Journeying for the Lord

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1.25.Another apostolic journey was undertaken by Francis in 1213-1214. This time he wanted to go to Spain, in order to evangelise the saracens in Morocco. Even this time Francis did not succeed, because of an illness which forced him to return to Italy. At the Porziuncola he received a group of learned men who came to his Order. One of them was friar Thomas of Celano, who would become the author of three biographies on Francis.

The interior of the small chapel of the Porziuncola

1.26. In November 1215 Francis assisted at one of the most important events in the history of the Church, namely the Fourth Lateran Council, summoned in Rome by Pope Innocent III. It was during this event that Francis probably met another great founder of an apostolic religious Order, namely Dominic Guzman. This Council took important decisions, among which the decision not to approve new Rules for religious Orders. Francis succeeded in getting his definite Rule approved in 1223 on the grounds that Innocent III had already approved it orally in 1209.

1.27. On 16 July 1216 Pope Innocent III died in Perugia. It was during this occasion that Jacques de Vitry, who was elected bishop of Acre in the Holy Land, in a letter written from Genova, mentions the Friars Minor and the Poor Ladies of San Damiano. It is the first non-Franciscan document regarding the movement of Francis of Assisi. Honorius III succeeded Innocent III. From him Francis obtained the Porziuncola indulgence during the summer of 1216. The documentation regarding this indulgence comes from sources as late as 1310, but convincing studies have been made regarding the historical truth of this indulgence and the original way in which Francis requested it.

1.28. The Porziuncola church also became the venue for annual meetings of the friars, called General Chapters, usually held during the feast of Pentecost, in May-June. We have documented evidence of some of the more important Chapters. In 1217, for example, the brothers during the Chapter decided to organise missions north of the Alps and across the Mediterranean. Giles was sent to Tunis, Elias to the Holy Land. Francis tried to go to France, but when he arrived at Firenze, Cardinal Hugolino, who was papal legate to Tuscany and Lombardy, asked him to remain in Italy. Cardinal Hugolino was to play a very important role in the organisation of the Order. He helped Francis in the final version of the Rule, and he was also chosen as a Cardinal Protector of the Order in 1220. His personal friendship with Francis was probably instrumental in the latter’s canonisation in 1228, just two years after his death, because at that time Cardinal Hugolino had become Pope Gregory IX. During the Chapter of 1217 the Order was organised on more efficient lines, because it was divided into provinces.

1.29. The Chapter of 1219 decided to send new missionary expeditions to Germany, France, Hungary, Spain and Morocco. The friars who left for Morocco were martyred at Marrakesch on 16 January 1220. Saint Berardo and his companions are the first Franciscan martyrs in a long list of heroic friars who gave witness to the Gospel by dying for its cause.

1.30. During the same occasion Francis decided to leave for Acre and Damiata, in Egypt, where the fifth crusade was trying to conquer Egypt. During the autumn of 1219 Francis arrived at Damiata and requested permission from the papal legate to enter the saracen camp at his own risk. Together with frate Illuminato he went into the saracen camp and even spoke to the sultan Melek-el-Kamel. The sultan listened willingly to Francis, and it seems that he also gave Francis permission to visit the Holy Land. After the crusades conquered Damiata in 1220 Francis went to Acre, probably after having had the occasion to see the Christian sanctuaries of the Holy Land, then in the hands of the saracens. Francis and his followers have remained in the Holy Land ever since. The historical facts of Francis’ journey to the orient are documented also in a letter written by Jacques de Vitry, from Diamata in 1220.

1.31. During his absence from Italy Francis had left the Order in the hands of two friars, friar Matteo da Narni and friar Gregorio da Napoli. In the spring of 1220 he received information regarding the state of the Order in their hands which preoccupied him greatly. Together with Pietro Cattani, Elias and Caesar of Speyer he returned to Italy and landed in Venice. It was on this occasion that Francis asked the help of Cardinal Hugolino, who was appointed Protector of the Order. Francis resigned from the leadership of the Order, and appointed Pietro Cattani as Vicar. Cattani remained in his post until 10 March 1221, when he died. During the Pentecost Chapter of 1221 friar Elias was nominated Vicar. Meanwhile, on 22 September 1220, Pope Honorius III, by papal decree “Cum secundum consilium”, ordered the establishment of the novitiate in the Order.

1.32. The Chapter of 30 May 1221 remained famous in the history of the Order. It has been called the “chapter of mats”. Historians differ as to the exact year in which this Chapter was held. It seems probable that the “chapter of mats” took place in 1219 and not in 1221, because at this latter date Cardinal Hugolino was papal legate in the Veneto region, and the chapter was presided by Cardinal Raniero Capocci, a Cistercian. This Chapter remained famous because of the great number of friars who attended it, and who constructed simple huts around the Porziuncola; hence its name. What is of importance in the Chapter of 1221 is that this meeting approved the First Rule, or “Regula non bullata”, which did not get papal approval. It was also this Chapter which decided to send a new missionary expedition to Germany, under the leadership of Caesar of Speyer and Thomas of Celano, together with Giordan of Giano, who would later write a chronicle of this missionary endeavour.

1.33. The year 1221 also marks the approval of the “Memoriale propositi” or the first Rule of the Order of Penitents, or Third Order. The events which led to the beginning of this large Franciscan family, made up mainly of lay persons, are still open to discussion among historians, but it is accepted that Francis gave a norm of life to lay persons who wanted to embrace his evangelical ideals. This norm of life was later sanctioned by the Church.

1.34. The period 1221-1222 is marked by a preaching tour which Francis organised in southern Italy. On 15 August 1222 Francis preached in the main square of Bologna, a famous university city, where his friars probably had a school of theology. From a short note which Francis wrote to Anthony of Padova, dated 1223, we know that this famous saint and doctor of the Church was teaching theology to the friars in Bologna, because he belonged to the province of Romagna, in northern Italy.

The manger of Greccio

1.35. The need to have a definite Rule approved by the Church led Francis to retire to another hermitage, that of Fontecolombo, in 1223, together with friars Leo and Bonizo from Bologna, an expert in canon and civil law. There Francis composed his final version of the Rule, which after many difficulties and opposition on the part of the learned friars of the Order, was approved by the General Chapter. On 29 November 1223 Pope Honorius III formally approved the Rule of Friars Minor, the “Regula bullata”, by the bull “Solet annuere”. In yet another hermitage near the Rieti valley, Greccio, Francis celebrated in an original way the feast of Christmas on 25 December 1223, by organising a Christmas Crib Midnight Mass in order to evoke the poverty of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem.

1.36. The General Chapter of 1224 organised yet another missionary expedition, this time to England. On 10 September the first friars landed in Dover, and proceeded to Canterbury, London and Oxford, where they immediately took up residence and organised their life as itinerant preachers around the universities. Thomas of Eccleston gives us an interesting chronicle of the first Franciscan friars in England, “De adventu Fratrum Minorum in Angliam”.

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Text by Fr. Noel Muscat ofm


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