Chapter of Mats

January 15 2024 | by

THERE are moments when the paths of great historical figures meet and, illuminated by their powerful auras, come into contact with each other. Assisi, on May 30, 1221, may have been one such moment. Indeed, Francis and Anthony, the two ‘giants’ of the Franciscan Order, came into close physical contact during the Pentecost General Chapter of 1221, generally known as the ‘Chapter of Mats’. However, it is not certain whether our heroes actually exchanged words.

The Assidua devotes only a few words to this extremely important event, at which Anthony was present, even though mainly on the sidelines. There is no mention in it of Francis approaching Anthony and telling him how happy he was that he had finally joined the Franciscans. That certainly would have made a fine religious legend!


Two important figures


Undoubtedly, Francis was the real driving force behind the whole movement, admired and appreciated by all the friars. Yet, at this time, he was gravely ill, and increasingly burdened with the worries that his Order was causing him.

The Chapter of Mats was an extremely important event for the Franciscan Order and there was much at stake. Each day there were more and more items on the agenda to be discussed; there were various problems with the Rule of the Order and its ecclesiastical approval; there was also the newly-adopted form of the novitiate to be discussed. Church legal experts and cardinals were present at the meeting, and their opinions carried great weight. All of a sudden Francis saw that his community had begun to change its face.

In the midst of all the Franciscan friars there were also many lay brothers whose interests and hopes had to be taken into consideration. They too wanted to see what path the Order was about to take and, if they were still novices, whether or not to actually become Franciscans.


An obscure friar


Among the many friars was Anthony, an unknown Portuguese brother on whom a giant failure weighed. Moreover, he could not speak Medieval Italian, the language used at the Chapter. Where and how could he have had the opportunity to learn it? He was fluent in Latin, and while he was learning that he could not foresee that one day he would end up in Italy rather than remain on the Iberian peninsula. Furthermore, he was still recovering from the illness he contracted in Morocco.

Thousands of Franciscans had come together from all over Europe at the Portiuncola in Assisi for this General Chapter. They camped outdoors for several days in the countryside surrounding the Umbrian city. In addition to the real theological issues that the Order had to face, it is not difficult to imagine all the logistical problems that resulted from this kind of modern-day ‘Open-Air Festival'. The locals gladly gave whatever they could, accepting the responsibility and cost of food supplies.


Important decisions


One meeting after another gave rise to several projects. Between meetings, the most influential friars would meet and discuss the right way forward, consistency within the overall framework of the Rule and the Church, and the consequent support of the latter.

Many questions had to be asked. What price was to be paid for such a change? How far would one have strayed, even with Francis’ approval, from his original ideals? What kind of changes would have to be made? The movement no longer comprised twelve or thirteen brothers; now there were thousands of brothers, and they had to be organized in some way.

The Chapter was also attended by important personalities, such as Cardinal Ugolino of Ostia, protector of the Order (who would become Pope Gregory IX), and Pedro, the Infante of Portugal, who had brought back the bodies of the first five Franciscan martyrs to Coimbra from Morocco.

Sessions and discussions were held in large and small groups. Between these events there were liturgical services and celebrations for Pentecost presided over by Cardinal Renieri Capoccio, Bishop of Viterbo. Francis was present as a deacon and led the prayers.


Mission to Germany


During the Chapter, Francis had the opportunity to state his thoughts and ideas on the problems the Order was facing. And, after all was said and heard, elections followed. It is interesting to note that the 1221 General Chapter was the last in the Order’s history in which all the friars had the right to vote.

As the meeting drew to a close, and shortly before the friars set off in all directions, a missionary group was chosen for Germany. Under the leadership of the German Caesar of Speyer, a group of 25 friars was assembled to undertake the arduous journey across the Alps. In those days such a mission was no mean feat. The future of this group was fraught with dangers, as is evidenced by the fate of one of the first Franciscan missionary groups which, a few years earlier, naively, and without knowledge of the local languages, had set off for northern Europe only to be badly mauled during the journey. It is said that when asked if they were heretics, their limited German vocabulary had only allowed them to answer: “Yes!” Overall, however, most of the friars who had attended the Chapter had the prospect of a fairly safe journey back to their respective provinces.


Among the Italians


And what would Anthony have done? The only image the other brothers could get of him was of a sick, lonely, silent Portuguese brother who spent most of his time on the fringes of the General Chapter.  Indeed, knowing little about the language and the workings of the Order and its internal politics, Anthony had been isolated among the Italians.

It is easy to imagine that he must have been struggling with a mass of mixed feelings. On the one hand, he had finally arrived in Assisi; he had been close to Francis and those who had now become his new fellow friars. On the other hand, he found himself witnessing the many turbulent changes taking place at the centre of his new Order. Moreover, apart from his poor health, he was disillusioned by his experience months earlier in Morocco.

Let’s try and imagine the situation at the close of the General Chapter. From one day to the next, silence fell upon Assisi – all the friars were gone. In the midst of the woods surrounding the Portiuncola, among the few remaining friars, was a lonely Portuguese man who did not know which way to turn. Should he go back to Portugal? Certainly not, as the condition of his health was such that he could not face such a strenuous journey.


All alone


Maybe somebody suggested that Anthony stay a little longer around Assisi to have more time to recover from his illness, and then undertake his return journey. Or perhaps nobody thought to give him any useful advice. Whatever the case, in June 1221 our friend Anthony was all alone in the beautiful Umbrian countryside.

Various explanations have been advanced in an attempt to shed light on Anthony’s situation. Some argue that Francis had deliberately left Anthony, the learned scholar, out of the spotlight in order to soften the young Franciscan’s character and teach him more about the life of the friars. However, this argument overlooks the fact that it would have been impossible for Francis to have close contact with Anthony during the Chapter of Mats. Francis, moreover, had other concerns.

Others claim that a couple of Provincial Ministers, and especially the Portuguese one, believed that Anthony was a friar of little practical worth: a stubborn and somewhat clumsy intellectual who, moreover, was also ill. If this were true, it would certainly demonstrate a lack of ability in those Provincial Ministers to understand Anthony’s enormous value.

There was, however, a happy ending to this sad situation: the intervention of Friar Gratian, the Provincial Minister of the Italian province of Romagna.


Updated on January 15 2024