As noted last week the accounts of Francis and the leper were beginning to “evolve” from the first story that appeared in Thomas of Celano’s first book. Some 20 years later, there are additions being made to the story that seem to be less about Francis per se, and more about Francis’ legacy that should be central to the identity of the Order. Thomas of Celano’s second book was written at the behest of the then Minister General, Crescentius. This leader inherited the results of the leadership of the two previous ministers: Elias of Cortona and Haymo of Haversham. This week we will consider Elias.
Born in Bevilia near Assisi, Elias appears to have been one of the earliest companions of Francis. He seems to have joined the growing fraternity in 1211 within two years of it’s beginning. From the first he was given responsibility for leadership, first in Tuscany, then later (1217) to lead a band of missionaries to the Near East. In 1219 he became the first provincial of the then extensive province of Syria.
When Francis returned from his sojourn to the Middle East, he brought Elias with him. Elias had always demonstrated a great ability to organize efforts and projects among the friars. As such, Francis appointed him vicar-general of the Order in 1221, responsible for the day-to-day administration of the now far flung brothers. Elias was serving in that role when Francis died in 1226. He then became charged with the responsibilities of the moment and superintending the temporary burial of Francis at church of San Giorgio in Assisi.
“Temporary” was a given even at Francis’ death. Pope Gregory IX immediately declared that a major church would be built in Assisi to become the permanent place of Francis’ interment. Gregory, as Cardinal Hugolino was a great patron of the Franciscans and their official Protector. The task to build the new church was entrusted to Brother Elias.
Francis was declared a Saint in a ceremony in Assisi (1228) during which Gregory laid the cornerstone of the church, declaring it to be papal property to be administered by the Franciscans. The basilica as we know it today consists of an upper and lower church. The lower church, holding the crypt of Francis, was completed in 1230.
In the course of the effort Elias, a non-ordained friar, encouraged other laymen to enter the order – an effort well aided by the building project. This brought opposition from many ordained friars who formed one “faction” within the Order. It also raised concerns from the Provincial Ministers that there was an increased centralization of focus and purpose on Elias and the project, a departure into fundraising, and property management. This brought opposition from the zealots in the order, who held that the central charism of the order was poverty.
When Elias became Minister General in 1232, his election was a point of controversy and created a split within the Order. Some of his fiercest critics were the first companions of Saint Francis, such as the “three companions”: Giles, Rufino, and Leo. All of these earlier followers opposed what they saw as an abandonment of St. Francis’ commitment to corporate poverty under Elias’ initiative. It was not just the basilica, it was also the grand convento (friar residence) built next to the basilica.
During his administration, Elias worked to promote the growth of the Order. He dispatched friars to new lands. He authorized the building of large monastic-style residences in the cities, which were to serve as centers of study. This was a departure from the wandering tradition of the Order, with its small and scattered residences or hermitages. This development was to have two consequences. Firstly, it introduced large groups of the growing number of clergy in the Order. This became a source of friction with the local clergy of the cities, as the faithful sought the spiritual services of the friars in preference to their own parish churches. Secondly, there grew a growing distinction between the friars who lived in established communities (convents, thus termed the Conventuals) as opposed to the “Spirituals” (also known as zealots) who strove to follow what they saw as Francis’ original lifestyle and intention.
Elias favored the lay (non-ordained brothers) appointing them to most, if not all, of the positions of leadership – which in Elias’ day became extensive. The Dominicans had organized themselves into 12 provinces in honor of the 12 Apostles. Elias re-organized the Franciscans into 72 provinces reflecting the number of disciples sent on mission to the world. There was significant pushback from the ordained priests of the Order. Throughout Elias’ time in leadership the factions within the Order grew and grew further apart.
The Franciscan historian John Moorman writes: “Elias had an unhappy life. He had neither the qualities nor the ideals to enable him to identify with the inner circle of Francis’ friends. Nor had he the education and instincts which would have put him among the litterati. He was thus a lonely and misunderstood figure.”
An accessible history about the life of Elias of Cortona was published in 2016. It’s title was “The Enthusiast: How the Best Friend of Francis of Assisi Almost Destroyed What He Started.”
After his time as Minister General of the Order, Elias got involved in the political intrigue between the pope and the Emperor. Long story short, Elias ended up kicked out of the Order and excommunicated. Only at the end of his life, through the intercession of St. Clare, was he reconciled to the Church and the Order.
Elias was succeeded by Haymo of Faversham, a priest, academic, and Englishman.