Vocation and Prophecy
“St. Francis…was called providentially to a work of reform for the salvation of his contemporaries and to assist in the work of the Church Universal.”
In his Encyclical Letter of April 13, 1926 A. D., Rite Expiatis, Pope Pius XI, by situating the spiritual efficacy of St. Francis of Assisi in the grace of his vocation, recalled the close connection between mission and vocation, which has its roots in the Old Testament, particularly in reference to the prophets.
“Prophet” is the English cognate of the Latin, propheta and the Greek προφετε. In the Septuagint of the Old Testament, the Greek term is the translation of several Hebrew terms. The most significant one of these, for comparison here, is the Hebrew word nābî’, which means “called”, “convoked”. In the Pentateuch, so significant is this term, that only three persons are identified with it: Abraham, Aaron and Miriam, the sister of Moses..
The prophet, in the Old Testament sense of the term, is one who is sent, par excellence. There is no prophet apart from a prophetic mission. Indeed, the essence of the prophetic vocation is the call to mission.
Applying this vision to the life and person of St. Francis of Assisi (Giovanni di Bernadone, A. D. 1182 —1226), to consider his self-consciousness of mission, will obviously require that one prescind from a more detailed historical or critical examination of texts, the space required for which would exceed that of a short essay. I will therefore presume that the writings of the Saint, as contained in the critical edition represent his own personal views, rather than that of any supposed secretary or ghost-writer, and that the historical record, based on the sources, faithfully records what the Saint did and said.
Hence, it situating the significance of St. Francis’s mission in his vocation, Pope Pius XI is thereby indicating at once, both the prophetic nature of St. Francis’s vocation and mission, and the importance we must attach to the narrative of his vocation as an expression of the Saint’s own self-consciousness of mission.
3 Fundamentals Steps in St. Franci’s Conversion reflect his Grasp of Mission
In the Autumn of 1205 A. D., Giovanni di Bernadone found himself one day drawn to pray in a decrepit little church on the outskirts of Assisi. The church is named San Damiano, and it was dedicated to the two Arab saint doctors, Cosmas and Damian. There, the Byzantine icon Crucifix, came alive and spoke the momentous words, which lie at the heart of all that is Franciscan: “Francis, go, repair My house, which as you can see is falling completely to ruin”.
That we know of this event, and its circumstances in such detail, is solely explicable on the basis of the fact that the Poverello, for all his humility, did not hesitate to recount it to his first disciples. In this, he imitated the prophets of the Old Testament, who when asked the reason for their peculiar behavior, gave the narrative of their own call as prophets, as the justification (cf. Amos 7:14-15). This means that for St. Francis, there is a strictly theological, charismatic identity of vocation and mission with a historical theophanic event.
One can speculate that given the cultural context of the Middle Ages, in which lords dominated the land and serfs were bound to service, that the context of St. Francis visiting the dwelling of His Lord (a church) and receiving an order to undertake a work on the domain the lord (the Church), would lead us to expect that he would have understood this charge as feudal duty of a mere servant. But all the sources tell of quite a contrary self-consciousness.
The second principal moment in Saint Francis’ vocation shows this clearly, when out of his zeal to repair churches, having ended up in a dispute with his father, he had recourse to the Bishop of Assisi, before whom he formally renounced his legal duty to his earthly father, saying: “From now on I will say ‘Our Father who art in Heaven,’ and not father Peter Bernardone”. Here, St. Francis manifests that he understood his vocation, and hence his mission, as one squarely contextualized in his adopted sonship in Christ Jesus: a purely New Testament concept, not at all medieval. St. Francis’s self-consciousness, thus, prescinded from his own personal historical context, and rose to the level of the eternal Gospel itself.
The third moment in St. Francis’ vocation also manifests clearly this. After his renunciation of his father, one winter day he went forth in the countryside, singing out loud. When accosted by brigands along the roadside, who asked him, in his disheveled state, who he was, he responded, “I am the herald of the Great King!”. In this self-confession, St. Francis emphasis’ his own realization that he was on a mission from the King of Heaven, which essentially required him to announce the Advent and decrees of the Lord Jesus — which are the two essential aspects of the vocation of an Apostle, according to the doctrine of St. Paul (cf. Romans 1:1,15; 1 Corinthians 1:1,10,17; Galatians 1:1,8-24).
St. Francis’ self-consciousness of Mission as reflected in his writing
St. Franci’s Writings also reflect this self-consciousness of mission as depending personally on the initiative of Christ, as Lord, and sharing in the Gospel orientated apostolate. He confesses that divine revelation was the basis of his way of life (Test 14):
And after the Lord gave me some friars, no one showed me, what I ought to do, but the Most High Himself revealed to me, that I ought to live according to the form of the Holy Gospel.
This self-consciousness of the divine initiative in his vocation, the Poverello expressed even in regard to the vocation of his disciples, inasmuch as he ascribed the inspiration to write the Regula Bullata to the Lord’s intervention (Test 39):
But as the Lord granted me simply and purely to dictate and write the Rule and these words, so you should understand them simply and without gloss and observe them with holy work until the end.
St. Francis’ expresses his self-consciousness of the universality of his mission, in his numerous travels to the diverse provinces of Italy, to France, to Spain, and the Levant (Egypt and the Holy Land). He does this also by his address made in his Letter to the Rulers of the nations (EpRect): To all the magistrates and consuls, judges and rules of lands everywhere and to all others, to whom these letters will have come ….
Like the Apostle St. Paul, he opens his salutation to the Friars of the whole order, with a remembrance of “Him who redeemed and washed us in His own Most Precious Blood” (EpOrd 3; cf. Apoc. 1:5), thus situating the motivation for his writing within the context of his self-consciousness of a duty to proclaim the Gospel of universal redemption wrought in the Paschal Mystery of Christ. And therein he manifests to his friars that his is a vocation they themselves share which is essentially a mission, divinely given (EpOrd 8-10) to announced the Gospel to all nations:
Confess Him since (He is) good (Ps. 135:1), and exalt Him in your works (Tobias 13:6), since for this reason He sent you (cf. Tobias 13:4) into the whole world, to give testimony to His voice by words and work and make all know, that there is no Omnipotent One besides Him (cf. Tobias 13:4).
St. Francis’ Conception of Mission as incorporated into the Rules of 1223 and 1221
Finally, no treatment, even a brief one, of the Saint’s writings, regarding his self-consciousness of mission, would be complete without a reference to the Regula Bullata and to the Rule of 1221.
In the Regula Bullata, which was written in 1223 A. D., St. Francis shows that he conceives the ministry of preaching as one which is essentially a proclamation of the Kingdom and the urgent necessity of a personal response, a vision of homiletics which is essentially missionary in the full sense of the New Testament doctrine. Writing in Chapter IX of the Regula Bullata, the Saint says:
I also warn and exhort these same friars, that in the preaching, that they do, their expressions be considered and chaste (cf. Ps. 11:7; 17:31), for the utility and edification of the people, by announcing to them vices and virtues, punishment and glory… .
However, the core of the particularly missionary character of the Order of the Minors, is expounded by the Saint in chapter XII, On those going among the Saracens and other infidels: Let whoever of the friars who, by divine inspiration, wants to go among the Saracens and other infidels, seek permission for that reason from their Ministers provincial. Here, the Saint significantly expresses the essential concept of mission which he hands down to his sons within the boundaries of a personally received divine inspiration and a personally received canonical permission, that is between a Divine Initiative and a Ecclesiological Initiative, essential confines for every missionary endeavor which can be fruitful.
Frank M. Rega, SFO, in his book, St. Francis of Assisi and the Conversion of the Muslims, brings to the fore the importance, too, of the Rule of 1221, in understanding the praxis advocated by St. Francis in missionary activity. Rega writes:
“The importance of chapter XVI of the Regula non Bullata, regarding relations with Islam, should not be underestimated. It is the first documented instance of a Catholic religious order specifically calling for a missionary outlook to unbelievers. …
“The chapter then proposes two possible ways that Franciscans may conduct themselves in Muslim lands in order to fulfill their mission. The first manner of conduct in regard to the Muslims in simply to lead a life of Christian witness, without openly preaching Christ, . . . The second manner of conducting themselves is a decidedly more positive and active proclamation of the Gospel.”
Even though the Rule of 1221 was composed with the assistance of Friar Caesar of Speyer, the same fundamental characteristics of St. Francis’ self-consciousness of mission shine through: (1) Mission begins with the divine initiative (The Lord says, “Behold I send you as sheep . . .” [RegNB 16:1]), (2) an ecclesiological initiative (Whence let whatever friar . . . go in accord with the permission of his minister [RegNB 16:2]), (3) is characterized by a witness of Christian Life [RegNB 16:6] and (4) proclamation of the Gospel as an eschatologically and universally significant announcement (when it pleases God, let them announce the word of God, so that they may believe in God the Omnipotent, Father and Son and Holy Spirit, the Creator of all things, (and) in the Redeemer and Savior, the Son, and that they may be baptized and become Christians, because he who has not been reborn of water and the Holy Spirit, cannot enter the Kingdom of God [RegNB 16:7]).
St. Francis’ Mission to the Sultan Al-Malik al-Kamil, as the pre-eminent manifestation of his sense of Mission.
Having very briefly considered the textual evidence for the thought of the Saint regarding his self-conscious awareness of mission, let us take a look at one event in his life, which exemplifies this self-consciousness in an extraordinary and heroic manner: his missionary appeal to the Egyptian Sultan Al-Malik al-Kamil, during the Fifth Crusade, which mission according to Rega took place sometime after the declaration of truce in September of 1219, following the defeat of the Crusaders at Damietta by the army of the same Sultan.
St. Francis, according to the sources, having understood the defeat by the Crusaders to be a work divinely revealed, took the opportunity to seek permission of the Church to undertake the mission of converting the Sultan. He did this by approaching the Papal Legate Cardinal Pelagius of Albano, who after a first refusal, saw in St. Francis’ zealous insistence, a sign from God that it was a mission with a divinely inspired initiative. According to St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, the Saint took Friar Illuminato as his companion. Jacques de Vitry, the Bishop of Acre, was personally present at Damietta, and witnessed St. Francis’ departure: thus giving a solid testimony to the veracity of the incident and the extraordinary courage of the Saint, seeing that the Sultan was rumored to have ordered the death of all Christians who crossed the lines:
We saw Brother Francis, the founder of the Order of the Friars Minor, as simple and unlearned man, though very admirable and beloved by God and man, who was respected universally. He came to the Christian army, which was lying before Damietta, and an excess of fervor had such an effect upon him, that, protected solely by the shied of faith, he had the daring to go to the Sultan’s camp to preach to him and to his subjects the faith of Jesus Christ.
While this is not the place to recount all the details of this missionary journey which would make St. Francis’s name resound throughout all of Christendom and the Islamic world of that day, certain brief comments can be made regarding its fundamental aspects, each of which reflect the Poverello’s personal consciousness of mission.
First, Saint Francis sees the providence of encountering sheep in the no-man’s land which separated the two armies, as a divine reminder of Matthew 10:16: Behold, I send you as sheep amidst wolves. Second, Saint Francis patiently endures suffering in conformity to Christ, even to showing himself fearless of dying for the Name. Third, he openly proclaimed Christ as the necessary means of personal salvation of the Sultan. Fourth, having begun by divine inspiration, he succeeded with divine grace of moving the heart of the Sultan, showing him the true zeal of a Catholic missionary, since they told him that they had come to save his soul. This intention so moved the Sultan, that he refused the request by his imams to have the two friars put to death, in accordance with Islamic law.
These and the remaining details of his stay among the Sultan’s court show that the Poverello was utterly convinced of his divine mission, of the protection of Divine Providence which would see him through it; showed himself imbued with the highest ideals of the Gospel, of the imitation of Christ, of love of God and neighbor, and so unlike the icon of irenicism and religious indifference which is so often promoted as the true St. Francis.
Having very briefly surveyed the steps of St. Francis’ conversion, his writings and Rules, and the circumstances of his mission to the Sultan of Egypt, we can characterize and understand that St. Francis’ personal self-consciousness of mission was authentically evangelical in every aspect, a product of his deep faith and abundant spirit of evangelical grace, not of the worldly values and goals of a medieval man.
His sense of mission contained 5 major aspects: (1) he understood that his way of life and unique apostolate was entrusted to him by Divine intervention as a mission, from Christ Crucified Himself; (2) presupposed the necessity of the Church’s affirmation or convalidation; that (3) it required conformity of Christ by means of living the evangelical values as a daily way of life; that (4) it urged and required him and his friars to go into all the world and proclaim the Gospel of salvation to everyone; announcing (5) the Gospel not as a salvation from socio-economic problems, but as a personal call to conversion and redemption; situating the message of salvation in squarely eschatological terms, even at the risk of self and life.
A mission which began in prayer and aimed for martyrdom, which knew all forms of charity for God and neighbor, which was as much patient in suffering as bold in initiative: a timeless example for all his sons, and the entire Church universal.
José Maria Abrego de Lacy, I Libri Prophetici, from the series, “Introduzione allo studio della Bibblia”, Paidei Editrice, Brescia 1996, pp. 254.
St. Francis of Assisi: A Testament to Peace: the Writings of St. Francis of Assisi, trans. by Br. Alexis Bugnolo, The Franciscan Archive, Mansfield, MA, USA, 2008, pp. 182.
Grande Enciclopedia Illustrata della Bibbia, Gian Luigi Prato, editor. Piemme, Casale Monferrato (AL), 1997.
Pope Pius XI, Rite Expiatis, April 13, 1926, n. 30; Official English Translation by Libreria Editrice Vaticana, as published at the Vatican Website.
Frank M. Rega, SFO, St. Francis of Assisi and the Conversion of the Muslims, Tan Books, Rockford, Illinois, USA, 2007, pp. 150.
 Pope Pius XI, Rite Expiatis, April 13, 1926, n. 30; Official English Translation by Libreria Editrice Vaticana, as published at the Vatican Website.
 José Maria Abrego de Lacy, I Libri Prophetici, from the series, “Introduzione allo studio della Bibblia”, Paidei Editrice, Brescia 1996, p. 25.
 Abrego de Lacy, ibid., p. 25.
 Ibid., p. 26.
 Ibid., p. 36, where de Abrego de Lacy writes of the importance of the Prophet’s retelling of his moment of vocation: « I raconti di vocazione vengono solitamente datati in un preciso momento della vita del profeta, prima dell’inizio della sua missione, appunto perché ne sono la giustificazione ».
 Opuscula Sancti Patris Francisci Assisiensis, Caietanus Esser, OFM, as part of the Biblioteca Francescana Ascentica Medii Aevi, tom. XII, Editiones Collegii S. Bonaventurae Ad Claras Aquas, Grottaferrata (Roma), 1978. All citations, however, will be from my own English translation of the Saints Writings from Cajetan Esser’s Latin, as the former appear in A Testament to Peace: The Writings of St. Francis of Assisi, The Franciscan Archive, 2008.
 For brevity sake, I will cite the historical record from Franck M. Rega SFO, St. Francis of Assisi and the Conversion of the Muslims, Tan Books and Publishers, Rockford, Illinois, USA, 2007.
 For brevity sake, I will take up a consideration of only the most central points of the narrative.
 Rega, ibid., p. 10.
 Ibid., p. 13.
 Rega, loc. cit, p. 15.
 Cf. “Apostolo”, Grande Enciclopedia Illustrata della Bibbia, Pieme, 1997, p. 105.
 English translation, cited from A Testament to Peace, (see footnote 6 above), p. 158-9.
 Ibid., p. 162.
 Ibid. p. 64.
 Ibid., p. 54.
 Ibid., p. 55, with Esser’s scriptural references.
 RegB 9:3-4; English translation, loc. cit., p. 112.
 RegB 12:1; English translation, ibid., p. 115.
 Rega, op. cit, pp. 80-81, and 82.
 English translations from A Testament to Peace, p. 135.
 Here I follow the exposition of Rega, who has given the most recent synthetic reconstruction of the event, loc. cit., pp. 56-78.
 Rega, ibid, p. 56-57.
 Rega, ibid., p. 58, citing Vitry’s, History of the Orient, ch. 32, quoted in Fr. Candidde Chalippe OFM, The Life and Legends of Saint Francis of Assisi, P. J. Kenedy & Sons, 1918.
 Rega., ibid., p. 58-59, for this and what follows.
 Rega., ibid, p. 61.