by Fr. Baltazar Obico, OFM
When Francis of Assisi had 12 followers already he went to the Pope to have his rule of life approved. According to Celano this consists of gospel texts and some things necessary for common life. When Francis arrived at the Papal Curia, the council members of the Pope were in disbelief who this man from Assisi having an audience with them. Francis was wearing penitential garb, a tattered habit. Upon reading his proposed rule of life, the Pope advised Francis to make use of existing, tried & tested rules of life, either the Agustinians or Cisterians. The Pope & his council had the opinion that the Gospel cannot be lived as presented by Francis, but through the intervention of the Bishop of Assisi, the Pope nonetheless gave his oral approval (not signed!) ; a diplomatic way of saying no to Francis’ proposal; a kind of condescending, wait and see attitude as the part of papacy’s policy. In its approved form, the rule of 1223, says “the rule and Life of the friars minor is to live the Holy Gospel” of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Textually a comparative study of the Benedictine rule reveal that the Franciscan Rule is descriptive rather than prescriptive where details are legislated rather than described. It appears not a legal document but as an exhortation; that is the reason why in 1223 final approval, many gospel texts were dropped to conform it to Church’s canonical form. In the introduction, he says the “Rule and Life” to mean that the law is something dynamic, alive and needs, consistent revision to make it responsive to the signs of the times.
What is this Gospel life? All religions are basically the same in the sense of having three components; doctrines, laws and rituals. The OP’s for example would stress truth or doctrines; they preach doctrines. The Benedictine would stress rites, hence they are liturgical experts. The church in general have very elaborate canon law. Without denying dogma, liturgy & hierarchical structure, Francis concentrated his whole energy in proclaiming to all new form of life according to the gospel. He rejected all attempts to pin down the Gospel under a mass of legal regulations, ordinances or prescriptions. Unlike St. Dominic whose vocation is tied up with fighting heresy & therefore preaching truth & doctrine, Francis would take the path of moral, not doctrinal preaching. Moral preaching founds its authority, not in knowledge, but in a converted life; hence witnessing to the Gospel is essential, if not the first proclamation according to Francis.
The word Gospel has been appropriated by Christianity & given its limited meaning from the church’s self understanding. Literally it means Good news. The Good News, is the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead; According to St. Paul our faith would have been in vain had Christ not been raised from the dead.
Christianity, therefore, before being doctrine, law & rituals is an event in the person of Jesus. It primarily a relationship with a person and the network of relationship that issued forth from that relationship. Conforming with the Church doctrines alone and even passing them to the next generation do not fulfil the criteria of a life lived according to the Gospel. Since death has been overcome, then a believer can love unto death. For Francis, fraternal relationship is the core of Gospel; and fraternity is facilitated by being minor to each other. Hence, the Order is called the Friars minor. Doctrines separate us from non-Catholic and other believers; the law separates us from the law breakers and sinners; the rites divides us from other believers; but relationship with the Risen Lord unites us all; not only among men women, but the whole of creation.
As published in the April 2 issue of the Parish Bulletin.