“Gaze upon him, consider him and contemplate him as you desire him.”
Clare of Assisi
Giovanni Bernadone was the son of a wealthy merchant family in thirteenth century Italy. Having served as a cavalryman he returned from the Crusades, having escaped a prison of war. Traumatised by what he had seen in battle Giovanni returned home suffering what was then called a “fever” – probably what we would call psychosis.
Giovanni’s generation returned home with a profoundly altered worldview. Dislocated from conventional mores they saw that they had been used as pawns in wars which had little meaning other than to a rich and powerful elite, tussling with each other for more wealth and power. Their own place in society was evidently of little consequence. The stakeholding elite included the bishops of the Church. So these young veterans of war experienced an exclusion and disillusion that touched every layer of their world – secular and sacred. If a generation of the middle classes struggled with the sense of non-stake-holding, how must it have been for regular, working people, let alone the poor, the elderly and the sick?!
Giovanni, known to his friends as “Francesco” (on account of his French maternal lineage) broke out of the feudal order of mediaeval catholic culture when he heard Jesus’ apostolic call to the Twelve read in church at San Damiano. He heard the call of Jesus as a personal all, demanding personal obedience – a revolutionary hermeneutic!
Graham Faulkner as Francis of Assisi in the Zeffirelli screenplay
“Sanctify yourself and you will sanctify society.”
Francis of Assisi
Giovanni moved out of the city and lived in a ruined church building, which he began to re-build. In Jesus’ instructions in the Gospels Giovanni read a call to bless people, eat and drink with them, minister to the sick and the lepers and proclaim God’s kingdom to them, living all the while in a place of dependence and simplicity. He therefore associated with the poor, the sick and the lepers, begging for his food, and giving whatever was surplus to his meagre needs to the desperately poor.
To the surprise of the establishment many began seeking “Francesco” out, camping with him, learning from him and some choosing to live with him, sharing in his travels and preaching the Gospel as they went. Francesco’s prophetic lifestyle, his simplicity of faith and personal integrity, his joy in worship and his delight in nature inspired a generation. Francesco termed this network his “Little Brothers” who soon became widely referred to as the “happy people”. Francesco’s closest associates persuaded him to meet with the daughter of another powerful family in the region, Chiara Offreduccio. She had been inspired by Francesco’s preaching and, after some consideration, was released to build up a women’s network to complement the all-male society gathering around Francesco. Their numbers soon exploded.
Tuscany – the epicentre of the “mendicant” explosion of the 1200s
The departure of almost an entire generation from the mainstream structures of church and society was truly seismic and spanned Europe. The new centres of gravity for this displaced generation were the Franciscan communities and others which lived along similar lines. Many of these groups and networks were fiercely persecuted by mainstream Christians. Francis’ own church at San Damiano was burned down by local parishioners believing they were “doing God a favour”!
Francesco’s major intersection with the institutional church was in his first visit to Rome when he boldly petitioned Pope Innocent (his Little Brothers were unable to prevent him, despite their efforts). His request was for the Pope to grant his network a dispensation in order to prevent further violent molestation by mainstream Christians. Dominic Guzman (founder of the Dominican order) later met Francesco in Rome and offered him a via media, suggesting a fusion of their networks such as would organise the Franciscans better and unite them more closely with the institutional structures of the Church. Francesco politely declined the offer.
The core leaders of Francesco’s Little Brothers, however, struggled to consolidate a sustainable network in the face of Francesco’s resistance to organisation, institutionalisation and incorporation to allow for corporate ownership of property. Francesco was committed to the “mendicant” way of poverty and dependence. The Little Brothers soon sidelined their founder and Francesco spent the remainder of his years in reclusion in a mountain shelter at La Verna.
Francis of Assisi, as we know him, is an icon of the four streams of the way of love, the way of worship, soul friendship and simplicity. To complement the First Order (the men) and the Second Order (the women) Francesco created an associate membership which he called the Third Order. This interpreted their rule for regular working people with families and jobs who wanted to apply his radical values and spirituality in their own settings. Such was the power of Francesco’s vision and inspiration that those three orders continue around the world to this day.