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Franciscan Friars & Sisters of the

Third Order Regular of Penance

Province of The Divine Compassion





Origin of the Franciscan Order

It is customary to say that St. Francis founded three orders, as we read in the Divine Office for 4 October:


"Tres ordines hic ordinat: primumque Fratrum nominat Minorum: pauperumque fit Dominarum medius: sed Poenitentium tertius sexum capit utrumque." (Brev. Rom. Serap., in Solem. S.P. Fran., ant. 3, ad Laudes)


These three orders — the Lesser Brothers or Friars Minor, the Poor Ladies or Poor Clares, and the Brothers and Sisters of Penance — are generally referred to as the First, Second, and Third Orders of St. Francis.


The Terms: First Order, Second Order, Third Order

There is a common misconseption and confusion encountered when the Terms: First Order, Second Order and Third Order are used. These terms do not indicate the numerical order in which a particular religious order was founded. The terms are an ecclesiastical method of delineating the composition by gender and clerical status of the respective order.


In the Church, the First Order of any tradition (Franciscan, Dominican, Augustinian, Carmelite, Servite, etc) indicates that all of the members are male. Most often the First Order is also primarily composed of clerics. The Second Order is used to designate a community of nuns, and thus is entirely female. These nuns are most often cloistered and live the contemplative life. The term Third Order is used to designate a community composed of both male and female members.  The male members may be either clergy or laity and may also be secular bishops, priests, deacons or clerics and the femal members are all laity. There are also often branches of these Third Orders which choose to live a community life under the religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and are thus known as Third Order Regular (i.e. vowed religious living a community life under the Rule of the Order).


It is not unknown nor impossible for the order of the foundation of these First, Second and Third Orders to not coincide with the numerical order by which they are designated.


The First Order: The Lesser Brothers also called Friars Minor

The existence of the Friars Minor or First Order properly dates from 1209, in which year St. Francis obtained from Pope Innocent III an unwritten approbation of the simple rule he had composed for the guidance of his first companions. This rule has not come down to us in its original form; it was subsequently rewritten by the saint and solemnly confirmed by Pope Honorius III, on 29 November, 1223 (Litt. "Solet Annuere"). This second rule, or the Regula Bullatta as it is usually called, of the Friars Minor is the one professed throughout the whole First Order of St. Francis.


The Second Order: The Poor Ladies also known as The Poor Clares

The foundation of the Poor Clares or Second Order may be said to have been laid in 1212. In that year St. Clare who had besought St. Francis to be allowed to embrace the new manner of life he had instituted, was established by him at St. Damian's near Assisi, together with several other pious maidens who had joined her. St. Francis never drew up a formal rule for these Poor Ladies, inasmuch as it was their intention to adapt the rule of the Friars Minor to their own circumstances while living in a monastery setting, and thus no mention of such a document is found in any of the early authorities. The rule imposed upon the Poor Ladies at St. Damian's about 1219 by Cardinal Ugolino, afterwards Pope Gregory IX, which reflected by far a more Benedictine way of life, and as such, was unacceptable to St. Clare and her companions, was finally recast by St. Clare towards the end of her life, with the assistance of Cardinal Rinaldo, afterwards Pope Alexander IV, so as to reclaim the original intention of living a true and authentic Franciscan life and spirituality by adapting the Rule of the First Order to the living conditions of the Second Order, and in this revised form was approved by Pope Innocent IV, on 9 August, 1253 (Litt. "Solet Annuere"). This solidified the Poor Clares as standing truly in the Franciscan Way of Life and as vital members of the entire Franciscan family.


The Third Order: The Brothers and Sisters of Penance

Tradition assigns the year 1221 as the date of the foundation of the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, now known as Tertiaries, though evidence shows a much earlier date for their estabishment, as will be shown below. This Third Order was organized by St. Francis as a sort of middle state between the cloister and the world for those who, wishing to follow in the saint's footsteps, were debarred by marriage or other ties from entering either the First or Second Order. Saint Francis composed a simple rule of life for these Tertiaries which is known as the First (1215) and Second (1221) Letters To All the Faithful. It is generally admitted that the rule approved by Pope Nicholas IV, on 18 August, 1289 (Litt. "Supra Montem") does not represent the original rule of the Third Order.


The real origin of the Third Order is found in the ancient Order of Penitents, also known as the Conversi, which had been in existence within the Church since the 4th century. In the first centuries of the Christian Church, groups of penitents were established by the Church for those Christians who fell into grave sin and sought reconciliation with the Church. These sins included such things as adultery, murder, idolatry and magic, and theft. Doing penance was a visible sign of conversion. If the sinner refused to do penance, he or she was excommunicated. Public penance consisted of acts of mortification such as wearing a "hair shirt," covering the head with ashes, fasting and prayers. These acts were regulated by the bishops. After the period of penance was completed, the repentant sinner was readmitted into the assembly.


The Edict of Milan in A.D. 313 declared that the bishop could relegate the sinner into an Order of Penitents called Conversi. This was done in a liturgical ceremony with the laying on of hands and the application of ashes. They worshiped separately from the rest of the congregation, but were not allowed to participate in the Eucharistic celebration. Other restrictions imposed by the bishop were called interdicts, and by the 4th century, some of these interdicts came to be imposed not only for the penitential period, but for life.By the 4th century, there were those who entered the Order of Penitents voluntarily. They accepted the interdicts of the Order which by that time included:

  • not to participate in military service,

  • not to be merchants,

  • not to occupy public office,

  • to refrain from conjugal relations if married, and to be celibate if single,

  • not allowed to remarry if widowed, single penitents could not marry while in the Order (this was later abrogated)


5th and 6th centuries

Monastic asceticism, which was popularized by the Desert Fathers of the East, such as St. Anthony the Great and St. Basil, moved into Europe. St. Benedict of Nursia was the founder of western or Benedictine monasticism in A.D. 529. The emphasis was on communal living under a rule and a life given to prayer, work and charity. Entering a monastery became a substitute for public penance. In the monasteries, a penitential private penance was developed which was less strenuous than the public penances. This was the beginning of penitential commutation.


7th through 11th centuries

In Italy and Spain, public or Roman Penance was dominant. Those upon whom penance was imposed and those who accepted the life voluntarily were forbidden to associate with the militia saecularis or secular militia. This included holding civil offices or being a merchant (militia saecularis togata) and from bearing arms (militia saecularis paludata). Fasting, which had always been part of the penitential discipline, became more regularized, and three major times of fasting were observed, Advent, Lent (prior to Easter), and a period after Pentecost. There were also two minor Lents. Other periods of fasting and abstinence could be imposed.


12th and 13th centuries

The penitential movement became popular among the laity after the Gregorian reform at the end of the 11th century. Introduced around A.D. 950, corporal penance or voluntary flagellation became more known. Also almsgiving as a penitential act became more common. There was also the rise of the Donati and the Oblates, who put themselves in the service of God by attaching themselves in service to a particular church or monastery. In all cases, the emphasis of the penance was to practice justice and mercy, to trust in God, to be of pure heart and intent, to have a zeal for Christ and the Scripture, and to be open to God's grace and inspiration. Since this movement was primarily a lay movement, some of the participants tended towards heresy.


Types of penitents

  • Married Conversi – continued to live with their family, but partially or fully abstained from conjugal relations.

  • Voluntary Pilgrims – went on pilgrimages to the Holy Land or to more local shrines if that were not possible.

  • Hermits – lived alone or with one or two companions in the wild, in grottos and caves or even in the hollows of trees.

  • Religious Virgins – not nuns, lived with family

  • Recluses – men and women who consecrated themselves to God without entering a religious institution

  • Solitaries - men and women who lived in hermitages built into the sides of diocesan parish churches and chapels; known for their holiness and wisdom, functioned like "on call" lay spiritual counselors.


The last four of these categories were originally all juridically considered full and true Religious by the canonical authorities of the Church despite the fact that they did not live a common life or profess the formal religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience or the older monastic vows of stability, obedience and conversion of morals.


Character of penitents

  • Attire – tunic, walking-stick, cincture (belt or cord), knapsack, sandals; symbol was often a Tau Cross after St. Anthony of the Desert.

  • Charitable works – most often in hospitals and hospices and leprosaria (hospitalers); restoring churches and burying the dead.

  • Life of Prayer.

  • Abstinence – from feasts and shows and dances, avoidance of drunkenness and gluttony.

  • Prohibited from public office or from riding horses.

  • Forbidden to take up arms or to take an oath.


With the general decrease in the spiritual fervor of the faithful of the day, and with the corresponding increase of the danger of heretical beliefs and practices arising within the ancient Order of Penitents, the Church gradually suppressed many of these groups of penitents or conversi. It was primarily through the efforts of Saint Francis that the vast majority of the remaining faithful penitents were organized under his spiritual rule cited above (The First and Second Letters To All The Faithful) and a new spirit and life was instilled into the Order of Penitents. Saint Francis had begun his own religious life as a member of the ancient Order of Penitents and thus understood the very real and genuine need for the penitents to have a proper fomation and guidance under the authority of the Church.



Present Organization of the Three Orders


The First Order

The present organization of the Franciscan Order, the Friars Minor, or First Order, now comprises three separate bodies, namely: the Friars Minor properly so called, and popularly though not exactly accurately, considered to be the parent stem, founded, as has been said in 1209; the Friars Minor Conventual, and the Friars Minor Capuchin, both of which grew out of the original Franciscan Order, and were constituted as independent branches of the same Order in 1517 and 1619 respectively. All three orders profess the rule of the Friars Minor approved by Pope Honorius III in 1223, but each one has its particular constitutions and its own minister general. The various lesser foundations of Franciscan friars following the rule of the first order, which once enjoyed a separate or quasi-separate existence, are now either extinct, like the Clareni, Coletani, and Celestines, or have become amalgamated with the Friars Minor, as in the case of the Observants, Reformati, Recollects, Alcantarines, etc.


The  Second Order

As regards the Second Order, of Poor Ladies, now commonly called Poor Clares, this order includes all the different monasteries of cloistered nuns professing the Rule of St. Clare approved by Pope Innocent IV in 1253, whether they observe the same in all its original strictness or according to the dispensations granted by Pope Urban IV, on 18 October, 1263 (Litt. "Beata Clara") or the constitutions drawn up by St. Colette (d. 1447) and approved by Pope Pius II, on 18 March, 1458 (Litt. "Etsi"). The Sisters of the Annunciation and the Conceptionists are in some sense offshoots of the Second Order, but they now follow different rules from that of the Poor Clares.


The Third Order

In connection with the Brothers and Sisters of Penance or Third Order of St. Francis, it is necessary to distinguish between the Third Order Secular (now known in the Roman Catholic Church as the Secular Franciscan Order) and the Third Order Regular.


The Third Order Secular.

The Third Order Secular was founded, as we have seen, by St. Francis between the years 1215 and 1221and embraces devout person of both sexes living in the world and following a rule of life approved by Pope Nicholas IV in 1289, and modified by Leo XIII, on 30 May, 1883 (Constit. "Misericors"). It includes not only members who form part of local fraternities, but also isolated tertiaries, hermits, pilgrims, etc.


The Third Order Regular.

The early history of the Third Order Regular is shrouded in uncertainty and is susceptible of controversy. Some falsely attribute its foundation to St. Elizabeth of Hungary in 1228, others to Blessed Angelina of Marsciano in 1395. The latter is said to have established at Foligno the first Franciscan monastery of enclosed Tertiary Nuns in Italy. Records clearly show a vital religious life in the Order of Penance very early on. A number of hermits and recluses (true religious in the eyes of the Church) were received into the Order and were invested with the habit by St Francis himself, such as Veridiana of Castel Fiorentino, Praxedes of Rome, Gerard of Villamagna, and Bartholomew Baro who also had founded a religious community of Penitents living under the Rule of the Third Order. Francis and his first followers when asked by the people who they were, identified themselves as: The Penitents of Assisi, thus identifying themselves with the Order of Penitents during the time prior to their approbation as Friars Minor in 1209 and thus pre-dating the formal establishment of the Friars Minor. It can thus be seen clearly that the words of Scripture, "...the last shall be first and the first last", (St Matthew 20: 16) aptly apply to the Third Order of Saint Francis, as it was the first form of the Franciscan vocation to emerge and was embraced by Saint Francis himself prior to his later establishment of the Friars Minor, but was the last to receive formal and official approbation as a distinct Religious Order.


The TOR manner of life and apostolic activity thus truly reflects the earliest manifestation of the emerging Franciscan vocation, and continues the initial ideals of the Saint himself. It is certain that early in the fifteenth century tertiary communities of men and women existed in different parts of Europe and that the Italian Friars of the Third Order Regular were recognized as a mendicant order by the Holy See. Since about 1447 the latter body has been governed by their own Minister General and its members take Solemn Vows, as do the members of all of the branches of Friars Minor and the Poor Clares.  The Holy See has ranked these Friars of the Third Order Regular as one of the four principal branches of the one Franciscan Family, and has placed them on a par with the Friars of the First Order. The Minister Generals of the Friars Minor, the Friars Minor Capuchin, Friars Minor Conventual, and the Third Order Regular are regarded as the spiritual fathers of the entire Franciscan Family and are charged with providing spiritual guidance and assistance to the Second Order and the Third Order Secular.


New Foundations.

In addition to this Third Order Regular, properly so called, and quite independently of it, a very large number of Franciscan tertiary congregations — both of men and women, professing either Solemn or Simple Vows — have been founded, more especially since the beginning of the ninteenth century. These new foundations have taken as a basis of their institutes the Rule of the Third Order Regular for members of the Third Order living in community approved by Pope Leo X on 20 January, 1521 (Bull "Inter"). This rule is explained and adapted by their particular Constitutions which, for the rest, differ according to the end of each foundation. These various congregations of regular tertiaries are either autonomous or under episcopal jurisdiction, and are true members of the Franciscan family, most of them having adopted not only the Rule of Saint Francis, but also the spirituality of the Franciscan family, the Franciscan habit and even the traditional white cord with three knots, the most common symbol of the Franciscan Order.


The Third Order Regular thus embraces Friars with Solemn Vows as does the First Order; enclosed or cloistered Nuns as found in the Second Order; and other Friars (priests and brothers) and Sisters with either Simple or Solemn Vows, who combine both the active and the contemplative life of religious and who are dedicated to almost every apostolic work needed within the Church throughout the world. All in all, when the various communities of Third Order Regular religious: Friars, Sisters, Priests, Brothers and cloistered Nuns are added together, the Third Order Regular is by far the largest, most diversified and most comprehensive branch of the entire Franciscan family of vowed religious. Their combined numbers are surpassed only by the world-wide membership of the various fraternities of the Third Order Secular without vows.








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