A Letter on the Passing of Saint Francis - 486 

of Saint Francis.5 Did the pope and Francis's biographer borrow from this text, or vice versa? It is impossible to determine. While the images of Francis as another Moses, Jacob, or John the Baptist are understandable even in 1226, those that portray him as another Christ are not. The Christological imagery develops slowly, it is indicative of a much later date of composition. As Stanislao da Campagnola maintains: "in the years 1246-47 a celebration of Francis as an alter Christus must have seemed audacious and rash."6

The same quandary is encountered in comparing the descriptions of Francis's stigmata provided by Thomas of Celano with those of the Spoelberch Letter. In his careful analysis of the texts, Felice Accrocca suggests that the more traditional hypothesis that Thomas used the letter of Elias is doubtful.7 The contrary seems more reasonable, that is, that the author of this letter used Thomas's Life. ". . . To imagine that Thomas had filled out what he would have found in the letter of 'Elias,' " Accrocca maintains, "adding new particulars and exposing all in a coherent and plain form, is much more difficult than to explain the passages in which the letter recalls The Life of Saint Francis by way of summary and sometimes awkward extrapolations."8 This too would suggest a later date of composition, certainly one later than the publication of Thomas's portrait in the late 1220's.

Finally, the last paragraph of the Spoelberch Letter, i.e., the prescription for offering suffrages for the deceased Francis, raises further questions. "Let each priest say three Masses," the author directs, "each cleric the Psalter, and the lay brothers five Our Fathers. Let the clerics also recite in common the vigil office." Shortly before his death, Francis encouraged his brothers "to celebrate only one Mass a day . . . But," he concluded, "if there is more than one priest there, let the other be content at hearing the celebration of the other priest."9 Not only do the suffrages of the Spoelberch Letter seem disproportionate, that is, the clerical brothers are burdened more than the lay; they betray a distinctly clerical emphasis that seems somewhat premature. Only after Haymo of Faversham had presented his Ordinationes to the Chapter of 1243 was it possible to enjoy what was becoming the common practice of the Roman Church, i.e., private celebration of the Eucharist.10 In 1260 the Constitutions of Narbonne incorporated in an earlier statute a papal decree concerning suffrages for a general minister who dies in office, including an obligation of each priest to offer three Masses.11 This decree is the same as that in the Spoelberch letter. Once again, however, a question of reliance arises: are the earlier Constitutions based on the Spoelberch Letter, or vice versa? Accrocca argues that the Letter relies on the Constitutions since "the Rule of Francis didn't give precise dispositions in this regard, while on the celebration of Masses Francis had been quite clear."12

Toward a Resolution

The Chronicle of Jordan of Giano makes it clear that Elias wrote an encyclical letter to do what this letter purports: to announce the death of Saint Francis and his stigmata.

 Previous

Next 

 

Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 2, p. 486

Hardcopies Available for Purchase