to the document, including the First Version of the Letter to All the Faithful and the “Volterra text.”)

The Earlier Exhortation has been referred to as the “primitive Rule.” Inasmuch as it is fundamentally an exhortation, it represents a “form of life” that Francis intended for the lay penitents associated with his movement[4]. These men and women were living “more intensely their baptismal commitment through a life of penance.[5]” How the Earlier Exhortation became the Prologue is a bit of a mystery. In his classic study of the Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order, Robert Stewart, OFM, said it was inserted into our Rule without comment by the four Ministers General of the friar orders late in the process of approving the Rule, adding that, “the Earlier Exhortation remains the lens through which the Rule of 1978 must be understood and interpreted[6].”

Physically, a lens is something that “forms an image by focusing rays of light.” Figuratively, it “facilitates and influences perception, comprehension, or evaluation[7].” The Prologue works both ways with respect to our Rule. It helps form an image of Secular Franciscan identity: We are to be “spouses, brothers, and mothers of our Lord Jesus Christ.” It reminds us that our way of life is Trinitarian, Christocentric, and Catholic. It also facilitates our self-perception as Franciscans by representing to us the founding charism of our order, which is penance. In another Franciscan early document,

The Legend of the Three Companions, we read that Francis and the first friars, when asked where they were from, “said simply that they were penitents [emphasis added] originally from the city of Assisi[8].” In his history of the Third Order, Raffaele Pazzelli, TOR, underscores that as time went on, “‘penance’ remained the primary characteristic of only the Order of the Brothers and Sisters of Penance[9].”

That image is projected in Article 7 of the Rule, which describes our vocation as “brothers and sisters of penance.” In the modern Church, we are used to thinking of penance as something that occurs within our hearts. Indeed, Article 7 adds, “let them conform their thoughts and deeds to those of Christ by means of that radical interior change which the gospel calls ‘conversion.’” Lino Temperni, TOR, emphasizes that, “the term ‘penance’ in Franciscan spirituality is equivalent to the biblical meaning of metanoia, understood as an intimate conversion of the heart to God, as a continuous state of being. It is not a question of doing penance but of being penitent[10].” Or to refine further, “penance is not a state, but a journey that leads to God.[11]

In the Earlier Exhortation, Francis is indeed concerned with being penitent. Yet he is also committed to doing penance. He exhorts us to no fewer than five actions: love God totally; love our neighbor as ourselves; hate our sinful tendencies; receive the Body and Blood of Christ in a worthy manner; produce good fruits of penance[12]. That he intends something visible and concrete about being a penitent is unmistakable, because our lives “must give life to others by example.” Thus, when we view our Rule through the lens of the Prologue, we experience Francis teaching us “that the embrace of penance brings about a profound change in our relationships with God, a change that we can understand only in light of the revelation of Jesus[13].”

With the passage of more than 40 years, it appears that the inclusion of the Earlier Exhortation as the Prologue to the Secular Franciscan Rule of 1978 was providential. The Prologue enables us to reach across the centuries to touch our earliest brother and sister secular Franciscans. It announces our call to conversion and holiness. It warns us that a refusal to do penance “makes us slaves to the world” and has consequences in this life and the next. Above all, it makes manifest in our present-day fraternities the authentic voice and mind of Francis, penitent from Assisi.

[1] All citations from the Rule of 1978 are from https://www.secularfranciscansusa.org/the-rule-of-the-secular-franciscan-order (accessed February  28, 2019).

[2] Robert M. Stewart, OFM, “De Illis Qui Faciunt Penitentiam” The Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order: Origins, Development,

Interpretation, Instituto Storico Dei Cappuccini, 1991, 31.

[3] Regis J. Armstrong, OFM Cap., et al., editors, Francis of Assisi, Early Documents, Volume I, The Saint, New City Press, 1999, 41.

[4] Stewart, 85

[5] Ibid., 137.

[6] Ibid., 311.

[7] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/lens (accessed February 23, 2019).

[8] Regis J. Armstrong, OFM Cap., et al., editors, Francis of Assisi, Early Documents, Volume II, The Founder, New City Press, 1999, 90

[9] Raffaele Pazzelli, TOR, St. Francis and the Third Order, The Franciscan and pre-Franciscan Penitential Movement, Franciscan Herald Press, 1989, 125, 127.

[10] Lino Temperini, TOR, Penitential Spirituality in the Franciscan Sources, Franciscan Publications, 1983, 41.

[11] Pazzelli, 120.

[12] For a Secular Franciscan perspective on these exhortations see Ed Zablocki, SFO, “Our Work as a Means of Doing Penance,” https://


Sec_C_No.16%20work%20as%20penance.pdf (accessed February 27, 2019).

[13] Regis J. Armstrong, OFM Cap., St. Francis of Assisi, Writings for a Gospel Life, Crossroad Publishing, 1994, 40.