OCTOBER 19-24, 2004

Opening Comments

Our constitutions define fraternal and pastoral visitations as a fact of life, as much for the Fraternity visited,

as for those who carry out the visits. They have a very concrete purpose: " revive the evangelical Franciscan spirit, to assure fidelity to the charism and to the Rule, to offer help to Fraternity life, to reinforce the bond of unity of the Order, and to promote its most effective insertion into the Franciscan Family and the Church." (92.1)

And, it offers a direction to those who must carry out the Visits: " verify the evangelical and apostolic vitality, the observance of the Rule and of the Constitutions, and the insertion of the Fraternities into the Order

and into the Church." (93.1)

The fraternal visit is a moment of communion, an expression of the service and the interest of the responsible seculars at various levels so that the Fraternity may grow and be faithful to its vocation. (94.1)

"Among the various initiatives to achieve the purpose of the visit, the Visitor will give special attention:

-to the validity of formation - initial and permanent (on-going);

-to relations maintained with other Fraternities at different levels, with Franciscan Youth

 and with the entire Franciscan Family;

- to the observance of the directions and of the guidelines of CIOFS and of the other Councils:

- to presence in the local Church." (94.2)

The Presidency of CIOFS gives extraordinary importance to Visitations, reserving the presence of its members for this moment, above the presence at Chapters in order to preside at their elective sessions. I must say that

I feel special joy and a serious responsibility in sharing with the National Fraternity of the United States. It is

an important moment for the life not only of this Fraternity, but also for the life of the whole Order.

For some time, Father Mike and I have been in contact with the National Council to prepare adequately

for this event. I must thank the National Council for your availability before the Visitation in responding to questionnaires that have helped us to have a better understanding of your Fraternity.

From these contacts I feel the need to focus on two fundamental points for the good of our vocation:

- The secular identity of the SFO

- The need to experience deeply fraternal life

Secular Identity of the SFO

Our Constitutions, in Article 3, tell us that:

"The secular nature characterizes the spirituality and apostolic life of those who belong to the SFO.

And that "Secularity, in vocation and in apostolic life, is expressed according to its respective condition,

that is to say:

- For lay people, contributing to the building of the kingdom of God with their presence in reality

 and in temporal activities.

- For secular clerics, providing to the people of God service that is appropriate for them in communion with the Bishop and the Presbyterate.

Some are inspired by the evangelical options of St. Francis of Assisi..."

I must confess to you that when I began to think about this intervention and the point about our secularity as a characteristic element of our vocation, Brother Ron Pihokker (member of this National Fraternity) and the subject he presented at the General Chapter of Mexico in1993, came to mind. Of course, I went to find it; and I have remained amazed. Eleven years have passed since his presentation and it continues to be of vital importance for us. Reflecting on the evolution of our Order, I realize how the Chapter in Mexico was a point with strong repercussions for the life of our brothers and sisters of Fraternities at different levels. I believe that I can affirm that this Chapter has most influenced the SFO. The presentation, as much as the conclusions of the Chapter, was decisive in delineating the profile of the Secular Franciscan, according to the Rule.

I dare to take some of the points that Brother Ron had, recommending to all of you a new reading of this document.

It defined identity as the distinctive element or personality of an individual. The identity of the Secular Franciscan is what characterizes us and gives us a specific and distinct personality in the Church and in Society.

In order to construct our "identity," we start with St. Francis, as Brothers and Sisters of Penitence, which means today, as yesterday, as far as our Rule is concerned, that we "conform our way of thinking and of praying to that of Christ, by means of a radical interior change, which the Gospel calls conversion..." Conversion transforms us in a way that it makes us people open to the impulse of the Spirit, and it elevates our being to see new horizons and leads us to live a life of challenges and new possibilities, in the style of the same Francis.

St. Francis lived practically all his experience of conversion as a secular.

Ron said that, "secularity...implies realization that many areas of life are in a growing state under direct human control. As we participate in the permanent and expansive creative activity of God, we develop this beautiful gift."

Especially now, we are called by the Holy Spirit, "gift of Christ in the Paschal Mystery" to offer us help and mutual and positive illumination in the face of challenges that present themselves to us today as Christians and

as Franciscans, in a society that transforms itself continuously and rapidly:

- with new technical, scientific and medical advances;

- with new proposals from the world of culture that seem to find us displaced and to which we    sometimes cannot respond;

- with new ways to present and conceive the family, far from its natural and moral conception.

We must be aware that:

-since we are secular, we are co-responsible, to offer, even to the Church, initiatives and proposals  which respond to this changing (mutant) society.

- we must come to terms with these changes, looking for adequate ways to turn them toward God and  to live them in Christ. It is a test for each one personally, for each local Fraternity, for the Order. It goes   with our vocation, that is to say, our response to the call and to the movement of the Spirit in order to  "reach the perfection of charity in our secular state." (R.2)

In the Chapter in Mexico, Ron said to us that "we had to discover that the very actions of our daily lives are spiritual and give the Secular the ability to be in contact with God in the world, not outside of it. That in this life there cannot be a dichotomy between what we celebrate on Sunday and our life during the rest of the week." That is to say, one cannot divide himself between the Christian-Franciscan being and the citizen.

"As Secular Franciscans we are called to give testimony that the sacred is strongly present in the world; and

that we are called to live a life that resounds the song of St. Francis and it makes itself present in the Gospel

of Christ in all aspects of modern life."

For that reason, we need to commit ourselves to the realization of the kingdom of God, discovering in it the organizing principal of our life in order to be able to discover at the same time that secular spirituality is:

- A spirituality of involvement in the world and not the contrary.

- A spirituality that seeks to embody itself in temporal structures in order to make them ferment and mature in a Christian and Franciscan way.

- A spirituality that transforms tension to harmony that we experience constantly as lay persons, between Christianity and daily life; between Christianity and professional activity.

- A spirituality that permits us "to be Christ" in the world; "to be Church" in the family, the school, at our work, in our leisure moments.

-A spirituality that permits us to express and export the feeling and life of the fraternity - as an element to contribute to the Church.

Path Proposed by the SFO Rule to Live Fraternity

In order to respond to this objective, our Rule proposes a path -- it tells us who we are, to which spiritual Family we belong, and what should be our goals.

There are four basic elements to our spiritual path. And, in order to understand them clearly, faith is necessary. In our life, everything can happen by way of faith. And faith demands that we trust in God, beyond what we can possibly understand.

The first is the vocation or calling:

St. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, tells us clearly that God, Father and Creator, has selected us and has called each one of us since before the creation of the world. After having given His own Son, and with Him, He offers us all kinds of blessings:

- gifts,

- light,

- qualities and

- charisms, more than enough in order to be able to fulfill our vocation that is:

- his gift

- a gesture of love

- of trust

- of favoritism

And "He gave us enough wisdom and intelligence so that we might recognize the mystery or His will." (Eph. 1, 6)

The second is the commitment, or response:

It is the child that says "yes" to his Creator, trusting that He will help him at every moment to be faithful and to be conscious of his belonging to the SFO, to the entire Franciscan Family and to the Church.

The third is the Rule, that:

- makes clear to us the will of God;

- offers us a way of life,

- shows us the way to go to reach Him;

- assists in having us complete what He hopes for and desires from each one of us

To observe the Rule is to be offered holiness, to which we are all called, as St. Paul tells us in the same letter to the Ephesians: "To be holy and irreproachable before Him in love."

The fourth is fraternity:

Recalling Article 3, of the Constitutions, we see that:

"The vocation to the SFO is a vocation to live the Gospel in fraternal communion. For this purpose, the members of the SFO gather in ecclesial communities which are called Fraternities."

The Pope told us during the 2002 General Chapter:

"You are called to give a contribution, inspired in the person and message of St. Francis of Assisi in order to hasten the fulfillment of a civilization in which the dignity of the human person, co-responsibility and love are realities (Gaudium et Spes, 31 ss). You must deepen the true fundamentals of universal fraternity and create, wherever you go, an accepting spirit and a climate of brotherhood. We firmly commit to you to fight against any type of exploitation, discrimination and marginalization and against all attitudes of indifference towards others."

Fraternity is the supernatural and community dimension of our vocation.

Fraternity -- the center and way of our Franciscan and secular life:

- makes us understand and live the Rule;

- is the interior and exterior living of our charism;

- is the space and place with ecclesial and social repercussions.

Fraternity does not circumscribe itself nor end with the encounter with our brothers which, for us seculars, is just for brief periods of time. The experience of fraternity is not founded only in the encounter, in being together physically. It is something that we must always carry within us. It is founded on Francis' discovery of the Paternity of God and is, therefore, a supernatural reality.

Fraternity is a special "place" where your members are helped in becoming more aware of their commitment and baptismal dignity, to live their belonging to the Church, to live in the dimension of Christian community in the Church, to make present within the Church the Franciscan charism, to help their faith mature and to become witnesses of the resurrection of Christ.

Fraternity is a real, living gift that always takes us within ourselves and that is different from the simple act of having meetings. Certainly, our meetings are important because Fraternity consists in encountering our brothers and sisters - encounters that must be simple, deep, warm and intense. We ought to assure that there is a just proportion between the formative-spiritual part, and indispensable brotherly sharing. Our encounters must be like a thread that carries love, personal devotion, liberty and mutual respect.

The General Constitutions, in Article 30, tell us that brothers and sisters are co-responsible, not only of life in the local Fraternity to which they belong, but also of whole SFO, as an organic union of all fraternities throughout the world. That is to say, that we must interest ourselves in all of our brothers and sisters; it doesn't matter from what country they are, their language or their culture. We must try to be informed about the life of our Order, of the spiritual and material necessities of all our members, and when possible, to take responsibility for them as a response to the "communion of wealth."

This same article, in the second paragraph, tells us of the extremely strong consequences of this

co-responsibility and uses the verb "to require" - the only time in the whole Constitutions. "The sentiment of co-responsibility demands personal presence (a continuous and not optional presence), witness (that is means of promoting vocations and of helping the formation of new members), prayer (that must be the "soul" of this "community of love"), active collaboration based on each one's ability {abilities of all types - actions, cultural, economic...) and possible commitments to animate the Fraternity (in a special way when it requires us as candidates for some service to the Fraternity or to the Order.)

Fraternity is sustained on four basic points:

- Prayer

- Formation

- Apostolic Action

- Friendship and love among its members

Shared common Prayer is a strong experience of fraternity. With it, we open the soul of God with our brothers and sisters, and He helps us to grow and mature in the faith, self-esteem, and in respect.

Formation -- to which each one is called to collaborate individually. To which the Fraternity has a special responsibility - because, if the fraternity doesn't get enriched, forming its members, certainly it will become impoverished. For that reason, the fraternity has the responsibility of building mature, authentic secular Franciscans, capable of exciting and guiding their own Fraternity, of accepting different realities in order to improve them; of interpreting diverse situations, near and far, with a critical conscience and moral commitment; of balancing personal and community values. The responsibility of transforming by means of formation is not just the Secular Franciscan Order's but for each one of its members.

Apostolic action -- discovering new forms of apostolates and of presence -- with an open mind and a generous heart. Being conscious that each one should be a social and charitable citizen, and that it is also done in the name of one's own Fraternity; and that the Fraternity accepts it and makes it its own, sustaining and confirming its brothers in their commitment.

Friendship and love among its members. It would be beautiful if people who approach us could see your new identity, the gift of living Fraternity -- where you share joy and suffering, exhaustion and hope -- which could shape your state of being, widen your horizons and bring your life to the light of true friendship that will take us to fraternal love.

Many people today are impulsive, enthusiastic and generous. They take risks and challenges, and conquer those challenges and difficulties. They only need to be invited and to be convinced. In order to convince them, one must help them to reflect, to search, to weigh. We, as Franciscans, have a treasure in the Rule of the SFO, our inspirational document, which we can share with them.

As those responsible for the National Fraternity of the United States, I invite you to deepen your search, with a "New Look" at the option of life that our Rule offers us, and to suggest it with conviction and creativity. You don't have to get discouraged because of the usual arguments of the western world: aging fraternities, generational gaps, etc.

Ron, in 1993, made a tremendous challenge, not only to the attendees of the Chapter, but to the whole Order:

- Have we embraced Secular Franciscan spirituality by true conversion to the spirit of the Rule? Or are we going to continue living as if it had never been written?

- Are our Fraternities a privileged place to live the experience of the Church? Or, are they places where one continues living in a refuge that serves as a place to cultivate an individualistic spirituality?

I wrote to you in June of last year: In these past 25 years have we "consummated" the Rule? Have we made it live in our lives? Or, does it remain a "virgin" for us? Is it the center of our life? Or better, is Christ the center of our life with God and with men, as our Rule proposes?

To answer these questions continues to be a challenge, especially for those of us who are responsible for "animating and guiding" the life of our fraternities and for illuminating our brothers and sisters. In order to respond to this challenge, we must be open, as our previous Minister General, Emanuela De Nunzio, said, "to walk barefoot in the garden of God, indifferent to the brambles." That is to say, with absolute faith and giving yourself completely to the will of God.

I invite you to offer and to follow the path to which our Lord calls us, with small, tired steps, with serenity and wisdom, without losing the joy. It is an uphill path. It needs courage and makes us aware of our interior poverty. But, that is where Francis and Clare are, models and masters, who will accompany us on that walk which is also an interior journey that prepares us and throws us into the mission.

May the Lord give you "the sense and the knowledge" to understand deeply His will and to translate it into an appropriate option or form of life in your National Fraternity. May He Himself help us to know Him more each day because it is in this way that we discover that He alone is love and the inexhaustible fountain of strength and joy.

Encarnación del Pozo

October 2004