Thursday, August 18, 2016

Francis of Assisi - A Man Betrayed

Few have taken the biblical injunctions regarding poverty so literally and strictly as Francis of Assisi. He went from a loose life to a life of strict poverty and devotion, which resulted in his being disowned by his father and generally ridiculed.  He collected a number of followers, who held with him to his principles. He believed in absolute poverty and in neither the individual nor the order having any permanent possessions. He also was opposed to learning, feeling it fostered conceit. He and his followers traveled about about, preaching the Bible and living either by temporary work or begging. Many, including Francis himself, ended up traveling to foreign countries as missionaries, including Muslim countries. Francis' order was  formally sanctioned by Innocent III. There is a similarity between Francis and Peter Waldo and others like him who were denied sanction. I am forced to wonder whether the different treatment was due to a real difference or merely to the way the political system chose to regard them.

But Cardinal Ugolino, later Gregory IX, reorganized the group while Francis was in Syria. Ugolino had put himself forth as the defender of the order, and he may have considered that what he was doing was for the best. (He always, at least outwardly, respected Francis himself.) But the result was that the order was allowed to possess property. It also was organized under more traditional monastic lines and made more directly subject to ecclesiastical authorities. After Francis' death there developed two parties among his followers: the Conventuals, who embraced the new rule, and the Observants, who wanted to return to Francis' original concept. The Observants became more and more in conflict with the established church and were ultimately outlawed as heretics. The Conventuals became totally integrated into the established church organization and became a useful tool to accomplish its purposes.

The life of Francis seems almost a parable of monasticism. You start with individuals who want to get serious with God. I do not endorse the view of celibacy and poverty held by Francis and the monks, though I might be willing to accept it as a vocation, not as making the person who practices it necessarily spiritually superior. I cannot totally buy into Francis' contempt for learning, although I have some sympathy for where he is coming from. I am strongly in favor of teaching the Word of God to the people. Anyway, Francis appears to have been a sincere individual, who was honestly trying to follow Christ. But his ideals over time were tamed and made subservient to the existing church organization, and those who tried to maintain his original standards were simply rejected. This is a danger for any approach that seeks to spiritually invigorate an existing organization without asking whether the actual beliefs and  practices of the organization need to change. It is easy for such a movement to be absorbed and become part of what they wanted to change.     

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