On the Occasion of the Identification of the Body of the Seraphic
Beloved Brothers and Sisters of the whole Franciscan Order.
To enjoy even better the joys of Easter together with you, we wish to
inform you about a great consolation that we, your Ministers-General,
have had, together with many other Confreres of Assisi.
In the afternoon of 24 January 19-78, together with a special
Pontifical Commission, we were able to admire the venerated remains of
our Father St Francis.
It seemed to us, in this way, that we had really received a gift of
grace from the Seraphic Father, sealing, as it were, the celebrations of
the 750th anniversary of his passing away in God.
We think that the wave of love and admiration for St Francis,
stirring today in the hearts of so many men and particularly the young,
may be a sign of new times.
We could, perhaps, repeat again the words with which St Bonaventure
began his "Legenda Maior": "The grace of God our Saviour
has recently been manifested by means of his servant Francis" (Prol.).
We—his sons and heirs—would like to be the first to experience
this new "appearance of grace", to benefit from this gift of
"God our Saviour". But to obtain this, taking advantage also
of special circumstances, we will have to open our hearts more and more
widely to the ideals of our common Father and to gather more and more
closely around him, as his first companions once did.
Motivation for the identification
1. It was perhaps this touch of nostalgy [sic] and love that inspired
in our Confrere, Minister of the Friars Minor Conventual, Fr Vitale M.
Bommarco, the desire to make the Father's tomb, the luminous goal of
millions of faithful of every language and nation, more, fitting and
The external rearrangement of St Francis's sarcophagus, carried out
after the identification in 1818, seemed almost provisional and in
precarious conditions of safety; something which, especially at this
time of such sacrilegious audacity and unscrupulous violence, could
constitute a continual preoccupation.
The very heavy iron grating, above the rough wooden lid of the stone
sarcophagus, did not give sufficient protection from dust and from other
little debris that fell from the vault of the tomb. Moreover, the ten
iron arms, which were put in place and soldered by Brother Elias to fix
and fasten the two gratings, the lower one and the upper one, which
enclosed the sarcophagus, had not been soldered again since the
Discovery of 1818-1819
As is known, the discovery of the tomb and the body of the Seraphic
Father took place on 12 December 1818. On that day there ended a long,
secret, feverish and uninterrupted work, started, with the consent of
Pope Pius VII, on 5 October 1818. The Minister-General of the Friars
Minor Conventual, Fr Giuseppe De Bonis, had asked the Pope to authorize
this work, in order to discover the exact site of the Saint's tomb.
St Francis's Body had been discovered after the removal of three
large slabs of stone, two of which were embedded in the walls of the
burial niche dug out under the high altar of the Lower Basilica and the
third placed on the first iron grating. The sarcophagus, in rough
travertine stone of the Roman period, was protected by two strong and
well-knit iron gratings below and above it, joined by large iron arms
which in their turn were fixed to bars running round the outside of the
This is still what it looks like, because nothing has been changed in
the exterior of the sarcophagus.
With this discovery, the burning desire which, throughout the
centuries, had stirred the hearts of so many religious and of pious and
eminent personalities, and which had found expression previously in some
laborious but useless attempts at excavation, had at last come true.
The juridical and authentic identification was ordered by Pope Pius
VII with the Brief "Ex parte dilecti fiIii" of 9 January 1819,
with which Bishop Francesco M. Giampè of Assisi and the Bishops of
Nocera, Spoleto, Perugia and Foligno were nominated apostolic delegates;
a "fiscal procurator" was nominated, in the person of Dr Luigi
Guallaccini, as also two architect experts. In the evening of 26 January
1819 they all went down into the underground excavation. The Commission
called two medical experts and two surgeons for a better ascertainment
of what had been found.
3. Having sawn through the ten iron arms which joined the gratings
and taken away the upper grating, there could be seen on the bottom of
the stone urn the skeleton of an adult person, of average height, placed
horizontally on his back. In the subsequent sessions a very careful and
meticulous description of the bones and of their state of preservation
was drawn up, with the help also of a physico-chemical expert.
That sacred body, which for centuries had been venerated and prayed
over in the inviolate depths of a tomb dug out of the living rock, had
at last been brought to light.
4. In the proceedings, carried out and put on record by the
Commission, the parts of bones found and other little objects (coins and
grains) which clearly document St Francis's times, are described one by
On the initiative of the Minister-General of the Friars Minor
Conventual, in 1819 also many Friars Minors, Capuchins, friars of the
Third Order Regular and other persons were admitted to see the open urn,
always in the presence of the Apostolic Delegates.
In the meantime, it can be said that the authentication of the sacred
remains of St Francis had already taken place with some miraculous cures
precisely reported in the chronicles of the time. But official
authentication came with Pius VII's Brief "Assisiensem Basilicam"
on 5 September 1820.
This declaration was the result of long and meticulous examinations
carried out in this connection, up to the conclusions of the special
Commission composed of four Cardinals, on the nomination of the Pontiff
himself, on 24 August 1819. The apostolic Brief declared that "the
identity of the body found under the high altar of the Lower Basilica of
Assisi is certain, and that it really is the body of St Francis the
founder of the Order of the Minors". It laid down, furthermore,
that the "venerable body should not be transported elsewhere from
the underground place in which it has lain for nearly six
centuries", but that "the whole tomb should be embellished...
and that a more convenient, entrance should be opened to it".
The authentic copy of the Brief, with the relevant seals, was found
by us, on 24 January last, in the metal urn containing tile holy remains
of the Seraphic Father.
5. The joyous event was made known to all the Religious of tile Order
by the Minister-General himself with a letter of 7 September 1820.
The brothers were exhorted to joy at this rediscovered treasure, and
the hope was expressed that "the new-found bones of the Seraphic
Father, as they inflamed the indifferent world with divine charity when
alive, so may they now, happily found again, produce the same salutary
effects in these calamitous days of ours " .
We would like to make this wish our own, because it seems to us that
it can be repeated with the same reasons and the same hopes.
6. Following the precise norms dictated by Pope Pius VII and
subsequently by the S. Congregation of Rites, the bones of the Seraphic
Father were removed from the bare stone base and placed in a specially
prepared metal urn, formed of a brass slab, bronzed on the outside and
gold-plated on the inside.
Six little feet in the shape of acorns with leaves sustain it from
below, and two handles are applied at the heads. It was provided with
two different locks, one in the form of the letter S, the key to which
was given to the Fr Custodian of the Sacred Convent, and the other in
the form or the letter F, the key to which was given to the Bishop of
7. We were able to see the urn exactly like this when, to the emotion
of all those present on the evening of 24 January 1978, it was raised
from the bottom of the stone Sarcophagus in which it had been laid on 4
October 1824 at the conclusion of the work on the new crypt.
The latter had had a difficult history after the first plan of the
Assisi architect Giuseppe Brizzi, who had been put in charge of this
work directly by Pope Pius VII on 13 March 1821. In fact, the plan was
subsequently modified by architect Pasquale Belli. The work began on 26
September 1822, and was completed in the space of twenty months under
the direction of Giuseppe Brizzi, who carried out the plan of Belli.
This direct and repeated intervention and interest of the Sovereign
Pontiff to give the Seraphic Father a worthy tomb is really moving. The
love and passionate devotion with which those in charge, as also workers
and faithful, followed the work in its almost feverish course is also
The chronicles of the time stress this fact. Thus, on 4 October 1824,
after a solemn procession through the streets of Assisi, the body of the
Saint was taken to the new crypt and piously laid in the ancient
sarcophagus where, six hundred years before, Friar Elias had placed it
in the living rock.
It is really difficult to realize how, before such documented and
unexceptionable historical testimonies, there have been able to come
into existence here and there voices and even writings that questioned
the real existence and the authenticity of the preservation of the
Seraphic Father's holy remains in the tomb venerated for centuries in
the Assisi Basilica.
The present architectural state of the crypt is that carried out on
the plan of architect Ugo Tarchi, who modified the very first structures
in neo-classical style, thus giving the whole environment a more ample
and, at the same time, a simpler and secluded spaciousness.
The work, which began on the Seventh Centenary of the death of St
Francis, in 1926, lasted with various vicissitudes until 1932. But it
was limited to the structures of the crypt, while the tomb remained in
the same conditions as in 1824.
8. It was just these conditions, which, in the course of time, were
seen to be inadequate as regards safety and fitting maintenance, that
induced the Confrere, Minister-General of the Friars Minor Conventual,
to address through Cardinal Silvio Oddi, Pontifical Legate for the
Basilica of Assisi, a petition to the Holy Father for the authorization
of a thorough intervention in this connection and an inspection of the
state of preservation of the sacred Relics.
The Holy Father Paul VI, continuing the love and veneration of his
predecessors for our Seraphic Father, took the request into benevolent
consideration. Having set up a Pontifical Commission to which he
entrusted a preliminary careful study, he issued the Apostolic Brief:
"Patriarchalem Basilicam" (Attachment 1) on 17 January 1978.
The implementation of the Holy Father's instructions started in the
evening of 24 January 1978, after a devout and private liturgy of the
"Death of St. Francis", celebrated by the whole community of
the Religious of the Sacred Convent. In addition to the members of the
Pontifical Commission, there were present: The Ministers-General O.F.M.,
O.F.M. Conv., and O.F.M. Cap.; the Vicar General of the T.O.R.; the
Provincial Ministers of the Franciscan Families of Umbria, together with
the Father Custodian of the Convent of St. Mary of the Angels.
At the end of the liturgy, after the reading of the Apostolic Brief,
the urn, carried by us Ministers-General, was taken in a procession to
an internal room of the Sacred Convent. There, in the presence only of
the Commission in charge, the Ministers-General and Provincial Ministers
and the Custodian of St. Mary of the Angels, the urn was opened.
A thrill of real emotion stirred the hearts of those present when the
relics of the Seraphic Father appeared, carefully wrapped in a silk
A first view, without moving anything, made it possible to see the
perfect correspondence with what had already been described in the
report on the first identification in 1819.
The first moment of trepidation, caused by the sight of the sacred
bones strongly marked by the corroding action of time, was followed by
deep thanksgiving to the Lord who, after 750 years, gives us the joy of
preserving not just a few ashes, but a substantial structure of St
Francis's Body. It must be remembered that for six centuries that body
was buried in the heart of the mountain, subject to the humidity of the
ground, and that then for a century and a half it was placed in the very
hot and dry atmosphere of the present crypt. In the opinion of medical
experts, the great variation of temperature between the two places in
which the body was kept and the reality of a body which, even today,
bears in its bones the signs of penitent lack of nutrition, make those
same sacred bones very frail and porous.
After a precise cataloguing effected on 12 February last, the medical
Commission suggested a disinfecting and slightly hardening treatment for
the bones; this they carried out.
The new recomposition was made on 19 February last in a plexiglas
urn, which on the following 3 March was then duly soldered, with a
vacuum and introduction of nitrogen to guarantee safer preservation.
This new urn, in which, from 19 February to 4 March, many brothers,
sisters and citizens of Assisi were able to admire the sacred bones,
carefully arranged, was, on the evening of 4 March, inserted in the
former brass urn which was closed with the two special keys as in 1824.
The brass urn was put back in the stone sarcophagus. Instead of the
former wooden lid, the sarcophagus was now covered by a new travertine
stone slab, fixed with three iron bars and six lead seals. Finally, the
upper grating was joined to the one below by soldering the iron arms.
Thus on the evening of 4 March 1978 the sacred sarcophagus returned
to the original form of safety given it by Brother Elias (Reports on
the Identification, Attachment 2).
9. At the sight of the sacred bones of our Seraphic Father, a broader
reflection comes spontaneously.
For twenty years Francis had consumed himself, body and soul, in
order that God, men and all creatures might keep the right to be loved
in their respective degree.
Celano writes: "In that same period (Sept. 1224), his body began
to be tormented by various and more violent physical ills. He suffered
several illnesses, in fact, as a consequence of the harsh penances to
which he had for years subjected his body. For exactly eighteen years,
the time that had passed since he began his wanderings over various and
vast regions, engaged in spreading the Gospel word, animated by a
constant and ardent spirit of faith, he had hardly ever troubled to give
his exhausted limbs a little rest. He had filled the earth with
Christ's Gospel. He was capable of going through four or five towns in
one day, proclaiming the Kingdom of God to all. He edified his listeners
no less by his example than by words; it could be said that he had made
his whole body a tongue" (I Cel 97).
It was the outcome of a life lived as a real convert to the Gospel
and during which he "was really greatly engrossed with Jesus. He
always bore Jesus in his heart, Jesus on his lips, Jesus in his ears,
Jesus in his eyes, Jesus in his hands, Jesus in all his other
limbs" (I Cel 115).
Therefore, it is not surprising that he should appear "to the
eyes of mortals as an extraordinary man, from another world" (I Cel
82), almost a "living monstrance" of Christ himself.
To reach this luminous transparency, he had a personal secret of his
own. This he recommended to the itinerant friars as follows: "Go in
the Lord's name, in twos... When travelling let your conversation be as
holy as if you were in the hermitage or in your cell. Yes, for wherever
we are or wherever we go, we have our cell: brother body is our cell and
the soul is its hermit, closed within, praying and contemplating the
Lord. If the soul is not able to find silence and solitude in its own
cell, the constructed cell will be of little use to the religious"
(Compil. Assis. 108; Spec. Perf. 65).
The Christian relationship between spirit and body is shown in this
way plastically, and because of this it is possible always and
everywhere, like Francis, "to convert one's breast into a
temple" (II Cel 94).
Moreover, this image of the body, as temple and, as it were,
container of the Spirit: of God, is eminently biblical. Jesus will say
in the Gospel: "If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and we
will come to him and make our home with him" (Jn 14:23).
We have had before our eyes, in its most humble and earthly
appearances, the frail dwelling of Francis, in which the Lord Jesus had
so luminously made his home with the heavenly Father. But we are well
aware how marvellously his spirit is now united with God in his
Then we remembered the words, full of harmonious serenity, with
which, towards the end of his life, in the poor cell in Porziuncola,
discoursing with a friar, he referred to his own body in a really
original expression of ascesis. "Tell me, Father, if you please:
was your body not ready to obey your orders?" "I bear witness
to it, son, that it was obedient in everything, it did not spare itself
in anything, but hurried, almost running, at every order. It did not
shirk any fatigue, it did not refuse any sacrifice, provided it was
possible for it to obey. On this point, it and I were in perfect
agreement, to serve Christ the Lord without any reservation" II Cel
His corporal penance, moreover, had not been a desire to take away
vitality from "brother body", but rather a desire to increase
life itself for it by making it similar to that of the suffering
10. Today, the legitimate desire to exploit all the undeniable
potentialities of the body, should not make us lose sight of the fact
that all of that is a means for the service of God and in order
to approach brothers and communicate the riches of the spirit more
effectively to them. In this way St Francis had succeeded it
making it a luminous and faithful "interpreter" of his
Romantic thinkers have stated that human geniuses are the
"incarnation of the infinite in the world, mediators between the
infinite itself and the finite, and instruments of the realization and
revelation of the Absolute".
We can truly say that in Francis of Assisi humanity coexisted so
brilliantly with divinity that the latter has perhaps never again found
among men a "living sanctuary" so rich and available, where it
could reveal itself in its richness of values and its power to create
and renew man and the world.
We remembered all this today, 4 March, when we joyfully reaccompanied
the urn with the mortal remains of our Seraphic Father into the dim
light of that crypt encompassed by poverty, silence and prayer. The
remains were put back in the stone sarcophagus in which they have been
kept for seven centuries and a half.
We also heard, with emotion and we transcribe it for you, the concise
autograph message that the Holy Father Paul VI transmitted to us on this
occasion, through Cardinal Silvio Oddi, "the beatifying task of taking
to St Francis of Assisi, venerated in his mortal remains, the humble
homage of Our personal devotion, a sign and synthesis of that of the
Roman Church and of the whole Catholic communion. With the prayer that
the holy and sweet brother may obtain for us from Jesus Christ our Lord
the spirit of evangelical poverty, love for his blessed Cross, joy at
the presence of God in the work of his hands, and always charity for men
our brothers, concord among the sons who follow the saint, and peace in
Then, for all of you, brothers and sisters, we repeated the
invocation with which Br Thomas of Celano closes his second
"Legend": "Renew our days as at the beginning... and
remember, Father, all your sons. You, O holy one, know perfectly
how, harassed by serious dangers, they follow in your footsteps only
from a distance. Give them strength to resist, purify them so that they
may shine forth, make them fertile so that they may bear fruit. Obtain
that the spirit of grace and prayer may be outpoured on them, so that
they may have the real humility that you had, may observe the poverty
that you followed, and may deserve that charity with which you always
loved the crucified Christ. He lives and reigns with the Father and the
Holy Spirit for ever and ever. Amen" (II Cel 221-224).
Yearning for this "newness of life", which re-echoes also
in the Paschal Liturgy, all of us, your brothers and Ministers, wish you
all happiness in the luminous mystery of the Resurrection of the
Lord, token and certainty of our resurrection.
Assisi, 4 March 1978.
Br Costantino KOSER Minister General O.F.M.; Br Vitale
M. BOMMARCO Minister General O.F.M. Conv.; Br Pasquale RYWALSKI Minister
General O.F.M. Cap.; Br Corpus IZQUIERDO Vicar