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Below are some frequently asked questions about Franciscan symbols, rituals, colors, and more. If you have a question that you would like answered we would love to hear from you! Simply fill out the form to right to submit your question to a friar.
It is possible that Francis first encountered the Tau (a Greek upper-case letter T) on the habit of the Anthonians, a religious community of men founded in 1095 to care for the sick. It is also widely accepted that he heard Pope Innocent III’s exhortation drawn from the Prophet Ezekiel (9:4) in opening the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215: “We are called to reform our lives, to stand in the presence of God as righteous people. God will know us by the sign of the Tau, T, marked on our foreheads.”
The Tau symbolized the call to penance, having “exactly the same form as the Cross on which our Lord was crucified on Calvary, and only those will be marked with this sign and will obtain mercy who have mortified their flesh and conformed their life to that of the Crucified Savior.”
Thomas of Celano noted that “Francis preferred the Tau above all other symbols: he utilized it as his only signature for his letters, and he painted the image of it on the walls of all the places in which he stayed.” Bonaventure added that Francis “traced it on himself before beginning each of his actions.” With arms outstretched, Francis often told his brother friars that their religious habit was in the same shape as the Tau, meaning that they were called to be walking “crucifixes”, models of a compassionate God and examples of faithfulness until their dying day. For the followers of Francis, the Tau continues to represent commitment to a Gospel life of daily, self-sacrificing love of all God’s creation.
This simple prayer has been erroneously attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi. Although certainly not written by the saint himself, it nevertheless captures a Franciscan commitment to peace. In its few brief verses, it provides a pattern for living in day-to-day relationships with our fellow human beings—and with all life around us.
Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi
Lord, make me an instrument
of your peace;
Where there is hatred,
let me sow love;
Where there is injury,
Where there is doubt,
Where there is despair,
Where there is darkness;
And where there is sadness,
O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much
Seek to be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love,
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
The origin of the Franciscan habit goes back to our founder, Saint Francis of Assisi. Francis was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant. In those days, there were only two social classes, the “majores” (the upper class, the land-owning nobility), and the “minores” (the lower class, the peasants), with a growing number of merchants being in a middle state that was not yet a clearly defined class.
In his youth, Francis dreamed of becoming a knight, a nobleman; he even borrowed a suit of armor in order to join in a war against another city. Eventually, as his relationship with Christ deepened, Francis’ dream changed...he wanted to serve and follow Christ, who made himself poor and lived among us, in a very concrete and wholehearted way. Francis decided that, in order to do this to the fullest, he must live a poor life himself. So he abandoned wealth, adopted the common dress of peasants, lived by simple work and begging, and preached about the love of God whenever and wherever he found people who would listen. When other men asked to join him and live the same kind of life, Francis had them do the same, including wearing the clothing of peasants, and called them “Fratrum Minorum” (i.e., lesser brothers). When the church recognized and approved the group, the name “Ordo Fratrum Minorum,” or Order of Friars Minor, became official—OFM for short.
Peasant clothing in the time of Francis was a simple tunic of unbleached, un-dyed wool. Many also wore a cowl (a hood). A “belt” of rope was handy for keeping loose clothing out of the way while working. A peasant would never cut a good rope to make it fit better...once cut, you could never make it longer again. If the rope was too long, one would knot it so that it did not drag on the ground. Naturally, waistlines varied in those days, just as now...some needed more rope than others, and some needed more than one knot. Somewhere along the line a friar with three knots in his cord thought, “Hmmm...three knots...reminds me of the three vows we friars make...poverty, chastity, and obedience…” Thus a practical thing took on a spiritual meaning. In fact, there was also a time when some friars used to put five knots in their cords, reminding them of the five wounds of the crucified Christ (both hands, both feet, and side).
The number of knots became regulated at the same time as the color of the habit, in the late nineteenth century. Having started as unbleached wool, any number of colors would be possible (particularly in light of the hygiene standards of the Middle Ages). Over time, the friars in various places started making habits of brown, gray, blue, and other colors. Each region or branch of the Franciscans had its own standard. When Pope Leo XIII (d. 1903) united many groups of Franciscan friars into the three branches of the “First Order,” he also dictated that the habit (tunic and cowl) should be brown (although the reason was not made clear) and that the cord should have three knots, reminding us of our three vows. The tunic is cut in the shape of the Greek letter “Tau” (like our English capital T). There are many forms of crosses (Jerusalem, Greek, etc.). The “Tau” is a simple form of cross. Francis used to draw it along with, or instead of, his signature, and it is now called the “Tau cross,” or sometimes the “Franciscan cross.” Finally, it is interesting to note that the cowl is a separate piece of the Franciscan habit, except for one branch of the Franciscans, who have it sewn permanently to the tunic. Because of this difference, a friar of that branch is called a “cappuccino” in Italian, that is literally a “cowled one.” This is the source of the English name for the “Capuchin” friars—and yes, the source for the name of the coffee drink as well!
Yes, the Franciscan Coat of Arms is a universal symbol of the Franciscans. It contains the Tau cross, with two crossed arms: Christ’s right hand with the nail wound and Francis’ left hand with the stigmata wound.
In 1205 Saint Francis prayed before the crucifix in the dilapidated San Damiano church. This marked the beginning of Francis’ journey, it was here that Christ spoke to him saying, “Go, rebuild My House.”
As Thomas of Celano writes in The First Book, Chapter VI:
“With his heart already completely changed—soon his body was also to be changed—he was walking one day by the church of San Damiano, which was abandoned by everyone and almost in ruins. Led by the Spirit he went in to pray and knelt down devoutly before the crucifix. He was shaken by unusual experiences and discovered that he was different from when he had entered. As soon as he had this feeling, there occurred something unheard of in previous ages: with the lips of the painting, the image of Christ crucified spoke to him. ‘Francis,’ is said, calling him by name, ‘Go rebuild My house; as you see, it is all being destroyed.’”
“Francis was more than a little stunned, trembling, and stuttering like a man out of his senses. He prepared himself to obey and pulled himself together to carry out the command. He felt this mysterious change in himself, but he could not describe it. So it is better for us to remain silent about it too. From that time on, compassion for the Crucified was impressed into his holy soul. And we honestly believe the wounds of the sacred Passion were impressed deep in his heart, though not yet in his flesh.”