Category Archives: Formation

Franciscan Penance

Question: What is penance for you?
I’d like to offer several ideas of what penance is.

1. Penance is a sacrament
In a sacramental understanding of the term, “penance” applies to the whole activity from confession to absolution. The sacrament of penance (also called reconciliation or confession is one of the two sacraments of healing: “Jesus Christ has willed that by this means the Church should continue, in the power of the Holy Spirit, his work of healing and salvation.” [Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1421] Through the priest who is the minister of the sacrament and who acts not in his own name but on behalf of God, confession of sins is made to God and absolution is received from God.

2. Penance is repentance, which is a conversion, a metanoia, or a new beginning
After Francis’s return to Assisi from the dream in Spoleto, he began performing the following actions:

  • Ascetic practices: Francis began wearing a hair-shirt, fasting, and engaging in other corporal disciplines.
  • Solitary prayer: Francis began withdrawing to caves and isolated places outside of Assisi with a companion for prayer and reflection.
  • Giving alms: Francis gave money, clothes, and food to the poor, and he bought furnishings for churches. According to the sources, Francis had always been generous, but now his largesse took on religious meaning.
  • Pilgrimage: On a pilgrimage to Rome, Francis took a large handful of coins and threw them over the tomb of St. Peter; before returning to Assisi, he traded clothes with a beggar, now not only giving to the poor, but identifying with them and becoming one of them.
  • Re-building churches: After selling his father’s horse and cloth in Foligno, Francis begins re-building the church of San Damiano; he later re-built San Pietro della Spina near Rivotorto in the valley, and the Portiuncula/St. Mary of the Angels. (This will be taken up in the next lesson.)
  • Serving lepers.In these actions, Francis was doing things differently; he was converting. He was moving away from one way of life and embracing another. This was his life of penance.

    The origins of this practice of penance are found in the Bible. In the original Greek language of the New Testament, John the Baptist and then Jesus insist that their listeners have a metanoia. The Greek translation says, “Metanoeite!” which translated literally means to change one’s mind or heart. This phrase was translated into the Latin Vulgate Bible as “Paenitentiam agite!” (literally, “do penance”). Then, the words were translated into English as repent.

    In those days John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!’ (Matthew 3: 1-2).
    From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ (Matthew 4:17)

    So we see that the biblical meaning of the word “repent”, which has the same root as the word “penance” means metanoia, change of heart, conversion.

    And this biblical meaning of penance is the same as Francis’s understanding of penance; i.e., the turning away from sin and having a conversion of heart. In fact, Francis wrote in the first line of his Testament, written just two years before he died, that he began to do penance by serving lepers. “The Lord granted me, Brother Francis, to begin to do penance in this way: While I was in sin, it seemed very bitter to me to see lepers. And the Lord Himself led me among them and I had mercy upon them. And when I left them that which seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness of soul and body; and afterward I lingered a little and left the world.” Thus, in Francis’s experience with the lepers, we clearly see not just an external action or a corporal discipline, but a change of heart – a metanoia. His heart was changed through his actions. Through his embrace of the leper, Francis says that his bitterness was changed into sweetness, and he was transformed. Thus, for him penance was not merely an external act, but it was an act accompanied by an internal change of heart. Penance changed him and brought him closer to God. It should also be said that his heart was not changed without the action; rather, the change of heart followed, and was consequential of, the action.

    So after returning to Assisi from Spoleto, and later separating from his father, Francis thoroughly dedicated himself to penance. And after Francis’s first followers joined him, they, too, took up this penitential life. When asked who they were, Francis and his followers referred to themselves as penitents from Assisi.1 It was not until they went to Rome and were granted oral approval of their way of life by Pope Innocent III in 1209 that they began calling themselves Fratres Minores (Friars Minors). Soon after this important meeting, Francis’s fledgling group of penitents would emerge from the penitential movement, and become established as a distinct Order within the Church: the Order of Friars Minor.

    Question: Why did Francis embrace the leper? And later dedicate his life to serving lepers?
    At table:
    1. Who is the leper in your life? Can you find the courage to “embrace” that person?

3. Penance is a corporal discipline, also known as asceticism:
Let’s look a little more closely at the specific ways in which Francis practiced penance. In addition to his work with the lepers, Francis (and Clare) practiced corporal penances, which were often quite harsh: Francis often mixed his food with ashes or bitter herbs to kill the taste, while Clare ate very little; Francis commonly wore a hair-shirt (a rough garment worn on the skin underneath the habit), while Clare wore a small rectangle of horsehair under her tunic; they deprived their bodies of sleep; Francis sometimes slept on stones while Clare slept on a bed of vine-branches or the bare floor using rocks for pillows; Francis frequently responded to temptation by rolling around naked in thorn bushes or snow. Thomas of Celano said that Francis subjected himself to severe disciplines and called his body “Brother Ass” (i.e. donkey). (2 Celano, 97). Francis wrote in his Letter to the Faithful: “All those who love the Lord with their whole heart … and hate their bodies with their vices and sins … produce worthy fruits of penance.” In the 10th Admonition, he wrote, “Many people, when they sin or receive an injury, often blame the Enemy or a neighbor, but this is not right, for each one has the real enemy in his own power; that is, the body through which he sins.”

These corporal penances practiced by Francis, Clare and their followers should more precisely be called asceticism. In this, we should distinguish between penance (the biblical metanoia described above), and asceticism (self-mortification). It is true that Francis and the early Franciscans regularly practiced asceticism as a form of penance, but penance was not limited to asceticism; for Francis, penance meant conversion.

Question: Why did Francis and Clare practice asceticism?

At table: What forms of corporal penance have you ever engaged in? What were the results?

4.Penance is a detachment from worldly things by seeking to avoid vice by practicing virtues

Francis and the early Franciscans practiced penance and asceticism because they believed that sin was the result of an inordinate attachment to worldly things. While fervently believing that the world was good, they believed that too strong an attachment to the things of the world could lead to sin. In fact, the seven deadly sins (pride, greed, lust, gluttony, ire, sloth, and envy) are natural God-given instincts taken to the extreme. By disciplining the body, or flesh, which they recognized as housing sin, they were seeking to free themselves of vices in order to live in the Spirit. They were not punishing their bodies because they believed them to be evil; rather, through self-mortifications, they were seeking to detach themselves from the things of the world, avoid vices, and be free to practice virtues.

Francis’s primary form of penance was working with the lepers. We might judge that he struggled with pride before his conversion. The sources say that he often sought to look good in fine clothes, he wanted to impress people by becoming a knight, he enjoyed feasts and parties, etc. (cf. Legend Three Companions, Chap. 1). However, these vices kept him rooted to worldly things. They prevented him from being able to freely experience, enjoy, and love God. Thus, once he discovered the humility that was required for him to work with lepers, his pride was leveled and he was forced to become humble. Through working with lepers, Francis was freed of his vices, and he could love and more freely enjoy God. And so great was the spirituality he experienced through that humble service, he continued to work with lepers all his life, and he established leprosaria throughout all of Italy. He even required that new friars work with lepers as fundamental to their formation.

Penance, sacrifices, and ascetic practices help us to avoid vice and grow in virtue. They reform the human condition that is naturally inclined towards selfishness and self-centeredness, and they create the interior freedom that allows the soul to re-orient itself towards others. We can be inspired by the experience of Francis, Clare, and the early Franciscans who experienced a radical and full metanoia. Without falling into Phariseeism – showing off external mortifications in order to receive praises from the people – (cf. Matthew 6:2), or without engaging in extremism, we can discover in them what true penance is: metanoia, another way of saying conversion.

Francis’s main form of penance was working with the lepers. His vices kept him rooted to worldly things and prevented him from being able to truly experience, enjoy, and love God. Thus, once he discovered the humility that was necessary to work with lepers, his pride was leveled. In working with lepers, Francis was freed of his vices.

The Seven Deadly Sins (also known as the Capital Vices or Cardinal Sins), is a list or classification of vices that have been used since early Christian times to educate and instruct the faithful concerning humanity’s tendency to sin. However, there are seven virtues to directly counteract each of the vices that can be practiced in its place.


pride    Humility
greed   Charity
sloth    Diligence
wrath   Patience
lust      Chastity
envy Kindness
gluttony Temperance

Question for table: Which of the vices are you inordinately attached to? Can you practice its corresponding virtue to offset the vice?

5. Penance is atonement for one’s sins or those of another
6. Penance is a form of intercession

Make sure I note the difference between voluntary penance and involuntary penance; we can choose penances; i.e. fasting, corporal works of mercy, prayer, etc. or let sufferings we do not choose become a form of penance; i.e. sickness, job/financial loss, etc.

Paragraph 1435 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “Conversion is accomplished in daily life by gestures of reconciliation, concern for the poor, the exercise and defense of justice and right, by the admission of faults to one’s brethren, fraternal correction, revision of life, examination of conscience, spiritual direction, acceptance of suffering, endurance of persecution for the sake of righteousness. Taking up one’s cross each day and following Jesus is the surest way of penance.” (cf. Luke 9:23). In this list, there are numerous ways of practicing acts of penance leading to a conversion.
Final Homework Assignment:

Do penance! Find the penance that God wants for you to do and embrace it! Do it daily, weekly, monthly! But do it.

Take five minutes and write down your penance.

Are you going to do penance this month?

Do not be hearers of the word, but be do-ers!

Can you change the world?

Pope Francis: “It is not possible to build bridges between people while forgetting God. But the converse is also true: It is not possible to establish true links with God while ignoring other people.”
After reflecting on the above quote, consider the following:
Let There Be Peace on Earth
Can you change the world? Not all by yourself you can’t. Remember, we have only one Messiah—and you’re not Him. But by working with others—in your fraternity, in your parish, in your community (and with plenty of unmerited but freely supplied grace)—you can make a difference! Below you’ll see just a few ways. It would be surprising if you couldn’t think of a lot more. [*Create an apostolate around any of those below.]

Tutor a disadvantaged or special needs young person.

Do something good for someone who can do nothing for you in return.

Show compassion and helpfulness to those who have gotten their lives into a total mess.

Be willing to draw on the compassion and helpfulness of others when your life seems to be becoming a total mess.

Don’t let bad feelings be the end result of disagreement.

Persons in other faith traditions and cultural groups are children of God. Do something to prove that you actually believe this. Then join a group that actually believes this.

Make the Gospel, rather than the current social and political situation, the starting point of your thought and action.

See if empowering others doesn’t also empower you.

You don’t volunteer for peace-building activities because you “don’t have time”? Ask yourself some hard questions about how you use time.

Tell others how much they matter. Then show others how much they matter.

You don’t love others by imposing your reality on them. On the other hand, power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent than the power gained through threat of punishment or exclusion.

Think of all the ways the word “community” could be used. Then accept personal responsibility for helping to create all sorts of better communities.

Where’s God in all of this? In your thoughts, words, and actions, hopefully. This is one of the most important ways that God’s Presence comes into the world.
* Editor’s addition
pax et bonum
Mike DePue ofs
JPIC Animator / St. Clare Region
NAFRA JPIC Commission Member

The Help Given the Demoniac


The Help Given the Demoniac

The devil ceaselessly sets his snares against a person who is so hardhearted as to despise God’s help in resisting him; for then he sees a blackness of iniquity rising up in that person, bringing such bitterness into his whole body that its strength dries up. Hence, when a person begins to contemplate his evil and so crushes himself in despair, deeming it impossible for him to avoid evil and do good, the devil sees this and says, ”Behold a person who is like us, denying his God and turning to follow us. Let us hasten and run swiftly to him, urging him by our arts so that he cannot escape us. For to leave God and follow us is what he wants.”

But a person who is assailed by these evils through the devi|’s agency, and polluted by murder, adultery, voracity, drunkenness and excess of all vices, will fall into death if he continues in them impenitent; while one who resists the devil and withdraws repenting from these vices will rise again to life. For if a person follows the longing of his flesh and neglects the good desires of his spirit, the Maker of this globe says of him, “he despises me and sinfully loves his flesh, and reiects the knowledge that he should turn away from perdition. And therefore he must be cast out.” But if a person loves the virtuous ardor of his spirit and reiects the pleasure of his flesh, the Creator of the world says of him, ”he looks toward me and does not nourish his body on filth, and desires the knowledge of how to avoid death. And therefore help will be given him.”

Saint Hildegard of Bingen

Saint Hildegard of Bingen (t 1179) was a German Benedictine nun, physician, composer; and mystic. She is a Doctor of the Church,

The Secular Franciscan Meeting Guidelines

The Secular Franciscan Meeting
This is only a recommendation of how a meeting should take place with an emphasis on prayerful community participation.

The importance of the Franciscan meeting
A meeting of the fraternity should occur at least once a month.
The importance of the monthly meeting is dedicating yourself to the “Franciscan Way of Life.” True Franciscanism requires sacrifices, at times, for the good of your fraternity and of the Franciscan Order. You have an obligation to schedule your times of serving other obligations around the day of your regular Franciscan meeting.
Your Franciscan way of life begins in, is nurtured on, and blossoms out of your Franciscan meeting. This is your community life. Only for a good and acceptable reason should you skip a regular meeting. There are times, such as health problems and family matters, that you skip a regular meeting.
We all owe it to God, St. Francis, and our brothers and sisters of our fraternity to be present at the meetings.

The meeting begins with Mass
Members attend Mass if possible as a community. They sit together during Mass if possible, showing that they are a community, wearing their Tau Cross.

Social time
Usually lasts about half-an-hour
Members share in providing the food and drink.
Give to the Common fund

Liturgical Hours; With a correct Format for reading the Liturgy of the Hours.
This is important prayer time. The reading of the “Liturgical Hours” is the daily prayer of the Order
and should be a prayerful time with intercessions for members and others who are in need of prayers.

The order of old and new business
A brief time is spent on old and new business
The reading of the minutes and treasury is unnecessary because it was reported in the newsletter of the month.
E.g. Discussion of retreats, days of reflection or recollection.
A discussion of the fraternities apostolates.

Ongoing Formation
This is time of great reward for the fraternity members. It is the most important part of the Franciscan meeting.
A group discussion lead by the Formation Director is a time for fraternity interaction.

Closing prayers

Candidate Formation
Formation of candidates is best to take place after the meeting. If it is at another time during the month
it may be difficult to arrange a time for all the candidates.

The Rule and Eucharist

by Lester Bach OFM Cap

The SFO Rule and Constitutions provide insights about the role of the Eucharist in Franciscan life.
Let them participate in the sacramental life of the Church, above all the Eucharist. Let them join in liturgical prayer in one of the forms proposed by the Church, reliving the mysteries of the life of Christ (SFO Rule #8)

The brothers and sisters should love meeting God as His children and they should let prayer and contemplation be the soul of all they are and do. They should seek to discover the presence of the Father in their own heart, in nature and in the history of humanity in which His plan of salvation is fulfilled. The contemplation of this mystery will dispose them to collaborate in this loving plan. (Constitutions – Article 11.3)

The Eucharist is the center of the life of the Church. Christ unites us to himself and to one another as a single body in it. Therefore, the Eucharist should be the center of the life of the fraternity. The brothers and sisters should participate in the Eucharist as frequently as possible, being mindful of the respect and love shown by Francis, who, in the Eucharist, lived all the mysteries of the life of Christ (Constitutions-Article 14.2)

1- The Eucharist is the center of the life of the Church. Franciscans belong to the Church. The Eucharist is the center of Church life of which Franciscans are a part. All Catholics recognize the Eucharist as the center of their lives. Why? Because of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist and the proclamation of the gospel Word.

Catholics are called to active participation in the Eucharist. At Mass, we are an assembly of believers called to be a community joined in the praise and worship of God. (United States Catechism for Adults – USCCB – Page 225)

Our lives reflect the influence of this sacred meal. There are a number of meal stories in the New Testament. Prayerful reading shows Jesus not only teaching but also pointing out ways to live. When Jesus spoke/acted at meals, he asked his friends to imitate him. (E.g. servant leadership in John 13:3-17. Other meal lessons can be found in Luke 5:27-32, Luke 14:1-6 Matthew 26:6-13 and other texts).

2- The SFO Rule focuses on Christ: following the example of St. Francis of Assist, who made Christ the inspiration and the center of his life with God and people. Christ the gift of the Father’s love, is the way to him, the truth into which the Holy Spirit leads us, and the life he has come to give abundantly (SFO Rule #4).

Catholics are expected to let the Gospel infiltrate their lives, attitudes, judgments, relationships and perceptions. Franciscans have a special call to make the Gospel come alive in their lives.

3- A fraternity Eucharist for special occasions (Profession, jubilees, and special feasts) seems realistic. But generally we are called to participate with the larger Church (parish). E.g. Profession at a parish Eucharist could give witness to the parish of our commitment
to the Franciscan way of life.

Church celebrations help us realize that we are not in this ministry alone nor in isolation. We have professed a Rule that requires us to bring our Franciscan spirit to the Church and the world. We need to be present to both the Church and the world to achieve this goal. Frequent participation to parish Eucharistic celebrations will help us fulfill the Rule and Constitutions.

4- Eucharist deepens our sense of sacrifice is doing what is holy. Doing what is holy requires the same loving self-giving that Jesus shows on the cross. Working within the fraternity and the larger Church community, we do what is holy and give flesh to the gospel vision of Jesus in our world. Without the Church, the SFO would not exist. Francis’ dedication to the Eucharist and the Church changed his life. The Rule challenges us to a similar daily conversion! (cf. SFO Rule #7)

5- Ongoing formation should be a major part of the regular gathering. It offers practical ways and means for members to influence the world by living the SFO Rule. Good interaction about how to live the Franciscan way of life is an important ingredient of the regular gatherings.

While the Liturgy of the Hours is important, using a variety of prayer forms at gatherings can offer models for prayer. A fraternity can begin to die when it lacks growth and/or increased dedication to our Franciscan way of life. Wise use of ongoing formation and prayerfulness can keep this from happening.

Christ came to take away our sins, not our minds.