June 2005 – On Franciscan Systematics

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

June 2005

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the Lord give you Peace!

In recent years, Saint Francis’ writing has been painstakingly scrutinized and critically analyzed with the result that many studies have revealed important information regarding his intentions, thereby helping us to better understand his spirituality and make sound judgments about its meaning for us. Twenty-eight documents are attributed to him, some very brief indeed, such as his first, The Prayer Before the Crucifix, but two stand out in this corpus to reveal his system of beliefs: The Earlier Rule, also known as regula non bullata or The Rule Without a Papal Seal, probably written in stages between 1209/10 and 1221; and The Admonitions (dating uncertain), which Kajetan Esser called “The Franciscan Sermon on the Mount.”

So strong is the link from the mind and heart of Saint Francis to the Early Rule that Franciscan scholar, David Flood, declared: “The history of Francis’ origins has no more eloquent witness than the text of (this) rule.” It is believed that its writing began at the inception of the order, since that is what his Testament suggested, but that it did not take the form that we have received until after September 22, 1220, since the second chapter makes reference to a bull of that date.

A form of this rule had likely been approved by Innocent III in 1215. Some studies propose earlier dates, such as 1209 or 1210.

No doubt this rule emanated from Saint Francis’ own heart, but there is also no doubt that it was developed over time as a result of discussions held during the gathering of the first brothers. Passages of the Legend of the Three Companions and the Second Life of Saint Francis by Celano speak of the work done on the rule at these chapters.

The text that we know today includes negative insertions, elaborations and clarifications, and elements that reflect the influence of the Fourth Lateran Council. These particular passages may not be rooted in the spontaneous thinking of Saint Francis, but they do reflect his evolved thinking and deep concern that the rule be a useful guide for the conduct of growing numbers of adherents. Certain beliefs would have to be systematized for the good of order. The following table indicates the breadth of systems covered by this rule.

Early Rule Chapter Titles
I The brothers are to live in obedience, in chastity, and without property.
II The reception and the clothing of the brothers
III The divine office and fasting
IV The ministers and the other brothers: how they are organized
V The correction of brothers at fault
VI The recourse of the brothers to ministers and that a brother should not be called prior
VII Ways of work and service
VIII The brothers should not receive money
IX Begging for alms
X The sick brothers
XI The brothers should neither ridicule nor disparage, but love one another.
XII Evil looks and association with women
XIII The avoidance of fornication
XIV How the brothers are to go about in the world.
XV The brothers should not ride horses.
XVI Those who go among the Saracens and other unbelievers
XVII Preachers
XVIII How the ministers are to meet.
XIX The brothers are to live as Catholics.
XX Penance and the reception of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.
XXI The praise and the exhortation which all the brothers can do.
XXII Advice to the brothers
XXIII Prayer and thanksgiving
XXIV Conclusion

The Admonitions

The term “admonition” can be a bit misleading. Saint Francis used it as a gentle counsel or exhortation, not as a dire warning although he did believe these statements to reflect a true understanding of God’s will. Judging by the epithets used by leading Franciscan authors, it is virtually impossible to exaggerate the significance of the Admonitions in capturing the essence of Saint Francis’ spirituality. Esser called it “the Magna Charter of a life in the Christian spirit of brotherhood.” Others have used similarly lofty expressions, such as the Franciscan Sermon on the Mount and a mirror of Perfection.

Although his systematics as expressed in the Admonitions is oftentimes innovative and insightful, the ideas that they contain are not always new. For instance, scholars have found traces of Augustine, Pseudo-Bernard (There seems to be little doubt that Cistercians influenced the thinking of Saint Francis and the nascent brotherhood to some degree or other. Cistercians were invited to oversee the proper conduct of chapter meetings, and the early bothers and sisters heard Cistercian preachers as well), Godfrey of Amont, and Godfrey of Auxerre in the first four admonitions. Rather, Saint Francis’ originality can be found principally in his systematization of insights both new and borrowed, as illustrated in the titles listed below.

The Admonitions Chapter Titles
I The Body of Christ
II The Evil of Self-Will
III Perfect Obedience
IV Let No One Make Being Over Others His Own
V Let No One Be Proud, but Boast in the Cross of the Lord
VI Imitation of Christ
VII Let Good Action Follow Knowledge
VIII Avoiding the Sin of Envy
IX Love
X Castigating the Body
XI Let No One Be Corrupted by the Evil of Another
XII Knowing the Spirit of the Lord
XIII Patience
XIV Poverty of Spirit
XV Peace
XVI Cleanness of Heart
XVII The Humble Servant of God
XVIII Compassion for a Neighbour
XIX A Humble Servant of God
XX The Good and the Vain Religious
XXI The Frivolous and the Talkative Religious
XXII Correction
XXIII Humility
XXIV True Love
XXV The Same Point
XXVI Let Servants of God Honour the Clergy
XXVII Virtue Puts Vice to Flight
XXVIII Hiding Good That It Not Be Lost

Beyond these two key features of the Franciscan canon, another passage is worthy of special attention. Regula Bullata, which received papal approval in the form of the bull entitled Solet annuere, November 29, 1223, contains another vitally important indication of Saint Francis’ basic belief system. The very heart of his view of religious life is summarized in chapter 10, in which the saint encourages his followers to pursue ‘what they must desire above all things: to have the Spirit of the Lord and His holy manner of working.’

Throughout his writings Saint Francis teaches the transparent, inconspicuous, and unassuming ways of the Holy Spirit, and this teaching is expressed through the saint’s concern for God his Father, Jesus his Lord and Brother, his fellow human beings, and the marvels of God’s creation. He cultivates an atmosphere or environment in which the “school” of Franciscan theology of the spiritual life develops and focuses on the Holy Spirit, who teaches us “to understand the gifts that he has given us.” (1Cor 2:12)

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While both the Early Rule and Admonitions are communications in their own right, I have referred to them here as statements that summarize his systematic theology. Upon this structure rests a range of communication activities, many of which had a major impact on his own culture as well as on many religious traditions that we have inherited. Some of these will be outlined in subsequent letters.

May your own reading of the Early Rule and Admonitions fill you with wisdom and joy in the spirituality of Saint Francis. May the Lord of Peace and all Goodness bless you now and always.