St. Francis and Franciscans in Israel

St. Francis

The biographer of Francis of Assisi, Paul Sabatier, says:

“The mendicant orders, when they emerged, were real international institutions. When in 1216 St. Dominic gathered his brothers in Notre Dame de Prullus, there were sixteen of them, including: Castilians, Navarra, Normans, French, Languedocien, and even the British and Germans. Heretics wandered across Europe and nowhere did they stop the difference in language. Arnold of Brescia, for example, the famous Roman stands, appears in France, in Switzerland and even in Germany. "


Arnold of Brescia (c.1100-1155) was an Italian priest and religious reformer who called for the return of the lifestyle of Christ’s first disciples who lived in simplicity and equality. He fought against the authority of the pope who disagreed with his views but was pursued, captured and burned at the stake.


At the time when Francis of Assisi began his public ministry, the Roman Church had long been terrorizing the entire Christian world. Murders, persecution and greed tarnished her ministers who taught that forgiveness of sins can be obtained for money through offerings placed in the church treasury.  More importantly, the Church taught it was the essential mediator between God and man. The people were made to be spiritually impotent and weak. In short, they were convinced of the impossibility of communication with God without the priest’s  participation and intervention on their behalf. 


“Forced to defend its existence, the church made power and wealth its idol,”   

writes E.K. Pimenova.


“A priest in the 13th century,” says Paul Sabatier, “was the antithesis of the saint and almost always his enemy. Separated from the rest of humanity by sacred anointing, considering himself the representative of Almighty God, the priest himself became for the people a kind of deity endowed with mysterious power, who could harm or bring benefit — a person to whom one should approach with awe of awe. On the contrary, the saint, on the contrary, did not give out his mission, but his life and words penetrated the soul and conquered all hearts. He did not have responsibilities in the church, but he suddenly had the opportunity to raise his voice in her.  A child of the people, he understood all his material and moral needs and heard the voice of his heart. "


This describes Francis of Assisi well; he was similar to a prophet who was not consecrated by the church, but by his chosen vocation.

“As soon as the priest felt that he was defeated by the prophet, ” Sabatier writes, “ he immediately changed his attitude towards him and took him under his protection; then he introduced the sermon of the prophet in the holy books and threw priestly vestments on his shoulders. Days passed, when finally the moment came when the crowd ceased to distinguish between the priest and the prophet and saw in the prophets a product of the clergy. This is the most bitter irony of history."


Francis of Assisi was a son of his people and was under no obligation to the Catholic Church. Maybe he himself did not fully realize the significance of his spiritual work which he performed throughout his lifetime. Until his death, however, he refused to be ordained a priest.


Despite the fact that Francis and his early followers were monks, their way of life and social activities were a challenge and a protest of the monastic life of the times. Francis and his first disciples walked into the world towards the people, in sharp contrast to those who escaped behind the high walls of the monasteries. The entire Franciscan movement was a conscious protest against monasticism and sought to  establish a higher ideal which included living among the people and caring for their needs. 


Francis, unlike the subsequent reformers, did not seek to overthrow the clergy or form a new denomination. He was a son of the Catholic Church and remained so throughout his life; this is the fundamental difference between him and most reformers. He longed for a renewal of the church and human souls, by returning to Christianity in its initial purity and simplicity. Francis apparently realized that by leaving the world for a contemplative life in the silence of the monastery, there laid a deep egoism. He wished to go to those in need and sympathized with the common people who were suffering, miserable, poor and forgotten.


The official biographers of the life of Francis seem to over-paint his life. In the eyes of ordinary people, his life departs from resemblance of their own. In descriptions of some biographers, Francis was marked with a "divine seal" from birth and therefore his life is deprived of hardship. For superstitious people, this may serve as an additional reason to worship him but does not inspire imitation. Superstitious people worship the saint as a higher being, but do not seek to emulate his attitude and his actions.

But this is the most important thing in Christian teaching.

“Imitate me as I am to Christ,” writes the Apostle Paul (I Corinthians 11:1).


Although, when Francis of Assisi began his ministry, he was not yet surrounded by a halo of inaccessible sanctity. People saw him as his brother, suffering beside them and rooting for them.


According to modern sources, Francis was born in 1181 or 1182 in the family of a wealthy cloth merchant. His mother named him at the baptism of Giovanni, but then his father, having returned from France, where he was at the birth of his son, renamed him Francis.


When Francis grew up, he was sent to a school under the shelter of the church as it was accepted everywhere in those days. His mentors were, of course, priests who taught him a little Latin, the most common language used for sermons and for political relations. This was probably the extent of his education;  he did not even learn how to write. 


The life of Francis in the early years of his childhood was no different from the lives of other children of his age. Thomas Celano, one of the first biographers of Francis, indignantly describes prevailing education system at that time.  Parents indulged and corrupted the children almost from the cradle and allowed them to waste money left and right to impress their peers. Parents encouraged vanity and other vices in children and Francis did not escape the fate of being the son of his wealthy father was who was a merchant. 


According to biographers, Francis led a wild lifestyle in his youth, although to what extent varies between accounts of his life. In any case it has been agreed that  Francis, with his noisy amusements, antics and extravagance attracted attention and gained general notoriety. Finally, the undisciplined lifestyle undermined the youth's health and he fell dangerously ill. For many months, he hovered between life and death, and the proximity of the latter, most likely was the cause of the moral fracture that occurred within him. Now, confined to the sickbed and deprived of the opportunity to return to his normal life, he realized that his soul was deeply unsatisfied and that he tried to suppress the feeling with revelry. 


Religion, in the form in which it existed, could not satisfy Francis. It was crude ritualism only called Christianity, and the sensitive soul of Francis understood all this falsity and longed for true faith. 


He left society because it did not understand his anguish or the change that took place in him during his illness.  Francis sought solitude as pleasures lost their attraction for him. Friends left Francis and only the poor remained faithful to him because he always treated them  with kindness and sympathy. The timid affection followed by  friendship of the destitute brought joy to his soul. He understood most of the poor fell into poverty as a result of wars, poor crops and diseases, and these people desperately needed moral support. Francis felt a need for action in himself, but he did not know how to share with people the infinite supply of tenderness and love that had accumulated in his heart. 


(to be continued)


 The mendicant friars lived as Christ did, bound by vows of absolute poverty which renounced property and personal possessions. They traveled the world to spread God’s word in the cities, healing and caring for the sick, poor and destitute. The name mendicant is derived from the Latin mendicare which means to beg. The major mendicant orders are the Franciscans and Dominicans. 

Franciscans in the Land of Israel