The Brothers and Sisters of Penance of St. Francis was first organized when a number of Secular Franciscans requested to live and gather according to the prescriptions of their First Rule while still within the Secular Franciscan Order. These first lay members sought authorization from the Church to unite as the Brothers and Sisters of Penance of St. Francis.
Initial contact for support of the Church was made to Bishop Roger Schwietz of Duluth in a meeting held on October 31, 1995 at the request of Bruce Fahey SFO. This meeting was originally scheduled at the recommendation of Father Valerius Messerich O.F.M., Bruce Fahey’s spiritual director of many years, and Father Ken Smits, O.F.M. Cap., of the St. Anthony Retreat House, at Marathon, Wisconsin.
Bishop Schwietz saw this desire to return to the “root” spirituality of the primitive Rule of 1221 as a “good and holy thing”. Hence, he arranged a meeting with Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis which was attended by Bruce Fahey. As a result of this meeting (which was held at the Chancery office in St. Paul on March 25th, 1996) Archbishop Flynn issued a letter of support and apostolic blessing on October 22, 1996, and the process of founding the Association gradually began.
The first commitment of the first novice, William Avis, occurred on August 6, 1997 at St. John’s church in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, before reverend William Garut O.J.. Father Valerius Messerich, O.F.M. (pastor of St. Mathias Church in Hampton, Minnesota) was appointed by Archbishop Flynn as spiritual assistant of the Association from its inception. Father Valerius officially received the first candidates of the Association on the feast of St. Francis, October 4, 1997 at St. Mathias Church.
The Brothers and Sisters of Penance of St. Francis is a Private Association of the Faithful (cf c. 299) whose members seek to live the Gospel more fully in their lay lives by following the prescriptions and tenets of the Rule of 1221. The Secular Franciscan Order, through Richard Morton SFO, National Minister, officially declined any formal relationship with the Association in a letter to Bruce Fahey SFO in 1997. This definitively precipitated the individual standing of the Association within the Church by late 1998, opening the Brothers and Sisters of Penance of St. Francis to all of the laity regardless of their affiliation with any Third Order or other Church group.
Eligibility for membership in the Brothers and Sisters of Penance of St. Francis is extended to all the baptized members of the Catholic Faith who are 14 years of age or older. This age is based on the laws of the Church itself, wherein the law of abstinence binds those who are at least 14 years of age, and the law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority (18 years of age), until the beginning of their sixtieth year. Since fasting and abstinence are part of the lifestyle of the First Rule, this is the proper guide. Of course, others may join who are older or younger. No one in the Association is bound by the prescriptions in the Rule regarding fasting or abstinence either under pain of sin, or beyond the intentions of current laws of the Catholic Church, though they may voluntarily perform acts of self denial at any age.
The purpose of the Association is to promote the renewed practice of penance in the Church among lay people consistent with the Gospel itself, the prescriptions of the Rule of 1221 (Memoriale Propositi) and the intentions of the Association’s spiritual assistants as defined in the Rule and Statutes of the Association which were finalized in late 1999.
The spirituality of the Association is simply that of the Gospel itself, which encourages lives of poverty, humility, and penance in the world for all people. Membership in the Association both causes and is the fruit of each individual’s personal conversion and desire to live the Gospel more perfectly in his or her own life.
Canon law of the Catholic Church provides for the formation of Associations of the Faithful for purposes of growing in holiness and living the gospel. The Brothers and Sisters of Penance of St. Francis is an example of such an association. The principle canons that relate to its life in the Church according to Title V of the Code of Canon Law, are as follows:
Canon 298.1 "In the Church there are associations which are distinct from institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life. In these associations, Christ’s faithful, whether clerics or laity, or clerics and laity together, strive with a common effort to promote a more perfect life, or to promote public worship or Christian teaching. They may also devote themselves to other works of the apostolate, such as initiatives for evangelization, works of piety or charity, and those which animate the temporal order with the Christian spirit."
Canon 298.2 "Christ’s faithful are to join especially those associations which have been established, praised or recommended by the competent ecclesiastical authority."
Canon 299.1 "By private agreement among themselves, Christ’s faithful have the right to constitute associations for the purposes mentioned in Canon 298.1 without prejudice to the provisions of Canon 301.1."
Canon 299.2 "Associations of this kind, even though they may be praised or commended by ecclesiastical authority, are called private associations."
Canon 304 "All associations of Christ’s faithful, whether public or private, by whatever title or name they are called, are to have their own statutes. These are to define the purpose or social objective of the association, its center, its governance and the conditions of membership. They are also to specify the manner of action of the association, paying due regard to what is necessary or useful in the circumstances of the time and place."
A number of bishops have supported the formation of the Association in its initial phases. It is well understood and fully accepted by all leaders of the Association that local bishops must support the Association if it is to grow in any particular diocese. Those bishops who first supported the formation of the BSP are listed in the Addendum to this work, and the Association, through its various members throughout the world is in the process of seeking broader approval for promoting this lifestyle in the Church. Since this process may in fact take years it was thought best to promulgate what is already known for the benefit of all members. What is known is that we have the blessing of the Church to live, to gather, and to quietly promote the lifestyle of the BSP. Let us examine these points as they relate to the private association of the Brothers and Sisters of Penance of St. Francis:
To live. If we as penitents are to live the Rule of 1221 we must learn to do so gradually. Hence, we must respect in ourselves the need for formation, and to grow into the lifestyle as individual people of God. A holy life cannot be built in a day. The members of the BSP take as their guide the Lord and His Mother. Jesus took three years to teach us what we need to know through the Gospels. We as penitents will take three years in our novitiate. To be a novice is to be a beginner. These three years must fully run their course. A month at a time. After that we can pledge to live the life for the rest of our lives, but not before that time is over. Thereafter, until our deaths, we will do our best to live the life in all of its detail, demands, and richness. It is a narrow way as Our Lord himself described in His Gospel. (Lk. 13:24)
To gather. Individual penitents in their individual towns and cities are to gather in small groups, be they circles or chapters, as much as possible. No one can lead a holy life alone. Its members are a family. Our community is the body of Christ. Hence, it is one of the major imperatives of the lifestyle that the individual members gather and form the community of the Brothers and Sisters of Penance of St. Francis.
To promote. We reach out to others as lay people alone can do, in the streets, byways, places of business, stores, churches, and institutions of our day. We know from our discussions who among us in the world are deeply serious about the “things of God”, for we must and will discern others of like mind through the motion and blessing of the Holy Spirit. These others of like mind can be invited to join the Association of the Brothers and Sisters of Penance of St. Francis. In all of this the brothers and sisters are admonished to trust in the Holy Spirit, for He, Himself, the Spirit of our God, is our guide and counselor. It is the Holy Spirit who truly invites those who join.
i. The Form of the Commitment
The Form of the Commitment of Membership in the Association is a personal and entirely voluntary pledge made to Christ through the Church to live according to the tenets of the Rule and Statutes of the Association, which is the lifestyle of the Rule of 1221, updated through its statutes to fit life in the world today. This pledge will typically be made, following a period of formation, to a priest, confessor, or spiritual director, but can made if need be to any professed member of the Association at a place of the individual’s choosing, consistent with the intentions of the First Rule itself. Ideally it would be made at or after Mass and reception of the sacrament of Reconciliation.
Reception of new candidates: New candidates in the Association devote themselves to study the Rule and Statutes of the Association so as to discern their calling to make the pledge to live according to it for “all the time of his life”. During this time the individual is first an inquirer, then a postulant ( 1 year), then a “novice” (3 years) in the Association. “Novices” may pledge themselves to live according to the First Rule after three years or more of novice formation with the approval of their spiritual directors, pastors, or professed and “discreet” members of the Association. This is a very important time of formation and discernment. If at all possible it should be celebrated at or after Mass and the reception of the sacrament of Reconciliation.
Pledge: An individual’s pledge to live according to the Rule and Statutes of the Association is a binding promise, though not under penalty of sin, wherein the individual binds himself to strive to live the Rule and Statutes of the Association, as his lifestyle for “all the time of his life”, for the love of God and his own salvation.
Friends: Individuals may join the Association as "friends" if they wish to be guided in their life by the tenets of the Rule and Statutes without fully committing themselves to live them, and wish to join in the community activities, prayer life, and apostolates of the pledged members or candidates in formation to becoming pledged members.
Associates: Non-Catholics may join the Association as "associates". Such members are invited to participate fully in the life of the Association recognizing that they are not obligated to live the tenets of the Rule except as they wish to.
ii. The Object of the Commitment
The Object of the commitment is for the individual pledged member to lead a penitential life in response to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and for His greater glory, such that each individual member of the Association, living the Gospel of Jesus Christ more perfectly in his own life, is united in a common bond of Christian love with other Christians and becomes a penitent of the Church.
i. The prayer life of new members in the Association is that defined for them by the formation programs of the Association.
ii. The prayer life of all pledged members of the Association is that defined in the Rule of 1221, as explained by the Statutes of the Association, which shall be deemed sufficient in and of itself to live a holy life under the Gospel of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.
i. The penitential life is that defined in the Rule, Statutes and formation programs of the Association, which shall be deemed sufficient in and of itself to lead a holy life consistent with the Gospel of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.
ii. This penitential life includes all acts of penance, however great or small, that go beyond the Rule as determined by the individual member including devotions and almsgiving which are neither defined, nor binding, under the Rule, but have been approved by the individual’s spiritual director.