Chapter in Assisi

March 08 2020 | by

ANTHONY, who had entered the Augustinian Order in order to grow in holiness, had met Franciscan brothers who later had been martyred in Morocco. Desiring a quick path to heaven, Anthony (known as Fernando while an Augustinian) had asked for entrance into the Franciscans on the condition that they send him to Morocco. His request granted, he set out but fell ill on the voyage to Muslim lands. Unable to rise from his bed, much less preach, Anthony was sent back to Portugal to recover. However, a violent storm blew the ship off course, causing it to run aground on the shores of Sicily. Here Anthony learned that his Franciscan brothers were holding their Pentecost Chapter gathering in Assisi, so he made his way there to participate. One can imagine the rigors which he, still sickly, endured during the 1000 km trek over hills and mountains.


Shabbily-dressed friars


Upon arrival in Assisi Anthony found himself among 3,000 men, shabbily dressed like himself in tunics of undyed tan and gray wool. The friars, including professed and novices, came from many parts of the known world including Germany, Hungary, France, Spain, Portugal, and, of course, Italy. The week-long Chapter convened on 23 May 1221.

In his Chronicle, written in 1262, Brother Jordan of Giano, who attended this Chapter, recorded the following: “The Lord Raynerius, cardinal deacon, was present at this chapter, together with many bishops and other religious. At his command, one of the bishops celebrated Holy Mass, and Blessed Francis is believed to have read the Gospel and another brother the Epistle.”

Anthony had never met Francis. Was what he had heard, of his Order’s holy founder, accurate? Since the Chapter’s Masses and talks took place on a raised platform while the brothers sat on the grass, Anthony would have been able to see and hear Francis.



Cimabue’s portrait


Historians believe that Cimabue’s painting of Francis captures how he actually looked. However, Cimabue, also known as Cenni di Pepo or Cenni di Pepi, was born in 1240, while Francis died in 1226. Therefore, Cimabue never saw Francis in person, nor did he likely interview those who did, for Cimabue completed Francis’ portrait during the pontificate of Pope Nicholas IV (1288-1292) who commissioned it. By then, most of those who had known Francis had died. The youngest of those still living, who would remember Francis, would have been at least 70 years old, which was extremely old for that time.

Cimabue’s portrait is part of a larger painting in the right transept of the Lower Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi, which portrays the Madonna, holding the Christ Child, seated on a throne supported by four angels. To the right stands a slightly smaller Saint Francis, looking straight at the viewer, his stigmata clearly visible in hands, feet, and side. One would expect another saint (postulated to have been Saint Anthony) to the Madonna’s left to balance out the image, but that saint, if there was one, was replaced by Giotto’s crucifixion, painted between 1311 and 1320.    

Historians believe that Cimabue painted Francis as described by Thomas of Celano in 1229 in The First Life of Saint Francis (First Book, Chapter XXIX, Early Documents I, ed. Regis J. Armstrong, et. al. New York: New City Press, 1999). Celano wrote, “He was very eloquent, with a cheerful appearance and a kind face; free of laziness and arrogance. He was of medium height, closer to short, his head was of medium size and round. His face was somewhat long and drawn, his forehead small and smooth, with medium eyes black and clear. His hair was dark; his eyebrows were straight, and nose even and thin; his ears small and upright, and his temples smooth. His tongue was peaceable, fiery and sharp; his voice was powerful, but pleasing, clear, and musical. His teeth were white, well set and even; his lips were small and thin, his beard was black and sparse; his neck was slender, his shoulders straight; his arms were short, his hands slight, his fingers long and his nails tapered. He had thin legs, small feet, fine skin and little flesh. His clothing was rough, his sleep was short, his hand was generous.” 


Common trait


When Anthony first saw Francis, he probably didn’t think, “Here’s a homely, short man,” but rather, “Here’s a man who, like me, sought martyrdom but didn’t achieve it.”

In 1219 Francis had journeyed to Egypt to evangelize the Saracens. Having met and dialoged with the sultan, Francis didn’t convert him, but did impress the sultan with his genuineness, faith, and charity. So instead of being martyred, Francis returned from the sultan with the gift of a horn to call his friars to prayer. Anthony, profoundly disappointed that he hadn’t been martyred, was probably especially attentive to Francis’ actions. How had Francis dealt with this failure?

Brother Jordan writes, “In this chapter, Blessed Francis preached to his brothers upon the theme: Blessed be the Lord my God, who trains my hands for battle, and he taught them virtues and exhorted them to patience and to give a good example to the world. Likewise he preached a sermon to the people, and the people and clergy were edified.”

What battle was Francis discussing? The battle of self-will. Consider Francis’ Thirteenth Admonition. “A servant of God cannot know how much patience and humility he has within himself as long as he is content. When the time comes, however, when those who should make him content do the opposite, he has as much patience and humility as he has at that time and no more.”

Anthony had been impatient to gain heaven through martyrdom. Now Francis was preaching about patience. Was God supposed to give Anthony what he desired? Obviously not. Anthony had to be content with God’s Will, even when that Will was a “no.”


Prideful impatience


Francis’ cheerfulness, poverty, animated speech, fervor, and strength despite obvious suffering would have deeply impressed Anthony. Not only had Francis suffered profound disappointment, but he, like the still ill Anthony, was obviously suffering physically. Having contracted an eye disease in Egypt, Francis’ eyes were painful, teary, swollen, and sensitive to light.

By observing Francis, Anthony recognized his own prideful impatience. Determined to allow God free rein, he remained in the background while the chapter evolved around him. Thus, when the chapter was ending, he had received no assignment to mission or friary. A fellow friar finally introduced him to Father Gratian, Provincial Minister of the Romagna, who needed a priest to offer Mass for the brothers at Monte Paolo hermitage four miles from Forlì. Offering to do whatever he was told, and requesting to be taught spiritual discipline and humility, Anthony started out for the Apennine mountain hermitage, where his life would be forever changed.




Updated on March 08 2020