By 1217, there were about 5,000 friars and they began to serve as missionaries in other countries, moving beyond the Italian Alps into France, Germany, Spain and the Holy Land. As itinerant preachers and in fraternity, they continued to live out the edict of Francis: “Preach the Gospel at all times – and if necessary, use words.”
Four years later, the rapidly growing Order received an unassuming young man from Portugal, whose talent for preaching would only later be discovered, and who would come to be known as St Anthony of Padua.
The friars started schools of theology in famous university towns such as Paris and Oxford. They also began promoting inter-faith and ecumenical dialogue, seeking to sow seeds of peace and reconciliation, and to bring the Good News to those who hungered for truth. In this too they were inspired by Francis who, in the midst of a Crusaders’ war in 1219, had engaged in a month-long meeting of mutual trust and respect with the Muslim Sultan of Egypt. In doing so, he initiated an international peace process and laid the path for inter-cultural and inter-faith dialogue for future generations of Franciscans and people of goodwill.
From the 1240s, leaders of the Order were sent as papal ambassadors to dialogue with and work towards reunification between the Eastern and Western Churches. These leaders included Bl John of Parma, St Bonaventure and Friar Jerome of Ascoli, who eventually became Pope Nicholas IV.
In 1289, Pope Nicholas IV appointed Friar John of Montecorvino to lead the first group of missionaries to China to preach at the court of Kublai Khan. Over the next few decades, the Franciscan missions flourished in China, spreading from Beijing down to Fujien province.
With the discovery of new worlds, Franciscan missionaries travelled to the farthest reaches, witnessing and preaching in new territories. They followed Marco Polo to China and laboured in North Africa among the Muslims. Friars, such as Juniper of Serra, preached all the way up to the west coast of North America, leaving a permanent stamp of their presence in California in still existing Franciscan mission posts and in place names such as San Francisco (after St Francis of Assisi) and Los Angeles (after St Francis’ favourite church, Our Lady of the Angels).
When the Portuguese came to Malacca, a Franciscan Monastery and Chapel “Madre De Deus” was built, dedicated to the Mother of God, on top of Bukit China. It was founded in 1581 by Friar Francisco Pisaro, an Italian Franciscan who came from Macau. This monastery was destroyed by the Achinese in 1629 when they attacked Malacca. Today, the early Franciscan missionary spirit continues with friars working in a ministry of service and presence in places as far flung as Siberia, Sudan, Myanmar and Timor Leste.
1181 – Francis of Assisi is born Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone
1209 – Pope Innocent III approves the founding of the Franciscan Order
1223 – Pope Honorius III approves of the written Rule of St Francis for the Order of Friars Minor
2008 – The Franciscan Friars of the Custody of St Anthony (Malaysia-Singapore-Brunei) celebrate 50 years of official presence in the service of the Church in this region
2009 – Franciscans all over the world celebrate the 800th anniversary of the founding of the Order