The Way of Life
7. United by their vocation as "brothers and sisters of penance" and motivated by the dynamic power of the gospel, let them conform their thoughts and deeds to those of Christ by means of that radical interior change which the gospel calls "conversion." Human frailty makes it necessary that this conversion be carried out daily. On this road to renewal the sacrament of reconciliation is the privileged sign of the Father's mercy and the source of grace.
As we continue to consider our Way of Life, we recognize that we are part of the Church because of our Baptism. When we Professed to live as Franciscans, we accepted a “more intimate” relationship with the Church, that is, we committed to be more faithful to the Church and its teachings. Part of our responsibility, then, is to more fully understand what the Church says and what it teaches about the conditions of life and what our response as faithful Christians is supposed to be.
Eight hundred years ago, lay people wanted to join Francis’s new order. Our Seraphic Father created a way in his Letter to All the Faithful in which he simply wrote:
1) love God 2) love one's neighbor 3) turn away from our sinful tendencies 4) "receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ" and, as a result of the above, 5) [produce] worthy fruits of penance – a renewed life characterized by charity, forgiveness and compassion toward others.
Thus, the Brothers and Sisters of Penance began their long journey in following the footsteps of St. Francis. Today, we inherit that charism as the Secular Franciscan Order; we are a penitential order. What does that mean to us in today’s world?
The interesting thing about penance is that is has a long history in Judaic-Christian practice. We read about the people of Nineveh fasting and sitting in ashes to avoid the punishment that Noah preached; of David not eating and asking for forgiveness when his first born of Bathsheba was so ill; of several “40 days in the wilderness” – a retreat like experience; and the list goes on. What this history is trying to tell us is that we do have that tendency to sin – to turn away from God and do things that are not so nice. For some people it’s really big things like theft, murder, and other “big” sins. For most of us it’s the irritated word or harsh comment or gossip that fills our day with activities. But, we also have a history of returning to God in dramatic ways – of reconciling with Him who loves us so much.
What we who have perpetually professed as Franciscans is that we don’t want to be sinners– we want to be closer to God and his Church – we want to live a good life that recognizes the mercy and grace that God makes available to us every day. We want to turn away from the error of sin and become more and more faithful in our activities with God. Our response to this desire is the daily conversion outlined in this article of our Rule.
Our Constitutions reemphasizes the need for this daily conversion in a way hearkening back to the simplicity of St. Francis’ original thoughts:
1. Rule 7 Secular Franciscans, called in earlier times "the brothers and sisters of penance," propose to live in the spirit of continual conversion. Some means to cultivate this characteristic of the Franciscan vocation, individually and in fraternity, are: listening to and celebrating the Word of God; review of life; spiritual retreats; the help of a spiritual adviser, and penitential celebrations. They should approach the Sacrament of Reconciliation frequently and participate in the communal celebration of it, whether in the fraternity, or with the whole people of God.
2. In this spirit of conversion, they should live out their love for the renewal of the Church, which should be accompanied by personal and communal renewal. The fruits of conversion, which is a response to the love of God, are the works of charity in the interactions with the brothers and sisters.
3. Traditional among Franciscan penitents, penitential practices such as fasting and abstinence should be known, appreciated, and lived out according to the general guidelines of the Church. (Constitutions, Article 13)
Between Francis’ list and the list from the Constitutions, we see several ways that we can accomplish this pledge to daily conversion. All these ideas are supported in the Catechism in several paragraphs, notably 1431-1432, 1434-1437, 1440, 1446, 1779, and 1989.
All of this is well and good, but what does this mean in a practical way for each of us?
Well, we recognize that we have a tendency to sin – go against the will of God in our lives. We are sorry for those times which are frequent in our daily lives. We want to do something about it. So,
· We examine our lives daily, and endeavor to make amends. We apologize to people whom we have harmed with our actions and words, we go to sacramental reconciliation regularly, and we live with the corporal and spiritual works of mercy in our hearts.
· We are seriously committed to the Church and its teachings and learn as much as we possibly can about what they mean and how to live them – but we also defend the Church when someone attacks it.
· We become more faithful in our lives as Christians. We really “walk the walk” – Gospel to Life and Life to Gospel.
· We are concerned about all people but recognizing that we can’t go into the whole world, we work on that part of the world in which we are living.
· We reach out to people in need in our communities and work to make their lives easier to live helping them to find the resources that they need to find shelter, food, work, whatever.
In essence, we take the answer of Jesus to the question, “What is the greatest commandment?” to its logical conclusion: we love God greatly by thinking of others first and placing ourselves, in all humility, as last. In following Francis, we make ourselves the “little poor ones” and serve others to the very best of our abilities. We become counter-cultural looking for ways of service to others and ways to inculcate peace into our community’s life.
So, let us examine our lives daily and truly, really make that conversion happen by turning our backs on materialism, snarkyness, envy, suspicion, gossip and all those other ways that we don’t love God and others. Let us turn our faces toward God’s love and grace. Let us take that love and grace to the world where we live and change it!
 Ordo Poenitentiae. Praenotanda 22 ff.
 See Second Letter to All the Faithful 25 ff.