Francis and the Leper: Growing Pains

…and we continue with some historical context and background for our consideration of the accounts of St. Francis and the Leper.

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 and joined in on the 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.” Broadly speaking, apart from their spiritual gifts, these were “company men.” 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.

Only now the brothers were not able to “watch Francis closely and do their best to catch the drift.” Most had never met 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 de Vitry (Bishop of Acre who encountered the friars and wrote about them in his letters) 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 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.

And then Francis left for the 5th Crusade in 1219, delegating his powers to two vicars during his absence:  Matthew of Narni, who remained in Assisi, and Gregory of Naples, who visited the communities throughout Italy.  Another friar, Phillip the Tall, was entrusted with the care of St. Clare and her sisters, the Poor Ladies of San Damiano.  They were given very few orders or instructions.  This might seem odd, given that religious life in the 13th century was quite ordered and obedience was a topic often written about – even by Francis himself.  However, the friars were not technically an ordo, a religious order – they were still a “religious movement” – albeit, a quite famous and rapidly growing one that had the attention of the Pope and the Roman Curia – both in praise and concern.

When Francis was present, the best that could be hoped for was the brothers would watch Francis closely and do their best to catch the drift.  And Francis was not even present to the brothers in and around Assisi.  By 1220 most of the brothers had never met Francis. By the time Francis returned to Assisi some scholars hold that there were 1200 friars, most in Italy, but also spread out from Spain, England, Germany, Baltic countries, North Africa, Egypt, the Holy Land and places in between.

It was a hodgepodge of boys and men, those there at the beginning, those lately come, serfs, scholars, princes and paupers – and all looking to Francis. And Francis was not there. In his absence the Friars started “getting organized” to the dismay of the earlier followers and the “it’s about time” of those more recently arrived.

When Francis returned he was dismayed and frustrated. In September, 1220, he formally resigned his role as minister of the brothers.

The problems that Francis saw were only indications of deeper growing pains within the community of brothers as they individually and collectively faced a real uncertainty over the very meaning of their vocations.  Were they called to live lives of destitution to witness to the providence of God in the world?  Were they called to commit their lives in charitable activities at the service of the sick, poor, and marginalized?  Were they called to live monastically or as hermits, far from people and the world?  As the feudal age collapsed and people moved to the cities in ever-increasing numbers, were they called to dedicate themselves to pastoral and sacramental activities while seeking to make up for the insufficiencies of the ill-prepared secular clergy?  Were they called to mount popular crusades and missions with compelling oratory to move the hearts of people to penance?

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