ENCYCLICAL LETTER OF FOUR FRANCISCAN MINISTERS GENERAL
Brothers Costantino Koser, Vitale Bommarco, Pasquale Rywalski, Corpus Izquierdo
 

On the Occasion of the Identification of the Body of the Seraphic Father

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 safe.

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 aforesaid identification.

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 sarcophagus itself.

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 one.

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 Assisi.

New crypt

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 admirable.

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.

1978 Identification

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 veil.

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).

Reflections

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 eternal dwellings.

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 211).

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 Bridegroom.

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 interior powers.

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 the world".

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 General T.O.R.

 
Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
15 June 1978, page 6

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