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Brother Leo

Friar Minor, companion of St. Francis of Assisi, date of birth uncertain; d. at Assisi, 15 November, 1271.

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Leo, BROTHER, Friar Minor, companion of St. Francis of Assisi, date of birth uncertain; d. at Assisi, 15 Nov, 1271. He appears to have been a native of Assisi and not of Viterbo, as some later writers have asserted. Although not one of the original twelve companions of St. Francis, Leo was one of the first to join him after the approbation of the first Rule of the Friars Minor (1209-1210) and perhaps was already a priest. In the course of time he became the confessor and secretary of the saint, and from about 1220 up to the time of Francis’s death Leo was his constant companion. He was with the “Poverello” when the latter retired to Fonte Colombo near Rieti in 1223, to rewrite the rule of the order and he accompanied him on his subsequent journey to Rome to seek its approval. The year following Leo was with the saint on Mount La Verna when Francis received the stigmata and he has left us a clear and simple account of that great miracle. This statement he wrote across the face of the autograph blessing which St. Francis had given him on La Verna, as a talisman against temptation, and which is still preserved at S. Francesco in Assisi. The text of, a letter written by the saint to Leo some time before is also extant. It is a word of tender encouragement and counsel to the “Frate Pecorello di Dio” (little brother sheep of God) as the Saint had named his faithful disciple because of his simplicity and tenderness. And one of the most golden chapters in the “Fioretti” (ch. vii) tells how St. Francis showed to Brother Leo “which things were perfect joy”. Leo nursed his master during his last illness and as the saint lay dying it was he, together with Angelo) another favorite companion, who consoled Francis by singing the “Canticle of the Sun”

Leo had entered deeply into the bitter disappointments experienced by the saint during the last few years of his life, and soon after Francis’s death he came into conflict with those whom he considered traitors to the Poverello and his ideal of poverty. Having protested against the collection of money for the erection of the basilica of San Francesco and having actually smashed the vase which Brother Elias had set up for contributions (see Ennis), Leo was whipped by order of Elias and expelled from Assisi. He thereupon retired to some hermitage of the order and from thenceforth we catch only occasional glimpses of him. Thus we find him present in 1253 at the deathbed of St. Clare of whom he was a lifelong friend. Leo appears to have passed much of his latter years” at the Porziuncola and to have employed himself in writing those works which exerted such a marked influence on Conrad d’Offida Angelo Clareno, Ubertino da Casale, and other “Spirituals” of a later generation. These writings, in which Leo set forth what he considered to be the real intention of St. Francis regarding the observance of poverty, he is said to have confided to the nuns at S. Ciara in Assisi in order to save them to posterity. Leo died at the Porziuncola on November 15, 1271, at an advanced age and was buried in tie lower church of San Francesco near the tomb of his seraphic father. He is commemorated in the Franciscan Martyrology which gives him the title of Blessed, and the cause of his formal beatification is now (1910) pending with that of the other early companions of St. Francis.

Considerable doubt still exists as to how much Leo actually wrote. The famous “rotuli” and “cedulae” which he deposited with the Poor Clares have not come down to us, but these documents are believed to have been the source from which the “Speculum Perfectionis” and some other compilations of “materia seraphica” were more or less directly derived. This “Speculum Perfections” was first published as a separate work in 1898 by Paul Sabatier, who called it the “Legenda Antiquissima S. Francisci” and claimed that it was written by Leo as early as 1227, as a manifesto against Elias and the other abettors of laxity among the friars. This claim gave rise to a large controversial literature. The majority of critics ascribe the “Speculum Perfectionis” to a later date and regard it as the work of different writers. However this may be, the “Speculum Perfectionis” remains of the utmost value and interest. In spite of its polemic tone which reflects the controversy raging within the order between the zelanti and mitigati in Leo’s day—and its shortcomings from a literary standpoint if compared with the “Legends” of Thomas of Celano and of St. Bonaventure, the portrait of St. Francis which the “Speculum” presents, and which all admit to be substantially due to Leo, affords an insight into the life of the Poverello such as no formal biography contains and such as none but an intimate could have given. Leo was moreover associated with Angelo and Rufino in the composition of the celebrated “Legend of the Three Companions”, a work which has been the subject of scarcely less controversy than the “Speculum Perfectionis”; he is also credited with the authorship of a life of Blessed Giles or Egidius of Assisi inserted in the “Chronicle of the XXIV Generals”, and is thought to have collaborated in the biography of St. Clare written about 1257.


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