Universal evangelization became an official objective of the Order of Friars Minor in 1223 when Pope Honorius III approved Francis' final Rule.
The third chapter of that document contains instructions on the way the Brothers should act among men, and the ninth has directions concerning the manner and content of their preaching to believers.17 Similar dispositions can be found in previous rules of other groups of religious men. But the twelfth chapter of Francis' Rule of 1223 is unique in that it lays down regulations to be observed by "those who go among Saracens and those not of the Faith."
"The friars who under divine inspiration may wish to go among the Saracens and other unbelievers are to ask leave therefor from the ministers provincial. The ministers in turn are to grant permission only to those whom they judge capable of such a vocation."18
This is the first instance in the history of the Church in which a founder includes among the objectives of a religious Order the evangelization of non-Christians. Over the centuries, it has been the example of Francis' ardent love for God and for souls, much more than the terse legal language of his Rule, that has inspired his followers by the thousands to carry the Gospel to lands where it had never been preached.
At the time of Francis' death in 1226 his friars, who then numbered about five thousand, were dispersed throughout Western Europe, North Africa and the Levant. By the end of the thirteenth century, when their number had increased to more than forty thousand, the friars had extended their evangelizing activities to Catholics, heretics, schismatics, Muslims, and Mongols – in Scandinavia, the Baltic States, Eastern Europe, Persia and China.19
It was inevitable that the learned men, who in ever greater numbers were being drawn to the Order of the Poverello, would attempt to give the Founder's affective effusions doctrinal justification and attempt to express in theological terms what he felt in his heart and lived in his spontaneous actions. The great Franciscan doctors sought to develop and reinterpret in the light of changing historical conditions those elements of evangelization which had been the constant subject of Francis' prayerful consideration – without destroying the Gospel freshness of his original message and manner.
"The Final Rule of the Friars Minor," ch. 3, in Brady, 97.
Ibid., ch. 12, in Brady, 102.
On the growth of the Order and the expansion of its evangelizing activity during the thirteenth century, see Domenico Cresci, "Statistica dell'Ordine minoritico all'anno 1282," Archivum Franciscanum Historicum 56 (1963): 157-62; and Espansione de/ Francescanesimo Ira occidente e oriente nel secolo XIII, Alli del VI convegno internazionale. Assisi, 12-14 Ottobre 1978 (Assisi: Societa internazionale de studi francescani, 1978).