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The humility of Francis, the wisdom of Anthony

Editorial Staff

Francis and Anthony are two saints who lived in the same period. Francis, even if he went to various regions of Italy to preach, remained deeply tied to Assisi where he was born in 1182 and died on 4 October 1226; Anthony instead moved from his native Lisbon (1195) to North Africa and then returned to Italy, went to France and then spent his last years in Padua, where he died on 13t June 1231. Two saints who were different in social extraction and formation, in temperament and evangelical style, but who had the same passion in following Christ. Both had been rich and happy young people; both had dreamed of dedicating themselves to military enterprises; both had abandoned their wealth to embrace a life of poverty and put themselves at the service of the poor; both had also tried, in vain, to become missionaries among the Islamic of Morocco.

Tradition has it that the paths of Francis and Anthony crossed in Assisi 800 years ago: let's go through the event together.

We are at the end of May 1221. The streets of the Umbrian plain resounded with songs and prayers: groups of Friars Minor, coming from various regions of Europe, headed towards Assisi. Their spiritual father, Brother Francis, had invited them to participate in the General Chapter, that is to say, in a great assembly where the most urgent problems of the Order would be dealt with.

About five thousand friars responded to the invitation. Among them was also Anthony, who had come from Sicily—where he had landed on his way to preach in Morocco.

That army of knights of Christ”—as Cardinal Ugolino (the future Gregory IX), who was present at the gathering, called them—camped around the small church of Santa Maria degli Angeli in improvised sheds of branches. For this reason, that gathering (which the friars called the General Chapter) is remembered by historians as the Chapter of Mats.

Francis and Anthony, therefore, were present at that gathering: Francis as the Founder of the Order and with health problems; Anthony, on the other hand, as a simple young friar, who had not yet had the opportunity to let his brothers know his gifts as a wise preacher of the Gospel.

At the beginning of that general assembly, Francis showed great humility by renouncing the government of the Order he had founded to entrust it to Brother Elijah. “The Lord—said the Poor Man—did not call me to religious life to command, but to obey”. He therefore wanted to become the subject of those whom he had welcomed into the Order.

During the discussions of the Chapter, Brother Francis sat crouched down at the feet of Brother Elijah. When he wanted to express some of his opinions, he pulled his cassock. Brother Elijah then bent over to listen to what the Father wished to say to the brothers and then passed on his thoughts. The great assembly came to an end. Brother Francis, holding out his hands over the large crowd of brothers, repeated the biblical Blessing: “The Lord bless you and keep you! The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace!” Then, as if to give the order to dissolve the General Chapter, he said: “Go into the world in the name of God! Where there is hatred bring love, where there is war bring peace, where there is sadness bring joy”.

Brother Anthony will never forget the days he spent in Assisi. We certainly don’t know if there was also a more direct contact between the two saints, face to face. We do know that between the end of 1223 and the beginning of 1224 Francis sent Anthony a letter, or rather, a note. With words of veneration and esteem, he authorised Anthony to teach theology to the brothers, recommending that this should not be at the expense of prayer. The meaning of this note is that Anthony was invested as a preacher and a teacher of theology by Francis and placed the primacy of God over everything, without hindering or impeding the flowering of personal talents. Here is the text (according to the edition by Kajetan Esser): “Brother Francis sends greetings to Brother Anthony, my Bishop. I am pleased that you teach sacred theology to the brothers providing that, as is contained in the Rule, you ‘do not extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion’ during a study of this kind.” And Anthony, with his life, totally fulfilled the exhortation of Saint Francis.