The Confraternity of Penitents and the Third Order of Saint Francis
First Penitents praying at base of Tau Cross. Background shows St. Francis clothing the first penitent, Blessed Luchessio of Poggibonsi. He and his wife Blessed Buonadonna may be the ones pictured at the foot of the Tau Cross.
The Confraternity of Penitents and all those in the Third Order of Saint Francis take as their starting point St. Francis' letters and the Rule of 1221 for the lay men and women in the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, also called the Order of Penitents.
Some of Third Order of Saint Francis groups use the two letters which Francis wrote to "All People" as the starting point for their own Rule of Life. These two letters are general exhortations to penance which some modern historians believe were samples of how the Friars used to preach to the common people to encourage them to do penance. The Order of Secular Franciscans (OSF) is one Third Order of Saint Francis that references those two letters to "All People."
Other Third Order of St. Francis groups use the Rule of 1221 or later rules which succeeded it as the basis of their own Rule of Life or as the actual Rule itself. Hence, the Order of Secular Franciscans begins with the Saint Francis' Letters to All People and, from them, has crafted a Rule which was written in 1978 as its Rule of Life. The 1978 Rule succeeded a previous Rule called the Leonine Rule for Third Order Franciscans which was promulgated by Pope Leo the XIII in 1889. The 1978 Rule differs from the 1889 Rule in significant ways by removing certain prescriptions and replacing them with general exhortations to faith and ministry.
Other Third Order of St. Francis groups have returned to the Rule of 1221 as the basis of their own Rule of Life. The Constitutions of their Order tell their members how they will live the Rule today.
Any group of people who intend to follow a Rule of Life which has some derivation from either letters or Rules that St. Francis wrote would be called Franciscan in orientation. If the group is formally associated with a Franciscan Order of nuns, sisters, or Friars, the Order is generally called a Third Order of Saint Francis which designates an Order of lay people, whether single or married.
The Confraternity of Penitents is similar to these Third Order of Saint Francis groups in that it is using a Rule of Life given by St. Francis as the Rule of Life for its members to follow. Therefore, the Confraternity of Penitents is Franciscan in its charism and its members can rightly be called Franciscan Penitents.
The Confraternity differs from these Third Order of Saint Francis groups in that it is not officially attached to a specific Franciscan Order of nuns, sisters, or Friars. In other words, the Confraternity of Penitents is a worldwide organization which transcends local locations of friaries or convents, and its members do not have to live near Friars or sisters or nuns in order to be in the Confraternity.
In addition, Third Order of Saint Francis groups are frequently under the authority of a Order of Friars or nuns. The Confraternity of Penitents, like most Confraternities, is under the authority of a Bishop.
That said, the Confraternity of Penitents, due to the location of its headquarters within two blocks of certain Franciscan Orders, has almost daily interaction with the Franciscan Brothers Minor, which is using the Confraternity of Penitents' local group as their own Third Order of Saint Francis group. The brothers, as well as the Franciscan Sisters Minor and the Poor Sisters of Saint Clare, who have their convents in the same vicinity, strongly support the Confraternity which also strongly supports them. However, the Confraternity of Penitents preceded the foundation of these three Franciscan Orders, for the Confraternity began with its Bishop's permission in 1998 and was refounded in 2003 while the Franciscan Brothers Minor was founded in 2009 and the Franciscan Sisters Minor and Poor Sisters of Saint Clare were founded in 2012.
Furthermore, just like each Third Order of Saint Francis has its own Constitutions to follow, so the Confraternity of Penitents has its own Constitutions which differ from the Constitutions of other Third Orders. The only way to really see the differences is to compare the Constitutions of the Confraternity of Penitents with the Constitutions of the Third Order under consideration.