We are told that early in his career, St. Francis of Assisi presented us with some exhortations. These sum up what the Franciscan Order requires and are also a pretty good description of a Catholic life.
1. Love God
2. Love one’s neighbor
3. Turn away from sinful tendencies
4. Receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and, as a result of the above
5. Produce worthy fruits of penance – a renewed life characterized by charity, forgiveness, and compassion.
There is probably nothing in this summary that we were not taught as children. But then, during our formation as Secular Franciscans, we learn that the original name of the Third Order Secular was The Brothers and Sisters of Penance. And although the name has since changed, brothers and sisters of penance we still are.
Let’s face it. Penance and its sister Atonement is what scares us, especially when we see these words linked to something that has the unfortunate name of “Order” as in “taking them”. No Catholic is probably going to argue that living a life of penance and atonement is a bad thing as such. But the fact is, it’s the kind of thing that sometimes makes the words “vocation” and “conversion” synonyms for “crazy— but in a good way.”
The Franciscan Orders are penitential orders and because we are used to thinking of Penance as the punishment the priest gives us after we go to Confession, leading a life of penance sounds like leading a life of suffering. And since as far as I am concerned I am already leading a life of suffering, thank you very much, I think I’ll take a pass.
And yet the Franciscans are known (and rightfully so) as a particularly joyful order. So how does this penance produce this joy? Have Franciscans found the secret formula for how much self-punishment cancels out Catholic guilt? Or do Franciscans have a “vocation” (nod nod wink wink) for some sort of Holy Masochism?