Pope Leo XIII. and The Third Order of St. Francis By Fr. Ulric Petri, O. F. (Part II)

Franciscan Herald Volume 1 Number 1 (1913)

(continued from Jan 29…) Leo continues to speak of the Franciscan Spirit, showing clearly how it is suited to the present day. In conclusion he exhorts all Christians to join the Third Order. He writes: “For all these reasons we have long and earnestly desired that each one shall strive to the utmost of his power to imitate St. Francis of Assisi. Wherefore, as we have in former times ever had special interest in the Third Order of Franciscans, so now, being called by God ‘s great goodness to the Supreme Pontificate, as a most fitting opportunity has occurred, we exhort all Christians not to hesitate to enlist in this sacred army of Jesus Christ. Many there are everywhere of both sexes who have already readily begun to follow the footsteps of the Seraphic Father. We praise and warmly commend their zeal, but we desire that it may be augmented and extended to many more, especially, Venerable Brethren, by your assistance. What we chiefly commend is, that they who have put on the badge of Penance, should look up to the image of their sainted Founder and strive to imitate it; otherwise the good effect they hope for will not follow. Do your best, therefore, that the people may know and really esteem the THIRD ORDER.

See that those who have the care of souls carefully teach what it is, how easily open to all, how abounding in great privileges for eternal salvation, how great the utility, both public and private, that it gives promise of. We must labor in this direction all the more, since the members of the First and Second Franciscan Orders are suffering at present from severe and unmerited affliction. May they, under the protection of their Father, speedily emerge from the waves, strengthened and flourishing! And may Christian peoples hasten to submit to the discipline of the Third Order, with the same alacrity and in the same multitude as once they flowed in eagerly round St. Francis himself.”

In his great solicitude for the welfare and prosperity of the Third Order, Leo XIII. became convinced that the time had arrived to mitigate the original Rule as approved by Nicholas IV. in the year 1289, and to adapt it more closely to the requirements of the present day. In his Constitution, “Misericors Dei Filius,” of May 30, 1883 he writes: “The Third Order is adapted to the many; and both the records of times gone by, and the nature of the Society itself, show how great is its influence in promoting justice, honesty, and religion. We must render thanks to the Author and ‘Helper of all good counsels, that the ears of the Christian people were not closed to our exhortations. From many places we hear that devotion to Francis of Assisi has been aroused, and there is everywhere an increase in the number of persons seeking admittance into the Third Order. Wherefore, as though to give fresh impulse to men already running, We determined to turn our thoughts to all that, in any way, hinders or retards this salutary race of souls. We saw that the Rule of the Third Order, which Nicholas IV., Our predecessor, approved and confirmed in his Apostolic Constitutions, ‘Supra Montem,’ on the 18th of August, 1289, is not in all points suited to the present age and present customs. Hence, since the duties prescribed could not be fulfilled without excessive difficulty and inconvenience, it has hitherto been necessary to dispense with a majority of the most important rules on the petition of the associates; and that this could not be done without injury to the common discipline will be readily understood. Therefore, for the good and happiness of the future, for the increase of the glory of God, the encouragement of piety, and zeal for all virtues, We, by Our present letters, in virtue of Our Apostolic authority, renew and sanction the Rule of the Third Order of St. Francis, called the Secular, according as it is hereafter given. It must not be thought, however, that in consequence of this Act, anything is taken from the nature of the Order, which We fully intend should remain unchanged and intact.”

A year after this Leo XIII. sent out his Encyclical Letter on Freemasonry. In it he again warmly recommends the Third Order when he writes: “Therefore, embracing this favorable opportunity, We with good reason repeat that which We have made known, that we ought most diligently to propagate and foster the Third Order of St. Francis, the rule of which We have tempered a while ago with a prudent lenity. For the nature of that society as constituted by its Founder is simply this: to call men to imitate Jesus Christ, to love His Church, and to practice all Christian virtues. Therefore, it ought to be very powerful in suppressing the contagion of those most wicked societies. May this holy Society, therefore, be renewed with daily increase, whence much fruit may be expected, and especially that men’s minds may be drawn to real liberty, fraternity, and equality. Not, indeed, such as the Freemasons absurdly think, but such as Jesus Christ purchased for the human race, and St. Francis follows after.”

During his long Pontificate Leo XIII. from time to time addressed himself to Tertiaries who, coming from different countries, visited the common Father of Christendom; each time he speaks of the Third Order in terms of highest praise.

The Holy Year 1900 had begun. Leo XIII. expressed the wish, that during this year a Congress of Tertiaries be held in Rome. He appointed His Eminence, Cardinal Joseph Vives y Tuto, as delegate to preside in his name. Thousands of Tertiaries from the four quarters of the globe respond- ed to the invitation and hastened to the Eternal City. They sent an address to the Holy Father, in which they expressed their sentiments of loyalty to the Vicar of Christ, thanking Leo for all he had done for the Third Order and promising to lead a life in conformity to the spirit of St. Francis. Leo was deeply moved by this demonstration of loyalty on the part of the Tertiaries, and in reply he sent a letter which contained these encouraging words: ” Enrolled for a long time in the Third Franciscan Order We have, since Our being called to bear the Supreme Pontificate, in many ways displayed in what esteem We hold it, and with what feelings We favor it. And rightly, for We are always persuaded that this institute of the Seraphic Father, St. Francis, if rightly and properly followed, is of a nature to remedy the evils by which human society is in these times extremely harassed.” “Let the religious of the First Order of the Seraphic Father, to whom it belongs to govern the Tertiary body, have a fixed conviction that the diffusion of this is a great safeguard of private and public good.”

Leo XIII. is no more; but his work continues to live. The good seed he has sown has sprung up and brought forth fruit a hundred fold. There are at present over 2,500,000 Tertiaries, and their number increases daily. May the fondest hopes of Leo XIII. be realized, may the Third Order of St. Francis ever be “a powerful agent in the work of the salvation of souls.”

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