Few saints are as beloved as Saint Francis of Assisi who founded the Franciscans in the 12th Century. No order ever grew so fast. Francis was born Francis Bernardone in 1181 to a wealthy wool dyer who encouraged Francis to follow in his footsteps. Francis was well on his way toward this avocation, spending his youth recklessly at times with an adventurous spirit, impulsively enlisting in the war between Assisi and Perugia. One night, while sleeping on the battlefield in full gear, Francis had a mystical dream in which he saw himself returning to Assisi and entered the church of St. Damian where he heard three times Christ's words to repair His Church depicted by a crucifix that had been shattered. This dream was so pronounced that Francis, upon awakening, resigned his commission in the military, then renounced his patrimony by defrocking to the waist in front of his father, bishops and the well-to-do aristocrats of Assisi as well as the townsfolk as a gesture that he was stripping himself of all worldly possessions and consecrating himself to God by turning to a life as a mendicant preacher. Around 1207 Francis put on the robes of a penitent and sought to lead a contemplative, secluded life. At first he had taken Our Lord's words literally, constructing with his own hands a one room portiuncula church that still stands today inside the large church at the base of the hills leading to the town of Assisi. While reading a passage from Luke 9: 3-5 on the mission of the Apostles, Francis knew his mission was to gather a group of like-minded men for the purpose of preaching the gospel to all, especially those who could not read. Thus, he began the Order of Friars Minor and Pope Innocent III orally approved the first Rule, but not until Francis and his men had walked all the way from Assisi to Rome in hopes of gaining an audience with his holiness only to be turned away. In a mystical dream, Innocent was shown what would happen if he turned down Francis' request and what Francis' mission truly was. Innocent, a man of great faith and intent on doing the right thing, sent for Francis who already was half way back to Assisi to give him word that yes, the Holy Father had approved his Holy Rule. Francis, overjoyed, shared the news with his compadres and they began to preach the gospel everywhere, fostering numerous vocations as men sought to join this holy friar, with only a brown robe, cinctured rope and sandals as their possessions. Francis had always longed to be a martyr and yearned, like his counterpart and friend Saint Anthony to go the Morocco and preach to the heathens. Francis did go to Morocco, Egypt and then Palestine and five of his Franciscans were martyred by the Muslims, but not Francis who returned to Assisi where he, along with Saint Clare founded the Poor Clares, an order of Franciscan women dedicated to a life of contemplative, cloistered life in supporting the Friars through their sacrifices and prayers.
While Francis was doing wonders in Italy, another great saint, who would also be remembered in Italy, was forming a priestly order of homilists or Preachers who would become the white-robed Dominicans fostering some of the greatest and most intellectual of saints - such as Saint Thomas Aquinas. The origins of this order started in 1170 when one of the greatest preachers in Church History, Saint Dominic was born of noble parents in Caleruega, Spain. Dominic became an Augustinian canon after being educated at Palenci, Spain and received the rare gift of being chosen, at the age of 24, of joining his bishop the Most Reverend Diego de Azevedo on a mission to Denmark which also took them through southern France where Dominic encountered first-hand the Albigensianism and the Waldensian heresy rampant in those parts. He realized then and there the Church needed more preachers to convey the true teachings of Holy Mother Church. Both he and Bishop Azevedo returned immediately to Osma, Spain to begin recruiting worthy preachers. Before they were able to complete this task, the bishop died and the mission was left to Dominic alone. Undaunted, he realized the first necessity was prayer support and so set about to found a monastery of cloistered nuns in Prouille, France near Toulouse in 1215 similar to the Institute of Divine Mercy founded in Dallas a few years ago and featured in archives in volumes 7, no. 12 and 13 of A Call To Peace. Two years later Dominic had assembled enough preachers to form the Friars Preachers and it was quickly approved as the Order of Preachers in a papal bull issued by Innocent's successor, Pope Honorius III a year later in 1218.
In the next installment we shall cover the papacy of Honorius III. As for the glorious reign of Innocent III, it ended in the summer of 1216. After issuing countless decrees on the Eucharist, the condemnation of heresies particularly Manicheaism and Albigensianism that would spawn the Inquisition, put into effect by Innocent's successor, and placing a ban on founding of new religious orders without papal approval so that any new orders would be in the purity of the Franciscans and Dominicans with no chance for error, Innocent's main passion was to organize an all-out crusade that would avenge the deaths of the thousands of youth slaughtered or sold into slavery in the ill-fated "Children's Crusade" during his papacy. While stirring up interest in Perugia and intervening personally to settle differences between the seaport cities of Genoa and Pisa, the Holy Father caught the fever and succumbed on July 16, 1216 - the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. He was buried in Perugia, but in 1891 Pope Leo XIII, himself a former bishop of Perugia, ordered Innocent's body moved to the right-hand transept of St. John Lateran Church in Rome for proper entombment where all could reverence his tomb and memory. A memory that will go down in Church annals as the end of the "medieval papacy" and the beginning of a new, fresher, more spiritual direction for Holy Mother Church, but one wrought with criticism over the establishment of the Inquisition. Some historians have criticized Innocent for being so severe with kings and princes, but it was necessary in order to preserve the spirituality of Holy Mother Church and ward off regal interference from state rulers on affairs of the Church regarding spiritual matters.
Next installment: Pope Honorius III the Inquisition begins.
To review all past installments of this on-going series, go to Archives beginning with the inaugural A CALL TO PEACE internet issue in January 1996. volume 7, no. 1.