By Karen Mahoney
Special to your Catholic Herald
MILWAUKEE – While Judie Longrie is a full time student at Cardinal Stritch University, she embraces the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi more deeply than the average student might. For the past four years, she has been a professed member of the Secular Franciscans. Until recently, had to drive more than 70 miles each month to attend a meeting.
“I began six years ago with the Holy Assumption Fraternity in West Allis,” she said. “I come from Sheboygan County and there was nothing closer for me.”
Last fall, Stritch became host to a fraternity of the Secular Franciscan Order, an organization for Christian lay men and women who might not wish to enter religious life, but are seeking a means to live out their spiritual beliefs.
According to Paul Salerno, a Secular Franciscan and minister to members, the group at Stritch began as an offshoot of the existing Portiuncola Fraternity in Franklin, which meets monthly at SS. Francis and Claire Friary in Franklin.
“There seemed to be an overall interest in the Secular Franciscans, so our spiritual assistant, Franciscan Fr. Jim Gannon, and I sent out some inquiries and about a dozen or so people showed up at Stritch for an initial meeting,” he said. “We have about six to eight members of the fraternity who regularly attend this group, in addition to those who have continued to show an interest.”
It is not uncommon for professed members from an established fraternity to “break off” and help form the new community, Fr. Gannon noted.
“Once there are professed members of this fraternity at Cardinal Stritch, they will elect their ministers and then name the fraternity,” he said.
Members live simple lives
Approximately 15 people, including Stritch students, faculty and members of the public, meet the second Wednesday of each month to learn more about the Franciscan lifestyle.
To enter the order, members must complete a two-year formation program and then make a public profession to live according to a series of rules written by St. Francis. Some rules include regular participation in reconciliation, living a simple life free of excessive material possessions, giving charitably of time and money and providing Christian education for their children.
“Like Franciscan communities of religious women and men throughout the world, the Secular Franciscan Order has a structure of outreach that must be part of the fraternity,” said Fr. Gannon. “The Franciscan spirituality means to pray together as a community, participate in communal prayer, individual prayer, prayers for one another and the needs of the world and to be instruments of reconciliation and peace.”
Providing outreach through charity or time and talent is a large part of the Secular Franciscan Order. Each fraternity is required to have an active committee that is directed to justice, peace and reverence of creation.
“Each fraternity must establish an outreach ministry of care to the sick and homebound,” said Fr. Gannon. “Each fraternity must have an outreach program to minister to the poor in real and practical ways.”
Order is 800 years old
The Franciscans have had third order or secular members for some 800 years, since the lifetime of St. Francis of Assisi. In 1209, Francis and his first 11 followers traveled to Rome to seek permission from Pope Innocent III to found a new religious order. Jotted down on a simple piece of paper were a series of quotations from the Gospels, upon which the Franciscan Order would be founded. Although the pope initially rejected Francis’ request due to concern about an overabundance of religious orders, Innocent III later had a dream that the Basilica of St. John Lateran was crumbling, and recognized Francis as the man in his dream who was rebuilding it.
Within a short time, Francis had thousands of followers and, to this day, both lay and religious dedicate their lives to poverty and serving the poor, living according to the Gospel of Jesus, relating to others as brothers and sisters and recognizing God’s presence within themselves and in the world.
Saint’s passion is ‘powerful’ example
It was St. Francis’ passion for working with those ostracized from society that led Art Montgomery of Wauwatosa to become a professed member of the fraternity two years ago.
“I admired St. Francis’ zeal for working with these people,” he said. “It is powerful and that’s what got me attracted to this fraternity Ð the spirituality and service to others.”
In her daily life, Barb Spies of Germantown is immersed in Franciscan-infused courses in her job as associate professor in communication arts at Cardinal Stritch University.
“I am in the inquiry phase,” she said. “But I am really interested in this lifestyle Ð I have read a lot about Francis and talked to Fr. Jim (Gannon) about it.”
Meetings begin with prayer, followed by study in the formation binder, which includes learning ways to imitate the life of St. Francis, the Rule, constitution, Vatican II documents, the Gospels, history of the Secular Franciscans and how to apply the knowledge to daily life.
After several months to a year, Salerno said individuals know whether they are prepared to make a formal commitment to the Secular Franciscan Order.
“Not all are called to profess,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean the affiliation ends; some are called to become part of a fellowship group called the Friends of Francis.”
Non-Christians also follow St. Francis
According to Ken Beatie, regional minister of the LaVerna Region of the SFO, Sheboygan, there are Christian and non-Christian followers of St. Francis.
“There are some Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists who admire Francis,” he said. “Gandhi was a follower of St. Francis.”
To become a Third Order or Secular Franciscan, applicants must be Roman Catholic, in good standing, at least 21 years old and in formation for at least two years. There are no restrictions on living the single or married life.
“There needs to be discernment on both sides,” said Beatie. “After orientation and inquiry, (there) will be the more formal period called candidacy or formation, and that lasts about 18 months.”
Candidacy is a time of preparing for permanent commitment by immersion into fraternity life. Central to this stage of formation is Article 4 of The Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order which states, “The rule and life of the Secular Franciscan is this: to observe the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by following St. Francis of Assisi, who made Christ the inspiration and the center of his life with God and people.”
For Salerno, following St. Francis is not just a reflection on his own beliefs or values; belonging to the order is a template of who he already is and what he seeks.
“I find following Jesus the way Francis did as appealing and I live this way of life because I believe that is how God has called me to live,” he said. “This is an exciting time in the church because I think we have a hunger for spirituality and many find the Franciscan way of spirituality as a way to feed their souls.”
For more information on the Secular Franciscan Order:< www.nafra-sfo.org>
Franciscan Fr. Jim Gannon
Cardinal Stritch SFO meets the
second Wednesday of each month
6:30 to 7:45 p.m.
Cardinal Stritch University, 6801 N.
Yates Road, Milwaukee, entrance off
parking lot 7