FIOR (Franciscan Institute Outreach - Malta)

10. Franciscan Schools of thought (1)


10.1. Franciscan philosophy forms part of Mediaeval Christian philosophy. It was born in the Franciscan schools of thought at Paris and Oxford, where the Order of Friars Minor had founded university houses for its students. "It can be established...that, in the primary sources for the history of the Order, the development of studies was regarded as a matter of course. Nowhere can any objection be detected, except that everyone tries - not least Thomas of Eccleston, who values studies highly - to bring them into harmony with fundamental minorite principles. Thus, they adhere to the line which is evident already in the letter of St. Francis to St. Anthony" (K. Esser, "Origins of the Franciscan Order", p. 184).

10.2. Anthony of Padua was born in Lisbon, Portugal, around the year 1195. His baptismal name was Ferdinand. He spent his childhood in a rich family, and was educated in the cathedral school of Lisbon. He entered the Order of Canons Regular of St. Augustine in the monastery of San Vincenzo de Fora, near Lisbon, but later asked to be transferred to the famous monastery of Santa Cruz in Coimbra. There he received solid training in philosophy and theology, especially in Scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers. The rich library of Santa Cruz provided the ideal instrument for his studies. In 1219 he met the first Friars Minor who stayed for some time in Coimbra, on their way to the North African coast to evangelise the saracens in Morocco. On 16 January 1220 these friars died as martyrs in Marrakesh. Their relics were brought to Portugal and venerated in Coimbra. It was at that moment that Ferdinand decided to join the Franciscan Order to go to the missions. He left the Canons Regular of St. Augustine and became a Friar Minor, taking the name of Anthony. But on his journey to North Africa his ship was caught in a storm and he was shipwrecked on the coast of Sicily. From the friars of Messina he learnt that the Order was to meet in a General Chapter on Pentecost 1221. He left for the Porziuncola. Probably he met Francis during the Chapter. A certain frate Graziano, Minister of the Province of Romagna, welcomed him in his province and sent him to the hermitage of Monte Paolo, in order to administer the sacraments to the lay friars of this community. For some months Anthony's wisdom remained hidden from everybody, until he was asked to preach in Forli'. From then on, Anthony led a busy life as preacher, and as "lector" of theology for the friars in Bologna, France and Padua. He was custos in Provence, where he preached against the Cathari. He was also elected Minister of the Romagna Province. He wrote his "Sermones" towards the end of his life, and died near Padova in 1231. Pope Gregory IX canonised him on Pentecost Sunday 1232. Anthony of Padua was the first theologian of the Order, and is a proof of the importance attached to studies in the preparation of preachers when Francis was still alive.

10.3. Although Jacopone da Todi stated: "Mal vedemo Parisi che n'ha destrutto Assisi!" (We do not look favourably upon Paris, because it has destroyed Assisi), St. Francis himself, in his Testament, states: "We should honor and venerate theologians too". It is surprising how the Franciscan spring was not just an evangelical revival according to the simple life of the first handful of friars, but that it developed in such a way as to embrace learned friars who became great philosophers, theologians and mystics. Indeed, by the last decades of the 13th century, the Franciscan Order had become one of the most learned institutions of the time. Many friars were opting for higher studies in the universities. Salimbene of Parma, author of a famous Chronicle, was preoccupied to save his books when the city of Parma was on the point of being ransacked in 1250. Salimbene also mentions the conventual schools which the friars had in many Italian towns.

10.4. St. Bonaventure, in his "Epistula de tribus quaestionibus" (Opera Omnia VIII,332b-333a), states: "If the friars are not to preach fairy tales, but the divine Word, they cannot accomplish this task lest they read; nor can they read, if they do not possess books. Therefore they observe the Rule if they have books in order to be able to preach".

10.5. These expressions are witness to the intimate relationship between study and apostolic preaching in the case of the Friars Minor. Wisdom and sanctity of life went hand in hand, and were the basis of the schools of study in the Franciscan Order.

10.6. The educational system of the mendicant Orders in the Middle Ages consisted in a general education given to all the literate friars, and an advanced education given to the more gifted members of the Orders. The aim of further study was to introduce the friar to the grade of "magisterium", teaching post, in a university. Every Order had its "studia generalia", or general houses of study. The Franciscans and Dominicans excelled in their general "studia". In the case of the Franciscan Order we find schools in all university cities of Europe, particularly in Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, Köln, Bologna, Padua.

10.7. Here we will deal with the two centres of study of the Franciscan Order during the 13th and early 14th centuries, namely Paris and Oxford. We shall briefly present the outstanding figures who became lecturers and philosophers in these university houses.

10.8. The 12th and 13th centuries in Europe were the time of the great universities. Frederick Barbarossa had confirmed the university of Bologna in 1158, and the university of Paris was founded in 1200. The old monastery and cathedral schools, which were the pillars of European culture ever since Carolingian times, were now in decadence, and the university towns were offering new opportunities in a new age.

10.9. In this historical setting we have to understand the importance which the new Mendicant Orders, particularly the Preachers and Minors, were allotting to the study of philosophy and theology. Francis of Assisi was no erudite person himself. He preferred to call himself "simplex et idiota" (simple and unlearned). Yet he did not say no to those friars to wanted to further their studies without extinguishing the spirit of prayer and devotion, and with the aim of acquiring the Spirit of the Lord and his holy manner of working. That is why St. Bonaventure, in his "Epistula de tribus quaestionibus", likens the humble beginnings of the Franciscan Order to those of the Church, which was born of simple fishermen and grew to be enriched with illustrious and wise doctors of faith.

10.10. Francis' followers were not only illiterate and simple men, longing for a life of evangelical renewal. Among his followers, from the very beginning, we notice clerics and learned men, like Sylvester, famous preachers and theologians like Anthony of Padua. After Francis' death the Franciscan movement became part and parcel of the cultural milieu in which it was born. Friars thronged the university cities of Europe; great convents of study were set up in Paris and Oxford; Franciscans became regent masters in the universities; Commentaries on Scripture and on the works of classical philosophy were produced. At the same time, the Franciscan Order was seen as a family of itinerant friars, for whom there was no contradiction between the university chair and the pulpit.

10.11. Francis was not against learning. He was against "curiositas", the avidity of knowing for the sake of knowing, or of using knowledge as possession and domination upon others. He knew that the office of preaching necessitated study of the sacred texts. His disciples of later generations furthered their study to include the realm of philosophy, on the ground that human reason was an indispensable help in proving the truths of faith.

10.12. The quest for learning was also a cause of conflict in the Order. The Spirituals were against studies. Led by Angelo Clareno, they were accusing Elias and Crescentius of Jesi of having introduced many "studia" in the Order, in which the friars were avidly seeking to learn Aristotle and sterile science, and leaving aside prayer and the quest for divine wisdom. If this accusation was true in certain cases, it certainly was levelled unjustly upon an Order which was progressing along the road of apostolic commitment, especially through its evangelic endeavourto preach the Word even in areas which lay far away from Christian Europe.

10.13. A final word concerns our contemporary culture. The Franciscan ideal needs to be incarnated into our own culture, to come to terms with our own way of interpreting reality. This is the permanent challenge which we Franciscans face in order to be relevant as harbingers of the Good News on the threshold of the third millennium.

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



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