The Third Order Regular of St. Francis of Assisi

Francis the Evangelist

Saint Francis of Assisi and his first companions were inspired by the Holy Spirit to live the gospel as a fraternity group, and following the example of Jesus and his apostles, they travelled through cities and countryside to preach the holy gospel and ask the people to live a Christian life more in keeping with the message of salvation.
Many people were moved by the living testimony of Francis, the “Poverello” (the Poor Man) and wanted to follow him. They wanted to behave as he did faithful to Christ and to the word of life in the gospels.

Popular enthusiasm and Followers
Francis welcomed everyone as a gift from God. The men who followed him became Minor Friars; young ladies became the Poor Ladies or Poor Clares. Francis also inspired many men and women who did not enter into religious service.

They remained in the outside world and continued their normal activities. This movement evolved into the Franciscan Third Order of Penance.

Origins of the Third Order
The Third Order movement began in the autumn of 1211, expanding during the spring of 1212 and enjoying a prodigious growth in both area and numbers over the next ten years.

The Rule of Evangelical Life
Francis offered his followers a Rule of evangelical life, giving the Tertiaries three precious documents: The First Letter to the Faithful Penitents in 1215; the Second Letter to the Faithful Penitents in 1221 and the “Memoriale Propositi” in 1221.

In 1289 the First Franciscan pope, Niccolò IV, wanted to recognise the Third Order of San Francis in an official way. He gave explicit approval to the Order of Penance, which had already been commended by many Popes, and reissued the “Memoriale Propositi”, the Rule of 1221 in a more juridic form.  Those Penitent Fransiscans who remained in their homes (marrying or not) and who held a professional post constituted the Secular Third Order (TOS), which since 1978 has been called the Secular Franciscan Order (OFS).

Towards a more Perfect Life
Not to be forgotten is the fact that, at the same time, a particular phenomenon was developing.  From the time of St. Francis onwards there were some Tertiaries, men and women, who manifested the desire of a greater commitment towards a life of Christian perfection. They began to live in communities and in time decided to profess the gospel or evangelical counsels, that is, the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Some Tertiaries had a preference for the contemplative life, which they expressed by living in hermitages or in voluntary seclusion, far from earthly distractions, their hearts focussed entirely on the mystery of God.

Many began helping in hospitals and caring for the sick and aged. Some provided shelter for pilgrims or other travellers. Others established reception centres for homeless women and school for the education of young people.

Soon the friars began working in the parishes and offered the ministries of teaching, preaching, catechesis, as well as scientific and religious publications. Later a commitment to missionary work arose and developed with great intensity both in the past and in recent times.

The fraternities of Tertiary Regulars, which had been founded spontaneously and all over Italy, increased in number and diffusion, especially during the 14th Century.  Soon they began to unite, both in order to be more effective and also to better cope with the many difficulties they faced.

The devotion to a life in community was demonstrated over the centuries by the numerous autonomous congregations of monks and nuns.

Towards the end of the 13th century the Tertiary Regulars had many friaries in different cities. On July 11, 1295, Pope Boniface VIII promulgated the “Cupientes cultum” Bull which granted to the Tertiary Regulars the right to have a proper place for worship. In so doing he approved the style of community life of the Tertiaries and the pastoral ministry they offered to the people.

Now let us concentrate on the male Third Order (TOR), which dates back to the time of St. Francis of Assisi and gas continued without interruption ever since.

Pope John XXII by the “Altissimo in divinis” Bull dated November 18, 1323, renewed the Church’s approval. He praised the community life that the Tertiary Franciscans were living and declared that it was in accordance with the intentions of Saint Francis.

Centralisation and Organisation
On July 20, 1447, by means of the “Pastoralis officii” Bull, Pope Niccolò V  approved the union of the Tertiary Fraternities of Italy and established it as an independent Order under one general ministry and council.  In Italy, the Order spread out and developed in 15 Provinces with a total of 256 convents and about 2000 friars. (The Italian Congregation exists without interruption from St. Francis of Assisi to this day).

In several countries there was a gradual development of national Tertiary Orders. Today, the Third Order is present in 16 countries:  Italy, Croatia, Spain, France, Germany, USA, India, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Brazil, Paraguay, Mexico, Perù, Sweden, Bangladesh and the Philippines.

Some Orders disappeared due to government suppression or war, while others amalgamated with the Italian Congregation in one single entity which today is called the Regular Third Order of Saint Francis.

In the World Today
Pope Innocenzo X closed all the convents and monasteries with fewer than six members.  And since the orders of the Tertiary Regulars were predominantly hermotic, small or poor, many were closed down.  This was gravely damaging to the order and more or less destroyed an society which has always been of a “hermitic nature”.  To this were added the continuing difficulties caused within the Franciscan Order, and the repeated civil suppressions which rained down upon the already substantially weakened order.

After repeated civil suppressions and a satisfactory recovery the Regular Third Order of Saint Francis is still around today, and present in the following countries: Italy, Croatia, Spain, France, Germany, America, India, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Brazil, Paraguay, Mexico, Peru, Sweden, Bangladesh, the Filippines.  In total, the number of convents is 208.

At this point you may well ask, «But when was the Third Order founded, and by whom?». As with the other ancient Franciscan families, the Regular Third Order has its origins in the very same Saint Francis of Assisi, and developed with and because of multiple historical circumstances.

The Apostolic Activities
The apostolic activities ministered by the Regular Third Order are many: pastoral care within the parishes, acts of kindness for the needy, schools for the young, teaching and preaching, and missionary work. But the main apostolic aim is to live the gift of a consecrated life as a continual offering upon the altar of the world, for and to the glory of God, and the salvation of our fellow men.

The Spirituality
The traditional spirituality of the Regular Third Order derives from the Franciscan Penitence Movement and can be synthesised in the following theoretical-practical definition:  the duty of constant conversion to a living God in the biblical sense, and to perform acts of kindness according to time and place.  For this reason, the specification “de poenitentia” is always added beside the name of the Order.

Teenagers and Young People
Jesus travels the world and seeks assistants to help spread the Word of the Gospel.  In the same way that he called forth Saint Francis of Assisi and performed wondrous works together with him, so Jesus calls you to spread the message of salvation throughout the world of today.

Jesus appeals to each one of you, full of faith and love: «Come, leave everything and I will make you fishers of men, and you will see extraordinary things. You can make your own existence more precious by proclaiming peace, justice and the mutual need for live, by easing the suffering of the needy, and by becoming a missionary. Don’t be afraid, come».

The Third Order Regular has its international headquarters (General Curia) in Rome. Its offices are attached to the Basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian near the Roman Forum (Via dei Fori Imperiali 1, 00186 Rome, Italy).