FIOR (Franciscan Institute Outreach - Malta)

6. History of the Franciscan Movement (1)

Preliminary Note

2.1 The history of the Franciscan Movement covers a long period of eight centuries. It is impossible to cover all the relevant material of Franciscan history in a few pages. The bibliographical indications will certainly help the reader to further one's knowledge in any particular theme or historical event. Here we will only present the most general idea of Franciscan history. One has to understand that, without a basic knowledge of the history of the Middle Ages in Europe, and particularly without a basic knowledge of Church history, it is not possible to form clear ideas about the historical unfolding of the Movement initiated by Francis of Assisi. Keeping all this in mind, we shall now proceed to give an overall view of the history of the Franciscan Movement, from the death of St. Francis in 1226 till 1517, the year which marks the division of the First Franciscan Order into two separate branches, the Conventuals and the Observants. Unfortunately, we cannot enter into the equally long and interesting history of the Second and Third Orders.

The burial crypt where the remains of St. Francis rest


From St. Francis (1226) to the Generalate of St. Bonaventure (1257-1274)

2.2. Francis of Assisi died on 3 October 1226 at the Porziuncola. The following day, 4 October, his mortal remains were carried to Assisi, and temporarily buried in the church of San Giorgio. His Vicar, Brother Elias, wrote an encyclical letter to the Order, in which he announced the sad news of Francis' death.

2.3. Brother Elias had been Vicar since the Chapter of Pentecost of 1221. During the Chapter of Pentecost of 1227, on 30 May, he was replaced by Giovanni Parenti, who was Minister Provincial of Spain, and who became the successor of St. Fancis as Minister General of the Order of Minors.

2.4. During the same year, on 19 March 1227, Cardinal Hugolino, Protector of the Order, was elected Pope, and took the name Gregory IX. One of his first priorities was to render glory to Francis. On 29 April 1228 he issued the Bull "Recolentes", in which he announced that it was his intention to build a "specialis ecclesia" in honour of Francis, where his mortal remains would be enshrined. Brother Elias was nominated as architect to direct this immense task of building a burial crypt and a monastic church.

2.5. On 16 July 1228 Gregory IX solemnly canonised St. Francis in Assisi, and on 19 July issued the Bull of canonisation "Mira circa nos". In the same period he placed the foundation stone of the new basilica, which he declared to be the property of the Pope, and asked Brother Thomas of Celano to write an official biography of St. Francis.

2.6. In 1230 the burial crypt or lower basilica was ready. The relics of St. Francis were transported to the new church on 25 May 1230 during a solemn procession. Brother Elias hastily buried the relics in this new church, which Gregory IX declared "caput et mater" (head and mother) of the Order of Minors.

The remains of St. francis as seen in 1978

2.7. During the General Chapter of Pentecost 1230, Brother Elias tried to take into his hands the government of the Order, but the friars re-elected Giovanni Parenti. A delegation composed of, among others, Anthony of Padua, went to Rome and asked Gregory IX for an authentic interpretation of the Rule and Testament of St. Francis. The Pope answered with the Bull "Quo elongati" (28 September 1230), in which, among other things, he declared that the Testament did not bind the friars to observe it in conscience, and that the friars were authorised to have a "nuntius" and "spiritual friends" in order to provide for their daily needs, as the Later Rule states, but that the friars were not to possess anything, but only make an "usus pauper" (use according to the vow of poverty) of what they received.

2.8. In the General Chapter of Rieti, 1232, Brother Elias was elected Minister General. He had finished building the basilica of St. Francis. The huge complex also included a large "conventus" for the friars (Sacro Convento), and a papal residence.

A suggestive view of the Basilica of St. Francis

2.9. Elias was a man of government. He was a lay brother, but took to heart the spreading of the Order. He gave permission to built large conventual churches and friaries in the cities, encouraged the centres of study of the Order, especially in Paris, and sent friars in the missions of the Order.

2.10. During this time the residences of the friars began to be distinguished between "loca conventualia" and "loca non conventualia", according to whether they were large friaries in the cities or simple hermitages in the mountains. The conventual churches were to acquire various privileges as time went on, such as the right of burial, the choir for the chanting of the divine office, rights of preaching, etc. This would, in the end, create tensions between the friars and the secular clergy, which are already evident in the Bull "Nimis iniqua" of Gregory IX (1231). During this same period the friars began to express the Franciscan ideal in differing ways, according to their way of life or residences. The friars of the Community tended to live in the large friaries, to encourage studies and preaching. They observed the Rule according to the interpretations given from time to time by the Pope, and were normally chosen to govern the Order. The friars known as Zelanti, later on, Spirituals, preferred the hermitages and wanted to observe the Rule spiritually, and more strictly. These two tendencies were to play a vital role in the unfolding of the Order's history from the late 13th to the 15th centuries, but they were already present in a subtle way during the first half of the 13th century.

The papal cloister behinf the basilica of St. Francis

2.11. Although Elias was highly competent as a man of government, he was to end in disgrace. During his generalate (1232-1239) he never summoned a General Chapter, used despotic means, especially through the visitators he sent in the provinces. The Franciscan Masters of the university of Paris tried to find a remedy for the scandals he was causing by his attitude. Alexander of Hales, Jean de la Rochelle, and Haymo of Faversham succeeded in making Pope Gregory IX summon a General Chapter in Rome on 15 May 1239, in which Elias was deposed as Minister General. As a result Elias joined forces with the emperor Frederick II and was excommunicated by the Pope and expelled from the Order. He retreated with some of his faithful followers in Cortona, where he died in 1253, reconciled with the Order and with the Church. He is buried in the church of San Francesco in Cortona.

2.12. The next Minister General was Alberto da Pisa (1239-1240), Minister Provincial in England. After his death Haymo of Faversham (1240-1243) was elected Minister General. He excluded all lay brothers from holding posts of government in the Order. The process of clericalisation of the Order was underway.

The portico of the large "conventus" - Sacro Convento

2.13. The next Minister General was Crescenzio da Jesi, from the Marche region in Italy (1243-1247). On 14 November 1245 Pope Innocent IV promulgated the Bull "Ordinem vestrum". In it he gave authority to the "nuntius" to hold money on behalf of the friars not only for necessity, but also for convenience. The ownership of the Order's possessions remained in the hands of the Pope unless the donor expressly reserved for himself the right of ownership.

2.14. During the General Chapter of Genoa (1244) Crescenzio asked the friars who had known Francis personally to hand in their written memories to him. On 11 August 1246, the three companions, Leo, Rufino and Angelo, from the hermitage of Greccio, sent a letter to the Minister General, together with the material they wrote ("florilegium"). During the same time Crescenzio asked Thomas of Celano to write a second biography of St. Francis, which was ready the following year. Celano certainly made use of the documentary evidence of the three companions. Although this evidence is lost, Franciscan scholars have tried to trace it in various late 13th century compilations (L3S, LegPer, AC, SpecPerf), as well as in 2 Cel (see lecture Sources St. Francis). In 1242 the four Masters of the university of Paris, Alexander of Hales, Jean de la Rochelle, Robert of Bascia and Eudes Rigaud, wrote the "Expositio Quatuor Magistrorum super Regulam Fratrum Minorum", a famous commentary on the Franciscan Rule.

A graphic rendering of the "Sacro Convento"

2.15. The next Minister General was Giovanni Buralli from Parma (1247-1257). He came from the Zelanti or Spiritual group of friars, but he was not against studies in the Order. It was during his generalate that Thomas of Celano wrote the Treatise on the Miracles of St. Francis (1252), that Clare of Assisi died at San Damiano (11 August 1253) and that Pope Alexander IV declared her a saint (15 August 1255).

2.16. Giovanni da Parma was a very humble man. He travelled on foot to visit the friars. He was also a great preacher. He held two General Chapters, one in Genoa (1251) and the other in Metz (1254), because Giovanni had insisted that the Chapters be held alternatively north and south of the Alps. During this Chapter the Minister General refused the request to draft new laws for the Order, and insisted that it was important to observe the already existing ones.

2.17. In August 1246 Pope Innocent IV issued the Bull "Quanto studiosus", in which he gave the friars permission to appoint "procurators" on their behalf, without due recourse to the Cardinal Protector, to buy, sell and administer all goods pertaining to the friars. The Pope reserved only the principle that the Church had the property of the friars.

2.18. Giovanni was a holy man, but his adherence to the group of the Spirituals was the cause of his resignation in 1257. The Spirituals were being shown as followers of the writings of the abbot Joachim of Fiore (1132-1220), who had been a Cistercian monk, and afterwards retreated to the abbey of Fiore in Calabria. He was author of various apocalyptic writings, which proclaimed an age of the Holy Spirit, when the Antichrist would appear and the Church would be reformed by two religious Orders, living in apostolic poverty. This doctrine fitted exactly in the new evangelical revival of the Friars Preachers and Friars Minor, and many were interpreting it in this way. The Franciscan Spirituals were no exception. One of them, Gerard from Borgo San Donnino, in 1254, wrote a treatise called "Introductorius in Evangelium aeternum" (Introduction to the everlasting Gospel), which was attacked as being heretical by the secular masters of the university of Paris. The mendicants at the university fell under heavy criticism. Bonaventure was declared "magister regens" of the Franciscan school, as Thomas Aquinas had been for the Dominican school. But the turbulent state of affairs was an impediment for any advancement of the mendicants in the university. Gerard's work was condemned by the Anagni commission. Giovanni da Parma himself was being pressured into resigning from the post of Minister General.

2.19. On 2 February 1257 the Pope called a General Chapter at the Aracoeli friary on the "campidoglio" hill in Rome. Brother Giovanni was asked to resign, but he was given the choice to propose his successor in the person of Bonaventura Fidanza from Bagnoregio, a Master in the university of Paris. Giovanni was then sent to the hermitage of Greccio, and died in 1289.

2.20. Bonaventure was born in Bagnoregio in 1217. He studied in Paris, where the friars had a chair in the university, after Alexander of Hales had become a Franciscan in 1235. As Minister General Bonaventure is sometimes known as "the second founder of the Order". He possessed unique qualities of government, coupled with wisdom and holiness. On 23 April 1257 he wrote an encyclical letter to the friars, addressing some of the most important issues of their life. He saw to it that the friars would be prepared for apostolic ministry through study, but at the same time, he insisted about the style of poverty which should characterise their life. In 1259 he spent a period of retreat on La Verna, after which he wrote the famous mystical treatise "Itinerarium mentis in Deum". During the General Chapter of Narbonne (1260) he gave the Order its first General Constitutions. The same Chapter asked Bonaventure to write a new biography of St. Francis. The "Legenda Maior S. Francisci" was ready and presented to the Chapter of Pisa in 1263. In 1266 a decree of the Chapter of Paris ordered the destruction of all other biographies preceding the LegMaj. The LegMaj was probably a political tool in the hands of Bonaventure, in order to reconcile the Community with the Spirituals. Bonaventure also defended the mendicants from the unjust attacks of the secular masters of Paris, especially in his work "Apologia pauperum" (In defence of the poor), written in 1269. He was made cardinal bishop of Albano in 1273 to pave the way for the Council of Lyon. He died during the Council, on 14 July 1274, and was declared saint and doctor of the Church by two Franciscan Popes, Sixtus IV (1482) and Sixtus V (1588).

© copyright FIOR-Malta
Text by Fr. Noel Muscat ofm



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