Today is 4 October, feast day of the “Prince of Ecology”, patron of pets, Saint Francis of Assisi. Today, the world feels his presence in the Franciscan family, a religious order with numerous branches that cover all the continents of the world. Perhaps, the most notable of these groups would be the Order of Friars Minor, the Conventuals and the Poor Clares.
Born to a family of businessmen between the years 1181-1182, Saint Francis was baptized with the name Giovanni Franceso di Bernardone. He was a young man of the world, a lover of troubadours and everything French (fine taste, wine, women, poetry, etc.) However, his spiritual conversion would be gradually realized.
It all began with an experience with a beggar. The urchin was asking Francesco for some alms, but he was seemingly unresponsive. When he finished with a client though, he suddenly ran for the beggar, gave him all that he had in his pockets, and abandoned the wares he had yet to peddle in the town square. His friends mocked him, and his father was infuriated.
In 1201, he joined a military excursion to Perugia where, unfortunately, he was taken prisoner in Collestrada. For almost one year, he was a captive but it was here where his spiritual awakenings were said to have been initiated. But like in any experience, it was hard to sustain the religious fire in him, and Francesco returned to his carefree life.
In 1204, a terrible illness hit him, and it was from there he was determined to “shun the world”. When his friends mocked him and asked him if he was ever going to get married, Francesco replied in the affirmative, stating he would marry the fairest lady of all. He was already referring to “Lady Poverty”.
As he was pursuing acts of charity in the coming years, Francis receives a vision of the icon Crucified Christ hanging in San Damiano, with Jesus telling him, “Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.”
It was from that mystical experience that the story of Francis’ life of conversion, sanctity and mission would commence. He founded in 1209 the Order of Friars Minor, an order of mendicant priests who would be known throughout the world for their hospitals, orphanages, charitable institutions and whatnot.
In the early Christianization of the Philippines, the first Franciscans (15 of them) arrived in 1578, the second order to evangelize in the jungles of the Philippines. The first were the Augustinians, while the Jesuits came in at third. Upon their arrival, they first stayed with the Augustinians in the monastery of San Agustin in Intramuros. When they were able to move out, they dedicated their church to Nstra. Sra. de los Angeles.
The Franciscans were the first ones to put up a mission in the Manila area outside the fortification of Intramuros, and that church was the church of Santa Ana. The mission territories of the Franciscans were expansive: the southern towns of Bulacan, Rizal, some parts of Laguna, Quezon and Bicol. Here they built many towns, cities, bridges and roads as well as beautiful stone church buildings. Some of these would be the ornate churches of Pakil and Paete, places known for wood carving, Tayabas, the unique and imposing Tanay church, as well as the Cathedral of Naga, where the image of Nstra. Sra. de Penafrancia is revered. Some other institutions of the Franciscans were the San Juan de Dios Hospital, which was at one point, the best in the Orient, and the San Lazaro Leprosarium. They also administered to the Venerable Orden Tercera (VOT) or the Venerable Third Order, the group of lay men and women who lived lives according to the charism of St. Francis. Many of our grandparents or great grandparents were members of the VOT because of its former prestige, and also, the very patronage of the local church for these kinds of associations long before Opus Dei.
The church of the Franciscans in Intramuros was also one of the “cutest” churches because of its retablo-like facade. It wasn’t intimidating and scary but it was well-decorated and was one of the preferred churches of the “masa” whenever they heard Mass in this church run by an order supposedly dedicated to the poor. It was also a unique church that it was perpendicularly located in front of another church, sharing one plaza. Sadly, the church was bombed out by the Americans during the cruel destruction of the city of Manila, perpetuated by the Japanese. Its facade and some portions of its walls were left standing, but the Americans heartlessly bulldozed it. It would’ve been some sort of “Sao Paolo” in Macau type of attraction.
Sadly, the men in brown habits in the Philippines have been long stigmatized as the epitome of the “prayle” when the national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, published his controversial books, namely the Noli me Tangere and El Filibusterismo that featured not one but two crafty, evil Franciscans: Fray Damaso (whom Carlos Celdran exploited lately) and Fray Salvi. The Franciscan, and his habit/cassock, became the symbol of everything corrupt in the Catholic church: infractions on celibacy, greed, avarice, political manipulation and coercion. History tells us that when Gen. William Howard Taft was making an inventory of the friars’ lands in the Philippines, the Dominicans topped the list, with 16-pages worth of interviews regarding their landholdings. The Franciscans, the Dominicans’ most noted partners, came in 2nd with 12 pages.
But Filipinos should never forget the great contributions of the Franciscans to the Philippines. They administer to several parishes like the Franciscan Capuccin’s Saint Francis in Mandaluyong as well as the OFM’s Santuario de San Antonio, perhaps one of the richest parishes in the Metropolis. It also owns schools, orphanages, hospitals and other social centers all geared not in perpetuating abject poverty but seeing hope in Lady Poverty.
May the inspiration of San Francisco de Asis, one of the most favorite saints in the Catholic Church and in the Philippines, pray for us always!
Vintage photos of Franciscans taken from the online album of the OFM Archives.