Franciscan Fraternity a Model for All Families

Author: Cardinal James Francis Stafford

Franciscan Fraternity a Model for All Families

Cardinal James Francis Stafford
Major Penitentiary

Cardinal Stafford's homily on the feast of the "Pardon of Assisi" at Rivo Torto

Cardinal James Francis Stafford, Major Penitentiary, celebrated a Mass at Rivo Torto, Assisi, on the occasion of the feast of the "Pardon of Assisi", 4 August [2009]. His homily spoke of Franciscan fraternity as well as of the violence stemming from rivalry within families (a theme of the Mass' First Reading). The following is the text of Cardinal Stafford's homily.

Each of the founders of Religious Orders had favorite ways of addressing his followers. St Benedict of Norcia, the founder of the Benedictines, addressed the followers of his Rule as "sons". In the Prologue of the Rule, St Benedict writes, "Listen carefully, my son, to the master's instruction". In fact in the Prologue alone, St Benedict uses the word for "son" or its plural 10 times in addressing monks. St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit Order, addressed his followers as "companions". The word "companion" is derived from two Latin words, "cum" meaning "with", and "panis" which means "bread" — i.e., "eating bread with another". He called his Order the "Company of Jesus". In the earliest days, he also called his followers "preti pellegrini".

St Francis of Assisi had a special form of addressing his followers, "Fratelli minori". Why did Francis call his followers by a familial term like "fratello"? What influenced him in choosing this mode of address? Isn't the family a hot-bed of violence and competitiveness? Such was his experience with his own father and even his brother. As a matter of fact, even the Bible casts a light of such destructive competition between brothers and sisters and between a husband and a wife that the use by Francis of the term "brothers" may merit criticism. At best it seems morally ambiguous.

I will cite only a few of many biblical examples. There is the original competitiveness and destructive relationship first between Adam and Eve, and then between Cain and Abel, their sons. Because of envy of his brother, Cain became identified as the first human being to commit murder. Equally competitive, but not leading to fratricide, was the relationship between Esau and Jacob, the sons of Isaac and Rebecca. In the New Testament the competitiveness of two brothers, James and John, prompted their mother to seek from Jesus the promise of privileged places for them in the coming Kingdom of God. And of course there is the conspiracy between Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, and his wife Herodias, a divorcee, in alliance with her daughter Salome that led to the execution of John the Baptist for denouncing Herod for marrying a divorced woman.

Today's reading offers another biblical example of the competitiveness among children in the same family: Moses, Miriam and Aaron, the children Amran and Jochebed. Miriam and Aaron, it seems, became envious of the leadership of their brother Moses in leading the Hebrew people from Egypt to the promised land in Canaan. They demanded equal status with him as prophets. A destructive conflict among the leadership would have been disastrous for thousands of nomadic people wandering in a wilderness in search of a permanent home among hostile and highly suspicious neighbors. Only God's intervention, according to the reading, saved the exodus from the violence inherent in an envious and competitive family.

It is important to note that St Francis attached another word to the address "fratello". The other word is "minores", lesser brothers. What is the significance of this addition? It made all the difference in the world. For by choosing the phrase, "lesser brothers" to describe his community, he was placing it squarely within the mystery of the kenosis, the self-emptying, of Jesus.

In Francis's time, the people of an Italian city like Assisi were divided into the "majores" and "minores". The upper class was known as "majores" the greater ones; the lower class as "minores", the lesser ones. But it wasn't from this political and economic milieu that Francis took the word "minori". Arnaldo Fortini asserts that it would be "a serious error to think that the new Franciscan movement is a consequence of the revolt of the minori that came in this period of Assisi history. On the contrary. The new communal society arises... from a desire for commercial expansion it sees in war a means of obtaining it. It opposes the pride of merchants to the pride of the feudal lords.... So, therefore, it was not from the name of a class or faction in the city that Francis took the name 'minors' for his brothers. It was an adjective, used in common significance, one that indicates, even among nobles and religious, the lowest, the inferiors, those who take orders rather than give them".1

St Francis chose that he and all his followers would be identified with the humble of the earth as "fratelli minori". "Tutti erano uguali nella dignità, nei doveri e nei diritti, come si evince dalla Regola non bollata: 'E nessuno sia chiamato priore, ma tutti siano chiamati semplicemente frati minori"'.2

According to his first biographer, Thomas of Celano, being "lesser brothers", for St Francis, meant being "those, being subject to all, [who] always sought a place that was lowly and sought to perform a duty that seemed in some way to be burdensome to them so that they might merit to be founded solidly in true humility and that through their fruitful disposition a spiritual structure of all virtues might arise in them".3

We have a noble example of "being a lesser brother" in an event that took place here in Rivo Torto. The most notable experience of the Holy Spirit in Christian history was lived out in this unprepossessing shelter from rain and sun that is before us. It took place in this cowshed in the year 1209-1210. At one time it belonged to one of the local leprosaria. It was now owned by no one.

After their return from Rome through Orte back to Assisi in the summer of 1209, the small band of brothers needed a place to sleep and pray. Francis chose this hut beside a stream bed, which in the springtime became a dangerous torrent of water. It barely was large enough for the small group of young men. With his usual humor Francis joked that, as a spring-board to heaven, this was better than a palace.4 To prevent undue crowding, he assigned each one a place by name on the beam above for sitting and stretching out.

One night a voice of one of the brothers unexpectedly cried out in the darkness, "I'm dying". Everyone was awakened by the startling cry. How did Francis respond? He could have admonished the man to grow up and face hunger like an adult ascetic should. Or with a certain impatience he may have chosen to tell him to shut up until the dawn so that everyone could get a decent night's sleep for the next day's round of seeking alms.

But Francis responded differently. Rather he realized that being a lesser brother meant to have the gift of love — especially in the awkward darkness of the night. "Francis asked him what was wrong. 'I'm dying of hunger'. Quick, everyone up. Prepare a meal, for the whole company. A brother must not die of hunger, but neither should he be embarrassed by having to eat alone: Francis was always well-bred. It was no doubt an austere midnight supper that broke their fast — crusts, turnips found in the fields, perhaps some eggs.... What else? Water from the stream. Gaiety in lieu of dessert. Francis's charm must have transformed it all into a feast, touched lightly by the fleeting memory of old time".5

I conclude by asking you in this Eucharist to reflect upon your own community life while at Assisi. You may wish to assess life within your family at home and community experience here against that measure which Thomas of Celano described as marking the virtues of the first Franciscans here at Rivo Torto. You may wish to ask God to help you to grow in these virtues of Franciscan fraternity. Thomas noted the following virtues of this band of lesser but radically joyful brothers. "No envy, no malice, no rancor, no abusive speech, no suspicion, no bitterness found any place in them; but great concord, continual quiet, thanksgiving, and the voice of praise were in them".6


1 Arnaldo Fortini, Francis of Assisi, trans. by Helen Moak, (New York, The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1981), 313.

2 Sr M. Crocifisso Nobnis, F1, "La Vita Comunitaria di Fraternità secondo San Francesco", in Annales Franciscani: Studi di Storia, Teologia e Spiritualità Francescana, a cura dei Francescani nell'Immacolata, (Frigento: Casa Mariana, 2007), 480.

3 Thomas of Celano, First Life,§ 38.

4 Julien Green, God's Fool: The Life and Times of Francis of Assisi,trans. by Peter Heinegg, (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985), 126.

5 Ibid. 127.

6 I Cel. 41.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
12/19 August 2009, page 5

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