Sunday, April 24, 2016

Francis and Dominic

A third wave of reform was led by orders that lived under a rule that included vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but that also developed particular missions, such as missionary activity, education and preaching.

The most notable were begun by Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) and Dominic de Guzmán (1170-1221), founders of the Franciscan and Dominican orders, respectively.

Francis, born Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone but for some reason called Francesco informally, was a remarkable Christian who would deserve his own entry if he weren’t already so famous as to be widely known.

The young man who threw all his clothes at the foot of his wealthy father in the streets of Assisi and ran off naked to the valleys and hills of the surrounding area is oddly enough known for his gentle mien. He was drawn to monasticism by a sermon on Matthew 10:9, in which Jesus sends out the apostles to preach the good news and heal the sick, proclaiming that the rule of heaven was coming, and instructing them to “acquire no gold or silver or copper for your belts” for the journey.

Dressed in a rough garment a destitute man gave him, walking barefoot and without staff or money, he began to preach repentance and was soon joined by his first follower, the jurist Bernardo di Quintavalle, who contributed all that he had to the work. Within a year Francis had 11 followers. Francis chose never to be ordained a priest, and the community lived as “lesser brothers,” fratres minores in Latin, today the Order of Friars Minor.

He respected nature as a “mirror” of God, and had a penchant for calling animals and natural objects (even stars) “brother” this and “sister” that. He lived a life of near absolute poverty and demanded it of his companions, the first friars.

A lesser known aspect of his life relevant to our time is his trip to Egypt to try to bring about reconciliation with the Muslim world; although he failed in the age of the Crusades, his order was the only one later allowed to stay in the Holy Land when it was reconquered by Muslims. The Franciscans were allowed in as custodians of Christian sacred places in the Holy Land.

He also inspired St. Clare of Assisi (1194-1253), a young woman also born into a wealthy family, to enter monastic life; she authored the first monastic rule written by a woman. The Order of Saint Clare, often called the Poor Clares, is the feminine counterpart to the Franciscans.

For people who could not leave their families, he later formed the Third Order of Brothers and Sisters of Penance, a fraternity of either laity or clergy whose members neither withdrew from the world nor took religious vows but tried to live the principles of Franciscan life in their daily lives.

Notably also, Francis influenced the way in which the Church reached everyday people, with less emphasis on awe of a distant deity and a greater stress on the warmth and love of Jesus. Francis originated the use in churches (and today in homes) of the Christmas crèche, a small or large modeled representation of Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus in a stable surrounded by animals, angels and the three kings.

Things changed after Francis died. There were disputes concerning the observance of poverty, and the Franciscans split into “observants,” who kept the original name but became more institutional as several popes and cardinals intervened to relax St. Francis’ Rule; the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, who were more ascetic; and the Conventual Franciscans, who were more withdrawn from the world.

The other great reformer of that age was a Castilian priest born Domingo Félix de Guzmán, yet another scion of the nobility who saw his vocation as renouncing the wealth and privilege to which he was born.

As a young theology student in 1191, when famine struck Spain, Dominic gave away his money and sold his clothes, furniture and even valuable manuscripts to feed the hungry. At about the age of 25 he joined a community following the rule of Saint Benedict and for seven years led an ascetic life, rarely leaving the priory. Then, in 1203, he was asked to accompany the Bishop of Osma on a diplomatic mission for Alfonso VIII, the king of Castile, to secure a bride in Denmark for Crown Prince Ferdinand.

The mission failed as the princess died before negotiations were completed, but the trip took Dominic through southern France, where he had a decisive encounter. In Toulouse, the travelers observed close up the Albigensian heretics, a neo-Manichean (body-soul dualism) sect whose beliefs included elements of Gnosticism and Islam; today, some theologians see them less as a Christian deviation than a non-Christian religion that popped up in the West.

It was practiced by people who called themselves Cathars (from the Greek katharoi, meaning “the pure ones”) and rejected the worldly and often corrupt life of the clergy they disdained. In some respects, the Cathars or Albigensians were forerunners of the Puritans.

These people inspired Dominic to found an order to combat heresy and spread the light of the gospel through preaching. Dominic believed that conversion of the Cathars called for preachers who displayed in their lives sanctity, humility and asceticism, which was rare among the clergy of the day.

In 1215, he established the first house, in Toulouse, of what were to become the Dominicans, or Order of Preachers. He engaged in several public debates with the Albigensians. Perceiving that the heretics counted considerable support among women, he started an order of nuns to educate poor young women.

In his work spreading the gospel, Dominic was instrumental in developing the rosary, or prayerful “garlands of roses” dedicated to the mother of Jesus, as a result of what some versions of his life call a vision of the Virgin Mary in 1214 in a church in Prouille. It is now known as the apparition of Our Lady of the Rosary.

The legacy of St. Dominic, a personally kind and ascetic man, and that of the laudably studious and eloquent Dominicans, is nonetheless mired in the very rough political world of the high middle ages. In particular, Dominic and his order became entangled with two highly controversial institutions of the time, the Crusades and the Inquisition, the subject of the next episodes of this history.

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