Penance & Minority
Fr. Seraphin J. Conley, TOR
In the Rule of
the Brothers and Sisters of the Third Order Regular of St. Francis, besides the basic
charism of continuous penance lived out in fraternity, we also find the characteristic of
"minority." This quality of minority is something shared by all brothers and
sisters of the Franciscan movement although it is so characteristic of the First Order
that it forms part of the name. Many religious communities, founded or guided in their
origins by friars of the First Order, perhaps more readily, recognize themselves in this
quality than in that of "penance" which is still somewhat unfamiliar to them. In
what does this minority consist?
understanding of "minority" considers it as a state of dependency or
inferiority. Certainly, if not all evil, it is thought to be something undesirable or to
be avoided. So why would someone choose to embrace minority as a permanent way of life'?
It is here that we find the connection of penance and minority in the Franciscan vocation.
St. Francis is
undoubtedly acknowledged to be a person who didn't just preach about minority, or involve
himself in the occasional humble action, but really embraced minority as the way of life
for himself and his Friars Minor. In the second version of the "Letter to the
Faithful," Francis gives the key ideas for understanding the deepest meaning of
The Son of God
DESCENDED from heaven and assumed the weakness of our human flesh; CHOOSING poverty for
Himself and His Mother; near the time of His PASSION He celebrated the Passover together
with His disciples: Take and Eat, this is My Body ... and then the cup: Take and Drink,
this is My Blood shed for you and for all for the forgiveness of sins. Then He PRAYED:
Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me. And His sweat became as drops of
blood failing to the ground. He PLACED His will in that of His Father ... Father, let it
be Your Will, not as I will but as You will. And the Will of the Father was that His
glorious and blessed Son given and born for us, should offer himself for us as a
Sacrifice and Victim on the Altar of the Cross, not for His own good, but to
liberate us front our sins, LEAVING US AN EX4MPLE SO THAT WE SHOULD WALK IN HIS
Only against this
background can we really understand the meaning of our Franciscan vocation to a life of
evangelical penance lived in minority: it consists in allowing the Holy Spirit to lead us
as Francis was led into what Fr. Henri Nouwen refers to as "The Way of Downward
Mobility" (45) to follow in the footsteps of Our
Lord Jesus Christ, to participate in His Way of the Cross. Our ministry, our
"bringing forth the fruits of penance" is possible because we do not belong to
the world ust as Christ did not belong to the world. So, in his "Letter to the
Faithful" (Penitents) Francis recalls the "Priestly Prayer of Jesus" in
which He asks the Father not to remove the disciples from the world but to protect them
from the world. With these same words the Poverello asks God to protect his followers from
the temptation to compromise their vocation to a continuous and radical conversion from
the values of our culture to those of the Gospel.
There is a statue of
Pietro and Pica Bernardone in the Piazza of the Chiesa Nuova of Assisi. Pica holds in her
hands the chains with which her husband tried to bind his favorite son to the way of life
which he had planned for him, and there seems to be a vacant or puzzled expression on his
(45) Henri Nouwen, Personal notes taken at 2 Lectures on
Vocation/Formation at the Virginia Theological Seniinary, Oct. 17,1980.
Perhaps, he never
came to understand the vocation of Francis..... even if he had lived to see the
sensational fame of his son. Think about the baffled rage of this father confronted with
the "madness" of Francis. Pietro Bernardone did not forbid his son the choice of
a more intense Christian life. He was even disposed to invest more money so that Francis
could give generously to the poor. As strange and expensive as it might have been, even
this would have been acceptable. The prestige of the Bernardones would have grown in the
esteem and regard of the "important people," the maggiore, of Assisi. The
bafflement ... the scandal for Pietro Bernardone was that Francis refused "Upward
Mobility" and chose the way of "Downward Mobility"!
chose to turn his back on the world of social and economic security, of moving up to the
power and honors dreamed and schemed for him by his father. Instead, Francis chose to
descend into the status of the minore, the lower class to share their poverty, their
marginal status in society and their absolute unimportance in the eyes of the World. This
was a scandal and a tragedy for Pietro Bernardone which shattered the very sense of his
way of life, of all that he had stubbornly planned and worked so hard to achieve.
The option of
Francis for minority or the "Way of Downward Mobility" formed part of his
process of conversion/penance. It was the obvious result of his radical change of mind
which now saw minority not as an evil to flee from but a good worthy to be sought out and
embraced. It was minority which allowed him to recognize the profundity of the mystery of
God, the All High, All Powerful, All Good Whom no one is worthy even to name. Minority
allowed Francis to recognize and to unite himself in his daily actions to the descent of
the Eternal Word into our fragile flesh without being ashamed of it, or using it only as a
disguise, but assuming the real and crude poverty of our humanity. (46)
Minority strengthened his faith in God's saving grace coming through the simple signs of
the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist and to reverence even those imperfect instruments
of God, sinful priests.
It is this option of
Francis which is our inheritance as we follow our vocation to penance in minority. Our
descent into minority means that we too in our personal lives and in our ministries are to
turn our backs on the temptation to be powerful, spectacular, relevant. (47) These are the values of our culture which
promise us and our apostolates a privileged position among the maggiore, the VIPs.
To be relevant means to prove by our busyness, or by our results that we are worthy of
appreciation. To be spectacular means to deny that anything good can be ordinary or come
through simple ways and to hide our self doubt by seeking to be popular, to be loved, to
be praised. To be powerful in a competitive society is the need to be No.# I, The Best, to
be in control. Even our ministry/service can be turned into a Power Base! The Word and
Sacraments, or our apostolic skills can be used as our 'professional tools'. They are
needed by the people and we control them and thus have power.
The minority of
Francis teaches us the Gospel Way, that powerlessness reveals God's mercy. Jesus sent His
apostles out with nothing for their journey. They were sent without personal power so that
they could reveal God's powerful love. This is what Francis had in mind when he quoted
Christ's words in his prayer that his Brothers and Sisters of Penance would be faithful to
t e evangelical value of minority and remain on the "Path of Downward Mobility."
His message was direct and simple: You are not of the world but of God and so you have no
need of the world's methods to validate your call or your service.
(46) Vincenzo Cherubino Bigi, La Via della Peniteniza ni
Francesco d"Assisi, pp. 47-53, Edizioni Francescane, Bologna, 1989.
(47) Nouwen. From notes of his
first lecture on Vocation/Formation.
There is another
aspect to the descent into minority. It opens up a sense of wonder for creation and
teaches a respectful courtesy towards our Mother Earth. Like Francis, we learn a new
language which makes it possible to communicate with all our fellow creatures
(Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Sister Water, etc.) In an age which has witnessed ecological
disasters and recently ecological vandalism as an instrument of war, perhaps the gentle
language of minority will find a hearing. It is a language which expresses that pietas
which opposes and rejects any enjoyment of Nature reduced to the status of a mere useful
and neutral object. For those like Francis who understand this language the earth and all
creatures are mysterious footprints and signs of God's creative love which gives force and
direction for continual progress in all that is truly human. (48)
Minority then which
flows from this new vision of life resulting from the process of conversion/penance
supports us in our effort to live in the world but not be of it. Choosing the "Path
of Downward Mobility" makes us true sons and daughters of Francis, conforms us to
Christ and enables us to witness to Him in the world.
(48) Bigi, o.c., p.54
-- Fr. Seraphin
The Cord, vol. 41., no.6. 1991