Francis of Assisi rapidly became the most universally popular of Christian saints, canonized only two years after his death. He is the patron saint of Italy as well as of ecology. There are three main Franciscan Orders in the Church: one for men, one for women, and one for men and women remaining “in the world.” The women’s branch was founded by one of Francis’ most devoted disciples, Clare of Assisi who in 1212 ran away from her aristocratic family to join his band of brothers. The family reacted violently, but Francis protected her, welcomed her into the religious life, and established a community for her and her sisters at San Damiano. She was always the most faithful of his followers when it came to the rule of poverty, refusing to let the Pope mitigate it in any way. (“Holy Father, release me from my sins, but not from the vow to follow our Lord Jesus Christ.”)
According to one biographer (Fortini), the idea of a Third or “Secular” Order began to germinate on a famous occasion in which Francis preached to the birds. Villagers who had listened to his sermon came and asked how they could participate, how they might dedicate themselves en masse to his movement. But it was not until 1221 that a way was found for this to happen—when the merchant Lucchesio and his wife asked to join Francis, without being forced to separate from each other.
As soon as the Third Order had been established with its own Rule, it spread rapidly throughout Italy and beyond. And it transformed medieval society by helping to bring feudalism to an end. The Rule forbade the bearing of arms or the swearing of oaths of fealty, on which the almost perpetual warfare between feuding city states all over Italy depended. That very year (1221), tertiaries in Faenza refused to take up arms for the Emperor, and the Pope upheld their right not to go to war if they had chosen peace. Whole villages and towns all over Italy now claimed the same right, defining a new kind of secularity, a new secular existence within Christendom that was destined to grow beyond all expectations.1
What would a Franciscan Third Order look like today? They would live a life based on the Eucharist and the sacrament of Reconciliation. They would devote themselves especially to careful reading of the gospel, going from gospel to life and life to gospel. They would seek to encounter the living and active person of Christ in their brothers and sisters, in Sacred Scripture, in the Church, and in liturgical activity. And they would devote themselves energetically to living in full communion with the pope, bishops, and priests, fostering an open and trusting dialogue of apostolic effectiveness and creativity.
In a time of the Church’s decline, when a large number of the bishops themselves cannot be trusted, what follows? Then other elements of Catholic spirituality come to the fore, such as daily conversion, prayer and contemplation, devotion to the Eucharist, certainly, and to the Blessed Virgin Mary, especially. The choice of a poor and humble life, and detachment from material goods, become central to the secular Franciscan life. We read in the Rule that: “in the spirit of the Beatitudes, and as pilgrims and strangers on their way to the home of the Father, they should strive to purify their hearts from every tendency and yearning for possession and power” (p. 11). We must “accept all people as a gift of the Lord and an image of Christ” (p. 13). We “should respect all creatures, animate and inanimate, which “bear the imprint of the Most High,” and should strive to move from the temptation of exploiting creation to the Franciscan concept of universal kinship” (p. 18). As bearers and makers of peace, we should also see Sister Death in a new light: “Since they are immersed in the resurrection of Christ, which gives true meaning to Sister Death, let them serenely tend toward the ultimate encounter with the Father” (p. 19).
An example of Franciscan spirituality in our time is Mark Turnham Elvins, who died in Oxford on 1 May 2014. Despite his status in the First Order he demonstrated possibilities of the Third. (After all it was the First Order that founded the Third in the first place.) A former Warden of Greyfriars, Oxford, he was also a promoter of devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, in 2011 combining his Marian concerns and his regard for the poor by founding Our Lady of Palestine, a charity for the support of poor families in the Holy Land. The important thing is that he attempted to live in the inspiration of the Friars, in other words he tried to turn his life into an act of devotion to Our Lady.
Father Elvins served in the Territorial Army but also as Chaplain of Magistral Grace with the Hospitaller Order. His numerous titles are impressive—among others they indicate his deep interest in the symbolic meaning of the military orders. He was also an expert in heraldry, in which he took enormous delight. He took these things seriously, founding the most successful support for the homeless in Oxford, Brighton, and Canterbury, and co-founding the Thomas More Legal Centre, which offers free legal advice in religious freedom and discrimination cases. He was also the author of more than a dozen books under various names, some of them illustrated by himself in a whimsical style.
This is an extreme case, perhaps, but it illustrates one form that a Catholic secularism can take in the modern world. The Secular Franciscans are distinguished by a strong Catholic spirituality, as well as a love of poverty, penance, and the Beatitudes, interpreted according to the Admonitions of St Francis. They reject power, and respect all creatures including Death. They refuse to exploit creation, and are peacemakers according to the concept of universal kinship. They do not reject the church or the authority of the bishops, but take the principle of authority to represent, not their own wills, but adherence to the supreme Good.2
It is necessary for us to remember this principle and to work out an intelligent application of it—one that has meaning and application in the present time, just as the first Franciscans, and especially the men and women of the Third Order, did in theirs. In this way we try to give a new meaning to the word “Secular”—a redefinition of a state of existence that barely had meaning in earlier times. This redefinition is desperately needed as the clash between faith and agnosticism still tends to define the social landscape.
It is hard to define such a landscape. There is a way in which music can do so, or art. A sociological definition is not much help to anyone. It is human persons who stand at the center of things. It is the love of St Francis that shapes the world in the middle of which he stands. Think of it this way. Starting with the Renaissance, the great paintings were no longer icons. Each painting centered on a human face or figure, but the landscape started to seem less and less like a background to an iconic figure. It became important in its own right—with hills and trees, mountains and cities, playing an increasingly important role. (In due course the foreground figure could be omitted altogether).
It was similar in the case of human society—society of all sorts. A figure like St Francis enables the people around him to think about the potential of human existence in a new way. We may regret it, but what emerges is a society of individuals, determined less by a sense of divine mission and purpose than by the choices we make in a world otherwise without meaning. The meaning, that is to say, comes from our own decisions. We live in a world that emerges from these decisions.
Secular Franciscanism offers a world of individualism, but what opens up before us is a new secularism in which a figure like St Francis enables the people around him to think about the potential of human existence in a new way.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
 The preceding paragraphs are taken from Not As the World Gives (Angelico Press, 2014).
 If, however, a superior command anything to a subject that is against his soul it is permissible for him to disobey, but he must not leave him [the superior], and if in consequence he suffer persecution from some, he should love them the more for God’s sake” (n. 3).