The time of the general chapter drew near, of that chapter which became so celebrated by the number of religious which attended it, and by many other marvellous circumstances.
Before its assembling, the holy Patriarch proposed to go to Perugia, to confer with the cardinal protector, who was living there, on the affairs of the Order. Wading states, on good authority, that Saint Dominic was there at the same time, and that they had several deliberations together with the cardinal, who had a like esteem for both.
One day when they were in serious conversation on the affairs of the Church, the cardinal asked them whether they should consider it advisable for some of their members to be raised to ecclesiastical dignities; “for,” said he, “I am persuaded that they would have no less zeal for the glory of God and the salvation of souls, than those bishops of the early ages of the Church, who, although in great poverty, animated by ardent charity, fed their flocks with salutary instructions and the example of a good life.”
After a contest of humility between the two patriarchs, as to who should speak first, Dominic, urged by Francis to take the lead, said to him: – “You excel me in humility, and I will excel you in obedience.” He then gave the cardinal this answer: – “My lord, my brethren may well consider themselves as holding a very elevated rank. What is there more honorable than teaching others from the Evangelical pulpit? What should well-thinking minds desire more than to be employed in defence of the faith, and to combat the enemies of the Church? For this reason I strenuously desire that my brethren may remain as they are, and I will keep them so as long as I can.” Francis made the following reply: – “My lord, my brethren have received the appellation of Minors, in order that they might never have the presumption to become great. If it be your intention that they shall bear fruit in the Church, leave them in their vocation, and never permit them to be raised to prelatures.”
The cardinal was greatly edified by their answers, and highly commended the humility of their opinions, but he did not therefore change his views. He thought, on the contrary, that such ministers would be most useful in the Church, considering the corruption of the times.
The Church has since followed the opinion of this eminent dignitary, having made many bishops and cardinals from the two orders, and several have been even elevated to the sovereign pontificate.
But the Friars Preachers and the Friars Minor, who have preserved the spirit of their vocation, have never had any other feelings than those of their holy patriarchs on the subject of ecclesiastical dignities. They have refused them as long as they could, and those who have accepted them, have been compelled to do so by superior authority, which they could not be dispensed from obeying.
Brother Leo, the companion and confessor of Saint Francis, who was at Perugia, and who assisted at all the conferences, says, that they spoke much on the propagation of the faith and the salvation of souls; that, having made reciprocal inquiries into the peculiarities of their respective orders, Dominic proposed to Francis to unite them, and make but one order, in order that the difference of the Institute should not divide those whom the intimate friendship of their fathers had closely united. To this proposition Francis replied: – “My dear brother, it has been God’s will that our orders should be different, the one more austere than the other, in order to their being by this variety better adapted to human infirmity, and to give an opportunity to such as could not bear a life of very great austerity to embrace one which was somewhat milder.” Leo adds, that they took steps for maintaining permanent agreement between the two orders; and, after having mutually praised their congregations, they recommended to their companions who were present, reciprocal respect and friendship for each other; that Dominic requested Francis to give him his girdle, which was a cord with large knots; and, having obtained it after many entreaties, he wore it during the remainder of his life under his habit, as a bond and perpetual symbol of the charity which so intimately united them.
Francis having discussed with the cardinal protector all the affairs of his Order, left Perugia to return to Saint Mary of the Angels. As he discoursed on the road with his companion Leo, on the virtue of humility and entire abnegation of self, he said in a moment of fervor:
“My dear brother, I do not believe myself to be a Friar Minor, and, in truth, I am not one, unless I can bear humbly and with entire tranquillity of mind, all that could happen to me under circumstances which I can figure to myself. I suppose, then, that my brethren came to seek me, with great respect and confidence, to assist at the general chapter which is about to be holden, and solicit me to preach at it. If, after having exhorted them in such terms as God shall have inspired me, they were to rise up against me, and manifest openly that they hold me in aversion, saying: – ‘We will no longer have you to govern us; we are ashamed of having such a man as you at our head, who has neither learning nor eloquence, who is simple and ignorant, with very little prudence and experience; therefore, in future, do not have the arrogance to call yourself our superior.’ If they were to put other affronts upon me, and to drive me ignominiously from the assembly, I should not consider myself to be a true religious, unless I were to receive all this as patiently and with equal serenity of countenance as I should receive those who would load me with praise and honor.”
To this he added: “Assuredly, places of honor are very dangerous to salvation, not only from the vainglory which is to be feared, but likewise from the government, which is very difficult; whereas, in opprobrium, there is nothing but merit to be acquired. If I am removed from the headship, I shall be exempt from being accountable to God for a great number of souls. Prelature is a station of danger, and praise brings one to the very edge of the precipice. In an humble, lowly station, there is much to be gained. Why, then, do we look to and prefer what is dangerous to what has so much more spiritual advantage, since it is for this that time is given to us?” These are sentiments which should be well considered by persons in every station of life, whether they aspire to honors, or fear the losing of them. The profound humility of Saint Francis does not admit of a doubt of his having gone through the trial which he here supposes; and even in putting it thus hypothetically, he strengthened in his mind the virtue requisite for supporting it in reality. These sorts of suppositions, which might be stumbling-blocks to the weak, are very useful to those who aspire to perfect humility.
The Friars Minor assembled for the general chapter of their Order at the Convent of Saint Mary of the Angels, or Portiuncula, near Assisi, at the Feast of Pentecost, and their number exceeded five thousand. This circumstance is truly amazing, particularly when it is recollected that some remained in their respective convents; that the Order had only existed ten years since its institution; and that the novices had always been admitted by the Founder himself, except since the chapter of the year 1216, when he had given the provincial ministers power to receive them. It is nevertheless certain, that more than five thousand Friars Minor assisted at this celebrated chapter: the fact is attested by four of Saint Francis’ companions, who were present at it; by Saint Bonaventure, who lived with them and by many others.
What can be said on this subject, except that it pleased God to recall in some measure, by the rapid establishment of this Order, the wonderful spread of the Gospel by the preaching of the Apostles? Saint Augustine says that the Apostles were as dark clouds from whence lightning and thunder emanated; that, by their poverty and their simplicity, they shone in the eyes of the universe; that, by the powerful virtue and splendor of their admirable actions, they overthrew everything which was opposed to the empire of Jesus Christ, and, in a short time, christianized the world. May we not also say, that Francis and his companions, men poor and simple, were a representation of the Apostles; that Jesus Christ rendered them powerful and eminent in words and works, to bring back sinners to His empire, and that by them, in an inconceivably short period of time, an immense number of Apostolic men was collected and formed who embraced the same Institute, in order to exercise the same ministry? What assists us in comprehending that in ten years it had been possible to build a sufficient number of houses, to contain so many thousand men is, that they were poor and without any income.
The religious of this chapter were lodged in huts made of matting, erected all round the Portiuncula convent, from which this chapter has been called the Chapter of Mats. They were there separated from the world, but perfectly united among themselves, all lovers of watching and fasting after the example of their Father; zealous in prayer and in the recital of Psalms, in spiritual reading, and in readiness to execute all works of mercy, and having no other hope than that of the happiness of a future life.
Cardinal Ugolino, as Protector of the Order, came to preside over the chapter, and all the religious went in procession before him. He opened the assembly on Whitsunday the 26th of May: he officiated pontifically, and preached; and he deemed it his right to inspect the ranks of this holy army of the Lord, in which he found everything in good order. These soldiers of Jesus Christ were not seen wandering about; but all were collected in groups, a hundred in one spot, sixty in another, more or less, and conversing on holy subjects, on their own salvation, or on that of their neighbours, and on the means of reforming the morals of a corrupt world.
The cardinal, delighted with so interesting and unusual a scene, said to those who followed him, as Jacob had when he met the angels on his way: “Truly, this is the Camp of God.” We might also apply to it what Balaam could not prevent himself from saying, when he saw the Israelites encamped: “How beautiful are thy tabernacles, O Jacob, and thy tents, O Israel!”
Francis, as a general in his camp, went through all the tents; he encouraged his troops to fight valiantly the battles of the Lord, assuring them of receiving assistance from on high, animating some, and fulfilling in every place the duties of a vigilant chief.
He assembled all his brethren, and addressed them in an excellent discourse, of which the following embraces the subject: “We have promised great things; and we have been promised greater. Let us keep the first, and let us sigh after the others: Pleasure is of short duration; the penalty is eternal. Sufferings are light; glory is infinite. Many are called; but few are chosen. Each one will receive according to his deserts.”
On this beautiful text he exhorted them, in the most forcible and moving terms, to the practice of virtue and to the duties of a religious life; urging them, above all things, to implicit obedience to our Holy Mother the Church, to a contempt of the world, to purity of mind and body, to a love of holy poverty and humility, to charity, to concord and mildness, to continued watchfulness, and to an ardent zeal for the salvation of souls. He recommended to them to pray for all the faithful, and particularly for the exaltation of the Holy Roman Church, and for the benefactors of the Order. After which he positively forbade them to have any anxiety whatever for anything concerning the body, and he quoted to them these words of the psalmist: “Cast thy care upon the Lord and He shall sustain thee.” He had conformed strictly to the rule he laid down, for he had made no provision for the chapter.
Saint Dominic, who, out of friendship for Saint Francis, had come with six of his companions to this assembly and who heard this discourse, was fearful lest what he said and did was perhaps an exaggeration, and that it might seem to be tempting the Lord, if some steps were not taken for procuring food for so great a multitude. But he was of a very different way of thinking shortly after when he saw arrive from Assisi, Perugia, Spello, Foligno, Spoleto, and many more distant towns, ecclesiastics, laics, nobles, burgesses, and persons of every state of life who brought with them not only what was necessary for the subsistence of such vast numbers, but pressed forward to serve the religious themselves with an emulation of humility and charity.
So marked an interposition of Providence in behalf of these Evangelical poor struck the Patriarch of the Friars Preachers with astonishment; and it is believed that it suggested to him the intention which he carried into execution the year after, when he assembled the first general chapter of his order at Bologna, in which it was resolved that the Friars Preachers should adopt the system of entire poverty, and consider it as the fundamental rule of their order, renouncing forever all property in land, or revenue arising therefrom, even what they had at Toulouse, which the Pope had confirmed to them by his first bull. In dying, he recommended to them this Evangelical poverty as the foundation of their institute; and lest this foundation should be undermined by the prudence of the flesh, he forbade in the strongest terms, on pain of the curse of the Almighty, and of his also, the introduction into the order of any temporal possessions.
May Evangelical poverty that made so strong an impression on the mind of Saint Dominic teach the faithful never to be mistrustful of the care of Divine Providence!
However, we are not to look for, or expect miraculous assistance; this is not in the ordinary course of God’s dispensations; but after doing all that depends on ourselves, provided there be no irregularity on our part, and that our desires are within the bounds of moderation, without any impatience as to the event, we may assure ourselves that, according to the words of the wise man: “No one hath hoped in the Lord and hath been confounded.”
Several prelates, and other persons of quality, who had been invited by Cardinal Ugolino to the Chapter, as to a grand and admirable sight, had the curiosity to examine everything minutely. They saw the religious in their miserable huts, coarsely dressed, taking but a very small portion of nourishment, sleeping on mats spread on the earth with a log of wood for a pillow. They noticed at the same time that they were quite calm, that joy and concord were universal amongst them, and that they were entirely submissive to their saintly founder. Admiring all these things, they said to each other: “This shows that the way to heaven is narrow, and that it is very difficult for the rich to enter into the Kingdom of God. We flatter ourselves that we shall eke out our salvation in the enjoyment of all the comforts of life, having our ease in all things, while these people, to save their souls, deprive themselves of everything, mortify their bodies, and are notwithstanding not without great apprehension. We should like to die as they will, but we do not choose to live as they live.” Similar reflections converted a great number of persons, and more than five hundred took the habit of the Friars Minor during the chapter.
The holy Patriarch found that many of his religious submitted themselves to extraordinary mortifications, which either shortened their days or rendered them useless to the Order by the illnesses which were the consequence. He therefor publicly forbade them, by the virtue of holy obedience, to make use of such means, and ordered all who had coats of mail, iron girdles, or other instruments of mortification, to leave them off and deliver them up to him. This was done, and some most extraordinary modes of inflicting self-punishment were discovered. The number of coats of mail and iron girdles which were delivered up were more than five hundred; they were put into a heap, and the Patriarch thought proper to show them to the cardinal and his company, for their edification. They were astonished on witnessing so great a love of such penitential austerities, in men of such pure and holy lives. In their presence he again forbade his dear brethren indiscreet mortifications, which are injurious to the body; representing to them that they either hasten death, or throw the body into such a state of languor and weakness, as makes it unfit for spiritual exercises, or an impediment to the practice of good works. Oh, fortunate and happy times, when it was necessary to check such failings!
God made known to Francis, in a revelation he had during the sitting of the chapter, that the Prince of Darkness, alarmed at the fervor of the new Order, had collected thousands of demons, to concert together on the means of bringing it to ruin; and that one of them, more astute than the rest, had put forth an opinion which it had been decided should be acted upon. It was, not to attack the Friars Minor openly, but to have recourse to artifice; to induce them to receive into their society nobles, learned men, and youths. Nobles, in order by their means to introduce effeminacy in which they had been brought up; learned men, who, proud of their learning, should have a contempt for humility; and youths, who, being weak and delicate, would greatly relax in the regular discipline.
Religion teaches us that there are demons, and that they are subordinate one to the other; that God, when it pleases Him, permits them to tempt mankind, and even torment them corporally; and Saint Paul speaks of “the Prince of the powers of this air.” We know what Satan did to holy Job; and what our Lord said to Saint Peter: “Satan hath desired to have you, that he might sift you as wheat;” and what He stated elsewhere: “When an unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he taketh with him seven spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there.” Thus we need have no difficulty in believing that the prince of darkness had collected such a number of demons against Saint Francis and his Institute. Saint Gregory says, that they attack with greater violence those in whom they find a greater disposition to holiness, and that the principal demons are employed in the attacks on the bravest soldiers of Jesus Christ. What must be the wrath of these malignant spirits against the apostolical men, whose lives are wholly employed in effecting the salvation of souls!
Francis had already been made aware by the words of a young female who was possessed, as Saint Bonaventure relates, that the devils, irritated by the injury he did them, had assembled against him, and then he merely said, as Paul did: “I am the stronger.” But he was alarmed when he learnt from God Himself the increase of their rage. He retired for two days to an oratory to pray for grace to be able to escape from their snares, and that he might be protected by good angels. His prayer gave him fresh courage; he returned to the chapter, and addressed his brethren with energy on the watchfulness with which it was incumbent on them to work out their salvation, without placing too much reliance on the holiness of their state of life, from which they must be apprehensive lest they should fall off by the machinations of their enemy. “You know,” he said, “the examples we have; Satan fell from Heaven, and drew with him a number of the angels; he caused Adam and Eve to be driven from Paradise; he prayed to be allowed to sift the Apostles as wheat is sifted; and he did so with such effect, that one of them betrayed his Master, another denied Him, and all fled when He was captured.”
The Saint then explained to them what God had made known to him of the designs of the devil; and in order that the enemy’s malignity might fall on himself, he warned them to pay more attention in the reception of advices to the sentiments of the mind than to the advantages of birth; to be very careful that the learned whom they should admit, should be devoid of pride, and were fit to edify others by their humility, and to be careful that such as joined them in the flower of youth, should be informed of all that they would have to practice in future.
For the holy man did not think it requisite, in consequence of Satan’s malice, to prohibit noblemen from joining his Order, since their example has great influence, and the elevated sentiments which are found in that class, render them more fit to do great things for the service of God. He did not wish to drive away the learned, since learning is necessary for the exercise of the functions of religion, and since those men who join the knowledge of sound doctrine to an Evangelical life, are most instructive teachers in the Church, for the dissipation of error and the establishment of virtue. He also desired that they should receive such young men as should present themselves in the tenderest age, “because it is good for man to bear the yoke from his youth:” to leave the world, before having any knowledge of it, except through the lights of the Church, and to offer themselves as pure victims, rather than to bring to Him the remains of a heart stained by the passions; and, moreover, our Saviour said to His disciples, who turned away the children who came to Him: “Suffer them, and forbid them not to come to me.” We know that there are in the world censorious people who condemn the custom of permitting young persons to enter into a religious state; it would be easy to show, if it were not for fear of rendering this work too voluminous, that their arguments are based on a superficial foundation, and are contrary to the maxims of Christianity; we therefore content ourselves with saying that at the Council of Trent, which was guided by the Spirit of truth in its discipline, as well as in its dogmas and morality, permission was given to persons of either sex, to make profession as a religious at the full age of sixteen; that rule is authorized by the ordinances of all Christian princes, and it therefore seems very extraordinary that any individuals should be rash enough to oppose their private opinions to so respectable an authority.
Francis, who was desirous of encouraging the fervor of his disciples, apprised them of what they had to fear, and anticipated the smallest inclinations to pride in them, by salutary humiliations.
The cardinal protector having one day preached before all the religious of the chapter, and having concluded his sermon by bestowing on them considerable praise, the holy Patriarch asked his permission to address the audience. He foretold to them, and represented in lively colors, all that was to happen to the Order; the temptations to which they were to be exposed; the tribulations they were to suffer; the changes that would be brought in, and their decline. He reproached them with their laxity, and with their want of fervor in cooperating with the peculiar graces they had received from God; he spoke so energetically, that, in censuring their foolish obsequiousness, if such a fault they had, he covered them with confusion.
The cardinal was somewhat mortified, and said: – “Pray, why, brother, did you gainsay me, setting the imperfections of your brethren in opposition to the praises I had given them?” “My lord and my father,” answered Francis, “I did so, in order to preserve the substance of your praise.
I was apprehensive that such praise being given by a person of your exalted rank, might inspire vanity into the minds of those in whom humility has not as yet thrown out deep roots.” This affords great matter for reflection for those virtuous persons who voluntarily receive praise, at least when it is artfully administered; and for indiscreet flatterers, who expose virtue to a dangerous trial.
What occurred on the following day, showed that the holy man had received from God the perfect means of appreciating men’s minds. Brother Elias, who was the provincial for Tuscany; Brother John of Strachia, who was provincial for Bologna, and several others came to the cardinal protector and entreated him to tell Francis, as from himself, that he ought to listen to the advice of his brethren, among whom there were many learned men, fully capable of governing; particularly as he himself was a simple and unread man, whose ill health did not permit him to bring their affairs into good order. They added, that respect ought to be paid to the ancient rules of Saint Basil, of Saint Augustine, and of Saint Benedict, and that Minors should not differ so widely by a new rule and excessive severity, as if they wished to be better than their fathers.
The cardinal took his time, and then proposed all these things to Francis, as maxims which he deemed good for the government of the Order. The Saint being immediately made aware by the Spirit of God, that these things were suggested by others, rose up from the place in which he had been seated with the cardinal, took him respectfully by the hand, and led him to the brethren who were assembled in chapter, and said:
“My brethren, my brethren, God has called me by the way of simplicity and humility, in order that I might follow the folly of the cross: it is for His glory and my confusion, and for the security of your consciences I am about to tell you what He said to me: – ‘Francis,’ He said, ‘I desire that you may be in the world a new little idiot, who shall preach by thy actions and by thy discourses the folly of the cross. Do thou and thine follow me only, and not any other manner of life.’ Speak not to me therefore of any other rule, he added, for I shall not follow, nor prescribe any other than that which God has in His mercy given me; those who swerve from it, I fear, will feel the Divine vengeance, and will be covered with confusion, when at length they shall be obliged once more to enter into this path, which God has shown me.”
Then addressing himself to the cardinal, he said: – “My lord, these wise people, whom your lordship praises so much, would wish by their worldly prudence to deceive both God and you; but they deceive themselves, endeavoring to destroy what God has ordained for their salvation, through me, his unworthy servant. I attribute nothing to myself of what I do, or of what I say; I rely not on my own lights in the government of the Order; I arrange everything by long prayers with our Divine Father, who governs it sovereignly, and who has made His will known to us by so many manifest signs, in order to bring to perfection the work He has commenced by so miserable a man as I am, for the salvation of souls, and the edification of our holy mother the Church. Those who prefer the wisdom of the world to the will of the Lord, expose themselves manifestly to be lost.” Having spoken thus, Francis retired.
The cardinal, who admired the energy of his words, and the light which disclosed to him at once the most secret thoughts, said to the superiors who were abashed: – “My dear brethren, you have seen how the Holy Ghost has himself spoken by the mouth of this apostolical man; his words pame forth as a two-edged sword, which has penetrated to the bottom of the heart. Take care that you do not grieve the Spirit of God; be not ungrateful for the favors He has done you. He is truly in this poor man, and manifests to you, through him, the marvels of His power; in listening to him, it is Jesus Christ that you hear; in despising him, it is Jesus Christ whom you despise. Humble yourselves, therefore, and obey him, if it is your desire to please God, and not lose the fruit of your vocation; for I know by experience, that everything which either the devils or men are about to attempt against his Order, is revealed to him. Whatsoever may be said to him with good or bad intention, it is difficult to find him off his guard; neither my advice, nor that of any other person, will turn him from his purpose.” The provincials who had given rise to this scene were moved, and submitted themselves to the will of the Patriarch.
Among the religious who had congregated at the chapter, there were many who came to seek a remedy for the ill-treatment they had received in many places out of Italy, which had its rise in two causes; the first was, that they had no authenticated letters to show that their Institute had been approved by the Church; the second was, that the pastors would not allow them to preach. They begged therefore that the Pope might be solicited to give them written testimonials to certify that they had his approbation of their Institution; and, moreover, that they should obtain from the Holy Father a privilege, in virtue of which they might preach wherever they thought proper, even without leave from the bishops.
The holy founder could not hear this second article without indignation. “What my brethren” said he, “are you still devoid of understanding; and do you not know the will of God? It is His pleasure that we should gain the good will of our superiors by our respect for them, and by humility; and then by word and good example, those who are under them. When the bishops see that you live holily, and that you do not encroach on their authority, they themselves will apply to you to work for the salvation of the souls which are committed to their care; they themselves will collect their flocks to listen to you, and to imitate you. Let it be our sole privilege to have no privilege calculated to swell our pride; to give ourselves a confidence which shall be to the prejudice of others, and be the cause of contentions. Let us ask nothing of the Holy See but what is calculated to aid us in serving God, in extending the faith, and in gaining souls under the good pleasure of the prelates, without causing any disturbance among the people.”
Some represented that they had found many of the heads of the parochial clergy so harsh, that they had been unable to mollify them, either by entreaties, or by labor, by submissiveness or good example, so as to obtain leave to preach to their parishioners, or to receive from them any corporal assistance; to this Francis replied:
“My brethren, we are sent to the aid of priests, to make good that in which they may be deficient. Each one will receive his reward, not according to the degree of his authority, but in proportion to his labors. Know, then, that what is most agreeable to God is, to work for the salvation of souls, and that we shall best succeed in this by living in concord with the priests than by living separately from them; if they throw obstacles in the way, God, to whom all vengeance belongs, will give them in His good time what is their due. Be therefore submissive to ecclesiastical superiors, in order to avert, as much as may be in your power, any jealousies. If you are children of peace, you will soon ingratiate yourselves with the clergy and the people, and this will be more acceptable to God than if you gained over the people, and thereby gave scandal to the clergy. Hide the faults of the priests, make good what they are deficient in, and be only in consequence the more humble.”
The Religious of Saint Francis must not be surprised if they, even in these days, meet with opposition in the exercise of their holy ministries. It is an occurrence which the similarity of men may at all times bring about; and which Saint Paul experienced more than any other in the course of his ministry. But let them be careful to put in practice the advice of their Father, in order that they may be able to say in truth with the apostle: – “We have injured no man” And, finally, the advice which he gave them must induce us to notice his moderation and his discretion, in an age when the Church had reason to renew the laments of one of the Prophets against the pastors of Israel.
He judged it proper, by the advice of the cardinal protector, to procure Apostolic letters to make known the approbation his Institute had received; and he obtained them from the Pope, who was then at Viterbo. These were the first which were given to the Order of Friars Minor: their contents are as follows:
Honorius, Bishop, servant of the servants of God, to the Archbishops, Bishops, Abbots, Deacons, Archdeacons, and other Superior Ecclesiastics –
“As our dear son, brother Francis and his companions, have renounced the vanities of the world, and embraced a state of life which the Roman Church has justly approved; and, following the example of the Apostles, are about to go into different parts to announce the word of God; we beg and exhort you in our Lord, and we command you by these Apostolical letters, to receive as Catholic and faithful, the brothers of this Order, the bearers of these letters who may apply to you, to be favorable to them, and to treat them with kindness, for the honor of God, and out of consideration for us. Given this 3d of the Ides of June, the third year of our pontificate.”
Many cardinals and other illustrious persons added their letters of recommendation to those of the Pope, particularly Cardinal Ugolino, the protector of the Order, who testified by a document addressed to all prelates, which certified the intimate knowledge he had of the virtues of the Founder and of his religious, and the great fruit that was to be expected from them for the propagation of the faith, and the benefit of the whole Church. They made a great number of authenticated copies of these letters, to give them to those friars whom Francis had resolved to send in all directions, even into the most distant lands.
Three things were decreed at this general chapter. The first was, that on every Saturday a solemn mass should be celebrated in honor of the immaculate Blessed Virgin Mary. This glorious title of Immaculate, which the general councils of the seventh and eighth centuries, and the ancient fathers of the Church, have given to Mary, has been used by the Council of Trent, which has declared in its decree on the subject of original sin, “that it is not its intention to include therein the blessed and immaculate Virgin Mary, Mother of God.” The use which the Friars Minor made of it in 1219, shows clearly that they adopted, as did their sainted Patriarch, the common opinion of the Greek Church, which was already spread in various parts of the Latin Church, in honor of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin, because they thought it wholly pure and exempt from the stain of original sin. Their successors have always, with admirable zeal, maintained this opinion, which God in so far blessed, that they have now the advantage and consolation of seeing the institution of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in the whole Church, and of knowing that what was at one time only a pious opinion is now a dogma.
It is proper to notice here, that at the head of the Friars Minor, who supported the proposition of the Immaculate Conception, was the celebrated John Duns Scotus, so respected in the Church for his penetrating genius, for the solidity of his doctrine, and for his singular piety. He silenced his opponents, and his success was so manifested that all considered him to have had the special aid of the Blessed Virgin, and his reasonings were so convincing that the University of Paris admitted them, and declared in favor of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which it has maintained ever since. In the fifteenth century, the faculty of Theology passed a solemn decree on this point, in which it declared that in consonance with the opinions of its predecessors, and in order to oppose the enemies of the Blessed Virgin, it bound itself by oath to maintain the proposition that the Mother of God was preserved from original sin, framing a law, not to receive any doctor who should not take this oath; which practice was continued till the dogma was declared in 1854, when it was no longer necessary.
This is the pious triumph of all the Sons of Saint Francis who, in gratitude for so singular a privilege, honor the Blessed Virgin as the Patroness and Protectress of their Order, under the title of her Immaculate Conception, and by celebrating the festival thereof with every possible solemnity.
The second statute directed, that express mention should be made of the names of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, in the prayer, “Protege nos Domine, etc.,” and in another which begins with these words – “Exaudi nos Deus,” etc., in memory of what had been revealed to Saint Francis, that these apostles interceded powerfully with God for his Institute. This is practised by the whole Church since Innocent IV revised and reformed the Roman Breviary, through Aymon, an Englishman, who was the fifth general of the Order of Friars Minor.
In the third statute it was said that poverty should be apparent in everything, in the convents which they should build; that the churches should be small and low, and that the walls of the rest of the buildings should be of wood or mud. Some difficulties were started to this; many represented that in their provinces wood was dearer than stone, and that walls of masonry, if they were not too high, would better denote poverty, because they would be solid and not compel frequent repair. The holy Founder would not argue this matter with them; for it is remarked that not to give rise to any dispute, and not to give scandal to the weak, he often condescended to the opinions of others in similar matters. Nevertheless he recommended to them all, not to receive either churches or houses which were not in conformity to holy poverty which was their rule.
It was not possible always to follow out his intentions. The prelates and princes who were greatly attached to his Order had beautiful convents built, which his religious could not avoid receiving; and Saint Bonaventure even says that a numerous community which has different exercises to perform, requires large houses, although care should be taken that holy poverty should be apparent throughout, and that superfluity should not preponderate over what is reasonably necessary.
The chapter being ended, Francis, following the example of the Apostles, divided the world among his brethren, in order to bring it all in subjection to the Empire of Jesus Christ.
The first mission to Germany had not been successful. Those who had been sent thither by the preceding chapter, not knowing the language, and answering badly the questions put to them, were suspected from their poor and unusual habit to belong to those heretics who were prosecuted in Italy, in consequence of which they were cruelly ill-treated and driven away. The recital which they gave on their return made Germany so unpopular among the brethren that they said that none ought to go there but such as aspired to martyrdom, and that many prayed to Heaven to be preserved from the ferocity of the Germans. Francis did not think proper to send any more there till such time as he should have received some novices from thence who might go there with others; but he sent some into Hungary.
As soon as the several missions had been fixed upon, the missionaries prepared to set out. Before we give an account of Saint Francis’ voyage to the Levant, we think it desirable to give an abridgment of what his children did in various parts of the world, because the principal glory is due to him, and these proceedings naturally belong to the history of his life.
Benedict of Arezzo embarked with his companions for Greece, where their preaching, backed by the holiness of their lives, and confirmed by miracles, produced abundance of fruit for the salvation of souls, and procured so many houses for the Order that in a very short time it was formed into an entire province, and was called Romania.
Giles and Electe, who anxiously aspired to martyrdom, and who were only lay-brothers, had appeared to Saint Francis to be more fit to be sent to the Saracens than even those of the clergy, and they hastened to go into Africa with several others. What chiefly animated the zeal of brother Giles, as the author of his life remarks, was his having heard that the Saracens treated with great cruelty those Christians who spoke ill of the law of Mahomet. When he reached Tunis with a party of missionaries, he generously preached the faith in public, and this continued for some time. A person who was looked up to among the Saracens for his great wisdom, having come forth from his retreat, told the people that they ought to put to the sword all those infidels who spoke against the law of their prophet. Giles and his companions were delighted at the prospect of an early martyrdom; but the Christians with whom they had their domicile, fearing lest they might be included in the massacre, took away these preachers and compelled them to go on board a vessel in the harbor, and did not permit them again to land. As they did not cease addressing the Mahometans who crowded to the sea-shore, with a view to induce them to embrace the faith of Jesus Christ, – their desire to sacrifice their lives for His glory being so ardent, – the Christian residents hastened to have them removed to Europe. Thus seeing that even their fellow-believers were opposed to their views, they returned to Italy.
Electe was more fortunate; during some years he performed the functions of an apostle in another town in Africa, where he received the crown of martyrdom. A body of Saracens rushed upon him while he was preaching, upon which he fell on his knees, grasped the Rule with both hands, asked pardon for his faults from God and from his companions, and then presented his neck to the infidels who took away his life. This did not happen till after the death of Saint Francis. He had entered the Order when very young, and had lived in it with great austerity, always wearing a coat of mail on his bare body, so that he prepared himself for the martyrdom of blood by the martyrdom of penance, as was recommended to the Christians in time of persecution.
Those who went into Spain with John Parent proceeded with so much speed that ten of them arrived at Saragossa by the Feast of the Assumption; a very short time after their departure, Bernard de Quintavalle, who was sent into this kingdom after the chapter of 1216 had established two convents, the one at Toledo, the other at Carrion de los Condes, a town in the Kingdom of Leon. Some of his companions had been admitted at Lerida, and at Balaguer, in Catalonia, under very extraordinary circumstances, which are omitted not to be too prolix. Zachary and Gautier, who had been sent into Portugal, had had much to suffer in the beginning; but Queen Urraqua, the wife of Alphonso II, who then reigned, was a most pious princess. She, having caused their Institute to be examined by very learned men, and having had full assurance of the holiness of their lives, now obtained leave from the king for their being received into his states, and permission for their building convents. A house was given them, with a chapel attached to it, of Saint Anthony, near Coimbra, where the court then was, and subsequently one on a larger scale at Lisbon. Princess Sancia, the daughter of Sancho I, and sister of Alphonso II, highly praised by historians for her piety and chastity, protected Zachary, and gave him a third house, called of Saint Catharine, at some distance from the Town of Alenquer, which was her own; but in consequence of the distance and the insalubrity of the air, she some years after converted her own palace into a convent, which she gave to the Friars Minor. Gautier, one of Bernard’s companions, who had made many great conversions by his virtues and his miracles, near Guimaraens, had built a convent not very far from that town.
While at the convent of Saint Catharine, a very queer thing occurred, which we have not thought right to omit here on account of the instruction it contains. One of the ladies, in waiting on the princess whose name was Maria Garcia, often came to have some pious conversation with one of the holy religious, who was very averse to receiving her, because he feared the company of females. One day when he was at prayer, she came to the church, and expressed a wish to see him, but he refused to go to her. The historian says that in order to obtain what she wished for, she did what women generally do under such circumstances, she became more importunate, and cried bitterly, and protested that it would give her great pain if she might not speak to the holy man. He therefore came, to get rid of her importunities; but he brought some straw in one hand, and some fire in the other; he set the straw on fire in her presence, and then said to her: “Although, madam, all your conversations are pious, I refuse to hold them with you in private, because what you see has happened to the straw, is what religious persons have to fear may occur to them if they have private and familiar intercourse with women; and at least they lose the fruits of their holy communications with God in prayer.” The lady blushed, retired, and troubled him no more. Saint Jerome, who so strongly recommended to ecclesiastics and religious to avoid conversations with the female sex would certainly have approved of this action.
John Parent arrived at Saragossa in the month of August, 1219, with nine of his brethren who were followed by many others soon after; he addressed himself to the Bishop and to the magistrates who assembled to hear him. He explained to them who Francis of Assisi was, his vocation, his mission, his mode of life, his Institute, the approbation given to his Rule by Pope Innocent III and Honorius III, and the testimonials given to him by several cardinals.
He remarked to them that the new Order had been exceedingly multiplied in a very few years, and that they had seen more than five thousand religious at the general chapter which had been lately assembled in the neighborhood of Assisi, which was considered to be miraculous; that their Father had sent a great number of his children into all parts of the world to combat vice and encourage virtue, which circumstance should be considered as a bountiful effect of Divine Providence towards His Church, in such calamitous times. He concluded by saying: “If our Institute is agreeable to you, we earnestly entreat you to give us some small place in which we may recite the Divine Office, and fulfil the other ministries which our Founder has recommended to us. Have no anxiety as to our subsistence, for we solicit no part of your goods; we content ourselves with very little; we are poorly clad; work arid questing furnish us with all that we require.”
All the assembly admired the spirit of humility which prevailed through this discourse, and the reading of the Papal Bull, with the testimonials of the cardinals, were proofs that nothing had been set forth but what was true. They conceived such a liking to the Order, that they took immediate measures for giving to John Parent and his companions a dwelling of which they took possession on the 28th of August.
The Order of Saint Francis, as well as that of Saint Dominic, began from that time to spread through all Spain. On all sides preachers of the two orders were found, and new convents were erected, as Luke, Bishop of Tuy, a contemporary author, mentions in his chronicle when he speaks of the marvels of the reign of Saint Ferdinand, King of Castile and Leon. It would clearly appear that both the one and the other were in the City of Leon about that time, since the same author, in his excellent work against the Albigenses, says that they exerted themselves with great zeal and energy against the heretics, who, to seduce the faithful, published pretended miracles which they asserted to have been performed by the bones of one Arnold a man of their sect who had been dead sixteen years, and they also accused the good religious who exposed their impostures of heresy. Such is the mode adopted by certain sectarians; they endeavored to establish their false doctrine by fictitious miracles; while they insolently refused credence to those which the Catholic Church admitted as certain; and all have sufficient audacity to treat as heretics the orthodox who prove them to be heretics themselves.
The mission to France was equally successful with that of Spain. Pacifico and his companions who began it in 1216, were exposed to hunger, cold, and all other kinds of inconveniences, which men are exposed to suffer when out of their own country, unknown, and destitute of everything, and moreover living an unusual and extraordinary sort of life. They went to that office of the night which is called matins in those churches in which it is said at midnight, as is still the custom at Notre Dame, in Paris. If there was no service in the places where they were, they then prayed by themselves at that hour, and they passed the whole night at the foot of the altar; after which, if no one offered them a meal, they went questing from door to door. The remainder of the day was spent in the hospitals, making the beds of the lepers and other sick, dressing their wounds, and rendering them such other services of humility and charity as they had learned from the example and instruction of their Father Francis. So saintly a life attracted the attention of all, gained their esteem, caused many to embrace the Institution, and procured for them many establishments, notably the one at Paris.
Angelo of Pisa, one of the missioners sent by Saint Francis, was the first warden of the Parisian convent. This convent soon became a college, where young men, from all parts of the world came to study, and, subsequently, to take out degrees in the university. Several great men have, in the last five hundred years, rendered this college illustrious.
Pacifico, whom Saint Francis had appointed provincial of the French missions, sent some of the religious into different parts of the kingdom, where they were well received. He went with some companions into Hainault, and other provinces of the Low Countries, where, by the liberality and under the protection of the Countess of Flanders, Joanna of Constantinople, he caused many houses to be built.
Thomas de Chantpre, a Canon Regular of Saint Austin, and subsequently a religious of the Order of Saint Dominic, states, as an eye-witness, a very marvellous thing which deserves to be recorded in the life of Saint Francis, since it occurred during his lifetime, relative to his Order. At Thorouth, a town in Flanders, a child of five years of age, whose name was Achaz, of a good family, having seen, in 1219, the habit of the Friars Minor, begged his parents to give him a similar one. His entreaties and tears induced them to gratify him. He was therefore habited as a Friar Minor, with a coarse cord and bare feet, not choosing to have any money, not even to touch it, and he practised as much as was in his power the exercises of the religious. Among his companions he was seen to act as preacher, cautioning them against evil, exciting them to virtue by the fear of the pains of Hell, and by the hopes of the glories of Heaven; teaching them to say the Lord’s Prayer, and the Angelic Salutation, and to honor God by genuflections. He reproved such as did anything wrong in his presence, even his own father, if he heard him swear, or saw him in a state of inebriety. “My Father,” he would say, with tears in his eyes, “does not our cure tell us that those who do such things will not possess the Kingdom of God?” Being one day at church with his mother, who was dressed in a handsome gown of a flame color, he pointed out to her a crucifix, as a censure on her vanity, and warned her to be careful that the color she wore did not cause her to fall into the flames of Hell, which warning had so great an effect that his mother never after wore anything but the plainest dress. Such a precocious mind, with so much matured wisdom and piety, was universally admired, and every one took pleasure in seeing and listening to this amiable child.
God took him from this world before he had attained his seventh year. In his last illness, he confessed, and solicited most earnestly to be allowed to receive the Body of Christ. The cure not venturing to comply with his request, on account of his tended age, although his reason was so mature and his holiness so manifest, he raised his hands to Heaven, and said, in tender accents: – “My Lord Jesus Christ, Thou knowest that all that I wish for in this world is to receive Thee. I begged for Thee, and have done what I could; I hope with entire confidence that Thou will not deprive me of the happiness of possessing Thee.” He then consoled and exhorted his parents and others who surrounded him, after which he gave up his pure soul to God, praising Him, and ejaculating prayers to Him.
The ocular witness adds two circumstances which are very remarkable; the first is, that the religious habit which this holy child wore disappeared, and could never afterwards be found. The second, that the Friars Minor who, as well as himself, went to pray at his grave, could not go through the _De profundis_ which they had commenced, notwithstanding all the efforts that they made to do so; by which they understood, that so pure a soul stood in no need of prayer; and, no doubt, they only endeavored to offer up some under the impression that a mind so early in other respects matured, might have been capable of contracting some stain.
Francis, having despatched his disciples to the several missions allotted to them, as has been said, prepared to go himself to the Levant, with a zeal equal to that with which he had inspired his brethren, when Cardinal Ugolino, the protector of the Order, entered into discussion with him on the subject of the government of the establishment of Saint Damian’s, in which Clare presided, and of the other monasteries of females which had been commenced on that model.
Cardinal Ugolino, by the advice and authority of the Pope leaving to Francis the guidance of the Monastery of Saint Damian of Assisi, took upon himself the direction of all the others who had adopted that rule, and nominated as visitor-general under his orders, a prudent religious of the order of Citeaux, called Ambrose. He gave them the rule of Saint Benedict, with constitutions which Wading gives at length. We do not transcribe them here, because, in the year 1224, Saint Francis gave them another rule, which will be spoken of later, and which is the only one which ought to be called the rule of Saint Clare or of the Second Order.
The holy Patriarch being now about to set out in order to preach the Gospel to the Mahometans of the Levant, resolved to send to those who were in the west, some of his brethren. He chose six for Morocco: Vidal, a very prudent and pious religious, whom he nominated superior; Berard de Carbio, from the vicinity of Narni, who was well versed in the Arabian language; Peter, of Saint Geminien, and Otho, who were in priests’ orders; and Ajut, and Accurse, who were lay-brethren. – Having sent for them he spoke as follows: –
“My dear children, it is God who has commanded me to send you amongst the Saracens, to make known His faith, and refute the law of Mahomet. I shall go in a different direction to work for the conversion of the same infidels, and thus I shall send preachers over the whole earth. Prepare yourselves, therefore, to fulfil the will of the Lord. To render yourselves worthy of it, take great care to preserve peace and concord among yourselves, as the ever-subsisting ties of charity. Avoid envy which was the first cause of the loss of mankind. Be patient in tribulations, and humble in success; which is the means of coming off victorious in all encounters. Imitate our Lord Jesus Christ in his poverty, chastity, and obedience; He was born poor, He lived poor, and it was in the bosom of poverty that He died. To manifest how highly He loved chastity, He chose to be born of a virgin, He took virgins for His first soldiers, He kept, and counselled virginity, and He died in presence of two virgins. As to obedience, He never ceased from practising it from His birth to His death on the cross. Place your hopes in the Lord, He will guide and assist you. Take our rule with you, and a breviary, in order that you may be punctual in saying the Divine Office, and be always submissive to Brother Vidal, your superior. My children, although I am greatly pleased to see the good-will with which you embrace this undertaking, yet our separation is painful to my heart from the sincere affection I bear you; but the commands of our Lord are to be preferred to my own feelings; I entreat you to have the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ always present to your mind; it will strengthen you and powerfully animate you to suffer for His glory.”
These apostolic men, encouraged by this address of their Father, replied that they were ready to go into any country and expose themselves to the severest labors for the interests of the faith; that he need not hold out an example for them, by going himself among the infidels, as if his word was not sufficient; that they did not think his orders too strict, and that they expected assistance from above for carrying them into execution; but that they required his prayers and blessing in order to gather some fruit in unknown lands, among barbarous people, enemies of the Christian name. “He,” rejoined the Saint, with great animation, “who sends you, it is He who will take care of you; you are under His protection, under the protection of God; you belong no more to me from this moment; I tear you from my bosom to send you as His laborers.” They threw themselves on their knees, kissed his hands and prayed for his last blessing which he gave them weeping, in the following terms: – “May the blessing of God the Father be upon you, as it descended on the apostles; may it strengthen you, guide you, and console you in your sufferings. Fear not; the Lord is with you, as an invincible warrior; go, in the name of God who sends you.”
We shall speak of their voyage when we come to relate the martyrdom they suffered in Morocco, on the 16th of January, 1220.
At length, Francis, anxious for the crown of martyrdom in which he had been twice disappointed, confided the government of his Order during his absence to Brother Elias, the Provincial of Tuscany, and set out on his voyage to Syria with twelve companions, the principal of whom were Peter of Catania, Barbaro Sabbatino, Leonard of Assisi, and Illuminus of Rieti.
In the Marches of Ancona through which they passed, in order to embark at the last-named place, a young man came to solicit to be received into the society of Friars Minor, and the Saint said to him: “If you have the intention of joining the Poor of Jesus Christ, go and bestow upon the poor all that thou hast.” The postulant went away and gave all he had to his parents whom he loved very much, without giving any to the poor. He then returned and said how he had disposed of his property. Francis censured his conduct in the strongest terms, considering him as a man who would be totally useless, and nowise fit for evangelical perfection. “Tender brother,” he said to him (for so he called all those whom he considered of no real value), “Tender brother, go thy ways, you have neither left your country nor your kindred; you have given what you had to your parents, and disappointed the poor; you do not deserve to be received into the company of those who make profession of holy poverty. You commenced by the flesh, which is an unstable foundation for a spiritual edifice.” This carnal and animal man returned to his parents, resumed his property, and rather than give it to the poor, he gave up the good purpose he had entertained.
The love of his relations did as much disservice to this young man as the love of riches did to him whom our Saviour desired to sell all he had and give unto the poor. Perhaps also he had an intention of finding a resource in what he gave to his relations, which is contrary to the entire renouncing of everything which Jesus Christ requires. For which reason, when Saint Bonaventure relates this circumstance, he says, that Saint Francis only admitted those into his Order who gave up all they had, and did not in any manner keep anything back.
The man of God received many novices on his way. Many of his brethren in the vicinity accompanied him as far as Ancona, to witness his departure, as sorrowful, as had been the faithful of Miletus and Ephesus, who accompanied Saint Paul embarking for Jerusalem, although he had not told them, as the Apostle did, that they would see him no more. The arrival of this holy band was so agreeable to the magistrates at Ancona, that they immediately allotted a spot for the erection of a convent, and had it commenced at their own expense. It was so large that when Francis returned from Palestine lie caused it to be reduced out of love for holy poverty, and then he gave the model of a church which is still extant.
The captain of a vessel who was about to take succor to the Christian forces before Damietta, was so good as to receive him, one of twelve, on board his ship. All the religious who were there were desirous of going to sea with him, and each one vied for the preference, not only that they might accompany the Patriarch, but that they might obtain the crown of martyrdom, which they ardently wished for; but not to mortify any of them, and to show no preferences, he prudently and with the mildness of a common father, addressed them as follows: –
“My very dear children, there is not one of you, from whom I should wish to be separated; I wish you would all accompany me on the voyage I am about to make; but it would have been unreasonable of me to ask the captain of the vessel to take you all. On which account, and that none should have reason to complain, nor to be jealous of the others, I will not make the selection; it must be Made by God.” And thereupon calling a child who happened to be on board, he said: “The Lord has often made His will known by the mouth of children, and I have no doubt He will do the same now; let us ask this child, and let us credit what he shall say; God will speak through him.” Then asking the child, whether it was God’s will that all the religious who were with him should put to sea and make the voyage with him? the child replied with a firm voice: “No, it is not God’s will.” He then again asked which of them among those who were there present he should take? The child, inspired by the Almighty, selected eleven, pointing them out with his finger, and going up to them as he named them.
The religious, full of astonishment, were all satisfied: those who were destined to remain behind as well as those who were selected to accompany him. They fell on their knees, received the blessing of their common Father, and separated after having given to each other the kiss of peace.
Francis embarked with his eleven companions; they weighed anchor, and shortly after they reached the Island of Cyprus, where they remained a couple of days. In this interval, one of the religious committed a fault which was soon atoned for. In a gust of passion he made use of some harsh expression to one of his brethren before the others, and before another person who might have been scandalized at the event. Reflecting on what he had done, and being immediately sorry for it, he took up some dung, and, returning to the spot, he put it into his mouth, and began chewing it, saying: “It is but just that he who has offended his brother by his speech, should have his mouth filled with filth.” This act of penance was fully satisfactory to him who had been offended, and made such impression on a gentleman who had witnessed the scene, that he offered himself and all he possessed to the service of the Order.
From Cyprus, Francis proceeded to Acre, from whence he sent his companions, two and two, into such parts of Syria in which missionaries were most wanted. He himself preached for some days in the vicinity of the town, where he did some good, and then embarked again with Illuminatus to join the army of the Crusaders who were besieging Damietta. We shall now speak of the Crusade, and of this siege.
At the council of Lateran, which was held in 1215, Pope Innocent III represented so energetically the miserable state to which the Christians in the Holy Land were reduced under the domination of the Saracens, that in order to deliver them from so cruel a slavery, the council ordered the assembly of a similar crusade to that which had been ordered two centuries before, for the same object. The bishops proclaimed it everywhere with great ardor, and the Pope, to give it greater weight, went himself into Tuscany to preach it after having published it at Rome. This great Pope, dying on the 16th of July, 1216, Honorius III, who succeeded him, imitated his zeal, and wrote to the princes and prelates of all Europe, and sent legates everywhere, to urge the execution of what had been decreed in the Council of Lateran. The success was as prompt as it was fortunate, so that at the time fixed, that is, on the 1st of June, 1217, an infinity of crusaders, principally from the North of Europe, were in readiness to set out for Palestine, by land and by sea.
After some expeditions, the crusaders thought that, instead of operations in Palestine, to which they had hitherto confined themselves, it would be advisable to carry the war into Egypt, because it was thence that the sultans sent large armies into the Holy Land against the Christians; and this had been the opinion of Pope Innocent at the Lateran Council. It was therefore decided to lay siege to Damietta, the strongest town in Egypt, and from its situation the key of that kingdom. The first of those who sailed arrived before the place on the 30th of May; they disembarked, and intrenched themselves without meeting with any resistance, and when the remainder of the army arrived, the attack commenced.
The siege lasted nearly eighteen months, with enormous losses, yet some astonishing acts of bravery were witnessed. Coradin, (or Moaddam) the Sultan of Damascus, came with an army much more numerous than that of the Crusaders, and besieged them in their intrenchments; and Meledin, (or Melic Camel) his brother, Sultan of Egypt or of Babylon, having brought an equally numerous army, they drew up their troops in order of battle, on the last day of July, 1219, in the early morning, and appeared before the Crusaders’ lines, which they attacked on several points. The battle was obstinately contested; it lasted till night, and the Saracens seemed to have the victory, but it was torn from them, chiefly by the indomitable bravery of the French, supported by the Grand Master of the Temple, and the Teutonic knights, who drove the infidels far from their lines with great slaughter. Dissensions then arose between the cavalry and infantry of the Crusaders. They accused each other of cowardice, a reproach very grating to military men; the consequence was, that a turbulent rivalry ensued, in order to prove which had the greatest courage, and they compelled John de Brienne, King of Jerusalem, who commanded the army, to lead them to the enemy and offer him battle.
It was at this moment that Francis arrived at the camp, having no other arms than those of faith. He said to his companion, with deep sighs: – “The Lord has revealed to me, that if they come to blows, the Christians will be worsted. If I tell them this, I shall be considered an idiot; – and if I do not tell it, my conscience will reproach me; what do you think of it?” His companion, whose name was Illuminatus, and who indeed was filled with light, replied: – “My brother, do not let the opinions of men guide you; it is not the first time that you have been looked upon as one bereaved of sense. Clear your conscience, and fear God more than the world.” Francis immediately went and warned the Christians not to fight, and foretold them that if they did, they would be beaten.
Minds were, however, too much excited to listen to sound reason; the words of the Saint were taken for ravings. On the 29th of August, when the heat was overpowering, the whole of the Christian army left their lines and offered battle. The enemy at first retired, in order to draw the Crusaders to an extensive plain, where there was no water, and when he saw that thirst and fatigue had caused their ranks to be broken, he turned suddenly and fell upon the cavalry of the right wing which he took by surprise; it was broken and dispersed; its rout caused the infantry which was supported by it, to flee, and the whole army would have been cut to pieces had not the king, followed by the knights of the three orders of French, Flemish and English, and other troops, placed themselves in front and stopped the Saracens who were pursuing the fugitives and effecting an awful retreat. The Christians lost on this occasion near six thousand men, besides prisoners, among whom were many of considerable note. This loss was the accomplishment of what Francis had foretold; and it showed, adds Saint Bonaventure, “that his valuable advice ought not to have been disregarded, since, according to the words of the Holy Scriptures, ‘the soul of a holy man discovereth sometimes true things, more than seven watchmen that sit on a high place to watch.'”
The faults of the Crusaders, and the ill-successes which often attended their measures, have given room to minds disposed to censure, to condemn all wars undertaken against infidels, or heretics. Nevertheless, the Crusades, during two centuries, were suggested by the Sovereign Pontiffs, and by the councils of the Church, proclaimed by most holy personages, and authorized by their miracles; led by Christian princes of all Europe, by many of our kings, by a Saint Louis, by men full of religious zeal, such as Godfrey of Bouillon, and Simon, Count of Montfort. Is there not the greatest rashness in including such men as these in one sweeping condemnation? If all the Crusaders had not equally pure intentions; if debauchery insinuated itself into their armies, if prudence did not always regulate their proceedings; if sometimes even success did not crown their best-concerted measures, are these sufficient grounds for blaming the enterprise, or, are we only to judge of measures by the event?
Saint Bernard preached the crusade which was decided on in the year 1144, of which Louis VII, King of France, had first formed the plan, and of which Pope Eugenius III, and the bishops of France approved. The preaching of the holy abbot was publicly supported by a prodigious number of miracles, which even his humility could not dissemble. Two powerful armies, the one commanded by the Emperor Conrad III, the other by the King of France, with the princes and nobility of the states, were calculated to inspire the infidels with terror. Nevertheless, from various causes, nothing could have been more unfortunate than the issue of this war; and, as the loss of these two armies was felt through the whole of France and through the whole of Germany, where Saint Bernard had preached, and promised glorious success, public indignation fell upon him, and he was treated as a false prophet. What he wrote to Pope Eugenius in his justification, must be considered as an answer to all those who, even in these days, condemn the Crusades, the result of which was disastrous. He says, that Moses, in God’s name, had solemnly promised the people of Israel to lead them into a very fertile land, and that God had even confirmed that promise by splendid miracles; that, nevertheless, all those who went out of Egypt perished in the desert without entering into the land of promise, in punishment of the sins of the people during the journey; that it cannot be said that this punishment was a contradiction of the promise, because the promises which God, in His goodness, makes to man, never prejudice the rights of His justice; and this reasoning the Saint applies to the crimes committed in the armies of the Crusades.
This digression may, perhaps, appear long, but we could not dispense with it for the honor of the religious and of the preceding ages; and, besides, it is connected with the life of Saint Francis, who certainly approved of the Crusades, although, by a supernatural inspiration, he blamed a particular enterprise of the Crusaders which had the unfortunate issue which he had foretold.
The ardor of his charity which urged him to labor for the conversion of the Saracens, and to expose himself to martyrdom, induced him to take the resolution to present himself to the Sultan of Egypt. “We saw,” says James de Vitry, “Brother Francis, the founder of the Order of the Friars Minor, a simple and unlearned man, though very amiable and beloved by God and man, who was respected universally. He came to the Christian army, which was lying before Damietta, and an excess of fervor had such an effect upon him, that, protected solely by the shield of faith, he had the daring to go to the sultan’s camp to preach to him and to his subjects the faith of Jesus Christ.”
The two armies were in sight of each other, and there was great danger in going from one to the other, particularly as the sultan had promised a handsome reward in gold to any one who should bring him a Christian’s head. But this would not deter such a soldier of Jesus Christ as was Francis, who, far from fearing death, eagerly sought it. He betook himself to prayer, from which he arose full of strength and confidence, saying with the prophet: “Since Thou art with me, O Lord, I will fear no evil, though I should walk in the midst of the shadow of death;” and he set out for the infidel camp.
Two sheep which he met on setting out, gave him much joy. He said to his companion: “My brother, have confidence in the Lord, the word of the Gospel is being fulfilled in us, which says: ‘Behold I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves.'” In fact, only a very little farther on, some Saracens rushed upon them, as wolves upon sheep, insulted and beat them, and bound them. Francis said: “I am a Christian, lead me to your master;” and God permitted that he should be so led to comply with the desire of His servant. The Sultan Meledin asked him who sent them, and for what purpose they came? Francis answered with courageous firmness: “We are not sent by men, but it is the Most High who sends us, in order that I may teach you and your people the way of salvation, by pointing out to you the truths of the Gospel.” He immediately preached to him, with great fervor, the dogma of one God in three Persons, and the Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind.
Then was seen verified what our Saviour said to His apostles. “For I will give you a mouth and wisdom which all your adversaries shall not be able to resist or gainsay.” Meledin became so mild and tractable, that, admiring the courage of Francis, he listened quietly to him for some days, and invited him to stay with him. The man of God said: “If you and your people will be converted, I will remain for the love of Jesus Christ. And if you hesitate between His law and that of Mahomet, let a great fire be lit up, and I will go into it with your priests, in order that you may see thereby which is the faith to follow.” “I do not believe,” replied the sultan, “that any of our priests would go into the fire, or suffer any torments for his religion.” He answered thus because he perceived that as soon as the fire was proposed, one of the eldest of the priests, one who was of the most considerable of them, got quickly away. “If you will promise me,” added Francis, “that yourself and your people will embrace the Christian faith, in case I come forth from the fire safe and sound, I will enter it alone; if I am burnt let it be imputed to my sins; but if God preserve me, you will then acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the true God and Saviour of mankind.”
Meledin acknowledged that he dared not accept this challenge, lest it should be the cause of a sedition; but he offered him rich presents which the servant of God despised from his heart as so much dirt. Such entire disengagement from the good things of this world inspired the prince with such veneration and confidence that he entreated the Saint to receive his presents, and to distribute them among the poor Christians or to the churches for the salvation of his soul. Francis who had a loathing of money, and who did not find in the sultan any groundwork of religion, persisted in his refusal of these offers. He, moreover, thought it was time to leave the infidels when he saw no prospect of effecting any good, and where he had no further chance of gaining the crown of martyrdom; and he learnt by a revelation that what he intended was conformable to the will of God. The sultan, on his part, fearing that some of his people might be moved by the discourse of Francis, and, being converted, might join the Christian army, caused him to be escorted with marks of consideration to the Christian camp before Damietta, after having said to him in private: “Pray for me, that God may make known what religion is most agreeable to Him, in order that I may embrace it.”
Was it not a sight worthy of God, worthy of angels, and of men, to see on one side Francis, clothed in sackcloth, pale, emaciated, disfigured by his penitential austerities, pass through an army of infidels, and present himself boldly before their sovereign, speak to him against the law of their prophet, and exhort him to acknowledge the divinity of Jesus Christ? and, on the other side, the Sultan of Egypt, the mortal enemy of the Christians, elated by the victory he had just gained over them, and anxious to shed more of their blood, suddenly lose all his ferocity, become mild and tractable, listen attentively to the poor one of Jesus Christ, endeavor to retain him, offer him large presents, admire his poverty, his disinterestedness, his courage, ask the aid of his prayers, that he might know and embrace the true religion, and send him back to the Christian camp with honor? How certain it is that the religion of Jesus Christ will never be made more respectable and amiable to the infidels than by the practice of the exalted virtues which it teaches, and by which it became established in the world.
Another scene which is not less striking in the eyes of piety, is the heart of Francis, burning with anxiety to shed his blood for the glory of his Master, and not being able to satisfy that ardor. Already, in the hope of attaining it, he had embarked for Syria, and contrary winds had driven him back to the Christian shores. He had gone into Spain in order to pass into Africa, when a violent illness compelled him to desist from the undertaking. He thinks he already grasps the palm, when he finds himself in Egypt; in order to hasten the accomplishment of his desires, he places himself in the hands of the infidels, and attacks the tyrant on his throne; when, instead of the opprobrium and tortures which he sought, he finds nothing but mildness and curiosity, attentions and honor. He seeks for martyrdom, and martyrdom flies from him. “It was,” Saint Bonaventure remarks, “by an admirable disposition of Divine Providence, who chose that the ardent desire of his faithful servant should give him the merit of martyrdom, and that his life should be preserved to receive the glorious stigmata which were to be impressed on his body by a singular prerogative, in reward of his great love for Jesus crucified, who inflamed his heart.”
Wading relates, upon the authority of a religious of the Order, who was a contemporary of Saint Francis, whose name was Ugolino of Saint Mary of the Mount, corroborated by some other writers of the Order, that the sultan was converted and baptized. Some later authors deny this, and remark that they have mistaken the Sultan of Egypt for the Sultan of Ieonium, who never saw Saint Francis, and of whom James of Vitry says, that he was believed to have received baptism at his death which happened in the year when Damietta was besieged. It is admitted that Wading was mistaken in quoting this passage to prove the conversion of the Sultan of Egypt, but that does not weaken the evidence of Ugolino. He says that Francis went a second time to the sultan before his return to Italy. He urged him to be converted. The Saint, not being able to induce him to overcome the human obstacles which stood in the way, prayed fervently for him for several successive days, and then felt that his prayers were heard. This he communicated to Meledin, who imbibed still greater affection for him, and wished to detain him, but he departed according to the command that he had received from heaven. Some years after, this prince being dangerously ill, the Saint appeared to two of his religious who were in Syria and ordered them to go to him, instruct him, baptize him, and remain with him till he should expire; all this was complied with. There is nothing in this legend which is not very probable, and which is not consistent with circumstances that cannot be called into question:
1. We have seen, in the narratives of James of Vitry, and of Saint Bonaventure, that Meledin said to Francis: “Pray for me, that God may make known to me which religion is most agreeable to Him;” and that he wished to induce him to receive his presents, in order to distribute them to the poor Christians, or to the churches, for the salvation of his soul.
2. After he had seen the holy man, he treated the Christians with great humanity, and shortly after their discomfiture, he sent some of his prisoners to their camp, to offer terms of peace. In the year 1221, their army, which was coming to offer him battle, entangled itself between two branches of the Nile, where it must have inevitably perished. “He behaved to his enemies,” says one of our authors, “in such a manner as could not reasonably have been expected from a Saracen, and which in these days would do honor to a Christian prince were he to do it.”
3. An author, whose testimony on such a point is beyond suspicion, says, “that this sultan, being on his deathbed, caused a large sum of money to be distributed among the poor Christians who were sick in the hospitals, and that he left a considerable revenue for the same purpose; that he enfranchised many slaves, that he had performed various other acts of mercy, and that his death was greatly lamented by the Christians, whom he spared to the utmost of his power. The Emperor Frederic was inconsolable after Meledin’s death, having had strong hopes that he would receive baptism according to a promise he had given him, and that he would strenuously contribute to the propagation of Christianity in the Levant.”
4. It may have happened that Saint Francis who was then in heaven, appeared to two of the religious of his Order, and that he sent them to Meledin; that these religious instructed and baptized him; and that the thing was done secretly from the circumstances of the times; that the authors of those times were not informed of it, and that Ugolino learned it from the religious themselves. In short, it is not improbable that the conversion of this soul should have been granted to the zeal, labors, prayers and tears of such a friend of God as Saint Francis. Thus, the baptism of the sultan is not so very uncertain, and those who have recorded it have not given the Saint praise which may be called false, as Wading has been acrimoniously taxed with. After all, if Meledin was not converted, it is a judgment of God, which those must be fearful of who recommend themselves to the prayers of the pious, forming projects of conversion, and even doing some good works, who yet positively resist the grace vouchsafed them, which requires an effectual change of heart. If he was converted, which is probable, it was a great effect of divine mercy, which sinners must not abuse by deferring their repentance; these graces are very rarely given, and those who wait for them run great risk of their salvation.
There is reason for thinking that Meledin gave Francis and his companions leave to preach in his dominions, since it is well known that the Friars Minor began from that time to spread themselves amongst the Saracens, as James de Vitry says: – “Even the Saracens, blinded as they are, admire the humility and perfection of the Friars Minor, receive them well, and provide them cheerfully with all the necessaries of life, when they go boldly amongst them to preach the gospel; they listen to them willingly, speaking of Jesus Christ and His doctrine; but they beat them and drive them away if they attack Mahomet, and hold him as a liar and infidel.”
An anecdote, related by Saint Bonaventure, may have easily happened in those times. A Saracen seeing some Friars Minor, was moved by their poverty and offered them some money, which they refused to accept, and this astonished him. Having understood that it was for the love of God that they refused money, he conceived such a liking for them, that he undertook to provide them with everything necessary as long as he was able to do so. The holy doctor exclaims on this: – “O inestimable excellence of poverty, which is so powerful to inspire a barbarian with such tender and generous compassion!” It would be a shameful and very criminal thing, were Christians to despise and trample under foot this precious evangelical pearl, for which a Mahometan showed such esteem and respect.
While Francis remained in Egypt, he did not gather much fruit from among the infidels; but his words were a fertile seed which his disciples reaped the abundant harvest of, when afterwards sent thither by Gregory IX and Innocent III.
The Saracens were not the only objects of the zeal of Francis. He labored also for the salvation of the Christians in the army of the Crusaders, and some of them became his disciples. James de Vitry, Bishop of Acre, writing to his friends in Lorraine informed them that Renier, the Prior of Saint Michael, had joined the Order of the Friars Minor; and that three of the most eminent of his clergy had followed his example, and that it was with difficulty he prevented the chorister and several others from taking the same course, to which he adds that this religious Order spreads fast in the world because it is an exact imitation of the form of the primitive Church, and of the life of the Apostles.
The most ancient records of the Order assure us that after some months’ residence in Egypt, the holy Patriarch went to Palestine, and visited the holy places, but they enter into no particulars. What we may safely conjecture is, that God, who led him into the Holy Land, seemed to say to him, as He had said to Abraham: “Arise and walk through the land in the length and in the breadth thereof, for I will give it to thee.”
Rather more than a hundred years after his death, the Sultan of Egypt permitted the Friars Minor to take charge of the Holy Sepulchre of our Lord, and they still have the care of it in the midst of the infidels, under the protection of the Eldest Son of the Church. This privilege, which is so honorable for the Order of Saint Francis, is justly considered by them as the fruit of the fervent devotion of the blessed Patriarch to Jesus Christ crucified.
From Palestine Francis went to Antioch, the capital of Syria, and passed by the black mountain, where there was a celebrated monastery of the order of Saint Benedict. The abbot who had died only a short time before, had foretold that a saintly man would soon come to their house, who was much beloved by God, the Patriarch, of a great Order, who would be poorly attired and of mean appearance, but very much to be revered; in consequence of which the religious, hearing of his coming, went in procession to meet him, and received him with all the honors due to a man of God. He remained some days with them, and the holiness which they observed in him made such an impression upon them, that they embraced his Institute, placing all their effects at the disposition of the patriarch of Antioch. Some other monasteries followed their example; and, in a few years, there was a flourishing province in that country, which continued until such time as the Saracens ravaged the whole of Syria.
While Francis was thus employed in extending his Order in the East, Brother Elias, who was his vicar-general in the West, was destroying it there. He said to the religious, in their conferences, that the life of their Founder was worthy of the highest praise, but that it was not given to all to imitate it; that among the things which he had prescribed for them, some appeared in the eyes of prudence very difficult of observance, others absolutely impracticable and beyond the strength of man; that, in the opinion of the most prudent, some modification was requisite and some change required, some practices necessary, which were not so strictly regular – by specious insinuations of this nature, he brought over many to his opinions, and even some of the provincials who ventured to represent the simplicity of their Father as imprudent. The vicar-general, nevertheless, in conjunction with the ministers, made some regulations for the government of the provinces which were very useful; but, by a strange inconsistency, at the time when they were talking of modifications, they prescribed total abstinence from meat, and forbade its use either in or out of the cloisters, which was a direct contradiction of the rule, which permits the Friars Minor, except in times of fasting, to eat, according to the terms of the Gospel, whatsoever is put before them.
All those who had the true spirit of God were greatly grieved to see that human prudence was preferred to the divine will, and that the vineyard of the Lord was rendered desolate by Brother Elias. They put up fervent prayers to God for the speedy return of their pastor, so necessary for the flock; and, after having secretly concerted together, they sent Brother Stephen into Syria, to communicate to their Founder what was going on. Stephen went and gave him a full detail of all things. Francis was not cast down by this deplorable intelligence, but he had recourse to God, and recommended to His protection the family he had received from him. As to the regulation which prescribed entire abstinence from meat, he, with great humility, asked the advice of Peter of Catana, who replied: “It is not for me to judge; it is for the legislator to decide thereon, as on all the rest.” Francis deferred the decision till his return, and embarked immediately for Italy.
His voyage was not a long one; they soon anchored at the Isle of Candia, from whence they came to Venice where they landed. He sent circular letters to convene the chapter which he proposed holding at the ensuing Michaelmas, to remedy the evil which had been brought about by Brother Elias. He built a small chapel near the Venetian lakes, (Lagunes,) in which two of his religious were to say the Divine Office, in memory of an extraordinary thing which happened to him at this place.
The Saint then went to Padua, Bergamo, Brescia, the island of the lake of Garda, to Cremona and Mantua; at all these places there were convents of his Order. We are assured that Saint Dominic joined him on his way; that they conferred together and with John of Navarra de Torniella, Bishop of Bergamo, on the salvation of souls; that they made some pious visits to the solitaries of the valley of Astino, and that the patriarch of the Friars Preachers celebrated Mass there, that of the Minors being the deacon at the service. When they were in spiritual conference at Cremona, the religious came to request them to bless the well, and to solicit the Almighty to purify the water which was thick and muddy. Dominic, at the entreaty of Francis, blessed a vessel full of the water, and caused it to be thrown back into the well, and all water that subsequently was drawn from it was clear and wholesome to drink.
The two saints separated, but, shortly after, met again at Bologna. Francis going to Bologna, met a woman whose son was epileptic, and who came to beg the aid of his prayers. He wrote on a slip of paper some short but very devout ejaculatory prayers which he thought might be taken to the sick youth; they had no sooner been given to him, than he was entirely cured; in gratitude whereof, he placed himself at the service of the Friars Minor in the convent of Parma.
The reputation of the holy man was so great that, according to Sigonius, the streets were choked with the number of students who wished to see and hear him. It was with difficulty that way was made for him to reach the principal square, where he preached in so sublime a manner that they thought they heard an angel and not a man. The greater part of the audience was converted; and many solicited the habit of the Order, among whom were Nicholas of Pepulis, Bonizio, Pelerino, Falleroni, and Riger or Ricer of Modena. Nicholas was that learned jurisconsult who had been so kind to Bernard de Quintavalle in 1211, when every one had treated him with contempt at Bologna. Bonizio excelled in the love of holy poverty, and was very useful to the Saint in affairs of importance, by the talent he had of managing with prudence. Pelerino and Riger were young gentlemen from the Marches of Ancona, who were students at Bologna – to them Francis foretold all they would do in the course of their lives. The first would only be a lay-brother, although he was well versed in canon-law; it was said of him that when he was in company with men of the world, either from necessity or from charitable motives, he left them as soon as he could; and when he was censured for so doing as being guilty of rudeness, he replied: “When we have sought Jesus Christ our Master, we have never found Him either amongst relatives or amongst our acquaintances.” The second attached himself to his holy Patriarch, and strove to imitate him in all things. Although he was eminently favored with the gift of chastity, he nevertheless avoided with great care the conversation of females, and he said to those with whom he was intimate, who were surprised at it: “I should perhaps lose the gift with which I have been favored, by a just judgment of God, if I took fewer precautions: he who loves danger will perish in it.”
Here is an authentic testimonial as to one of the sermons which Francis preached at Bologna in the year 1220; it is taken from the Archives of the church of Spalatro, and it is found in the history of the bishops of Bologna, written by Sigonius:
“I, Thomas, citizen of Spalatro, and archdeacon of the cathedral of the same town, saw, in the year 1220, on the day of the Assumption of the Mother of God, Saint Francis preach in the square in front of the little palace where almost the whole city was collected. He began his sermon thus: ‘The angels, the men, and the demons.’ He spoke of these intelligent beings so well and with such precision, that many learned men who heard him, were astonished to hear such a discourse from the mouth of so simple a man. He did not diverge to draw a moral from different subjects, as preachers usually do, but as those who dilate upon one point, he brought everything to bear upon the sole object of restoring peace, concord, and union which had been totally destroyed by cruel dissensions. He was very poorly clad, his countenance was pale and wan, and his whole appearance was uninviting; but God gave such force and efficiency to his words, that they led to the reconciliation of a great number of gentlemen who were greatly exasperated against each other, and whose irritation had caused the shedding of no small quantity of blood. The love and veneration for the Saint were so universal, and went so far, that men and women ran to him in crowds, and those esteemed themselves fortunate who could only touch the hem of his garments.”
The author who records this testimonial adds that he performed miracles also in Bologna. A child of quality was taken to him, who had what is called a pearl on his eye, which rendered his eye quite blind, and no remedy could be found for it. Francis made the sign of the cross over him from the head to the feet, and he was perfectly cured. Having subsequently entered the Institute of his miraculous physician, he saw much better with the eye on which the pearl had been than with the other. This miracle, which was known throughout the city, increased the zeal and respect which the Bolognese had for the servant of God so much, that they could not tear themselves from him, and they gave him a second house for his Institute, situated in a wood about a mile from the town.
After these apostolical functions, he went to see Cardinal Ugolino, who was then legate in Lombardy, by whom he was received with marks of the most sincere affection. He proposed next to visit the convent of his Order which was close to one of the gates of Bologna, but as soon as he saw it, finding it much more spacious and handsome than was requisite for strict poverty, he turned away his eyes from it, and said indignantly: “Is this the dwelling of the poor Evangelical laborers? Such grand and superb palaces, are they for Friars Minor? I do not acknowledge this house as one of ours, and I do not look upon those who dwell in it as my brethren. I, therefore, order and enjoin all those who wish to continue to bear the name of Friars Minor, to leave this house forthwith, and to give up to the rich of the world buildings which are only fit for them.”
He was so implicitly obeyed, that even the sick, among whom was Brother Leo, one of his first companions, who is the relator of this circumstance, were carried out on the shoulders of their brethren and exposed to the air. There they all remained till the arrival of the legate, who, having been informed of what was going on, had come and appeased the holy man. He represented to him that it was necessary to allow the convents to be more spacious, in order that the infirm might have more air for restoring their health; and that such as were well should have more room for relaxing their minds. “But as to the property,” he added, “I can assure you that your brethren have no part in it, as it remains entirely to the founders. Moreover, if you have any further scruples on the subject, I declare to you that I take the whole upon myself in the name of the Holy Roman Church.”
Francis could not resist the powerful reason of the prudent and pious legate, the protector of his Order. He, therefore, consented that his brethren should remain in the convent; he even ordered them to return to it, but he would not go into it himself, and he chose to take the repose which nature required, in the house of the Friars Preachers, where he passed some days with his friend Saint Dominic.
It would appear that Saint Bonaventure had this circumstance in view, when he said: “that if it happened that Saint Francis found in the houses which his brethren occupied, anything which looked like property, or that was too elegant, he wished the houses to be pulled down, or that the religious should quit them, because he maintained that the Order was grounded on Evangelical poverty as its principal foundation, so that if this poverty was adhered to in it, it would flourish, but that it would perish if it was set aside.”
While the Saint was with the Friars Preachers, one of them, from feelings of compassion, begged him to return to his children, and to pardon the fault they had committed, but he replied: “Indulgence which gives rise to an easy relapse into sin, is not be commended. I will not sanction by my presence what has been committed against holy poverty.” This charitable religious endeavored to induce him at least to see them, in order that they might be made aware of their fault, and be corrected. “We will come back here together,” he said, “if you do not choose to remain there, after having performed this duty of superior.” Francis yielded to this prudent advice; he went to his children, and seeing them grieved and repentant, and ready to receive the penance he might inflict, he pardoned them.
His indulgence did not extend to the provincial, whose name was John de Strachia, one of those who wished to have the rule mitigated in 1219. He censured him severely for having had so beautiful a house built, or, at least, for having permitted it to be built. He upbraided him in strong terms for having, without consulting him, opened a school for the studies of the Friars Minor, and for having made regulations for its conduct more favorable to science than to piety. He did away with this school, because he chose that his religious should pray rather than study, and that the other provincials might learn to be more humble and more religious in all that had relation to studies.
And here we must advert to what happened at a later period; the provincial had the rashness to reestablish the school after the departure of the Founder, who, having been informed of it, and knowing from interior revelation the obduracy of this man, cursed him publicly, and deposed him at the ensuing chapter. The Saint was entreated to withdraw this curse, and to give his blessing to Brother John, who was a noble and learned man, but he answered: “I cannot bless him whom the Lord has cursed.” A dreadful reply which was soon after verified. This unfortunate man died, exclaiming: “I am damned and cursed for all eternity.” Some frightful circumstances which followed after his death confirmed his awful prognostic. Such a malediction which pride and disobedience brought upon this learned man, ought to strike terror into those vain men who forsake piety for science, and in whom great talents have no other effect than to produce in them great attachment to their own conceits, and proud indocility, which induces, at length, even a revolt against the Church.
Saint Francis was not averse to studies, as will be seen, when, two years after, he caused theology to be taught. But he chose that they should so study as not to extinguish the spirit of prayer. He approved of science, but of that only, which the Holy Spirit calls religious, which is sanctified by the fear of the Lord, of which Saint Augustine says: “that it is the companion of charity, and teaches humility.”
Cardinal Ugolino proposed to the Servant of God that they should make a retreat of some days together, at Camaldoli, in order to give his body some rest, which was borne down by fatigue, and relax his mind from the various cares which oppressed it. He willingly assented to this, because he liked the life of a recluse. They, therefore, went to this holy solitude, and they remained there nearly a month, solely employed in meditation on heavenly things.
The cardinal took a cell at the entry of the desert where it is still to be seen; and Francis took one near it, which had been inhabited by Saint Romnald. It has since taken the name of Saint Francis’ cell, and is only occupied by the prior, or major of Camaldoli. The writers of the country add, that the festival of Saint Francis is celebrated solemnly there, and that it is decreed by the statutes that the anthem which the Friars Minor chant shall be sung on that day: Salve, Sancte Pater, etc.
The two pious solitaries went from thence to Mount Alvernia, where they only stayed a few days.
The cardinal returned to Bologna, and Francis took the route for Assisi, in order to open the chapter at Saint Mary of the Angels, as he had given notice.
On the way, Saint Bonaventure acquaints us what occurred to him. His infirmities and fatigue having compelled him to mount on an ass, his companion, Leonard of Assisi, who followed him on foot, and was also very much fatigued, gave way to human feelings, and said to himself: “His parents were not the equals of mine; yet, there he rides, and I am forced to trudge on foot and lead him.” As he was thus giving way to these thoughts, Francis, to whom God had made known what was passing in Leonard’s mind, dismounted, and said: “No, brother, it is not fitting that I should ride while you walk on foot, because you are better born than I am, and are of greater consideration in the world.” Leonard, greatly surprised, and blushing for shame, threw himself at his Father’s feet, acknowledged his fault, and with tears solicited his pardon.
As soon as the holy Patriarch entered the Valley of Spoleto, his children came in crowds from various parts to meet him, and to congratulate him on his return. He was greatly gratified on seeing them, and communicated freely with them, encouraging the weak, consoling those who were in affliction, censuring such as were in fault, and exhorting them all to adhere strictly to the rules. It was there that he received a confirmation of the complaints which had been made to him in the Levant, against the government of Elias, his vicar general, and he had himself the proof of it.
Elias ventured to present himself to him, in a newer habit and one made of finer cloth than those of the other brethren, the cowl of which was longer and the sleeves wider, and he assumed an air little suitable to his profession. Francis, dissembling what was passing in his mind, said to him before the assistants: – “I beg you to lend me that habit.” Elias did not dare refuse: he went aside and took it off and brought it to him. Francis put it on over his own, smoothed it down, plaited it nicely under the girdle, threw the cowl over his head, and then, strutting fiercely with his head erect, he paced three or four times round the company, saying, in a loud voice : – “God preserve you, good people.” Then taking the habit off indignantly, he threw it from him with contempt, and, turning to Elias, “That is the way,” he said, “that the bastard brethren of our Order will strut.” After this he resumed his usual demeanor and walked humbly with his old and tattered habit, saying: – “Such is the deportment of the true Friars Minor.” Then, seating himself amongst them, he addressed them in the mildest manner, and spoke on poverty and humility, of which he so forcibly pointed out the perfection, that it seemed to them that those whom they had previously considered the poorest and most humble, had made but small advance in the practice of those two virtues. In fine, he annulled all the novelties which the vicar-general had introduced into the Order during his absence, except the prohibition of eating meat, which he thought it necessary to retain some time longer, lest he might be thought to encourage gluttony.
The means he had taken to curb the foolish vanity of Brother Elias, showed both his prudence and his authority, and made such an impression on his disciples, that there was not one of them who ventured to say a word in favor of the vicar-general, although he had his partisans amongst them. Some time afterwards, the Patriarch had an opportunity of taking off the prohibition of eating meat, in consequence of a wonderful event which is worthy of being recorded.
A young man in the dress of a traveller, came in haste to the door of the Convent of Saint Mary of the Angels, and said to Brother Masse, who was the porter: – “I wish to speak to Brother Francis, but I know he is meditating in the woods; call Brother Elias to me, who is said to be learned and prudent, in order that he may satisfy a doubt which presses upon me.” The porter was turned away by Brother Elias, and was puzzled what reply to give the stranger, not to scandalize him, and not to say what was untrue. The young man anticipated him, saying: “Brother Elias does not choose to come, I must therefore beg you to go to Brother Francis, in order that he may order him to come to speak to me.” Masse went, and did as he was requested, and Francis, having his eyes fixed on heaven, said, without changing his position: – “Go and tell Brother Elias that I order him to speak to the young man.”
This order vexed Elias, and he came to the door in great irritation, asking what he was wanted for? “Do not be angry,” said the young man, “I ask you, if those who profess to follow the Gospel may not eat whatever is given to them, as Jesus Christ has observed; and if any one may rightfully direct the contrary?” Elias, seizing hastily the door to shut it, said: – “I know all that, and have no answer to give you but: go your ways.” The young man replied: – “I cannot tell what you would answer, but I know very well that you ought to give an answer.”
When Elias got calm in his cell, he reflected on what had passed, and on what would be proper to say in answer to the question which had been put to him; and, finding it difficult, and being sorry that he had given the young man so ungracious a reception, in whom he thought he had remarked something extraordinary, he returned to speak to him, but he was gone and could not be found. Francis learned from God that it was an angel, and, on his return to the convent, he said to Brother Elias: – “You do what is not right; you turn contemptuously away angels who come from God to visit and instruct us; I greatly fear that your pride will render you unworthy of the humble institution of Friars Minor, and that you will die out of that state.” It was then that he revoked the statute which forbade eating meat.
Bernard of Quintavalle returning from Spain and being on the border of a river which he could not cross, the same angel appeared to him in the same form, and greeted him in the Italian language. Bernard, surprised at hearing the language of his country, and taken with the good looks of the young man who addressed him, asked him from whence he came. The angel then told him what had just occurred between him and Brother Elias. He took him by the hand, carried him across the river, and disappeared, leaving him so full of consolation, that he had no fatigue during the remainder of his journey. When he arrived in Italy, and had related the circumstance, with the day and hour, he found that it was in fact the same angel.
Before the opening of the chapter, Francis, reflecting mournfully on the relaxation which had been introduced into his Order by those who ought to have been most zealous in promoting the purity of its observance, had a vision which was very extraordinary. A great statue appeared before him, and he saw it with his bodily eyes; it greatly resembled that which Nabuchodonosor had seen in a dream, the interpretation of which had been given him by the Prophet Daniel. God chose to employ this mode to acquaint the holy Patriarch with the various revolutions which would take place in his Order, and he signified them to him by the statue itself, by the different metals of which it was composed, either thus to modify by these humiliating foreshowings the honor which he derived from being the Founder of so wonderful a work as that of the establishment of his Order; or to inspire him with the intention of sending up fervent prayers to heaven, which should draw down graces on his flock at all times, which, in fact, he did with a profusion of tears; or, in fine, it was a foresight given him of the relaxations which would be introduced, to enable him to advise his religious to be more vigilant, as Saint Paul had predicted the errors and irregularities which were to occur in the Church, in order to excite the vigilance of the bishops.
In Nabuchodonosor’s vision, a stone was separated from the mountain, which, striking the feet of the statue, shivered it to pieces; the statue was wholly broken, and disappeared. This did not occur in the vision which Francis had; for the great body of religion which it represented, which has had its vicissitudes, as all others (and with more lustre than any, because of its more extensive and greater exposure to the eyes of the public) has nevertheless continued to have existence, to maintain itself, to serve the Church at all times, and to furnish it with saints. It has even often renewed itself with features which bring to mind its primitive beauty; by which it may be said to be a type of the mystical body of Jesus Christ, which notwithstanding the decay of ages, does not cease to have vigorous and healthy members who are as fervent as those of the earliest periods.
The holy Founder having listened to all that was said against the government of Brother Elias, and to what he had alleged in his justification, held his chapter on the Festival of Saint Michael, in the Convent of Portiuncula. He substituted Brother Gratian, in the place of Brother John of Strachia, as Provincial of Bologna, of which we have spoken before; and Brother Peter of Catania, in place of Brother Elias. Peter had been the second of his disciples, and into his hands he committed the whole guidance of his Order, not only because he did not think himself able to look to it in person, on account of the multitude of religious now belonging to it, and on account of his infirmity, but in order to improve himself in the virtue of humility, to which he was so much attached.
He then assembled them and said: – “I am now dead to you all; there is Peter of Catania, who is your superior, whom henceforward we must all obey, you and I,” and prostrating himself at the feet of Peter, he promised to obey him in all things as minister general of the Order. This title of minister general was displeasing to the religious, who did not wish it should be given to any one during the lifetime of their Father, and they agreed that he who took his place should only have the title of vicar general.
Francis being on his knees, with his hands clasped, and his eyes lifted up to heaven, said, with affecting emotion: “My Lord Jesus Christ, I recommend to Thee this family, which is Thine own, and which up to this moment Thou hast confided to me. Thou knowest that my infirmities incapacitate me from having any longer the care of it; I leave it in the hands of the ministers; if it should so happen that on their part, negligence, scandal, or too great severity, should be the cause of any one of the brethren perishing, they will render to Thee, O Lord, an account of it at the day of judgement.”
From that time till his death he continued as much as it was in his power in the humble state of an inferior, although he did not fail to communicate to the superiors the lights which God gave him for the good government of the Order, and on several occasions he could not avoid acting as its Founder and General.
Saint Dominic, his friend, had similar feelings as to the employments of office. In this year he held the first chapter of his Order at Bologna, and wished to resign the station of superior, of which his humility made him consider himself incapable and unworthy; but his religious would not permit it. These have been the feelings of all the saints, because they knew that, for the purpose of salvation, it is safer to obey than to command. Eight days before the chapter, Pope Honorious issued a bull addressed to Francis, and to the superiors of the Friars Minor, by which he forbade them to receive any one to profession, unless after a twelvemonth’s probation, and directing that, after profession, no one whosoever should leave the order; forbidding, also, any persons from receiving such as should quit it. What gave rise to this measure was that, at the commencement of the Order of Friars Minor, and of that of the Preachers, there were some who made their profession without a novitiate, according as the superiors thought proper under different circumstances, and this sort of precipitate engagement was found to have its inconveniences.
Peter of Catania, acting as vicar general, and finding that he could not provide for the multitude of religious who came to the Convent of Saint Mary of the Angels, as to the chief monastery of the Order, thought that, in order to provide for this, some portion of the property of the novices might be retained; on which he consulted Francis to know whether he thought the suggestion proper, and if he would permit it. Francis said: “My dear brother, God preserve us from this sort of charity, which would render us impious in respect to our rule, in order to acquire consideration in the sight of men.” The vicar then asking what he should do for the relief of the guests; “Strip the altar of the Blessed Virgin,” replied Francis, “take away all the ornaments which are there; the Lord will send you what is requisite to restore to his Mother what we shall employ in charity. Believe firmly that the Virgin will be pleased to see her altar stripped, rather than that there should be any contravention of the Gospel of her Son;” and he took occasion again strenuously to recommend holy poverty.
He also said many things relative to books, to science, and to preaching, which will be recorded in another part of his life. Brother Casar of Spires, who had been professor of theology before becoming a Friar Minor, and who was a man of great piety, having heard all that the Father said on the subject of science, and the learned, had a long conversation with him on the state of his soul, and on the observance of the rule, which he concluded thus: “My Father, I have made a firm resolution, with God’s grace, to observe the Gospel and the rule, according to the instruction of Jesus Christ, until my death; and now, I have a favor to ask you, which is that, if it may happen in my lifetime that some should swerve from it, as you have foretold, you give me your blessing from this moment, and your leave to separate myself from such transgressors, in order that I may adhere to the rule alone with those who have a like zeal with myself.” Rejoicing at this proposition, Francis embraced him and blessed him, saying: “Know, my son, that what you solicit is granted to you by Jesus Christ, and by me;” and placing his hands on his head, he added: “Thou art a priest forever according to the order of Melchisedech” – the holy man desiring to have it understood thereby that all the promises he had received from Jesus Christ, would have their accomplishment to the end, in those who adhered to the rule.
It was at this time that he addressed a letter to the religious of his Order, and particularly to the priests, upon the profound veneration which we ought to have for that august mystery of the Eucharist.
In the course of the year 1220, Francis received the news of the martyrdom of the five religious whom he had sent to Morocco. We must relate the circumstances, more at length, since they belong to the life of the holy Patriach, who gave this mission to these valorous soldiers of Jesus Christ, and since they are the first martyrs of the Order.
Berardus, Peter, Otho, Ajut, Accursus, and Vital, their superior, having left Italy for Morocco, after having received their Father’s blessing, as has already been noticed, arrived shortly after in the kingdom of Arragon. There Vital was detained some time by a lingering illness, which induced him to think that it was not God’s will that he should continue his journey. He therefore let the other five proceed, who soon reached Coimbra, and were favorably received by Urraca, queen of Portugal, the wife of King Alphonso II. This princess conceived so high an opinion of their virtue and placed such confidence in them, that she entreated them to pray to God to inform them of the time at which she should die. They promised to do so, although they considered themselves unworthy of making such a request; but they were so favorably heard, that they foretold to the queen that they were to suffer martyrdom with all the circumstances thereof; that their relics would be brought to Coimbra, and that she would receive them honorably, after which she would be called from this world. Predictions which were fully verified. They went from thence to Alanquer, where the Princess Sancia, sister to the king of Portugal, approving their plans, induced them to put secular clothing over their religious habits, without which precaution they would not have been able to pass into the territories of Morocco.
Having reached Seville, which was then occupied by the Moors, they remained a week concealed in the house of a Christian, where they threw off their secular clothing. Their zeal induced them to go forth, and they got as far as the principal mosque, which they attempted to enter in order to preach to the infidels, but they were driven back with loud cries and severely beaten. From thence they went to the gate of the palace, saying that they were ambassadors sent to the king from Jesus Christ, the King of kings. They were introduced, and said many things relative to the Christian religion, to induce the king to be converted and receive baptism; but they afterwards added much against Mahomet and against his law, which irritated him to such a degree, that he ordered them to be beheaded; but being mollified by the entreaties of his son, he was satisfied with having them confined at the top of a tower, from whence he had them removed to the ground-floor, because, from above, they continued to speak of Jesus Christ, and against the prophet, to those who entered the palace. Having caused them to be again brought before him, he engaged to pardon them, if they would change their religion: “Prince,” they replied, “would to God that you would have mercy on yourself! Treat us as you think proper. It is in your power to take away our lives, but we are sure that death will lead us to a glorious immortality.” The king, seeing their unshakeable firmness, sent them, by the advice of his council, to Morocco, with Don Pedro Fernandas de Castro, a gentlemen of Castile, and some other Christians.
They found there the Infant Don Pedro of Portugal, who had retired to that country in consequence of some misunderstanding which he had with his brother, King Alphonso, and who now commanded the troops of the king of Morocco. This prince received them with great respect and charity as apostolical men, and had them provided with every thing necessary for their subsistence. Knowing what had occurred to them at Seville, in consequence of their preaching, and seeing that, consequently, they were still in a state of great weakness, he endeavored to dissuade them from doing the same thing in Morocco; but the generous missionaries, solely intent upon their pious object, ceased not to preach without any fear, wherever they met with any Saracens.
One day, when Berardus was giving instruction to the people and was declaiming against Mahomet from a wagon, the king passed by, going to visit the tombs of his predecessors, and seeing that he continued his talking notwithstanding his presence, he thought the declaimer must be out of his mind, and instantly directed that all the five should be driven out of the town, and sent back to the country of the Christians. The Infant Don Juan gave them an escort to convey them to Ceuta, whence they were to embark. On the road, they got stealthily away from their escort, and returned to Morocco, where they recommenced preaching in the great square. The king, being informed of this, became greatly irritated, and had them imprisoned, in order to starve them to death. They were there twenty days without food or drink.
During this time the heat became so excessive and caused so much sickness, that it was thought that the hand of God fell heavily upon them to avenge his servants. The king became alarmed, and by the advice of a Saracen named Abaturino, who loved the Christians, he liberated the prisoners. They were extremely surprised to find that, after twenty days’ confinement, without any nourishment whatsoever, they came out in full health and strength.
As soon as they had left the prison, they were anxious to recommence their preaching; but the other Christians, who were apprehensive of the wrath of the king, opposed themselves to it, and had them taken to the place of embarkation; but they again made their escape, and returned to Morocco. Then the Infant Don Pedro was induced to keep them in his palace, and to place guards over them to prevent their appearing in public.
This prince being obliged to set out, some short time after, to take the command of the army which the king sent against some rebels, he took the Friars Minor with him, as well as several other Christians, fearing lest, during his absence, they should escape from those who had charge of them. As he returned victorious, his army was three days without water, and was reduced to the greatest distress. Brother Bernardus resorted to prayer, and having made a hole in the ground with a pickaxe, he caused a spring to flow from it, which sufficed for the whole army, and enabled them to fill their goat-skins, after which it dried up. So palpable a miracle procured for them from all parts the greatest veneration. Many even went so far as to kiss their feet.
When they returned to Morocco, the Infant continued to take the same precautions as before, to prevent their appearing in public; nevertheless, they found means to get out secretly one Friday, and to present themselves before the king, as he was passing, according to his custom, to visit the tombs of his predecessors. Berardus again got upon a wagon, and spoke in his presence with astonishing intrepidity. The king, irritated beyond control, gave orders to one of the princes of his court to have them put to death. This prince only had them put in prison, because he had witnessed the miracle which we have recorded above.
They were very ill-treated in this confinement, but continued to preach even there, when there were either Christians or Saracens to listen to them. All this occurred towards the end of the year 1219.
At the beginning of the year 1220, the Saracen prince who had received the order to put them to death, having sent for them from the prison, found them very firm in their faith, and that they spoke with the same boldness against their prophet Mahomet. He was so enraged at this, that, forgetful of the miracle he had witnessed on the return of the army, he directed them to be kept separated and tortured in various ways. They tied their hands and feet, and dragged them along the ground by a cord fastened round their necks, and they were so cruelly scourged that their bowels nearly protruded. Thirty men who were employed for this cruel service did not leave them till they had poured boiling vinegar and oil into their wounds, and rolled them upon broken pieces of earthenware covered with straw.
Some of those who guarded them, saw a great light which came from Heaven, and which seemed to raise these religious up, with an innumerable number of other persons; they thought that they had left the prison and entered it in great haste, where they found them in fervent prayer.
The king of Morocco, informed of what had been done, desired that they might be brought into his presence. They brought them to him, their hands tied, and they were driven in with blows and cuffs. A Saracen prince who met them endeavored to induce them to embrace the law of Mahomet. Brother Otho rejected the proposition with horror and spat on the ground, to mark his contempt of such a religion; this brought upon him a severe box on the ear, upon which he turned the other side, according to the direction of the Gospel, and said to the prince: – “May God forgive thee, for thou knowest not what thou doest.”
When they had reached the palace, the king said to them: “Are you then those impious persons who despise the true faith, those foolish persons who blaspheme the prophet sent from God?” “O king,” they answered, “we have no contempt for the true faith; on the contrary, we are ready to suffer and die in its defence; but we detest your faith, and the wicked man who was its author.” The king, imagining that he might perhaps gain them over by the love of pleasure, of riches or of honors, said to them, in pointing out to them some Saracen women whom he had brought there on purpose: “I will give you those women for wives, together with large sums of money, and you shall be highly esteemed in my kingdom, if you will embrace the law of Mahomet; if not, you shall die by the sword.” The confessors of the faith answered without hesitating: “We want neither your women nor your money: keep those for yourself, and let Jesus Christ be for us. Subject us to what tortures you please, and take away our lives. All suffering is light to us, when we think of the glories of heaven.” Then the king, having lost all hopes of overcoming them, took his scimitar, and with his own hand split their skulls in two; and thus was completed the martyrdom of the five Friars Minor, on the 16th of January, 1220.
Their bodies, having been dragged out of the town and cut to pieces by the infidels, were collected by the Christians; and the Infant Don Pedro took them into Spain, from whence he sent them into Portugal to King Alphonso, not daring as yet to revisit his own country. This king, accompanied by Queen Urraca and some of the grandees of the kingdom, came with the clergy to meet them, and had them placed with great pomp in the monastery of Regular Canons of the Holy Cross, at Coimbra, where they still are. The celebrated miracles which were achieved there in great numbers as well as those which were performed in Morocco, and on the way to Europe, are recorded by contemporary authors, who have written their acts. Pope Sixtus IV recognized them solemnly as martyrs, in the year 1461, and gave permission to the religious to say their office.
At the time of their death, the Princess Sancia of Portugal, was in the act of prayer; they appeared to her with a bloody scimitar in their hands and told her that by their martyrdom they were on their way to heaven, where they would pray to God continually for her and would thus reward the good she had done them.
What they had foretold Queen Urraca, as to the time of her death, came to pass, and her confessor, a canon regular of Santa Cruz, a most exemplary man, of great piety, was made acquainted with it by a very marvellous vision. A short time after the bodies of these glorious martyrs had been placed in the church of this monastery, he saw in the middle of the night the choir filled with religious, who were singing very melodiously, which surprised him exceedingly, neither knowing what brought them there, nor how they got in. He asked one of them, who replied: “We are all Friars Minor. He whom you see at the head, is Brother Francis, whom you have longed so much to see; and the five who are more resplendent than the rest, are the martyrs of Morocco, who are honored in this church. Our Lord has sent us hither in order to pray for Queen Urraca, who is dead, and who had great affection for our Order; and he has willed that you should see all this, because you were her confessor.” The vision disappeared, and the confessor’s door was immediately knocked at, to communicate to him that the queen was dead.
The severe vengeance with which God visited the king of Morocco and his subjects was also noticed. The right hand with which this prince had struck the holy martyrs, and the whole of his right side, from the head to the feet, was paralyzed and became perfectly dry. During three years, no rain fell in the whole country, and an infinity of people died by pestilence and famine, which scourges lasted five years, God choosing to proportion the duration of the punishment to the number of the martyrs.
All these marvels which he wrought in their favor, and the title of martyrs, which the Church gives them, must convince every faithful Christian, enlightened by the wisdom which is from above, that it was by a particular impulse from the Holy Ghost that they exposed themselves to death with so much ardor, against the advice of the other Christians. Human prudence is very rash when it takes upon itself to blame what is approved by God and by His Church.
It would be difficult to express the joy which filled the heart of Francis, when he learned that his brethren had suffered martyrdom. He said to those who were with him: – “It is now that I can rest assured that I have had five true Friars Minor!” and he called down a thousand blessings on the convent of Alanquer, where they had prepared themselves for martyrdom, which had such effect, that there have been always since a great number of religious there, and at least one who has been distinguished for religious perfection.
Brother Vital, who had been the superior of these generous martyrs, was delighted on hearing of their triumph, and greatly regretted not having shared therein. It was not in good-will that he was deficient; he was only arrested by his illness, of which he died at Saragossa some time afterwards.
One of the authors of the life of Saint Dominic, tells us that this great patriarch, who held his general chapter at the time, was in ecstasies of joy, when he heard that five Friars Minor had received the crown of martyrdom; that he looked upon it as the first fruits of the plans of his friend Francis, and, at the same time, as a powerful incentive for his brethren to aspire to what is most perfect, which is to suffer for the faith of Jesus Christ. The Friars Preachers have profited by the example, as is evinced by the great number of martyrs of their order, by whom the Church has been enriched.
It was not without a special dispensation of Providence that the relics of the five martyrs were deposited at Coimbra, in the Church of the Canons Regular of Santa Cruz, since our Lord made them subserve to the vocation of Saint Anthony of Padua, who is one of the most striking ornaments of this renowned Order.
He was a native of Portugal, of a very noble family of Lisbon, born in the year 1195, and had received the name of Ferdinand in Baptism. The first years of his life had been passed in innocence and piety; the fear of being seduced by the world, and the wish to consecrate himself wholly to God, made him take the resolution, at the age of fifteen, to enter the Order of Regular Canons, in the Convent of Saint Vincent, at Lisbon. Two years afterwards, in order to avoid the frequent visits of his friends, which interfere with habits of retirement, he asked permission of his superior to remove to the convent of Santa Cruz at Coimbra, which is of the same order. He had some difficulty in obtaining this leave, because they had great esteem for him personally. He made use of the quiet he now enjoyed to apply himself to the study of sacred literature, and, as if he had foreseen what he was to do at a future period of his life, he not only taught himself what was requisite for his own sanctification, but also what was useful for instructing others in the paths of virtue; he gathered also from the Holy Scriptures, and from the study of the Fathers, what could serve to confirm the truths of faith, and to impugn error. The assiduity with which he pursued his studies, together with the excellence of his memory, and his surpassing talents, with the light he received from Heaven, rendered him in a short time very learned.
The relics of the five Friars Minor who had been martyred at Morocco, and which were taken to Santa Cruz, at Coimbra, at that time, inspired in his heart an anxious desire to die for Jesus Christ as they had done, and made him entertain the thought of becoming a member of that Order, as the school of martyrdom. Some old authors add that Saint Francis, who was then at Assisi, appeared to him, and induced him to embrace his Institute, foretelling him what would happen.
The Friars Minor of the convent of Saint Anthony of Olivares, near Coimbra, having come to the Canons Regular of Santa Cruz to quest, Ferdinand could not control his zeal, but taking them aside, he opened to them the wish he had to enter their community. They were highly pleased on hearing this, and fixed the day with him for putting his design into execution. In the meantime, he asked leave of the Superior of Santa Cruz to effect the change, and with great difficulty obtained it. The Friars Minor returned on the appointed day, and gave him the habit of the Order, in the Convent of Santa Cruz itself, and took him back with them to that of Saint Anthony. The loss of so estimable a member was very distressing to the canons; one of them who felt it more than the others, said to him with bitterness, as he left the house: – “Go, perhaps you shall become a saint.” To which Ferdinand answered with humility: – “When you hear that it is so, you will doubtless give praise to God.” He was not satisfied with having changed his order; he chose likewise to change his name, in order by that means to disappoint those who might endeavor to seek for him; and as Saint Anthony was the titular saint of the convent, he begged the superior to call him Anthony, which is the name he was ever after known by, and to which was added of Padua, because his body reposes in that city, and is there honored by the faithful.
The wish to shed his blood for the faith of Jesus Christ, which was the source of his vocation, was constantly increasing in his mind and gave him no rest. He solicited leave from the superiors to go into Africa, which was granted to him, as had been promised him, when he entered the Order. Being come into the land of the Saracens, he was seized with a violent illness, which confined him the whole winter, and obliged him to return to Spain in the spring for his recovery. He embarked for this purpose, but the Almighty, who had destined him for the martyrdom of the apostolical life, and who intended by his means to convert an infinity of souls in Italy and France, gave him a passage in a contrary direction. The wind drove the vessel he was in to Sicily, where he landed, and from thence he went to Assisi, where we shall meet him in the general chapter at Saint Mary of the Angels.
It was in the year 1220, that the Friars Minor, Angelus and Albert, both natives of Pisa, after having stayed some time at Paris in order to arrange the first establishment there, crossed the channel to England, whither Francis had sent them at the general chapter of 1219. The religious of Saint Dominic had already a convent at Canterbury, where they received the two new comers with great charity. King Henry III, who reigned at that time, settled them with royal magnificence at Oxford. There he held his court, and he conceived so great a liking for them that he had a lodge built near their convent, to which he occasionally retired in order to converse with them.
The reason which primarily induced him to show them so much consideration, was his having learnt from authentic sources what had occurred to them on their journey from Canterbury to Oxford. The prior, the sacristan, and the cellarer of the abbey of Abingdon, who were at one of their farms, contrary to the usual practice of their order, where hospitality is always given, as recommended by Saint Benedict, refused it to these poor religious, and turned them from their doors, although it was at nightfall. A young religious, who was in their company, seeing that they were about to pass the night in the wood, introduced them secretly into the barn, brought them some food, and recommended himself urgently to their prayers. In the night he had a dreadful vision of the justice with which God visited the prior and the two others, but which did not fall on him, because he had been charitable. In the morning he went to them with a view of telling them what he had seen in his sleep, and found them all three dead in their beds. Struck with astonishment he left the farm, from whence the two Friars Minor had departed before daybreak, and went to relate what had happened to the abbot of Abingdon; they both had serious reflections on this subject, which ended in their entering into the Order of Friars Minor. So extraordinary an occurrence could not be kept secret; many persons heard it; the king was made acquainted with it, and this caused the favorable reception he gave to Angelus and Albert.
His open protection, with the sanctity of their lives, caused the Institute to flourish throughout the kingdom. Several doctors of theology embraced it; and subsequently Robert Maideston, Bishop of Hereford, an enlightened prelate of great distinction at court, obtained leave from Gregory IX to give up his bishopric to take the poor habit of Saint Francis, under which he became a model of humility and poverty.
Three hundred years after, King Henry VIII destroyed all these monuments of science and religion, which his predecessor Henry III had raised with so much zeal, and tyrannically treated the successors of those who had been received with so much benevolence. The strange revolution which the incontinence and heresy of this prince brought about in England, reduced the Friars Minor, and all other missionaries, to the necessity of running greater risks in endeavoring to maintain the remnant of faith, than what they had to incur amongst the infidels.
We suppress all comment on so deplorable a subject, and we are satisfied with offering up our prayers to the Almighty that He might deign to cast the eyes of His mercy upon those islands which formerly gave so many saints to the Church; that by His grace, the talent and learning which are found there, may be employed in searching for the truth and appreciating that truth which the illustrious Pope Saint Gregory had taught there in the sixth century; that these talents may be no longer employed in the defence of a variety of sects, equally at variance with the doctrines of antiquity, condemned by the principles of the Christian religion, and by the rules of right reasoning; and that it shall no longer be said that men of learning make use of the light they have received and cultivated, to countenance every description of falsehood; so that, as Saint Leo said of idolatrous Rome, dictating to almost all other nations, she herself was the slave of all their errors.
Francis, having received the resignation of his vicar general, on his return from his visitations, deferred the choice of his successor till the assembly of the chapter which was held on Whitsunday. He consulted God on the election, who made known to him by revelation that Brother Elias should be restored; he communicated this to his companions, and when the chapter met, he named Elias vicar-general.
We may feel assured that after having deposed him for laxness, he would not again have placed him at the head of his Order, had he not been certain that God himself had ordered it. As soon as the saints are made aware of the will of God, they have no thought but of obeying, whether it be that they know His reasons, or that they be hidden from them. Thus, three hundred years before Saint Francis, Saint Stephen, the third Abbot of Citeaux, did not fail sending Arnaud to Morimond to be its first abbot, although he knew by divine inspiration, that this post would be prejudicial to him, and that it would not turn out well: it was enough for him that it was God’s will that he should be so sent. Thus we find in Holy Writ that Eliseus, by God’s order to Elias, consecrated Hazael King of Syria, who, he foresaw would bring such great evils on the people of God, that the foresight moved him to tears. Human prudence must not censure in the saints what they have only done from supernatural views, against their own impressions, and their own inclinations. In these extraordinary cases we must only adore the counsels of Divine Wisdom, without endeavoring to penetrate them: we must acknowledge, as Tobias did, that all His ways are ways of mercy, truth, and justice; and say with one of the prophets: “Thy loss comes from thyself.”
At the chapter Francis sat at the feet of Elias and, as his infirmities prevented him from making himself heard, it was through Elias that he proposed all that he wished to communicate to the assembly. Towards the close he pulled him by the tunic and told him in a low tone of voice his intention of sending some of the brethren into parts of Upper Germany, into which they had not yet penetrated. Elias laid the affair before the brethren in the following terms: “My brethren, this is what the Brother says” (for thus they designated Francis, as a mark of great respect). “There is a part of Germany, the inhabitants of which are Christians and devout; they go, as you know, through our country during the heats with long staves and great jack-boots, singing the praises of God and His saints, and thus visit the places of devotion. I sent some of our brethren into their land, who returned often having been sorely ill-treated. For this reason, I compel no one to go thither, but if there are any sufficiently zealous for the glory of God and the salvation of souls, to undertake this journey I promise him the same merit as is attached to obedience, and even more than if he made a voyage over the sea.”
About ninety offered themselves for the mission which they considered as an opportunity for suffering martyrdom. The chief was named with the title of Provincial Minister of Germany, and Brother Caesar, a German, was selected for that office. He was an ecclesiastic of Spire, who had been drawn into the Order by the preaching of Brother Elias, some time before, he himself having the character of a good preacher. He had permission to select those whom he desired to take with him from among those who had volunteered; however, he only chose twenty-seven, twelve of whom were priests, and fifteen lay-brethren, among whom there were some Germans, and some Hungarians, excellent preachers. He remained nearly three months in the Valley of Spoleto, with leave from Francis, and sent his companions into Lombardy to prepare themselves for the great work they were about to undertake; then they set forth dividing themselves into small groups of three and four. We shall further on give the details of their journey, and of their labors and success.
In the choice which Casar made of those whom he thought adapted to the German mission, something occurred which at first was amusing, but which turned out very serious and very useful. Some one having suggested to him to take one of the brethren named Jourdain, he went to him and said: – “And you Brother Jourdain, you will come with us?” “I?” replied he, “I am not one of yours; if I rose up, it was not with any intention of going with you, it was to embrace those who were about to go into Germany, and who, I am certain, will all be martyred.” He was so apprehensive that the Germans by their cruelty, and the heretics of Lombardy by their artifices, would be the causes of his losing his faith, that he daily prayed to God for the favor of being kept away from the one and from the other.
Casar, continuing to urge him to go with him, and Jourdain continuing to refuse, they went to the vicar general, who, after having been informed how the matter stood, said to Jourdain: – “My brother, I command you, on your holy obedience, to decide absolutely upon going into Germany or not going.” This order put his conscience in a dilemma: if he should not go, he feared its reproach for having followed his own will, and did not like to lose a glorious crown; and, on the other hand, he could not determine on going, thinking the Germans so cruel as he had been led to believe. In order to come to a conclusion, he consulted one of the religious who had greatly suffered in the first mission, and had been stripped in Hungary no less than fifteen times, who said to him: – “Go to Brother Elias, and tell him that you are neither willing to go into Germany nor to stay here, but that you will do whatsoever he shall desire you to do. You will hardly have addressed him, then your difficulties will be done away.” He followed this advice, and Elias ordered him by the obligation of obedience to accompany Brother Casar into Germany. He went and labored assiduously, and more than any of the others, to extend the order throughout the country. His obedience quieted his mind for a man is never more satisfied with himself than when he obeys. “Experience shows,” says Saint Bernard, “that the yoke of obedience is light, and that self-will is oppressive.”
Anthony had heard in Sicily that the chapter was to assemble at Saint Mary of the Angels, and although he was still in a state of weakness, he had come to it with Philippinus, a young lay brother of Castile. When the chapter was over, the brethren were sent back to their convents by the vicar general, but no one asked to have Anthony, because no one knew him, and he appeared so feeble, that he did not seem fit for work. He offered himself therefore to Brother Gratian, who was Provincial of Bologna, or of Romagna, whom he begged as a master, to instruct him in the rules of regular discipline, making no mention of his studies, or of any talent he had, and showing no other desire than to know and love the crucified Jesus. Gratian delighted with these his sentiments, asked to have him, and took him with him into his province, with Philippinus, who was sent to Citta di Castello, and from thence to Columbario, in Tuscany, where he died a holy death. Anthony, who only wished for solitude, had leave from the provincial to live at the hermitage of Mount Saint Paul, near Bologna, where he wished to have a cell cut in the rock, which was separated from all the others; this the brother who had cut it out for himself ceded to him. There he lived in as much solitude as obedience allowed him, devoting himself to contemplation, fasting on bread and water, and practising such other austerities, as to be thereby so weakened, that, according to the savings of his brethren, he could hardly stand when he came to them. Although he was full of zeal, he did not dare attempt to preach; the martyrdom which he had escaped in Africa had rendered him timid; he abandoned himself to Divine Providence, without any other anxiety than that of inciting himself to the more perfect love of God, and strengthening himself in the hope of enjoying the good things of Heaven, and resisting the attacks of the tempter, who strove to dissuade him from the holy exercise of prayer. Living thus in great simplicity among his unpretending brethren, he disguised under a plain exterior the vast light he received from Heaven; but by that humility he deserved to be brought forward for the accomplishment of the designs of Providence, who generally prepares those in secret, whom he destines to splendid ministrations.