Penance & Poverty
Very Rev. Lino Temperini, TOR
Very Rev. Fr. Seraphin J. Conley, TOR
Penitents, Poor in
order to serve the Poor! (XIII - XV centuries)
title selected for this chapter gives the precise outline of the exposition and clearly
indicates the direction it will take. The Brothers and Sisters of Penance, as true
children of St. Francis of Assisi, considered themselves to be deeply committed to the
practice of the most genuine Gospel values, especially the twin values of Penance/Works of
Mercy. The question of poverty is to be seen in this context.
going to the collection of documentary testimony it is important to be aware of a unique
difference present from the origins of Franciscanism regarding the significance of
evangelical poverty. A comparison of the third with the first and second orders is
necessary and enlightening; it was not a choice of "most high poverty" for any
ascetical purpose, but rather concrete options for charitable assistance in service to the
Penitents, whether Secular and Regular, were not caught up in the impassioned
controversies about the poverty of Christ and His apostles, of the Church and of
Franciscans, as were the Friars Minor and through their influence, the Order of Poor
that subject, we are familiar with the discussions, at times quite intricate, about
Franciscan Poverty. In the First and Second Orders poverty assumed a theoretical relevance
of extreme importance; it is the ideal, the ideology, the ascetical impulse, the dynamic
force which stirs up the embers and one's potential. For centuries the problem of
evangelical poverty polarized great minds and generous souls seeking the way of
perfection. Justly do the Rule of 1223: 6,4 and the Rule of St. Clare: 8, 4 speak of
"most high poverty" which renders one poor in material goods but rich in virtue.
the contrary, in the Franciscan Order of Penance, or the Third Order of St. Francis,
Secular and Regular, ordinarily poverty was chosen not for an ideal or ascetical purpose
but with a charitable purpose or social help in mind. When a brother or sister of penance
deprived themselves of their material goods or destined their property as an inheritance
by means of a Will in favor of the "consociatio poenitentium," they had before
their eyes the manifold needs of the poor and the mass of services set up for their
assistance. Coming from the people, they remained in the midst of the people "in the
world," or at least, very close to the people in their real life situations. The
Third Order looked attentively at the problems of the people and generously fulfilled the
works of mercy. And it is in this spirit that the Fraternity is the proprietor of goods
and did not reject the acceptance of donations made out in its own name, without any legal
rationalizations. And also the Fraternity of the Third Order Regular, often rooted in the
Secular Franciscans, allows community property, although excluding the right of its
members to own private property. On the contrary, up to the Council of Trent and even
afterwards, in many Institutes the religious men and women had the right of ownership over
their personal goods, even if in practice they were not able to dispose of these without
the permission of their superiors. Therefore, in the Rules of the SFO and the TOR it would
make no sense to say "sine proprio" (without property), while the phrase
"without property" is in the Rules of the Minors and the Clares (RNB 1, 1; RB 1,
1; RCI 1, 1-2) has its rightful place. Also the concept of "Highest Poverty" is
completely foreign to the long historic and spiritual tradition of the Third Order of St.
Francis, whether Secular or Regular.
Order of Penance the evangelical counsel of poverty is welcomed and lived in its operative
dimensions. The brothers and sisters of Penance let themselves be guided by the needs and
rights of the poor. Between the living and sharp-edged Word of God and service to the
needy there is a direct and consequential connection. Indeed the check of how the Gospel
was carried out from the viewpoint of service will constitute the parameters of the Final
Judgement. (Mt. 25, 31-46) Only love manifested in the spiritual and corporal works of
mercy will count in the balance of the Judge. This will be the practical and ethical
measure by which our existence will be evaluated. "He who does not love .... John
echoes the Gospel .... does not know God." (I Jn 4,8); "he who does not love is
dead." (l Jn 4,8) "He who does not love his brother whom lie can see, cannot
love God whom he cannot see. " (l Jn 4,20) "It is not enough to love in word and
speech but there is need to love in deed and in truth. " (l Jn 3,14) Faith which is
not attentive to the needs of the poor is dead, is a pretense and worthless as would say
St. James (cf.Jn 2,2f; 14f). The narcissism of a poverty which would contemplate itself,
which would praise itself, which would be pleased with itself, which would absolutize
itself almost as a new gospel, often ends up depleted on the barren horizon of the Ego. It
is a phenomenon which has never affected the Order of Franciscan penitents. The constant
faithfulness to the practice of charity and the duties of daily life did not allow the
brothers and sisters of the Third Order to dedicate themselves to abstract dissertations
oftentimes useless and often wounding or harmful.
the noble history of Franciscan poverty, the extension of the apostolic community and
exemplification of the primitive church, the Third Order is characterized by its own
special style and its own dimensions To share bread with the hungry, to welcome the
homeless, to clothe the naked as writes the Prophet Isaias (cf, Is 58,7) is the program of
the brothers and sisters of penance. Insisting on charitable and social relief activities,
the Third Order has given its specific contribution to the fullness of the Franciscan
charisma distinguished by forceful ideals and garlanded with deeds arising from the leaven
of the Gospel. A gift of Providence after the manner of the Poverello, the Third Order is
the bearer of a rich historic and spiritual patrimony belonging to the entire Franciscan
family and to the Church.
The Facts Speak
studies have borne fruit in bringing to light valuable historic testimony which documents
the charitable activities of the Franciscan penitents. In the greater number of cases
concerning projects spead out over space and time, one can discover the strict rapport
between their poverty and their charitable service. The Franciscan penitents used their
goods and work to begin or sustain relief services carried out by the fraternities of the
Third Order. Often dividing their goods in spite of the presumed rights of their lawful
heirs, many penitents made out wills in favor of beneficient activities, donating their
property completely or partially. Here we see a poverty which is very practical, not only
exercised "pro mercede anime" rather than from an ascetical impulse, but in the
spirit of the Beatitudes (cf. Mt. 5, 1-10) and the works of mercy (cf. Mt 25, 31-46). By
way of example, we have gathered some facts which can illuminate this judgement. I have
chosen a wide range of witnesses both familiar and unknown.
an earlier study of the secluded world of holiness of Franciscan penitents, I became quite
familiar with some individual among the ternaries and their choice of poverty. (1) Always, or very often,
one finds the distribution of their goods for the various works of mercy. The penitents
renounce their own financial security and leave their goods to take care of the needs of
the indigent. Among the revipients of the charity of the tertiaries are counted the poor
in general, the blind, the lame, the lepers, the plague stricken, the sick in hospitals or
at home, widows and needy girls.
(1) Cf. L. TEMPERINI, Le fonti francescane in alcune esperienze dei francescani
laici del 1400, in Lettura delle fonti francescane attraverso is secoli: il 1400, Rome,
1981, pp. 347-372. Dealing with the questions of poverty in the middle ages, an essential
treatment is found in M.MOLLAT I poveri nel medioevo, Rome-Bari, 1987. In this excellent
study which summarizes previous research can be found an excellent biobligraphy which
touches on the theme. General studies as well as hundreds of monographs reflect the
interest in the complex themes: poverty-assistance-charity in the middle ages and at the
beginnings of the Humanistic period.
Hungary (1207-1231) Canonized May 27, 1235.
example of St. Elizabeth, the firstborn of Franciscan penitential sanctity is interesting
from this viewpoint of active charity. Her historical and spiritual membership in the
Order of Franciscan penitents is clear. After some erroneous efforts to remove her from
the list, her affiliation has been completely reestablished by very recent historical
and Franciscan penitent, Elizabeth, although formerly queen and not deprived of economic
resources, detached herself from material goods and put all her means at the service of
the poor. During the famine of 1226 she put all the wealth of the state to alleviate the
hunger and other necessities of the people. (3) During her liesure time,
she, together with her maids sewed and made garments for the poor. (4) In a time of epidemic she
sold all her jewels to aid the stricken. (5) And when she had nothing
else to give, she provided for the orphans and the sick working and personally caring for
them. (6) The story is told that
Elizabeth, scarcely three months after her marriage (May, 1221) had given her bridal gown
of silver brocade to a poor lady, considering it useless for her to keep but useful for
one in the situation of the poor. (7) To poor women, Elizabeth
used to give dresses and veils to provide for their needs. (8) To a recently delivered
mother she provided food, lodging, clothing and assistance.(9) At her own expense and
sometimes her own labor she provided Christian burial for those who had died of the plague, abandoned by all due
to the dread of contagion. (10)
a legal settlement, Elizabeth received from Enrico de Ruspe (the Landgrave succeeding his
dead brother Louis, the husband of Elizabeth) two thousand marks and the use of some
indispensable possessions, including Marburg and some personal belongings. Her
Cf. C.A.CADDERI, Scitita Elisabetta d'Ungheria, Padua, 1988, pp.89s.
(3) CF. o.c., pp. 13 and 107. Medieval vocabulary designating the various types of poverty
was quite varied. And the proliferation of indigency fostered a common mentality, part
fatalistic, part devout, often resigned. Poverty was seen as an inescapable fact to be
sublimated in the light of faith and to be resolved bv charity. Medieval man did not make
a socio-economic connection between need and justice as we do today. It is for this reason
that the christian effort, more filled with a spirit of the gospel, worked through charity
and works of mercy even if they did not stress social justice. The brothers and sisters of
penance were in the forefront and, in their life style, demonstrated the sincerity of
their conversion by service to the needy.
(4) Cf. o.c., p. 101
(5) Cf. o.c., p. 108
(6) Cf. o.c., p. 13 and 101.
(7) Cf. o.c., p. 74
(8) Cf. o.c., p. 110-111.
(9) Cf. o.c., p. 152-153
(10) Cf. o.c., p. 110.
turned immediately to the poor to aid them and to the sick to alleviate their needs. She
had a hospital built at Marburg, which was finished at the beginning of 1229 and was
dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi.
the end of May in 1229, in a single day, Elizabeth distributed an enormous sum to
thousands of the poor, who came to the hospital of Marburg to receive something to
alleviate their need. The chroniclers speak of 12,000 beggars, and it is known that each
one received 6 marks! As if all this were not sufficient, Elizabeth had food and 6 denarii
distributed to each one of the poor and the invalids who remained overnight while she
herself washed their tired and dusty feet. (11)
are numerous other testimonies, completely true or embroidered "cum fundamento
inre," giving evidence that in Elizabeth, poverty became a continuous gift. Her money
and her labor was converted into bread, food, clothing, medicine and hospitals for the
poor, even into candies and toys for orphaned or abandoned children. (12)
heroic sanctity of Elizabeth, maturing so quickly in the Franciscan school, found a wide
response in other marvelous individuals among the brothers and sisters, although they were
not so widely known. Often the virtues perfumed by grace flourish in the underbrush of
God's Kingdom! As an example we can take a quick look at some other typical witnesses. We
begin at Padua. An act of sale dated Oct. 29, 1231 informs us that a certain Ottolino,
probably a member of the "ordo fratrum de penitencia" went begging to help the
poor. (13) His membership in the Order
is not explicitly mentioned but is certainly probable and even inferred. In case this
information and its certainty were clearer, we would find ourselves with the first
testimony concerning the penitents of Padua. Their presence was marked by heroic charity.
As a note of curiosity we would recall that 1231 was the year in which St. Anthony
preached a series of Lenten Sermons.
remain at Padua. From the Will of the "Lady Venese" drawn up on November 22,
1245, we know that by that date there existed in Padua a fraternity of penitents composed
of "fratres et ministri," in other words, regularly organized. (14) An examination of the index
offers us sufficient confirmation that we find ourselves in a Franciscan sphere, that is
that the protagonists of the act are Penitents of St. Francis. And so, the person making
f. o.c., pp. 150-151.
(12) Cf. o.c., P.109. It should be remembered that in the middle ages poverty was
not understood in the old testament sense. For the Israelite of the OT the poor man was a
sinner, deprived of the goods of creation by God for some fault. Thus, poverty deserved to
be despised. There was neither pity nor help. Rather, the poor man deserved to be
admonished. Nevertheless, the biblical and pagan standards of the middle east gradually
developed a deeper humaniatarian and religious sensitivity towards the poor. Cf. LeGASSE, Pauvrete
chretienne, in Dictionaire de spiritualite (=DS),t. I 2/1,Lcoll.613-697. On the
other hand, the NT proclaims that the Son of God despoiled Himself to take on the
condition of a servant and to share the reality of man, except for sin. (cf. Fil 2, 6-8).
The anawim, the poor, are the favorites of God: they are brothers in Christ, renewed
through the choice of the Incarnate Word. In the poor the true Christian discovers the
"imago Christi". Cf. S.LeGASSE, in DS, coll. 623-634. In the middle ages and in
the time of St. Francis, poverty represented and symbolized many values. Cf. M. MOLLAT, in
DS, coll. 647-658.
(13) Cf. A. RIGON, I laici nella chiesa padovana del duecento: oblati,
penitenti, Padua 1979, pp. 49-50.
(14) Cf. o.c.,
Venese leaves all
her rights to a vineyard with the clause that half of the harvest was to be distributed to
the poor. (15)
is a legal document of 1281 in which we see that Maria, the widow of the jurist Scurcio,
left a large sum of money to Fra Albrigeto "of the congregation of the Brothers of
Penance" to be given to aid prisoners.
two Acts of March 12, 1284 which again demonstrate that Fra Albrigeto "querit
elimoxinam pro caceratis."
the daughter of Giacomo di Tolomeo, in a Will of April 7, 1300 established that part of
her property, after settlement of any outstanding debts, should be given to the Ministers
of the penitents "ad liberandum carceratos et ad pascendum eos in carcere."
the works of mercy on behalf of those in prison must be added the relief of the poor,
guaranteed through donations and wills.
the strength of a will of a certain Fra Bongalvano, the brothers Giovanni and Antonio paid
lo Lire "conventui fratrum de penitencia pro una piatancia fiendo in sancto die iovis
XII pauperibus et aliis dicti Ordinis," that is to provide a good meal each year on
Holy Thursday for 12 poor men. (16)
Rigon observes correctly that the practice of charitable donations on behalf of the
poor, at least in the 13th & 14th centuries, was a very common practice among the
faithful in general (17) and therefore not only to be attributed to the "penitentes tertii
ordinis beati Francisci." Certainly, charitable works are not the monopoly of anyone
and, I would say, thank God for that! However, our interest is to document in what measure
the tertiary Franciscans were activated by the motives of service to their brothers...
drawing energy from their own poverty which rendered them free and available. Their
seraphic poverty was a gift which enriched the poor!
to the needy on the part of the Franciscan penitents was exercised either directly or more
often through the fraternity and its ministers. The alms box of the fraternity often
overflowed with the offerings of the tertiaries and the ministers with their council
served the guardians and executors of the intentions of the givers.
kind of involvement of the fraternity in the exercise of gospel beneficence is very
interesting, in that it demonstrates the commitment of the brothers and sisters of penance
to community projects, to a sense of co-responsibility, of sharing, the communion of the
spirit of St. Francis.
secure the constant service to the least fortunate, the penitential fraternities sought to
increase the capital collected by donations by making useful aquisitions and investments.
A testimony in this sense comes to us from a fraternity of "pauperes fratres
Cf. o.c., pp. 53-54
(16) Cf. o.c., pp. 63-64
(17) Cf. o.c., pp.73-74; G. G. MEERSSEMAN, Ordo fraternitatis, Rome 1977, pp. 365-366;
A.VAUCHEZ, Assistance et charite en occident, XIII siecles, in Domanda e consumi, livellie
e strutture nei secoli XIII-XVIII (1st intern, di storia economica "F. Dacini"
di Prato) Florence 1978, pp. 151-155.
in two legal documents of March 12 and May 2nd of 1284. The inventory of the fraternity
lists, among other things, 16 fields and 5 sections. From these and other investments the
penitents received an annual return of 62 and a quarter bushels of wheat. Added to the
returns coming from wills, the "fratres de penitentia" gained an annual return
of 5 lire, 170 soldi, I denaro "a viginti," 2 large denari and another 30 lire
to give to charitable works during the course of the year. (18)
We turn our
attention now to an extraordinary concentration of charity: the Hospital of S. Giacomo
alla Tomba in Verona. From the legal briefs of a suit, which took place between March and
July of 1235, we know that to this center of mercy were concentrated all the lepers of the
city, who were gathered there from other smaller centers. (19) Their center, well
organized and well run, was served by the group of penitents and some outside helpers
under the direction of a Minister. Some lepers came from the locality of "S. Agata
sub Aquario, " from which they had been evicted by the Benedictine monks to make more
space for the construction of the Church of S. Agata. The lepers, popularly called
"malsani," disputed this project for an area and buildings which had been
erected over time "pro malsanis, " that is for those afflicted with leprosy.
Since some "penitents" had donated the land and goods for this purpose, they
were able to reclaim the property for its original intention.
But it is necessary
to investigate the problem throroughly for an accurate understanding of the facts. Are
these penitents, so deeply involved in the works of mercy, of Franciscan inspiration?
Actually, as in many such cases, the documentation is not explicit. The dispute is not
concerned with the identity of the protagonists but rather with the intentions of the
benefactors and the rights of the beneficiaries. Let us analyze the facts. It would, of
course, be anachronistic to picture the shepherd Gerardo in the camp of the Franciscan
penitents. He had donated the land to the lepers for the lepers ("malsanis et pro
malsanis") around 1215, specifying that the motive was "amore Dei. " Right
away a certain Rodolfo constructed some shelters to receive the lepers, using his own
funds and his wife's dowry. Gerado Wenicus supplied the lumber and stone to build the
house of the leper Plano. (20) These patients of the leprosarium, then, shared the properties
in community and exchanged things in a spirit of fraternity. (21)
detaining ourselves any more than necessary and leaving the question to more careful
analysis, we can conclude the following: the leprosarium in the locality "sub
Aquario" and then that of S. Giacomo began their charitable activity through the work
of conversi and ordinary penitents. Gradually, however, between the administrators and the
patients of the leprosarium the Franciscan spirit entered in with all the force of
something new. The new model of evangelical life and charitable activity exercised an
appeal not easily measured. (22)
(18) For the
documentation, cf. A. RIGON, o.c., pp.78079
(19) Cf. G. DE
SANDRE GASPERINI. L'assistenza ai lebbrosi nel movimento religioso dei primi decenni del
dueccento veronese:unomini e fatti, n VARI, Esperienze religiose e opere assisyenziali nei
secoli XII e XIII, ed Segnalibro, Turin 1987, pp. 89-90
(20) Cf. o.c., pp. 92-92
(21) Cf. o.c., pp. 95-99
(22) Cf. o.c., pp. 101f.
A typical example is
offered by a fraternity of laymen and women which collaborated to conduct the Hospital of
All Saints (Ognissanti) near Treviso for the benefit of the poor, the sick and pilgrims.
The establishment of this project is already registered by the early part of 1200 as
having been started by some clerics. By 1228 it happened that next to the hospital there
was also a group of "domine incluse" and, in the running of this charitable
activity, the "fratres et sorores extrinsecus commorantes" worked together.
These brothers and
sisters as laypeople lived with their families and had the ownership of their own
property. Some of them, to better guarantee the charitable service, sometimes lived at the
hospital, and might be said to have made themselves poor for the benefit of their
patients. The documents also underlined that, at least, some "mulieres
extrinsece" turned over the benefits of their properties for the advantage of the
poor. The aquisition, the sale and the disposition of goods was done with the consent of
the ministers of the fraternity.
The religious and
charitable experience of Ognissanti presents a typical example of transition: the
structure is anchored in the past of an abbatial style, while the spirit is new of
evangelical and Franciscan inspiration. The "fraternitas" of the penitents lived
the spirt of the evangelical counsels especially poverty. Nevertheless, it is not poverty
in the sense of a deprivation of goods but in the sense of putting all one's goods,
personal and community, at the service of the poor. A poverty, surely, not chosen for an
ascetical value, but undertaken for charitable works. (23)
We return to this
region for a moment. In Padua, in 1236, a "frater de penitentia" Bongalvano,
former minister of the local fraternity, willed his money for the benefit of the poor, the
lepers, and the sick, with explicit mention of needy tertiaries. (24)
In 1248 there was in
operation at Modena a charitable work called "The Dinner table of the Poor"
carried on with their own means and labor by the penitents of St. Francis. (25)
At Genoa, the
Fraticiscan penitents Fra Mainaldo and Fra Rolando, respectively in 1270 and 1293,
invested their goods in the foundation of two distinct institutions of mercy for the sick
and for the disinherited. (26)
(23) Cf. D.RANDO, Laicus
religiosus "tra strurre civile ed ecclesiastiche: l'ospedale di Ognissanti in Treviso
(sec.XIII), cit., pp. 47-75.
(24) Cf. State Archives of Padua, Diplomatico, part. 6894; A. RIGON, l penitenti di s.
Francesco a Padova nel XIV e XV secolo, in VARI, II itiovimetito fraticescatio
delta petiitetiza nella societa medioevale, Rome 1980, pp. 293-295.
(25) Cf. F.da MARETO, L'orditiefraticescatie delta petzitenza a Parma, Fidenza,
Piacenza e Modena, in VARI, II movinielitofrancescano delta peititetiza tiella
societa niedioevale, cit., p. 320.
(26) Cf. A.FERRETTO, Ospedali e pellegrinaggi nel medioevo, in II cittadino
individual penitents, moved by the spirit of evangelical charity after the example of St.
Francis "thesaurizant bona sua" assigning their economic resources for the
benefit of initiatives "pro infirmis et pauperibus. (27)
In Bologna, in 1272,
the brothers of penance using their own funds purchased a hospice "ut hospitarent
infirmos et pauperes Christi." (28)
Not only do we find
the fraternities engaged in placing their funds at the service of the needy but as
mentioned individual penitents as well. So that in 1277 a certain Bonrecobro left 12
bolognese pounds so that the " fratres penitentie haberent domum in qua starent
...... et hospitarent pauperes Christi et fierent ibi opera misericordie." (29)
A document from 1280 tells how Martino di Ugolino arranged that "domus sua ....
deveniat ad universitatem fratrum de penitentia civitatis Bononie pro ospitando ibi
pauperes Christi." (30) And, in 1284 a certain
Giacomo donated 6 bolonese pounds "fratribus tertii ordinis pro uno lecto." (31)
In 1288, Benincasa left "C. sol. bon. pro uno lecto ubi ospitentur pauperes. " (32)
In the year 1300 Giacomo di Canzano donated a substantial amount of goods to to
"fratres penitentie de Bononia qui pro tempore fuerint, convertenda in fatiendo unum
hospitale quod sit ad usum pauperum. (33) In the course of
September of that same year, Giacomina di Bonagrazia left 50 bolonese pounds
"ospitali novo .... ita ut peregrini et infirmi homines hospitentur ibi amore Dei. (34)
On June 7th, 1290 in
his testament, the Milanese penitent "Frater Paxius" left his goods for
charitable works assigning them to 31 hospitals to care for the poor and the sick. (35)
On the other hand,
some additional donations made out in wills in the 14th century at the Convent di S.
Francesco Grande of Milan are for the Penitents of the Third Order and not directly
designated for specific charities.(36) From these acts of donation, motives of thanksgiving or
devotion, or at least the desire to collaborate with the brothers in carrying out their
(27) Cf. L.
TEMPERINI, II penitente francescano nella societa e nella chiesa nei secoli XIII-XIV, in
VARI, La "Supra Montem" di Nicholas IV (1289): generi e diffusione di una
regola, Rome 1989, pp. 366-367.
o.c., p.360, nt 164.
(29) Cf. B.GIORDANI, Acta francescana e tabulariis bonomiensibus deprompta, in AF IX
(1927) n. 1214.
(30) Cf. B.GIORDANI, o.c., n.219.
(31) Cf. B.GIORDANI, o.c., n.294.
(32) Cf. B.GIORDANI, o.c., n.1318.
(33) Cf. B.GIORDANI, o.c., n.1542.
(34) Cf. B.GIORDANI, o.c., n.1087.
(35) Cf. M.PIA ALBERZONI, Penitenti e terziari a Milano fino agli inizi d el XIV secolo,
in VARI, Prime manifestazioni (di vita comunitaria maschile e femminile nel
movimento francescano della peniteniza, Roma 1992, pp. 220-228.
T.GARBERI, II Terz'Ordine francescano nei secoli XIV e XV a Milano, in An TOR 19 (1986)
activities are clearly expressed. And we note that in this Convent "conveniunt
fratres ordinis penitentie. (37)
we should note that the terminology has become much clearer and leaves no doubt (as to the
Franciscan identity of the penitent fraternities). The tertiary Martino Verri, in his
testament of August 27, 1351 made out in favor of his Order, describes himself as a
"frater ordinis penitentie, qui apellantur fratres tertii ordinis sancti
Francisci." (38) Further, the beneficiaries of his testament are specifically identified:
"ministri et fratres ordinis fratrum ordinis penitentie, que appellantur fratres
tertii ordinis sancti Francisci Mediolani." (39)
the benefiaries of the testament of Giovanni de Yspera, dated October 10, 1361, are listed
the "frates de penitentia tertii ordinis s. Francisci Mediolani. " (40)
"ad manus" through inheritances increased during the course of the 14th and
first half of the 15th century. (41) These personal properties and lands bequeathed by some ternaries
permitted the brothers of penance of Milan to carry out various charitable activities.
Which works were they and their dates? It is not easy to delineate the type of benficient
activities for the relief of the needy even though we have some valuable indications.
Often the chronology is vague. However, considering that the Third Order is found in Milan
in the 13th century and is estimated as having an organized fraternity by the start of the
14th with a steady availability of economic resources, one can suppose some charitable
activities from an early date. Zanoni believes that he can identify a certain charitable
work at the beginning of the 15th century (42) based on a legal paper of
May 9,1422. A document of February 10, 1429 seems to furnish very convincing indications
about the charitable services developed by the Penitents . (43) Although not very precise,
the charitable intention is implicit in a will of the tertiary Faustino de Azargo. In a
will probated May 29, 1436 he left a bequest to the Third Order with this precise
intention: to provide for the needy, turning the money into bread for the poor. (44) On December 12, 1442 the
Milanese merchant Martino della Gazzada, having entered the Third Order the previous year
and already elected Minister, gave to the Fraternity a house with surrounding fields to
sustain the works of mercy. (45)
Cf. T. GARBERI, o.c., 44.
(38) Cf. o.c., 46.
(39) Cf. o.c., 47
(40) Cf. o.c., 47
(41) Cf. o.c., 48s.
(42) Cf. o.c., B. ZANONI, II Terz Ordine dei Frati Minori in Lombardia, Milano 1949, p.
(43) Cf. T. GARBERI, o.c., 49
(44) Cf. o.c., 49.
(45) Cf. Donazione del dicembre 1442; A. NOTO, Origine del luogo pio della carita, Milano
1962, p. 10; A.NOTO, Gli amici dei poveri a Milano, Milano 1968, p. 76.
donations were given for the operation of a very well organized and effective charitable
activity set up in a spacious building at Porta Nova, itself a gift, having been donated
by the ducal physician Felippo Pellizzari. (46)
December 12, 1442 a large collection taken up among the tertiaries and faithful was
received by the Fraternity of Penance to be used for charitable purposes.
refers to 12 other such gifts to the association of ternaries made in the same year of
1442 according to items found in the ledger of the Third Order fraternity. (47)
on the same date of December 12, 1442 another 8 tertiaries, before the same Notary, made a
substantial donation of money to the brothers of the Third Order as a contribution for
services to the poor. (48)
1451 we have copies of 11 documents in favor of the Third Order.
a testament probated August 31,1451 by Isabella and Giovanni Castiglioni, stricken by the
plague, it appears that in that period a plague was raging and that many tertiaries had
given their energies and means to serve those stricken. (49)
the charitable services rendered by the Milanese Tertiaries in the 15th century one finds
the daily distribution of alms in the "consorzio della penitenza" and at the
door of the churches.
the documents for the taking up of a collection or of signing a will, the ternaries often
put in the phrase that such goods and their revenues were destined to be used "pro
pauperibus, whether in the form of alms or providing food and clothing. (50)
some other testaments it appears that the customary charitable assistance by the penitents
found new forms. Some Tertiaries gave their goods and deprived themselves so that the
fraternity could distribute thousands of bundles of firewood to the needy, provide
clothing for poor women and dowries for girls of marrigeable age, provide bread for the
imprisoned and outfit 24 poor people each year, etc. (51)
Tertiaries in making their wills, ensured a continual assistance to the poor by often
requiring the insertion of a clause that the property could not be sold. (52) It is also important to note
that some tertiaries deprived themselves of their own possessions to contribute to the
A.NOTO, Gli amici ... p. 87; T.GARBERI, o.c., 50-51
(47) A.NOTO, Gli amici ... p. 78; T.GARBERI, o.c., 51.
(48) Donazione del 12 dicembre 1442: Arch.IPAB, Luogo pio della carita
(49) Cf. T.GARBERI, 53-54
(50) Cf. o.c., p. 54.
(51) Cf. o.c., p. 55.
(52) Cf. o.c., p. 57.
support of the
Friars Minor (53) and of the Sisters of
Penance then in the process of organizing themselves." The evolution of society, the
change of mentality of the humanistic period, the interference of the Friars Minor brought
about a radical change in the Center of Penitents and their associated works. The Center
of the Third Order took the name: (54) Luogo pio della carita"
(1476) and all the successive legal testaments were drawn up under this title. There are
no further traces of the Franciscan Penitents after this date.
The activities of
the Penitents of St. Francis in the area of Rome have already been treated in another
place with special attention to the aspect of community life. It is noteworthy that as
some fraternities evolved into a the status of "regular" communities, poverty
was understood and practiced, above all, in the light of service to the needy. The
Tertiaries Regular of Rome, in complete harmony with their secular roots, devoted
themselves to alleviate the numerous needs of the poor of the city (55) and they dedicated
themselves to all intense charitable activity. They helped "poor orphaned
children," (56) educated girls and
foundlings, (57) and sheltered without cost pilgrims and the sick, and assisted boarders
at hospices, ran hospitals for women and provided for impoverished spinsters. The
"conservatorio di S. Eufemia" at the Forum of Trajan maintained some 400 needy
girls. (58) Within the area of Rome we
know from the Catalogo Torinese (1317-39) that at the start of the 14th century there were
in the Eternal city some 50 hospitals and asylums for the sick, the poor and pilgrims)
with 97 charitable volunteers. (59)
again to the north of the Italian penisular. On February 1, 1331 a Franciscan penitent,
Giovanni Vernaccia founded the Hospital of St. Geminiano "de bonis et facultatibus
propriis, ac aliis sibi ex fidelium largitione quesitis. " (60) And although this generous
tertiary had used his personal properties for this deserving work, still he committed
himself to render an account to the Bishop on the operation of the hospital.
document dated April 10, 1383 reveals that the Franciscan penitent Vivaldo de' Vivaldi had
built at his own expense a hospital at Pontelagoscuro to care for the aged and pilgrims.
He donated the hospital to the Confraternity of St. John the Baptist at Ferrara. (61)
(53) Cf. o.c.,
(54) Cf. o.c., 65-70
(55) L. Temperini, Fenomeni di vita comunitaria tra i penitenti francescani in Roma e
ditorni in Prime manifestazione di vita comunitaria ... cit., p. 632
(56) Cf. o.c., p. 632.
(57) Cf. o.c., p. 636
(58) Cf. o.c., p. 630-645
(59) Cf. o.c., p. 630-645
(60) Cf. o.c., p. 603
(61) Archivio arcivescovile di Ferrara, cat. B, c.48r.
1334, Antonio Caliaro established at his own expense a hospital and gave it to the
"frati del scuezzollo del terzo ordine di santo Francesco" because they cared
for the sick. (62)
at Verona, in 1342, a fraternity of Franciscan penitents bought from their own funds some
property to construct a hospital for the sick and pilgrims. (63)
1335, "frater Jacobinus, confrater de penitential established a hospital for the sick
and for pilgrims, and confided its operation to a fraternity, probably of franciscan
document notarized September 8, 1370 Fra Parisio donated money and properties to the local
Hospital of S. Francesco, founded by the penitent Fra Domenico, (65) with the condition that
"the brothers of that Order be obliged to maintain and enlarge the hospital and to
seek alms for the relief of the poor and to do good works." (66)
other charitable works.
through the centuries in different places the "poenitentes sancti Francisci"
established at their own expense numerous charitable activities..... and they kept them
going with their own work and available funds. (67)
the 13th and 14th centuries researchers have identified more than 85 institutions of
charitable relief. (68)
far as what forms these works of mercy conducted by the Penitents of St. Francis took, we
discover especially hospitals for the sick, hospices for the poor and travellers,
"soup kitchens" for the poor, centers of relief for-the needy, services to the
imprisoned, recovery of the abandoned, the care of the insane and those wounded in war,
schools for girls and wayward children and finally houses for the redemption of
Cf. A.SAMARITANI, L'ordo de poenitentia a Ferrara nei secoli XIII-XV, in AnTOR 12(1972)
(63) Cf. G. De Sandre GASPERINI, Per la storia dei penitenti a Verona nel secolo XIII.
Primi contributi, in VARI, IL movimento francescano della penitenza nella societa
medioevale, cit., pp. 279s; G.P. Pacini, Li battuti delscuezzolo a Verona
nellacronocacinquecentesca del Perssana, in VARI. IL movimentofrancescano della penitenza
nella societa medioevale, cit., pp. 227-228, 236-237
(64) Cf. G.P. PACINI, o.c., 231 and 241.
(65) Cf. C. VIOLANTE, La Chiesa bresciana nei medioevo, in Storia di Brescia, I. Brescia,
1965, pp. 1084 and 1101-1102
(66) Cf. BARBARANO, Historia ecclesiastica della citta, territorio e diocesi di Vicenza,
V. Vicenza 1761, p. 297.
(67) G. P. PACINI Prime manifestazioni di vita communitaria tra i penitenti francescani
nei vicentino, in VARI, Prime manifestazioni di vita communitaria maschile e femminile nei
movimento francescano della penitenza, cit., pp. 242-243.
(68) Cf. L. TEMPERINI, IL penitente francescano nella societa e nella chiesa nei secoli
XIII-XIV, in VARI. La "Supra montem" di Nicolo IV (1289): genesi e diffusione di
una regola, cit., pp. 354f
(69) Cf. o.c., pp. 354-369
The example of St.
Francis, shaped by the Gospel, was contagious for the Franciscan penitents. From his
youth. Francis "was concerned for the poor and helped them generously" (70)
Scarcely having left the prison at Perugia he gave away his costly clothes to an
impoverished knight. And this was not just an isolated episode. His first biographer
underlined repeatedly how Francis "demonstrated his intense love for the poor" (71)
and that "often he stripped himself to clothe the poor, whom he sought to
The story of his
pilgrimage to Rome is typical with its direct experience of "conditio
pauperum" as Celano has handed it down. (73)
Francis, observed St. Bonaventure, "felt touched to the heart in front of the poor
and the sick and when he had nothing to offer them, at least he offered them his
affection. " (74) In the poor, Francis beheld the
Image of Christ and so he placed himself completely at their service. (75)
And he not only gave whatever he had but he provided for them in various ways and even
bought what would be useful for the needy. (76) Because he
overflowed with love for the poor, Francis did not limit himself to give away his mantle
to clothe the needy but went so far as to pay the expense of a poor woman afflicted with
eye problems. (77) And who could forget the story of his
exquisite charity towards the robbers at Montecasale? (78)
The historic sources
are rich with testimonies still full of meaning. Celano writes: "The Father of the
poor, the poor Francis, conforming himself to the poor in all things, was grieved if he
saw some one poorer than himself, not because he longed for vain glory but only from a
feeling of compassion. (79) And so the disciples of the
Poverello" should be glad to live among social outcasts, among the
poor and the helpless, the sick and the lepers, and those who beg by the wayside." (80)
The example of the Divine Master was always the determining motive for Francis. Christ, in
fact, was poor, was a guest and lived on alms, He and the blessed Virgin and his
(7I) Cf. 2Cel 5.
(72) I Cel 17.
(73) 2 Cel 8.
(74) Cf. 2 Cel 8.
(75) LM 8,5.
(76) Cf. LM 8,5.
(77) Cf. 3S, 8.
(78) Cf. LP 52; SP 33.
(79) Cf. LP 90; SP 66; Fior 26.
(80) I Cel 76.
(81) I R 9,3.
Having before their
eyes such an example, no Franciscan should ever be ashamed of being poor or to serve the
poor. (82) The candidate for the Franciscan life having
completed the basic steps, "vendat omnia sua et ea omnia pauperibus studeat erogare.
" (83) Although echoing the Benedictine Rule
(cap.58), the arrangement implies a completely new meaning.
From his Testament
of 1226 emerges the proof that for Francis of Assisi the "vita in penitenza," or
conversion, begins with the "works of mercy" and vice-versa in a fruitful
osmosis. There are no real works of mercy without an interior attitude of metanoia and
there cannot be a sincere conversion without a generous service to our brothers. And
certainly this is the teaching of the First Epistle of John, the Letter of St. James, and
of many gospel passages. The encounter with the leper signalled for Francis the initial
spark of the penitential life struck by the Spirit:
The Lord granted me,
Brother Francis, to begin to do penance in this way: While I was in sin, it seemed very
bitter to me to see lepers. And the Lord Himself led me among them and I had mercy upon
them. And when I left them that which had seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness
of soul and body; and afterwards I lingered a little then I left the world. (84)
In the retrospective
synthesis of his marvellous history of love, Francis polarized his own gospel experience
around two words: conversion-lepers .... metanoia-to show compassion, to be with the
lepers-to leave the world ..... to share the condition of complete minority was the
beginning of a radical change. Having changed his sentiments, in parallel he changed his
behaviour: first disgust for the lepers, then the embrace, first the flight from, then the
service to. (85) The "fratres et sorores de
penitentia" following the evangelical example of their Father St. Francis travelled
along the same path.
exemplary witness of the ideas and deeds of St. Francis could not remain detached (from
daily life.) There was not only the concrete example of his life always efficacious and
stimulating but also the way of life drawn up for his penitents. The "First Letter to
the Faithful Penitents" of 1215, the Magna Carta of the Franciscan Third Order,
begins by recalling the twofold command to love God and Neighbour. (86)
The "Second Letter to All the Faithful-Penitents" of 1221 forcefully confirms
the essentials of a pluridimensional love, "non in verbis tantuni" but "in
deeds and in truth. " (87) The ancient Rule, or Memoriale
Propositi of 1221, welcomes this charitable spirit of Francis and states that each
penitent give at least a common denario so that the Ministers of the fraternity would be
able to provide for the needs of the poor (n.20) In addition it recommends some personal
works of mercy, even if these be limited to the brothers and sisters of penance. The
members of the Order were to dress simply, to practice fast and abstinence so as to be
free and available for the service to their brethren (nn. 1-11,n.22f.) Furthermore, they
should supply whatever is necessary and helpful for the sick (n.22)
(82) I R 9,5.
(83) Cf. 1R 9,5; In his Last Will for the Clares(1226)Francis declared: "Ego,
frater Franciscus parvulus, volo sequi vitam et paupertatem altissimi domini nostri Jesu
Christi et ejus sanctissimae matris et perservare in ea usque in finem. Et, rogo vos,
dominas meas, et consilium do vobis ut in ista sanctissima vita et paupertate semper
vivatis" (FF 140).
(84) 1R 2,4.
(85) Test. 1-4; cf. also ICel 17.
(86) Cf. Frate Francesco a tutti i suoi fedeli, a cura di L.Temperini,
(87) FF 179-206
The Rule of Nicholas
IV (1289) recalls that biblical-gospel commandment to love which shows itself as a service
and gift to one's brother. The Memoriale speaks of "doing the works of
mercy" and also the Rule of Nicholas speaks of "performing works of
mercy"(12,9). Each one, exhorts the Rule of Nicholas IV should give a denario or coin
so that it can be returned to the poor and the sick for necessary or useful help (12,3-7).
Living and dressing like the poor, fasting and abstaining with perserverance, the brothers
and sisters of the Third Order could be attentive to the needy, while others were absorbed
in the dizzy rhythm of a turbulent society. (88)
The Rule of Nicholas IV certainly confirmed the definitive shape of the Third Order of St.
Francis which had matured over 80 years of experience within the Church: i.e., a profound
conversion of heart and works of mercy performed with their own energy and personal goods.
The "penitents of St. Francis" had learned that they must be poor in material
things and rich in virtue, (89) not only so as to be
confirmed to the Son of God made flesh, but especially to enrich their needy brethren by
their own poverty. The example of their Divine Model Christ could not remain
inefficacious: Christ made Himself poor so as to bind Himself to His fellowman and to cure
their misery. (90)
The life of Francis,
the Father and Teacher of his penitents, was certainly modelled after the figure of
Christ. The Poverello looked to Him so as to be like Him in his feelings, in his itinerant
mission, in his actions and in virtue, especially poverty. The embrace of the leper and
service to the poor would be a privileged kindness. Living in the world, the Franciscan
penitents appreciated their material goods as a gift of God and they did not reject them.
In the spirit of the early church (91) they understood
that these goods were to be shared so that which St. James the Less, the cousin of Jesus
and bishop of Jerusalem, decried did not come to pass: namely, that some live in abundance
while others do not even have the basic necessities. (92)
The bond of love
which arises from Faith itself and the living of the Gospel involves first of all the hard
task of concern for our brothers and sisters in Christ. With the caution, obviously, that
no man or woman can be excluded from our practice of Charity since every creature has the
same common Father. This was the background for the development of the characteristic
poverty of the Franciscan penitents. Perhaps, someone might observe that all this is not
dealing with the "most high poverty" of ascetical value and mystical framework
favored by some writers of the 13th and 14th centuries, Yet, it is, without any doubt, a
poverty perfectly in harmony with the gospel, concrete and fruitful, an authentic
incarnation of the commandment to love.
In conclusion, the
Brothers and Sisters of Penance lived a functional poverty, motivated above all by an
ardent charity, destined to be transformed into bread for the hungry, clothing for the
naked, and alms and aid for the less fortunate, in relief for the lepers, the sick and the
pilgrims. In our times it is absolutely necessary to keep in mind in our works of charity,
the new forms of margination, the drama of loneliness, the folly of the world of drugs,
the tragedy of alienated families, unemployment and exploitation on different levels, and
even the serious poverty of faith and morals.
Cf. 2R 3, 5 and 8
(89) Cf. 2R 6,4
(90) Cf. Phil 2,5f
(91) Acts 2, 47-48: 4, 32-35.
(92) Cf. James 2,
I would wish for all
of us that the testimony of these ancient Penitents of St. Francis would not remain
something theoretical and irrelevant to our contemporary society and would not end up as
merely a pleasant historical memory.
Rev. Lino Temperini, T.O.R.
Seraphin Conley, T.O.R. February 16, 1990