by Bret Thoman, SFO
The others [those who followed Francis] came after Bernard of Quintavalle. Peter Catani was next; he was a canon, a diocesan priest who lived with other priests serving the cathedral of San Rufino. Then came Giles – a poor peasant from the valley. When they were four, they left in pairs on a preaching expedition. Francis and Giles went northeast into the Marches of Ancona, while Peter and Bernard went in another direction. They were modeling their lives after Jesus and the Apostles, as they read directly in the Scriptures – the Vita Apostolica, the Apostolic Life, as it was being called. When they came back, they took up residence together in some farmer’s sheds below Assisi in an area known as Rivotorto, named after a crooked stream that flowed through the area.
At Rivotorto, Francis understood that his way of life was not to be lived alone; rather, the Christian life was to be lived in community. Brothers and sisters would pose a challenge to the natural human tendency to rationalize away certain character defects or become complacent, as companions are often able to see us go astray long before we ourselves do. They are also able to provide the perfect context to practice true charity, especially when dealing with challenging personalities. And they would fulfill Jesus’ command to go ‘Two by two.’ Now Francis understood the dream he had in Spoleto on the way to war the second time: Francis was a knight among fellow knights fighting for a Lord and a Lady; they had a mansion and weapons.
Rivotorto was the perfect place for minors. Their dwelling was comprised of two huts connected with some space in the middle. In the warm months it was buggy and sweltering – in the cold months humid and bone-chilling. They slept in one of the huts in a space so small they had to draw chalk marks on the ceiling to designate the space for each. They prayed in the center space spontaneously and charismatically as they had not yet adopted the formal prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours. They cooked in the other hut – usually wild turnips they found or were given by the local peasants who were as poor as they. The men spent a lot of time tending to the marginalized in the area and the lepers in the nearby hospitals of Santa Maria Maddalena and San Rufino d’Arce.
Rivotorto would always be known to the first friars as the place where their community was conceived and grew up. For them it was like a honeymoon, as they had recently wed themselves to Lady Poverty. Despite that hot summer sun, those whipping winter winds, the torrential spring rains, they were happy and joyful. They were in love. They had uncluttered and simple spirits where they could be free for the first time.
The friars were no longer bound to those strict social structures that had separated them in their former lives. Though the first four Franciscans came from very different social backgrounds – Bernard the nobleman, Peter the canon-priest, Francis the merchant, and Giles the peasant – they lived as equal brothers. This would have been impossible in their previous lives when each lived in the ‘world’. Even monks within the Benedictine monasteries of the day maintained separate lives depending on one’s status. Men and women from noble backgrounds entered monasteries as privileged choristi (choir-monks) who chanted the Latin Office of the Hours, while the ‘low-born’ entered as conversi, charged with most of the manual labor and praying rote Our Fathers and Hail Marys. There was little interaction between the two groups.
But Francis and the brothers felt that their fraternal life together could be a witness to others and would be an example of hope and dignity for the marginalized. The friars’ fraternal life together smashed the social norms of the day. It leveled that feudal system based on vertical or hierarchical status: nobility with privileged birthrights, middle-class merchants, low-born peasants, and the ecclesiastical canons with their own privileges. The new life of the friars was horizontal; it was fraternal. And together they went to the lowest place possible – the leper colonies – to serve the outcasts who had no place at all in that society.
As more men came to follow Francis, people began to wonder about him and the brothers. As they went through towns preaching and serving the poor, people asked who they were. They were asked if they were followers of that schismatic from Lyons, Peter Waldo. Were they part of that group of those unorthodox Humiliati? Were they heretics like the Cathars and Albigensians, who had also embraced poverty? Francis and the brothers just answered, “We are penitents from Assisi.”
When the brothers were twelve in number, they realized they would need some type of credentials in order to clarify any doubts as to who they were. Francis was counseled (probably by the local Bishop) to go to Pope Innocent III for an endorsement. Approval for their life directly from the Holy Father would be respected anywhere in Christendom and leave no doubts as to who they were and what they stood for. Thus in 1209 Francis wrote down a brief Rule composed mostly of Scriptural verses and boldly set out to Rome to ask the Pope to sanction their way of life. It was not without risk. The Church authorities of the day were traditional and valued forms of life that were time-tested and rooted in stability; they tended to be skeptical towards novelties and innovation. Certainly they would have found it quite difficult to commission a group of itinerant lay persons with no formal training to go out and freely preach. Nonetheless, Francis and the brothers went.
Obtaining an audience with Pope Innocent III in 1209 may have been slightly easier than it would for an obscure layperson to meet with Pope Benedict XVI today. Pope Innocent III was one of the most powerful Popes of the middle Ages. He was a great statesman and diplomat who had greatly expanded the Papal territories in central Italy in addition to the power of the Church throughout Europe. Innocent III, however, was not a corrupt Pope; at heart he was a pastor.
With the commendation of a Cardinal who knew Francis, he and the brothers met the Holy Father at the Papal residence next to the Cathedral of Rome, Saint John in Lateran. However, Francis was, quite predictably, sent away by the Pope who had more important matters at hand. However, that night Pope Innocent had a dream in which he imagined the façade of Saint John Lateran begin to crumble. However, a small poor man appeared and, with his arms up, prevented it from falling down. Pope Innocent recognized the man as Francis. He promptly sent for Francis and the brothers to come back, whereupon he orally approved their way of life.
That day Francis placed his fledgling movement into the hands of the greater Catholic Church. In that meeting, Francis – a relatively insignificant, highly charismatic, voluntary pauper who had only recently come to believe in and trust the promptings of the Holy Spirit as his only guide – came together with Innocent III, the most powerful ecclesiastic bureaucrat of the day who worked within the procedural systems and structures of the Holy See. The Pope held in his hands the keys to every door within all of Christendom. With his support, the new Franciscan movement would be destined to go from an obscure group of penitents to eventually become one of the strongest arms in the world-wide mission of the Catholic Church.
On their way back to Assisi, the brothers spent some time in the area of Narni in lower Umbria where they served the poor. When they returned to Assisi after a few months, they found a farmer living in their shed at Rivotorto. So they went to Saint Mary of the Angels. As the property was owned by the Benedictines of San Benedetto not far from the Carceri on Mount Subasio, Francis and the brothers asked their permission to live there and they agreed. The brothers would offer the monks only a basket of fish annually in exchange, a tradition still maintained to this day.
Personal message from Bret & Katia
Just two weeks ago we finished two months of intensive work with 100 pilgrims. Pilgrimages for us are always a mix of God’s blessings and grace together with challenges. It is an honor and privilege to be at the center of people’s lives when they experience God on pilgrimage. It is a balancing act to juggle everyone’s needs and expectations together with our own, especially as our two small children, Claremarie and Iacopo, are getting bigger now.
For me it seems that the pilgrimages get better each year. Perhaps it is that we have more experience now and know how to anticipate better pilgrims’ needs. Nowadays I am able to sit back and watch the pilgrimages unfold. This year, as we moved forward with each group, I felt amazed by the pilgrims who came. We have the opportunity to meet truly extraordinary people who are now coming from all over the world. I enjoyed getting to know the pilgrims and their stories. I kept thinking of that Psalms 8: 5 “Yet you have made them little less than a god.” We have been blessed with many new friendships.
This year I discovered the hiking trails around Assisi and central Italy. The CAI (Italian Alpine hiking Club) has created an extensive network of trails that are well marked and mapped. I spent some of my free time on the trails, falling in love with nature and creation in the hills and mountains. I kept thinking that this was the Italy that Francis and the early friars knew. They spent much time walking on those trails many centuries ago. I look forward to organizing a pilgrimage hiking on the trails in the future and bringing others there, too.
In a few weeks we head back to Georgia. Winter in Assisi and Umbria is brutal. The temp spread is between 25 and 45, but the humidity is bone-chilling. Plus the fog, rain, snow, and wind for about 3 months don’t help. Georgia is much more civil!
Please stay in touch and let us know how we can best serve you!
sincerely, Bret, Katia, Claremarie, and Iacopo