When Francis started preaching penance after he had received permission from Pope Innocent III in 1209 or 1210 his message touched the hearts of many people who were thirsty for a way to vibrantly express their spirituality. In this way the “Franciscan movement” was inaugurated. In a short period of time three distinct groups evolved. Two developed into “regular” religious communities which were guided by an approved rule, the profession of vows, and a structured life in community. Thus, the “First” order for men and the “Second” order for women who were called to embrace a truly Franciscan approach to religious life were born. Those Christians who wished to embrace a Franciscan way of life “in their own homes” banded together as lay penitents and developed into the “Third Order” of St. Francis. This order, which has had its own distinct charism from its inception, finds its identity precisely in its secular or lay nature.
It is interesting to note the repetition in the early documents of the phrase “in their own homes” as a way to describe the Third Order, or Secular Franciscan Order. The term identifies an essential reality of the Secular Franciscan Order, defines its proper sphere of activity and identifies its place in the world and the Church. It is precisely in the midst of the secular order that members of the order lived the fullest expression of their baptism.
While there was certainly a wide range of activities which engaged Franciscans in the early years, and more than a little overlap in their self understanding, a case can be made for identifying members of the First Order as itinerant preachers and evangelists, members of the Second Order as contemplatives, and members of the Third Order as ministers of works of mercy. The arena of their activity was the home and commune. Their secular state was the vehicle or instrument through which they contributed to the up-building of the Kingdom.
At a time in which many men and women gave up homes, families, careers and communes others found that it is precisely in these areas that they were called to more be involved. Rather than leave home, family, career and commune they inserted themselves more deeply in them with gospel love and witness as a way to transform society. This “transformation of the secular order” identifies the specific mission of the members of the Secular Franciscan Order. In doing so members of the Order associate themselves knowingly or unknowingly into the same way of acting in the world that God has used through the centuries to touch the lives of people. Even a cursory glance at Sacred Scripture highlights the fact that God has consistently become involved in the fabric of human existence in midst of its day to day struggle for life and love. Jesus, in his life, death and resurrection is the greatest expression of this divine outreach at work. It is precisely in the midst of the human condition that the fullest gift and invitation takes place.
In the First Exhortation to the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, a document which has been embraced by both the Secular Franciscan Order and the Third Order Regular as an introduction to their respective rules, St. Francis challenges his followers to have a close, intimate relationship to God. After highlighting the five elements of a penitential life (love of God, love of neighbor, hatred of sin, participation in the Eucharist, and a life which produces worthy fruits of penance) he states:
O how happy and blessed are these men and women while they do such things and persevere in doing them, because the Spirit of the Lord will rest on them and make Its home and dwelling place among them, and they are children of the heavenly Father Whose works they do, and they are the spouses, brothers, and mothers of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are spouses when the faithful soul is joined by the Holy Spirit to our Lord Jesus Christ. We are brothers to him when we do the will of the Father who is in heaven. We are mothers when we carry Him in our heart and body through a divine love and a pure and sincere conscience and give birth to Him through a holy activity which must shine as an example before others. 
The result of a close union with God is that the penitent is able to “give birth to” Christ, to be pregnant with the Word of God and be willing to share Him with others. What a wonderful description of the action of transformation. One would have to be in total denial of the condition of the world to think that everything is going well and according to God’s expressed desire that all may have life an have it in abundance. The past one hundred years have been the most brutal and dehumanizing in the history of the world. Terms like “ethnic cleansing,” abortion on demand, euthanasia, human cloning, and pedophilia have become common place in our language and experience.
Every country on the face of the earth lives with the specter of terrorism, prejudice, racism, corruption, larceny, and a host of conditions which threaten to rob humanity of its divine dignity. In the face of these seemingly insurmountable problems the Christian is challenged to bring the enlivening Word of God in word and action into situations which lack God’s transforming presence. To use St. Francis’ phrase, the Franciscan is to “give birth to Christ.” That is, each Franciscan is to bring Christ into every experience and corner of life. Professed religious are to do this in and through their ministries as individuals and as communities. Secular Franciscans have the harder challenge of giving birth to Christ in their families, their relationships with one another and in their fraternities on the various levels of the Order. They are also to bring Christ to the markets, schools, factories, farms, political and military arenas, playgrounds, theaters, museums – every place where women and men are in need of the presence of God.
To say that the proper place of mission for the Secular Franciscan is in the secular sphere provides a context and a tremendous challenge for those who have embraced this vocation. The laity live and work in the secular milieu, that is in the midst of the ordinary events and currents of daily life. The embrace of a vocation to the Secular Franciscan Order is a declaration, both privately and publicly, that one intends to embrace the deepest expression of the baptismal commitment in the midst of society.
Chapter four of the Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order states that, The rule and life of the Secular Franciscans is this: to observe the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by following the example of Saint Francis of Assisi… Secular Franciscans should devote themselves especially to careful reading of the gospel, going from gospel to life and life to gospel. This chapter of the Rule sums up the whole text of the document and could very well stand alone as the clearest expression of what the life of the secular Franciscan is all about.
This can be highlighted by paying attention to the verbs used just in these two short sentences. Members of this order are asked to observe the gospel, to follow the example of St. Francis, to devote themselves to a careful reading of the gospel, and to go from gospel to life and life to gospel. To “observe the gospel,” is a challenge that is given to every baptized Christian since at baptism every Christian is incorporated into the life, death and resurrection of Christ and are asked to participate in His mission of salvation in communion with the Church. However, as the dictate “to follow” highlights so well, they are to do this according to the example of St. Francis who dedicated his entire life and all his energies to searching for and following God’s will. This gives a decided “Franciscan” flavor to the living of one’s baptismal identity.
The secular Franciscan is not challenged to become another Francis, but to dedicate him or herself to Christ in the same way and with the same love and energy which highlighted the Poverello’s life. The only way this can be done is for the secular to know intimately the essential rule of life for all Franciscans, the gospel of Christ. Thus, in devoting themselves to a careful reading of the gospel, they are to exercise another way of “observing” the gospel. That is, they are to study it with care and devotion, to allow it to become an integral part of their own personal identity and to help form how they live in and relate with the world. For the Franciscan the gospel is to be the lens through which and against which the whole of life is to be lived and evaluated. Understood in this way the last challenge of this chapter of the Rule flows naturally. The Franciscan is to enter into relationship with every facet of reality and by allowing the gospel to be the horizon against which everything in life finds its ultimate meaning. The concept of “going from gospel to life and life to gospel” is not to be left as an interesting slogan but as a guiding imperative in the life of the secular Franciscan.
By stating that life is the focal point of the dialogue with the gospel the Rule reinforces the Church’s insistence that the arena for the evangelical presence of the laity is precisely in the midst of life. Again, it is clear that this entails that the secular order is the arena in which the lay Franciscan is to be actively and attentively involved. With this understanding in mind it is definitely fair to state that the Secular Franciscan Order is an appropriate lay vocation. The vocation lived fully deepens the reality that it precisely in the living out of one’s lay life in the love of God, the service of the Church and participation in the Franciscan family that one grows in holiness and transforms the world.
“The laity must take up the renewal of the temporal order as their own special obligation. Led by the light of the Gospel and the mind of the Church and motivated by Christian charity, they must act directly and in a definite way in the temporal sphere. As citizens they must cooperate with other citizens with their own particular skill and on their own responsibility. Everywhere and in all things they must seek the justice of God’s kingdom. The temporal order must be renewed in such a way that, without detriment to its own proper laws, it may be brought into conformity with the higher principles of the Christian life and adapted to the shifting circumstances of time, place and peoples. Preeminent among the works of this type of apostolate is that of Christian social action which the sacred synod desires to see extended to the whole temporal sphere, including culture” .
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, art. 1213.
 Ibid., art. 898.
 “Laity Must Not Be Clericalized Nor Clergy Laicized,” as reported by zenit.org, May 10, 2002.
 Catechism. art. 899.
 The Admonitions, no. V, in The Saint, Volume I of Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, edited by Regis Armstrong, Wayne Hellmann and William Short (New York: New City Press, 1999) 131.
 Catechism. art. 901.
 Ibid. art. 905.
 Cf. the section “King” in John L. McKenzie, Dictionary of the Bible (New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1965) 479. McKenzie points out that one reason for this was that Jesus changed the popular understanding about what a king and kingdom in relationship to his messianic character and mission.
 Catechism. art. 909.
 Earlier Exhortation to the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, 5-7, in The Saint, 41-42.
 Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, no. 7