IN ISOLATION ITS WEAKNESS, IN UNITY ITS STRENGTH.
Fr. Seraphin Conley, TOR
"The Cord," vol. 40, n.4, 1990.
As even this brief history of the Order indicates: one of the great strengths of the Third Order Regular of St. Francis down through the centuries has been its amazing diversity. In every age and in varied lands and cultures, new congregations embracing the Third Rule of St. Francis have been founded to meet the needs of the people or the Church of that time and place. This vitality flowing from the "fruitful ideal" of St. Francis is still evident. Today there are more than 430 Institutes of contemplative or apostolic life following "The Rule of the Brothers and Sisters of the Third Order Regular". The witness of some 200,000 Franciscan men and women is surely a tremendous sign of Christ's love for His Church. It reflects something of what Pope Paul VI wrote in his Decree on the Appropriate Renewal of Religious Life:
And so it happened by divine plan that a wonderful variety of religious communities grew up. This variety contributed mightily toward making the Church experienced in every good deed (cf. 2 Tim. 3:17) and ready for the ministry of service in building up Christ's body. (cf. Eph. 3:17)
The vocation of the priest, of the cloistered nun, of those brothers and sisters engaged in the works of mercy ... each is represented in the Family of the Third Order Regular. It is very clear that one of the strengths of our religious family lies in its diversity. Paradoxically, this very diversity has also been a weakness at times. How many once numerous tertiary congregations, after centuries of dedicated service, have vanished ... unknown, or at least unremembered even by their brothers and sisters of the TOR Family. This was brought home to me recently as I read an article by a Sister from India on the history of her Franciscan congregation. She mentioned the presence of OFM and Capuchin missionaries but evidently had no knowledge of the presence of TOR friars of the Portuguese Congregation during the colonial period. Indeed, one of whom, a Frei Paolo de Estrella, was ordained Bishop of Meliapor on December 5, 1630. The convent of this congregation of friars in Lisbon was noted for its studies of Oriental Languages, one of which was Malabar (the language of the rite of this Indian Congregation of Sisters). Since the missionary area assigned to the TOR friars by the Crown was Angola and Cape Verde, their contribution to the Church in India was a modest one. However, it seems forgotten even by Franciscans from India. Likewise, in Germany, the Low Countries, Ireland, France, Spain and Portugal, various national congregations or confederations of TOR friars and sisters have disappeared and their contributions forgotten.
Perhaps, a principal factor in their disappearance lay in their being "national" or "local" groups without the support and refuge provided by an international Order while they waited out the time of trouble. The upheaval of the Reformation, the attempt by the English to purge the Catholic faith and national culture in Ireland, the fury of the French Revolution (which gave the Church a TOR martyr Bl. Severin Girault) may seem to belong to the distant past. However, the TOR Congregations of Spanish and Portuguese friars only disappeared in the civil suppressions of the 19th century. More recently, a sad loss to the whole TOR Family has been the transfer of some monasteries of TOR nuns from the profession of the TOR Rule to that of the Clares. This is not a lament over a loss of numbers or prestige but the loss this represents to the whole TOR Family of more than 400 years of tradition and witness to the aspect of contemplative prayer so beautifully expressed in the third chapter of the Rule. Surely, a sense of isolation, some lack of knowledge of penitential spirituality, being outside the currents of renewal among the brothers did sisters of the Third Order Regular which culminated in the approval of our new Rule, all probably had some part in such decisions, understandable but still regrettable. These are some reasons leading to the conclusion that diversity "in isolation" has been a weakness of the Franciscan Third Order Regular.
Fortunately, the picture of our history is not all shadows. To replace what had been lost, God raised up many modern "penitents of St. Francis," those men and women who began anew. So, in France, Ireland and Spain congregations of friars were founded. These gave rise eventually to Provinces which would renew the ancient Third Order Regular of St. Francis "of Penance." This part of the title shows that this Order finds its roots and origins in St. Francis and his followers in the penitential movement of his time (Brothers of the Order of Penance). Also, some monasteries of Tertiary or "Grey" Sisters which had accepted the reforms and Rule of Leo X with the corresponding obligation of cloister, in new circumstances were transformed into modern Franciscan congregations again dedicated to teaching or nursing.
In the years following Vatican Council II, many centuries old monasteries of TOR nuns in Spain, Italy and Mexico formed federations to strengthen and increase their charism of contemplative prayer. They have been blessed with an increase in vocations and the founding of new monasteries. Along with these signs of vitality there has also been an increasing impetus towards unity while respecting our diversity. One of the earliest efforts in this regard was the promotion of Inter-Obediential Congresses composed of the Major Superiors of Tertiary Congregations of Franciscan men. The inspiration for these meetings came from a letter of Pope Pius XII to the Minister General, Fr. John Boccella, T.O.R. on the occasion of the 5th Centenary of the Third Order Regular. Following that first Congress, the delegates were received in a special audience by the Holy Father who was pleased that his suggestion had been followed up. In all there were 4 Inter-Obediential Congresses along with less formal meetings which served to foster a deeper fraternal knowledge and apostolic collaboration among the congregations of friars. A friar, very dedicated to this vision, was Bro. Joseph Schieffer CFP of the Franciscan Brothers of the Poor (Aachen, Germany) who served as the Secretary of the Inter Obediential Congress/Office for several years. The most lasting and widespread influence of these Congresses was in preparing the way for that historic meeting in Madrid, Spain in 1974. From that 4th Inter-Obediential Congress of the friars and representatives of several Conferences of Franciscan Sisters came the document Officially titled: A Statement of Understanding of Franciscan Penitential Life, which came to be known simply as The Madrid Document. As Bro. Paul McMullen T.O.R. explains in his study on the development of the new Rule:
This document gave a distinct and unique direction to the understanding of Tertiary life today. It offered a clearer notion of penance in the biblical concept of metanoia, or ongoing conversion. Although we now have a new Rule, this Statement remains a valid spiritual document and expression of our Franciscan Penitential life.
Gradually, the studies and work projects towards a new rule which were being done independently in different countries or among various language groups in response to that renewal of religious life called for by Vatican II came to be known and shared. Over the subsequent 10 years there were a series of national and international meetings to coordinate these efforts. Commissions and coordinating structures were set up to guide the process of arriving at a clearer understanding of all the aspects of the charism of the entire Third Order Regular Family to be expressed in a new Rule. From a diversity of languages, nationalities, cultures and expressions of the Charism of the Franciscan Order of Penance came mutual respect and understanding leading to a real sense of unity among the many Congregations of the Franciscan Third Order Regular.
We began by noting that one of the strengths of the Third Order Regular of St. Francis has been its amazing diversity which, in isolation often proved a weakness. Something new and wonderful has taken place in our time. The beauty and richness of our diversity remains but to it has been added a unity of spirit and heart, a unity of hopes and efforts crowned by the Church's approval of our new Rule which has given new strength and vigor to the whole Order. We are hopeful that these efforts towards unity begun with such promise be continued and multiplied by all the Brothers and Sisters of the Third Order Regular of St. Francis throughout the world.
Fr. Seraphin Conley, TOR
"The Cord," vol. 40, n.4, 1990.
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