The First Followers

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1.18. It was only a matter of a few weeks for Francis to have the joy to receive his first brothers or friars at the Porziuncola. The first among them was Bernardo da Quintavalle, a rich young man from Assisi. He invited Francis to his house for supper (incidentally, the house still stands in Assisi). At night Francis slept in his friend’s house, and Bernardo noticed that Francis was praying all along. The following morning he took a bold decision. Together with Francis he went to the church of San Nicolò in the town square, and together they consulted the book of the Gospels. For three times they opened the book and met the words: “If you wish to be perfect, go and sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Matthew 19,21); “Take nothing for your journey” (Luke 9,3); “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me” (Luke 9,23). These Scripture verses were to constitute the basis of the life and Rule of the evangelical movement initiated by Francis. In April of the same year 1208 two other men joined Francis and Bernardo. They were Pietro Cattani, a canon of the cathedral church, and Egidio or Giles, who joined Francis on 23 April. As soon as they joined forces they left in pairs on a preaching expedition. Francis and Giles went to the Marches of Ancona.

1.19. The small brotherhood was steadily growing in numbers. In the autumn of 1208 the friars went to preach in the Rieti valley. They stopped in a tiny village called Poggio Bustone, where Francis greeted the people with the words “buon giorno, buona gente” (good day, good people). In an intense moment of prayer Francis experienced a profound sense of forgiveness and reconciliation with himself.

1.20. In 1209 Francis wrote down a brief Rule for the brothers. It was mainly composed of the Gospel texts like the ones quoted above. He boldly decided to take his group to Rome to meet Pope Innocent III and ask for approval of their way of life. It was a courageous gesture on his part. Innocent III certainly would have looked suspiciously on such groups of lay preachers. He had seen enough of them, and most were prone to heretical tendencies. They preached the Gospel and even lived Gospel values in direct opposition to the institutional hierarchy, whom they attacked in their preaching for its immoral and scandalous practices. There were many heretical sects, especially in southern France and northern Italy. The Cathari were the most dangerous. It seemed that the laity was in upsurge against ecclesiastical institutions. Innocent III, however, was a shrewd politician as well as supreme head of the Church. After winning many doubts regarding the group of beggars who were presented to him by Cardinal Giovanni Colonna di San Paolo, he rightly judged Francis to be instrumental in proposing genuine reform among laity and clergy, without the danger of lapsing into heresy. (It is him who tradition indicates as the Pope who had a dream inwhich he saw Francis supporting a Church on his shoulder). So Innocent III orally approved the Rule and life of the Order of Friars Minor, as Francis called his friars in his firm belief that they were to live as true brothers and as true “minores” on the model of Christ and the apostles.

Pope Innocent’s dream

1.21. The group of twelve friars returned to Assisi full of joy. After a short stay at Orte they settled at Rivo Torto, some distance away from the Porziuncola. In this place they stayed for some months in extreme poverty. Once the emperor-elect Otto IV passed along the road nearby on his way to be crowned by the Pope. Francis sent one of the friars to announce boldly to him that his glory was short-lived. The poor friar was soon removed and silenced by the imperial guards, but he was happy enough to have carried out his mission. When a farmer rudely demanded to make use of the friars’ poor dwelling place, Francis and the brothers left Rivo Torto and went back to the Porziuncola.

1.22. One of the characteristic notes about Francis and his movement was its openness to universal dialogue. Francis wanted to meet heretics, saracens, robbers. In 1211 he left for the lands of the saracens. His old dreams of chivalry and glory with the crusades now changed into a heartfelt desire to embark upon a peaceful crusade to preach to the saracens. But his plan this time failed. His ship got caught in a storm and he was shipwrecked on the Dalmatian coast. Francis had to return to Ancona as a stow away.

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Text by Fr. Noel Muscat ofm


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