One of the Catholic Church’s largest orders for lay people is the Secular Franciscan Order (SFO), consisting of thousands of fraternity branches world-wide. At St. Helen Catholic Church in Vero Beach, one of those branches is the Divine Mercy Fraternity of Secular Franciscans, an official order within the Catholic Church approved by Pope Paul VI and first established by St. Francis of Assisi in the early 13th century.
The order consists of lay men and women who seek to follow Jesus through the example of St. Francis of Assisi, a saint who passionately expressed his devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, a love for the Catholic Church and a life of simplicity by helping the poor and caring for the sick.
On April 18, 1993, the day of beatification of Sister Maria Faustina Kowalska, the Vero Beach Divine Mercy Secular Franciscans held their first meeting. The meeting was led by Fred Schaeffer, OFS, who previously served as a Franciscan monk. “I left the order due to old age, but I stayed connected to the Franciscan way of life by becoming a member of the Third Order of St. Francis,” said Schaeffer. On October 4, 2018, he celebrated 24 years as a professed secular Franciscan at St. Helen Parish. Schaeffer’s celebration coincided with St. Francis of Assisi’s feast day—October 4.
Many order members devoted themselves to St. Francis at an early age. Marie T. Fee, a 91-year-old order member from St. Helen in Vero Beach, celebrated 71 years as a professed secular Franciscan this year. “I first became professed when I was 20 years old at St. John the Baptist Church in New York City. I wanted to live a simple and prayerful interior life like St. Francis,” said Fee.
Joanne Giordano, Divine Mercy SFO councilor-at-large and a professed member of 3 years, reflected on her own connection to the order. “I had a lot of interaction with the Franciscans in my early years. I read about the life of St. Francis and how he saw Christ, how he honored him and his love for Mary. That is how I live and want to live my life,” said Giordano.
Jack Reddy, treasurer of the OSF order at St. Helen Parish noted that he first found the order on a pilgrimage to Assisi. “In 1996, my wife and I went on a Franciscan pilgrimage to Assisi. It was one of the highlights of our lives meeting the priests and fellow Franciscans. After I retired, I became a member here,” said Reddy.
All discerning secular Franciscans undergo a 2-year formation process before becoming a professed secular Franciscan. Pope Paul VI brought about a change through the Second Vatican Council, renewing the Franciscan rule in 1978. Now, they follow the Rule for Secular Franciscans, wear the tau cross in representation of religious dress, and continue to pray the 7-decade Franciscan Crown rosary, which represents Mary’s seven joys.
As the Easter season moves towards Pentecost, the St. Helen Parish SFO members encourage those who feel the call of Divine Mercy to join the lay order. To become a member of the Secular Franciscan Order, the applicant must discern a vocation, be a devout Catholic, be willing to give a commitment of at least two or three hours a month, and pray at least one to two hours a day, including private prayer and the Liturgy of the Hours. Meetings are held every second Sunday of the month from 2 to 4 p.m. For more information email Fred Schaeffer at email@example.com.
The Franciscans are divided into three orders:
The First Order consists of the priests who are known as the Order of Friars Minor (OFM), Order of Friars Minor Conventual (OFM Conv.) or Order of Friars Minor Capuchin (OFM Cap.).
The Second Order consists of the nuns who are known as the Order of Saint Clare (OSC), who are more commonly known as the Poor Clares.
The Third Order is divided into two groups:
-The Third Order Regular consists of those who are religious sisters who take vows and follow a rule (hence ‘regular’).
-The Order of Franciscans Secular consists of those who are ‘secular,’ meaning they live in the world in whatever capacity that might be and find ways to bring the Gospel message to their towns or cities or communities.
By Aleen Stanton, Florida Catholic correspondent