Franciscan Penitents

January 29 2015 | by

WHEN SAINT Anthony’s brilliance as theologian and preacher became evident, the brothers asked St. Francis if Anthony might be permitted to teach them theology. St. Francis agreed in writing to Anthony. “Brother Francis sends greetings to Brother Anthony, my Bishop. I am pleased that you teach sacred theology to the brothers providing that, as is contained in the Rule, you ‘do not extinguish the spirit of prayer and devotion’ during study of this kind.” (Francis of Assisi: Early Documents ed. Regis J. Armstrong, et. al., New York City Press, p. 107). Anthony was certainly not about to “extinguish the spirit of prayer and devotion” for he continually practiced and promoted this spirit. Also, Anthony was not a bishop; St. Francis used that term out of respect for Anthony’s knowledge and devotion.

As Anthony taught the brothers, he was asked to write down his teachings for future generations. These he compiled into sermon notes, which have recently been translated in their entirety by Paul Spilsbury (Sermons for Sundays and Festivals, Vols, I to IV, Edizioni Messaggero Padova, 2007). Anthony divided the sermons into sections focused on various topics and categories of people. For example, Anthony has sermons which explain the love of God and of neighbor, the Passion and the Nativity of Christ, and the temptations of Jesus. He also has sermons which incite the listener to develop virtues including patience, discretion and hope. Many sections are directed to specific classes of people. Among the sinners are usurers, the lustful, and the greedy. Other sections he directs to prelates and pastors, contemplatives and religious. Forty sections are explicitly written ‘for penitents.’


Sincere Christians


Today we think of penitents as people preparing for confession, but Anthony has sermon sections written for those preparing for confession and for those who should go to confession. The word ‘penitent,’ to Anthony and to the brothers, meant a specific group of repentant people. The penitents were laypeople who voluntarily were living a religious rule of life in their own homes. They followed a specific schedule of daily prayer, observed weekly days of fast and abstinence, and wore simple, undyed, unpretentious clothing. They supported the poor among themselves with alms which they collected at their meetings. While part of society, living in their own homes and managing their own businesses, the penitents refused to attend popular but unseemly shows, dances, and plays and would not take up arms. The penitents were laypeople who were sincere about conversion. They wanted to live the same type of life that Francis and his followers lived but which they could not embrace because of family obligations.


Visitor brothers


Francis had begun his life as a penitent, but as followers joined him, he wrote a simple rule of life which the Pope approved, thus making his growing band of men into a religious Order. As the friars preached conversion throughout Italy and then other parts of Europe, laypeople clamored for a rule of life that they could live, too. Francis’ promise to give them one came about in the year 1221 when the Cardinal Protector of Francis’ Order studied how penitents were living and wrote it down. This Rule of 1221 met with Francis’ approval and was given to the laypeople who had asked for it. The Rule called for a Visitor, a priest or religious who would meet with the penitents monthly to give them instruction and to guide their discussions. Francis’ brothers in religious life became Visitors to the penitents. Anthony had these Visitor brothers in mind when he earmarked for the penitents certain sections of his sermon notes. No doubt many Visitor brothers used Anthony’s sermons as a framework in their instruction to the penitents. Quite likely Anthony himself visited and instructed the penitents. In fact, he was stricken with his final illness while living in a tree house built by Count Tiso da Camposampiero who was, himself, a penitent living the Rule of 1221 (Saint Anthony: Words of Fire, Life of Light, Madeline Pecora Nugent; Pauline Books & Media, pp 397-98).


Six stages


The Church of that time required mortal sinners to do public penance. However, most of the penitents to whom the friars ministered had no mortal sins to atone for. These voluntary penitents were religious minded men and women who had grown disillusioned by the emptiness of worldly pursuits. Often through the preaching of the friars, they had come to desire a deeper surrender to God and a simpler, freer lifestyle. The friars would introduce these people to the Rule of 1221 and then would assist them in living it. Anthony’s instruction to the penitents is supportive and encouraging. It also indicates a profound knowledge of the prescriptions in the Rule of 1221.

For example, Anthony’s sermon notes for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost contains a section on “the six things necessary for the penitent.” He enumerates these from the passage in St. Luke on the publican in the Temple: “The publican, standing afar off, would it not so much as lift up his eyes towards heaven; but he struck his breast, saying: O God, be merciful to me a sinner. I say to you, this man went down unto his house justified rather than the other; because everyone that exalteth himself shall be humbled and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Lk. 18. 13-14).

Anthony writes, “there are six things to note in this clause: the recollection of his own wickedness, the humbling of his mind and heart, contrition, confession, satisfaction, and the justification of the publican himself.” (Sermons II, p. 282). Anthony briefly touches on each theme, allowing the friar Visitor to expound on them. Anthony ends this section with words that would speak to the heart of the penitent, and which the friar Visitor might read verbatim to the group of eager listeners: “The publican, like a humble man, would not dare to draw near, and so God drew near to him. He would not look up, so God looked upon him. He struck his breast, inflicting punishment on himself, so God spared him. He confessed, and God forgave him. God forgave what he acknowledged. Attend, and look carefully at the concord the penitent had with himself. Humility shone forth in his mind, and humility dwelt in his eyes. His heart grieved for what he had done, his hand struck, his tongue cried out: O God, be merciful to me a sinner” (Sermons II, p. 283).


Shining penance


Anthony is, however, realistic. He realizes that penitents are not perfect. While acknowledging that “anyone who does not seek after worldly success is a good fighter against sin,” Anthony notes that, “when vices overcome, there may still remain some slight thing unconquered, lest the victor become proud.” (Sermons II, 355-56). Why is this? Because our past and our temptations are still with us. Anthony describes this poetically. “Though they shine with virtue, they drag the remains of night along, still struggle against what is around them. So they shine all the better, because they endure this shadow humbly and unwillingly… When we enter the heavenly realm in hope, some vices remain even among the best things, and they serve as a means to humility; so that whoever cannot overcome a slight fault will not get proud” (Sermons II, 356).

How encouraging Anthony is! He is telling the penitents that their penance shines with the brilliance of holiness because the penitents ‘endure’ their imperfections with humility and without consent. By hope, they have already entered the heavenly realm. And in “the new birth of the resurrection” (Sermons II, 356) they will indeed do so. The faults they battle now can be good can be the cause of their sanctity through humility.

Penitents living the Rule of 1221 are still in the world today.

Updated on October 06 2016