Let us back up to one year before Francis’ public renunciation of his inheritance and go to where the “affair of the heart” began for Francis – his love for the Heart of Christ.
By 1205, Francis had completed the break with his previous life. Encouraged by his father a year earlier (1204) to go off to war again, he set out, but on the way he received a vision at Spoleto directing him to “follow the Master, not the man,” that is, to seek God’s Will. He returned to Assisi and devoted himself to prayer, but he still did not understand what God’s plan for him was. So he would pray: “Most High, glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart and give me true faith, certain hope and perfect charity, sense and knowledge, Lord, that I may carry out Your holy and true command.”
Some strong points of the spirituality of Francis are already present in this, his first prayer: the “Almighty, glorious God” is the giver of every grace; only faith, hope and charity can enlighten the heart and lead to a new life; knowledge, indispensable for loving is in vain without the application of the “holy and true command” of the Lord. Francis was 23 when he used this prayer, and it is very much one of a personal relationship with God – my heart, give me, so that I may carry out – Your command.
On the outskirts of Assisi, halfway down the hillside to the plain, is the Church of San Damiano. One day in 1205 Francis was passing by the church seeking the will of God, and he “began to pray intensely before the image of the Crucified” (Three Companions, V, 13) when Christ spoke these words to him from the cross: “Go, repair my house, which, as you see, is falling into ruin.” Interpreting these words materialistically, Francis restored this church in 1206.
He rebuilt another chapel dedicated to St. Peter, and then the Portiuncula (Little Portion), “where there stood a church of the Blessed Virgin Mother of God that had been built in ancient times, but was now deserted and cared for by no one. When the holy man of God saw how it was thus in ruins, he was moved to pity, because he burned with devotion toward the mother of all good; and he began to live there in great zeal. It was the third year of his conversion when he had finished repairing this church. At this time, he wore a kind of hermit’s dress, with a leather girdle about his waist; he carried a staff in his hands and wore shoes on his feet” (1 Celano, 21).
By 1208, Francis had been ministering to the lepers, praying before the crucifix, and had finished repairing San Damiano. Still he did not know exactly what God wanted him to do. At the Portiuncula, on the Feast of St. Matthias, he heard the gospel and discovered his vocation to preach penance. He modified his garb changing his leather belt for a rope cincture and took off his shoes.
Some months later the Lord began to send him followers: Bernardo of Quintavalle and Peter Catanii joined him. Both men wanted to imitate Francis in the practice of penance. But Francis wanted someone to tell him what to do next.
So, with these companions, Francis went into town, to his family’s parish church, San Nicolò di Piazza and found the parish priest. The three men prayed together with the priest and had him show them “the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ” in a kind of “Bible Roulette” sort of way. The priest opened the book three times. On the first opening, were the words from Mark 10:17-21 which contain the verse, “Go sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” The second time, it was Luke’s Gospel 9:1-6, and the passage: “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics.” Finally, for the third and final time, the book was opened, and there appeared the Gospel of Matthew 16:24-28. The priest’s finger picked out the verse, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his Cross and follow me.” Taken as a whole, the three passages call for a radical renunciation of the world: give all to the poor, take nothing on the journey, and embrace the Cross. These texts would become the core of what Francis would call his “form of life.” This was the first step in founding the Franciscan Order, although not a single person present realized it.
POINTS FOR REFLECTION:
What do the statements of my “form of life” mean to me?
In times of uncertainty and temptation, do I remember that I have chosen to follow Christ unconditionally?
In times of dryness and lukewarmness, do I nurture my spousal relationship with Christ?
Perhaps as long as a year, Francis meditated on the “form of the Holy Gospel” that God had revealed to him. Being a thoroughly Catholic man, Francis wanted Church approval for this project. He also sought the freedom from self-will that could come only from subjecting himself in obedience to the will of another. Francis decided that final approval of what he believed God had revealed to him would have to come from the priest of priests, the Pope.
Before departing, Francis wrote down a very short summary of the passages from Scripture that they had heard. Unfortunately, this “primitive rule of 1209” has not survived. But, in truth, it was more like “proposed form of life” since a “rule” suggests a somewhat legal document. He did insert a few other things that were necessary to provide a holy way of life.
According to the Legend of the Three Companions, the group consisted of twelve men. All the brothers agreed to seek the consent and direction of the Supreme Pontiff, Pope Innocent III, whose papal palace and curia were located at St. John Lateran.
With the help of Bishop Guido who happened to be in Rome at the time, and with the help of Cardinal Colonna, a meeting was set up with Pope Innocent.
Thomas of Celano tells us in his biography: The First Life of Francis: “When [The Pope] recognized the wish of the men of God, he first considered the matter and then gave his assent to their request, something he completed by a subsequent action. Exhorting and then warning them about many things, he blessed Saint Francis and his brothers and said to them: “Go with the Lord, brothers, and as the Lord will see fit to inspire you, preach penance to all. When the almighty Lord increases you in numbers and grace, come back to me with joy and I will grant you more things than these and, with greater confidence, I will entrust you with greater things (XIII).
Pope Innocent III thus gave oral approval to the proposed life that Francis and his brothers brought to him. This event took place in either 1209 or 1210.
Thomas of Celano wrote: “And so [Francis] went out more confidently into the world to do the work of the gospel; using flattering words with no one, he rejected fancy speeches, yet even the most learned men were amazed at the prudence of his replies. Following the gospel, he joined his brothers two by two and sent them out into the whole world. He called them the Lesser Brothers [Fratres Minores] so that they would mark the profession of their name chiefly with the virtue of humility” (Legend for Use in the Choir, II).
Below is the sculptural group of St. Francis and his companions located a short distance from the Basilica of St. John Lateran. Notice Francis with his arms outstretched, symbolizing what the saint did indeed do. He kept the Church from falling by the example of his life and by his teachings, thus fulfilling the dream of Pope Innocent III that he saw this little poor man, small and scorned, propping up the Basilica of St. John Lateran (St. Bonaventure, Major Legend, III).
It was from Rivotorto, which means “crooked stream,” outside Assisi, that Francis and his companions left for Rome, having written his proposed “Form of Life” here, and it was to this place that they returned to set up their communal life. This area is actually the first settlement of the Brothers, although we do not know the exact spot where Francis settled because the countryside has changed and the forest has disappeared. But we know that they lived in an abandoned hut or hovel in Rivotorto. The place was so cramped that they could hardly sit or lie down to sleep. Very often they lacked bread so that turnips were their only food. Francis wrote the brothers’ names on the beams of the hut so that each one, when he wished to sit or pray, should know his own place, and so that no unnecessary noise should disturb the brothers.
One night, Francis heard a brother crying, “I am dying! I am dying!” Francis got up and asked who cried out? One brother said, “I did.” When asked by Francis what ailed him, he answered, “I am dying of hunger.” Blessed Francis, full of charity and discretion, did not want the brother to eat alone, so he had a meal prepared for everyone. After the meal, blessed Francis said to the other brothers: “My brothers, I say to you, let everyone of you take his constitution into consideration. If one of you can do with less food than another, it is not my wish that he who needs to eat more should try to imitate the first…. It is my desire and command that each and every one, while respecting our poverty, give his body what it needs” (Legends of Perugia, 1).
The “crooked stream” runs along the left side of the present church: The Franciscan Sanctuary of “Sacro Turgurio” (Sacred Hovel), is a neo-Gothic church built in the 19th century to protect the stone huts, replacing a 17th century church destroyed by an earthquake in 1853. Above the front door, there is mosaic in the lunette, on which is represented the “Miracle of the Chariot of Fire”, which happened right in this place: Francis appeared to his brothers on board a chariot of fire that circled three times inside the hovel, while in reality he was in Assisi waiting to be received in audience by Bishop Guido. (I Celano, XVIII). The brothers “understood that the holy father, while away from them in body, was present in spirit, like a second Elijah, [and] that they might follow him as true Israelites” (St. Bonaventure, Major Legend, IV).
Inside the sanctuary, we see the “sacro turgurio” in the center of the church. It is made up of three very narrow rooms. These are, in fact, only pious reconstructions, but give a good idea of the poverty of the brothers. Francis and his companions lived here from about 1208-1211. Their departure was effected when a local farmer stabled his donkey in their hovel. They then moved to the Portiuncula (Legend of the Three Companions, 55).
St. Francis was especially fond of the tiny chapel called the Portiuncula (Little Portion) or St. Mary of the Angels. “This place the holy man loved more than other places in the world; for here he began humbly, here he progressed virtuously, here he ended happily. This place he entrusted to his brothers at his death as the most beloved of the Virgin” (St. Bonaventure, ML, II). Francis had rebuilt this Benedictine chapel after he had completed the rebuilding of San Damiano in 1209.
Donkey or no donkey, when the Lord gave Francis more brothers, the huts in Rivotorto became inadequate. In 1211, through the intercession of the Bishop of Assisi, Francis obtained from the Benedictines of Monte Subasio the use of the Portiuncula. In return the friars would pay a modest rent of a basket of fish every year.
Today, in order to see the Portiuncula, we must enter the huge Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels, a papal minor basilica situated in the plain at the foot of the hill of Assisi.
In fact, it is located in the town now called Porziuncola named after the little chapel made famous by Francis. The Basilica was built between 1569 and 1679 enclosing the 9th century Portiuncula. A magnificent paved esplanade, flanked by tall trees, symbolizing the old forest of the Porziuncola, lies before the façade of the basilica with its three entrances. On the pinnacle of the dome there stands a statue of the Madonna in gilded bronze by Guglielmo Colasanti.
The interior plan of the basilica is rectangular and divided into a central nave and two side aisles. It is flanked by 10 side chapels. At the far end, there is a transept and a semi-circular apse. A solemn atmosphere is created by the majestic vaults, by the tall square pillars, and by the white unadorned walls. All these features prepare us to encounter the most precious treasure of the Franciscan movement: the chapel of the Portiuncula where “the Order of Lesser Brothers had had its beginning by the merits of the Mother of God” (ML, IV). Francis had heard that the angels often visited it, so that it used to be called St. Mary of the Angels (St. Bonaventure, ML, II).
This is the birthplace and cradle of the Order of Friars Minor. This is where Francis by divine inspiration had a clear understanding of his vocation. This is where he received Clare of Assisi in March of 1212, making the Portiuncula also the birthplace of the Second Order of Poor Ladies. This is where Francis had a dream in 1216 and obtained the Portiuncula Indulgence, the Pardon of Assisi, approved by Honorius II. General Chapters took place around this chapel, and thus, this is where important decisions were made. (2 Celano 57). And, not least of all, this is where St. Francis died, October 3, 1226.
The Portiuncula is the center of Francis’ love affair. Here Francis’ heart was forever joined to Christ’s.
REFLECTION: Where is the center of my life with Christ?
In 1211 Francis established the Portiuncula as the first Franciscan “place.” He did not call it a convent, for the word convent suggested property. Around the little church in the woods, sprang up huts of woven branches and mud, without furnishings and only sacks of straw to lie down upon. The Portiuncula was the center of gathering for prayer in common and for the singing of praises to the Lord.
In 1216, at the Portiuncula, Francis had a vision in which he obtained from Christ the grace of a complete pardon or plenary indulgence for all those who, fulfilling the requirements for a plenary indulgence, visited the little church. The indulgence was approved and promulgated by Pope Honorius III, who fixed the date and time of the pardon from noon of August 1 to sunset (now to midnight) of August 2 every year. Now, one can obtain a plenary indulgence for oneself or for the souls in purgatory by visiting any Catholic church on those dates and by fulfilling the usual conditions for a plenary indulgence. Since the reform of Paul VI, we can gain only one indulgence per day.
The Chapter in the spring of 1221 gives proof of the expansion of the Franciscan movement. Nearly 5000 brothers, representing many small communities in Europe, participated in it. It is called the Chapter of the Mats because the brothers built themselves shelters made of wicker and rush matting around the Portiuncula since the town could not accommodate so many visitors.
The Portiuncula is located just below the dome of the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels.
EXTERIOR: The front of the chapel was decorated by a fresco by Johann F. Overbeck in 1829, depicting Francis receiving from Christ and the Virgin Mary the Pardon of Assisi or Portiuncula Indulgence. At the base of this fresco is a small rectangular fresco beneath which are the Latin words: “Haec est porta vitae aeternae” (“This is the gate to eternal life”).
The left outside wall includes the tombstone of Peter Catanii, one of the first Franciscans who died on March 10, 1221 when Francis was still alive.
INTERIOR: The interior is austere and simple. Some of the rough stones from Monte Subasio were put in place by Francis himself while repairing this little church. The masterpiece is the six-part fresco of the apse painted by Ilario da Viterbo in 1393, depicting primarily the Portiuncula Indulgence.
Nearby the Portiuncula is the Chapel of the Transitus of St. Francis. Even while respecting poverty of the “place,” Francis permitted the construction of a small cell to be used as an infirmary for the brother who fell ill. This cell was closest to the chapel in order that the sick could have the consolation of listening to the prayers and the singing of their companions.
Here Francis passed the last few days of his life. On the 3rd of October of 1226, feeling that the end was near, he asked to be placed, naked, upon the ground. “Thus laid in the dust, without even his sackcloth, he raised his face, as always, to the sky… but he did not forget to cover the wound in his right side, so that it could not be seen. The companions of the saint wept like men crushed by immense sorrow. One of these ran quickly to bring his tunic and cord, and offered them to the Poor Little one of Christ with these words: ‘I am lending these to you, as to a beggar, and you must take them, in holy obedience.’ Francis was pleased, and felt in his heart the holy happiness of having remained most faithful to Lady Poverty” (St. Bonaventure, LM, XIV).
After the death of Francis, the little infirmary became a Chapel. The external wall is covered with a fresco by Domenico Bruschi: “The death and funeral of St. Francis.” The wooden door is the original one.
What was Francis of Assisi really like? His biographer, Thomas of Celano, wrote a beautiful and clear description of him in Book I, 29:
How handsome, how splendid! How gloriously he appeared in innocence of life, in simplicity of words, in purity of heart, in love of God, in fraternal charity, in enthusiastic obedience, in agreeable compliance, in angelic appearance.
Friendly in behavior, serene in nature, affable in speech, generous in encouragement, faithful in commitment, prudent in advice, tireless in prayer, he was fervent in everything.
Firm in intention, consistent in virtue, persevering in grace, he was the same in everything!
Swift to forgive, slow to grow angry, free in nature, remarkable in memory, subtle in discussing, careful in choices, he was simple in everything!
Strict with himself, kind with others, her was discerning in everything
Francis was the universal brother, a man of peace and reconciliation, the Poverello, the lover of the poor, the troubadour of creation. Yes, all of the above, but Francis was first a mystic, a real contemplative, enamored of the poor and crucified Christ. Francis was not only a man who prayed, but, as Thomas of Celano writes, he was “man become prayer.” The presence of God transfigured him until God made him “another Christ” (Little Flowers, 7).
What were the subjects of Francis’ meditation? Thomas of Celano tells us in Book I, 30: Francis used to recall with regular meditation the words of Christ and recollect His deeds with most attentive perception. Indeed, so thoroughly did the humility of the Incarnation and the charity of the Passion occupy his memory that he scarcely wanted to think of anything else.
The spirituality of St. Francis can be explained by Francis’ imitation of Christ and his love for the humanity of Christ. At the very beginning of the Later Rule, the Rule of 1223, officially approved by Honorius III, Francis states: “The Rule and Life of the Lesser Brothers is this: to observe the Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ by living in obedience, without anything of one’s own, and in chastity.” He desired to imitate the poor, chaste and obedient Christ and to follow Him based on the Gospels. The more he embraced the Gospel the more “the poverty and humility of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Earlier Rule, IX) became the concrete practical plan of his own life.
In three words, how would I describe his spirituality? The crib, the cross and the Holy Eucharist.
For Francis, the Incarnation, God become man, is the means by which God comes to us in humble form. Francis wanted to illustrate the mystery of God’s presence in human flesh, and so, at Christmas in 1223, Francis celebrated the birth of Jesus by recreating the crib of Bethlehem at the church in Greccio in Italy. This scene demonstrates his devotion to the humanity of Christ and His love for the humility of God.
Likewise, Francis saw the humility of the Lord in the mystery of the Holy Eucharist (the Body and Blood of Christ). The Eucharist is an expression of how God “daily humbles Himself as when He came from the royal throne into the womb of the Virgin; … daily He comes down from the bosom of the Father upon the altar in the hands of the priest” (Admonitions 1: 16-18). Francis had a great love for the living Christ offering Himself on the altar for our salvation and reserved among us for our adoration.
The cross: From the beginning of his conversion, Francis was seized by a deep devotion and love for Christ crucified, and his prayer always focused on the sufferings of Christ. Christ’s Passion gave him strength in his own illness and consoled him in his temptations. He even wrote a little devotional work known as the Office of the Passion. His devotion to Christ’s Passion and Death on the Cross is impossible to express in words. But his habitual contemplation of the Cross and love of Christ Crucified are the sources of the ideal of a perfect imitation of Christ.
In September 1224, on Mount La Verna, Christ, in an extraordinary miracle, imprinted the stigmata of His own passion on Francis. St. Bonaventure, biographer of Francis and Minister General of the Franciscans in the 13th century, wrote: “Now fixed with Christ to the cross, in both body and spirit, Francis not only burned with a seraphic love of God, but also thirsted with Christ crucified for the salvation of men” (Major Legend, XIV).
Physically weakened and inwardly moved by becoming one with the wounded Lord in body and soul, Francis left La Verna and sought solitude and seclusion in the hermitage of Montecasale. The immersion in the pierced heart of Jesus becomes for him a lasting and deeply inner experience. In this heart, he finds from then on a place, a source from which he can drink unlimitedly and draw new strength. This experience is depicted strikingly in a painting that is today in the chapel of the hermitage on Montecasale. It portrays the risen Christ who embraces Francis with His right arm and lets him drink from His open side. The touch is marked by a deep interiority. Francis receives it full of awe and assimilates it with his whole being. Even before the spread of the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus by St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, love for the pierced heart of Christ was the center and essence of Franciscan spirituality as is illustrated here (Die Einsiedelei von Montecasale, Sansepolcro 1999, S. 62).
What about Francis’ fascination with poverty as a spiritual discipline? Love of poverty is part of his spirit. Let us use an allegory (as we see in Sacrum Commercium) to describe Francis’ lifelong pursuit of poverty. With it, we also explain the three movements founded by St. Francis. Francis took as his “bride” Lady Poverty, the personification of Perfect Poverty, and they had three children: the first child is the Order of Friars Minor with the charism of poverty and minority; the second child is the Order of St. Clare, co-founder, with the charism of poverty and prayer; the third child is the Third Order of Brothers and Sisters of Penance (1221), a secular order of penitents, with the charism of poverty and penance or conversion. The Third Order Regular developed later from the Third Order Secular. Francis declared unambiguously that absolute personal poverty and corporate poverty was the essential lifestyle for the members of his order. He did not mean mere external poverty, but the total denial of self (Testament).
End of Part II. Please go to Part III.