When you see the words Lutheran Third Order of St. Francis, it may conjure up many thoughts, feelings, and questions. An astonished “what?” plus momentary confusion will probably be at the top of the list. After all, Lutherans do not have religious orders, do they? But before I answer several of the questions most frequently asked through the years since I became a member of the Evangelical Society of the Cross Franciscan (the Lutheran Third Order of St. Francis), I would like to explain who we are, what our spirituality is, what our mission is within the Lutheran church, and the church at large, what unites us to our Catholic and Episcopal counterparts, and what makes us unique as Lutheran religious.
The Evangelical Society of the Cross Franciscan was founded in January of 1988 in Orlando, Florida by a small group of people drawn to the spirituality and servanthood of St. Francis of Assisi. This came about in part due to the ministry of the St. Francis house, operated by Brother Jim, a Lutheran Franciscan Friar, and a member of the Evangelical Brotherhood of the Cross Franciscan. Brother Jim’s ministry at the St. Francis house was providing lodging and other care for homeless men. He got them medical help for a variety of problems that ranged from alcoholism to crack cocaine use. The unique quality of this ministry was that Brother Jim sought to make the men feel like a part of a family. He taught them to budget and to account for their time productively. When they were able to work he helped them get jobs. The men of this community stayed as long as they needed to. The goal was to reintroduce them into society as healthy contributing members. However, the men still had a family to which they could come home if need be. They were invited on Sundays for dinner and they had a place to stay, as family, for the holidays.
The small group drawn to Franciscan spirituality were the volunteers that helped at the St. Francis house. They saw a need for religious vocation as they drew closer in the ministry of the home as well as to each other. Brother Jim prayed the Office of the Hours and invited all to join him in morning and evening prayer. None were ever pressured to do so, however. Marianne, one of the volunteers, asked Brother Jim about the possibility of starting a secular society that embraced the Franciscan life, and how it would fit within the context of the Lutheran confession, just as the Secular Franciscan Order fits within the Roman Catholic Church or The Third Order Society of St. Francis fits within the Episcopal Church. She wondered if it was something that lay people could make happen among Lutherans.
These questions were the soil in which the society began to take root. The small group first formed a rule of life in which the membership would have an identity and continuity. They based it on the rule of life that St. Francis laid down for the early Third Order followers that wanted to live in the same discipline as him, yet remain in secular life. St. Francis wrote this rule between 1209 and 1210.
Next the founders of the society shared this vision with then-Bishop Lavern Franzen of the Florida-Bahamas Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.. This meeting was a blessing because he not only received the idea well but gave his blessing to it even though the Evangelical Society of the Cross Franciscan is not an officially recognized ministry of the Florida-Bahamas Synod or of the ELCA.
As time went on the few members of the society began to reach out in other areas of ministry. Some worked with the children of financially challenged families, leading them in sidewalk Sunday school. One man developed a prison ministry, and a couple others volunteered time in nursing home ministries. As for Brother Jim, the homeless shelter grew and the brotherhood that he was a part of added another home: the St. Damian house. The Brotherhood grew by one new member as well, when Brother Frank took monastic vows. This made a total of four brothers, only two of whom were in the Orlando area.
Today in the Lutheran Third Order there are four professed members, three in the novitiate phase, and two who are ready to enter the postulancy. This complete process takes a minimum of one and a half years, and some may request a longer novitiate.
The formation period includes a six month postulancy. During this period the postulant begins writing a personal rule of life based on the rule around which the Third Order is constructed and including convictions about God’s calling to a particular area of ministry. The postulant will meet regularly with a spiritual director who will oversee the formulation of the rule and guide the postulant in spiritual discipline.
After the six months is up the postulant is received into the order as a novice. The novitiate begins with a service of induction in which the postulant is asked questions of intent, then commits her or his rule of life to the Lord by laying it on the altar and promising to uphold it for a year. Hands are laid on the head of the aspirant by the Provincial and a blessing is given. Finally the Provincial and the Guardian of the order present the new novice with the habit of the order and a black cincture (the color of the novitiate).
During the novitiate year or years, depending on how long the novitiate will last, the novice meets periodically with his or her spiritual director. The spiritual director continues to work with the novice in the formation process and observes how the novice is upholding her or his rule of life. The spiritual director will point out areas that may need strengthening and modification and will note these so that they may be addressed at the end of the year when the rule will be revised and renewed.
The third and last step the novice takes is to make vows in the Service of Profession or Service of Investiture. The novice promises to God, the Order and its leadership, and to the rule of life that is again placed on the altar. Obedience is never blind though, and the novice is never asked to go against conscience or conviction. The novice also takes a vow of poverty–not a forswearing of all ownership of property or money, but a commitment to serve others and not make material possessions paramount in life. These vows are professed with life-long intent, but are renewed every year on or around the feast day of St. Francis (October 4). The reason for the annual renewing of vows is that those who belong to the Third Order are lay people living secular lives and some are married or have jobs that may take them to new locations. For these reasons it is important to review the rule of life annually to see if it is being lived out. Also, this is a time to pray and discern what may be changing or has changed over the last year in one’s life concerning the rule. In reviewing the rule of life annually you can see the wonderful way that the Spirit of God moves over your life throughout the years, bringing God’s will to fruition.
The service of profession is tailored by the novice around basic elements set forth by the order. The Lutheran Third Order service of investiture is based, in part, on the Secular Franciscan Order (Catholic) and Third Order Society of St. Francis (Episcopal) services of investiture. The service generally will have the pastor of the church and others from the religious community or other religious communities involved. The Provincial and the Guardian of the order must be involved because they will address the novice with the liturgy of investiture. After the novice has made profession of the vows, she or he is presented with the Bible and charged to preach the Good News in word and in action. (The rule of all the Franciscan Orders are based on the Gospel; this was St. Francis’ intent.) The novice is given a copy of the prayer book used by the order, as a sign of the prayerful care and support of the community. Next the newly vested sister or brother receives the laying on of hands and is charged with the Holy Spirit. The Provincial then grants the same blessing that St. Francis gave to Brother Leo. The sister or brother is given a white cincture and the pectoral cross of the Order. A hood may be added to the habit but not the shoulder mantle, also called the cowl, because this is a sign of Friars and Nuns who take the three evangelical counsels and live in community. The newly invested tertiary may share a short homily afterwards, as this is one of the charisms of the Franciscan identity, that is to minister the living, healing words of the Lord in speech and in servanthood to all. The liturgy of investiture may be followed by a Eucharistic liturgy with presidency by the pastor of the church. This would then conclude the service of Profession .
A growing number of people seem ready now to explore a life of secular religious vocation. They are looking for a structure to support them while they serve church and society while remaining in a secular vocation.
The Evangelical Society of the Cross Franciscan serves the Lord in three specific focal areas:
- In prayer. We are called to prayerful lives of openness to God and to others, with the Lord’s Supper being at the heart of our prayer life.
- In studying God’s Word; both to widen our understanding of the churches mission, and our Franciscan vocation within it; and to study ways that we may improve our world by being good stewards of it.
- In work; through our daily lives to seek God’s will, at home or on the job working for the good of others by reflecting Christ’s love and offering his peace to them.
The question that has been asked of me most often is, “In the church lay people can serve in any capacity except ordained ministry, so why is there a need to belong to a religious order?” I reply that, while it isn’t necessary to belong to a religious community in order to have effective ministry in the church, religious communities offer discipline and support for their members. Leaders of the Church have long recognized this need as is evidenced by the presence of other religious communities within the Lutheran confession. The two deaconess communities, the Gladwyn Community and Lutheran Deaconess Association at Valparaiso University have ministered effectively in the Lutheran church for many years.
Often, people ask me, Another question asked of me is, “This seems so Catholic. Do you pray the Rosary, and pray to saints and to Mary?” The members of The Evangelical Society of the Cross Franciscan, as well as The Evangelical Brotherhood of the Cross, are Catholics of the Augsburg Confession. Our identity is very Lutheran. The friars, when making solemn vows, vow to uphold the Augsburg Confession. The Tertiaries promise to adhere to the Augsburg Confession and the teachings in the Book of Concord. Further, we use certain ‘Catholic’ prayer methods such as the Liturgy of the Hours, so that we can be unified in prayer with other catholics throughout the world. We use the rosary (I know, a few Lutherans just fainted) as a meditative tool, for example, to focus on the seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer. Each decade of the Franciscan rosary (The Franciscan rosary has seven decades, each decade has one large bead and ten small beads.) can be used to focus on a petition of the Lord’s Prayer. A Psalm that focuses on each of the petitions is recited at the beginning of each decade, and is contemplated while the specific petition of the Lord’s Prayer is recited throughout the decade.
Concerning prayers to Mary and the saints, we focus on their lives as examples of holiness. We try to learn from their lives and incorporate the same disciplines that were prevalent in their lives into our own. Some brothers and sisters in Protestant religious communities have an easier time asking Mary and the saints to intercede on their behalf than others. But the focus of prayer and meditation should be one of bringing unity to the whole church and not one that focuses on our differences.
We are in transition in our Lutheran Franciscan society. The Provincial and the Friars of the EBC/F have joined the Greek Orthodox monastic community. This doesn’t change the ministries that have been established but it means that our third order needs a Provincial Overseer. Bishop emeritus Lavern Franzen is still a strong support to us and encourages us to continue. One of the positive things that has happened is that new provinces have opened up within the order, with new areas of ministry that can be tailored to the specific needs of those areas.
St. Francis started out with only a vision and a burden that God gave to him. He was to go out and serve the blessed poor and speak the Good News of the reconciling love of Jesus Christ to a hurting and confused world. He started his ministry with a prayer that the Lord would send him brothers. God did. There were a dozen of them at the start and they were faithful to God’s promise that the church must be rebuilt. They planted the seed and God gave the increase.
We are small group in the Lutheran confession. We may even seem rather odd. But we have a vision: one of reconciliation for the whole church. We can only do what we are called to do. God is faithful! St. Francis said at the end of his life, “I have done what was mine to do; may Christ teach you what you must do.” This is my prayer for all of God’s people as well, in Jesus Name.
- Habig, Marion A. St. Francis of Assisi, Omnibus of Sources. Franciscan Press, 1991.
This book contains the writings of St. Francis, early biographies and commentaries. It is one of the best universal sources and authorities on St. Francis. All in a 1,960 page volume.
- Secular Franciscan Companion. Franciscan Herald Press, 1987.
The Companion is the meditation and prayer book that is used by many S.F.O.’s (Secular Franciscan Order) in the Catholic Church. It is a good way to explore how Franciscan spirituality is utilized in the lives of S.F.O’s.
Other Bibliographic Resources
- Dennis, Maria; Nangle, Joseph O.F.M.; Moe-Lobeda, Cynthia; Taylor, Stuart. St. Francis and the Foolishness of God. Orbis Press, 1993. This book is written by Catholic and Protestant clergy and lay people who are involved with Franciscan spirituality.
- Armstrong, Regis J. St. Francis of Assisi: Writings for a Gospel Life. Crossroad Press, 1994.
This book gives a broad exposition to the man and his writings.
- Chesterton, G. K. St. Francis of Assisi. Doubleday, 1957, 1990.
- Polidoro, Gianmaria. Francis of Assisi:Innovator for a New Society. Velar Franciscan Missions, 1994. This book takes the reader through the region where St. Francis lived, by pictures of the Assisi area today and by copies of some of the original paintings done of St. Francis and his followers. Father Polidordo is considered by some to be the worlds leading expert on St. Francis and on Franciscan spirituality. His text brings the pictorial display to life.