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from issue no. 09 - 2005

4 October Feast of the Patron Saint of Italy

Francis of Assisi a man of peace shaped by the liturgy

As is the case with everybody, even the life of Francis of Assisi will always in some sense remain a mystery. Acknowledging that doesn't prevent one from getting to know more, thanks not least to findings so far. The important, not to say fundamental, role of the liturgy in the life of Francis is now being recognized

by Pietro Messa

In this page, shots of the altarpiece The pardon of Assisi by Prete Ilario da Viterbo (1393), preserved in the apse of the Porziuncola, Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, Assisi; above, Francis proclaiming the pardon of Assisi

In this page, shots of the altarpiece The pardon of Assisi by Prete Ilario da Viterbo (1393), preserved in the apse of the Porziuncola, Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, Assisi; above, Francis proclaiming the pardon of Assisi

One can’t but admit that in a certain sense Francis of Assisi has had an enviable destiny compared to other saints: declared in 1992 by Time Magazine one of the most representative figures of the second millennium, studied by university research centers, secular and otherwise, countless scholarly and popular publications on his life, various films devoted to him, recognized as their ideal by people of different cultures and religions. Added to all this, the choice of Assisi, the city of Saint Francis, by John Paul II for the historic day of 27 October 1986 that saw the beginning to what is known as the “spirit of Assisi”, that is to say the inter-religious movement in favor of peace; the Pontiff returned there again on 9 and January 10 1993 and, despite the many reservations and perplexity about the timing, on 24 January 2002, that is after the acts of terrorism on 11 September 2001.
Thus a highly thought-of Saint Francis and even though his feastday, 4 October, has not become a national holiday in Italy, his name is synonymous with inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue. Nevertheless we all know that the boundary between success and over-inflation is very narrow, and this is true for the saint of Assisi as well.
Franciscan studies have gone into the sources of his Christian experience, while countless scholars continue to try to perfect our knowledge of them so as to uncover the saint’s real features, setting aside all hagiographical imagery or ideological manipulation. His cultural and spiritual formation is better known and the various strata recognized: the culture of the merchant’s son, a chivalrous ideology that led him to wear ideologically the garb of the knights, the court culture that remained even after his conversion, the Gospel element and even the echoes of the lives of the ancient Fathers of the desert1. Given these countless studies, the beginnings of which can be seen in Paul Sabatier, it might now seem that there is no more to know about Friar Francis of Assisi, the son of the merchant Pietro di Bernardone. The most popular image, however, appears not only inflated, at times one gets the feeling that it lacks some important aspect, when it is not victim of some instrumental ideological project. Of course, as is the case with everybody, even the life of Francis of Assisi will always in some sense remain a mystery. Acknowledging that doesn’t prevent one from getting to know more, thanks not least to findings so far. The important, not to say fundamental, role of the liturgy in the life of Francis is now being recognized.

The time in which Francis lived were years of great cultural change and transformation: the development of the communes, the birth of the universities, the incentive to commercial exchange, the rise of new religious demands often ending in heresy but also in pauperist movements. All these aspects are normally taken into consideration by shrewder scholars when they describe the historical framework of the life of Francis of Assisi. Nevertheless the consideration that those years were one of the crucial moments in the history of the liturgy remains almost totally neglected. In fact if one picks up any textbook on the history of the liturgy one finds that Innocent III began a reform of the liturgy of the Roman Curia the results of which spread everywhere precisely through the Friars Minor, so much so as still today to be the distinguishing element of the Latin liturgy of Roman rite.
In the early thirteenth century there were in Rome basically four types of liturgy: that of the Roman Curia, housed in the Palace of the Lateran, that of the nearby Basilica of Saint John, that of the Basilica of Saint Peter and that known as dell’Urbe, i.e. of the city of Rome. In his program of reform, that had one of its moments of maximum impact in the Lateran Council IV in 1215, Innocent III included the liturgy. The breviary was one of the more prominent outcomes of the reform of the liturgy. By putting alongside, amplifying and fitting to the life of the Roman Curia, often subject to transfers, texts that were formerly scattered in different books, Innocent III provided a manageable tool especially for those who were often on journeys. The breviary, precisely because of its handiness, was soon adopted by some dioceses, among them that of Assisi. In this way Francis and the Minor fraternitas had access to a liturgical book that soon revealed itself as matching their demands as wayfarers who lived as “strangers and pilgrims”2. So the Friars Minor adopted liturgical prayer and specifically that of the Roman Curia, that is to say of the pontiff.

Francis approaches the Porziuncola

Francis approaches the Porziuncola

Adopting this or that liturgical book was not an indifferent matter. That had already been understood earlier by Pope Gregory VII who looked on liturgical disparity with fear since in some cases it led not only to jurisdictional disparity, but also doctrinal, meaning to heresy. For example, adopting the breviary of the Roman Curia reformed by Innocent III meant accepting a whole previous tradition; the arrangement in it of the various feasts, the choice of determined lessons, the assemblage of biblical passages to form antiphons, verses and responses, the presence of countless readings both patristic and from the old martyrologies, were basically the result of the ecclesial thinking and the experience, above all monastic, of the whole preceding millennium. Thus in adopting the breviary Francis and the Minor fraternitas became part of a history that had preceded them and that had been handed down through the centuries. That did not mean that they felt or acted as if they were captives of that tradition: in fact, as a source remarks, Francis didn’t fail to affirm his own particularity by rejecting some earlier models.
However, in accepting the prayer of the breviary, they joined the spiritual and theological tradition that had ripened throughout the centuries in the Church, as can be seen from a reading of the writings of Francis, in which the liturgical echoes are countless. Such echoes, technically known as cases of “intertextuality and interdiscoursiveness” - that is true and proper quotations or simple conceptual references – often are a transmission of patristic texts interiorized by the saint. If this seems surprising, especially given a certain historiography that has presented Francis of Assisi as the Saint of the Gospel alone – almost a sort of precursor of the Protestant reform – the fact that often even the Bible, and hence the Gospel, is present in his writings mediated by the liturgy is even richer in consequence. This, naturally, leads to a revision of certain descriptions of the spiritual experience of Francis that present him as a man who had an immediate relation, without mediation, with the Scriptures. Instead what deeper study brings out is that he knew the Scriptures by way of the liturgy, that is to say thanks to the mediation of the Church. And the liturgy is itself an explanation of the Scriptures, i.e. an exegesis: in fact even the simple collocation of a certain lesson on one feast rather than another already speaks of the key to interpretation and hence comprehension of that particular passage. So the reading of chapter 11 of Isaiah which speaks about the shoot that sprouts from the tree of Jesse in the Common of the Virgin Mary is already in itself a Marian perspective given to that particular passage, notably increased if then in the place of virga, i.e. shoot – as it should be – there is virgo, i.e. Virgin, as found in the breviary that belonged to Saint Francis of Assisi: «The Virgin shall sprout from the tree of Jesse, a shoot shall bud from its roots, on it the spirit of the Lord shall rest» 3.
The importance of the liturgy in the Minor fraternitas and in the life of Francis of Assisi is testified not only by the Rule of the Friars Minor confirmed by Pope Honorius III in 1223 but above all by a codex kept among the relics of the protomonastery of Santa Chiara at the basilica of that name in Assisi. As testified by an autograph of Friar Leone, who was one of the companions and witnesses of the Saint, this codex was used by Francis himself: «The blessed Francis procured this breviary for his companions Friar Angelo and Friar Leone, because, while he was in health, he always wanted to say the office, as it is contained in the Rule; and in the time of his illness instead, being unable to recite it, he wanted to listen to it; and this he continued to do while he lived»4.
The codex, known as Breviarium sancti Francisci, consists basically of a breviary, the psalter and the Gospel; the first part is most substantial and consists of the breviary of the Roman Curia reformed by Innocent III. The antiquity of the text, which makes it a privileged witness of that reform and hence of the history of liturgical books in general, is confirmed by the presence, above all in the Marian feasts or of saints linked to the pontifical office, such as Peter, Paul and Gregory the Great, of readings drawn from the sermons of Innocent III himself; after his death in 1216 these readings were to be made optional by his successor, Pope Honorius III, and immediately disappeared from the breviary5. In fact the Breviary of Saint Francis is the only true and proper breviary to contain these readings in full. This codex was used by Francis and certainly helped him to form the theological culture, elementary as it was, that enabled him to express his spirituality and his thought in some writings, three of which are still today in our possession in his autography6.
Considering the role played by the liturgy in the cultural and spiritual formation of Francis, it should be taken into due account when seeking to understand the message of the saint of Assisi. Thus the content of this codex must be kept in mind whenever one wants to go into a particular strand of his thought; so the role of the Virgin Mary in his thinking will be the more intelligible the more his writings are read while taking into account the Office of the Blessed Virgin and of the four Marian feasts contained in the said codex, that is the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, February 2; the Annunciation, March 25; the Assumption with its octave, from 15 to August 22; and the Birth of Mary, 8 September. Even if the first two feasts, that is to say the Presentation in the Temple and the Annunciation, celebrate two mysteries in the life of Jesus Christ, already for centuries they had taken on a strong Marian connotation, so much so that the former is called in the Breviarium the feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary7.
The importance of the Breviarium sancti Francisci was recognized and attested by Friar Leone himself who gave it the Abbess Benedetta of the Santa Chiara convent in Assisi to preserve as a privileged witness of the sanctity of Francis. However, before handing it over, he marked in the calendar different anniversaries days of the dead, among them those of Innocent III and Gregory IX. After still more years during which it was used as a liturgical book, the breviary of the Saint was definitively set among the relics of the convent, where it can still be admired today. Precisely because of its importance, its binding was decorated in the seventeenth century with two silver ornaments portraying Saint Francis and Saint Clare.
Often even the Bible, and hence the Gospel, is present in his writings mediated by the liturgy… What deeper study brings out is that he knew the Scriptures by way of the liturgy, that is to say thanks to the mediation of the Church

One of the matters most debated in Franciscan historiography is Francis’s relationship with the Church. There are those who have spoken about Francis as a kind of revolutionary, those who instead, being unable to contradict the sources, have sought the reason for his obedience to the hierarchy in his choosing to live as a Minor: in either interpretation, his attitude is seen in a way that we can describe as detached, extrinsic. The consideration of the importance of the liturgy in the life of Francis can help us grasp his relations with the Church better: he lived belonging, certainly not in a passive way, to a history that preceded him and that had expressed itself through determined liturgical formulas also. Prayer and the contemplation of texts prior to himself, expression of the life and holiness of the Church through the centuries, became for Francis the place of communion with the history of salvation. For that very reason he was very firm against those who didn’t want to recite the Office, as testified by what he wrote in his will: «And albeit I am simple and ill, I nevertheless want always to have a cleric to recite me the Office as is prescribed in the Rule. And let all the other friars be bound so to obey their guardians and to say the Office according to the Rule. And should friars be found who say not the Office according to the Rule, and want to change it in some way, or be not Catholic, all the monks, wherever it be, are bound by obedience, wherever any of them be found, to make them appear before the custodian nearest to the place where they have found them. And let the custodian be firmly bound by obedience to safeguard him severely, like a man in prison day and night, so that he cannot be removed from his hand until he consign him in person into the hands of his minister. And let the minister be firmly bound, by obedience, to send him by means of such friars that guard him day and night like an imprisoned man, until they present him before the lord of Ostia, who is lord, protector and corrector of all the fraternity»8. This sequence that ends with delivery to the “lord of Ostia”, that is to the so-called cardinal protector of the Order of Minors, has been considered one of the “toughnesses” of Friar Francis much in conflict with a certain peaceable image of him; and this toughness is for those who don’t recite the breviary. That is due to the fact that that determined prayer, and hence also its rejection, was directly correlated to the orthodoxy or not of the person and of the community.
We can see the axiom lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi as lived by Francis and also considered by him, even if not explicitly, as one of the reference points of his Christian experience. The mode in which Francis prayed, and which he wanted to be that of the Minor fraternitas also, i.e. the recital of the breviary, is an expression of his faith, that of the Church represented by the pontiff, which was expressed in his lived experience. Hence, if one wants to fully understand the lived life of the saint of Assisi and of his preaching of peace - with the meaning that has assumed over history and above all thanks to the pontificate of John Paul II – his faith expressed through prayer, above all liturgical, and the recital of the breviary, cannot be neglected.


1 J. Dalarun, Francesco: un passaggio. Donna e donne negli scritti e nelle leggende di Francesco d’Assisi, afterword by G. Miccoli, Rome 1994.
2 P. Messa, Un testimone dell’evoluzione liturgica della fraternitas francescana primitiva: il Breviarium sancti Francisci, in Revirescunt Chartae, codices documenta textus: miscellanea in honorem fr. Caesaris Cenci, OFM, ed. A. Cacciotti-P. Sella, vol. I, Romae 2002, pp. 5-141.
3 P. Messa, L’ “Officium mortuorum” and l’ “Officium beate Marie virginis” nel “Breviarium sancti Francisci”, in Franciscana. Bollettino della Società internazionale di studi francescani, 4 (2002), pp. 111-149.
4 Frate Leone d’Assisi, Nota al Breviario di san Francesco, in Fonti Francescane, edited by Ernesto Caroli, Padova 2004, p. 2696.
5 P. Messa, I sermoni di Innocenzo III nel Breviarium sancti Francisci, in Archivum Franciscanum Historicum, 95 (2002), pp. 249-265.
6 P. Messa, Le fonti patristiche negli scritti di Francesco di Assisi, preface by G. Miccoli, Assisi 1999.
7 P. Messa, Le feste mariane nel Breviarium sancti Francisci, in L’Immacolata Concezione. Il contributo dei francescani. Atti del Congresso mariologico francescano on the occasion of the 150° anniversary of the dogmatic proclamation (Santa Maria degli Angeli-Assisi, 4-8 December 2003), Vatican City 2005.
8 Francesco d’Assisi, Testamento, 29-33, in Fonti Francescane, op. cit., pp. 125-126.

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