A detailed summary of
The Testament: An admonitory remembrance
by Pietro Maranesi OFM Cap
Il Testamento. Una memoria ammonitiva in Verba Scripta. Un’introduzione agli scritti di frate Francesco, (ed.) Simone Ceccobao – Pietro Maranesi – Cesare Vaiani, Cittadella Editrice, Assisi, 2020, 191-216
prepared by Gary Devery OFM Cap
Table of Contents
The Testament of Francis constitutes a text which, in terms of literary genre, could be placed between the rules and the letters. On the one hand, through this final writing Francis prolongs the work of a juridical nature carried out with the Rules, giving that journey of identity its point of arrival. On the other hand, the Testament can also be considered a last letter sent by the Saint to the brothers to recall the beginnings of their life and exhort them to be faithful to certain elements of their choice of life. In any case it can be considered the most important writing of the Saint, because with it the Author makes a general interpretation of his life and vocation, entrusting it to his brothers as a precious inheritance.
It will not be possible or useful to propose an expanded reading of the whole text. Instead, I will limit my attention only to the final part (verses 34-41), where Francis feels the need to make an evaluative and interpretative retrospective of the entire content of the text. That final pericope, in addition to closing with the blessing to all those who would observe the content, contains a conclusion (which we could call an epilogue) in which the readers are offered the hermeneutical keys for understanding the entire text. It seems to me, therefore, that the final verses of the Testament can be taken as a means of retracing the major themes of the entire composition. In particular, they highlight four fundamental aspects of the entire text: the redactional history that gave rise to the writing (v. 34a), the contents together with the structure of the text (v. 34b), the objectives Francis was aiming at (v. 34c) and the hermeneutical method for achieving them (vs. 35-39). The final part of our study will be devoted to the developments resulting from the text immediately after the death of the Saint.
Let us start from a surprising and somewhat unbelievable historical fact for us today: the official hagiographic sources on Francis, namely the narratives of Thomas of Celano and Bonaventure, do not offer the reader any information on the Testament. It is as if it had never been written. Why this silence on such a well-known and important text? We will try to answer this question at the end of our journey. Let us now outline, as far as possible, the historical elements of the birth of this text, because they will allow us to understand the request that opens the conclusion: “And the brothers shall not say…” (v. 34).
The precise date of composition is not certain, but it is to be placed close to his death, and certainly after May 1226. At that time, Francis was in Siena and there, seriously ill with his stomach, had a severe crisis, vomiting blood. The friars who were assisting him made a special request of him: “leave your brothers some remembrance of your will, so that, if the Lord wants to call you away from this world, your brothers may always keep it in their memory and say: ‘Our father left these words to his sons and brothers at his death’.”
(CAss 59). Therefor he wrote a short text for them in which he recalled the three cornerstones of their evangelical life: to love poverty, to love the Church and to love one another. Sister death, however, did not come immediately, giving him more time to take up what he had done briefly and in a context of urgency.
After May began for Francis the time of the “testaments”, that is, the period in which he wanted to take leave of those close to his heart by writing various notes of greetings and blessing: to Bernard, to Clare and to Lady Jacopa. It is therefore possible to imagine that the great Testament was the result of this time in which the Saint wanted to take up the request of Siena to expand on what he had only hinted at in the three great values of their evangelical choice. In its totality this writing belongs to this period of final leave-taking.
That its writing took place over a relatively long period of time, that is, through a redactional history, is shown by the opening of our conclusion: “And the brothers may not say: ‘This is another rule’.” This expression is put into the mouth of Francis to summarise their perplexity about what he was doing, suggests a sufficiently wide temporal space of writing to allow the brothers to become aware of that textual operation. Rumours chased each other, to the point of narrating that the Saint was writing another rule.
The fact that the writing of the text had a development time is attested by another interesting element provided by a hagiographic source. The Assisi Compilation recounts Francis’ transformation of a passage in the Testament concerning poverty in the houses of the brothers (cf. Test. 24). According to the narrative, Francis had given precise indications concerning the materials to be used in the construction of the friaries (wood and mud) so as to respect poverty. However, he was told that those rules could apply to Umbria or central Italy but not to the northern regions beyond the Alps, where stone was cheaper than wood. Therefore, the author reformulated the text, leaving the question of materials open and asking the friars to assess the agreement between their choice and the concrete ways in which the friaries were built. In short, the Testament underwent a drafting process during the few months from May 1226 until the Saint’s death.
In this context we should also mention the ways in which the text was drafted. We do not know where and with whom Francis was in that final period. But we can glean some small indications. Francis himself seems to give us some information when a little later, in the conclusion, he suggests that the composition took place almost “under dictation”: “But as the Lord has given me to speak and write the Rule and these words simply and purely” (v. 39). However, the general indication would seem to be better specified by another piece of information that comes to us from the Assisi Compilation. In the numerous times that this source quotes the Testament, it often repeats this information: “he wanted it to be written…” or “he had it written…”. (CAss 57; 101; 106: FF 1583; 1641; 1654). This notation would seem to respond more to the truth of the facts: the Saint’s general state of health, and in particular his near blindness, would not have allowed him to write the text directly. Francis’ allusion to a personal writing of the text is therefore to be understood, as we will say later, in a metaphorical sense. We must therefore assume that a scribe was at his side in that operation.
This hypothesis allows us to dwell for a moment on the literary quality of the text, findings that confirm a redactional history with the presence of a friar alongside Francis. A double level of textual quality is evident in the Testament. In its entirety one can clearly hear Francis’ dictation, which the scribe more or less left as he listened. Two clues in this regard: the many main paratactic sentences (linked by an “and”) characterised by a relatively poor vocabulary (the case of “dedit/ to give” repeated in different contexts to make up for the lack of synonyms) and also by the presence of Italianisms (emblematic is the case of v. 14: “dedit mihi de fratribus/gave me some brothers” with a partitive use of de unknown in Latin). The other aspect, contrary to the previous one, is the presence, at least in one case, of a particular care for textual quality: I refer in particular to vs. 6-13 that show not only the use of what has already been proposed in Admonition XXVI, but also a very sophisticated and structured development of the content.
In short, the Testament is the result of a period of elaboration in which Francis, aided by a scribe, gradually drafted a text conceived as a farewell to his brothers, to leave them something that would remain in their memory and for their consolation. But we will say more about the nature of the text in a moment.
Before dealing with this, however, it is necessary to mention the last aspect contained in that kind of interjection of the brothers quoted by Francis at the beginning of the conclusion: “And the brothers may not say: ‘This is another rule’”. The expression refers to a polemical tension between the brothers and Francis, perhaps the former frightened or worried by the possibility that he might rework the Rule, which had been drafted after much tension and approved perhaps with some difficulty by the Church.
Let us recall the tensions that arose with the earlier Rule of 1221, known as the Regola non bollata. We know that Francis would not have wanted the brothers to have another text in place of the one he had drafted from the norms established by the fraternity in the early years; and he was certain that the Apostolic See would have accepted it for definitive approval. The conclusion of that first text is clear in showing the very strong tension that had arisen around it: “by obedience, I, Brother Francis, firmly command and decree that no one delete or add to what has been written in this life. The brothers may have no other Rule” (Rnb XXIV 4). According to the brother ministers and scholars, however, that text was no longer adequate to the new needs of the fraternity, and it was necessary to adopt one of the great monastic rules, because it would have allowed “a more ordered life” for the ever-increasing number of brothers. We know that Cardinal Ugolino also entered the debate, supporting those criticisms of the “old” text that was judged no longer adequate to the new needs of the group. Two opposing visions to which Francis had to give way. Two years later he would write another rule in which the cardinal also collaborated, as he himself would remember in 1230 once he had become Pope Gregory IX.
In short, the drafting of the definitive text was the result of a strong tension resolved through a kind of compromise: the previous Rule was not accepted, contrary to Francis’ wishes, but neither was it replaced by a monastic rule. The first text was reread and extensively reworked through a two-handed work, so that two different needs could converge: on the one hand fidelity to the beginnings of a minoritic life without power and with a strong social presence, according to the sensitivity of Francis, and on the other hand the acceptance and inclusion of new pastoral and cultural needs expressed by the leadership group eager to adapt the fraternity to the demands formulated in the Lateran Council IV for a reform of the Church through preaching and studies.
One understands then the concern of the brothers when they learnt that Francis was writing something new and important in which he would have fixed his last will; all this could not but arouse doubts and fears: does he want to change the Rule or even write another one?
Francis is aware that the question circulating among the brothers and reaching his ears was an important doubt to be clarified. He had to specify immediately the nature of his text, on the answer to which also depended on the achievement of the desired objectives through that operation; he had to clarify “what” he had written in order to be able then to make explicit “why” he had done it.
The answer to the “what”, that is on the textual nature, or better, on the literary genre of the writing is given by Francis in a precise and detailed way: “the brothers may not say: ‘This is another Rule’. Because this is a remembrance, admonition, exhortation, and my testament”. The determination of the nature of the literary genre is accomplished through four terms of which the first three (“memory, admonition and exhortation”) determine the content and the last (“testament”) the synthesis of what is the literary genre. Let us analyse the two terminological blocks separately.
1. Let us begin with the first three terms of Francis’ definition: what he has written is a “remembrance, an admonition and an exhortation”. In these we can glimpse two sides of the answer given on the general characteristics of the text: on the one hand it is a “recollection”, on the other it is an “admonition and exhortation”. The semantic characteristics of the three terms allow such a distinction: in the first case there is a “memory” of events narrated and remembered, on the other a series of requests and commitments qualified as “admonition and exhortation”. The fact that the two blocks are not generic or random is demonstrated by a textual datum of enormous importance: the development of the entire text clearly shows the distinct and successive presence of the two moments. Firstly, there is the narration of a series of events, all placed chronologically at the beginning (vv. 1-23); after which the text assumes a literary genre of admonition and exhortation, imposing on the brothers choices of absolute importance (vv. 24-33). With the three terms Francis defined the “what” of his writing placed within both the narrative and the juridical genre, that is, marked first by “memory” and then by “request”. Let us briefly reread the two moments to verify their presence in the development of the text, also identifying the parts that structure it; to these remarks we will then add some conclusive considerations on the possible logical relationship between the narrative and the admonitory parts.
The first area that Francis feels important to deliver to the brothers is a series of memories proposed in the first twenty-three verses. The content highlights three events, all placed chronologically in the very first years of the evangelical experience lived by Francis:
– The conversion lived among the lepers (vs. 1-3)
– Faith in the Crucified and in the ecclesial reality encountered at San Damiano (vs. 4-13)
– The arrival of the first companions with the approval of the pope and the description of the first fraternity (vs. 14-23)
It is not possible to analyse all this material in detail. We will make only a few general considerations to underline the special nature of these memories.
The first aspect is the timing of those events. Francis proposes recollections only of the very first experience, that is, of the first two to three years, those that go from 1207 to 1209, that is, from his conversion to the approval of Innocent III of the brief and simple form of life composed at the beginning. Two moments of this period are remembered. The first relates to the person of Francis when, still alone, he first experienced the gift of mercy among the lepers as an event of conversion and then the gift of faith in the Church during his stay at San Damiano (vs. 1-13); the second instead includes the arrival of his first companions, for whom he received the revelation of the form of life to be led together and submitted it immediately afterwards to the pope, describing also some of its main elements (vs. 13-23).
The second aspect to be underlined in the narrative proposed by Francis is the “surprising” nature of those events, born of a “special origin”: they were never the fruit of research or planning on the part of the protagonist, but always and only (the writer seems to want to emphasise) by the initiative of God. First, in fact, “he led him among the lepers” to experience among them an incredible reversal of his outlook on life, then “he gave him great faith” in the ecclesial reality despite the moral contradictory nature of the poor priests, and finally “he gave him brothers”, revealing to him what he should do with them, namely, live according to the form of the holy Gospel. The story of the beginnings, therefore, was a story made by God, to the great surprise of Francis who was invited to trust, in a readiness to welcome and be involved in encounters never imagined nor sought.
The third aspect is the relationship of continuity, not only chronologically (in the time of succession) and mysteriously (moved by the will of God) placed between the three moments, but also of thematic development; in particular this is true between the personal-solitary moment, in which Francis finds the answer for his life by living his conversion and adherence to the ecclesial moment (vs. 1-13), and the communitarian moment of the arrival of the first brothers, discovering for them a form of life according to the form of the holy Gospel (vv. 14-23).
Let us briefly read the two moments to note their close continuity. Everything, according to the protagonist’s account, began with his experience among the lepers (vs. 1-3). Led by God to the leper colony below Assisi, the young Francis lived among them such a shattering experience that it led him to a radical “conversion” in his desires and choices. The mercy given by him to the lepers not only transformed into sweetness the sense of bitterness he had towards them “when he was in sin” but also gave him a new logic of life made of gratuitousness and sharing. Soon afterwards he decided “to leave the world”.
The next step is described as a second fundamental moment, probably to be placed in San Damiano where, after having overturned (converted) his lifestyle, he lived a doubly important experience of faith that involved both listening to and seeing great things in that little church, that is, “to have been redeemed through his holy cross” (vs. 4-5) and experiencing the ecclesial and sacramental dimension of that place where he discovered the hidden God through the humility and poverty of the priest and the Eucharist (vs. 6-13). In short, Francis, by God’s gift, had found his own identity as a “man of mercy” by embracing the lot of the poor and a “man of faith” by placing his life before the mystery of the cross and within the sacramental fabric of the church.
But the hand of God intervened again in his existence, giving way to a second great passage: the gift of brothers (vs. 14-23). It was not he who sought them out but they who wanted to share his life: the choices embraced by Francis, his evangelical identity made up of mercy and faith were “contagious”. In the account of this second moment, in which personal identity becomes an experience shared with others, Francis offers his brothers a double memory: the discovery of the form of life to be given to their fraternity, found by way of “revelation of God” in the “form of the holy Gospel” (vs. 14-15), and the description of five characteristics of the style adopted by the first group of brothers (16-23), identified in the choice of poverty of those who embraced that life (vs. 16-17), in simple prayer done together (18), in social submission (v. 19), in material work (vs. 20-22) and in the proclamation of peace (v. 23).
All this narrative material, however, has its culmination in the second part of the text, when the author moves from memory to admonitions and exhortations (vs. 24-33). One could say that between the first section of “memories” and the second of “admonitions” there is a precise relationship of continuity and development: “if God did this first with me, giving me my evangelical identity, and then with us, revealing to us our form of life, then I say to you that we are called to make some absolutely important choices in order to be faithful to what we have promised in the rule”. If in those beginnings there were the foundations of the group’s identity, then faced with some important questions that the fraternity was experiencing, Francis felt the need to draw some consequences for the life of the brothers.
This close relationship between the past of memories and the present-future of admonitions is even clearer and more precise if one observes the description of the characteristic elements of the first community (16-23) and the strong and precise choices requested by Francis to his brothers in the second part (vs. 24-33). One could propose this summary scheme to show the thematic continuity between the two parts, where the memories prepare the choices:
|16-17: The choice of radical poverty in those who embraced that life||24: Poverty in the churches and in the homes of the brothers|
|18: The style of liturgical prayer||29-33: Saying the office according to the Rule|
|19: The position of the unlettered and the submissive in the world||25-26: The prohibition of privileges
27-28: Francis’ obedience
|20a: Manual labour||20b-22: The work of the brothers|
|23: The content of the preaching centred on peace|
The basic interpretative hypothesis that supports my overall hypothesis in linking the two parts of the Testament is simple: Francis wants to strengthen and confirm his admonitory requests starting from his recollection of the beginnings. This also explains the particularity of some passages in which the Saint proposes memories that are in some way not too true because they have been “adjusted” for the subsequent request. Thus, for example, in recounting the choice of poverty at the beginning, he is interested above all in underlining the feelings that reigned among the brothers at that time (content and without the desire to have more, (vs. 16-17), a narrative that in some way prepares the reference to the poverty of the houses of v. 24, when perhaps the brothers wanted to have more, not content with that narrowness. The same is true of the affirmation that at the beginning they prayed the office divided between clerics and laity (v.18), an affirmation which is not entirely true, if one reads the norms of Rnb III 3-9, in which the division was between those who could read and those who were illiterate, but which is useful to reiterate the imperative obligation to recite the office according to the Rule where the division between two groups is established (Rb III 1-4). Even the memory of having been illiterate at the beginning (v. 19) does not correspond to the truth of things, given the cultural preparation that the brothers of the first group had; these “half lies” in fact served to accentuate the choice of submission with which to prepare the serious request of v. 25 where the brothers are forbidden to rely on the Apostolic See to defend their rights. Finally, even in relation to the theme of work, the recollection is a little forced and unrealistic when it states: “I worked and I want to work” (v. 20a), a totally impossible intention given his state of health; however, it was important to make this premise before asking the brothers to work with their hands (vs. 20-22). In short, the memories of the beginnings were the basis for giving validity and strength to the admonitions requested-imposed on the brothers for the present.
2. What has been said about the first three qualifications given by Francis to his text (“remembrance, admonition, exhortation”), allows us to understand the last general definition given to his text: it was a “Testament”. If on the one hand the author refuses to assign the qualification of “rule” to the text, on the other hand with this term, summarising the other two previous ones, he confirms the presence in it of a juridical nature. Let us start again from what was hypothesised at the beginning, that is, that with this text Francis wished to take up the request made to him in Siena: to leave the friars “a memorial of his will”. It is therefore not by chance that he qualifies the entire text as a “testament”.
Let us emphasise two aspects of this testamentary act: the legal value and the content.
A will has a radical legal value: it expresses the will of the testator on his property left as an inheritance, strictly obliging the addressees to be faithful to his decisions. Therefore, while not wishing to write another rule (which legally he could not, nor did he wish to do) Francis composes a text, to which, by calling it a ‘testament’, he assigns an enormous identity value. At the same time, this operation clearly shows Francis’ self-awareness of the authoritative role he felt he had to play over the brothers. Even though he was not the general minister, but only “brother”, he remained “Francis” for all, the one to whom God, after having given him an evangelical identity made up of mercy and faith, had entrusted the brothers to him, revealing to him their form of life and receiving confirmation from the pope (vs. 14-15). He was for everyone and for ever “Brother Francis”; and “his will” possessed a unique and perennial value, just as with every will and testament. It is not a rule, but only a testament, and precisely for this reason, as we shall say at the end, with a juridical power equal to a rule.
There is a final element to note in this literary operation defined by Francis as a testamentary act. While in the Rule, Francis had to write by way of a work or redaction, allowing himself to be confronted with other requirements represented by Cardinal Ugolino and having to make choices of compromise, here, on the other hand, he is free, that is, he can dispose of his testament without (almost) any conditions. He therefore performs an operation in which he answers only to himself; he has no constraints to respect, and his will becomes absolute and unquestionable.
With that text, therefore, he wanted to leave “his testament” with which he entrusted his precious inheritance to the brothers, composed precisely of the two parts of his writings: the memoirs and the admonitions. Although of different value, the two components constituted the precious material left to the brothers so that they could achieve a goal: to better observe the Rule. He entrusted to them his riches made up of memories and exhortations so that they might be richer in living faithfully what they had promised by embracing the minoritic life. The objective of that testamentary writing was therefore the fundamental motivation for its delivery.
In the intention of Francis, that testamentary bequest with its rich and precious inheritance would have allowed the brothers to “observe the Rule better”. It was not a question of writing another Rule nor an alternative or opposing text, but of helping the brothers to “observe it better”, allowing them to look at it and understand it better in order to live it better. This initial consideration should be developed and clarified by means of a double series of emphases, the first relating to Francis’ relationship with the Rule, the other to the service that the Testament should have played in helping the brothers to better observe the professed text.
1. By wanting to make that final text an instrument at the service of the Rule, Francis confirmed the value he ascribed to the text approved by the Church. The polemical debate which gave rise to the drafting of the final text of 1223, already mentioned above, showed the opposition Francis initially felt to the request expressed by the brothers to have another text to replace the previous one of 1221. The definitive Rule thus marked “the defeat” of the Saint’s wish not to grant a new text. All this has led to the hypothesis of a resignation on the part of the Saint in having to accept that new draft, desired by the group of learned friars and ministers and also favoured by Ugolino. A certain historiography, born with Sabatier, has often presented the text of the definitive Rule as an operation carried out by the curia to harness the spirit that instead characterised the primitive text defended by Francis. This reading has therefore imagined a Francis conditioned, against his will, by a process of institutionalisation guided by the Roman curia that would have succeeded in imposing a new Rule on him.
Such a historiographic hypothesis would seem to ignore precisely the nature of the text as that of a “service” that Francis wanted to give to the Testament: with it he did not want to criticise, replace or abolish the Rule but “to make it better observed”. In this sense the reason for writing that text substantially refutes the interpretation of Francis’ conflictual relationship with the Rule. A little later in the conclusion, with a narrative operation not entirely in conformity with the truth of the facts, the Saint takes possession of the drafting of the text by making God alone participate in it: “as the Lord has given me to speak and write the Rule and these words simply and purely” (v. 39). According to what he lets emerge, the normative text approved by the Church would not only be his but would also have an inspired nature: in the Rule there was the evangelical spirit that God had made him embrace at the beginning.
However, to this first side of Francis’ positive and appreciative relationship with the Rule we must also add its inverse. Just as he was saying that he wanted to make the Testament an aid to the Rule, Francis was in fact indirectly recognising that it still needed to be completed and clarified. The Rule contained the spirit that the Lord had revealed to him, but in order to be better understood and observed, the juridical text needed to be flanked by that last writing. That which was born of the work of “redactional compromise” between different sensibilities and needs, even if recognised by Francis as his own work done under the “dictation” of God, had to be flanked by this new written text at the service of the other.
We could summarise the sensibility underlying the drafting of the Testament in this way: the Rule is good and does not betray the initial inspiration, yet on its own, without this textual addition, it runs the risk of not being observed well, or of not fully expressing the Spirit contained in it. In short, Francis is saying “yes, however” on the text of the Rule, to which he feels the need to add his Testament because without it the brothers would not have been able to “understand-observe” it well.
2. At this point, the focus shifts to a second set of observations, relating to the role of service that this latter writing plays in favour of the legal text. We can identify two aspects or moments of the hermeneutic function ascribed by the saint to the Testament in favour of the Rule: on the one hand the direct passages with which Francis intervenes on the normative text by means of clarifications, completions or even additions, and on the other by means of indirect indications given to the brothers as basic references for understanding and living the norm.
Let us start from the first block: the direct and specific aspects that accompany and complete the dictate of the Rule. They are present above all in the normative part (vs. 24-33), where there is a frequent reference to the Rule. In the specific requests, in which Francis demands the obedience of the brothers, there is only one case in which he proposes a completely new matter in relation to the legal text: the absolute prohibition of requesting letters from Rome (vs. 25-26); in another case, however, an element present in an indirect form in the legal text is specified: the construction of new friaries must be in conformity with the poverty professed in chapter VI (v. 24) of the Rule. What is said instead in the long and harsh passage dedicated to the divine office does no more than reiterate the dictate of the normative text in chapter III, adding however a harsh penal procedure against those who do not recite it according to what was established in that passage (vs. 27-33). They are also linked to the request, made in the first part of the Testament, about manual work and almsgiving (vs. 20-22), where an aspect present in chapter V of the Rule is taken up to confirm and further specify it.
In any case, I think I can say that the requests in the Testament do not affect or substantially transform the dictates of the Rule, with just one exception, that relating to the prohibition of turning to Rome to obtain papal documents in one’s favour, a prohibition that will have enormous consequences for the Order, which will be forced, as we will say at the end, to turn to the Apostolic See to clarify Francis’ command. However, in its entirety, the last writing of the Saint does not oppose or transform the Rule, but only offers stimuli and clarifications on some themes of the life of the friars that the author considered aspects that had to be underlined and reiterated for a better observance of the approved text.
To this first series of texts of “service” of a juridical nature is added another, consisting of the memoirs (vs. 1-23), which can be considered “indirect” aids offered by the Saint to the brothers to better observe the Rule. Here we return to what has already been mentioned previously. The history of personal identity (vs. 1-13) and community identity (14-23) not only constituted the dynamic principle from which the Saint started to formulate the admonitory requests of the Testament, but it was also the hereditary “material” from which the brothers had to draw to better observe what was promised. The spirit revealed to them by God and fixed in the normative text could be better understood not only by applying those few juridical demands fixed in the second part of the Testament, but also (above all) by inserting it within that founding history told in the first part.
Without a shadow of a doubt, it can be considered that the insertion of personal and community memories represents the most important operation of the Testament in the context of Francis’ desire to offer the brothers an instrument at the service of the Rule. The norms of the juridical text approved by the Church would not be “better” observed by simply adding other norms, but by linking them to a material which was not juridical – such as the memories of a life lived – but which nevertheless for Francis played an important and fundamental role in their understanding. The events narrated in the first part of the Testament was a “sacred” history, worked directly by God and delivered to Francis and his first brothers as a parameter and propelling force for all subsequent development. Therefore, for Francis to understand the norms of living the Gospel meant to reconnect the Rule within a lived experience, a concrete experience that measured the life of the brothers by linking it to the intuition included in the written institution. If the juridical norm fixed the initial intuition in concrete forms, then the opposite was also true, that is, the memory of the founding events constituted the starting tool to observe “in a more Catholic manner” the juridical norms contained in the Rule.
In conclusion, the Testament in its entirety, that is, both in its “normative” part and, above all, in its “narrative” part represented, according to Francis’ intentions, the necessary tool to bring out “better” what was certainly present in the Rule but (at least in certain cases) only in an implicit form, that is, to highlight those “spiritual” elements connected to the primitive experience of the fraternity, but which had been lost or obscured in the redactional passage that led from the first to the second Rule. In short, although the Testament was not a new Rule, but only an instrument at its service, it was nevertheless necessary so as to assist in enabling the brothers to observe the normative text better and in a more Catholic manner.
IV. Method: “through obedience let them read together the Rule and the Testament with simplicity” (35-39)
The last aspect is the largest in terms of the number of verses, which Francis deals within the conclusion. It is the method given to his brothers to ensure that the text is an instrument of service for a better observance of the Rule. In order that the Testament might provide that hermeneutical help, the brothers had to link the normative text inseparably to that last text and this by means of a double operation: the first had to be done by the ministers and was of a “physical” nature (35-37), the second by all the brothers and was of a hermeneutical nature (38-40).
1. Firstly, the Saint, with a request imposed “by obedience”, addresses the ministers, asking them to weld together, as if it were a single text, the Rule and the Testament:
And let the general minister and all the other ministers and custodians be bound through obedience not to add to or take away from these words. And let them always have this writing with them together with the Rule. And in all the chapters which they hold, when they read the Rule, let them also read these words (Test. 35-37).
What was commanded to the general minister and all the ministers and custodians clearly translated the juridical value that Francis assigned to his final text. The Saint made three requests. Firstly, the ministers were to “seal” the text, preventing the addition of other words to it or the transformation of those present. In practice, he repeats what he had already done at the end of the Regola non bollata when, as we have already heard, he commanded that from that text “no one should remove or add any written part” (Rnb XXIV 4). The “juridical” value of the Testament, therefore, was felt to be an intangible text for the brothers.
This first operation was closely linked to the two subsequent requests, which converged in the objective of “physically” uniting the two texts. First of all, all the brothers were obliged to always read them one after the other as if they were one. Interesting, in this context, is the next request: the unity and continuity of the reading had to be absolutely carried out during the general chapters, that is, in the moments in which the brothers were called to decide on the concrete ways of being lesser brothers. In the “physical” link between the two texts, they would have found the coordinates to carry out this operation of fidelity to their minoritic and evangelical identity. In the intentions of Francis, therefore, the Rule also included the Testament, thus assigning the same juridical value to the Testament.
A final reflection on this juridical operation: it was born and had its validity and normative force from the “I” of Francis. Forgetful or unaware of the juridical processes that made a text binding – that is, through the approval of the Church – the Saint, in formulating this request, was moving from a datum that was as essential as it was obvious to him: “If the Rule fixes and institutionalises my-our experience, then the Testament has a similar juridical value because it fixes my will. Read them together and you will find the founding spirit revealed to me by God”. Referring to the same revelation, the two texts had for the author the same identity value, the same capacity to “institutionalise” intuition and, therefore, possessed the same juridical value. As a direct consequence of this assumption, he obediently asked the brothers to place the two writings together so that they would “physically” form a single text.
2. This first request was followed by a second, with even more important and serious consequences for the development of the Order: addressing all the brothers, he imposed on them “by obedience” a specific “method” of reading the two texts:
And I strictly command all my cleric and lay brothers, through obedience, not to place any gloss upon the Rule or upon these words saying: “They should be understood in this way.” But as the Lord has given me to speak and write the Rule and these words simply and purely, may you understand them simply and without gloss and observe them with a holy activity until the end (Test. 38-39).
Not only was it necessary to read them together, but it was also necessary to employ an approach capable of bringing out the unique spirit of “Brother Francis”.
Perhaps the questions had already begun about the meaning of some passages of the Rule, perceived as difficult or incapable of fully reconciling in the concrete situation the initial intuition and the new pastoral and cultural needs. The need and the necessity to “explain”, that is, to open up, to make the normative text grow, to redraft or clarify it, probably had already emerged.
Faced with this need, perhaps perceived by Francis as a danger, he responds with a double operation. First of all, he denies the legitimacy of any kind of commentary on the Rule. The Latin statement used by the Saint is precise: “Non mittant glossas in regula neque in istis verbis” [not to place any gloss upon the Rule or upon these words]. Literally, it means do not add further texts, either interlinear or lateral, as was done in the commentaries on Scripture to clarify difficult or obscure passages.
In addition to the prohibition, there is a positive request concerning the way of reading the two texts. The obedience imposed by Francis is precise: read and understand the two texts “simply”, that is, with a reading that does not need commentary. To clarify this request, the Saint offers a point of reference essential for him: the brothers must read the texts with the same sentiments and attitudes with which “the Lord has given [him] to speak and write the Rule and these words simply and purely” (v. 39).
Therefore, for Francis there was a presupposition that made this request not only legitimate but also feasible: the simplicity of interpretation imposed on the brothers had to conform to the simplicity with which he had written the two texts. Undoubtedly, the judgement given by the Saint on the process of their formulation, defining it as “simple”, did not concern so much the process of writing as the spirit that had guided that work and given rise to the two writings. We know, as already mentioned, that their drafting was not “simple” nor was it his work alone. In attributing the two texts directly to himself – a statement in which, according to Esser, the saint “was indeed the victim of a historical illusion” – he did not want to deny an obvious fact, but rather to emphasise the spirit of the two writings: they were simple because they contained and manifested the intuition that God had given him in a simple way; and only the simple could wisely enter into that content.
Consequently for the Saint ,any attempt to interpret the two texts was not only superfluous but also harmful because it introduced into the simplicity of the inheritance a mechanism that removed the possibility of access to it, since one was no longer on the wavelength for understanding what was simple. According to Francis, therefore, the intuition and revelation given to him by God, that is, the spirit of the Rule, were “obviously” present in the pure and simple words of the two texts, the simple fruit of a revelation of God mediated and fixed by the Saint through the difficult redactional journeys of the Rule and the Testament.
However, on closer inspection, it could be said that with these requests Francis fell into a form of contradiction: on the one hand he recognised that for a better reading of the Rule a service text (a kind of commentary) was needed, on the other hand he considered that the reading of it should be simple, without glosses or additional comments. Clearly, the author of that testamentary addition was himself, and therefore he obviously assigned to himself the authority and the right to do so. At the same time, he thought that with this additional operation of a new text he had solved every problem in the reading of the Rule: if there were questions to be solved, after his last writing the brothers no longer had any reason to ask for clarifications or hermeneutical expansions on the approved text.
For Francis that final text constituted his precious legacy to help “his blessed brothers” to remain faithful to the vocation that God had revealed to him and which he had then fixed in the Rule. Through the Testament he offered a sure instrument to read and understand and therefore live well the spirit contained in the juridical document approved by the Apostolic See. The reading of the Rule through the key of the Testament was to be done in a “simple” way because the text was “simple”. This was the precious heritage assigned by Francis to the Testament.
But for the friars this simplicity of interpretation was not so evident and not so easy to achieve. The Rule presented, in spite of everything, a series of undeniable open questions. Perhaps, as we have mentioned, even before the Saint’s death there were discussions about the interpretation of some normative passages. Imposing a simple reading out of obedience was not the way to do it, because one cannot command to understand if one does not understand. Nor was the Testament a specific and articulate commentary on the text of the Rule.
Therefore, this last text “imposed” by Francis by way of obedience (the obligatory nature typical of every testament), instead of being a precious inheritance soon turned into its opposite: a difficult and embarrassing inheritance. That prohibition on making comments on the Rule constituted a closure of the text that put the conscience of the Order in serious difficulty. The doubts of interpretation were there and had to be not only clarified but also resolved through a clarification of what was not as simple as Francis thought. How to do this? The only possibility of having an answer could come from the supreme authority that had approved the Rule: the Apostolic See.
But this possible solution was opposed by another important passage in the Testament, whose gravity for the development of the Order we have already anticipated. In it, Francis, with a legal formula of absolute force, had imposed his will: “I strictly command all the brothers through obedience, wherever they may be, not to dare to ask any letter from the Roman Curia” (Test. 25). This command further complicated the situation, the text left behind a difficult and embarrassing obedience. In short, going to Rome to the pope to get a letter interpreting their doubts about the Rule was a double disobedience to what Francis had commanded for obedience in his last writing.
On 17th March 1227, Cardinal Ugolino, the man who had not only known Francis but had actively collaborated in the writing of the Rule, was elected pope with the name of Gregory IX. A year later, on 16th July 1228, he decided to raise Brother Francis to the honour of the altar and make him Saint Francis. The presence of Gregory IX gave the friars the courage to face the problems and doubts that became more and more urgent as the Order grew. At the general chapter, held on Pentecost of 1230 in Rome, they took note of the urgency of the matter and decided to send to the pope a commission led by General Giovanni Parenti, accompanied by a qualified group of friars (among whom was Anthony of Padua), to submit to the pontiff not only their doubts about the Rule but also their embarrassment about the inheritance received by Francis in the Testament. The Pope’s reply was not long in coming. On 28 September of the same year he sent the Order the papal bull Quo elongati with which he responded to their twofold series of requests: first of all about the juridical value of the Testament and then about their doubts concerning various passages of the Rule. If the first point was not clarified, one could not move on to the second.
The pope understood that the doubts of the friars about the normative text were more than legitimate, and in fact he dedicated the entire papal document to them in which he examined the various passages of the Rule that were problematic for the friars, and after having summarised them, he responded by proposing his own interpretative and juridical solution. But before doing so, he had to deal with the serious and embarrassing question of the obligatory nature of the Testament: is it to be valued as equally as the Rule? The papal answer is negative: that last writing of the Saint does not have the same obligatory value as the other. Before offering the juridical reason for this denial of Francis’ will, the pope makes an interesting premise to justify his act. He is taking that decision not only because he was “pope” but also and above all because he had a special relationship of friendship with Francis:
For as a result of the long-standing friendship between the holy confessor and ourselves, we know his mind more fully. Furthermore, while we held a lesser rank, we stood by him both as he composed the aforesaid Rule and obtained its confirmation from the Apostolic See (Quo elngati 3: FF 2731).
What Gregory IX was about to decide in regard to the Testament had its starting point in his personal friendship with Francis: he had known him and had collaborated in the drafting of the Rule; in short, he knew his “intention”. To this first level was added his papal authority, linked to his juridical competence. Everything led him to recognise in Francis’ operation a double series of juridical misunderstandings that invalidated the obligatory nature with which the Saint had imposed the Testament on the friars:
For without the consent of the brothers, and especially of the ministers, Francis could not make obligatory a matter that touches everyone. Nor could he in any way whatsoever bind his successor because an equal has no authority over his equal (Quo elngati 3: FF 2731).
The conclusion offered by Gregory IX to the brothers is therefore clear and precise: “you are not bound to observe this command”.
This decision had “freed” the Order from a legacy that had turned from “precious” to “difficult”. That text could and should have been put in brackets, or even forgotten, because not only did it not help, but perhaps embarrassed the development of the Order, preventing a dynamic and progressive understanding of the Rule.
All this explains what for us, however, as we noted at the beginning, constitutes a great surprise: the total absence of any reference to this text in the very important and fundamental hagiographic account given by Saint Bonaventure to the friars during the general chapter of 1263. The Major and Minor Legend composed by the Holy General Minister interpreted and favoured the official self-consciousness of the Order, which had in fact put the Testament in brackets. To fully understand the Rule, therefore, it was not necessary to use the Testament but another instrument, the only one with the power to “comment” on the norms of the juridical text: the papal bulls; thanks to them the friars could understand and complete what had been said in the approved text, perhaps with simplicity by Francis but not with sufficient clarity.
In spite of everything, however, that text delivered by Francis at the end of his life would not be forgotten or completely abandoned by his brothers. On the contrary, within the discussions on the identity of the lesser brothers and on how to be faithful to Francis that developed over the centuries, it always remained the document of comparison and confrontation. In fact, it became the polemical reference used by the reforming souls against the great Community in seeking and establishing what had been the initial and authentic intentio Francisci. It would be interesting to follow the development of this story, but that would take us too far.
R. Manselli, Dal testamento ai testamenti di san Francesco, in Collectanea Franciscana 46 (1976) 121-129.
K. Esser, Il testamento di San Francesco di Assisi, Ed. Francescane “Cammino”, Milano 1978.
M. Conti, Il discorso d’addio di san Francesco. Introduzione e commento al Testamento, Ed. Antonianum, Roma 2000.
P. Maranesi, L’eredità di frate Francesco, Lettura storico-critica del Testamento, Ed. Porziuncola, Assisi 2009.