Franciscan Penance in the Confraternity of Penitents
The words Franciscan and Penance are related in the minds of many people. However, Saint Francis of Assisi did not invent penance. The desire to do penance is a grace given by the Holy Spirit.
Penance began, not with Saint Francis of Assisi, but with God. In the Old Testament of the Bible, Job, the prophets, the people of Israel, and many others, all did penance. Saint John the Baptist, whose lack of concern for his clothing was similar to Saint Francis's disregard for his appearance, called people to repent, that is, to do penance. Jesus stressed penance, meaning conversion. He emphasized what have come to be called the Franciscan virtues of poverty, humility, littleness, love, simplicity, faith, self-sacrifice, and peace. Inspired by the Holy Spirit and in consecration to the Blessed Mother, Saint Francis of Assisi lived these Gospel values in a radical, self-emptying, joyful way. The Confraternity of Penitents enthusiastically follows his lead.
The Confraternity of Penitents, which originally began meeting in 1995 as the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, is similar to a Catholic Third Order. Like a Catholic Third Order, Confraternity members live a Rule of Life in their own homes. By fostering the Franciscan virtues associated with Saint Francis, the CFP Rule, the Rule of 1221, enables its followers to surrender to God's Holy Will in love, trust, and peace. This emphasis is, we believe, exactly where Saint Francis, who gave penitents this Rule, would have wanted it--on God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, on Scripture, and on the teachings of the Catholic Church. In other words, the CFP vocation is a life of ongoing, joyful penance (conversion).
On his deathbed, Saint Francis did what he had done all his life. He turned attention away from Francis of Assisi and turned it toward Jesus of Nazareth. As he lay dying, St. Francis told his friars, "I have done what was mine to do. May Christ show you what is yours to do." Mindful of Saint Francis' words, the Confraternity of Penitents studies the Word of God, particularly Jesus' teachings, as well as Saint Francis and many different saints who provide various examples of how to draw closer to God. Rather than trying to compete with Franciscan associations, the Secular Franciscan Order, Third Orders of Saint Francis, or other groups who are living some form of the Rule of 1221, the Confraternity of Penitents focuses on penance (conversion) which is the original intent of the Rule of 1221. Penance (conversion of soul) is to lead to love of God and love of neighbor, both of which should be always evident in the penitent's words and deeds.
POVERTY OF SPIRIT
Father Dominic Mary Garner, MFVA, shared at the Confraternity of Penitents Retreat 2006 that Saint Francis condensed all the Beatitudes into one, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." Franciscan penance means to embrace this Beatitude completely.
The Confraternity of Penitents Rule of Life is a vehicle for members to become "poor in spirit." Confraternity of Penitents members observe certain days of fast and abstinence without calling attention to themselves. They spend a great deal of time in daily prayer. They are to show charity to the sick and to pray for the dead. Penitents are to be Roman Catholics, to help others, and to give alms. Most penitents who are living some form of the Rule of 1221 have these elements in common.
However, the CFP Rule is unique among all other Rules of Life for lay people, including groups whose members also live some form of the Rule of 1221. Penitents in the Confraternity of Penitents live the Rule of 1221 as closely as possible to its original Franciscan spirit of penance. This is in direct response to our founder's original inspiration "to live the Rule of 1221." That vision of LIVING the Rule of 1221, not just talking about it or writing about it or studying how others (even saints) lived it, is the goal at which every penitent in the CFP aims. The Rule of 1221 is to be LIVED. The following are some ways in which only CFP penitents live the Rule of 1221:
* CFP penitents do penance by wearing certain styles and colors of dress all the time, just like Saint Francis intended the penitents of 1221 to do. However, to blend in with everyone else, penitents are to mix and match their clothing styles and colors, but within the parameters outlined in the Constitutions. This giving up of favored clothing fosters simplicity and poverty of spirit.
* Those doing penance in the Confraternity of Penitents are to relinquish unnecessary possessions and to refrain from possessing most jewelry other than the cross or crucifix which identifies them as followers of Christ. This reflects the spirit in which Saint Francis had the first penitents permanently give up "vain adornments."
* Pledged CFP penitents may use the letters CFP after their names to indicate their commitment to this way of life.
* Those doing penance in the Confraternity of Penitents are elected to office yearly, as they were in 1221. This stipulation keeps any one penitent from assuming too much power and falling into the pride that can come from such power.
* Those doing penance in the Confraternity of Penitents must go beyond praying for their enemies or forgiving wrongs. They must do these things, of course, but, in addition to them, actually must try to make peace with all and to reconcile with enemies, if possible. This is what the penitents of 1221 were asked to do.
All of these provisions foster a true Franciscan spirit of penance, that "poverty of spirit" which Saint Francis lived and preached. Thus the focus of the Confraternity of Penitents remains where Francis wanted the focus to be, on penance, that is, on conversion, evident in both love of God and love of neighbor.
May the Holy Spirit guide you as you pray, study, and discern whether our Holy Lord is calling you to embrace a life of Catholic penance, conversion, prayer, sacrifice, and sacrament, for the glory of Almighty God, in love of Him and of all.
If you wish to inquire with us, please complete the Inquirer Application and return it to us. We will be in touch with you shortly.
And please pray for us in the Confraternity of Penitents, that we may fulfill what God asks of us through our Rule of Life. May God bless you always!
Madeline Pecora Nugent