Francis and the Leper: the growth of the Fraternity

When Franciscans recount the story of Francis and the leper, one might presume that they are telling a story from a common core, perhaps even an official recounting of the story as approved by a Minister General of the Order of Friars Minor. And even if some friars are telling the story from a source different from the “official” record, the different medieval sources used make little difference, yes? Yea… not so much. Every medieval source has its own goal, tone, genre and point of view. And that is especially true in the period beginning some 20 years after Francis’ death (d.1226).

By then the “groups” within the friars had slowly come to the fore and were readily distinguishable. There was no group that was wrong, but then again, each one emphasized one aspect of “the life” they believed Francis wanted for his religious order. These “groups” became sources of history and hagiographic stories about Francis. Each telling of the stories carried their own goals, tone, genre and point of view, ever so slightly shading the account. In its own way, each “source” was essentially battling for the role of custodian of the legacy of Francis. To understand its source, we have to go back into the history of Francis and the early friars. There are many excellent books on the topic. If I would recommend just one, read “Francis of Assisi: The Life and Afterlife of a Medieval Saint” by André Vauchez. It is available on Amazon and Kindle. Vauchez does an excellent job of sorting through the flotsam and jetsam of history and hagiography. Here in this post I will engage in some “hand waving” to give you a sense of the milieu of the day.

“Brother Son and Sister Moon” is as ahistorical storytelling as they come. But it got one thing right – as Francis was not a “company man.” It is clear he did his best to avoid organizing, writing rules, having a formation program, and the minimum of what was expected of a religious order. But then the friars were not a religious order until just before Francis’ death. They were a “religious movement” working off the most general of instructions. It was in 1209 that Francis and two brothers (the only two at the time)  journeyed to Rome to seek an audience in a consistory with Pope Innocent III. That is a story in itself, but Francis did receive the “form of life” from Innocent III. According to the earliest biographer, Thomas of Celano, Pope Innocent addressed the little group and said something to this effect: “Go with the Lord, brothers, and, as the Lord will see fit to inspire you, peach 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 1 Celano 31-32; Anonymous of Perugia 32-36).

The trio returned home and began to attract more followers. Virtually all scholars agree that Francis, at this point, did not envision his group to be more than a small group of men living an evangelical life in common. But there are also no indications that Francis thought too far ahead in any matter at this point in his life. Things just seemed to unfold, signs appeared along the way, and Francis followed the path in faith. And people followed Francis.  Whether he liked it or not, Francis was their leader.

He was not given to organizing. The followers began to arrive. And if they expected to find a uniform, posted rules, a great deal of organization, a formation program, or even someone to sit them down and explain what was expected – they were in for a surprise – as was Francis. He found that religious life and living in community cast him in the role of authority and superior – not something he sought nor desired. The brothers had to watch Francis closely and do their best to catch the drift.

Next week we can look and see how well the newcomers caught on – and the reaction of the first generation of Franciscan brothers.

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