The Franciscans

As we have suggested, what was eventually the largest of the mendicant orders in its numerous branches was what officially is designated as the Order of Little Brothers or Friars Minor (Ordo Fratrum Minorum, abbreviated as O.F.M.), but popularly is known as the Franciscans. The name Franciscan is appropriate, for not only was the order begun by Francis of Assisi, but it has never ceased to be challenged by the ideals of its founder. From time to time efforts, often stormy, have been made to bring its practice to conform to the difficult standards of that compelling genius.

Francis is one of the most winsome figures of Christian history. He was born in 1181 or 1182 in Assisi, an ancient town on heights overlooking the gorge through which the Tiber emerges from the mountains. His father was Pietro Bernardone, a well-to-do cloth merchant. He had little formal education, but he knew a little Latin and could read and write. He also knew French. His baptismal name was Giovanni, but the nickname of Francesco — Francis — was given him and was the one by which he was best known and remembered. He was ardent, charming, and sensitive. At first he was a play-boy, a boon companion of the gay young scions of the local aristocracy, and a leader among them in their revelries. Yet he seems to have possessed an innate refinement and is said not to have succumbed to grossness in speech or act.

The conversion of Francis to the life of religion was not a sudden dedication, but came as the result of a spiritual pilgrimage of many months which began in late adolescence. It was partly induced by illnesses and disappointments and was marked by painful and intense struggles of the spirit and in its earlier stages by relapses into the former way of life. Francis began giving himself to the service of the poor and in spite of his loathing for their disease, visited lepers and cared for them. He spent much time in solitude in the fields and hills. He was inspired by the love of Christ which had been driven home to him in the contemplation of a crucifix in a nearby chapel. His fellow-townsmen at first thought him insane. His father, enraged, kept him in confinement at home until his mother released him. Finally his father took him before the bishop to disinherit him and Francis, stripping himself of the clothing which he had had from his sire and standing naked before the bishop, declared that henceforth he desired to serve only "our Father which art in heaven." He set himself to repairing with his own hands the chapel where was the crucifix which had come to mean so much to him, begging stones and also his food. That task completed, he addressed himself to the restoration of other chapels. Among these his favourite was Santa Maria degli Angeli, the Portiuncula, a humble affair which after Francis became famous was enclosed by a large but gaudy church.

It was in 1209 at the Portiuncula during the reading of the Gospel at the mass that Francis, then in his upper twenties, heard the call which sent him forth on his life mission. He felt impelled to become a travelling preacher, proclaiming the kingdom of God and calling men to repentance, doing so in complete poverty, subsisting on whatever food might be given him, and radiating the love of Christ. He sought to imitate Jesus and to obey him to the letter.

Francis at once set about preaching in his native town. Others, attracted, joined themselves to him. As their rule he gave them the command of Jesus to sell all and give to the poor and to go forth without staff, food, money, or a second coat, preaching the kingdom of God and healing the sick. They called themselves the penitents of Assisi. They made the Portiuncula their headquarters and built near it huts of boughs. For a habit, they wore tunics of the brown coarse cloth from which peasants made clothing. They went about, barefooted, two by two, preaching and helping the peasants in the work of the fields.

These early days were marked by mingled opposition and cordial response. Many deemed the brothers mad, pelted them with mud, insulted them, and tore off their clothing. Others were impressed by their patent sincerity and by their joyousness under persecution and in their espousal of their Lady Poverty.

Francis and his companions were not entirely unique. The time was one of religious ferment. There were numerous wandering preachers, many of them ascetics and some of them frowned upon by the Church as disobedient heretics. Contemporary Italy also had many bands or guilds whose members went about together singing hymns of penitence and praise.

Francis was no heretic. A humble son of the Church and a layman, he submitted himself to the constituted ecclesiastical authorities. In 1210 he and eleven companions went to Rome to seek Papal permission to pursue their manner of life. Innocent III, one of the greatest of the Popes, was then on the throne of Peter. After some hesitation and a careful investigation by members of his curia, for he professed fear that their manner of life was too severe, Innocent gave them tentative approval and permitted them to continue preaching. However, he made the quite natural condition that in each diocese where they preached they must first obtain the consent of the bishop and that they elect a superior who could be held responsible for their conduct. Francis was the inevitable choice for the headship of the group. Thus the Penitents of Assisi, a few years later called by Francis in characteristic fashion the Minor, or Humbler Brethren, became an order.

Returning to Assisi, Francis, now reinforced by Papal approval, was received with acclaim and throngs flocked to his preaching. He sought, with success, to heal civil strife in his home city between the feudal nobility and the townsfolk. His followers multiplied and obtained from the proprietors, a Benedictine monastery, the Portiuncula as permanent headquarters.

In these early days of the order, the Brothers Minor worked with their hands for their livelihood, supplementing the labour with begging when food was not otherwise to be had. Francis insisted upon absolute poverty, would not permit any of the brethren to have money, and is said on one occasion to have forbidden a brother to own even a psalter, saying that if he possessed one he would wish for a breviary, and that if he owned a breviary he would soon be haughtily commanding one of his fellows to bring it to him.

The Brothers Minor not only preached but also sang. Some of their hymns were improvised by Francis, for his was always the soul of a poet. Especially famous was his Praises of the Creatures, better known as the Canticle of the Sun.

Closely related to the poetic strain in Francis was a love for all creation and a joy in it. One of the stories which his early disciples cherished was that of a sermon which he preached to the birds, exhorting them to praise and love their Creator. They also declared that once when Francis was preaching the swallows made so much noise that he could not be heard and that on his charging them to be quiet until he had finished they meekly subsided. At another time he made nests for turtle doves that they might lay eggs and rear their young under the protection of the brethren. This love of nature seems to have increased with the years and never to have been more keen than in his last months when his body was racked by pain.

The preaching of Francis and his associates was unstudied and direct. It stressed the adoration of God, repentance, generosity, and the forgiveness of wrongs done to one by others. It made much of love for one's neighbours and one's enemies, humility, and abstention from vices, including especially the vices of the flesh. It advocated fasting and encouraged the confession of one's sins to a priest.

By his sincerity, joyousness, earnestness, and radiant love Francis rapidly won an increasing number to the Brothers Minor. At first he admitted those who applied without the novitiate customary in the older orders. Among those who sought entrance was Clara, a girl of sixteen, twelve years younger than Francis, a scion of the Sciffi, one of the noble houses of Assisi. He welcomed her with great affection and in 1212, three years after the decisive call had come to him, received her into the order. In spite of the bitter opposition of her father, she persisted. To her father's even greater wrath, a younger sister followed her. Other women came and a house was found for them in Assisi. Thus a second order, a woman's branch of the Franciscans, the Poor Ladies or Poor Clares, came into being.

Early, although not formally until 1221, there also sprang up what is usually known as the Third Order, or, more accurately, the Order of Penitents. Its members were not fully to follow the way of Francis and were to remain in the world and hold property, but they were to be sparing in food and drink, give aims, abstain from vice, accept the sacraments, and remain loyal members of the Catholic Church. One of its earliest members north of the Alps was Elizabeth of Hungary (c.1207-1231). The daughter of a king of Hungary, devout from her childhood, she was early betrothed in one of the dynastic matrimonial alliances which were common and at fourteen was married to the Landgrave of Thuringia. Her husband perished in a crusade and in the later years of her brief life she gave much of her fortune to the poor, founded a hospital, and in Marburg with her own hands cared for the sick.

Francis was enthusiastically missionary in purpose and practice. He himself traversed much of Italy, preaching. He wished also to go to the Moslems. He sought to journey to the Holy Land, but was thwarted by shipwreck. He went to Spain to open a way to Morocco, there to reach Moslems who had recently been defeated by a coalition of Christian princes and had taken refuge in that land. Illness stopped him and compelled him to return to Italy. Eventually, in 1219, he went to Egypt, in company with what is usually called the Fifth Crusade, He was deeply grieved by the lack of discipline and the vicious lives of many of these champions of the Cross. Yet from among them he won some who helped to spread the Franciscan movement to Northern Europe. He also presented the faith to the Sultan and seems to have gained the latter's respect. He returned to Italy (1220) by way of Palestine and Syria. Not content with himself going on missions he sent out his friars to various parts of Europe and to Morocco.

Francis quickly ran his course. October 3, 1226, when only in his mid-forties, he breathed his last in the church of Portiuncula where, seventeen years earlier, he had heard the call which had sent him forth preaching. In his later years he had been increasingly frail and had more and more withdrawn from the management of the order. His ardent devotion to Christ and his meditation of Christ's passion were crowned by the appearance of the stigmata, the wounds of his Master, on his own body. Death came peacefully and in the end painlessly. Two years later, in 1228, he was formally proclaimed to be a saint by his friend and the patron of the order, the former Cardinal Ugolino of Ostia, now Pope Gregory IX.

Before death claimed him, Francis had the mingled joy and pain of seeing the Order of Brothers Minor quite outgrow him and the deep grief of knowing that it was already beginning to depart from the simplicity and poverty of its first days. In his last months he sought to stem the tide by dictating his will. In this he commanded all the brothers to work at some honourable occupation, not for gain but for a good example, and to flee idleness. Only when they were not paid for their work were they to beg. They were not to receive churches or habitations. The will expressly forbade the brothers to seek a bull which would relax this interdiction or to introduce glosses or modifications in the rule or the will.

Yet before and after the will was dictated the worldly wisdom of Innocent III in declaring the primitive Franciscan ideal too severe for human flesh and blood had been confirmed by the event. Organization proved necessary. Early the Brothers Minor assembled annually at Portiuncula. In 1216 at the request of Francis, Ugolino became the pro tector of the brotherhood. His guidance had much to do with shaping the next stages of organization. In 1220 a Papal bull prescribed a novitiate of one year as a prerequisite for full membership, fixed the garb, and declared the vows to be irrevocable. In 1221 the order was given a new rule, much longer than the original one. Francis was not an organizer or an administrator. He was too impulsive, too subject to changes of mood, too unpredictable, to carry the load of running a great organization. The actual management passed into the hands of others, within a few months to one of the first companions of Francis, Brother Elias, whom Francis, as minister general, appointed his vicar. In 1223 another rule was adopted which made begging rather than labour with the hands the normal method of support. To the intense indignation of Francis, Brothers Minor were beginning to establish themselves in the universities which were arising in Europe. Francis distrusted scholarship as a perversion of the original purpose. Preaching was not being given its former primary place, but Brothers Minor were becoming advisers in the Papal curia. No longer was the marriage to Lady Poverty being strictly observed, but collectively property was beginning to be acquired. Theoretically the property was not held by the order, but by friends or by the Pope in behalf of the order. Structurally the order had become fairly elaborate. Every group had its custos, or head. The groups were organized by territorial provinces, each of which had its minister and its chapter. Over all was a general chapter and a minister general.

After the death of Francis further relaxation of the primitive ideals entered and a sharp division disrupted the pristine brotherhood of love. On the one extreme were those who wished to hold to the manner of life which had been followed by Francis in the initial years of the fellowship, with its absolute poverty and its itinerant preaching. This group, a minority, who came to be known as the Zealots or Spirituals, were given prestige by the presence of several of the earliest companions of Francis. On the other extreme were those who desired a complete relaxation of the rule of poverty. In the middle were the majority, moderates, who would maintain something of the primitive poverty, but who wished the order to establish itself in the universities, develop scholars, and acquire influence in the Church. The conflict between these strains was acute. Indeed, no large order of the Catholic Church has had so explosive a history or has been rent by so many schisms.

It was the moderates who before many years obtained control. The first minister general after Francis, John Parenti, who served from 1227 to 1232, favoured strict conformity to the wishes of the founder. Yet it was under him that Pope Gregory IX declared (1230) that the will of Francis was not binding. In 1232 John retired under pressure, and Elias was elected in his stead. Although he had had the confidence of Francis, Elias departed from the strict observance of the latter's wishes. He was an extraordinarily able promoter and administrator. Before his election as minister general he had, with the support of the order's great patron, Pope Gregory IX, begun the erection of a huge church in Assisi as a memorial to Francis, a structure which was a visible denial of the ideals of the Poverello. For it Elias gathered funds from many quarters. Under him the order grew rapidly, its missions were extended, new provinces were organized, and its strength was augmented in the universities, institutions which then were in the first flush of their youthful popularity. He encouraged scholarship. Elias was autocratic and the pressure which he employed to raise the huge sums for the memorial church provoked criticism.

Opposition arose, not only from the Zealots, against whom he had taken stern measures, but also from the moderates, especially in some of the universities. In a dramatic session of the general chapter in the presence of Gregory IX in 1239 Elias was deposed. Under his immediate successors further relaxation in the rule of poverty was effected. John of Parma, who became minister general in 1247, although of aristocratic stock and an accomplished scholar, was of the Zealots and insisted upon a strict observance of the will of Francis. However, after a decade he resigned and was followed by Bonaventura. Bonaventura was a philosopher and mystic, was known as the Seraphic Doctor, and was eventually canonized. He held the post for more than a quarter of a century, until in 1273, having been made a cardinal, he also resigned. A man of action, courteous, humble, cheerful, tactful, courageous, a stirring preacher, he has been called the second founder of the order. A moderate, he brought the Brothers Minor more and more into conformity with the monastic tradition. He took action against the Zealots and during his administration some of the more extreme of them were imprisoned.

The Spirituals or Zealots did not tamely submit to the trend towards moderation. In a variety of ways they protested. Some of them were profoundly influenced by the writings of Joachim of Flora (or Fiore).

Joachim was born in 1130 in Calabria in the extreme south of Italy and except for his wanderings spent his life there. He early began preaching, then entered a Cistercian monastery, eventually was ordained priest, and, reluctantly was made abbot. Desiring a stricter way of life than he had found there, he left that post. Disciples came to him and he founded a monastery, that of St. John of Flora (Fiore). He was released from his obedience to the Cistercians and in 1196 the new order, that of Flora (Fiore), obtained Papal approval. It never became large. Joachim himself died in 1202. He was, then, an older contemporary of Francis of Assisi.

Through his writings Joachim exerted a wide influence. He was esteemed a prophet. He gave an interpretation of the human drama for which he claimed Biblical foundation. To his mind history had three ages, or dispensations, that of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He complicated this pattern by others, three of them of five ages each, another of seven ages, and still another of eight ages. The three ages, of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit received his chief emphasis. They overlapped. That of God the Father began in Adam and ended in Christ. In it men followed a carnal life, marrying and giving in marriage. The second age, that of God the Son, began with Uzziah and was to be consummated in the year 1260. In it life was a mixture of flesh and spirit and it was the age of the clerics. The third age, that of God the Spirit, is that of the monks. In it men are to live a purely spiritual life. It was inaugurated with Benedict of Nursia and is to last until the end of the world. The third age is to be marked by a gift of the Holy Spirit, that of contemplation, and in it the whole Church is to become a contemplative society. The first period was one of law, fear, labour, and slavery. The second was one of grace, humility, truth, discipline, and filial service. The third is to be one of love, liberty, happiness, and contemplation. Here is to be the culmination of history.

It can readily be seen that this bold scheme of history would have an appeal tor many, including those of the tradition of Francis of Assisi. The teachings of Joachim profoundly shaped the thought of the Spirituals and also of many outside Franciscan ranks. They reinforced those who attacked the corruption in the Church and the Papacy. Quite understandably the latter hit back. In 1225 one of Joachim's books and in 1259 his other works were officially condemned by the Church. Any who favoured his views, including the Spirituals, were under suspicion and some of them fell afoul of the Inquisition and were killed.

The Spirituals were eventually in several schools and in various parts of Europe. Fascinating though their story is, we must not take the space to recount it. Some were in Ancona, others in that hotbed of heresies, Provence, and still others in Tuscany. Some completely withdrew from the Order of Brothers Minor. The extremists among the seced-ers were known as the Fraticelli, or "Little Brothers." They exalted the ideal of poverty and the mission of Francis of Assisi. Some of their groups were protected by one or another member of the nobility.

Fairly typical of the Spirituals — if anyone can be called typical of so diverse a set of movements and of men — and also of the sharp contrasts and the religious ferment seen in Italy in the thirteenth century, was Jacopone da Todi (c.1230-1306). A scion of the nobility, wilful, high-spirited, extravagant, vain, arrogant, perhaps a Doctor of Laws from the University of Bologna, disdainful of religion, a brilliant intellectual, in his late thirties he was shocked into the religious life, perhaps by the death of his young wife. He revolted against his earlier habits, gave his goods to the poor, and, dressed meanly, seemingly half-mad, urged his fellow-townsmen to repentance and fought his besetting sin of pride. He joined the Franciscans and became a leader of the Spirituals. Mystic, poet, drinking of that fountain of mediaeval mysticism, Dionysius the Areopagite, a wandering lay missionary, he became involved in Italian politics, for five years languished in prison at the command of the Pope, was released by a new Pope, and spent his later years in, contemplation and in communion with the "Infinite Light."

Various attempts were made to restore unity in the Order of Brothers Minor. For a time a Papal bull following the Council of Vienne, in 1312, seemed to give promise of success. However, the vigorous measures against the Spirituals taken by John XXII, who came to the Papal throne in 1316 and who instituted a severe persecution of them, drove some of the extremists to declare that the Pope was Antichrist or the forerunner of Antichrist, that the Roman Church was the harlot of Babylon described in the Apocalypse, and that the sacraments of the Church were obsolete. The tension was heightened when, in flat contradiction of the findings of the general chapter of the Franciscans in 1322 which declared that Jesus and the apostles had stood for absolute poverty, John XXII, in a bull in 1323, denounced this view as false and heretical. In 1322 John ended the fiction by which the Pope held property for the use of the Franciscans and turned it over directly to the order.

In spite of these internal difficulties and secessions and its departure from strict adherence to the ideals of Francis, the Order of Brothers Minor continued and never ceased to play an important role in the Church.

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