A Brief History of the Brothers & Sisters of Penance

In the early thirteenth century, St. Francis of Assisi founded three Religious Orders that are still vibrantly active today. The First Order of St. Francis is for men—the Order of Friars Minor. The Second Order is for women, as nuns, who were originally under the leadership of St. Clare. As the influence of Francis and his friars spread, many lay people began to hunger for a deeper union with God and asked St. Francis for guidance on how to live a holy life. St. Francis wrote them many letters in this regard, but when his lay disciples persisted in asking for more instruction, Francis was compelled to gift them with a religious Rule of Life, Memoriale Propositi, or the Rule of 1221—drafted at Francis’s request by his friend, Cardinal Hugolino dei Conti dei Segni, the future Pope Gregory IX. The laity who adopted the Memoriale Propositi (both men and women) became the Third Order of St. Francis, and theirs is the Rule followed by the Brothers and Sisters of Penance of St. Francis today.

The Franciscan Third Order

Soon after Francis’s death, this family in the Church became an Order and known as the Third Order of Saint Francis. Today this Order is called the Secular Franciscan Order. In 1289, Pope Nicholas IV made the 1221 Rule more uniform by removing from it many local statutes that had been appended. For all practical purposes, however, the codified 1289 Rule was the same as the primitive 1221 Rule even to the point of having almost exactly the same wording. The major difference was that the 1289 Rule placed the penitents directly under the Friars Minor.

The 1289 Rule was in effect for all Third Order Franciscans until Pope Leo XIII radically modified the Rule in 1883. Pope Leo XIII believed that every Catholic would do well to become a Franciscan, and he foresaw vast spiritual growth if they did. His intent in relaxing and changing the original Rule was to make it more livable for masses of people. Indeed, within years after the Leonine Rule’s promulgation, many did join the Third Order of Saint Francis.

After Vatican II, all the Orders within the Catholic Church were asked to reexamine their Rules and return to their original intent. Members of the Third Order of Saint Francis, using the 1883 Rule as a basis, rewrote the Rule in 1978, and then had the Rule ratified by Pope Paul IV. This Pauline Rule is the current Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order. When the Pauline Rule went into effect it canceled all previous Rules for the Third Order of St. Francis, including the Rule of 1221. Secular Franciscans now profess to live the Rule of 1978, the Pauline Rule.

In this Association, it is our goal to promote and live the original Rule of the Third Order of St. Francis, albeit outside the Franciscan Order, because we love this rule that St. Francis himself gave us. For purposes of all we write, the Rule of the Brothers and Sisters of Penance of St. Francis, which is the First Rule of the Third Order of St. Francis, will simply be called the Rule of 1221. By means of statutes we are able to adapt the Rule to these modern times. Our Rule and Statutes are located elsewhere on this Web site. Come and join us in this very committed and demanding Gospel way of life, for the love of God.

The Private Association of the BSP

The private Association of the Brothers and Sisters of Penance of St. Francis began in the late 1980′s in the United States, as the outgrowth of a movement in the Secular Franciscan Order called the Stella Matutina movement under the guidance of the late Father Valerius Messerich O.F.M.. This movement had as its objective to encourage Secular Franciscans to examine and love the primitive Rule of the Third Order of St. Francis. As the movement grew in intensity and definition it lead to the realization that an Association of the Faithful needed to be founded to promote the Rule of 1221.

The Association itself was formally founded in 1996 with the blessing of Archbishop Harry J. Flynn in the diocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to promote the lifestyle and discipline of the Rule of 1221. Having thus reached fruition as a private Association in the Catholic Church under the grace and blessing of the Holy Spirit, it is hoped that the Association of the Brothers and Sisters of Penance of St. Francis will become a permanent family in time. May God’s good and holy Will be done.

The butterfly was selected as one symbol of the Association (the other is the crown of thorns)because it was given to us during prayers for the Association to depict what was going to happen to those who lived the Rule of 1221. They would become butterflies so to speak. Converted souls for Christ. This is most appropriate as a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly is a meaningful symbol of conversion. A butterfly begins as a worm, a caterpillar, and then enters a cocoon and essentially dies as a caterpillar and emerges in beautiful, winged form. Even so, we must die to ourselves to become souls for Christ. Hence the butterfly is the symbol of any person who has died to the things of the world and converted to become a new person who belongs to God. For this reason the motto of the Brothers and Sisters of Penance of St. Francis, a.k.a. the BSP, is “In the world, but not of it, for Christ.

But there is more to the story, which we are able to share with you because we have the permission of Father Valerius Messerich O.F.M., a true friend, holy friar of St. Francis, and our first Visitor and spiritual guide, to do so. The Lord gave many visions as confirmations on what the association would be during the early, formative years of the Association. Many of these visions included the butterfly. What follows are a few of the visions as recorded in the personal journal of a BSP member, who has shared them here for everyone’s consideration. All of them were received during prayer.

“I asked the Lord how fast the Association would form and how large it would become, and he showed me a vision of a beautiful hovering butterfly. As I gazed the butterfly became a faucet. As I studied this strange spectacle a drop of water formed slowly at the mouth of the faucet. Then the drop fell very slowly until it hit a flat surface. When it hit it very slowly shattered into numerous droplets that went to the left and right, and on both ways they became sparkling bright as they spread out until they hit the surface of the ground again. At that time each of the droplets became a beautiful, full color butterfly of the same variety except that one of the butterflies, amidst them all, had a bright diamond heart that pulsated as it flew away. I understood the dream to mean that the Association would form slowly, but that among those that pursued the lifestyle of the First Rule of the Third Order of St. Francis of 1221 all would become beautifully converted to the Lord, i.e. butterflies, and some of these would be saints of great holiness. Praise God! The one drop became many droplets and so many will come to the Association, become butterflies, and who knows, perhaps more faucets? More droplets? More butterflies?”

“There was another shock associated with the vision of the butterfly. When I went in search of a butterfly on my computer to log the story in my journal, the butterfly in this vision turned out to be the Microsoft butterfly! The same one in the artwork in the hard drive of my computer! It was a shock when I saw it! To me this was an indication that the computer, and Internet?, would be an integral part of what we would become as an Association. It was not the end though, of the butterfly in our life.”

“In 2003, a new name was sought for the Minnesota group consistent with the original vision of the Association, which was to stay focused on the message of St. Francis. We took a vote of our members, and found that they favored the name Brothers and Sisters of Penance of St. Francis. I put that at the head of the new draft of the Web page and filed it. When I recovered the electronic file, to edit it and check for errors, a butterfly had been added to the name, right after Penance, and before ‘of St. Francis’. It would show up in the electronic “View” document, but would not be present in any other use of the file when it was launched! I confirmed that this could not have happened by normal means through our IT people, and so could only conclude that St. Francis had also voted for the name Brothers and Sisters of Penance of St. Francis, and more than that. The position of the butterfly indicated that we, as lay people following St. Francis, are the ‘butterflies of St. Francis”, that is converted souls of the way of life given us by St. Francis. Praise God for this confirmation!”

So, when you see a butterfly, whether or not you join the BSP, remember your call, to always be a converted soul of the Lord! Blessed be the Lord!