In the Middle Ages most people wore basically the same style of clothing: a simple tunic, a small shoulder cape and perhaps a hood to keep off the rain. Depending on one’s class in society, the cloth would have been either rich or simple. Because pockets had not been invented, the wealthy wore a leather belt fastened around their waist on which was suspended a money bag, dagger and sword. After his conversion, Francis decided to throw off his adorned belt and instead tied an ordinary rope around his waist as all the peasants wore. He eventually tied three knots in the rope as reminder of his three promises to God: poverty, chastity and obedience. The word “habit” is derived from the Latin, habitus, “to put on a way of a life”. The external garment represents an interior change. In traditional imagery, the religious habit is appreciated as the armour of salvation and a mantle of justice. Within the Franciscan fraternity the habit acts as both the wedding garment and the burial shroud; it is the sign of unity and the visible link between brothers long since in heaven and those yet to be born. The history changed the design and colour from grey – colour of the earth into black for Conventuals in some countries in Europe and North America, or brown for Capuchins and Leonians. In most regions Conventuals do wear gray habit, although the colour reminds more the ash (symbol of repentance) than the earth.
A charism is the mode by which faith is put into action for any given group. It is that which determines identity. Although unchanging in spirit, a charism is manifested through a variety of personalities and apostolate in the successive flow of history.
The Conventual charism is a specific focusing of the gospel life embraced by Saint Francis of Assisi through:
- Fidelity to and collaboration with the Pope and Magisterium of the Church;
- Commitment to a common life where the friary is the centre of fraternal sanctification;
- Capitular form of governance; – Prudent exercise of temporal responsibilities;
- Flexibility in apostolic endeavours, adapting to the changing needs of the times;
- Encouragement of the highest standards of preaching and liturgical expression, sanctifying time and space through para-liturgical devotions, art and music;
- Pioneering academic development in both the sacred and secular sciences.
Francis, as true Crusader of Christ, signed himself with the sign of the cross, by using chalk, and even by the design of his religious habit. He always kept the cross before him, and when contemplating in caves, he would tie two sticks together that he might be able to pray before the cross: We adore You, O Christ, and we bless You, because by Your holy Cross, You have redeemed the world.
Hearing Pope Innocent III proclaim that, he needed to be signed with the Tau (which for Innocent was directly linked to the notion of spiritual purity, represented by the “white-robed” army of disciples in the Book of Revelation <see Revelation 7:2-14; Ezekiel 9:3-6; Exodus 12:7-14>), Francis took his challenge so seriously that he would even sign his name using the Tau. St. Francis thus, marked all his letters and documents with Tau. Even today, spiritual daughters and sons of St Francis use this sign hanging on the neck, mark documents by it, etc.
CRUCIFIX OF SAN DAMIANO
The San Damiano Cross is one of the most liked franciscan symbols. At the foot of this Cross, Francis’ entire life stood still and was transformed. This image, which had summoned forth his conversion and commissioned him to “rebuild” God’s house, was actually a visual text recounting the Passion according to the Gospel of St John. It was placed in the small chapel of San Damiano a century earlier, to impress Christ’s love upon the hearts of peasants accustomed to learning their faith through colour, symbol and form.
Gazing upon the Cross, Francis met the eyes of a Crucified, yet triumphant image of Christ. Saint John’s Christ is glorified; He controls the events taking place – no one takes away His life, He lays it down freely.
In Franciscan emblem are two crossed hands: of Christ and St. Francis (in habit). Two arms are marked by Stigmata (the signs of suffering of Christ on the Cross). Between them is the cross, or Tau. In some versions, the clouds may be seen, to emphasize the unity between heaven and earth. Sometimes the radiant glory is expressed to symbolize the sign of God’s glory.
The emblem symbolizes the assimilation of St Francis (called: Alter Christus – a second Christ) to our Lord Jesus. Francis received the Stigmata in 1224, just two years before his death. We Franciscans celebrate the death of St. Francis as a pass from earth to heaven; that is why the moment of Francis’ death is called Transitus.
Stigmata of St Francis confirm his unity with the Crucified Christ. Cross is the sign of Christ Passion, and also the sign of repentance, which are very specific elements in Franciscan devotion.
PEACE AND GOODNESS
“Pax et Bonum — Peace and Goodness”: this traditional Franciscan greeting has been passed down through the centuries. It comes down to us from the Poor Man of Assisi (St. Francis) and is in a certain way the trademark of our Franciscan way of life.
Meeting Jesus totally changed Francis’ life, and it also changed the way he would relate with other people. Now his life was characterized by love, warmth and zeal with proclaiming God’s Kingdom. Later on in his life, Francis said that God himself revealed to him this greeting: May the Lord grant you peace! That is why when he was preaching, he would always start and end by greeting the people with his proclamation of peace. This Franciscan motto hasn’t lost its actuality even today. As spiritual sons of St. Francis, we want to repeat and incorporate his peace into our lives, that we might be heralds of God’s love for the world. We believe that violence and aggression are not the solutions for the many conflicts around our world, but rather only forgiveness, peace and goodness can bring real freedom and happiness to our human family.
“The First Order (male) itself, like a luxuriant tree, brought forth the various families of Friars Minor; hence it is most fitting that all who consider Francis their Seraphic Father constantly cultivate fraternal communication so that always and everywhere the fullness of the Franciscan charism may flourish.”
Today the term “Franciscan Family” is used when describing the various Orders and Institutions that together form its membership.
The members of the mother branch of the First Order were originally known as the “Friars of the Community”, founded in 1209 by St. Francis of Assisi, and are now called Conventuals (OFMConv.). The second branch, originally the “Friars of the Reform”, consisted of many subdivided communities that formed before and after the division of 1517. These branches of the First Order were united into a single group in 1897 by Pope Leo XIII, and its members were called “Friars Minor of Leonain Union” (OFMLeo.). In 1909, Pope Saint Pius X emphasized the title “Friars Minor of the Leonine Union” to prevent ambiguity and identity. The Capuchins (OFMCap.) were founded in 1528, making up the third branch of the First Order.
The Second Order (female) was founded by St Clare of Assisi in 1212. The Poor Clares reside in autonomous cloistered monasteries united in contemplation. The Third Order is comprised of two major groups of multiple autonomous communities: the Third Order Secular and the Third Order Religious (male and female), both actively responding to contemporary needs.
The Franciscan Order is very rich with spiritual support from heaven. Throughout the centuries many friars and nuns being inspired by the Holy Spirit, gave their lives completely to God, doing charity, others shedding their blood for Christ, or just giving perfect example of their daily life for us to follow. They are too many to put their names here, but the most famous are: St. Francis of Assisi, St. Clare of Assisi, St. Bonaventure, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Joseph of Cupertino, Bl. Agnes of Prague, St. Margaret of Cortona, St. Felix of Cantalice, St. Bernardine of Siena, St. Maximilian M. Kolbe, St. Louis IX of France, St. Peter of Alcantara, St. John Capistrano, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, St. Agnes of Assisi, St. Kinge, St. John of Dukla, St. Pio of Pietrelcina…