IN THE FRANCISCAN SOURCES
The life of penance as the
initiative of God and the availability of Man.
God creates, redeems, and
saves for love. As the call to existence is the exclusive work of God without the
cooperation of creatures which did not exist, so the existential call to salvation through
participation in divine life is the exclusive work of God the Father without any
assistance from reasoning creatures which did not exist "in via salutis. " Equally,
sinful man's readmission into the plan of universal salvation through Christ's redemptive
work, is a gratuitous action of the Father. All, therefore, are invited to the table of
the Kingdom, and for all there is free access to love, in the mystery of eternity.
However, the degree of man's participation in the eternal life and blessedness of God
depends on the intensity of man's own response. The more constantly man meets with God,
the more intimate is his spiritual communion with Him, the more deeply is the involvement
of interests and of the person in the plan of God; the more intense the yearning, the more
the friendship of man with God on earth grows: more passionate and sanctifying is the
participation unto the eternal life of God.
The levels of direction in
eternity will be, therefore, proportioned to the comprehensive merits of the entire
earthly life of man. There will be an infinite gradation of participation and of
beatitude. There will be no creature who will participate in the Father's life totally and
adequately, neither will there be any creature without some form of participation because
such a creature could not exist.
Penance is the situating of
pilgrim man before God and His creatures within the prospective of salvation, that is
coordinating all "ad plenitudinem salutis. " Therefore, it takes life
from the initiative of God who wants all to be saved and to participate in His life. In
the inscrutable mystery of His salvific love, God calls man to a higher intimacy, to a
friendship that transforms and makes perfect.
On the part of man,
conversion begins by an attitude of docility and openness. the penitent places himself in
the situation of listening, ready to perceive the mysterious and disquieting inspirations
which solicit something new. Like the prophet Samuel, he proclaims:
" Speak, Lord, your
servant is listening!" (I Sam.3,10) Like the prophet Jeremiah (Jer.1,1-6) he notices
the delay of the "I" which fears the risk.
(113) cf. G.G.
Meersseman, Ordo Fraternitatis, Roma 1977,p.266.
This, however, is already and
advanced phase of conversion. Before this, there is a sense of uneasiness, a deep
inquietude, an existential dissatisfaction which calls to change. The Narcissism of the
"I" is shattered like the fictitious image in the mirror of the water; the
idolatry of well-being and of the goods of consumption take on an amusing aspect and
irresistible instances of authenticity emerge on the anthropological, social and religious
All this leaves one with a
new insight in quality, radical and absorbing, redirecting a person toward a new outlook.
In the psyche of man the measure of evaluating things changes and new interests appear
while others pass in the shadow. In this way, the source for a response of unconditional
love to the call of God matures.
Francis expresses with
extreme clarity some essential elements of penitential spirituality:
- a.) the vocation to the life
of penance is a gift of God (The Lord gave me ... Test. 1; cf. Rm.9,16: ... it depends
neither on the will nor the efforts of man, but on God who uses mercy). In fact,
"that Great Almsgiver gives lavishly and with goodness to everyone, worthy and
unworthy" (2 Celano,77)
- b.) The Lord helps the one
called to accept the way of conversion (the Lord Himself led me ... ;Test. 2).
- c.) The choice of the
penitential life entails a total change in the perfecting sense (that which had seemed
bitter was changed into sweetness ... Test. 3;cf. 1 Celano,17).
The experience of Francis is
symptomatic. His affirmative response to the penitential vocation penetrates very soon all
his existence, stimulates his commitment and thrusts his heart towards God. The Poverello
does not judge any longer with reference to himself (egocentrism), but in the divine
prospective. The Gospel illumines his options and the relative consequences (cf. Test. 17;
3Soc.29; 2 Celano, 15).
"His conversion to God
served as a model for those who came after him," affirms Thomas of Celano speaking of
Bernard of Quintavalle, the first follower of Francis in the way of penance
(I Celano 24).
Also the other "men of
penance, natives of the city of Assisi" (3Soc, 37; AnPer., 19) who followed St.
Francis in the same penitential life (3Soc.27) and came thus to find themselves "in
the state of penance" (Verba aurea b. Aegidii,25) chose a fundamental attitude
identical to that of the seraphic master. Such also must be the effective conversion of
all his followers of all times, among whom are the brothers and sisters of the Franciscan
Order of Penance.
Penance in the evangelical
sense demands, as Francis understood and practiced, a spirit of unconditional docility to
the charism of metanoia which places a person in the effort of continually
overcoming himself and opening himself to the love of God which invests him "dulciter
ac suaviter. "
The consequences are obvious:
to free oneself from all that is pleasing to the ego and from all that becomes an obstacle
in aspiring toward God, who must be the center of all the concerns of one's heart and
existence. In other words, (penance) removes the obstacles which impede or hinder the
route on the way to evangelical perfection.
The penitent sees and
evaluates everything in the light of God, as is demonstrated by the attitude of the
Poverello. Jacopo da Voragine affirms of Francis: "Ex tunc ( = after his conversion )
autem amor terrenorum sibi viluit, et in amore Dei totus
exarsit." (114) The fourth lesson
of a breviary previous to 1250 explains: "Subito enim in alterum virum conversus est
ad quae consueverat gaudere nequibat; nam et cetera, quae ipsum delectaverant pridem, sibi
modo taedium ingerebant. " (115) Francis himself affirmed in his
Testament: "that which seemed bitter was changed into sweetness" (Test. 3). The
sight of lepers disgusted him; after his conversion he loves the lepers as brothers,
embraces them as if he embraced Christ himself (cf. 1 Celano, 17;Test., 1-4).
Like Francis of Assisi, the
penitent lets himself be guided by the Spirit, in every situation he is serene and
optimistic; but he does not lie down in drowsy quietness, rather, he is dynamic,
hardworking, zealous, constantly attentive to the inspirations of the Lord. Otherwise, he
feels he becomes a thief of his treasure (cf.2Celano, 99).
This is the essential content
of the life of penance. All those who serve the Lord in penance will enter the Kingdom of
Francis and his first
companions presented themselves to the people of their times identified as the Penitents
of Assisi (3Soc. 37; An Per. 19).
Even Clare identified her
vocation as a call from the Lord to a life of penance: "After the most high heavenly
Father deigned, by His mercy and grace, to enlighten my heart so I would begin to do
penance, after the example and teaching of our blessed father Francis, a short time after
his conversion ..." (Test. of St. Clare, 24;cf. also Legend of St. Clare, 8).
In fact, besides the men,
many virgins and widows would withdraw "to do penance in the monasteries of their
cities and towns" (3Soc.,60) inspired by the penitential preaching of Francis and his
Even men who had wives and
women with husbands, not being able to dissolve their marital ties, after the suggestions
of the friars, practiced a stricter penance in their own homes. (3Soc.,60)
The original denomination of
the Franciscan fraternity as "penitents of Assisi" (117) was soon
abandoned due to three factors:
- 1.) the clericalization
granted by Innocent III in the spring of 1210 (3Soc.52,cf.also 2 Celano 193;LM 3,10)
- 2.) the inspiration brought
about by some passages of the Gospel (Mt 20,25-26;Mt 26,26;Lk 22,26), as results in Rule
(114) Sermo I, 3:
in Testimonia minora, Ad Claras Aquas, 1926,p.104.
(115) Vatican Library, cod.Vat.Lat.8737.- in Test.minora,cit.,pp.55-56.
(116) Cf. Rule of 1221, 23,8; 1 Letter to Faithful 19.
(117) Note how the
reference to the city of origin distinguishes and specifies the Franciscan movement among
the various groups of penitents present, at that time, in different parts of Europe.
- 3.) the social-political
situation of Assisi, in which the "majores" and "minores" contended
for power at the price of blood. Francis, in the spirit of the Gospel wanted his followers
humble and and truly "minors" by free choice. "I want this fraternity to be
called the Order of Friars Minor," Francis had exclaimed (lCelano,38;cf. Rule
1221,7,3;" that they be minors and submissive...... )
From Bucardo of Ursberg we
know that already in 1210 the "Poenitentes de civitate Assisi" were called
"Pauperes Minores"(118) and then they preferred the definite name
of "Friars Minor". (119)
The prelate and historian
Jacques de Vitry in a letter of his written in Genoa in October, 1216 testifies that at
that date the "Paenitentes de Assisi" were commonly called "Friars
Minor" and the Poor Clares "Sisters Minor":(in FF 2205). (120)
Since the first companions of
the Saint received clericalization and they accentuated minority as their most
adequate qualification, penance remained the proper characteristic of the
Franciscan Third Order, called precisely the "Order of Friars of Penance"
(LM,4,6). That is why in the church and in the sphere of Franciscanism, the "brothers
and sisters of penance" have a specific mandate to be formed in the penitential
spirituality and to be "professores poenitentiae. " DeSillis (121)
recalls that "Ordinem hunc tertium de Poenitentia nominavit (Franciscus)... quia
ad agendam poenitentiam peculiariter illum ordinavit. " The General
Statutes of 1551 had made appeal to the charism of the penitential vocation: "Cum
nostri coenobitae denique de poenitentia nuncupentur, ut (juxta Domini voluntatem) fructus
dignos poenitentiae faciant ... (122)
In other words, the style of
penitential life is our way of living the Gospel in the existential climate, that is, as
an experience which perpetuates the way and the spirit of the primitive and original
Franciscan witness. The concrete commitment to live penance is, for the brothers and
sisters of the Order of Penitents, fundamental and qualifying. This ideal of life,
according to the teaching of St. Francis, must enlighten all their choices in such a way
that, if they cannot live coherently in that given atmosphere, they must flee ... "in
aliam terram ad faciendam poenitentiam cum benedictione Dei" (Test. 8).
The brothers and sisters of
penance must rediscover their identity as Franciscan Penitents. Such searching for
identity inserted in the historic and spiritual vein, tends to a more intense and
qualifying life in the context of our times; it is extended towards doing, without
stopping at speculation.
As we have already mentioned,
penance is a cornerstone of Franciscan spirituality. It is a way of life, a way of getting
to Christ. A constant profound and total turning of the Christian toward the Father in the
light of Christ and by means of Him is intended here. Not simply exterior works,
(118) Chronicon, in
MGH, Scriptores, XXIII, p. 376:FF 2245.
(119) L.c.:FF. 2246;
also in L. Lemmens, Test.minora,cit.pp.17-18.
(120) about the name
of the new Franciscan Order cf. also K Esser, Origini e inizi del movimento e
dell'ordine francescano, Milano 1975,pp. 40-42.
originem, provectum atque complemetum,Tertii Ordinis de Poenitentia S. Francsci
concernentia, Naples 1619,p.16.
statuta sive decreta fratrum Tertii Ordinis Sancti Francisci, de poenitentia nuncupati....
Venice 1551, c. 12 (also in DeSillis, 0. C p. 95).
fasts, etc., not formalistic behavior, not the wisdom to try to adhere to a norm of
external life, but of radical involvement and enthusiasm toward God in Christ. This means
precisely metanoia, or penance, as continual conversion. The flight from evil and
from the works of sin is nothing but a logical consequence.
In such a spirit the sources
tell us that the first followers of Francis "poenitentiae et evangelicae
perfectionis regulam ... cum fervore maximo servare statuerunt, " (123)
since the Poverello went indicating to them "poenitentiae vias exemplo mirabili.
The " highest fervor
" and the " efficacious witness " of former times must become realities
even today in every one of us. The authenticity of our penitential life cannot be content
with words, nor with elegant verbosity after the eloquence of politicians. One is fed,
rather, on humility which tends to prayer, charity which makes one more understanding and
available, service in participating in the problems of the brothers, active sensitivity
for the world toward which everyone must make himself useful according to the proper role
given by Providence.
The life of penance begins,
under the impulse of grace, with the consciousness that man-sinner needs God.
The Lord admonishes:
"despise yourself if you want to know Me"(2Celano,9). And Francis demands that
whoever wants to follow him must: "offer himself naked to the arms of the
Enlightened by the Spirit,
man is aware of an infinite distance between himself and the most perfect God. He turns
then to Christ, man-God, as the unique bridge of communication and sure hope of salvation.
The life of penance then
expresses our response to God who calls, in Christ, to salvation and perfection. The
personal relationship with the living God is realized through conformity to our Brother,
Christ, by means of a lived experience. It is true that penance is implicit in the
baptismal vocation and therefore all must live it in view of the Kingdom. But "the
brothers and sisters of penance" must follow it with the maximum commitment, with
continuous yearning and with increasing enthusiasm. In this way, penance becomes the
perfect expression of Christian life, completely animated by God and inspired toward a
The life of penance
"consists in tending toward God with all that we have and with all that we are.
" (125) "To do penance means to let ourselves be led fully in the economy of
salvation that God realizes in creation, redemption and the perfection of man through
Christ. (126) The Church, in fact, is the community of
sinners redeemed by Christ, on the way of actuating the paschal mystery. And, since
"the Church, embracing in its bosom sinners, is at the same time holy and yet always
in need of being purified, follows the endless way of penance and renewal. " (LG, 8).
Thus the redeemed must feel themselves constantly "in via poenitentiae": tending
toward God-Love in an effort of freedom.
XXRV Generalium. in Analecta F 3(1897)p.75.
(124) Ibid.,p. 74.
(125) K.Esser-E.Grau, Love's Reply, 3 edition Milano 1978,p.17.
(126) K.Esser-E.Grau, o.c., p.18.
poenitentium" means, as Blessed Giles affirms, "to give God the place that
rightly belongs to Him," (127) humbly recognizing our poverty and
acknowledging His infinite goodness.
In conclusion, then, the life
of penance consists of:
- an interior attitude of full
and unconditional conversion to God, loved for Himself and for His unsurpassing greatness
and for His goodness which assures man the divine beatitude. For Francis, the fundamental
point of departure is "to love very much for the love of Him who has loved much"
(2 Celano, 196). God wants to save through His initiative and by His mercy. (cf. Rule,
1221, 23,25; 2Faith 1 1, 4-15).
- a theological vision of
earthly realities, of events, of the entire creation: reconciliation in Christ between man
and things, between the universe and its Creator; finalization of all people and all
things in God, the supreme good and perfect fulfillment of those who share with Him.
- the faithful recourse to all
the means which dispose the heart to a more intense conversion giving constant support to
the spiritual life of love (the principal means will be suggested in what follows).
- an atmosphere of deep union
with men and particularly between those who share the same ideal of penance and are
companions on the way. Full reconciliation, commitment to love one another, reciprocal
sensitivity in understanding and respecting one another, availability in helping and
serving each other. As "authentic seekers of holiness"(1 Celano, 35) and a
"Community of apostolic men" (128) according to the example of
the first Franciscans, they must join hands to walk together toward God, the God of love
and joy, the common inheritance of Penitents.
Francis constantly insists on
fraternal love not less than on the love of God. The writings and sources are eloquent
witness (cf. among others: I Faithful and 2 Faithful, passim; Ancient Rule,c7,2;c
8,1;c.9,1-3;c.12, 1,4 and 6)