We Are the Penitents of Assisi 
Franciscan Formation – Inspirations (Part 13) 

“Since by their religious profession the friars have renewed their baptismal consecration and their commitment to follow Jesus, they are to live in a spirit of penitence and continual conversion to conform themselves fully to Christ. They will thus be imbued with the love of Christ for His Father and for all.”[1]

I am often reminded of the reflection of an acquaintance of mine who is a nun. She confided in me that when she went to the missions years ago, she was convinced that her presence was necessary for the people, for their faith and for the proper functioning of their lives. When the time came for her to depart the mission for a few months, after years of work, she realized that she couldn’t leave; she had to stay, because she thought these simple people would not be able to cope without her. However, when she returned to the mission after spending some time away, she found that life was going on at its usual pace. She saw that everything was going well; the people were doing just fine and their activities had continued without her. She remarked: “That was when the Lord told me that this mission was primarily for me and for my own conversion, because these people were doing fine, whether I was there or not.”

I am convinced that this touches on a core characteristic of our life. Every mission, ministry and place we work is primarily for us and for our own conversion. That is the only climate in which we can offer our hands to the Lord, allowing Him to work through us and accomplish what He wants to do. Of course, it is good if we are involved in ministry, or if we create new pastoral and charitable ministries, or support old ones. However, it is important to remember that the focus of our life is to follow the path of spiritual transformation, of conversion, in order to be closer to God, to belong to Him and to do His will. This involves doing penance.

Penance is an essential element of Christian identity. It is also an important part of the DNA of Franciscan spirituality. We often associate penance with something unpleasant: external acts of mortification, fasting and some rituals that seem archaic today, such as flagellation, wearing a cilice, abstaining from food, etc. However, all external acts, while important and useful, are secondary in the Franciscan experience of conversion. St. Francis understood penance in a primarily evangelical way.

Scripture presents penance as “metanoia,” that is, a journey in which man shows repentance in order to be closer to the Lord. It means, therefore, that penance is a journey toward God, namely, it is changing one’s behavior in accordance with the will of the Most High and His commandments. It implies leading righteous life that consists of avoiding evil and doing good. In the biblical view, the true essence of penance is inward adherence to God and the desire to love Him. In the New Testament, penance begins with baptism. Penance is described as a virtue, that is, as a gift of the Holy Spirit, a gift that renews a person when he repents of his sins.[2]

St. Francis does penance in precisely this way: he has learned that he himself is prone to sin and self-centeredness, but by God’s grace he leads a life that is wholly dedicated to God and focused on doing His will. Therefore he expects his followers to first do penance and reap the benefits of it. This, in turn, he believes, will put them on the path of love for God and lead them to serve their neighbors in a spirit of love. “The Lord gave me, Brother Francis, thus to begin doing penance in this way: for when I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers. And the Lord Himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them.”[3] The seraphic Father endowed his friars with a way of life in which we forget ourselves in order to live for God and for others, especially those who are abandoned and despised. We are the Penitents of Assisi: this was the way that those who formed a community with St. Francis first referred to themselves.[4] Where the early friars stayed, and what they accomplished, were important but somewhat secondary issues in their lives. It was essential that they first “produce worthy fruits of penance.”[5] Francis taught that wherever the friars had not been received by the people, they should flee to another place to do penance with the blessing of God.[6] This was because where they lived was less important than how they lived. It naturally follows that the second stage of the friars’ journey toward God was to become missionaries. This consisted of proclaiming the Gospel (by their words and how they lived) as well as proclaiming the need to do penance. The Penitents of Assisi were required to first conform their own lives to what they would be preaching. Then they could go among the people to share their spiritual experience. They went forth on a journey because they experienced conversion as a path to God.

One of the main elements of Franciscan penance is being submissive to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Through the sanctifying action of the Spirit, man begins to understand that he needs mortification and self-denial. Secondly, therefore, asceticism arises to help subjugate one’s body and one’s will. Penance frees one from pride and in its light it, is easier to see the truth about oneself and how to overcome temptations and passions. It is therefore a spiritual journey in which the penitent recognizes, before himself and God, the truth of his fragility. He tries to bear adversity with patience. He seeks inner peace so as to share it with others. He maintains the fear of God so as not to ignore His will. He resists everything in himself that opposes the Lord. The path of penance naturally leads to confession experienced as the Sacrament of Penance. All this is done in order to love God and give one’s whole self in the service of the Lord. Eventually, almsgiving, prayer, fasting and the various mortifications and renunciations become natural complements, aids, to the sanctification of one’s life.[7] As St. Francis exhorted, without the spirit of penance, external means cannot change a person who becomes agitated when he hears an unfavorable opinion about himself, or when he is deprived of something.[8] The goal, then, is not so much to practice external mortification as it is to possess those virtues that make it possible to transform oneself and seek God. These virtues, in the Franciscan style, bear fruit through a profound life of prayer, simplicity, patience and a spirit of forgiveness for the shortcomings and persecutions we may experience. Therefore, whatever we do and wherever we carry out our mission, the time and place to do penance is here and now.

Looking back on these reflections, let us ask: to what extent do we ourselves possess this early Franciscan spirit? Shall we ask the Author of the “metanoia” for the gift of conversion? How does penance manifest itself in our lives and in our relationships with our confreres? Perhaps there are friars against whom we hold grudges and fail to forgive? Do we focus too much on our ministry and the conversion of others and forget the need to change ourselves?

General Delegate for Formation

[1] Friars Minor Conventual, Constitutions, Rome 2019, art. 50, §1.
[2] Cf. Leon-Dufor X., Słownik teologii biblijnej, Poznań 1994, pp. 705-713.
[3] Testament 1-2 (FF 110).
[4] Cf. Legend of the Three Companions 37 FF 1441; Anonymous of Perugia 19 FF 109.
[5] Second Version of the Letter to the Faithful 25 FF 190.
[6] Cf. Testament 26 FF 123.
[7] Cf. Raffaele Pazzelli, TOR, Pokuta, in: Leksykon duchowości franciszkańskiej, edited by Emil Kumka, OFM Conv., Cracow-Warsaw 2016, pp. 1352-1350.
[8] Cf. Admonitions XIV FF 163.