A Decisive Year

November 13 2023 | by

THE YEAR of decisive change in Fernando’s life was 1220, when he received the Franciscan habit and began to learn the teachings of the founder of the new order: St. Francis of Assisi. But how did Fernando get to know the Franciscan movement, which at that time was still considered with some suspicion?


The first factor


In my opinion, and from what can be deduced from the sources, there seem to be two influential factors behind this rapid change in the life of our future Saint. First of all, we must consider that the climate in Spain and Portugal, most of whose territory was still under Muslim domination, had been massively influenced by the cruel martyrdom of five Franciscan brothers in Morocco on January 16, 1220.

Berard, Otho, Accursius, Peter and Adjutus and had come to the Iberian Peninsula in 1219 determined to go to Morocco to convert Muslims. On arriving in that country they had ended up straight in the lion’s den, dying a martyr’s death. Viewed objectively, theirs was a demonstration of excessive piety. They had provoked the Muslims, and paid the consequences. However, their founder, Francis, had never intended his followers to go that far.


Moderate rules


We find the following words regarding those “brothers who wish to go among the Saracens and unbelievers” in the 16th chapter of the Unconfirmed First Rule of the Franciscan Order drawn up near Assisi during the 1221 Pentecost Chapter: “The brothers who go can conduct themselves among them [the unbelievers] in two ways. One way is to avoid quarrels or disputes, and be subject to every human creature for God’s sake, bearing witness to the fact that they are Christians. The other way is to proclaim the Word of God when they see that it is God’s will.”

The rule contains no mention of provoking others to the point of becoming a martyr. Instead, what Francis wrote seems extraordinarily modern and prophetic. Going out to meet unbelievers or Muslims is a question of tolerance and respect for the thoughts and beliefs of others. It must be carried out without the use of force and without provocation. These ideas reflect a learning process that Francis himself had undergone, since the saint of Assisi had himself originally wanted to become a martyr. Notwithstanding the turbulent times he was living in, as we can see from his rules, Francis eventually discovered that there was another way. The desire to be a martyr was a thing of the past.

The normal reaction in those times was usually very emphatic and passionate. And such was the reaction when the Infante Dom Pedro had the bodies of the first martyrs brought back to the Iberian Peninsula. Their deaths were on everybody’s lips and became a huge propaganda success, in reality quite alien and questionable for the whole Franciscan movement. Nevertheless, the young Augustinian in Coimbra was as moved as all his contemporaries: he, too, wanted to be a martyr!


The second factor


In 1217 the Queen of Portugal, Urraca, had given a hermitage as a gift to a group of wandering Franciscans in the vicinity of the Augustinian abbey at Coimbra. The hermitage consisted of a small chapel called “Santo Antonio dos Olivais,” because it was situated in the midst of some isolated olive groves. The chapel was named after St. Anthony the Great, a Christian monk who was born in Egypt in 251, and revered as the “Father of All Monks”.

These Franciscans, who called themselves “Friars Minor” thus found themselves right next to and in direct physical contact with their future brother Anthony, who lived in the Augustinian abbey. Their way of life, based on a strict interpretation of the Gospel and a total acceptance of poverty, gradually began to attract and excite Fernando.

The Friars Minor had no security in their working conditions and used what little they could scrape together to help others. They lived off alms, which they got by begging from door to door or from the natural produce they earned by working for the large or small land owners in the area. They frequently left to preach, only later to return to their frugal retreat, where they would restore their exhausted bodies and souls in the peace and prayer of their communal brotherly life.


No small talk


These Friars Minor would often knock on the doors of the great Augustinian abbey in the hope of obtaining some food. Historical sources tell us that more often than not it was Fernando who would open the doors of the abbey and exchange a few friendly words before handing over some useful gifts. One of Fernando’s tasks in these decisive years was in fact to host visitors to the abbey. He had to open the doors when somebody knocked, and take care of the needs of the newcomer. We shouldn’t forget that this was considered a very important position in these communities, for the idea of hospitality had been a priority for a long time in monasteries. It would not be wrong to assume that much more was exchanged on these occasions than a bag of food or simple chit-chat about current events!


Desire for martyrdom


Apparently, Fernando gradually came to admire these Friars Minor, so much so that the Assidua states, “… the man of God approached them one day so that he might converse with them alone. Of the many things he spoke about, he also said, ‘Dearest brothers, with a willing spirit I would put on the habit of your order if you were to promise to send me, as soon as I join, to the land of the Saracens so that I, too, might merit with the holy martyrs to receive a share in the crown.’”

Fernando had decided to be a martyr and a Franciscan at the same time. The uneducated, and often rather naive, Friars Minor had finally won over the highly educated Augustinian and, a few days later, under their own authority, they agreed that the young Augustinian should wear the new habit, the grey tunic in the form of a cross which he so longed for.

At that point everything started to move rather quickly, without thought for usual Church bureaucracy. We mustn’t forget that Fernando had been firmly established in the Augustinian abbey for a number of years. The questions his superiors would ask him about his decision to change religious order barely seemed to have crossed his mind.

 What is clear is that Anthony had discovered the taste of the Gospel from the Friars Minor. A taste which was new, genuine, radical, and long sought after, involving poverty and total devotion to the Gospel, which Fernando knew so well from his theoretical studies. What would happen next?


Hard battle


According to the Assidua, “Thus, while the friars were happily returning home, the servant of God remained to seek the abbot’s permission for what he had decided. Indeed, he had hardly wrested it after many entreaties, when the friars, not having forgotten his promise, came early in the morning according to their agreement, and very quickly in the monastery vested the servant of God in the habit of their order. As soon as the testing was completed, one of his confreres and canons ran up and spoke out of the bitterness of his heart, saying, ‘Go, go, because now you will be a saint!’”

Fernando had spent a hard night convincing his superiors of the reason for his choice; he had endured the reaction of his embittered and disappointed former brother, and now stood there dressed in dirty grey, a considerable change from the bright white of the Augustinians. What was behind these harsh words? What had been going on? What battles had been fought between Fernando and his fellow Augustinians?

In any case, Fernando now found himself outside the gates of the abbey. He had become a Franciscan and had finally changed his name from the moment he had put on his new habit; he was now called “Anthony.”

Updated on November 13 2023