COLUMBIA — Statues of St. Francis adorn gardens all over the world, and he is well known for his love of animals, but for the Franciscan family made up of laity, religious and priests, St. Francis is much more than a lawn ornament. He is their inspiration for authentic Christian living.
The third order or secular Franciscans welcome Catholic laymen and laywomen who are “called to follow Christ in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi” according to their vocation. Currently South Carolina has five secular fraternities which are a part of the Southeastern region that also includes North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and Alabama.
The secular Franciscans do not have to take vows like their consecrated brothers and sisters, but instead make promises to follow “The Rule” established by St. Francis.
The Rule, originally known as “Memoriale Propositi,” has adapted throughout the years to the church’s changing needs as interpreted by the Holy See. The National Fraternity of the Secular Franciscan Order describes it as a way “to observe the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by following the example of St. Francis of Assisi, who made Christ the inspiration and the center of his life with God and people.”
Before an individual can be “professed” a third order Franciscan, they have to go through a formation process consisting of orientation, initiation, candidacy and formation phases. The process can take anywhere from a year to several years depending on the individual.
Often the calling begins with an invitation to a fraternity meeting from a Franciscan acquaintance. Through study and getting to know members of the fraternity, the inquirer may become attracted to aspects of the Franciscan life, especially the spirit of poverty that stands in opposition to a materialistic culture.
“There is a drastic misunderstanding of poverty of spirit,” said Dan Goering, a member of the Columbia area’s Sacred Heart Fraternity. “People think it is just about physical ownership and money, but there are people with very little who place too much value on what they do not have. There has to be an actual giving up or detachment inside, an understanding of what’s truly important.”
The entire process flows from one stage to another, ending with ongoing formation of professed members that helps support vocations and spiritual growth.
The Greenville fraternity, Our Lady of Good Council, recently had an open retreat with over 60 participants that resulted in eight new inquirers.
“The turnout for the retreat was unprecedented,” said Dick Tarbett, who chairs the fraternity. He looks forward to the growth of the organization because they will be able to accomplish more in the community, something Franciscans are called to do.
Nancy Ferro, a longtime member of Our Lady of Good Council, believes the Franciscan way of life has made her a better Christian. She has found it helpful to be associated with people who share thoughts about the faith.
“I have been a member for 40-plus years and it only gets better,” she said.
Goering is also approaching his fortieth year and said he has no regrets.
“It took a long time to understand why I was called to be a Franciscan but I have learned through the years that if you do what you are supposed to do, you will see the benefits,” he said.
Rosa Johnson, a new member of the Sacred Heart Fraternity but a 20-year Franciscan, is happy she was finally able to locate a fraternity in Columbia.
She said that she truly missed not being a part of a local group but said that she never stopped being a Franciscan, a commitment every professed member makes for life.
“The fraternity is not a club but an order and you must be called to this way of life,” said Johnson, who can now “bloom where she is planted” with the help of her Franciscan friends.