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A Time to Live, a Time to Die: Angelo Clareno on Martyrdom

From: Franciscan Studies
Volume 70, 2012
pp. 411-428 | 10.1353/frc.2012.0022

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“Martyrdom” is hardly Angelo Clareno’s favorite word. His chronicle is a history of what he sees as the persecution of Francis’s true followers by leaders of the order, but in only one case does he use the word “martyrdom” to describe what those true followers have suffered.1 On the whole, he prefers to call it “persecution” or “tribulation,” even when it results in someone’s death. Angelo’s word choice in his chronicle and also in his rule commentary suggests that he normally tends to see martyrdom as what happens to Christians at the hands of non-Christians. In his letters he uses the word a bit more broadly, as we’ll see; but even there he prefers to speak of tribulation or persecution.2

In any case, as far as Angelo is concerned, the history of the order has been dominated by persecution. From Francis’s death on, the order has been in the hands of a group that wants to succeed by the world’s standards. They measure success by size, popular reputation and power. That may be a recipe for success as the world sees it, but it’s not what Francis wanted. So the result has been an order in which the leaders and most of the followers pursue one goal while a small minority of friars pursue another.

Angelo sees himself and his group as the latest installment in this story.3 In the late 1270s a lengthy argument over what was required of Franciscans led to Angelo and some of his friends being imprisoned for around a decade. They were liberated by the general minister in 1292 and sent to Armenia.4 When they ran into trouble there and returned to Italy, the general minister sent them to Pope Celestine V, who made them a separate order. It would be called “The Poor Hermits of Pope Celestine” but would observe the Franciscan rule.

Unfortunately Celestine resigned after only four months in office and his successor, Boniface VIII, was a good deal less sympathetic, so Angelo and his colleagues fled to Greece, where they stayed until persecution caught up with them there. They returned to Italy around 1303.

The group then seems to have dispersed into a series of hermitages in central Italy while Angelo went to Avignon and tried to convince first Clement V, then John XXII to recognize the order Celestine V had approved. By 1318 it was obvious that his attempt had failed, so Angelo went back to Italy and settled at Subiaco under the protection of a sympathetic Benedictine abbot. He stayed there until 1335, when the inquisition appeared to be closing in on him and he moved to a series of hermitages in the kingdom of Naples.

From the Avignon period until his death in 1337 he stayed in touch with his colleagues by letter, and this body of correspondence gives us the best sense we’ll ever have of what he wanted to achieve. The communities with whom he corresponded observed the Franciscan rule but tried to keep their distance from the order itself. Nevertheless, Angelo’s failure to gain papal recognition of the Poor Hermits of Pope Celestine meant his followers were still technically members of the Franciscan order and thus vulnerable to interference by its leaders, as well as by other ecclesiastical leaders who might see them as an unapproved order.5

One might assume that the letters would be full of practical advice on how to stay safe in a dangerous situation, and there is in fact some of that. But what Angelo dispenses is mostly spiritual advice, advice on how to live in a consistently Franciscan way, which means, for Angelo, a consistently Christ-like way. His teachings are notably Christocentric. The brothers should follow Francis’s example, but Francis was following Christ’s example.

What Angelo sees in Christ is a self-emptying that includes poverty, humility, powerlessness and love. Applied to the brothers in those hermitages, all of this takes a particular shape. The problem they face is not maintaining a decent level of poverty in the sense of not having much. That part is relatively easy. Their problem is...

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