By the spring of 1213, four years after the founding of the “order,” Francis’ reputation had risen to the attention of the Italian aristocracy – not just in Assisi but throughout central Italy. The order was beginning to attract men from the higher social classes. Sons of merchants like Francis, sons of the landed wealthy, sons of ruling households, men with established careers in law, music and the arts, and also ordained priests. They joined the already formed group of men from middle and lower backgrounds in muddling through what it meant to follow Christ in the manner of Francis. G.K. Chesterton’s later definition of the Catholic Church – “here comes everybody” – was being lived out in Francis’ day.
The period from 1213 to 1216 is the most obscure period in Francis’s life and also one of the periods of explosive growth in the movement as the brotherhood spread well beyond Assisi. It is perhaps telling that during this time the brothers finally received a set name. The earlier, purely descriptive phrase “penitents from Assisi” seems to have been replaced. By 1216, he had begun to call his followers the fratres minores, which is best expressed in English as the “Lesser Brothers.” This standardization of their name happened in the wake of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) requiring that all religious orders formalize many aspects of their common life – including the name. Another requirement was the regular gathering in formal meetings to pray about and discern adherence to their mission and vision. It is not evident there was a “mission and vision” discernible by anyone save Francis.
One witness we have during this period of new and explosive growth occurred during the summer of 1216. Bishop Jacques de Vitry arrived in the Assisi area from France. One happy impression the time made upon Jacques was the presence of a new religious movement, as yet unknown in France, that was attracting men and women from all classes. These practitioners of a new form of religious life were known, Jacques was told, as the “Lesser Brothers and Sisters.” Jacques captures the novelty of the movement: people dispossessing their goods, living among the poor, and rejecting the social distinctions of the society. Jacques’ description of the movement is more than just Francis and the brothers. He describes a very free-form movement, consisting of men and women who loosely associated with Francis and his brothers but lived lives of penance on their own, who imitated Francis, and sought his advice. These are the kind of pious lay folk to whom Francis addressed his “Earlier Exhortation to the Brothers and Sisters of Penance.” It is clear that this “Franciscan moment” is more than simply the forming of a religious order.
De Vitry reported that the members of this new movement spent their nights in prayer and vigil and that during the day they went from village to village and town to town seeking souls for Christ. Wherever a group of the brothers arrived, others wanted to join them. All the clergy, he said, including the pope and cardinals, held them in high esteem. According to Jacques, Francis’ followers could be found in Tuscany, Umbria, and the kingdom of Naples.
How many friars joined the fraternity in those years? It is impossible to say, but we do know this: in 1217 the annual meeting (called a “chapter”) made the decision to send out missions across the Alps into northern Europe, the Baltic states, and to the Crusader States in the eastern Mediterranean. Within Italy, six provinces were established; outside of Italy, five provinces were established: Spain, northern and southern France, Germany, and Syria. Some scholars have written that the number of brothers exceeded 700 men.
Ten years prior Francis was a lost and searching soul increasingly on the margins of life in Assisi. Now he had become a religious figure of note in central Italy, and the increasing range and number of brothers was spreading his reputation and fame. It was not, for him, a happy situation: even Jacques noticed that the “Lesser Brothers,” no doubt imitating their leader, were “grieved, indeed troubled, to be honored by the clergy and laity more than they wished.” Growth was aided by Francis’ difficulty in turning down those who came to him asking to join. He had no training as a preacher or administrator, much less as a novice master. Now the brothers were living and wandering far from Assisi – and far from the example of Francis. What it meant to be a “Franciscan” was never terribly clear when Francis was available as a model. This vague and fluid religious order would have to begin to tackle its own growing pains.
From the beginning, Francis accepted new recruits who were willing to seek Christ. Jacques himself tersely commented that “he admitted everyone indiscriminately.” When Francis was challenged about his lax admissions policy and the absence of any spiritual training for his recruits, he replied, as was his usual habit, with a slightly off-color parable. There was, he said, “a country woman who had become the lover of a great king, and by him she had a son. Eventually, as the son grew up, she went to the king, who admitted the paternity and arranged for the boy’s support. Francis went on to say that since God had impregnated him by his Word and given him many spiritual sons, God himself too would have to provide for them.” And perhaps that is at the core of being Franciscan – radical dependence upon God.