Saturday, April 3, 2010

Francis & His Brothers: A Popular History of the Franciscan Order

By Dominic V. Monti, 166 pages, St. Anthony's Messenger Press.

St. Francis and his brotherhood answered a deep need of the Church of medieval Italy, as the older institutional forms and practices had not been meeting the pastoral needs of rapidly-changing society. A new, urban merchant and professional class was keen for a bigger place in the world, including within Christianity. They sought a personal, intimate spirituality somewhat at odds with the early medieval, rural, monastic spiritual life, according to Monti:

“Attracted to the Gospel portrayed by Jesus and his first disciples, more people came to think that a truly 'apostolic life' should be poor and humble, divorced from feudal wealth and power, and engaged in evangelical preaching.”

Francis' acceptance of the life of poverty, though he was form this merchant class, can be seen therefore as a stunning, even revolutionary move. He did not directly oppose the socio-economic direction of society, but through his saintly, simple life, offered Christians another choice. The Church could make room for him because at this time many eccentrics had taken on the penitential life. Yet Francis' saintliness and vision changed far more hearts than other penitentials did, and the Church would have to accommodate this new, energetic order.

Monti shows how the institutionalization of the movement, which occurred while Francis was still alive, diminished much of the original charism. This caused tremendous grief and division within the order and the Church itself. Victims of their own numerical success, the Franciscans soon set up their own educational and administrative structures, moving from the radical to the normal part of society and the Church.

The radical wing of the Franciscans never accepted this accommodation, even with the exemplary pastoral skills of St. Anthony of Padua (actually from Lisbon; died 1231) and the skilled uniting leadership of St. Bonaventure (General Minister, 1257-75). The Spiritual movement died with the burning at the stake of 4 of their members in 1318.

Francis & His Brothers captures the wider social, political, and economic issues of the day, and how this influenced the Franciscans. The Black Death (1347-51) decimated their numbers; the Great Schism of the papacy (1378-1417) divided them as much as it did the rest of Europe; the Reformation saw Franciscans kicked out of some countries, but some members joining the Protestants; and Franciscans and Capuchins (founded in 1529) played a central role in the evangelization of the New World.

The eighteenth-century's Enlightenment, which targeted the Church more than anything else, led to much suffering within Catholicism and the Franciscan orders. The French Revolution persecuted the Church, including the Franciscan orders, but Catholicism staged a rapid, stunning comeback in Western Europe, so that things were in full swing again by the late 1800s.

Vatican II and the vast social changes of the following decades in Europe and North American means that for today, the order finds its greatest growth and energy in countries like India and Poland. Perhaps Monti could have been more critical of some of the excesses of Franciscans involved in liberation theology, as well as the sometimes-schmaltzy spirituality of Catholic groups, including some Franciscans, after Vatican II. Like many Catholic writers, he seems to fear making strong judgments against the failed spiritual practices that have turned many people away from the Church.

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