Francis and the Leper: Fraternity and Factions

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

While Francis was present with them in the years before 1219, the newness and charismatic dynamism of Francis was enough to keep the small group of brothers open to the unfolding vision that God was giving Francis.  They took on no special tasks or roles, rather they committed to a certain way of living the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  But as seen in the vocational questions above, the world and the Church had true needs, and the Pope especially saw in Francis and his brothers a ready reserve of workers for the vineyards of the Lord.

At the end of September 1220, he announced his intention to abandon the leadership of the order.  To justify this unexpected decision, which astonished and disheartened the friars, he pointed to the state of his health.  He had indeed come back sick from the East, where he had contracted trachoma, which would eventually make him virtually blind, and malaria, which racked him with violent pains of the spleen and liver.  But the real reason for his unexpected withdrawal was probably his desire to avoid putting himself into conflict with the papacy or with those friars who were calling for a more precise definition of the mission of the order.

As with most changes in the life of St. Francis, there are a host of modern commentaries that offer reasons why. Some conjectured Francis was upset that clerics, ordained priests, were starting to inject their priestly charism upon the fraternity; hence he resigned in protest. Others offer that he was protesting the increased oversight and intrusion of the Pope into the affairs of the friars and their life. Some have insisted that Francis recognized that this religious movement was becoming a religious order – something he did not intend nor desire.

I think that Andre Vauche has the most likely answer, one that does not overly rely on one biographical or hagiographic source: “In fact, the reality is both simpler and less dramatic. In asking the help of the papacy in 1220, the Poor Man of Assisi was not throwing himself into the mouth of the wolf with the cleverness of an innocent lamb; he was acknowledging that his personal action and energy were no longer sufficient to assure the direction of his fraternity, which was passing through a crisis of growth tied to its change of status. … From the moment when the dream of the founder is shared with others—however purely spiritual one might imagine it to be—a discipline is imposed and soon the rigor of law. To be established, the religious family needs a formal recognition by the hierarchy. To live, it has to have rules of admission, temporal resources, status of members, governance. The acceptance of the rule, under the governance of a leader: such is the principle of unity of every religious family.”

It is not a surprise that “factions” grew within the movement just becoming an official religious order. If you are familiar with the dystopian writings of Veronica Roth (Divergent, Insurgent and Allegiant – all made into movies), the post-apocalyptic Chicago society there are “factions” each emphasizing a trait: Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the kind), Erudite (the intelligent), Abnegation (the selfless), and Candor (the honest).

In the post-Francis world of Franciscan, the factions slowly came 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. One group believed poverty/destitution was Francis’ intent. Another held up obedience – after all the first vow of obedience was (and still is) to the Pope – and topic Francis most often wrote about. Chastity was not the basis of one of the factions.  What about the third group? They were more of the “can’t we all just get along” after all fraternity was paramount. It is 800+ years later and the same discussion continues on.

Some would say these factions eventually become the OFM-Capuchins, OFM-Conventuals, and OFM. A convenient answer, some truth perhaps, but I would suggest that these “factions” continue within each of the Franciscan orders (and there are many…) And it shows in how the friars tell the story of Francis and the Leper – and which one they share and how they understand the meaning of the story.

Next week, with context in hand, we can return to the story/history/hagiography of Francis and the Leper.

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