Friday, August 9, 2013

Franciscans of the Immaculate--Saint Francis

In my last post I wrote that I would next write about Saint Francis so that we can look at the Franciscans of the Immaculate and see whether they draw their inspiration more from Saint Maximilian Kolbe or from Saint Francis.  To give the spoiler, while I have great respect for this new Congregation I think we will see that they are not Franciscans at all—at least in spirit—but disciples of the Polish Saint who was a martyr of charity at Auschwitz.  And that is not a bad thing at all, it just doesn’t make them Franciscans.  Let me say too, to be fair, while academically I am somewhat of an expert on Franciscanism—my doctoral studies focused on religious movements in 13th-14th century Italy—I am not a Franciscan and have no right to say that this person or movement “belongs” or doesn’t “belong.”  Nevertheless, I do know something—more than most—about Franciscanism.
Francis was born in 1181 in Assisi, the only child (as far as we know) of Pietro di Bernardone.  He was baptized Giovanni (John) but nicknamed “Francesco” (Frenchy or Frenchman) by his father—some sources saying that his mother was French.  Pietro de Bernardone was a successful cloth merchant.   Now cloth—the import/export for resale of silks from the Levant, the manufacture of wool, the weaving of brocades and velvets—was the of the thirteenth century which is to say it was the expanding and lucrative market in which fortunes were made and lost.  Pietro was very successful and the Bernardones were secure in the upper middle class.  Now “upper middle class” is a tricky term; in those days the term was not only financial or even primarily about wealth.  They were bourgeoisie because while they were rich they were not noble.  Many families of the bourgeoisie were richer than the old nobility.  The old nobility had their wealth tied up in land—the urban merchant class had liquid wealth—money and goods for sale.  It often grated on the wealthy that they were not noble and they affected the external signs of nobility—inventing coats of arms for themselves and giving themselves pretentious titles.  They often gave large donations to churches to build family chapels containing burial vaults as the nobility built funerary chapels in cathedrals and monasteries. 
Francis and his friends liked to affect the practices of the old landed families.  When he was about twenty Francis and his friends joined a military expedition against the neighboring town of Perugia.  Francis and his buddies, all spoiled children of parents with too much money to use it wisely, equipped themselves (or their fathers equipped them) as “knights” with horses and armor and set themselves for the glory of war.  What fools.  For all their fancy stuff, these guys were no more knights than they were Martians.  They were the spoiled brats of pretentious families who, unlike the sons of the nobility who were bred to fight, were clueless about the science of warfare.  It was an ignominious defeat and Francis and some of his friends were taken prisoner.  They were lucky they weren’t killed.  They were held for ransom.
About this time Francis became seriously ill.  Some sources imply it was a result of the conditions in which they were held prisoner, others that it was independent of that and was after Francis returned home.  While the illness had physiological dimensions, it seems to have primarily been a nervous breakdown.  Francis’ personality changed drastically during this illness and a slow recovery.  The former party boy became a loner.  He lost his interest in the fast-track lifestyle of his friends.  Instead he began to haunt an old chapel which had fallen into ruins just outside the city walls of Assisi.  He spent long hours wandering through the meadows and orchards that surround Assisi but he always seemed to end up back in this chapel.  It was there that he heard the crucifix speak to him one day: “Francis, rebuild my church that is falling into ruins.”  Obviously, he thought, the church of which Christ is speaking is this chapel of San Damiano and so slowly he began piling up the fallen stones and mortaring them back into place.  Francis, on his rambles through the countryside came into contact with those people who live on the margins of society.  The beggars and the homeless were not permitted to spend the night within the city walls and they slept in barns and sheds or in the open fields.  Probably some sought shelter in the same ruined chapel he was starting to rebuild.  And then there were the lepers.  They were not permitted in the city walls even in the daytime.  They were total outcasts,  picking through garbage for food or old clothes.  Francis began to tend to the sick.  Lepers repulsed him but he knew that they were very image of the crucified—the least of his brothers and sisters to whom Jesus had referred in the Gospel of Matthew. 
We all know the story of how Francis, when confronted by his father for his having given away not only his possessions but some of his father’s wealth, took off his clothes and laid them at his father’s feet and then, naked, turned to the bishop who quickly had him dressed in an old tunic of patched cloth.  This story has long been misinterpreted however.  Francis was not merely renouncing his patrimony to become a beggar but he was embracing a vocation to a particular form of religious life common in those days called “lay hermits.”   Lay hermits were men—the status was limited to men which is why Clare, when she wanted to embrace the same lifestyle had to go to live in a monastery of nuns—who lived in poverty under the protection of the bishop.  They had to be accepted into this status by the bishop but where then given a habit that identified them as hermits—a tunic, usually of mid-calf length, a belt, and a hooded cape called a capuce.  Once accepted by the bishop they had the “right” to beg alms.  They also could preach—not canonical sermons—but what we would call “witness talks” about what the Gospel and teachings of Jesus meant to them.  Lay hermits were not cloistered but usually lived outside the towns or villages where the migrant people and lepers lived.  They often were given the custody of rural chapels or lived in the ruins of monasteries or old barns.  They dedicated themselves to prayer and to this witnessing to the gospel as well as to the care of the sick.  Lay hermits were very common in the 13th century and not only the Franciscans, but the Carmelites and Augustinians, as well as the Servites, have their origins in the lay hermit movement.  Francis was you quintessential lay hermit.   More on this in the next posting. 

No comments:

Post a Comment