Monday, June 21, 2010

Explosive Ministry: 5000 Join Francis of Assisi

Francis’ order of Little Brothers exploded with fire! Men from all stations of life began to join the movement. They were sent out to preach the Gospel two-by-two across Italy and soon across Europe.

Just eight years after Francis and his band of 12 men received approval from Innocent III—no less than 5000 friars were part of the movement! Imagine if that happened today—if a young man in his twenties from your hometown were to begin a mission organization that multiplied into 5000 strong on the field within eight years! That is precisely what happened in Assisi.

In May 1217, all 5000 brothers gathered for the first comprehensive gathering of the Franciscan Order, known as the “Chapter of Mats.” Assembling at the little stone chapel of the Portiuncula, the Friars Minor held their first general chapter—general council—sharing the great works God had done, challenging each other spiritually and establishing some organization for the movement and its work across Europe.

They divided the map of Europe into various provinces, Francis in charge of France, and five of his closest colleagues over other areas of Christendom. While Francis was never able to go on the preaching tour of France that he had hoped, his virtual army of preachers canvassed Christendom. Although the Church was long established in Western Europe, the Gospel had not truly reached the rank and file of common people. The Franciscans addressed that lack and brought Jesus’ love to the general population, especially in the growing towns of the thirteenth century.

Ministry Across Europe

Friars became very popular among the multitudes. Because local clergy were often poorly educated and known for sexual immorality, serious Christians chose to listen to the Friars rather than the parish priests. Beguine complexes almost always asked for a Franciscan Brother to be their pastor. As a result, most of the Friars Minor became ordained so that they could perform pastoral duties and provide pastoral care for the people.

The Friars Minor made further contribution to Christianity across Europe by infiltrating the newly formed universities. While all of the institutions of higher learning were Christian in their orientation, rationalistic thought had infiltrated their teaching of theology. Combining brilliant learning with vibrant faith, Franciscan scholars helped to counteract the negative sides of medieval scholasticism. In 1253 Bonaventure took the Franciscan chair of theology at the University of Paris and later assumed the position of minister general of the Order. Bonaventure’s personal devotion to Jesus shines through all his writing, and his work Journey of the Soul into God is a masterpiece on the progress of spiritual formation.

There is no way to know the untold numbers who came to Christ because of the ministry of these humble Little Brothers and their determination to share Jesus’ message and his practical love with others.

Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels
Because of its importance, the Portiuncula still stands today. However, to preserve it, the large basilica of St. Mary of the Angels (above photo) was built around it shortly after Francis’ death. Now the simple chapel stands in the center of a giant church building, making visitors use their imagination to picture what it was like 800 years ago in the midst of grassy pastures. Photos are prohibited in the church, so unfortunately I have no picture to provide here.

The Portiuncula and St. Mary of the Angels still serve as the world center for the OFM—Order of Friars Minor. You might find it interesting that because of its importance to the Franciscan movement, the friars who evangelized in North America named one of the cities in California after this church: “the Angels”—Los Angeles.

This site stands as a memorial to several significant things. First, the humble stone chapel reminds us of St. Francis’ simplicity and love of being out in the fields. Second, it calls to mind the revival spawned by the phenomenal growth of the early Franciscan Movement, which was organized and mobilized here in 1217 at the Chapter of Mats. Third, it stands as the center of the ongoing ministry that Francis’ legacy has around the world today.

2010 © Glenn E. Myers

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