My Bishop

June 17 2024 | by

RIETI is an ancient town a good two hours’ drive south of Assisi. In Rieti – we are at the end of the year 1223 or in the first few months of the following year – an exhausted, debilitated and ailing Francis heard about a certain friar from Portugal called Anthony, and wrote to him a letter in which the founder of the Order addressed him as ‘episcopus’ (bishop).

The text of the letter reads as follows: “To Friar Anthony, my bishop, Francis (sends) greetings. It pleases me that you would teach sacred theology to the friars, so long as in the study of this you do not extinguish the spirit of prayer and devotion, just as it says in the Rule.”

Sometime after the final Rule of the Franciscan Order was confirmed by Pope Honorius III on September 29, 1223, the Poor Man of Assisi wrote this short note to a man who had only joined the community of the Friars Minor a few years beforehand.


Watershed moment


The implications of these lines are enormous. Francis, who in the rule determined that the friars who have no theological knowledge should not acquire any, here made a U-turn. At the same time, however, he also set a limit to the ‘teaching license’ he had granted to Anthony: that the spirit of prayer, of devotion, should not be extinguished in those undertaking theological studies.

Francis was therefore afraid that his fellow friars, who were now also allowed to devote themselves to studies, could be distracted from the original path they had set upon, and instead increasingly devote themselves to learning. As a consequence they would need books, and then reside in buildings with large libraries where they could study in peace. After this his friars would start expecting much more in the way of a secure livelihood or, even worse, sooner or later they would demand it as if they had a vested right to it! These may have been the thoughts that had originally deterred Francis from allowing Anthony to teach theology to the friars. He must simply have sensed a betrayal of his original idea, which had focused on simplicity and ignorance, on direct discipleship of the Gospel and of poverty.


Strings attached


In the end, however, Francis gave Anthony permission, but with some important strings attached to it in the form of an admonition: Do not forget your spiritual origins when studying the books you will be bending over! Do not forget all this, even though your studies will be primarily on the Bible. Do not become arrogant scholars who argue with the common people and no longer take their problems seriously. Do not humiliate these simple and uneducated men and women by belittling them in your presence! Don’t close their mouths because you talk so cleverly so that they simply can’t keep up with your erudition! And Francis had justifiable reasons for such fears.

As usual, we have no knowledge about Anthony’s reaction to Francis’ letter. Was our Saint reminded of his own years of apprenticeship and study in Lisbon and Coimbra with the Augustinian canons? They had certainly provided him with a decent library and had given him the peace and quiet he needed to study hard behind protective walls. With the Franciscans, of course, he had consciously chosen quite a different life.


Different meaning


At this point, however, we must not allow ourselves to be confused by such terms as ‘professor’ or ‘university’. In Anthony’s time nobody embarked on a career in learning that would eventually lead them to become CEOs of some important firm. There were no millions of books in well-stocked and organized libraries; there were no lecture halls, and no crowds of students in campuses or anything like that. Back then there was only one theological faculty in only one university in Europe, located near the houses of certain monastic and religious orders. This university was located in Paris, which was quite a long distance from where Anthony was active. Eventually, the Dominican and Franciscan orders would become prominent in the university of Paris, much to the chagrin of the ‘old’ professors there.

At that time Bologna, which was much closer to Anthony, also had a ‘university’, but no theological faculty arose there until 1364 – a good 120 years after Anthony started preaching.

One biography of Anthony’s life, the so-called Benignitas, would have us believe that Anthony was to a certain degree a respected professor of theology in Bologna, but this is historically inaccurate, and simply betrays the fact that the Benignitas was written at a much later date than the Assidua.


No university career


It is highly unlikely that Anthony ever taught theology at any university. We must not forget that in 1223/24 we are in Anthony’s first great preaching phase. He is restlessly on the move, constantly changing places, rushing here and there in northern Italy. There is a ‘rumor’ for this phase in Anthony’s life that he studied with a certain Thomas Gallo, a canon in Vercelli at the Abbey of St. Andrew, to embark on a ‘higher career in teaching’ – but this rumor is difficult to prove.

The teaching assignment that Francis gave to Anthony had a clear purpose, a specific intention: Anthony was to give the brothers who were preparing for ordination to the priesthood and the preaching mission in the Order of Friars Minor a basic framework for their future apostolic task. Moreover, his teaching assignment could not have been delivered in one fixed location or friary.

Despite his initial reluctance, it may have been that Francis, and with him some other important figures in the Order, had recognized that the challenges of the times could not simply be met with a naïve, albeit very authentic, preaching of poverty through a life lived authentically.


The Dominican Order


Moreover, Francis may not have been unaware of the fact that almost at the same time as the Order he himself had inspired, another Order had arisen, an Order which even had the word praedicare (preach) explicitly inscribed on its coat of arms: the Dominican Order, also known as the Order of Preachers.

The Dominican Order was no academic initiative, a big show with professors in its ranks publishing as many scientific studies as possible. It was, at first, a pastoral initiative with responsibility for spreading the true faith and defending the Church within Christendom against heretical deviations. Likewise, Francis saw that it was simply necessary for his own friars to be reasonably prepared to guide those who had lost their bearings in the spiritual chaos of the times. It was clear that this was not a task for all the brothers in the Franciscan community, and that the introduction of learning in his Order would create a new set of problems.

It is easy to imagine Anthony taking enthusiastically to his task of giving his fellow friars theological lessons. For little had changed since his own years as a student. He would arrive at one of the friars’ settlements, stay for a while and invite them to his table and get them to understand this or that aspect of the ‘science and wisdom’ of theology. This expression, ‘science and wisdom’, is still the name of a theological journal published by German Franciscans today (Wissenschaft und Weisheit).


New beginning


Therein lies a conflict which has a common denominator: on the one hand a ‘taxing’ science, on the other an ‘emotional and pious’ wisdom. Need this contrasting pair rule each other out? Certainly not, and this can be seen quite clearly in the history of theology within the Franciscan and Dominican Orders.

Although Anthony of Padua was certainly not the one who played a really big role in the history of theology, something ‘began’ with him that would produce impressive names and works: Alexander of Hales, St. Bonaventure, John Duns Scotus (all of whom Franciscans) and the great Thomas Aquinas (a Dominican) are pioneering theological thinkers and at the same time deeply romantic, contemplative spirits who consider all their theology, their science (as indispensable as it is for them throughout their lives) to be null and void in contrast to the genuine, unadulterated and deep faith of a ‘good old grandmother’ who never lost her contact with God.

This may have been what Francis had in mind when he commissioned Anthony and allowed him to teach theology in the Order. And in Anthony he certainly found the right person.

Updated on June 19 2024