What is a Franciscan Vocation?
"The Rule of the Friars Minor is this,
namely, to observe the Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ,
by living in obedience without anything of our own, and in chastity."
(Solet Annuere, Chapter I)
A Franciscan Vocation is a vocation to follow Christ after the manner of St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226 A.D.), the founder of the Order of Friars Minor.
St. Francis, who in the words of Pope Pius XI, "was sent by Divine Providence for the reformation not only of the turbulent age in which he lived but of Christian society of all times" (Rite Expiatis: April 13, 1926 A.D.), is one of the greatest saints of the Roman Catholic Church. Let us listen to His Holiness, Pope Pius XI, speak of the Saint in the same encyclical
2. If some dare to compare, one with another, the heavenly heroes of sanctity destined by the Holy Ghost each to his own special mission among men—these comparisons, the fruit for the most part of party passions, are valueless and are at the same time an insult to God, the author of sanctity—it seems necessary for Us to affirm that there has never been anyone in whom the image of Jesus Christ and the evangelical manner of life shone forth more lifelike and strikingly than in St. Francis. He who called himself the "Herald of the Great King" was also rightly spoken of as "another Jesus Christ," appearing to his contemporaries and to future generations almost as if he were the Risen Christ. He has always lived as such in the eyes of men and so will continue to live for all future time. Nor is it marvelous that his early biographers, contemporaries of the Saint, in their accounts of his life and works, judged him to be of a nobility almost superior to human nature itself. Our Predecessors who dealt personally with Francis did not hesitate to recognize in him a providential help sent by God for the welfare of Christian peoples and of the Church.
3. Notwithstanding the long time that has elapsed since the death of the Seraphic Father, the admiration for him, not only of Catholics but even of non-Catholics, continues amazingly to increase for the reason that his greatness appears to the minds of men with no less splendor today than it did long ago. We, too, most ardently pray for the strength of his virtues which have been so powerful, even at the present hour, in remedying the ills of society. In fact, his work of reform has permeated so deeply Christian peoples that besides re-establishing purity of faith and of morals it has resulted in this, that even the laws of justice and of evangelical charity now more profoundly inspire and guide social life itself.
But why was St. Francis so instrumental in serving Christ and His Church? And more importantly, for us today, why is the following of St. Francis so much needed today? To answer these questions let us review what Pope Pius XI says, further on in the same Encyclical Letter, where he gives us a short summary of the life of St. Francis:
6. The terrible conditions existing in the times when St. Francis lived are well known to you, Venerable Brothers. It is quite true that then the faith was more deeply rooted in the people, as is proven by the holy enthusiasm with which not only professional soldiers but even citizens of every class bore arms in Palestine to free the Holy Sepulcher. However, heresies gradually arose and grew in the vineyard of the Lord, propagated either by open heretics or by sly deceivers who, because they professed a certain austerity of life and gave a false appearance of virtue and piety, easily led weak and simple souls astray. They went about, too, amid the multitudes spreading the destructive flames of rebellion. If some of these men, in their pride, believed themselves called by God to reform the Church to which they imputed the faults of private persons, even going to the length of rebelling against the teachings and authority of the Holy See, later they openly manifested the real intention by which they were inspired. It is a notorious fact that before long the greater part of these heretics ended their careers in licentiousness and vice, and succeeded in embroiling the state in difficulties and in undermining the foundations of religion, of property, of the family, and of society. In a word, what happened then is precisely what we see recurring so often in the course of the centuries; rebellions leveled against the Church are followed or accompanied by rebellions against the state, the one receiving aid and comfort from the other.
7. Although the Catholic faith still lived in the hearts of men, in some cases intact and in others a bit obscured, however lacking they might have been in the spirit of the gospels, the charity of Christ had become so weakened in human society as to appear to be almost extinct. To say nothing of the constant warfare carried on by the partisans of the Empire, on the one hand, and by those of the Church on the other, the cities of Italy were torn by internecine wars because one party desired to rule, refusing to recognize the rights of the barons to govern, or because the strong wished to force the weak to submit to them, or because of the struggles for supremacy between political parties in the same city. Horrible massacres, conflagrations, devastation and pillage, exile, confiscation of property and estates were the bitter fruits of these struggles.
8. Sad indeed was the fate of the common people, while between lords and vassals, between the greater and the lesser, as they were called, between the owners of land and the peasants existed relations in every sense of the world foreign to the spirit of humanity. Peace-loving people were harassed and oppressed with impunity by the powerful. Those who did not belong to that most unfortunate class of human beings, the proletariat, allowed themselves to be overcome by egotism and greed for possessions and were driven by an insatiable desire for riches. These men, regardless of the laws which had been promulgated in many places against vice, ostentatiously paraded their riches in a wild orgy of clothes, banquets, and feasts of every kind. They looked on poverty and the poor as something vile. They abhorred from the depths of their souls the lepers—leprosy was then very widespread—and neglected these outcasts completely in their segregation from society. What is worse, this greed for wealth and pleasure was not even absent, though many of the clergy are to be commended for the austerity of their lives, from those who should have most scrupulously guarded themselves from such sin. The custom, too, was prevalent of monopolizing wealth and piling up large fortunes. These fortunes were often acquired in divers and sinful manners, sometimes by the violent extortion of money and other times by usury. Many increased and swelled their patrimony by an illicit trade in public office and emoluments, in the administration of justice, and even by the procuring of immunity from punishment for persons convicted of crime.
9. The Church was not silent under these circumstances; neither did it spare its edicts of punishment; but of what use was all this when even the Emperors drew down on themselves the anathemas of the Holy See, and, to the great scandal of all, contumaciously despised these decrees? Even the monastic life, which had brought so many spiritual fruits to maturity, tarnished now by the dirt of this world, possessed no longer the strength to resist and to defend itself. If the founding of new religious orders brought some small help and strength to the maintenance of ecclesiastical discipline, certainly a much stronger flame of light and love was necessary to reform human society which had been so profoundly disturbed.
10. To bring light to the people of this world which We have described, and to lead them back to the pure ideals of the wisdom of the Gospels, there appeared, in the Providence of God, St. Francis of Assisi who, as Dante sang, "shone as the sun" (Paradiso, Canto XI), or as Thomas of Celano had already written of a similar figure, "he shone forth as a resplendent star on a dark night, like the morning which spreads itself over the darkness." (Legenda I, No. 37)
11. As a youth, St. Francis was expansive and high-strung, a lover of luxurious dress. He was accustomed to invite to magnificent banquets the friends he had chosen from among the fashionable and pleasure-loving young men of the town. He walked through the streets with them, singing gaily. But even at that time in his life he became known for the integrity of his moral life, his correctness in conversation, and his utter disdain of wealth. After his imprisonment in Perugia, which was followed by a long illness, he felt himself, not without a certain sense of astonishment, completely transformed. However, as if he desired to flee from the hands of God, he went to Puglia on a military mission. On this journey he felt himself commanded by God in unmistakable terms to return to Assisi and learn there what he must do. After much wavering and many doubts, through divine inspiration and through having heard at solemn Mass that passage from the Gospels which speaks of the apostolic life, he understood at last that he, too, must live and serve Christ "according to the very words of the Holy Gospels." From that time on he undertook to unite himself to Christ alone and to make himself like unto Him in all things. In "all his efforts, public as well as private, he turned to the Cross of Our Lord, and from the moment he began to live as a soldier of Christ, the divers mysteries of the Cross shone round about him." (Thomas of Celano, Treatise on Miracles, No. 2) Truly he was a brave soldier and knight of Christ because of the nobility and generosity of his heart; wherefore to prove that neither he nor his disciples were ever to be separated from Our Lord, he always had recourse to the Gospels as to an oracle whenever he had to make a decision on any matter. The rules of the Orders founded by him were made to agree most scrupulously with the Gospels, and the religious life of his followers with the life of the Apostles. For this reason at the very beginning of his Rule, he wrote: "This is the life and rule of the Friars Minor, to observe the holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ." (Beginning of Rule of the Friars Minor)
St. Francis was so prolific a founder that he founded three religious Orders, one for men (priests & brothers), one for nuns, an a third for lay people. The Order of Friars Minor was the first of these.
The Marian Observance of the Gospel
For St. Francis the Observance of the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ was everything, for since Christ is the One Messiah and Teacher of all mankind, being God who cannot deceive nor be deceived, it follows that His teachings are worthy of unlimited trust and are the most and only sure path to eternal salvation.
This conviction of St. Francis is itself very scriptural, being none other than that of Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary Herself, who gave us all a lesson in devotion to Jesus Christ, when She said, "Do whatever He tells you." (The Gospel of John Chapter 2, verse 5)
St. Francis took this Marian Counsel to heart and spent his entire religious life living according to all the teachings of Our Lord. Specifically he did this in three ways:
1) By observing the Apostolic Life, which Our Lord taught to His Apostles
2) By living the religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience
3) By his uncompromising loyalty, devotion, and love for the Roman Pontiff, as Vicar of Christ, and successor of St. Peter.
To better understand, therefore, what a Franciscan Vocation is, let us take a closer look at these three aspects of St. Francis' life.
The Apostolic Life
For St. Francis and his contemporaries "The Apostolic Life" meant something very specific and clear: the life lived by the Apostles of Jesus Christ, as this is recorded in the Holy Gospels. It did not refer principally to an apostolate of good works, as it is often used today.
The Life of the Apostles was something central to the Catholic Faith in the Middle Ages, simply because it has always been the teaching of Holy Mother Church that the outstanding holiness of the Apostles is an example for all of us to imitate. The Apostles are the Twelve Foundation stones of the New and Eternal Jerusalem, Christ's Mystical Bride, the Catholic Church. Upon them and from them the Church is built up and receives Christ's authentic teachings and sacraments.
To the Apostles we Catholics, therefore, owe a very great deal, for they are our links in the chain of generations, connecting us back with Jesus Christ and His Immaculate Mother.
What then is the Apostolic Life?
This is the form of life which Our Lord taught to His Apostles, as is recorded in the Gospels, namely, in Matthew, Chapter 10; Mark Chapter 6, verses 7-13; Luke Chapter 9, verses 1-27 and Chapter 10, verses 1-24.
It is important to note here that these instructions given by Our Lord were given to the Apostles as a form of religious life, when He sent them out to preach the Gospel. In as much as the Apostles were also our first bishops, they were not obligated to observe all these teachings all the time, for they would also have the duties of caring for the local churches in all their necessities.
St. Francis, however, was inspired by God to take up this evangelical form of religious life and to do so in a stable unchanging manner, by promising God to observe the Gospel in this fashion for life. This is the Franciscan Life and Vocation. It is a life focused on preaching and living the Gospel, literally, and with great simplicity of devotion.
For this purpose St. Francis wrote a rule, which is called the Regula Bullata, since it was approved in its final form by the Bull of Pope Honorius III, "Solet Annuere."
The Evangelical Counsels
"The Rule of the Friars Minor is this, namely, to observe the Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ, by living in obedience without anything of our own, and in chastity." (Solet Annuere, Chapter I)
In the very first chapter of St. Francis' Rule is the explanation and summary of what it means to be a Franciscan and to follow Our Lord after the example of St. Francis. Notice the importance in the mind of St. Francis of the three evangelical counsels, those of obedience, poverty, and chastity. These three vows are the foundation of all religious life, and especially that of St. Francis and Franciscans, the Friars Minor.
What is a vow?
A vow is a promise made to God to do something Good for the love of God. This could be a prayer, good work or penance or a combination of these. What makes this a vow is the promise made to God. Since God is infinitely good and just and holy, a vow is therefore one of the most important acts anyone can make. Indeed religious vows are the greatest sacrifice that a Catholic can offer to God, after that which the Priest offers in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. When a vow is fulfilled then God is honored. And one fruit that comes from honoring God is the good example this gives to others for their salvation.
There are a special kind of vows which are called religious vows. These are vows to live a form of life which has been approved of by the Church. Those who take religious vows are called religious. They live in communities such as monasteries, friaries, convents, hermitages, etc.. The three vows that most religious take are called the Evangelical Vows, which are vows to live the three evangelical counsels which Our Lord taught to His Apostles: obedience, poverty, and chastity.
These Three Evangelical Counsels are good works which Our Lord advised all of us to practice sometime in life. They help us get to heaven. But they are not commands: all of us need not observe them all at all times. Yet it is good if some of us do. Among these are religious who promise to observe these three by their religious vows.
Obedience is a virtue. We should obey all legitimate authority, in our family (father and mother), in our nation (president/prime minister, leaders of the government), and most importantly in the Church (the Pope, our bishop, our pastor etc.). Without obedience no one can get to heaven. A promise made to God to obey an ecclesiastical superior in a religious community is called a vow of obedience. By it one makes himself a subject of the superior and promises to obey him in accord with the Rule of the community.
Chastity is a virtue. We should be chaste in our family and in public life. Without chastity no one can get to heaven. Chastity for the laity means celibacy before and after marriage and respect for one's spouse in marriage. Chastity for the clergy or for religious means celibacy for life. The vow of chastity is something religious profess. By it they sacrifice the freedom the laity have to marry and raise children.
Poverty is a virtue. We should love God above all things and love other thing only insofar as they help us love God. Without the virtue of poverty, which is a detachment from possessing things for the love of God, no one can get to heaven. No one should be greedy or make wealth the purpose of his life. Religious by the vow of poverty promise to live as a family, with all goods owned by the community and each member owning nothing personally.
What is unique about Franciscan Vows of Obedience, Poverty, and Chastity?
All religious men and women live some form of the vows of obedience, poverty, and chastity. But what distinguishes Franciscans from other religious is the manner and extent of the sacrifice offered by these sacred vows.
In obedience a Franciscan not only promises to obey his legitimate superiors in the Order in everything that is explicitly contained in the Rule and Norms of the community, but also obliges himself to do whatsoever the superior might command him so long as it is something good and licit. By this vow, the Franciscan religious obtains a childlike purity of heart which makes him pleasing to God and offers God the greatest of all sacrifices, that of his entire free will.
In poverty a Franciscan not only renounces the ownership of all possessions, giving them to the poor, and promises to live a communal life with his fellow religious, but he entrusts his life to God's providence and accepts only the use of necessary things. As such Franciscans traditionally own no property, either personally nor as a community, nor do they own or use money or financial instruments or investments. They rely entirely upon the charity of the faithful in everything, accepting the use of things and consumables in exchange for their manual labor.
In chastity a Franciscan not only renounces the goods of marriage, but also promises to avoid all familiarity with women, as well as every interior and exterior act which is against virginal purity. By this vow the Franciscan religious, while on earth, takes on the angelic life of purity which is the life of all the saints in Heaven.
Finally, by promising to observe the Gospel Life of the Apostles, the Franciscan religious promises to observe a unique and very perfect form of Marian Consecration, living as he does each day, to strive to ever more perfectly observe the words of Our Lady at Cana, doing whatsoever Our Lord says in the Gospel and through His Vicar on earth, the Roman Pontiff.
Loyalty, Devotion, and Love for the Roman Pontiff
St. Francis who was and is held in high esteem by the Successors of St. Peter as a "thoroughly Catholic and Apostolic man," is an outstanding example of loyalty, devotion, and love that all Catholics, indeed all Christians, should have for the Roman Pontiff.
St. Francis distinguished himself in this manner by frequently having recourse to the assistance and council of the Popes of his time, to propagating the Catholic Faith and the Roman Rite (as it had been celebrated in the private Chapel of the Popes from time immemorial), and by insisting on obedience to the Roman Pontiff in all matters ecclesiastical and civil in the Italy of the 13th Century.
For example, we read in the Twelfth Chapter of the Rule of St. Francis:
"Let whoever of the friars who desires by divine inspiration to go among the Saracens and other infidels seek permission from their minister provincial. Indeed the ministers are to grant permission to go to none, except those whom seems to be fit to be sent. For which sake I enjoin the ministers by obedience, to seek from the Lord Pope one of the Cardinals of the Roman Church, who is to be the governor, protector, and corrector of this fraternity, so that always subject and prostrate at the feet of this same Holy Church, stable in the Catholic Faith we may observe, as we have firmly promised, the poverty and humility and the Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ."
This then is what a Franciscan Vocation is all about: a profoundly Marian-Apostolic vocation in the service of the Roman Pontiff for the honor and glory of Jesus Christ, true God and true Man.
Suggested Reading at The Franciscan Archive
The Rule of St. Francis
Solet Annuere: November 29, 1223 A.D.
The Bull of Pope Honorius III on the confirmation of the Rule
The Papal Declarations explaining the Rule of St. Francis
Exiit qui seminat: August 14, 1279 A.D.
The Constitution of Pope Nicholas III on the observance of the Rule
Exivi de paradiso: May 6, 1312 A. D.
The Bull of Pope Clement V on the observance of the Rule
Sollicitudo Pastoralis: November 20, 1679 A. D.
The Motu Proprio of Pope Bl. Innocent XI on the unmitigated observance of the Rule
What Popes have said about St. Francis of Assisi
Auspicato Concessum: September 17, 1882 A. D.
The Encyclical Letter of Pope Leo XIII on the Seventh Centenary of the Birth of St. Francis of Assisi.
Rite Expiatis: April 13, 1926 A. D.
Encyclical of Pope Pius XI on Seventy Centenary of the Transitus of St. Francis of Assisi.
The Franciscan Archive
If you believe the Lord may be calling you to be a traditional Franciscan Friar, you are invited to contact the editor of the Franciscan Archive,
who is currently in the process of founding such a monastery in the Diocese of Patti, Sicily.
Br. Alexis Bugnolo
Via Umberto I, n. 261
98030 Floresta (ME)