This Episode of CS is titled, Francis and continues our look at the mendicant orders.
Though we call him Francis of Assisi, his original name was Francesco Bernardone. Born in 1182, his given name was Giovanni (Latin of John). His father Pietro nicknamed him Francesco which is what everyone called him. Pietro was a wealthy dealer in textiles 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 to fight for his and was taken prisoner. Released at 22, Francis then 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.
The war still on, he was on his way to rejoin the army when he turned back, sensing God had another path for him. He went into seclusion at a grotto near Assisi where his path forward became clearer. He decided to make a typical pilgrimage to Rome, where it was assumed the godly went to seek God. But there he was stuck by the terrible plight of the poor who lined the streets, many of them just outside the door of luxurious churches.
Confronted with a leper, he recoiled in horror. Then it dawned on him that his reaction was no different from an indifferent Church, which tolerated such gross need in their midst but doing nothing to lift the needy out of their condition. He turned around, kissed the leper’s hand, and left in it all the money he had.
Returning to Assisi, he attended the chapels in its suburbs instead of the main city church. There seemed less pretention in these humble chapels. He lingered most at the simply furnished St. Damian’s served by a single priest at a crude altar. This little chapel became a kind of Bethel for Francis; his bridge between heaven and earth.
The change that came over the one-time party-animal led to scorn and ridicule from 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 now doing. His father banished him from the family home. He renounced his obligations to them in public saying: “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 then on, Francis was wholly devoted to a religious life. He dressed in beggar’s clothes, moved in with 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 a little chapel called Santa Maria degli Angeli. Nicknamed the Portiuncula—the Little Portion. It became Francis’ favorite shrine. There he had most of his visions. It was there he eventually 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 and gathered about him several companions. Their Rule was nothing less than full obedience to the Gospel.
Their mission was to preach, by both word and deed. Their constant emphasis was to make sure their lives exemplified the Word and 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 were they were received by Pope Innocent III. The chronicle of the event 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, but it may in truth have been a test of Francis’ sincerity. He proposed a very different way than priests and monks had chosen. This command would certainly determine if Francis’ claim to poverty and 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 the monk, 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’d done. He compared an idle monk to a drone. The brethren visited the sick, especially lepers who sat at the very bottom of the social order. They 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 was ashamed when he encountered 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, and sister, and remained devoted to Sister Poverty with 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 it all and instead delivered an impromptu message, which won over the papal court.
Francis made evangelistic tours in 1219 thru Italy then into Egypt and 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 deeply grieved to see a new house 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 and politics, and 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 just two years later 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 for the shrewd rulers of the church. His lack of guile couldn’t compete with men whose entire lives were lived wielding vast levers of political power. He was set aside and a member of the nobility was put at the head of the Order.
The forced 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 devotion. Ugolino probably did attempt to be a real friend to Francis but his loyalty was always and 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 and controlled by the Pope. Ugolino laid the foundation of the cathedral in Assisi to Francis’ honor, and canonized him only two 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 of 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 the 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 referred to it as 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 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.
Two years before his death, Francis composed the hymn Canticle to the Sun, called by some the most perfect expression of religious feeling. It was written at a time when he was beset by temptations with blindness setting in. The hymn is a pious peal of passionate praise for nature, especially Brother Sun and Sister Moon.
The last week of his life, Francis asked for Psalm 142 to be read to him since his eyes were failing. Two brothers sang to him. That’s when a priest named Elias, loyal to Cardinal Ugolino and had advocated setting aside Francis’ original Rule in favor of the Cardinal’s more strict rule, rebuked Francis for making light of death and 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 at least a couple 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 two years later.
The career of Francis of Assisi, as told by his contemporaries, and as his spirit is revealed in his own last testament, leaves the impression of purity, purpose, and humility of spirit; of 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 out his understanding of it in his own example.
He sought to give the Gospel to the common people. They heard him gladly. He didn’t possess a great intellect but had a great soul.
He was no diplomat, but he was a man whose love for God and people 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 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 and 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. And as we said, just six years into the order’s life, 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 and England. The Franciscans proved to be courageous and 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, second in the order’s history, shows two 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 and 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. Contrary to Francis’ will, a devotional book of prayers and hymns called the Roman Breviary 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 1210 Rule 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.
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. The nuns supported themselves by the labor of their hands, but by Francis’ advice and example also became mendicants who depended on 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. The Tertiaries were lay brothers and 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 dedicate themselves wholly to God while going about their usual lives as merchants, workers and family men and women.
Francis wanted 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.
Most likely, it was Francis’ original intent to start an organic movement of lay-people, and 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 two 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 parse fine points of doctrine, but who, like the religious leaders in the parable of the Good Samaritan, seemed not to understand the practical compassion, mercy and 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 Truth commends. 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 and 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, and Hebrew.
The order spread rapidly all the way to Israel and Syria in the East and Ireland in the West. It was introduced in 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 and 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 time 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, now part of London, they settled into what was called Stinking Lane. At Cambridge, they occupied a decaying prison.
It was for this zeal to reach the poor and needy 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 fifty locations around England.
We’ll see what became of the Franciscans later. Suffice it to say, Francis would not approve of what became of his brotherhood. No he would NOT!
The Mendicant orders of the Franciscans and Dominicans, which we’ll 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 and eventually commoners, who’d 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 and Popes working so hard at controlling the political realm?”
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 fueled by the spiritual hunger of the common people.
As early as the 10th C, reformers had called for a return to the poverty and 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 and wealth.
To illustrate this, visit the cathedral at Cologne, Germany. There’s a little museum there called the Treasury. It contains several display cases with the various vestments and tools the cardinals of Cologne have worn. Composed of gold and silver threads, encrusted with gems, these robes are priceless; 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. As a shepherd’s staff it ought to be a functional and useful tool. A humble piece of wood used to guide and protect sheep. But the croziers in the Treasury at Cologne Cathedral are made of solid gold, their head-pieces jammed with rubies, emeralds, diamonds, and pearls. 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 priest 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, “WHAT is going on here? Did Jesus wear a get-up like that? Did Peter or John or any of the 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 and 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 and 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.
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.