Epistula ad fratrem Leonem, or Letter to Brother Leo
This is one of the two autographs of Francis. It is kept as a relic in the cathedral church of Spoleto. It originally belonged to the Poor Clares of Spoleto, who donated it to the Friars Minor Conventuals of Spoleto in 1604. After the unification of Italy this precious document was lost, and it was only after 1895 that it was rediscovered and presented as an authentic autograph of St. Francis.
The Letter is a touching document, which gives witness to the brotherly concern of Francis for his "pecorella di Dio" Brother Leo. No wonder that the only two autographs of the saint, namely this letter and the parchment with the praises of God and the blessing, were dedicated to him.
Brother Leo, wish thy brother Francis health and peace!
I say to thee: Yes, my son, and as a mother; for in this word and counsel I sum up briefly all the words we said on the way, and if afterwards thou hast need to come to me for advice, thus I advise you: In whatever way it seemeth best to thee to please the Lord God and to follow His footsteps and poverty, so do with the blessing of the Lord God and in my obedience. And if it be necessary for thee on account of thy soul or other consolation and thou wishest, Leo, to come to me, come!
This Letter is known under different headings, such as "Letter to the General Chapter of the Order". Esser prefers to use the name given by the manuscript of Volterra, "Epistola toti Ordini missa". Esser also includes a prayer as a conclusion for this Letter. The prayer starts with the words "Omnipotens, aeternae", and Esser includes it here because that is where it belongs according to the Assisi Codex.
The Letter refers to the state of the Order towards the end of Francis' life. In 1224 the bull "Quia popularies tumultus" gave permission to the friars to have an oratory and to keep the Eucharist. This document, together with the decree "Sane cum olim" of 1220 could have provided the occasion for Francis to speak about the reverence due towards the Eucharist and the dignity of the priesthood. The Letter also mentions the saint's faithful observance of the norm to pray the divine office according to the norms of the Church.
In the name of the Highest Trinity and Holy Unity of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
To all the reverend and much beloved brothers, to the minister general of the Order of Minors, its lord, and to the other ministers general who shall come after him, and to all the ministers and custodes and priests of the same brotherhood, humble in Christ, and to all the simple and obedient brothers, the first and the last, Brother Francis, a mean and fallen man, your little servant, gives greeting in Him who has redeemed and washed us in His Precious Blood, and whom when you hear His Name adore ye with fear and reverence, prostrate on the ground; the Lord Jesus Christ, such is the Name of the most High Son, blessed forever. Amen.
Hear, my lords, my sons and my brothers, and with your ears receive my words. Incline the ear of your heart and obey the voice of the Son of God. Keep His commandments with all your heart and fulfil His counsels with a perfect mind. Praise Him for He is good and extol Him in your works, for therefore He has sent you through all the world that by word and deed you may bear witness to His voice, and you may make known to all that there is no other Almighty besides Him. Persevere under discipline and obedience and with a good and firm purpose fulfil what you have promised Him.
The Lord God offers Himself to you as to His sons. Wherefore, brothers, kissing your feet and with the charity of which I am capable, I conjure you all to show all reverence and all honour possible to the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom the things that are in heaven and the things that are on earth are pacified and reconciled to Almighty God. I also beseech in the Lord all my brothers who are and shall be and desire to be priests of the Most High that, when they wish to celebrate Mass, being pure, they offer the true Sacrifice of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ purely, with reverence, with a holy and clean intention, not for any earthly thing or fear or for the love of any man, as it were pleasing men. But let every will, in so far as the grace of the Almighty helps, be directed to Him, desiring thence to please the High Lord Himself alone because He alone works there [in the Holy Sacrifice] as it may please Him, for He Himself says: "Do this for a commemoration of Me;" "if any one doth otherwise he becomes the traitor Judas and is made guilty of the Body and Blood of the Lord. Call to mind, priests, my brothers, what is written in the law of Moses: how those transgressing even materially died by the decree of the Lord without any mercy.
How much more and worse punishments he deserves to suffer "who hath trodden under foot the Son of God and hath esteemed the Blood of the testament unclean by which he was sanctified and hath offered an affront to the spirit of grace." For man despises, soils, and treads under foot the Lamb of God when, as the Apostle says, not discerning and distinguishing the holy bread of Christ from other nourishments or works, he either eats unworthily or, if he be worthy, he eats in vain and unbecomingly since the Lord has said by the prophet: Cursed be the man that doth the work of the Lord deceitfully. And He condemns the priests who will not take this to heart saying: "I will curse your blessings." Hear ye, my brothers: If the Blessed Virgin Mary is so honored, as is meet, because she bore Him in [her] most holy womb; if the blessed Baptist trembled and did not dare to touch the holy forehead of God; if the sepulchre in which He lay for some time, is venerated, how holy, just, and worthy ought he to be who touches with his hands, who receives with his heart and his mouth, and proffers to be received by others Him who is now no more to die but to triumph in a glorified eternity: on whom the angels desire to look. Consider your dignity, brothers, priests, and be holy because He Himself is holy. And as the Lord God has honoured you above all through this mystery, even so do you also love and reverence and honour Him above all.
It is a great misery and a deplorable weakness when you have Him thus present to care for anything else in the whole world. Let the entire man be seized with fear; let the whole world tremble; let heaven exult when Christ, the Son of the Living God, is on the altar in the hands of the priest. O admirable height and stupendous condescension! O humble sublimity! O sublime humility! that the Lord of the universe, God and the Son of God, so humbles Himself that for our salvation He hides Himself under a morsel of bread. Consider, brothers, the humility of God and "pour out your hearts before Him, and be ye humbled that ye may be exalted by Him. Do not therefore keep back anything for yourselves that He may receive you entirely who gives Himself up entirely to you.
Wherefore I admonish and exhort in the Lord, that, in the places in which the brothers live, only one Mass be celebrated in the day, according to the form of holy Church.
If, however, there be many priests in the place, let one be contented, through love of charity, by hearing the celebration of another priest, for the Lord Jesus Christ replenishes those who are worthy of it, present and absent. He, although He may seem to be present in many places, nevertheless remains undivided and suffers no change; but One everywhere He works as it may please Him with the Lord God the Father, and the Holy Ghost the Paraclete, world without end. Amen.
And since "he that is of God heareth the words of God," we who have been more specially destined for the divine offices, ought, in consequence, not only to hear and do what God says, but also—in order to impress upon ourselves the greatness of our Creator and our subjection to Him—to watch the vessels and other objects which contain His holy words. On that account I warn all my brothers and I strengthen them in Christ, wheresoever they may find the divine written words to venerate them so far as they are able, and if they are not well preserved or if they lie scattered disgracefully in any place, let them, in so far as it concerns them, collect and preserve them, honouring in the words the Lord who has spoken. For many things are sanctified by the word of God, and by the power of the words of Christ the Sacrament of the Altar is effected.
Moreover I confess all my sins to God the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost and to the Blessed Mary ever Virgin and to all the Saints in heaven and on earth and to the minister general of this our religion as to my venerable Lord, and to all the priests of our order and to all my other blessed brothers.
I have offended in many ways through my grievous fault, especially because I have not observed the Rule which I have promised to the Lord and I have not said the office as prescribed by the Rule either by reason of my negligence or weakness or because I am ignorant and simple. Wherefore, by all means as far as I am able, I beseech my lord, the general minister, to cause the Rule to be inviolably observed by all, and let the clerics say the office with devotion before God, not attending to melody of voice but to harmony of mind, so that the voice may be in accord with the mind and the mind in accord with God, so that they may please God by purity of mind and not coax the ears of the people by voluptuousness of voice. As for myself I promise to keep these things strictly, as the Lord may give me grace, and I leave them to the brothers who are with me to be observed in the office and in the other appointed regulations. But whosoever of the brothers will not observe them, I do not hold them as Catholics or as my brothers and I do not wish either to see them or speak [with them], until they have done penance. I say this also of all others who setting aside the discipline of the Rule, go wandering about; for our Lord Jesus Christ gave His life lest He might lose the obedience of the most Holy Father.
I, Brother Francis, a useless man and unworthy creature of the Lord God, say to Brother Elias, the minister of our whole religion, by our Lord Jesus Christ, and to all the ministers general who shall be after him and to the other custodes and guardians of the brothers, who are and shall be, that they have this writing with them, put it in practice and sedulously preserve it. And I entreat them to guard jealously those things which are written in it and to cause them to be carefully observed according to the good pleasure of the Almighty God now and ever as long as this world may last.
Blessed be you by the Lord who shall have done these things and may the Lord be with you forever. Amen.
Almighty, eternal, just, and merciful God, give to us wretches to do for Thee what we know Thee to will and to will always that which is pleasing to Thee; so that inwardly purified, inwardly illumined and kindled by the flame of the Holy Ghost, we may be able to follow in the footsteps of Thy Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and by Thy grace alone come to Thee the Most High, who in perfect Trinity and simple Unity livest and reignest and gloriest God Almighty forever and ever. Amen.
The contents of this Letter give a clear indication regarding the circumstances of its composition. Francis writes to a certain Minister who has asked him to retire from his office and go to live in a hermitage. It seemed that the friars were giving him a lot a trouble! Francis answers in a brotherly spirit. The Minister was to remain in his post and take this decision as an act of obedience. Moreover he was to accept his brothers and forgive them, even if they persecuted him.
The Letter also mentions the Chapter of Pentecost, as the occasion in which the Ministers convened for decision-making. The Chapter was held every year, but after 1221 only the Ministers took part in it.
I speak to you, as I can, concerning the state of your soul. You should accept as a grace all those things which deter you from loving the Lord God and whoever has become an impediment to you, whether they are brothers or others, even if they lay hands on you.
And you should desire that things be this way and not otherwise. And let this be an expression of true obedience to the Lord God and to me, for I know full well that this is true obedience.
And love those who do these things to you. And do not expect anything different from them, unless it is something which the Lord shall have given to you. And love them in this and do not wish that they be better Christians. And let this be more valuable to you than a hermitage.
And by this I wish to know if you love the Lord God and me, his servant and yours if you have acted in this manner: that is, there should not be any brother in the world who has sinned, however much he may have possibly sinned, who, after he has looked into your eyes, would go away without having received your mercy, if he is looking for mercy. And if he were not to seek mercy, you should ask him if he wants mercy. And if he should sin thereafter a thousand times before your very eyes, love him more than me so that you may draw him back to the Lord.
Always be merciful to brothers such as these. And announce this to the guardians, as you can, that on your part you are resolved to act in this way.
At the Pentecost Chapter, however, with the help of God and the advice of the brothers, out of all the chapters of the Rule that treat of mortal sin we shall make one chapter such as this:
If any one of the brothers at the instigation of the enemy should sin mortally, he is bound by obedience to have recourse to his guardian. And all the brothers who might know that he has sinned are not to bring shame upon him or speak ill of him, but let them show great mercy toward him and keep most secret the sin of their brother; because it is not the healthy wbo are in need of the physician, but those wbo are sick (Mt 9:12).
Likewise let them be bound by obedience to send him to his custodian with a companion. And let that custodian mercifully take care of him as he would like to be taken care of if he were in a similar position (cf. Mt 7:12). And if he falls into some venial sin, let him confess this to a brother who is a priest. And if there is no priest at hand, let him confess to his brother, until he has contact with a priest who will absolve him canonically, as it has been laid down.
And the brothers who are not priests should have no power to enjoin any other penance except this: Go and sin no more (cf. Jn 8:1 1).
Keep this writing with you until the Chapter of Pentecost that it may be better observed, when you will be there with your brothers. And you will take care to add, with the help of God, these things and all else which is lacking in the Rule.
Luke Wadding discovered this letter in the writings of Francisco Gonzaga OFM, Minister General of the Order between 1579-1587. In his study "De Origine Seraphicae Religionis Franciscanae", Venice, 1603, p. 806, Gonzaga states that John Parenti, who was the first Minister General of the Order (1227-1232), brought a copy of this Letter from Spain. The authenticity of this Letter is also proved by the second version of the Letter to the Custodians, where it is mentioned.
In this Letter Francis addresses the consuls or leaders of the Italian communes, and reminds them of their Christian duties. He particularly reminds them of the duty to provide means for praising God, and to see to it that their citizens be good Christians. In various instances of Francis' life we notice that he dealt with political leaders, as in the case of the message given to Otho IV at Rivotorto (1 Celano, 43), his wish that leaders provide ample food for the poor on Christmasday (2 Celano, 200) and his meeting with the sultan of Egypt
It could be probable that Francis asked the political leaders to give a sign for the praises of God (by ringing bells, for example), prompted by the experience of the "salat" of the islamic "muezzin" in the Orient, where Francis was in 1220/1221.
Pause and reflect, for the day of death is approaching. 1 beg you, therefore, with all possible respect, not to forget the Lord or turn away from His commandments by reason of the cares and preoccupations of this world, for all those who are oblivious of Him and turn away from His commands are cursed and will be totally forgotten by Him. And when the day of death does come, everything which they think they have will be taken from them. And the wiser and more powerful they may have been in this world, so much greater will be the punishments they will endure in hell.
Therefore, I firmly advise you, my lords, to put aside all care and preoccupation and receive with joy the most holy Body and the most holy Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ in holy remembrance of Him.
And you should manifest such honor to the Lord among the people entrusted to you that every evening an announcement be made by a town crier or some other signal that praise and thanks may be given by all people to the all-powerful Lord God. And if you do not do this, know that you must render an account before the Lord your God, Jesus Christ, on the day of judgment.
Let those who keep this writing with them and observe it know that they will be blessed by the Lord God.