The Real Mission of the Third Order

Franciscan Herald Volume 1 Number 1 (1913)

In a letter addressed to the Ministers General of the three families of the First Order of Minors, the Holy Father gives expression to “a certain fear that an unwise zeal for novelty, under the pretext of doing better work for society, is in some places insinuating itself into the Order of Tertiaries, and gradually diverting it from the scope for which the most holy Francis has ordained it.”

After defining the Third Order as a religious order, he mentions as the two characteristic marks of Tertiaries or “Brothers of Penance,” as they were called by St. Francis, brotherly harmony among themselves and the practice of penance. He dwells at some length on these points and adds that the Third Order proved a wonderful blessing to Church and society as long as it religiously preserved its native form of penance, and that it will surely bring like fruits in future if only it adheres to its scope. Then he proceeds to outline the form and scope of the Order according to the Rule laid down by St. Francis for Tertiaries and concludes his remarks with the words : ” From what has been said, then, We think it clear that the purpose of the Third Order is that the members put into daily practice the precepts of evangelical perfection and be an example of Christian life for the imitation of others. It follows that sodalities of Tertiaries as such must altogether abstain from mixing in civil or purely economic questions; otherwise, let them know that they are doing something altogether foreign to their purpose and contrary to Our will. But Tertiaries will render a great service to Christianity, if as individuals they join Catholic societies and work for the attainment of the special purpose which each of these has in view; nor are they prohibited from cooperating also in social action as approved by the Apostolic See.”

It is evident from the text of the Papal letter that the purpose of the Third Order is primarily the sanctification of its own members, not the solution of the social question. The social question will take care of itself just as soon as Tertiaries succeed in leavening society with the principles of virtue and piety that the Pope wishes them to teach the world by the example of their lives. Herein consists the real social mission of the Third Order, not, however, in dabbling in all kinds of political and economic questions. Its mission, therefore, is the same to-day as it was. at the time of St. Francis. As the Holy Father states, however, individual Tertiaries may and should engage in ” social action as approved by the Apostolic See.” But care should be taken that the Third Order itself does not lose sight of the purpose for which it was instituted, “for otherwise,” to use the words of Leo XIII., “the good to be hoped from it will be nil.”

Let Tertiaries, therefore, indulge in social activity to their heart’s content, but if they are animated with love for the Third Order, they will sedulously strive to preserve its purity and integrity by following the wise and timely instructions of him who, himself a son of St. Francis, desires nothing so much as “to restore all things in Christ,” by spreading the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi.

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