Of the many evidences of St. Francis' intuitive Catholicity, not the least is his instruction to those of his friars who felt inspired by God to engage in the evangelization of unbelievers.
In the Rule he composed for his followers in 1221 he wrote: "The brothers may live among them (the Saracens and other unbelievers) in two ways. One way is this: that they do not stir up disputes or contentions, but be subject to every human creature for God's sake, acknowledging that they are Christians. The other way is this: that, when they see it pleases the Lord, they proclaim the word of God, so that they (the unbelievers) may believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Creator of all things, the Son who is the Redeemer and Savior; and that they should be baptized and become Christians." And he concludes: "All the brothers, wherever they are, must remember that they have given themselves and handed over their bodies to the Lord Jesus Christ. And for the love of Him, they must expose themselves to enemies, both seen and unseen, for the Lord says: ‘Whoever will lose his life for me shall save it until life eternal' (Mk. 8.35)."1
St. Bonaventure tells us that Francis, at the beginning of his conversion, did not grasp the full implication of his vocation as an evangelizer. Only gradually was it revealed to him that he was called "to bring the message of salvation to all those whom He (Christ) had redeemed at the price of His precious Blood."2 On the feast of St. Mathias, February 24, 1208, hearing the Gospel of the day, he was inspired to adopt the life of an evangelizer.3 In the words of Celano, from then on "he began to preach penance to all with great fervor of spirit and joy of mind.'"4
After Pope Innocent III in 1209 approved the Rule which Francis had composed for his followers, Francis and his brothers “went about the towns and villages announcing the Kingdom of God, preaching peace, and teaching salvation and penance."5 Though they were not wholly successful and Cardinal Hugolino once chided the Saint for sending the friars out ill-prepared, Francis continued to send companies of his friars not only to the Catholic nations beyond the Alps, but also to Muslim lands in North Africa and the Near East. Francis himself went to Acre, and to Damietta, where he braved many dangers to reach the presence of the Sultan of Egypt. Bonaventure writes: "Inflamed with that perfect love which drives out fear, he longed to offer himself as a living victim to God by the sword of martyrdom. In this way he would repay Christ for His great love for us and inspire others to love God."6
After this unsuccessful attempt to convert the Sultan, Francis had an enriched understanding of his Order's vocation. In a letter to the entire fraternity, sent shortly after his return to Italy, he wrote: "Praise God because He is good, and extol Him in your works, because for this has He sent you into the whole world: that by word and work you may give witness to His voice and bring all to know that there is no other Almighty besides Him.”7
”Rule of l221," ch. 16:10-11, in The Writings of Saint Francis, trans. Ignatius Brady (Assisi: Edizioni Porziuncola, 1983) 77. Henceforth, Brady.
St. Bonaventure, Major Life of St. Francis, chap. 12: I, trans. Benen Fahy in Marion A. Habig (ed.), St. Francis of Assisi: Writings and Early Biographies: English Omnibus of the Sources for the Life of St. Francis, 4lh rev. ed. (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1983), 721. Cited henceforth as Omnibus.
Ibid., chap. 3:1, pp. 646-47.
Thomas of Celano, The First Life of St. Francis, chap. JO: 29, trans. Placid Hermann in Omnibus, 247.
Ibid., chap. I 5, p. 258.
Bonaventure, Major Life, chap. 9:5, in Omnibus, 701.
St. Francis, "Letter Addressed to the Whole Order," in Brady, 121.