NEW YORK — Capturing 800 years of OFM history in a 150-page book was no easy task, but Provincial Vicar Dominic Monti, OFM, has accomplished it with brevity and eloquence.
His book, Francis & His Brothers: A Popular History of the Franciscan Friars, being released next month by St. Anthony Messenger Press (SAMP), offers readers a look back on the history of the Franciscan friars.
The brainchild of retired SAMP CEO-Publisher Jeremy Harrington, OFM, and Lisa Biedenbach, editorial director, Francis & His Brothers was timed to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Order’s founding. The Franciscans commemorate this milestone in 2009.
Unlike other books that trace all Franciscan orders, this book celebrates the Order of Friars Minor. In addition, it is written in a popular easy-to-read style for English-speaking non-scholars and lay people.
“My hope is that this work will be both interesting and informative for those seeking to learn more about the Franciscan friars,” said Dominic. “If this book accomplishes that, I will be grateful.”
A Year of Writing
He said of the book, which took a year to write, “In one way, writing a book of roughly 150 pages covering some eight centuries is more difficult than writing one three times that large, because it demands a certain synthesis of what to emphasize, what to include, and what to exclude.”
This book, he added, is not intended to be a scholarly history. “Such would demand a truly massive volume, and given the specialization in the various periods and cultures treated, it would have to be a team effort, not the work of one person.”
Dominic, who has written two other books — translations and commentaries of medieval Latin texts on St. Bonaventure’s writings on Franciscan works — was SAMP’s logical choice for this book. As a teacher of Franciscan history at St. Bonaventure University in Allegany, N.Y., for the past 20 years during the summer, he is well versed in the subject, and is often called upon internationally for his expert perspective.
“Although there are a number of excellent scholarly studies in English on various aspects of that long Franciscan story, there is unfortunately not a good overview readily available for people who might be interested in learning something about it. Although two books appeared about two decades ago, A Short History of the Franciscan Family (Franciscan Herald Press, 1989), and William Short’s fine, brief introduction, The Franciscans (Glazier, 1989), both of these are out of print,” according to Dominic.
The SAMP staff felt the time was right for a new history because it did not have a popular history in its backlist of titles. “Dominic was my first choice for author, and all the Franciscans that we consulted concurred that he would be ideal for such a book,” said Biedenbach.
Focusing on the Order of Friars Minor
Dominic began work on the book in the summer of 2007, and finished it this past summer, fitting the writing into the margins of his already busy life. “I could not in such a short compass,” he said, “do justice to the history of the whole Franciscan movement. That is, of the three Franciscan orders — the Friars Minor, the Poor Clares, and the Third Order — in both its regular and secular branches, without producing simply an outline of an 800-year story, rather than a narrative. So, as the title of this book implies, I have recounted only the history of the First Franciscan Order, the Friars Minor or Lesser Brothers, in their various branches.”
“The task of synthesizing that history into a brief volume such as this has proved challenging enough,” he said.
Dominic was somewhat reluctant, however, to fragment the Franciscan history in this way, but with good planning and organization, the abbreviated summary worked out. He said he hopes this book might be the first in a series.
“In one way, I was reluctant to take such a step because doing so fragments what is one great Franciscan movement. And yet, each of the three Franciscan orders has its own unique expression of Francis’s evangelical way of life in the Church, and their stories have evolved in quite different ways.”
“I hope that my book might be the first in a series -– with other popular histories treating the Poor Clares, the Secular Franciscans, and the Third Order Regular congregations. In fact, the story of the Third Order Regular womens’ congregations has already been provided in recent years by Rafaele Pazzelli and Pierre Péano.”
Much time was spent planning how to organize eight centuries of rich history into 10 chapters. “In recounting the story of the Franciscan friars in just 10 brief chapters, I have not distributed the material evenly. In fact, I have devoted three chapters to the first quarter century of the Order’s history. I have done so purposely: first, to present a more accurate picture of Francis and the beginnings of his brotherhood in its historical context, and secondly, to see how that brotherhood quickly became caught up in the pastoral needs of the 13th century Church, thus setting a course for its future direction. Two more chapters cover the next century of the Order’s growth, for as those new directions were affirmed and institutionalized, it gave rise to internal dissention among Franciscans. The other five chapters cover broader segments of the brotherhood’s subsequent history, bringing it up to the present day.”
Chapters include medieval Christian society, the First Lesser Brothers, expansion and transformation of the Order, the Franciscan mission, internal crisis in the Order, Observants and Conventuals, friars during the Reformation and Baroque Eras, mission to the world, the challenges of modernity, Franciscans in the United States, Canada and Australia, rebuilding the Order in Europe, and recovering a charism.
The back cover of the book says:
“…skillfully navigates the ‘sometimes twisted path’ of the young Order in the first 100 years after Francis’ death, and the complexity of the reform movements. Any reader, especially those related to Francis, will find this a great resource, full of insights and inspiration.” — Father Anthony Scannell, OFM, CAP, former president, Franciscan Communications
“As one of the multitudes whose life has been profoundly changed through the friendship and ministry of Franciscan friars, I welcome this concise, readable history of the Franciscans.” — Patricia Patten Normile, SFO, coauthor, To Live as Francis Lived: A Guide for Secular Franciscans
“…a fascinating read — erudite, comprehensive and engaging. Dominic Monti brings together a wealth of scholarship and experience as a Franciscan friar, drawing us into one of the most exciting adventures of Christian history.” — Ilia Delio, OSF, author, Franciscan Prayer
Dominic consulted on the cover artwork, which includes a medieval painting.
Dominic, who holds a Ph.D., met the Franciscans as a student at St. Bonaventure University, and entered the Franciscan Order in 1964. He was ordained a priest in 1971.
He received his doctorate from the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, and has taught church history at the Washington Theological Union and St. Bonaventure University, and Franciscan history at SBU’s Franciscan Institute. The Bradford, Pa., native was named Provincial Vicar of Holy Name Province in 2005.
The book will be available before Christmas. To order Francis & His Brothers, contact SAMP by phone (800-488-0488) or through its Web site.
— Wendy Healy, a Connecticut-based freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.