In 1209, St. Francis of Assisi wrote in
simple words a form of life and a rule,
based largely on Gospel texts. Then he
set out for Rome with his group of followers
to seek approval for this way of
life from Pope Innocent III.
Pope Innocent III, who then lived at
the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome,
gave his oral approval to Francis and his
brothers’ form of life. The pope also
granted them permission to go about
preaching popular sermons of an
Today, across the busy thoroughfare
that passes in front of St. John Lateran,
stands an imposing monument featuring
a large statue of St. Francis with a
group of brothers—and lots of pigeons.
The monument commemorates the
founding of the Franciscan movement
that eventually came to include the
Poor Clares, Secular Franciscans and
many communities of Franciscan sisters,
brothers and priests.
On December 8, 2004, Brother José
Rodríguez Carballo, O.F.M., the minister
general of the Order of Friars Minor,
unveiled a plan in Rome outlining his
ideas for celebrating the 800th anniversary
of the foundation of the
Order of Friars Minor.
According to Brother José’s plan, the
observance was to begin in 2006 and
culminate in 2009, the year which actually
marks the eighth centenary of Pope
Innocent III’s approval of that first simple
Rule. To have the celebration of the
Order’s foundation spread out over a
three-year period makes good sense.
Such a founding is always more than
one simple event. Indeed, it represents
a whole succession of events.
'The Grace of Our Origins'
Brother José refers to the blessed events
leading up to the Order’s founding as
“The Grace of Our Origins.” Our Franciscan
“origins” include other events,
such as St. Francis’ embrace of the leper,
his praying before the crucifix at San
Damiano and hearing the words of
Christ, “Francis, go and rebuild my
house, which is falling into ruin.”
Shortly after repairing the Church
of San Damiano, Francis moved on to
another chapel needing repair, the Portiuncula.
According to Brother José, it
was there at St. Mary of the Angels that
Francis “understood his vocation better
and received the gift of brothers, with
whom he set out on the first itinerant
missions.” These events and others
between 1206 and 1208 were all part of
a process that would culminate in the
meeting of Francis and his brothers
with the pope in Rome.
The Centenary Goes Beyond 2009
Pivotal events happened to Francis
even after 1209—even to the hour of
his death in 1226—that are also foundational
to the Franciscan movement.
The list below is somewhat arbitrary,
but helps to round out and complete
the picture of the Order’s founding.
¦ 1212—On Palm Sunday night, St.
Clare joins Francis and other friars at
¦ 1219—Francis goes to Egypt to
convert Sultan Malik al-Kamil. The two
enter into a peaceful dialogue marked
by mutual respect. The sultan gives
Francis safe passage through the Holy
¦ 1221—Francis begins the Secular
Franciscan Order for lay Catholics.
¦ 1223—Revealing his deep devotion
to the Incarnation, Francis reenacts the
feast of Christmas near the town of
Greccio, using an ox, an ass, sheep and
real straw in a manger.
¦ 1224—On Mt. La Verna, Francis
receives the stigmata in mid-September.
¦ 1225—Nearly blind, Francis is cared
for at San Damiano by Clare and sisters,
and composes the Canticle of the Creatures.
¦ 1226—Francis dies at the Portiuncula
on the evening of October 3, surrounded
by his brothers.
'Re-Incarnating' Francis' Spirit
Brother José expressed concern that
those who are Franciscan and who are
celebrating the eighth centenary of the
founding of the Order should not simply
become “satisfied with praising the
works of our predecessors” as if only to
bask in the glory of their stories.
Instead, he insists that we “return to the
essentials of our ‘form of life’ by rereading
it and re-incarnating it in the
cultural reality of today.”
Francis’ example challenges many
beyond the Franciscan family. All of
us, therefore, who desire to make the
spirit of St. Francis come alive in our
own day must go back to the early
1200s and study the inspiring actions
of Francis and his companions so we
can re-create those actions to meet the
needs of our own times. Where Francis
embraced the leper in 1206, we are
called to serve those men and women
most poor and ostracized in 2007.
Where Francis restored broken-down
churches and revitalized the Body of
Christ in the early 13th century, we
must work to renew Church life in the
early 21st century.
Where Francis sought peaceful,
respectful and loving dialogue with the
sultan, we are challenged to replace
walls of distrust and ignorance—
existing today among nations, races,
religions and classes—with a spirit of
respect, love and collaboration.
Where Francis, in the midst of suffering,
composed his joy-filled Canticle
of the Creatures, we try to recapture that
same joyful spirit, as well as a profound
respect for the gift of creation in the
face of our own environmental issues
And to fill out this picture, all of us
who admire St. Francis are challenged
to draw on other key events in the life
of Francis and of his first companions,
and prayerfully consider how we can reincarnate
his spirit to meet the emerging
needs of our times.—J.W.