June 26, 2003
Instruments of Peace
By Howie Mansfield
Secular Franciscan Order embodies mission and spirituality of St. Francis
UTICA — One can pick out Secular Franciscans by the habit they wear. It’s not a brown, black or gray robe or cloak, but a simple Tau cross. When Secular Franciscans go on vacation or to a meeting for work in another part of the country, they look for that Tau cross at Mass. The habit of the Secular Franciscans creates an instant bond among these people, unknown by name but joined together by their mutual love for St. Francis.
On June 15, the St. Joseph Fraternity of the Secular Franciscan Order in Utica accepted the profession of four candidates into the order at St. Joseph-St. Patrick Church. The St. Joseph Fraternity has existed in Utica since 1859, the same year the Conventual Franciscan Friars took over St. Joseph’s Church in Utica. Since that time, the Secular Franciscan Order has grown and expanded in Utica and across the United States. The history of the Secular Franciscan Order (SFO) goes back to 1209, when St. Francis founded the Third Order. These first Secular Franciscans, known then as the Third Order of St. Francis, the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, were given the rule to observe God’s commandments and follow the gospel as literally as possible. The Church provided the Brothers and Sisters of Penance with a formal rule in 1221. The rule was revised in 1289 and 1883. The last revision of the Rule was approved by Pope Paul VI on June 24, 1978. “It’s a small but dynamic rule,” said Karen Szczesniak, SFO, minister and historian for the St. Joseph Fraternity. “There are 26 articles, all laying out and giving flesh to the rule.”
The Secular Franciscan Rule of Life calls those professed to show devotion to the Gospel as St. Francis understood it, “follow Christ in the footsteps of St. Francis,” as well as devotion to the church and all brothers and sisters in Christ. Robert and Mary Stronach, SFO, parishioners at St. Peter’s Church in North Utica, made professions on June 15. They said they were unsure about becoming a Secular Franciscan at first. “It was an exciting and scary prospect. After a year and a half of formation, we still were doubting if this was the right thing,” Robert said. “But the couple of weeks before profession, everything came together and we knew it was the right thing to do.” Robert said he found the Secular Franciscan Order while browsing on the Internet. He e-mailed the regional contact and the e-mail worked its way to Szczesniak. “I was intrigued,” Robert said. “Mary and I had traveled on our own individual spiritual journey. I wanted to grow in my spirituality, but I thought because we are married, what if we did this together. I went to the first meeting alone, but when I came back I was excited about the possibility.”
Mary said following the Rule can only be done a day at a time. “We hold people up as God would. You are making a daily conversion,” she said. “You have to take it one day at a time.” The individuals inquiring about joining the Secular Franciscans come to monthly meetings and, after a period of orientation, enter into a year of candidacy in order for the vocation to grow within them. This period can be extended if the candidate feels he or she needs more time. Individuals can also make a temporary profession before making a final profession to the order. “Profession is a life commitment,” said Mary Jane Schofield, SFO, treasurer for the St. Joseph Fraternity. “It’s not something you just join. It’s a very serious thing, because this is a call and a vocation. I remember the first meeting I went to. I was so impressed by the Franciscan spirituality and hospitality.”
Szczesniak explained that individuals are called to many different vocations. “Some are chosen to be a priest, religious brother or religious sister. There are others who are choose marriage as their vocation. We live out in the secular world and we can become Secular Franciscans,” she noted. “The challenge is to be Franciscan in married life. We need the support of our spouses. They might not want to do two years of formation, but they give us the support.” Catherine Koscinski, SFO, parishioner at Sacred Heart Church in Utica and formation director for the St. Joseph Fraternity, said the Secular Franciscans are a very close community. “We pray together and participate in on-going formation. It’s a social place, a place to get information,” she said. “Most of all, it’s an extended family.” Mary added, “You have a responsibility to your brothers and sisters. When there is a crisis, you are there for each other.”
The official habit was changed also during the last Rule revision. Now, a Tau cross is used. The Tau is in the shape of a “T,” the shape of the cross Jesus was crucified on. “It’s a good source of evangelization,” Koscinski said. Mary talked about one experience she had while in a restaurant for lunch. “I looked across the room and noticed they were all wearing Taus. It took five minutes and before long we were talking. They were a group of Secular Franciscans and I told them I was studying to be one,” she said. “It’s amazing how the Tau causes the breakdown of that wall. There is a true bond between Secular Franciscans.”
The connectedness of the Franciscan community was apparent at the Rite of Profession. Mary said after the official professions were made by the candidates, she received a special greeting. “Sister Rose Vincent [Gleason, OSF] came up and hugged me. She said, ‘’Welcome to the family.’” Mary said. The St. Joseph Fraternity is part of the Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha Regional Fraternity. Regional fraternities of the Secular Franciscan Order make up the national fraternity in the United States. Representatives or ministers are chosen at each level to handle the business and administrative needs of each fraternity level, Szczesniak said. The Secular Franciscan Order has commissions within the fraternity that focus on more specific areas. Some of the commissions include family, work, peace and justice, ecology, and young adult. Secular Franciscans are truly dedicated to furthering the mission of the church. “We come from all walks of life,” said Marsha Kistner, parishioner of St. Thomas Church in New Hartford and secretary of the St. Joseph Fraternity. “We all get here in a roundabout way, but we all show up the way we are supposed to. The people are wonderful.” For more information on the Secular Franciscan Order, visit the national website, www.nafra-sfo.org, or write St. Joseph Fraternity, P.O. Box 115, Yorkville, NY 13495-0115.