Francis finished his military adventures and time as a prisoner of war in early 1205. It was during the latter part of 1205 into 1206 that Francis chose to “leave the world.” In subsequent years , Francis’ model of following Christ began to attract other men to join him in the emerging way of life – even as the “way of life” was being discovered by Francis himself. Francis modeled the life, prayed with the brothers, exhorted them from time to time, and slowly the life began to take shape.
The basic shape of the movement was not all that unique in Francis’ day. There were many other penitential and mendicant movements in the beginning of the 13th century in western Europe. – some scholars tallying 130 others. Interestingly, only one of them exists today: the Franciscan. Why? Most scholars hold that it was because of Francis’ insistence on being “Catholic” and formally part of the Catholic Church. There are several theories as to the reason for that insistence. Like most things it is a complex reason, but likely primary among the reasons is Francis’ love of the Eucharist. But whatever the reasons, it is no surprise that in 1209 Francis and some of his brothers journeyed to Rome to seek an audience in a consistory with Pope Innocent III in order to receive formal recognition of his proposed way of life.
In 1209 Francis received formal recognition of his proposed way of life from Pope Innocent III, who approved and said something to this effect: “Go with the Lord, brothers, and, as the Lord will see fit to inspire you, preach penance to all. When the almighty Lord increases you in number and grace, come back to me with joy, and I will grant you more things than these and, with greater confidence, I will entrust you with greater things.” (cf 1C31-32; AP 32-36)
They were approved by the Church for a life of dependence upon God with nothing of their own, a life of humility and fraternity – and a mission of preaching penance! And then promptly went out and did nothing in any particularly intentional way about preaching penance. That is perhaps because there were many barriers to such activities even if done in a popular way in the piazzas of towns and villages. Principal among the barriers for one whose goal was to be a loyal churchman and to be integrated into the life of the church was that the friars needed permission of the local bishop. As long as Francis and his followers remained a local movement in the Assisi area, they only had to turn to Bishop Guido – the one who received the solitary Francis into the folds of the church. But it was the brother’s movement into other dioceses and lands that raised questions.
In 1217 the brothers held an annual meeting (chapter) when Francis decided that there were enough men that they could preach penance and also to fulfill Christ’s command to preach the Gospel to all nations. Francis selected men, to be called “ministers,” to lead groups of brothers outside of central Italy to other parts of Italy: Lombardy and Venetia in the north – even though the friars were unknown there. Boldly, other groups were sent to France, Germany, Hungary, Spain, and other regions beyond the Alps. This was the second missionary wave. At the chapter of 1216, Francis had sent friars to the Holy Lands near Jerusalem under the leadership of Elias of Assisi – a name eventually to occupy a controversial part of Franciscan history. Under Elias’ leadership the group established a presence which, for the most part, has continued uninterrupted to this day.
Yet these missionary and preaching endeavors were very Franciscan – not overly planned, as such journeys had been from the start. The scale, however, was very different. The mission to the Holy Land involved three hundred to four hundred brothers, with an equal number staying in central and southern Italy. With only about 50 brothers near Assisi, Francis’ duties were nicely diluted, Francis felt free to travel abroad himself. With little if any consultation, Francis left and set out for France.
Perhaps you are asking yourself if all these friars – all who need the local bishops’ permission to preach – were sent with letters of introduction to pave their way? There is no evidence of such and there are many stories of the friars being persecuted locally because they were assumed to be like the other 129 groups, many of whom were heretical.
But on Francis’ journey, he encountered Cardinal Hugolino, the papal legate for Tuscany, Lombardy, and the Marche of Treviso. The two had never met before. Hugolino was not unaware of the growing brotherhood of penitents in Assisi with much of his understanding coming from Jacques de Vitry, the recently elected bishop of the Crusader stronghold of Acre in Syria who was already a keen observer of the Franciscans. Hugolino was shocked to hear that Francis had sent his brothers abroad and now intended to abandon the small group left in Assisi. Francis remained adamant; he tried to explain his purpose and protested that his failure to go would shame him before his missionary brothers. The cardinal would have none of it. He ordered Francis to return home and fulfill his major responsibility: leadership of his growing movement. Francis agreed.
Hugolino sensed Francis’ disappointment, which was hardly hidden, and offered as recompense his services as canonical adviser and as advocate at the Curia. Francis accepted the offer and invited the cardinal to attend the next Pentecost chapter at the Porziuncula. Francis seems to have thought that if he could not go to France, then the man who prevented that journey could now help him with his burden at home. Hugolino accepted the invitation. It was to be a key relationship that helped lower many barriers in the years to come.
The cardinal’s reaction to Francis’ decision to abandon Assisi shows that he understood the founder’s central role in his movement. Francis’ “way of life” was still probationary. The movement’s growth in numbers had reached a point where “some” bishops would grow concerned about the brothers’ orthodoxy, submission, and discipline. Francis himself found it ever harder to oversee his now far-flung disciples. Hugolino’s command to return, much as it frustrated Francis, was likely a reaction to these circumstances. But the cardinal’s attendance at one or two Porziuncula chapters signaled a major change in the status of Francis, his movement, and its relations to the hierarchy. The cardinal was to be a new, solemn, and authoritative presence