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The Franciscan Family: 800 Years of Gospel Living
Pat McCloskey, OFM, and Jack Wintz, OFM
Source: St. Anthony Messenger
Published: Tuesday, April 9, 2013

This article originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of St. Anthony Messenger.

In an interview with St. Anthony Messenger during a three-day visit to Cincinnati, Father José Rodriguez Carballo, O.F.M., explains the worldwide Franciscan family's preparations to celebrate in April 2009 the 800th anniversary of Pope Innocent III’s approval of the Rule of Life that Francis wrote.

This Rule, which marks the founding of the Franciscan movement, also influenced the growth of the Poor Clares (the Second Order) and Secular Franciscans (the Third Order), as well as men and women living in religious communities of the Third Order Regular tradition. These groups form the Franciscan family within the Catholic Church. Celebrating the anniversary of a Rule, a document describing a religious community’s way of life, may seem a bit unusual, but this approval marks an important step in the conversion of St. Francis. It ushered in the service Franciscan men and women have offered to the Church ever since.

Wounded during a 1202 battle between Assisi and Perugia, city-states in central Italy, Francis was a prisoner of war for a year. After being freed, he began to live more seriously, to become attentive to God. At the chapel of San Damiano outside Assisi, after Christ from the cross told him to go and rebuild the Church, Francis reconstructed that chapel and the nearby one of St. Mary of the Angels (the Portiuncula). Meeting and kissing a leper was also part of Francis’ conversion. When he had 11 followers, Francis went to St. John Lateran, the pope’s cathedral in Rome, and there in 1209 received verbal approval for this new way of life. Pope Honorius III approved in writing Francis’ longer Rule of 1223. (A “rough draft” Rule of 1221 was never submitted for approval.)

Francis of Assisi may be the best-known Catholic saint, admired by Christians and members of other world religions. In 1993, the editorial staff of Time magazine ranked him first among the 10 greatest people of the second millennium.

In this interview, the worldwide head of the Order of Friars Minor explains what made Francis “tick” in his 13th- century world and how his words and example can help Christians today live out the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Brother José, you are visiting to help Franciscans prepare for the 800th anniversary of the founding of the worldwide Franciscan brotherhood. Although you are a priest, we know that you often prefer to introduce yourself as Brother José. Why do you do that?

Thanks for the invitation to speak with you and your readers. Yes, I prefer to be called Brother José. Of course, I am also a priest and I am very happy with that vocation. I really believe that the Lord called me to be a priest. But without renouncing my role as a priest, first of all I am a Franciscan, and for this reason, I am a brother. St. Francis presents himself in his writings as Brother Francis. The best title that Franciscan men can use is “brother.”

Why did Francis and his first followers come to Rome in 1209 to seek approval from the pope for their way of life?

When St. Francis received the gift of brothers, immediately he wrote for them a very, very short Rule, texts from the New Testament. Some of these quotes we find in the Rules of 1221 and 1223. When the Lord gave him brothers, Francis went immediately to St. John Lateran in Rome to present himself and the first fraternity to the pope. Why? I think that St. Francis from the very beginning was very clear that the gospel that the Lord revealed to him as a forma vitae [form of life] must be lived in the Church and with the Church. This was probably the most important difference between Francis and several other new groups in the Church then.

Sometimes we think that the most original part of Francis’ form of life is poverty. I disagree because many other groups lived as poorly as Francis and his first companions did. I see a key difference in his heartfelt desire to live the gospel in the Church and with the Church. When Francis listened at Mass to the Gospel in the Portiuncula chapel, he probably understood its contents, but he asked a priest to comment on this text, to interpret it.

Francis clearly wanted to ask a priest as a representative of the Church to interpret a Gospel text that would help his brotherhood live that Gospel in communion with the Church. That’s why he sought the pope’s approval for the Rule.

So Franciscans need to be loyal to the Church in all these things?

Yes. I think that it’s important, and at the same time we must live the gospel with freedom, evangelical freedom, but always, always in the Church and with the Church.

You and the other Franciscan leaders have developed a plan for celebrating the start of the Franciscan family. What does it include?

We will celebrate this anniversary on two levels. The first is with the whole Franciscan family, especially in 2009. The entire Franciscan family will have a special meeting with the pope. Through our leaders, the whole Franciscan family will renew our vows in the pope’s hands.

Some branches of the Franciscan family like us, the Friars Minor, will also have their own program of celebration. Our project began when I was traveling to Japan in 2003. After my election as minister general, I was thinking: What can I do to give some special occasion to our Order to renew our life? I then remembered 2009 and the eighth centenary of the Order’s foundation.

And I also immediately recalled what Pope John Paul II did for the Church’s jubilee celebration in 2000. In preparation, he dedicated one year to the Father, another one to the Son and the third year to the Holy Spirit.

I said: Well, we can have a similar itinerary. In 2006, we can focus on the conversion of Francis. For 2007 we would focus on the project of life (how he would live). When Francis listened to the Gospel in the Portiuncula, he answered, “This is what I want and this is how I want to live, the gospel.” So in 2007 we centered our project on the Gospel.

In 2008 and 2009 we are celebrating the gift of our vocation and mission. This is a time to give thanks to our Lord Jesus Christ—but also to show people that we are glad to be Franciscans.

This three-year program includes very specific signs. For example, our extraordinary general chapter in October 2006 was an important moment. Last June our general council met in Assisi with the O.F.M. bishops. Last summer we had a spiritual chapter in the Holy Land for young brothers from around the world. These different moments have helped us prepare for the 2009 jubilee of the Order.

Will there be some large event to celebrate the Franciscan family’s foundation?

At a recent meeting of the Franciscan Conference that is composed of the Friars Minor, the Capuchins and the Conventuals, and men and women from the Third Order Regular, we decided that the main celebration will take place in Rome. We are asking that the focal point for the celebrations be at St. John Lateran during the first week after Easter in 2009.

You have described certain events in the life of St. Francis leading up to the Order’s foundations as “the grace of our origins.” What are some of those events and what is their significance?

The life of St. Francis contains many important moments for the foundation of the Order; they complete his conversion. One moment is the 1202 battle between Assisi and Perugia. For me this is a very important moment because, in entering this battle, Francis is entering a personal crisis. He is thinking about the purpose of his life. His later rebuilding of San Damiano and St. Mary of the Angels flowed from something new in his life. For me, the beginning of this new way in his life is the battle between Assisi and Perugia.

I think the rebuilding of San Damiano and St. Mary of the Angels is important, not only because Francis is rebuilding old chapels outside Assisi but also because it is his personal answer to the words of the Gospel and to the words of the crucifix of San Damiano.

Francis listened and immediately he wanted to do something. Of course, he doesn’t understand completely the sense of the words of the Gospel or what Christ told him at San Damiano. But it’s vital that he does something immediately. He doesn’t wait to understand completely the message of the Gospel, the message of Christ. Francis immediately opens his heart and puts his hands to doing something concrete. I see this as very important.

Another key moment is the meeting of Francis with the leper. After Francis had a meeting with Christ, Francis then met a suffering human being, who is also excluded. Francis clearly understood that, after the Incarnation, it is impossible to follow Christ without showing a love for humanity. Francis could not accept Christ in his life without accepting all the others, especially all those who suffer. St. Francis’ meeting with the leper and the rebuilding of San Damiano and St. Mary of the Angels have a global importance. They represent an openness to Christ and, consequently, an openness to others.

Besides Pope Innocent’s verbal approval of Francis’ way of life in 1209, what other key events in his life were crucial steps in the continuing foundation of the Order? Several other events were very important in the foundation of the Order—for example, the entrance of St. Clare into the Franciscan family. Today we cannot think of the Franciscan family without Clare.

But this is true from the very beginning. It’s not only now that we are discovering the importance of Clare for our charism. Our Franciscan source documents show that Clare helped Francis tremendously. When Francis had doubts about how Jesus asked him to live the gospel, Francis went to Clare and asked her advice. This was very important for the foundation of our Order. We would not be who we are in this moment without Clare—but also without all the laywomen and laymen who became part of our family in Francis’ day.

The current celebration marks the birth of our Order. We consider Pope Innocent’s approval of our first Rule as the crucial moment because then the Church embraced our Order and gave it the possibility to grow. We accept this responsibility with great gratitude.

Before you were called to leadership in your province in Santiago de Compostela in Spain and then to leadership in the worldwide Order, you taught Scripture for many years. It seems that Francis allowed Scripture to speak to him in ways that his contemporaries did not. Did he do something differently in the reading of the Scriptures? Why did they make a deeper impression on him than on many others?

Yes, I studied Scripture in the Holy Land and afterward in Rome. I taught Scripture in several different schools in Spain. I think that Francis discovered under the words of Scripture the Word of God, Jesus.

As the Scripture scholar Origen says, “Under each word of the Scriptures is the Word of the Lord.” So it’s a question of faith. Francis read and listened to the text with a big faith in the Word. For this reason, he read and listened to Scripture without commentary.

I think that sometimes we want to interpret the Bible without faith in it, and this is contrary to the sense of Scripture. So the difference between Francis and probably many of us is that for Francis it is Jesus speaking in the Scriptures. If Jesus asks something, we must immediately put into practice what he asks. For this reason, Francis constantly insisted that we must read and live the gospel simply.

You will soon bless a new statue of St. Francis over our building’s main entrance. The statue shows him in the act of preaching. Why do you think Francis’ preaching affected his contemporaries so deeply?

St. Francis’ life preaches more than his words do. We know from contemporary writings that sometimes he went to preach but didn’t say anything: He preached by his good example. Because of this, Francis touched the hearts of his contemporaries. His life is effective because he lives what he preaches. I can say: First, he lives the gospel, and afterward sometimes he preaches the gospel. That’s why he speaks to the hearts of his contemporaries.

When you travel from Rome to visit Friars Minor around the world, you also visit Franciscan sisters, members of the Secular Franciscan Order and Poor Clares. What do you most often say to encourage them in their vocations?

I think we must reread our Franciscan sources according also with the signs of the times. So I ask them, myself and all the brothers: Don’t read our sources, our charism, as something that happened in the past. It must be real and concrete now. Sometimes I talk about refoundation, not only of our Order but also of the Poor Clare Order or the Secular Franciscan Order. Refoundation means going to our roots, keeping the essentials of our charism, but from these essential elements always answering the questions of people today.

At this moment, of course, fidelity is necessary, fidelity to the elements that we consider essential, but at the same time creativity. The Church insists on both this fidelity and this creativity. Otherwise, we would lose the continuity of our history. We might remain something important but only in the past. We must look to the present and to the future.

As Pope John Paul II wrote in Tertio Millennio Ineunte, his apostolic letter at the start of the third millennium, “In this moment we must look to the past with gratitude and embrace the future with hope, living the present with patience.”

So the future of our life, as well as the future of the life of the Second and the Third Order, requires living the present with patience.

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