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Pope Leo XIII. and The Third Order of St. Francis By Fr. Ulric Petri, O. F. (Part I)

Franciscan Herald Volume 1 Number 1 (1913)

The Third Order of St. Francis, called by its holy Founder the Order of Penance, is now in existence for almost seven hundred years. During this time it has been a source of many blessings to numberless Christians who received the habit of penance and, in conformity with the Rule of the Third Order, led a life in close imitation of our Divine Lord. The popes, the promoters of everything good and holy, have from time to time warmly recommended this institution of St. Francis, and have always vigorously defended it against the attacks of its enemies.

Next to Gregory IX, the friend and adviser of St. Francis, no pope has been more enthusiastic about the Third Order, or has done more to make it known to the faithful, than Leo XIII., of blessed memory.

His love and admiration for St. Francis of Assisi and everything Franciscan, and in particular for the Third Order of St. Francis, was manifest long before he was chosen to be the successor of St. Peter. Being fully convinced that the Third Order is a source of many and great spiritual benefits to its members, he decided to receive the cord and scapular, the insignia of purity and penance; and he continued to wear them as Sovereign Pontiff, to the last day of his life. On more than one occasion he prided himself with the privilege of being a son of St. Francis.

As bishop of Perugia and cardinal, in a Pastoral Letter dated December 20, 1871, he admonished the parish priests of his diocese to work for the propagation and increase of the Third Order. In 1875 he was appointed Protector of all the Congregations of the Third Order existing in Italy by Pope Pius IX., of saintly memory. As such, he pointed out in an address to the Tertiaries, both eloquent and impressive, the benefits which the Third Order conferred on religion, morals, and society.

Again, in a Pastoral Letter, dated December 20, 1877, he exhorted the parish priests of his diocese to preach to their flock on the excellence and the great advantages of the Secular Third Order, adding by way of confirmation the testimony of illustrious personages and his own experience during the visitation of his diocese.

When, on February 20, 1878, he succeeded Pius IX. as Sovereign Pontiff, his deep affection for the Third Order Secular of St. Francis became more manifest to the Christian world. Scarcely had he ascended the throne of St. Peter, when he spoke of the Third Order of Penance in terms of the highest praise and commendation, pointing to it as to “the means best adapted to bring about the true and perfect observance of the Gospel,” March 29, 1878.

In the following year, 1879, in an allocution addressed to some Tertiaries, he emphasizes that the Third Order is “a remedy intended by Divine Providence to counteract the evils of the present day.” In 1881, on January 9, he addressed the following words to the Minister General and his Definitors: “The Franciscan Order is a great power in the Church, and is one of the supports on which the Roman Pontiffs have rested for seven centuries. I, too, wish to find in it a vigilant and powerful helper to assist me in defending the rights of the Church and bringing about the reformation of society. And when I speak of the social reformation, I refer especially to the Third Order of St. Francis.”

In 1882 the Franciscan families of the three Orders celebrated the seven hundredth anniversary of the birth of their holy Father, St. Francis. Leo XIII. seized this occasion to send the memorable Encyclical Letter, “Auspicato Concessum,” dated September 17, 1882, to all the bishops of the world, in which he extols the virtues and the greatness of the Patriarch of Assisi, and recommends the diffusion of the Secular Third Order throughout the parishes of the world. It will be of great interest to all Tertiaries to read that part of the Encyclical Letter, which speaks of the Third Order. After having extolled the virtues of our holy Patriarch St. Francis, depicting him as a man whose constant aim was to imitate Our Divine Lord and Savior, he speaks of the Third Order, saying: “It is impossible to express the enthusiasm with which the multitude flocked to St. Francis. Wherever he went he was followed by an immense concourse; and in the largest cities, as well as in the smallest towns, it was a common occurrence for men of every state of life to come and beg of him to be admitted to his Rule. Such were the reasons for which the Saint determined to institute the brotherhood of the Third Order, which was to admit all ranks, all ages, both sexes, and yet in no way necessitate the rupture of family or social ties. For its rules consist only in obedience to God and his Church, to avoid factions and quarrels, and in no way to defraud our neighbor; to take up arms only for the defense of religion and of one’s country; to be moderate in food and in clothing; to shun luxury; and to abstain from the dangerous seductions of dances and plays.

“It is easy to understand what immense advantages must have flowed from an institution of this kind, as salutary in itself as it was admirably adapted to the times. That it was opportune is sufficiently established by the foundation of so many similar associations which issued from the family of St. Dominic and from the other Religious Orders, and by the very facts of history. Indeed, from the lowest ranks to the highest, there prevailed an enthusiasm and a generous and eager ardor to be affiliated to this Franciscan Order. Amongst others, King Louis IX of France and St. Elizabeth of Hungary sought this honor; and, in the course of centuries, many Sovereign Pontiffs, Cardinals, Bishops, Kings, and Princes have not deemed the Franciscan livery derogatory to their dignity. The members of the Third Order displayed always as much courage as piety in the defense of the Catholic religion; and if their virtues were objects of hatred to the wicked, they never lacked the approbation of the good and wise, which is the greatest and only desirable honor. More than this, our predecessor, Gregory IX., publicly praised their faith and courage; nor did he hesitate to shelter them with his authority, and to call them, as a mark of honor, ‘Soldiers of Christ, new Machabees;’ and deservedly so. For the public welfare found a powerful safeguard in that body of men who, guided by the virtues and rules of their Founder, applied themselves to revive Christian morality as far as lay in their power, and to restore it to its ancient place of honor in the State. Certain it is, that to them and their example it was often due that the rivalries of parties were quenched or softened down, arms were torn from the furious hands that grasped them, the causes of litigation and dispute were suppressed, consolation was brought to the poor and the abandoned; and luxury, the ruin of fortunes and instrument of corruption, was subdued. And thus domestic peace, incorrupt morality, gentleness of behavior, the legitimate use and preservation of private wealth, civilization, and social stability, spring as from a root from the Franciscan Third Order; and it is in great measure to St. Francis that Europe owes the preservation of these advantages.” (continued Jan 30…)

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