One Family – Many Vocations

On this page we attempt to explain why there are so many different kinds of Franciscan.

It all started, obviously enough, with St. Francis of Assisi. The men who gathered round him were named the Order of Friars Minor (meaning 'Lesser Brothers'), and they lived lives of radical poverty and deep prayer in fraternity with each other. The example of St. Francis, however, turned out to be difficult to live up to, and even before his death there were differences of opinion as to how far his ideal should be adapted. These differences eventually led, by the late Middle Ages, to a division of the Order into the Friars Minor Conventual and the Friars Minor Observant. Further reform movements (usually focussed on issues of prayer and poverty) resulted over the centuries in many other branches of the Order. In the late nineteenth century many of these branches were amalgamated into what is usually known simply as the Order of Friars Minor; but some branches remained separate, and others have been established since then. All these different kinds of friars, however, are known collectively as the First Order. Many of them have houses in Britain.

The Second Order, on the other hand, is the name for those women who follow the life founded by St. Clare — a young noblewoman who ran away from home to join St. Francis' new movement. These sisters, usually known as the Poor Clares, are 'enclosed' — that is, they rarely leave the grounds of their convents, but devote themselves to prayer in a life of poor and simple sisterhood. Like the friars, however, they have experienced some reform movements throughout their history, so there are a few different kinds of Poor Clare — e.g. the Colettines. From our Family Address Book you will see that there are Poor Clare convents throughout the UK.

St. Francis also started an organisation for those who wished to follow his example in the context of their 'ordinary' lives. Married people, for example, could not leave their spouses to become friars or nuns, while others did not feel called to the full commitment of religious vows. But such people could live the Franciscan vocation by joining the Third Order, where they could support each other in observing a joyful poverty and prayer after St. Francis' example. Over time many of the unmarried members congregated into communities with specific rules of life, which were known as the Third Order Regular, while those who retained as looser association were the Third Order Secular. The Third Order Regular eventually became a means whereby women could lead consecrated Franciscan lives without being enclosed like the Poor Clares, and there are many different congregations of such Franciscan sisters (there is also a Third Order Regular for men, but they are not established in the UK). Meanwhile, the Third Order Secular is now known as the Secular Franciscan Order, and its 'fraternities' can be found in many towns and cities of Britain.