(This article originally appeared in the TAU-USA Spring 2024 Digital Issue #111)

by Justin Carisio, OFS National Formation Commission

In the days before his death in 1226, St. Francis created a document that the Franciscan tradition calls “The Testament.”[1] He described this text as “a remembrance, admonition, exhortation, and my testament, which I, little brother Francis, make for you my blessed brothers….”[2] Among other things, Francis recounts how he formed his order: “And after the Lord gave me some brothers, no one showed me what I had to do, but the Most High Himself revealed to me that I should live according to the pattern of the Holy Gospel.” [3]

For St. Francis, living “according to the pattern of the Holy Gospel” was physical and sacramental. One of its signal characteristics would be its communal nature. Modeled on the example of Jesus and the apostles, it would be a community of brothers who would “give themselves to honest work,” living a life of poverty in the world “as pilgrims and strangers.” [4] In this and the other ways in which the Franciscan movement would take shape—St. Clare’s cloistered Poor Ladies or the secular Brothers and Sisters of Penance—the paradigm of Franciscan life would be fraternity.

Moreover, Franciscan fraternity would not be an abstract idea, not a collection of names on paper. For Secular Franciscans, fraternity then, as now, means brothers and sisters who are physically present to one another. That is why attendance at fraternity meetings is vital to our Franciscan way of life.

Our Rule states, “The local fraternity is to be established canonically. It becomes the basic unit of the whole Order and a visible sign of the Church, the community of love.” (Rule, Article 22) The commentary on the Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order states, “The local fraternity is the basic living organism of the whole Secular Franciscan Order and a visible sign of the whole Church in miniature.”[5] The Constitutions emphasize that “The fraternity must offer to its members opportunities for coming together and collaborating through meetings to be held with as great a frequency as allowed by the situation and with the involvement of all its members.” (Constitutions, 53:1)

During the pandemic, many fraternities resourcefully turned to conference calls and internet services to meet these obligations at a time when physical gatherings were not possible. Some local fraternities continue to offer these options. However, they should only be employed in extraordinary circumstances or when necessary to engage members truly unable to attend a regular gathering.

In a homily he gave in April 2020, during the height of the Covid crisis, Pope Francis reminded us of the necessity of physically coming together. Acknowledging the utility of television and the internet under those circumstances, he nevertheless emphasized that Christians should seek a “daily familiarity with the Lord” that is intimate and personal but always in community: “The ideal of the Church is always with the people and with the sacraments. Always.” In a sentence that should ring true in the ears of every Franciscan, he stated, “The Church, the sacraments, the People of God are concrete.”[6] Believing that our local fraternities are indeed a living organism, a visible sign of the church in miniature, Secular Franciscans should take the Holy Father’s words to heart, reminding ourselves that fraternity is concrete. Fraternity is not virtual. The Lord has given us brothers and sisters as a gift. We should rejoice in our opportunities to come together and do so with eager anticipation.

[1] St. Francis of Assisi, “The Testament” in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents (FA:ED I), edited by Regis J. Armstrong, J. A. Wayne Hellmann, William J. Short (New York, London, and Manila: New City Press, 1999), 124.

[2] Ibid., 127.

[3] Ibid., 125.

[4] Ibid., 125-126.

[5] Conference of National Spiritual Assistants of the USA, From Gospel to

Life, The Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order With Commentary (National Fraternity of the Secular Franciscan Order, 2023), 25

[6] www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/the-churchs-ideal-is-to-be-with-the-people-pope-says-15505