Monday, August 30, 2010

Laypeople Join Francis of Assisi and his Revival: Third Order Franciscans

As multitudes heard the preaching of Francis and the Little Brothers, young and old, men and women, married and single, came to Christ. Single and widowed men were free to join the Friars Minor—the “Little Brothers.” Single and widowed women joined the Poor Clares, although their houses were fewer and less accessible to women across Europe.

But what was to be done with those who were married? They wanted to remain committed husbands and wives, and they wanted to provide for their children.

Middle Way
Several years before he died, Francis made provision for those who were not able to join the Little Brothers (referred to as the First Order) or the Poor Clares (Second Order). This Third Order was for laypeople who wanted to maintain their lives in the world—holding jobs and raising families—while following a spiritual life as much as possible.

Such a middle way between the religious life of monks/nuns/friars and the secular life of ordinary people is part of the genius of the New Monasticism of the Middle Ages. The Beguines of northern Europe provided opportunity for laywomen, initially including married housewives as well as the single maids and widows. In the Alpine regions of southern France and northern Italy, the Waldensian movement sought to include whole families as well as the men who traveled about preaching two-by-two.

Above all the Humiliati in the regions of northern Italy around Milan provided three opportunities for people to join their spiritual renewal movement. For those going into “full-time ministry,” as it were, they could take vows and become an Augustinian canon. Or one could live in a single sisters’ household or a single brothers’ household, remaining laypeople. Or, the third option—especially for married men and women—was to remain as part of the family and live out one’s spiritual growth while living at home and maintaining a job. This option was referred to at the “Third Order” and was confirmed by papal rule in 1201. Undoubtedly Francis and Cardinal Ugolino, who helped provide structure and protection for the Franciscans, knew of these developments taking place several hundred miles to the north. It is likely that Francis fashioned his rule for the Third Order with this model in the back of his mind.

Movement of Laypeople
Thus, Francis’ Third Order was not the first of its kind; however, it soon became the most popular and most influential movement of laypeople seen since the Early Church.

The Third Order commitment was similar to what we have today as “accountability groups” or other small groups for spiritual formation. They dedicated themselves to prayer, some fasting, and meeting together each month.

Just a few of the best known figures who sought spiritual growth by becoming part of the Third Order Franciscans are: the writers Dante and Petrarch, the artist Giotto who painted the scenes of Francis’ life in the Basilica of St. Francis, explorers Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama. A number of the popes, as well as King Louis IX (St. Louis) of France and Elizabeth of Hungary and Thomas More of England were significant political figures who led spiritual lives as Franciscan tertieries.

2010 © Glenn E. Myers

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