The Franciscan Story is varied and engrossing work which spans more than eight centuries. Beginning with St Francis, Maurice Carmody examines: . How the first Order grew rapidly after the time of St Francis (1182-1226), and how a simple brotherhood became an organised religious order which spread throughout Europe and beyond to implement papal policy in Church reform, missions, higher education and diplomacy. . How disagreements over whether Francis would have approved led to division and, from the sixteenth century onwards, how new orders formed - Conventual, Observant and Capuchin Franciscans as well as Riformati, Recollects and Alcantarines. . How women of the second Order, founded by Clare of Assisi (1194-1253) and her friend St Francis, have adapted and shared Franciscan ideals in a monastic setting since the thirteenth century. . How the third Order, which comprised laity and vowed religious men and women living in community, embraced the same values - a simple lifestyle, respect for creation and peaceful living - in ways that often profoundly influenced the society in which they lived. The Franciscan Story is an in-depth and deeply researched account of a religious movement that has influenced both Church and society in many countries since St Francis, il poverello, began it eight hundred years ago.
This is not his fault. This history
And what a story it is! The Franciscan Story begins with the stories of Francis and Clare, then explores the Brotherhood's increasing acceptance by the Church, the growth of the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, before arriving at the central theme of the story, which is the tension at the heart of the Franciscan community: is it possible to really live the life of poverty with the same austerity as St Francis?
This tension leads to division, firstly into the Conventuals and the Observants, and then on into greater and different reforms and divisions, always over the question of poverty. This division made the Franciscan family in these early centuries vulnerable to being taken over as a tool of papal policy, especially as, from Bonaventure on, the friars produced great diplomats who placed themselves at the service of Popes.
The age of division came to an end at the end of the 19th century with the so-called Leonine Union, the attempt to bring together all the First Order friars under Pope Leo XIII. This is Carmody's area of academic speciality, and his description of the intertwining of papal and Italian politics is fascinating.
The story ends with extended comments about the Second and Third Orders in modern times. As a Tertiary I was struck with Leo XIII’s definition of Third Order spirituality:
The Order of St Francis is based entirely on the observance of the precepts of Jesus Christ. The holy founder had no other object in view than that the Order should be a kind of training ground for the intensive practice of the Christian rule of life. (p. 458)
The weakness with this definition is that successive Popes in the 20th century narrowed the role of the Seculars to personal piety, discouraging the social activism that has often animated Franciscan Christians.
Much of Carmody's story is told through the lens of great individuals' lives. Some of these as a Franciscan I would rather not know much about. An example: the Order in the early 16th century was dominated by John Capistran. A very able judge, John became a friar with an energetic ministry as an Inquisitor and diplomat. He played a leading military role in the siege of Belgrade in 1546. A Humble and peace-making Franciscan? Maybe not.
I enjoyed learning so much more about the Franciscan heritage, and can commend Maurice Carmody’s clarity and grasp of a huge body of material.