In 2009, we are celebrating the 800th anniversary of the first Rule of the Friars Minor (the one verbally approved by Innocent III). In the course of reading Manselli’s St. Francis of Assisi, I repeatedly encountered references to Francis’ struggle to balance the need for norms and regulations with his need for a rule that encouraged more than just obedience. The account of Francis’ efforts helps me understand the development of the current SFO Rule, particularly in comparison with the Leonine Rule that preceded it.
One of the vital points regarding the Rule for the Friars Minor, for Francis, was that it be "stimulating and open. Its openness would look to impulses of generous dedication to one’s neighbor, lively adherence to the example of Christ, love of poverty, of sacrifice, and of the choice of condition …as an essential element of his conversion." According to Manselli [pp 211-212], "[Francis’] ever deepening worry, as his life was nearing its end, was the lapse of the order into a formal obedience to a formal rule. He feared that such formalism would lack the living and animating spirit of the Friar Minor, which he wanted to be a stimulus and leaven within Christian society, especially since it was close to outcasts. He feared that what should be the drive and internal call of love and dedication for lepers, the sick, the miserable, and the suffering, could decay to the level of weary obedience and of duty performed and valid simply because it was imposed." Francis wanted a Rule for his friars that challenged them to not just settle for adherence to the letter of observance and obedience, and stimulated them to greater love of God and neighbor. A rule with a specific list of duties to perform would in a sense be too easy, and certainly too easy to live as a dead letter rather than a life-giving word.
Francis strove to make the Rule of the friars more of a starting point for living the Gospel life rather than an end in itself. That is how I see our Rule today, as a brief document that helps us to make choices in accordance with the Gospel in the multitude of circumstances of our daily lives, rather than a set of specific tasks to do and detailed rules to obey (as challenging as that may be). Our Rule provides a series of challenges for us to take up if we are serious about living the Gospel. This is a Rule that fits well with one of my favorite sayings of Francis, "I have done what is mine to do; may Christ show you what is yours." As we have each been given unique gifts and a unique mission in the world, we can - we must - take the Rule and find our individual way to live it.
As we celebrate this great anniversary with the rest of the Franciscan Family, and in particular as we begin our Lenten observance, let us say, "Let us begin again, for up to now we have done nothing." Let us resolve anew to live the fullness of the Gospel life to which we are called.
Pax et bonum, Vickie