This Episode of CS is titled, Francis
Though we call him Francis of Assisi, his original name was Francesco Bernardone. Born in 1182, his given name was Giovanni (the Latin form of John). His father Pietro nicknamed him Francesco which is what everyone called him. Pietro was a wealthy dealer in textile fabrics imported from France to their hometown of Assisi in central Italy.
His childhood was marked by the privileges of his family’s wealth. He wasn’t a great student, finding his delight more in having a good time entertaining friends. When a local war broke out, he signed up as a young adult to fight for his hometown and was taken prisoner. He was released at 22. Not long after, Francis came down with a serious illness. That’s when he began to consider eternal things, as so many have when facing their mortality. He rose from his sick-bed disgusted with himself and unsatisfied with the world.
He again enlisted but as he was making his way to join the troops, he turned back, sensing God had another path for him than war. He sought seclusion at a grotto near Assisi where his path forward became clearer. He decided to make what was thought to be the obligatory pilgrimage to Rome, where it was assumed all truly godly people went to seek God. In Rome he was stuck by the terrible plight of the poor who lined the streets, many of them just outside the door of luxurious churches.
At one point he met a leper & at first shrank back in horror. Then it dawned on him that his reaction was no different than that of the seemingly indifferent Church, which tolerated such gross need in their midst & did nothing to lift them out of it. So he turned back around, kissed the leper’s hand, and left in it all the money he had.
Returning to Assisi, he began attending the chapels in the suburbs of the city instead of the main city church. There seemed less pretention in these humble chapels. He lingered most at St. Damian’s, a plain chapel, furnished simply, and served by a single priest at a rather crude altar. But this little chapel became a kind of Bethel for Francis.
The change that came over the one-time party-animal Francis led to a period of wholesale ridicule by those who’d known him. Privileged sons like Francis didn’t grovel in the mucky world of commoners; yet that was exactly what Francis was doing. His father banished him from the family home. He renounced his obligations to them in public w/these words: “Up to this time I have called Pietro Bernardone ‘father,’ but now I desire to serve God and to say nothing else than ’Our Father which art in heaven.’ ” From that point on, Francis was wholy devoted to a religious life. He dressed in beggar’s clothes, moved in w/a small community of lepers, washed their sores, and restored the damaged walls of the chapel of St. Damian by begging building materials in the squares and streets of the city. He was 26 years old.
Francis then received from the Benedictine abbot of Mt. Subasio the gift of 1 little chapel called Santa Maria degli Angeli. Nicknamed the Portiuncula—the Little Portion. It became Francis’ favorite shrine. It was there he had most of his visions, and there he died.
While meditating one day in 1209, Francis heard the Words of Jesus to his followers, “Preach, the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, cast out devils. Provide neither silver nor gold, nor brass in your purses.” Throwing away his staff, purse, and, shoes, he made this the rule of his life. He preached repentance & gathered about him several companions. Their Rule was nothing less than full obedience to the Gospel.
Their mission was to preach, by both word & deed. Their constant emphasis was to make sure their lives exemplified the Word & Work of God. One saying attributed to him is: “Preach at all times. When necessary, use words.”
In 1210 Francis and some companions went to Rome, and were received by Pope Innocent III. The English chronicler reports that the pope, in order to test his sincerity, said, “Go, brother, go to the pigs, to whom you are more fit to be compared than to men, and roll with them, and to them preach the rules you have so ably set forth.” This may seem like a cruel put off by the Pope, but it may in truth have been a test of Francis’ sincerity. He was proposing a very different way than priests and monks had chosen. This command by the pope would certainly determine if Francis’ claim to poverty & obedience were genuine. Well–Francis DID obey, and returned saying, “My Lord, I have done so.” If the pope had only been mocking, Francis’ response softened him. He gave his blessing to the brotherhood and sanctioned their rule, granted them the right to cut their hair in the distinctive tonsure that was the badge of their monk-ness, and told them to go and preach repentance.
The brotherhood increased rapidly. The members were expected to work. In his will, Francis urged the brethren to work at some trade as he had done. He compared an idle monk to a drone. The brethren visited the sick, especially lepers, preached in ever expanding circles, and went abroad on missionary journeys. Francis was ready to sell the very ornaments of the altar rather than refuse an appeal for aid. He felt ashamed when he saw any one poorer than himself.
One of the most remarkable episodes of Francis’ career occurred at this time. He made a covenant, like marriage, with Poverty. He called it his bride, mother, & sister, & remained devoted to Sister Poverty w/the devotion of a knight.
In 1217 Francis was presented to the new Pope Honorius III. At the advice of a powerful Cardinal who would later become Pope Gregory IX, he memorized his sermon. But when he appeared before the pontiff, he forgot what he’d prepared & instead delivered an impromptu message, which won over the papal court.
Francis made evangelistic tours in 1219 thru Italy then down into Egypt & over to Syria. Returning from the East with the title “il poverello” the little Poor Man, he found a new element had been introduced into the brotherhood thru the influence of a stern disciplinarian named Cardinal Ugolino, the same cardinal who’d coached him to memorize his sermon before the pope.
Francis was heart-broken over the changes made to his order. Passing through Bologna in 1220, he was grieved deeply to see a new house was being built for the brothers. Cardinal Ugolino was determined to manipulate the Franciscans in the interest of the Vatican. Early on he’d offered Francis help to negotiate the intricacies of Vatican life & politics, & Francis accepted. Little did he realize he was inviting a force that would fundamentally alter all he stood for. Under the cardinal’s influence, a new code was adopted in 1221, then a third in 1223 in which Francis’ distinctive perspective for the Franciscans was set aside. The original Rule of poverty was modified, the old ideas of monastic discipline re-introduced, and a new element of absolute submission to the pope added. The mind of Francis was too simple and unsophisticated for the shrewd rulers of the church. He was set aside and a member of the nobility was put at the head of the society.
The forced self-subordination of Francis offers one of the most touching spectacles of medieval biography. Francis had withheld himself from papal privileges. He’d favored freedom of movement. But the deft hand of Cardinal Ugolino installed a strict monastic obedience. Organization replaced spontaneous devotion. Ugolino probably did attempt to be a real friend to Francis but his loyalty was always & only to the Pope whom the Cardinal thought ought to be the undisputed ruler of all and every facet of Church life. It didn’t seem right to him that any monastic order wasn’t directly answerable to & controlled by the Pope. Ugolino laid the foundation of the cathedral in Assisi to Francis’ honor, and canonized him only 2 years after his death. But the Cardinal did not appreciate Francis’ humble spirit. Francis was helpless to carry out his original ideas, and yet, without making any outward sign of rebellion, he held them tightly to the end.
These ideas were affirmed in Francis’ famous will. This document is one of the most moving pieces in Christian literature. Francis called himself “little brother.” All he had to leave the brothers was his benediction, the memory of the early days of the brotherhood, and counsels to abide by their first Rule. This Rule, he said, he’d received from no human author. God himself had revealed it to him, that he ought to live according to the Gospel. He reminded them how the first members loved to live in poor and abandoned churches. He bade them not accept ornate churches or luxurious houses, in accordance with the rule of holy poverty they’d professed. He forbade their receiving special privileges from the Pope or his agents, even orders that gave them personal protection. Through the whole of the document there runs a note of anguish over the lost simplicity that had been the power of their first years; years when the presence of God had been so obvious and they had power to live the holy lives they longed for.
Francis’ heart was broken. Never strong, his last years were full of sicknesses. Change of location only brought temporary relief. The works of physicians, such as that age knew, were employed. But no wonder they didn’t help when you hear what they were: an iron, heated white-hot, was applied to his forehead.
As his body failed, he jokingly called it Brother Ass.
Francis’s reputation as a saint preceded his death. We’ve talked about relics in previous episodes. But relics were always attributed to people who’d been dead for decades, usually hundreds of years. Francis was a living saint from whom people craved things like fragments of his clothing, hairs from his head, even the parings of his nails.
2 years before his death Francis composed the hymn Canticle to the Sun, called the most perfect expression of modern religious feeling. It was written at a time when he was beset by temptations, and blindness had begun to set in. The hymn is a pious peal of passionate praise for nature, especially Brother Sun & Sister Moon.
The last week of his life, Francis asked for Psalm 142 to be read to him since his eyes were failing. He asked 2 brothers to sing to him. That’s when a priest named Elias, loyal to Cardinal Ugolino & had advocated setting aside Francis’ original Rule in favor of the Cardinal’s more strict rule, rebuked Francis for making light of death & acting as though he wanted to die! “Why, what kind of faith did that reveal,” the indignant priest asked? It was thought unfitting for a saint. Francis replied that he’d been thinking of death for 2 years, and now that he was so united with the Lord, he ought to be joyful in Him. One witness at his bedside said when the time came, “he met death singing.”
Before Francis’ coffin was closed, great honors began to be heaped upon him. He was canonized only 2 years later.
The study of the career of Francis of Assisi, as told by his contemporaries, and as his spirit is revealed in his own last testament, makes the impression of purity of purpose and humility of spirit,—of a genuine saintliness. He sought not positions of honor nor a place with the great. With a simple mind, he sought to serve his fellow-man by announcing the Gospel, and living it out in his own example.
He sought to give the Gospel to the common people, and the common people heard him gladly. He didn’t possess a great intellect but he had a great soul.
He was no diplomat, but he was a man whose love for God & the image bearers of God was obvious to all who met him.
Francis wasn’t a theologian in the classic sense; someone who thought lofty thoughts. He was a practical theologian in that he lived the truths the best theology holds. He spoke and acted as one who feels full confidence in his divinely appointed mission. He spoke to the Church as no one after him did till Martin Luther came.
While history refers to the followers of Francis as the Franciscans, their official name was the fratres minores, the Minor Brethren, or simply the Minorites. When the order was first sanctioned by the Pope, Francis insisted on this as their title as a warning to the members not to aspire after positions of distinction.
They spread rapidly in Italy and beyond; but before Francis’ generation passed, the order was torn by the strife Cardinal Ugolino introduced. No other monastic order can show anything like long conflict within its own membership over a question of principle. The dispute had a unique place in the theological debates of the Middle Ages.
According to the founding Rule of 1210 & Francis’ last will they were to be a free brotherhood devoted to poverty and the practice of the Gospel, rather than a closed organization bound by precise rules. Pope Innocent III who’d originally sanctioned them urged Francis to take the rule of the older orders as his model, but Francis declined and went his own path. He built upon a few texts of Scripture. Just 6 years into the order’s life, in 1216, Cardinal Ugolino installed a rigid discipline to the order, pushing aside Francis’ vision of a free brotherhood governed by grace instead of rules.
In 1217, the order began sending missionaries beyond Italy. Elias, a former mattress-maker in Assisi and one of Ugolino’s lackeys, led a band of missionaries to Syria. Others went to Germany, Hungary, France, Spain & England. The Franciscans proved to be courageous & entrepreneurial agents for the Gospel. They went south to Morocco and east as far as China. They accompanied Columbus on his 2nd journey to the New World and were active in early American missions from Florida to California, from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.
The Rule of 1221, the second of the order’s history, if anyone’s counting, shows 2 influences at work, one from Ugolino, the other of course from Francis. There are signs of the struggle which had already begun several years before. The Rule placed a general at the head of the order and a governing body or board was installed, made up of the heads of the order’s houses. Poverty was retained as a primary principle and the requirement of work remained. The sale of their products was forbidden except when it benefited the poor & needy.
The Rule of 1223, the third, was briefer but added even more organization to the order. It went further in erasing from the order the will of Francis. The mendicant or begging character of the order was emphasized. But obedience to the pope was introduced and a cardinal was made the order’s protector and guardian. Totally contrary to Francis’ will, the Roman Breviary or devotional book of prayers & hymns was ordered to be used as the book of daily worship. Monastic discipline replaced Biblical liberty. The Rule of 1223 made clear the strong hand of papal hierarchy. The freedom of the Rule of 1210 disappeared. The pope’s agents did everything they could to suppress Francis’ last testament since it was a passionate appeal for the original freedom of his brotherhood against the new order of things.
In light of the way the order was stolen out from under Francis’ leadership during his own lifetime, it’s a wonder they continued to be known as the Franciscans; they ought to have been called the Ugolinoians.
Alongside the male Franciscans were the Clarisses, nuns who took their name from Clara of Sciffi, canonized in 1255. Clara was so moved by Francis’ example she started a parallel order for women. Francis wrote a Rule for them which enforced poverty and made a will for Clara which is lost. The nuns supported themselves by the labor of their hands, but, by Francis’ advice & example also became mendicants who depended upon alms. Their rule was also modified in 1219 and the order was afterwards compelled to adopt the much older Benedictine rule.
The Tertiaries, or Brothers and Sisters of Penitence, were the third order of the Franciscans. We mentioned them 2 episodes ago. The Tertiaries were lay brothers & sisters who held other employment but wanted to show a greater level of devotion to God than the common person. Francis never made an order for the Tertiaries. He simply called them to dedicated themselves wholly to God while going about their usual lives as merchants, workers & family men & women.
Francis want to include all classes of people, men and women, married and unmarried. His object was to put within the reach of lay-people the higher practice of virtue and godliness it was thought only sequestered monks or nuns could attain.
Historians wonder where Francis got his idea for his attempt to take the rigid formalism of the church of the Middle Ages back to more of a New Testament practice. Chances are good he took his example from the Waldenses, also called the Poor Men of Lyons, a group well known in Northern Italy in Francis’ day.
It was most likely Francis’ original intent to start an organic movement of laymen, & that the idea of a monastic order only developed later.
Following Francis’ death, throughout the rest of the 13th C, the Franciscans were split into 2 groups; those who clung to his original vision and Rule and the stricter sect loyal to Cardinal Ugolino. The contest became so bitter that at times it fell to bloodshed. Eventually the pro-papal party prevailed.
In the pervious episode I mentioned Francis was a bit of an anti-intellectual. That is to say, he’d seen too many priests who could discuss and parse the finer points of doctrine, but who, like the religious leaders in the parable of the Good Samaritan, seemed not to understand the practical compassion, mercy & grace their theology ought to have stirred in them. Francis was not against learning per say – only when such study pre-empted living out what the Truth commands. To a monastic leader named Anthony of Padua, Francis wrote, “I am agreed that you continue reading lectures on theology to the brethren provided that kind of study does not extinguish in them the spirit of humility and prayer.”
Francis’ followers departed from his anti-intellectual leaning and adopted the 13th Century’s trend of casting off the darkness of the Middle Ages by establishing schools & universities. They built schools in their convents and were well settled at the chief centers of university culture. In 1255 an order called upon Franciscans going out as missionaries, to study Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and other languages.
The order spread rapidly all the way to Israel & Syria in the East & Ireland in the West. It was introduced into France by Pacifico and Guichard, a brother-in-law of the French king. The first successful attempt to establish the order in Germany was made in 1221.
They took root in England in Canterbury & London in 1224. They were the first popular preachers England had seen, and the first to embody practical philanthropy. The condition of English villages and towns at that times was wretched. Skin diseases were common, including leprosy. Destructive epidemics spread rapidly due to the poor sanitation. The Franciscans chose quarters in the poorest and most neglected parts of towns. In Norwich they settled in a swamp through which the city sewerage passed. At Newgate, which is now part of London, they settled into what was called Stinking Lane. At Cambridge they occupied a decaying prison.
It was for this kind of zeal to reach the poor & needy that they received recognition. People soon learned to respect the brothers. By 1256 the number of English Franciscans had grown to over 1200, settled in just shy of 50 locations around England.
We’ll see what became of the Franciscans later as we follow the history of the Christian Church. Suffice it to say, Francis would not approve of what became of his brotherhood.
No he would NOT!
The Mendicant orders of the Franciscans & Dominicans, which we’ll take a look at next time, comprised a medieval poverty movement that was in large part, a reaction to the politicizing of the Faith. It was a movement of priests, monks & eventually commoners, who had come to believe Church policies sought to wrangle political influence for ever more power in world affairs. These would-be reformers wondered, “Is this what Jesus and the Apostle intended? Didn’t Jesus say His Kingdom was NOT of this world? Why then are Bishops, Cardinals & Popes working so hard at controlling the realm of politics?”
The call to voluntary poverty drew its strength from widespread resentment of corrupt clergy; not that all or even most priests were. But it seemed the only priests selected for advancement were those who played the Church’s political game. The back-to-the-New Testament poverty movement of the Mendicants became a political movement in itself – a reform movement that flowed from the spiritual hunger of the common people.
As early as the 10th C, reformers had called for a return to the poverty & simplicity of the early church. The life and example of the Apostles was regarded as the norm and when modern bishops were held up to that example, it was clear something unusual had happened; bishops in their religious finery stood markedly higher than the Apostles in terms of worldly power & wealth.
To illustrate this, I’ve visited the cathedral at Cologne, Germany 3 times and the little museum called the Treasury there, twice. They have several display cases with the various vestments & tools the cardinals of Cologne have worn over time. Composed of gold and silver threads and encrusted with gems, their robes are priceless; & I mean that literally. But one set of cases sums up for me the utter contradiction of an exalted clergy – the croziers. A crozier is a stylized shepherd’s staff carried by a bishop or cardinal. It’s a symbol of his role as a pastor, a shepherd. And as a shepherd’s staff it ought to be a functional and useful tool. A humble piece of wood used to guide & protect sheep. But the croziers in the Treasury at Cologne Cathedral are made of gold, their heads jammed with rubies, emeralds, diamonds, pearls, & all sorts of precious jewels. You would no more use that to tend sheep than you would a painting by Rembrandt. Every time a cardinal wrapped his fingers around it, he ought to have been convicted deeply about how FAR FROM his calling as a humble servant to the flock we was.
Now, imagine you’re a commoner at church one Sunday. You’ve just been told by some lower priest that God wants every bit of money you can give. How God NEEDS your money! Then in walks the Cardinal with his jewel-encrusted cape, his mitre and that priceless crozier in his hand.
How long before you begin to say to yourself, “Self – uh, what’s going on here? Did Jesus wear a get-up like that? Did Peter or John or any of the other Apostles? I don’t think so. In fact, Jesus said something about not even having anywhere to lay his head. I’ll bet that Cardinal has a nice satin covered down pillow.”
In the earlier centuries of the Church, calls for reform were dealt with by channeling them into internal reform movements that directed attention away from the upper hierarchy to a more personal desire for reform that ended up in increased devotion. That’s what many of the monastic orders were. But by the 12th & 13th Centuries things began to change. Many of the lesser clergy began to speak out against the abuses of the Church. When they did they often entered the ranks of what were called “heretics.”
Francis adopted a radical devotion to poverty as a way to confront the blatant greed of the Church. His example spread like wild-fire precisely because it was so obvious to everyone how far off the Church had gotten. And it explains why Ugolino felt obligated to bring the order back in line by bringing it under the control of the Pope. While outwardly commending their order’s devotion to poverty, he installed policies that made the order dependent on their land holdings & property. It’s hard to criticize the wealth of “The Church,” when you’re part of that church and possess a good measure of that wealth yourself.
Some were wise to Ugolino’s ways and went further by staying true to Francis’ original vision and commitment to poverty. Because they refused to knuckle under to his rule, they were declared heretical. And as heretics, they were treated with a brutality no one can reconcile with the Gospel of Grace. à But that, is for a later episode.