FIOR (Franciscan Institute Outreach - Malta)

2. Writings of St. Francis of Assisi (4)

Letters

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" (RegB 10).

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 brother Leo).

St. Francis chasing the devils out of Arezzo
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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 Penitents

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" of 1221.

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 Penance".

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 St. Francis.

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.

The homage of the simple man
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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 Egypt

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

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


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