Be very careful, not all third orders are as they have been painted here. I’ll speak about the Franciscan Third Order, because I know them the best. But the Dominican Third Order is very similar.
The Franciscan Third Order is called such only because it was founded third. What Canon Law refers to a Third Orders are not the same the Franciscan Third Order. Canon Law calls third orders public associations of the faithful that are related or associated with a religious order. That is not the case of the Franciscan Third Order. The Franciscan Third Order has secular lay men, secular deacons, secular priests and bishops, friars, sisters and even nuns.
The Franciscan Third Order is properly called the Brothers and Sisters of Penance. It was founded by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223. It was the first of its kind in the history of the Church. No one had ever thought of an order with married lay people. This was its unique attribute. There were many orders of single lay people, most of them were celibate and lived in monasteries and a few were mendicants. The Franciscan Friars are orders of lay men. But they are consecrated religious with vows, living in community, some of them are ordained (not lay), but they are counted as lay men, because they belong to the Franciscan Friars. The friars were founded as a lay order, meaning that it was not to be an order for priests or run by priests. It was to be a brotherhood run by equals. Among the first friars there were some priests and mostly lay men, such as Francis.
He founded three orders. The first order that he founded was the friars. Secondly, he and St. Clare founded the nuns. Third, he founded the Order of Penance. Each order has its own rule, its own government and its own way of life, all of them given to them by St. Francis. The Franciscan Third Order is not like the third orders in canon law, which are lay associations attached to a religious order. This particular order is not attached to the Franciscan Friars. The friars often serve as spiritual directors, when there is a shortage of the same. But if they have their own, the friars keep their hands off them.
They have their own superior general, their own constitution, their own rule written by St. Francis, their own way of life and they are divided into what are called obediences. This means that they are divided into different communities. Some of them are celibate men who live in community and some of these men are ordained, but most are not. Thousands of them are celibate women who live in community, better known as Franciscan Sisters. Then there are the Secular Franciscans, which make up the largest branch the Franciscan Third Order. There are about one million Secular Franciscans governed by a superior general called a General Minister, who resides in Rome and answers to the pope, like any other superior general. They have national, regional and local superiors called Ministers. They also have a very long formation program with its own curriculum, just like any other order. They have the same stages, aspirant, postulant and novice. In the USA the aspirants are called guests, the postulants are called inquirers, and the novices are called candidates. The rest of the members are the professed. These can be temporary professed or perpetually professed. The Secular Franciscans are a true order in the Catholic Church and you may only join them if you have a vocation and you meet the requirements of canon law. As I said before, they are the largest branch of the Franciscan Third Order.
In reality the Franciscan Third Order is made up of over 100 smaller communities, each with their own mission and vision. But they are united by one rule, the Rule of the Brothers and Sisters of Penance. There are two editions to that rule. There is an edition for the seculars who live in the world and for the regulars who live in convents and friaries. As you can see, there are friars in the Third Order of St. Francis, not just the first order. The friars who run Franciscan University belong to the Franciscan Third Order. They are commonly known as Third Order Regular, though their proper name is the Brothers of Penance. The Many Franciscan Sisters who teach in our schools, run our hospitals and work in our parishes all belong to the Third Order of St. Francis. They all follow the same rule as the seculars, the
Rule of Penance.
The rest of us poor slugs who are also Franciscans follow the Rule of the Friars Minor, which was the first rule that Francis wrote for the first order that he founded. We come out of that tradition. We were all one community. But as it got bigger and bigger, it was subdivided according to ministries, customs and even national boundaries. We do not belong to the Third Order, nor do they belong to us. They have their own way of life and they are completely independent. They are not associated with us as described in canon law. They are our brothers and sisters, because we all belong to the same Franciscan family.
The Third Order of St. Dominic was founded in imitation of the Third Order of St. Francis. They are organized the same way with religious, seculars, lay and clergy. With the Dominicans the Vatican cheated a little. St. Dominic first founded the cloistered nuns. Technically, they are the first order. He later founded the friars and later the seculars.
However, the Vatican was concerned because the ordinal numbers, first, second and third, gave the appearance of ranks. Women are not allowed to have positions above men in religious lfie. The Vatican swapped the numbers around. The Dominican Friars became the First Order Dominicans and the Dominican Nuns became the Second Order Dominicans. But that's not the order in which they were founded, unlike the Franciscans, where the friars were founded first.
I hope this helps someone.
Br. JR, OSF :)