Ugolino and Elias

November 4 2012

When his first adherent, Bernard of Quintavalle, asked Francis to allow him to join Francis in leading a life of poverty, Francis rejoiced, because he believed that the Christlike way was the right way for human beings to live. But Francis had also espoused humility. He had no thought of criticizing the Papacy, even implicitly, or of starting an anti-Papal movement or of becoming the Minister General of a new religious order. To follow Christ was the aim to which Francis was totally dedicated. However, this might not have saved Francis from sharing the Cathars’ and the Waldensians’ fate, for his espousal of poverty was a practical criticism of the Papacy which was the more damaging for having been inadvertent. Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) and his great-nephew and second successor Cardinal Ugolino (Pope Gregory IX, 1227-41) [and the intervening Pope Honorius III] recognized that Francis’s single-minded imitation of Christ had put the Curia in a quandary. They were painfully aware of the swelling chorus of satirical voices that was assailing the Curia from all quarters of Christendom. They decided to enlist St. Francis instead of blasting him. This decision did credit to their intelligence, though the motive was not disinterested.

St. Francis himself would have been saved acute spiritual agony if he had been martyred at his first encounter with the Curia, instead of living to receive the stigmata and also to see the Franciscan Order take a shape, in Cardinal Ugolino’s and Brother Elias’s hands, that was no longer in tune with Francis’s own conception of the Christlike way of life. However, Francis espoused suffering, both spiritual and physical, as well as poverty and humility, and, if Ugolino and Elias had not cut him to the heart by their worldly-wise interventions, the Franciscan spirit might not have outlived St. Francis himself, whereas it is still alive today, nearly three-quarters of a millennium after the date of his death, constricted, but not stultified, by its institutional container, the Order of Friars Minor.

Institutionalization is the price of durability. This is one of the blemishes of the social facet of human life, but the institutionalization of something that has great spiritual value for posterity is a lesser evil than the total loss of the volatile spiritual treasure. St. Francis did not recognize this hard truth. Ugolino and Elias understood it and took the responsibility for acting in the light of it. They salvaged an alloy of Francis’s treasure at the price of bringing odium on themselves.

St. Francis’s Castilian contemporary St. Dominic (Domingo de Guzman, 1170-1221), the founder of the Order of Friars Preachers, had an easier passage. He made the same commitment to poverty; the two saints were both combating greed. But St. Dominic’s spirit could be reconciled to institutionalization more readily than St. Francis’s. The rising cities of Western Christendom were enriched spiritually by Franciscan as well as by Dominican houses, libraries, and lecture-rooms, though, for St. Francis, masonry and books were anathema, because he saw in them perilous impediments to the leading of a Christian life. Brother Elias never forfeited St. Francis’s confidence; yet assuredly St. Francis would have been excruciated if he could have foreseen Brother Elias’s virtuosity as a fund-raiser for building a church at Assisi in St. Francis’s honour. The beauty of the architecture and of Giotto’s paintings would not have reconciled St. Francis to this outrage against the poverty and the humility with which he had been in love.

Giotto di Bondone, Confirmation of the Rule of St Francis by Innocent III, Basilica of St Francis, Assisi

Mankind and Mother Earth, OUP, 1976, posthumous

One Response to “Ugolino and Elias”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Is it therefore presumptuous for a pope to take Francis’s name?

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