November 2004 – On the Understanding of St. Francis

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

November 2004

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the good Lord give you Peace!

While the spirituality each of us lives by is a response to God’s overture to us, it is always expressed in ways that are molded by our environment. It was no less so for Saint Francis. His understanding of his various experiences would have been inevitably and significantly colored by the circumstances of his life and times. For that reason, if we truly wish to become aware of the operations of his mind and heart, we must try to place ourselves in the socio-religious climate of his time as much as possible.

Franciscan spirituality emerged from a particular historical context. To better understand this, we will take into account the social changes facing the medieval Italy of Saint Francis, including population expansion, increased trade, and the shift from an economy based on the barter system to one based on money, the political tensions, such as those exerted by new forms of social organization, as well as Church reforms underway.

Francis was born as the earlier culture of feudalism was giving way to new forces. Merchants asserted themselves as a new social class, with money and trade replacing barter and subsistence agriculture. Meanwhile, improved roads opened the possibility of travel. As a result, there were corresponding changes in economic systems that could safely be characterized as revolutionary. This period witnessed an explosion in trade, the spawning of small businesses, the emergence of professions, like those of notary, and a dramatic adjustment in banking and credit arrangements.

What emerged was a new class known as the minores, which students of Franciscan literature often assume to mean the poor and the marginalized of society. In fact, they were actually craftsmen and town-dwelling peasants, in contrast to the maiores, who were landowners, and included the princes of the Church. Such minores had actually begun to gain a degree of autonomy as the great ecclesiastical estates accumulated in Lombard and Carolingian times had broken up, leaving vassals to enjoy the actual possession of the now valuable land and its produce. The power of commerce soon became such that merchants (mercatores), like warriors (milites), developed into a privileged class of their own. But not everyone welcomed the newfound role of these parvenus.

The Crusades were also hugely important in the development of social change. In their wake, knights streamed through Italian towns. Traveling minstrels sang of their great deeds and writers glamorized their life in epics. The more sinister legacy of the Crusades, however, was leprosy, which also spread throughout the region. There were several hospitals for lepers in Assisi territory at the time of Saint Francis but record and communal statutes make it clear that it was San Lazaro of Arce (renamed Santa Maria Maddalena in the 14th century) that played so large a role in the life of Saint Francis.

With social and economic change underway, political change was inevitable but slow to follow: European commerce came to maturity well in advance of the state, and as a result nurtured a particularly unrestrained aggressiveness. In fact, one must go back as far as the 5th century to trace the beginnings of a breakdown in the authority that had been prevalent since the classical period. From that time, up to the 10th century, there had been a gradual reduction in the influence of public institutions and the nature of political control was recast by events that included the conquests and settlements of the Goths and the Lombards.

The process of replacing Episcopal authority then gave rise to the birth of communes (in effect, city-states), whose character actually goes a long way toward accounting for elements of Franciscan spirituality. Francis was born as a new form of free association of urban men was replacing the rural, feudal model of political organization. Rather than swear allegiance to a specific person such as a duke or baron, men in communes pledged themselves to the good of the city. But the rise of communes also had a dark side, one that was deeply disturbing to the young Francis. The speed with which the commune rose to dominance was a recipe for an almost permanent conflict that fanned the flames of division between people that had long suffered the vagaries of class-based systems.

It may be that the juxtaposition of these two developments gave Francis the greatest impetus for the way of life that he would eventually adopt. On the one hand, we see in his Rule of Life evidence of concern for the common good, which is expressed in a rich tradition of concrete works firmly anchored in his concept of universal brotherhood. On the other hand, he would choose to avoid the excesses of the new social order, in part, by his proscriptions regarding work.

“In whatever places the brothers find themselves for work or service, let them under no condition take charge of accounts, stores, or supervise the service institutions, (nor are they to accept any obligation which might cause scandal and harm their souls,) but let them be (minores and) subject to all alongside whom they labor.”
– Saint Francis’ Early Rule, Chapter Seven

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Social, economic and political changes brought about by the long-established feudal order being eclipsed by commerce, communes and the allegiance of citizens to new sets of interests and new classes of citizens and institutions could not but impact on the Church itself, on its own interests, people and institutions. The monastic tradition, which reflected earlier notions of feudalism with monks swearing obedience to the abbot, was still an important part of the landscape. But major landmarks such as the reform initiated at Cluny in 910 and at Citeaux in 1098 already had begun to point the way to change. So it was that an evolving social order would continue to militate in favor of a new ecclesiastical order just as it had at times painfully precipitated a new political order.

Much of this pressure for change was eventually harnessed and channeled through two towering ecclesiastical reforms: Gregorian, which led to clerical centralization, and conciliar, with the convocation of Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. The church was obliged to align itself to two major vectors of change. The first was internal and resulted from the fact that the hierarchy could not stave off criticism, particularly regarding the excesses of the clergy, without jeopardizing its credibility and its legitimacy. The second was external and came from the profit economy, which raised acute problems involving impersonalism, money and moral uncertainty.

Finally, it is useful to consider Francis’ decisions in light of preoccupations of the day concerning unorthodox beliefs and practices. Numerous preachers and reformers spread anxiety among the general population. Such confusion goes a long way toward explaining why Francis assigned so much importance to fidelity to the Holy See and respect for priests, despite the concerns that he no doubt shared with so-called heretical Christians who endeavored authentically, if naively, to lead Christ-centered lives. The Cathars, for instance, constituted a loose amalgamation of sects, established in various parts of Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries. The most important factor concerning these various individuals and groups was doctrinal. Calling themselves the ‘Pure Ones,’ they were in fact dualists. Meanwhile, the Humiliati started as an informal grouping of lay people and later sought to become an officially sanctioned order of the Church, with three classifications for members – canonical, monastic and lay. They claimed to follow the model of apostolic simplicity in their own lives and wore undyed clothing as a sign of humility. But it was their eagerness to preach publicly – without authority – that got them into difficulty with the Church.

The Waldensians began in Lyon, France, following a severe famine. They contrasted the ways of wealth and poverty. Waldes was a wealthy cloth merchant (as was Francis’ father!) who experienced a religious conversion sometime during the 1170s when he was seized with this familiar passage in scripture, If you wish to go the whole way, then go and sell everything you have, and give to the poor. (Matthew 19:21). He began to preach the Gospel and was at first accepted by the Church. Known as the ‘Poor Men of Lyon,’ they challenged the wealth of the Church, but despite blistering criticism of corrupt and incompetent clerics, (Waldes) upheld the instinctual value of the duly ordained, properly sacerdotal ministry. His opposition to the wealth and corruption of some clergy, nonetheless, caused the movement’s downfall. Surely sympathetic to the underlying attitudes that animated these grassroots movements, Francis would prudently insert approved doctrinal teaching into the Rule of Life that he proposed.

A tremendous, though relatively recent body of scholarly work describes and explains the significant events and trends that would have influenced Francis’ understanding of Gospel values. The facts they reveal allow us to carefully extract from the cloud of pious mythology a historical figure, a 13th-century Italian male penitent raised in comfort but challenged by numerous shifts in the social and political landscape, in order that we may now give shape to the exciting new applications of his rich legacy in ways that are better suited to our own time. Though I am certainly not the first or best able to understand Francis historically, I count myself among those eagerly laboring to transform this knowledge into fresh blossoms of Franciscan spirituality: as it were, fragrant fioretti for a Post-Modern Age.

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May your days be filled with Joy, your nights with Peace and your heart with Love. May you be blessed in all ways, always.