Franciscan Friars Conventual (OFM Conv.) are one of the three First Order Franciscans (Order of Friars Minor) which also includes Friars Minor (OFM) and the Capuchins (OFM Cap). Each branch is rooted in the original charism of Francis, through which they find a shared sense of brotherhood. Friars from our Order care for the Papal Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi (Assisi-Italy), which houses the tomb of St. Francis. The friary for the Basilica is the Sacro Convento, where two Our Lady of the Angels Province friars live and work. (Special thanks to Fr. Martin Breski, OFM Conv. who works at the Basilica and was able to capture these great photo moments to share)
This summer, friars from all three branches of the First Order, who are at the solemn vow stage of formation, traveled on a pilgrimage retreat to Assisi. They explored the rich Franciscan history of the area, accompanied by veteran friars including Our Lady of the Angels Province Minister Provincial, the Very Reverend Fr. James McCurry, OFM Conv. and Vicar Provincial, Fr. Brad Milunski, OFM Conv. Six of the participants were Franciscan Friars Conventual.
Some thoughts from Fr. James’ time in Rivotoro with the friar pilgrims:
1. The Choice: Hut or Palace? (1 Celano 14) – Beginning fraternity in the abandoned farmer’s hut, Francis and the first few friars marveled that “The Lord gave me brothers.” They hardly had food, and were content with the turnips they begged. [One of my mother’s favourite phrases was “Oh what a turnip I am!”] Mind you, each of these early friars freely chose the lot of a poor beggar of turnips. Francis taught them: “It is easier to get to heaven from a hut than from a palace.” One day, with great pomp and circumstance, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto passed the friars’ hut at Rivotorto. Francis and the brothers stayed inside, except one who without wavering boldly proclaimed to the Emperor that his glory would be short-lived. We still have such prophets in our midst today, as our fraternity sorts its priorities and chooses the hut over the palace. With such choices each of our vocations began.
2. The Focus: Christ Crucified (LM, 4) – Since the early brethren at Rivotorto were too poor to have liturgical books, their daily prayers, which were constant, focused on the Cross. The Cross was their psalter. Francis was fixated on the Cross, and spoke constantly about it to the growing Fraternity. The legacy of Rivotorto was to be a brotherhood whose stillpoint would always be the Crucified Jesus. In fact, it was at Rivotorto that Francis taught the brothers to invoke Christ Crucified in the famous Adoramus prayer: “We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you in all your churches throughout the world, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.” [cf. LM, 4]
3. The Chalking: Haecceitas (Legend of the Three Companions, 13) – When the manky shed for one or two donkeys became the protoconvent of the Order, so close and pent was the living space that Francis sought a way to respect the dignity of each of the brothers. They were no mere donkeys. He thus delineated space for each by chalking the rafters with the names of each friar. Each name bore a uniqueness; each person joining the fraternity would be chalked on the beams and celebrated in silence and prayer. Each friar would contribute his own “this-ness” to the fraternal life – his haecceitas (to use a Scotistic term).
4. The Balance: Grapes and Fasting (Assisi Compilation, 50) – Calling themselves “Brothers of Penance,” these earliest friars embraced the life of conversion with a gusto and zeal that sometimes ran the danger of being excessive. Hunger was their welcome companion. One night, however, the silence was pierced by the cries of a brother, “I’m dying; I’m dying.” Francis told everyone to get up and he lit a lamp. The Brother who had cried identified himself, and explained, “I’m dying of hunger!” Francis, gently sensitive to the brother, and not wanting him to be embarrassed, had the table set and served grapes to everyone. The gentle father of the fraternity admonished that we must practice balance in our lives, that we must be respectful of our own bodily constitutions, that virtue lies in the middle between excessive indulgence and excessive abstinence. Moderation and charity are the watchwords.
5. The Flies: Upsets and Challenges (Mirror of Perfection, 24) – All was not hunky dory in the growing fraternity of Rivotorto. Now and again a dodgy character would try to insinuate his way into the community of brothers – the proverbial fly in the ointment. Francis did not hesitate to dismiss one of the chancers who refused to work, pray, and display charity towards his mates. “Away with you, Brother Fly!” Francis inveighed. Ironically, our poor friars on this Solemn Vow retreat have been plagued by the summer flies and mosquitoes. As they swat them away, they endeavor to see them as symbols of all the vices that we need to banish from the authentic living of the charism.
6. The Poor: Solidarity and Joy (Assisi Compilation, 92) – The first two friars occupying Rivotorto with Francis were Bernard of Quintavalle and Peter of Catanii. It was from Rivotorto one day that Francis took the two to the Church of San Nicolo, where Francis opened the Missal three times to find the gospel passages about poverty, which would become the core of the Friars’ Rule of Life. The third vocation to join the brotherhood at Rivotorto would be Giles. Dressed for a bit in secular clothes, postulant Giles soon encountered a poor man shivering in the winter cold. Francis told Giles to give his secular mantle to the poor creature. Without hesitancy, Giles did so and immediately experienced, as did all of the brothers, an overwhelming joy. Nearby the Protoconvent of Rivotorto was the leper campsite where the brothers ministered. The apostolic works of the early friars established a bond of solidarity with the poor which became foundational to the Franciscan charism. The poor taught the friars how to be joyful.
7. The Chariot: Supernatural Communion (LM, Prologue & 4) – Just as the Transfiguration of Jesus confirmed for the early Apostles the supernatural reality of their lives with Christ, so too the brothers of Rivotorto would experience a similar moment of epiphany. One night, while Francis was away from Rivotorto, at prayer in the Cathedral precincts of the city, his spirit appeared to the brothers in the form of a “Flaming Chariot.” The friars immediately understood that the “Chariot of Fire” was God’s sign to them that their new way of life was supernatural. Francis, enflamed with heavenly brilliance and transfigured with divine grace, would unite the brethren in a new supernatural communion with God and one another. Bonaventure would reference this image of Francis as the new Elijah, whom God had made both chariot and charioteer of a new movement in the Church. For the early 13th-century formation community of Rivotorto, this epiphany moment brought with it the simple realization that the Spirit of the Lord had come to rest upon Francis and the Friars. Their squalid donkey shed had been transformed into the “Sacro Tugurio” (sacred hut).