“How I would like a Church that is poor and for the poor!” —Pope Francis

Giotto's fresco of St. Francis abandoning his father and his patrimony.

Giotto’s fresco of St. Francis abandoning his father and his patrimony.

On March 16, 2013, at his first papal audience just three days after his election, Pope Francis told the some 5,000 international journalists present that he had chosen his new name in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, ”the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation… He brought to Christianity an idea of poverty against the luxury, pride, and vanity of the civil and ecclesiastical powers of the time. He changed history.” Pope Francis explained that, when during the conclave it became clear that he would be the next Pope, he was sitting next to his “great friend” the Brazilian Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, who embraced him and whispered, “Don’t forget the poor.” Hummes’ comment inspired the new Pope’s choice of name.

St. Francis of Assisi (1181-October 3, 1226) is the patron saint of animals, ecology, Italy, San Francisco in California, tapestry makers, merchants, stowaways, Cub Scouts… and the poor. His great popularity even among nonbelievers has never waned since his canonization in 1228. Every year some 6 million people, 40% of them Americans, visit the Basilica in Assisi where the saint is buried. Not to mention that over 1.5 million people take a glance at St. Francis’ grave by web­cam every month, “the largest virtual pilgrimage to Assisi,” as the Rev. Enzo Fortunato, director of the press office of the Sacred Convent of St. Francis, likes to recount.

St. Francis also remains a popular subject for paintings, garden statuary, musical compositions, numerous books, Hollywood movies, a recent Italian television series last December, and now for the first time for an exhibition, entitled “Friar Francis: Traces, Words, and Images.”

Giotto's fresco of St Francis and his sermon to the birds.

Giotto’s fresco of St Francis and his sermon to the birds.

Leaving Italy for the first time in 700 years, the exhibit’s 19 artifacts, 13 of which were restored before departure at the Praglia Abbey near Padua, traveled to New York City. Ranging in size from a large choral book to pocket-sized texts, from November 17-28 they were on view at the United Nations Headquarters and then at the Brooklyn Borough Hall until January 14. They are the most ancient documents about St. Francis’ life and his theological tradition. Although many museums and libraries worldwide — from Russia to Argentina — have asked to display these documents, the friars are reluctant to let the founding texts of their order travel elsewhere, so they will return to Assisi to be displayed in the Library of the Sacred Convent from March 28 to May 31.

The exhibition is divided into three sections. “Traces,” the press release tells us, “includes documents that recount the historic journey of St. Francis; Words contains ancient biographies of Francis; and Images, illuminated manuscripts depicting the saint in ancient liturgical books.”

The exhibit’s star, displayed in Traces, is the Codex or Manuscript 338, a miscellaneous collection of the first writings and documents relating to St. Francis and his order of friars. It includes the Canticle of the Sun, also known as the Canticle of the Creatures or Laudes Creaturarum. Written in the Umbrian dialect and believed to be among the first works of literature, if not the very first, written in Italian, it’s “a praise and thank you to the Lord for such creations as ‘Brother Sun’ and ‘Sister Water,’” reported Gaia Pianigiani in the New York Times on Nov­ember 9th. The works in this codex were inscribed by at least nine different amanuenses (copyists). Though it may seem odd, St. Francis’ signature is nowhere to be seen. “Historians agree,” continued Pianigiani, “that he most likely dictated his writings, but certainly his hand touched the papal bulls that in the 1220s registered the Pope’s message to the order.”

The bulls, too, are displayed in Traces, and one contains the earliest mention of Francis by name in an official document.

Giotto's fresco of Pope Innocent III dreaming that St Franics is holding up the Church.

Giotto’s fresco of Pope Innocent III dreaming that St Franics is holding up the Church.

Another highlight here are the 12 chapters of the Regula fratrum minorum (Rule of the Friars Minor), approved by Pope Honorius III in 1223, in which Francis gave the brothers of his community a spiritual direction and a body of regulations known as “The Rule of St. Francis” for their daily life.

The oldest highlight of Words is a fragment of Vita beati Francisci by Thomas of Celano (c.1200-c.1265), the author of three hagiographies about St. Francis, who joined the Franciscans around 1215, thus during the saint’s lifetime, and evidently knew him personally. Also known as First Life and commissioned by Pope Gregory IX in 1228 at the time of Francis’ canonization, it’s the oldest biography of St. Francis and mostly concerns the early part of his life. Also on display here and also by Thomas of Celano is the extremely rare Memoriale in desiderio animae de Gestis et Verbis Sanctissimi Patris Nostri Francisci or Vita Seconda (The Memorial of the Desire of a Soul Concerning the Deeds and Words of Our Most Holy Father Francis). Dating to 1247, according to Wikipedia, “it was commissioned by Crescentius of Jesi, the Minister General of the Franciscan Order sometime between 1244 and 1247, and reflects changing official perspectives on Francis in the decades after his death.” The third highlight is the Fioretti di San Francesco (Little Flowers of St. Francis), an anonymous Italian text written a century and a half after the saint’s death. It is the most popular account of his life and, according to Wikipedia again, “relates many colorful anecdotes, miracles and pious examples from the lives of Francis and his followers (such as Brother Juniper). These poetic stories shed much light upon the genesis and development of the following of St. Francis.”

On display in Images are several manuscripts with miniatures of St. Francis in initials, not unlike his image in Giotto’s famous frescoes in Assisi’s Lower Basilica.

Of particular note are those in an antiphonary or a book containing the chants for the Divine Office, in a Franciscan Breviary, and in a Bible, which had belonged to John of Parma (1208-89), Minister General of the Franciscans from 1247-57, whom Pope Pius VI beatified in 1777.

To go back to the Papal Bulls from the 1220s, Francis came to Rome “on official business” several times between 1209, when Pope Innocent III at first reluctantly recognized the Franciscan Order, and 1223. On these occasions, documented in 1213, 1215, and 1217 but maybe more frequently, he stayed at S. Francesco a Ripa, then a Benedictine hospice called San Biagio where he also cared for sick pilgrims and lepers.

The guide book to the church reports: “Fr. Luke Wadding (1588-1657), the great Irish historian of the Franciscan Order, wrote, ‘St. Francis came to Rome and went to Innocent III… On this occasion the noble and renowned Roman matron Jacopa dei Settesoli became a disciple of the Saint, attracted by the virtue and the preaching of the Servant of God… She helped the Saint and other friars who came to Rome to receive refuge in the hospital of S. Biagio on the banks of the Tiber. This refuge was given by the abbot of the Benedictine Abbey of S. Cosimato located in Trastevere (Annales Minorum, in the year 1212, nn. 35-37).’ In 1229, a year after Francis’ canonization, thanks to the Bull of Pope Gregorio IX the hospital of S. Biagio and its little church, badly run-down, passed from the Benedictines to the Franciscans”… The church was restored, frescoed, and renamed San Francesco a Ripa.

With interest in things Franciscan at an all-time high, in April 2014 Stefano Tamburo, 43, the prior of San Francesco a Ripa, launched an online fundraising campaign on kickstarter (www.kickstarter.com), a crowd-funding website, to raise the $125,000 necessary for extensive restoration of St. Francis’ small, dark, windowless cell there, which Pope John Paul II visited on December 1, 1991.

Thanks to the generosity of many, restoration happily is nearing completion.

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