Innocent III had died a year after the Fourth Lateran Council in 1216, to be succeeded by Honorius III, so when St Francis returned from the Holy Land to deal with the disputes that had arisen about the interpretation of his first rule written in 1209, he went for help to Cardinal Hugolino who had been appointed Cardinal Protector of the Order by Pope Honorius. The wrangles over the rule were long and lasted for almost three years. Inevitably a rule written by Francis at Rivo Torto for no more than twelve men would have to be rewritten when, as unexpected, almost four thousand or more had poured into the Order by the time he had returned. However that was not the problem. The problem lay in the sort of rule many now wanted. A new generation of friars, many of whom were priests and highly educated, wanted to water down the rule that Francis believed had been given to him by God himself.
It was for this reason that Francis decided that it was time to update the rule sanctioned verbally by Innocent III ten years before. As it had already been added to over the years to include various directives for religious orders that were promulgated at the Fourth Lateran Council, and other directives agreed upon at general chapters of the Order, St Francis decided that it was time to incorporate all these additions in a new rule. Then at last it could receive the written approval of Pope Honorius III. This would also enable him to balance the predominantly legal additions with exhortations to live by the spirit of the first rule despite the interpretations of those who wished to dilute it. For this purpose he employed the services of a highly erudite friar educated at the University of Paris who had recently been received into the order by Brother Elias in the Holy Land where he had been the provincial superior. His name was Caesar of Speyer and it was with his help that what came to be called the ‘Regula Non Bullata’ was written by Francis and presented to the General Chapter in 1221. This rule, which still exists to this day, is an enduring testimony to the mind of Francis at the time, but it was nevertheless rejected by the ruling party as too strict. Disappointed, St Francis went to Fonte Columbo where he was dictating a new version to Brother Leo when they had visitors. Brother Elias suddenly turned up with all the Italian Ministers Provincial. Brother Leo tells us what happened in the Mirror of Perfection. The Ministers had come to tell Francis that, from what they had heard, his new rule would be too strict and that they would not be bound by it. In his own words Brother Leo who witnessed everything tells us what happened next: –
“Then Francis lifted up his voice and cried out, ‘Lord answer for me’ and then everyone heard the voice of Christ. ‘Francis there is nothing in this rule of yours that is not mine and I want it to be obeyed literally without interpretation, without interpretation, without interpretation! And whosoever will not obey it may leave the Order’. And then Francis turned to the brothers and said –‘Have you heard that? Or shall it be said once more to you?’ But the ministers went away terrified.”
When this new rule was finally finished it was still too strict for the ministers, so Bonaventure tells us that soon after he received it Brother Elias conveniently claimed to have lost it. When Francis finished rewriting it this time, he took it straight to Rome and to Cardinal Hugolino. After it had been heavily edited by the curial canonists at the insistence of Pope Honorius and Cardinal Hugolino it was promulgated in a Papal Bull known as Solet Annuere in 1223.This came to be called The Regula Bullata because it had papal approval, as opposed to the Regula Non Bullata which did not. After all the work had been done, Francis stayed in Rome to catch his breath and rest for a time in one of the Cardinal’s Palaces.
He was not happy with the editing nor with the additions, but what could he do? So he spent what little time was left to him trying to put over what was so dear and so important to him, by his own personal example and by a series of personal letters and writings, the most important of which was his Testament. This is entirely his own work and shot through and through with the spirit that animated his whole life. To those who wished to do so, like Brother Leo, he gave special permission to live by the spirit of the rule, stripped of the interpretations and what he called ‘the glosses’ of those who did not understand it as he intended. He wanted to add a clause to this effect in the final rule, enabling others to do likewise, even to the point of disobeying superiors, but for the canonists it was a non-starter.
The faction within the Order who wished to dilute the rule, may well have had human prudence on their side, but when did human prudence produce saints like Francis of Assisi? The literal following of the rule that was totally biblical and which Francis believed was given to him by God himself, most certainly produced one of the greatest saints that Christendom has ever known.
When St Francis had returned from the Holy Land, the trouble causers were removed from office and Peter Cattani was put in charge of the Order. When he died the following year, Elias of Cortona took his place. Elias was an extremely able man, but sadly dominated by the human wisdom with which he tried to rule rather than serve the Order. That is why he conveniently lost the first draft of the new rule that Francis wrote and opposed almost everything else that Francis wrote before he died.
Once the final rule was ‘set in stone’ and the Order was legally in the hands of Elias and his interpretation, Francis was free of all responsibility whether he liked it or not. Henceforth he supplemented and exemplified his writings by the example of his own life. He wanted to live the Gospel as perfectly as possible. However, his health which had never been good, grew worse with each passing day. He soon sensed that the end was not far away. For the last time he stayed briefly with Cardinal Hugolino in Rome, who had been for several years the ‘go between’ between him and those who could not accept the Rule as he had chosen to write it. He took his leave from another too, whom he would never see in Rome again. She was a devoted follower of Francis, ten years younger than him, who he had known well since his visit to Rome in 1212, just after he had preached to the birds near Bevagna. He said he only knew the faces of two women, Sister Clare and the Lady Jacoba de Settesoli whom he called Brother Jacoba. She was an elegant aristocrat descended on her father’s side from Norman nobility. She had been married at an early age to Gratiano Frangipani, a Roman nobleman. He was a direct descendant of Anicius Petrus who came to be called ‘The Breaker of Bread’ or in Latin, ‘Frangens Panem,’ for saving the poor of Rome from starvation in the eighth century. Her husband died shortly after she had given birth to two sons. As we shall see she was to play an important part in St Francis’ last hours on earth, in his burial and in the furtherance of the authentic spirit of the Franciscan way of live for the rest of her life.
David is the author of Wisdom from Franciscan Italy – The Primacy of Love which shows how the essence of Christian spirituality is restored by Francis.