Confraternity of Penitents: St. Francis' Rule of Penance for the Laity
"Most High, glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart and give me true faith, certain hope, and perfect charity, sense and knowledge, Lord, that I may carry out Your holy and true command." ---------- Saint Francis' of Assisi's prayer before the San Damiano Crucifix
Saint Francis of Assisi and Penitents of His Time and Ours
Before his conversion, Saint Francis in secular clothes, praying before Crucifix of San Damiano
After his conversion, Saint Francis in clothes of a penitent, preaching to the birds. Note friar behind him, also dressed in penitential garb.
The early paintings of Francis and his friars show them wearing clothing typical for the penitents of their time. Note how this garb differs from that worn by Francis before his conversion, as he is portrayed when he is praying before the crucifix of San Damiano.
Two of the earliest paintings are depicted above. The painting by Giotto of Francis before his conversion shows him as a layman praying before the Crucifix in the church of San Damiano. This was painted about 1306, that is 80 years after the death of Saint Francis who died in 1226. The painting of Francis preaching to the birds was also painted by Giotto, between 1295 and 1300. Therefore, the garb depicted by Giotto is accurate for the time in which Francis lived.
Modern closet of a person not in the Confraternity of Penitents
Closet of a Life Pledged Member of the Confraternity of Penitents
Saint Francis exchanged his secular clothes for the clothes of a penitent of his time. His poor tunic, like the tunics of other penitents, were the same type of clothing worn by the lower classes, the poor, of their time. This garb was definitely different from the colorful, expensive, fashionable, and sumptious fabrics of the rich. Just so, penitent's clothing today is no differernt in style from that of ordinary, simple people but it is definitely subdued in color, pattern, quantity, and cost.
The first men who wanted to live as Francis was living were penitents. When these men traveled about the countryside, exhorting people to penance (conversion), people asked who they were. "We are penitents from Assisi," they said.
Francis and his friars were not the only ones exhorting people to penance (conversion).
The followers of Saint Dominic Guzman were actively preaching the truths of the Catholic faith and were bringing many people to a deeper knowledge of Christ. These friars, too, are pictured in penitential garb of white and black while the followers of Francis are generally pictured in grays or browns.
Benedictine monasteries and convents peppered Europe and, despite the opulence of some of them, many holy monks and nuns lived in these communities. Their example inspired the laity to conversion.
Other groups such as the Augustinian friars and nuns and the newly organizing Carmelite monks in the Holy Land, as well as isolated hermits and anchorites (primarily women who lived in small, enclosed cells next to a church), demonstrated that holiness was possible in this world.
Laity hungered for a way to grow closer to God, especially after they came in contact with spiritually minded men and women in various religious communities. The mendicant friars, the Franciscans and Dominicans, precisely because they traveled from place to place, saw the greatest number of laity clamoring for more spiritual help.
Brother John of Perugia, a disciple of Brother Giles who was the third friar to join Saint Francis, wrote a remembrance of Saint Francis which was printed sometime between March 2, 1240 and August 22, 1241, that is fifteen years after the death of Saint Francis. The remembrance is titled The Anonymous of Perugia or The Beginning or Founding of the Order and the Deeds of Those Lesser Brothers Who Were the First Companions of Blessed Francis in Religion. In it, John writes,
Similarly, married men said, "We have wives who will not permit us to send them away. Teach us, therefore, the way we can take more securely." (Anonymous of Perugia, Chapter IX)
Three of the first followers of Saint Francis, Brother Rufino, Brother Leo, and Brother Angelo, described the beginnings of the Order of Penitents this way in the Legend of the Three Companions, written between 1241 and 1247, that is fifteen to twenty years after the death of Saint Francis:
Similarly, both married men and women given in marriage, unable to separate because of the law of matrimony, committed themselves to more severe penance in their own homes on the wholesome advice of the brothers. And thus, through blessed Francis, a perfect worshipper of the Holy Trinity, the Church of God was renewed in three orders, just as the earlier repair of the three churches foreshadowed. Each of these orders was in its time approved by the Supreme Pontiff. (Legend of the Three Companions, Chapter XIV)
Because he had many friars (many more than the Dominicans) traveling about preaching repentance, Saint Francis became acutely aware of the need for a Rule of life for married and single men and women. So he consulted the Order's Cardinal Protector, Cardinal Hugolino di Conti di Segni, about this.
The Cardinal agreed that the vast majority of married and single people could not simply leave their homes and families and join the friars or nuns. They needed a way to grow in sanctity within their own families.
So Cardinal Hugolino looked toward the penitents of the day, married and single men and women who were living religious rules of life at home, studied how they were living, and then wrote down, in juridical form, their way of life. The Anonymous of Perugia records the birth of this religious Order for lay people in these words:
The brothers founded an order for them, called the Order of Penitents, and had it approved by the Supreme Pontiff.(The Anonymous of Perugia, Chapter IX)
In 1221, Francis accepted this as the Rule of Life which he and his friars would give to the laity for their own sanctification. The Dominicans also gave this Rule of 1221 to the single and married men and women who followed them so that they could do penance in their own homes.
The Rule of 1221 for the Order of Penitents (not to be confused with the Rule which Francis wrote for the friars in the same year) is the very Rule which CFP members are living today, with constitutions to adapt the Rule to modern times so that penitents can do penance (experience conversion) at home.
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