Discerning Between Groups That Live a Rule of Life
Perhaps you, like some others, have found the Confraternity of Penitents and know immediately that you have "come home." The CFP way of life resonates with you. You feel as if you have found what you have always been seeking. If so, God be praised! We welcome your inquiry.
However, you may be trying to discern what God asks of you. As you may have discovered, many holy, Spirit-filled groups for the laity, many of them Catholic Third Orders, now exist in the Catholic Church. Any number of these may be able to support you on your spiritual journey as you seek to become fully a child of God.
Not affiliated with any specific Order (Franciscan, Dominican, Benedictine, Augustinian, Missionaries of Charity, Salesians, Jesuits, and so on), the Confraternity of Penitents recognizes all Catholic religious Orders as means of drawing closer to God. The Confraternity focuses, not on the charism of a founder, but rather on penance (conversion) as practiced by all the saints and preached by Christ, our Holy Lord. This is commonly called the “Franciscan vision” as it was the call of St. Francis to the penitents of his time.
As you explore the Confraternity of Penitents, and perhaps other groups who live a Rule of Life, including groups which also live some form of the Rule of 1221, you may find yourself asking, “What are the differences?” This article will give some suggestions on where to look so that you will be able to understand each group better.
THE GROUP’S VISION
Just as what we look at defines the path we should take if we are hiking, a group’s Vision defines the path its members walk. Therefore, as you discern, compare the Vision of the groups which you are considering.
“The Vision of the Confraternity of Penitents is this: To give glory to God and surrender to His Will through the living of a medieval, penitential Rule of Life, the Rule of 1221. This Rule is lived as closely as possible to its original intent, and in one's own home or CFP community house, in peace with all others, and in obedience to the Roman Catholic Church, its Pope, and its Magisterium.” (From the Constitutions of the Confraternity of Penitents)
Thus, the Vision of the Confraternity of Penitents is very clear. Its members are to LIVE the Rule, as closely as possible to its ORIGINAL intent, in PEACE with all others, and in OBEDIENCE to the Church.
THE GROUP’S RULE OF LIFE
Therefore, to discern well regarding the Confraternity, you must be familiar with its complete Rule of Life. The other groups which you are considering may have a Rule of Life also.
The Rule for the Confraternity of Penitents begins this way:
"Here begins the Rule of the Continent* Brothers and Sisters. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The memorial of what is proposed for the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, living in their own homes, begun in the year of our Lord 1221, is as follows. . . "
* In modern usage, continent means "those who relinquish worldly things for the sake of God's Kingdom."
Then follows thirty-nine sections of the Rule which tell how the penitents were to live at the time the Rule was written.
THE GROUP'S CONSTITUTIONS AND/OR STATUTES
In discerning the Confraternity of Penitents' way of life, reading the Rule is not sufficient. You must also read how the Rule is to be lived. The Vision statement says that “This Rule is lived as closely as possible to its original intent.”
Reading the original Rule of 1221 clarifies its original intent.
The Constitutions of the Confraternity clarify how that Rule is to be lived today so that it “is lived as closely as possible to its original intent.”
All groups whose members live a Rule of Life have Constitutions and/or Statutes which define the group’s way of life. Different groups structure their Rules and Constitutions (Statutes) differently.
In the Confraternity of Penitents, the Rule forms one document and the Constitutions another. On this link both the Rule and Constitutions are printed on the same web page, with the original Rule of 1221 first. This is followed by Constitutions that discuss important matters such as governance, history, and structure and that conclude with Applications of the Rule of 1221 (Section XX of the Constitutions) which correspond, section by section, to the thirty-nine sections in the original Rule of 1221. The Constitutions detail how the Rule is to be lived today.
If you wish to compare groups, print out their Rules and Constitutions and/or Statutes and compare them side by side, point by point. If you read carefully and ask the Holy Spirit to enlighten you, you will discover the differences between the groups regarding their way of life and their outlook on spirituality. The differences indicate that God has provided the Catholic Church with many paths to holiness. You must discern which is best for you.
You will notice many other differences between the groups which you are considering. Some of these involve personalities, publications, group gatherings, apostolates, and other matters. Certainly investigate these as thoroughly as you can.
The Confraternity of Penitents, for example, has an entire on-line Penance Library plus years of Archives. It would be impossible to read every one of these hundreds of printed documents before you decide how to proceed with your inquiry with the Confraternity. But if you explore the website, you will get a good idea of what the CFP offers and of what it is all about.
Despite the vastness of any group's web site, the two key points to discern a calling to live any group's Rule of Life are the Vision of the group and its Rule and Constitutions and/or Statutes. That is how you will live your life with this group. That is how those in the group live their lives.
The personalities, publications, group gatherings, apostolates, and other matters are all spawned by the Vision and the Rule of Life. They all show some facet of how that Vision and Rule are implemented.
Which Vision corresponds to yours?
Which Rule of Life would give you peace if you lived it?
CONSULT THE HOLY SPIRIT
The Lord has the perfect plan for your life. He wants to make you a saint! Why? Because everyone in heaven is a saint and God wants you with Him! And isn’t heaven your goal? If God wants to use one of these groups to help you achieve sanctity, it is vital that you discern which one He wants!
Read the Vision and Rule, Constitutions and/or Statutes carefully and pray about what you are reading. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you which group He wishes you to investigate. To live a Rule of Life is not a matter of choosing between one set of rules or another or one group or another. If you have a vocation to live a Rule of Life, that is a specific call from God to live a specific Rule. Your goal is to determine if you do have such a vocation and, if so, to which Rule of Life.
After some time of study and prayer, you may still feel confused. Pray to the Holy Spirit, “Lord, show me where You want me. Tell me what to do next.” Be open to your spiritual reading, to advice from others, to homilies, to “signs” that God may show you. If you feel a sense of hesitancy about a group, do not discount your feelings. The Holy Spirit may be directing you elsewhere. On the other hand, if you feel drawn to one group, even if you have no idea how you could ever live its Rule of Life, consider that the Holy Spirit will give you the grace you need if He is directing you there.
As you pray and discern, look for what decision seems to give you peace. Peace is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Living the Rule of the group you are considering should foster peace. Simply by investigating the group, you should find that the fruits of the Holy Spirit are growing in you. These fruits are charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control and chastity (Galatians 5:22-23). These fruits of the Holy Spirit will nurture in you the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit which are wisdom, understanding, knowledge, piety, fortitude, right judgment, and fear (awe) of the Lord. These should be the outcome of your affiliation with the group which the Lord has already chosen for you.
Write to the group that God seems to indicate. Ask questions. Apply for membership or study. Do not worry about picking the “wrong group” or entering formation and study with a group that you might discover later is “not for you.” God may have you investigate and even join one group because He wants you to discern clearly that it is not the one for you. He will use that group to lead you to the next step of your journey. So do not be afraid. Step out in faith.
Every step of the journey with God is good. God is full of surprises! Often we do not know what He is doing in our lives. We must be patient as God’s plan unfolds.
Remember, God promised to be a “light to our path,” not a floodlight that helps us see everything all at once. If you follow the Lord’s lead and take the first step, God will guide you into the next one.
At the end of his life, Saint Francis told his friars, "I have done what was mine to do. Now may God show you what is yours to do." The Confraternity of Penitents hopes to be an aid to its members as they discover "what is theirs to do" to grow closer to God.