Francis and the leper: accounts

In the previous three posts, we reviewed some historical context and background for our consideration of the accounts of St. Francis and the Leper. 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. 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). In the post-Francis world of Franciscan, as noted in a previous post. The intra-Franciscan 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. Each group, consciously or not, promoted their own understanding of Francis in the stories they told, the traits they emphasize, their own goals for the narrative and all that makes hagiography different than history.

That being said, let us focus on the account of Francis and the Leper…but which account? Francis meeting the leper on the roadside during his years after his return from the dungeons of Perugia following the Battle of Colestrada but before his experience at San Damiano? Francis working and living with the lepers at Rivo Torto soon after his return from Rome in 1209? Francis and the brothers working with lepers as the fraternity grew? Or perhaps the account of Francis’ healing of the leper? Or maybe the simple sentence in Francis’ own Testament at the end of his life?

I think that the most recounted story is the encounter with the leper at the roadside early on when Francis was struggling and seemed to oscillate between a previous vision of himself as a noble knight of valor and a not-as-yet clarity of God’s calling. But which version? I would guess that most people have not read the available source materials that tell the story:

  • The Life of St. Francis of Assisi by Thomas of Celano (1C – written 1228-1229),
  • The Life of St. Francis of Assisi by Julian of Speyer (LJS – written 1232-1235; dependent on 1C),
  • The Legend of the Three Companions (LC3 – a compilation of oral stories from three early companions of Francis started in 1244; thought to be original materials plus dependency on 1C and another text, The Anonymous of Perugia)
  • The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul (2C written by Thomas of Celano 1245-1247)
  • The Major Legend by St. Bonaventure (LM – written 1260-1263)

These days popular sourcing comes from the internet. A recent query “st. francis and the leper” returned theses first results

  • A downloadable pdf which ended: “One day, while Francis was riding a horse through the local countryside, he encountered a leper. The legend tells us that Francis, realizing that the leper was a child of God just like himself, and therefore his brother, got off his horse and embraced him.”
  • Franciscan Media post: “St. Francis had a fear and abhorrence of lepers. One day, however, he met a man afflicted with leprosy while riding his horse near Assisi. Though the sight of the leper filled him with horror and disgust, Francis got off his horse and kissed the leper. Then the leper put out his hand, hoping to receive something. Out of compassion, Francis gave money to the leper. But when Francis mounted his horse again and looked all around, he could not see the leper anywhere. It dawned on him that it was Jesus whom he had just kissed.”
  • A posting on Belief.net which is a way-embellished reimagination of the encounter
  • A posting from the Catholic Medical Quarterly which describes the passage briefly – and to it’s credit references 2nd Celano and Bonaventure’s Major Legend.
  • A video excerpt from the 1950 Rossalini film, The Flowers of St. Francis. The scene is captioned: Come la notte Francesco pregando nella selva incontro il lebbroso —or, in English, “How St. Francis praying one night meets a leper.”

Overall there were 11,200,000 returns on the query. I did not read them all.

What do you know about the story? If someone asked to tell them the account, what would it entail? As you can see from just the internet query, there are some differences in details. Which ones are true? Are the differences indicative of the author’s purpose and goal for the narrative. Consider these possibilities:

  • When he encountered the leper, was Francis walking, riding, or praying?
  • What was his reaction: repulsion, horror, fear, or feeling sick?
  • Did Francis hug the leper, kiss the leper, give the leper anything?
  • Did the leper vanish at the end of the encounter?
  • At the end of the encounter was Francis puzzled, joyful, or reaching a new level of despise of self realizing how much conversion remained in his life?

And maybe there is something revealed about ourselves in the details that we include or remember?

By the way, if you would like to read the best English version of the sources, they are available online at https://www.franciscantradition.org/early-sources or in google books. As well the sources are available in hardcopy via Amazon. Search for “Francis of Assis: early documents”

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