2. Writings of St. Francis of Assisi (4)
i. Letter to St. Anthony<
2.36. The "Chronica XXIV Generalium Ordinis Minorum" mentions Anthony from
Lisbon, who entered the Franciscan Order after being a canon regular of St.
Augustine, prompted by the heroic example of Bernard and his companions, first
Franciscan martyrs in Morocco (1220). Anthony, later universally known as
Anthony of Padua, was sent to teach theology to the brothers in Bologna around
the year 1222. In this short note, Francis approves Anthony's academic
vocation, but exhorts him not to extinguish the "spirit of prayer and devotion"
ii. Letter to the Clerics
2.37. This is one of the "eucharistic" documents of Francis. It reflects the
decisions taken by the IV Lateran Council in 1215, and also the papal decree
"Sane cum olim" (1219). The Legend of Perugia, 18, states that Francis showed
great respect for the sacrament of the Eucharist, and often admonished his
brothers to show reverence and care for churches, altars, etc. The Letter to
the Clerics has been handed down in two versions. The first one was found in a
13th century Missal in the Benedictine monastery of Subiaco, with the sign of
the "Thau cum capite", so characteristic of Francis (cfr. Parchment given to
iii. Letter to the Custodians
2.38. There are also two versions of the Letter to the Custodians. The
circumstances of composition are similar to those of the Letter to the Clerics.
The first version was found by Sabatier in the Codex 225 of the Guarnacci
Library. In the letter Francis speaks about the importance of rendering public
adoration to the Eucharist on the part of preachers, on the part of priests who
celebrate the Eucharist and on the part of common Christians.
2.39. Regarding the term "custos" or "custodian", Esser states that "in the
documents of the Roman Curia...we detect a certain complexity in regard to this
office ... The term does not seem to have been used at first in a proper sense
only, inasmuch as the Final Rule prescribes that, in place of an incompetent
minister general, the friars are to elect for themselves another as custos in
the name of the Lord. Thus, the term could apply even to the highest superior
in the Order ... Yet by the time St. Francis wrote his Testament the word had
certainly come to mean a clearly defined office. The provinces by that time
were, obviously, divided into smaller administrative units, headed by a custos"
(K. Esser, "Origins of the Franciscan Order", Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago,
1970, pp. 67-68).
iv. Letter to the Faithful
2.40. First Version: Exhortation to the Brothers and Sisters of the Order of
2.41. Thomas of Celano (First Life of St. Francis), 37, tells us that Francis
gave a way of life to the brothers who formed part of the "ordo poenitentium",
and who wanted to embrace the evangelical life in the world. Kajetan Esser
concludes that this letter, in fact, forms the nucleus for this form of life
given by Francis, and later approved by the Church in the "Memoriale Propositi"
2.42. The text of the letter was discovered by Sabatier in the Guarnacci
Library. Sabatier named the document "Verba vitae et salutis".
2.43. In his study, "Origins of the Franciscan Order", pp. 44-45, Esser gives
us a presentation of the early history of the Order of Penitents, which later
developed into the Third Order. "In the only report which refers to the
brotherhood as being one of penance the Friars Minor call themselves `viri
poenitentiales de civitate Assisii oriundi' [Legend of the three companions,
37]. We will not concern ourselves more deeply here with the problematics of
the Franciscan Third Order of the `fratres et sorores de poenitentia in domibus
propriis existentes'. By reliable testimony it can be traced only to 1221".
2.44. This first version of the Letter to the Faithful has been included in
the new Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order approved by Paul VI in 1978.
2.45. Second version: The Letter to the Faithful has probably had an
evolution quite similar to that of the Earlier Rule of the Friars Minor. This
second version, which is the most developed, is the result of the evolution of
the Franciscan penitential movement. The Letter insists upon the dignified
reception of the sacraments of penance and the eucharist, in an evident attempt
to educate lay persons in the Catholic faith, against the heretical doctrine of
the Cathari. Regis J. Armostrong OFMCap, "Francis and Clare. The Complete
Works", p. 67 (see below for full biographical indication), states: "The second
version of the Letter to the Faithful begins with an emphatic statement
concerning the Incarnation. It may well be a catechetical tool promoted by the
ideas of the Cathari, members of a heretical sect who maintained that Christ
was not God but even less than a man since matter was impure. The Cathari saw
Christ as an angel adopted by God who took on the appearance of a man. They
propagated their doctrine by embracing an evangelical, poor manner of living.
Thus, many aspects of their life resembles that of the Brothers and Sisters of
v. Letter to Brother Leo
2.46. This is one of the two autographs of Francis. It is kept as a relic in
the cathedral church of Spoleto. It originally belonged to the Poor Clares of
Spoleto, who donated it to the Friars Minor Conventuals of Spoleto in 1604.
After the unification of Italy this precious document was lost, and it was only
after 1895 that it was rediscovered and presented as an authentic autograph of
2.47. The Letter is a touching document, which gives witness to the brotherly
concern of Francis for his "pecorella di Dio" Brother Leo. No wonder that the
only two autographs of the saint, namely this letter and the parchment with the
praises of God and the blessing, were dedicated to him.
vi. Letter to a Minister
2.48. The contents of this Letter give a clear indication regarding the
circumstances of its composition. Francis writes to a certain Minister who has
asked him to retire from his office and go to live in a hermitage. It seemed
that the friars were giving him a lot a trouble! Francis answers in a brotherly
spirit. The Minister was to remain in his post and take this decision as an act
of obedience. Moreover he was to accept his brothers and forgive them, even if
they persecuted him.
2.49. The Letter also mentions the Chapter of Pentecost, as the occasion in
which the Ministers convened for decision-making. The Chapter was held every
year, but after 1221 only the Ministers took part in it.
vii. Letter to the Order
2.50. This Letter is known under different headings, such as "Letter to the
General Chapter of the Order". Esser prefers to use the name given by the
manuscript of Volterra, "Epistola toti Ordini missa". Esser also includes a
prayer as a conclusion for this Letter. The prayer starts with the words
"Omnipotens, aeternae", and Esser includes it here because that is where it
belongs according to the Assisi Codex.
2.51. The Letter refers to the state of the Order towards the end of Francis'
life. In 1224 the bull "Quia popularies tumultus" gave permission to the friars
to have an oratory and to keep the Eucharist. This document, together with the
decree "Sane cum olim" of 1220 could have provided the occasion for Francis to
speak about the reverence due towards the Eucharist and the dignity of the
priesthood. The Letter also mentions the saint's faithful observance of the
norm to pray the divine office according to the norms of the Church.
viii. Letter to the Rulers of Peoples
2.52. Luke Wadding discovered this letter in the writings of Francisco
Gonzaga OFM, Minister General of the Order between 1579-1587. In his study "De
Origine Seraphicae Religionis Franciscanae", Venice, 1603, p. 806, Gonzaga
states that John Parenti, who was the first Minister General of the Order
(1227-1232), brought a copy of this Letter from Spain. The authenticity of this
Letter is also proved by the second version of the Letter to the Custodians,
where it is mentioned.
2.53. In this Letter Francis addresses the consuls or leaders of the Italian
communes, and reminds them of their Christian duties. He particularly reminds
them of the duty to provide means for praising God, and to see to it that their
citizens be good Christians. In various instances of Francis' life we notice
that he dealt with political leaders, as in the case of the message given to
Otho IV at Rivotorto (1 Celano, 43), his wish that leaders provide ample food
for the poor on Christmasday (2 Celano, 200) and his meeting with the sultan of
2.54. It could be probable that Francis asked the political leaders to give a
sign for the praises of God (by ringing bells, for example), prompted by the
experience of the "salat" of the islamic "muezzin" in the Orient, where Francis
was in 1220/1221
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Text by Fr. Noel Muscat ofm