By SUZANNE HAUGH, Special To The Bulletin | Published April 30, 2009
For 50 years, members of the Immaculate Conception Fraternity of Secular Franciscans have sought to serve the poor, to live simply and to undergo continual conversion as did their founder, St. Francis.
But they have been doing so in Georgia, as part of everyday life.
In recognition of the milestone, professed men and women gathered for a celebratory Mass and luncheon March 14 at St. Philip Benizi Church in Jonesboro, where the fraternity is now based. It was founded in 1959 at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Father Michael Kolodziej, provincial of the St. Anthony of Padua Province of Conventual Franciscans, served as the celebrant. Franciscan priests and brothers and members of other Secular Franciscan fraternities took part.
In his homily Father Kolodziej placed Francis in the Gospel reading of the prodigal son and asked those present to put themselves in each person’s role: the son, who experiences humility and conversion; the father, who loves unconditionally; and the jealous brother, who realizes he is always with God in his immense kingdom.
Father Kolodziej asked them to observe how “poverty of the spirit” brings one to depend on the “provident God.”
“Practice the virtue of simplicity. In humility, realize who you are. You are a follower of Francis and Clare, a brother and sister of Jesus Christ, a daughter and son of the Most High God. And for all of this, give thanks!”
Father Linus DeSantis spoke at the luncheon, challenging the professed to be penitent, not with the sort of penance inflicted through acts of self-mortification but in their relationships with others. Keep studying and learning in order to experience continual conversion, the Conventual Franciscan priest said. He reminded them to live the Gospel in the manner of St. Francis, observing the rule of life he gave followers.
Concelebrating the Mass were Conventual Franciscan Fathers Gregory Hartmayer, Mark-Thomas Booth and Abelardo Huanca and Father DeSantis.
Awilda “Willie” Guadalupe, SFO, in an interview, later spoke on the history of this fraternity, its formation path and activities.
Secular Franciscans were known centuries before as the Third Order of Franciscans and called the “Brothers and Sisters of Penance.” In Atlanta, the fraternity began and initially met monthly in Atlanta at the Shrine. Franciscan priests at the time staffed the Shrine. Professed members volunteered at St. Francis Table, a Saturday soup kitchen which still serves the needs of the poor and homeless.
Guadalupe said that professed members live four pillars of Franciscan spirituality: receive ongoing formation; attend to one’s spirituality; live in community (or fraternity); and remain active in chosen apostolates.
“(Lay professed members) do not take the promise of poverty as priests and nuns do, but we do promise to follow the virtue of simplicity … not remaining attached to material things,” she said.
“It’s a balance to live simply. You may like certain things, but the calling is to do acts of service and to help the poor.”
Members also fast for various intentions.
Apostolates in which they participate include the Calvary Refuge Center shelter in Clayton County, the Gift of Grace House for indigent women with AIDS run in Atlanta by the Missionaries of Charity, and a Jonesboro nursing home.
“We’re very much involved in pro-life,” added Guadalupe, a member of St. Mary Magdalene Church in Newnan.
Professed members come from parishes across the Atlanta Archdiocese. There are also other Secular Franciscan fraternities active here.
“The journey to become a Secular Franciscan involves three separate stages and culminates in a lifelong commitment to live the Gospel in the spirit of St. Francis,” she said.
The first stage, orientation, lasts approximately three months and provides time for dialogue and for developing relationships within the fraternity, she said. The lives of St. Francis and St. Clare are studied, as is general information about the Secular Franciscan Order.
“Orientation is a time to discern if the Spirit is calling you.”
Inquiry, a period of at least six months, is the second stage and the first formal period of initiation. A more in-depth study of Francis and Clare begins, as does a period of inquiry about the Franciscan charism and history.
“You will deepen your understanding of what it means to be ‘Secular’ and ‘Franciscan,’ and you will continue to discern if the Spirit is calling you to the Secular Franciscan way of life.”
The last stage is candidacy, which prepares one to make the permanent commitment by immersion into fraternity life.
“Central to this stage of formation is Article 4 of The Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order which states, ‘The rule of life of the Secular Franciscan is this: to observe the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by following St. Francis of Assisi, who made Christ the inspiration and center of his life with God and people.’”
The candidacy period culminates in a permanent commitment to the Gospel life, she said, adding that the entire process can last around three years.
The journey is designed to deepen the realization that “this is not just a ministry.”
“This is something you’re promising to do for life, to live a simple life in the footsteps of Francis and Clare.”
It remains a “continuing journey” for her and for those who make their final profession.
“I feel like a child; there is so much to learn,” she continued. “We seek to bring the Gospel to life and life to the Gospel.”
For more information about the Fraternity of the Secular Franciscans, visit http://secularfranciscans.org/icf.html. Jan Pitts, SFO, contributed to this article.