Elias of Cortona

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Franciscan minister general (122127 and 123239);b. probably at Bivigliano, near Assisi, date unknown; d. Cortona, April 22, 1253. Elias was a notary at Bologna and was among the early companions of Francis; he was received into the Order at Cortona in 1211.

After the first missionary chapter of the brothers in 1217, Elias was chosen to serve as provincial minister for the new venture in the Holy Land. Later, during his own 12191220 visit to the East, Francis met Elias and brought him back to Italy. In 1221, after the death of his first vicar, Francis appointed Elias. Elias presided at the famous Chapter of Mats in 1221 and from there he sent a band of brothers under the leadership of Caesar of Spyer on the Order's mission to Germany. From this same chapter he sent Anthony of Padua to Bologna to teach theology. After Francis's death, the Pentecost Chapter of 1227 elected John Parenti, Minister from Spain, to succeed Elias. Pope Gregory IX then enlisted Elias's organizational and architectural skills to oversee the construction of a new basilica in Assisi to honor and celebrate the memory of Francis.

At the 1232 chapter in Rieti, Elias was again elected minister general, succeeding his earlier successor, John Parenti. During this second tenure in office, Elias promoted theological studies in multiple centers throughout Europe, particularly Paris and Oxford, and he furthered missionary expansion into northern and eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. During these years, as the number of brothers increased toward 40,000 and became a powerful force, he completed the building of the basilica. Giving new impulse to developments in Italian art and architecture, he was respected throughout Europe. He won the confidence of Clare of Assisi who, in 1235, wrote to her sister Agnes concerning Elias: "Follow the counsel of our venerable father, our Brother Elias, the Minister General, that you may walk more securely in the way of the commands of the Lord. Prize it beyond the advice of the others and cherish it as dearer to you than any gift."

Around 1237, complaints about Elias's leadership began to surface. Because he did not make personal visits throughout the provinces, but sent other brothers as visitators (visitators who were not priests), irritation increased. His refusal to call general chapters every three years as required by the Rule and his demand for funds to finish the basilica increased the opposition. At the general chapter in Rome of 1239, called by Gregory IX, the increasing clerical majority rejected Elias's strong centralized governance and won the day. Elias was deposed. The first priest to hold the office of general minister, Albert of Pisa, succeeded him. Elias returned to Assisi to find himself also deprived of his role as Custos of the Basilica of St. Francis and of the Sacred Convent. He then fled to Pisa to the imperial camp of Emperor Frederick II who was in a struggle with the pope for control of northern parts of Italy. Elias thereby fell under the general excommunication issued by Gregory IX on all those who approached the emperor. This caused great scandal and many brothers considered him an apostate from the Order. Elias died reconciled in the Franciscan friary in Cortona where his remains rest today.

Bibliography: r. b. brooke, Early Franciscan Government: Elias to Bonaventure (Cambridge, Eng. 1959). p. dallari, Frate Elia, architetto della Basilica d'Assisi e di Cortona (Milan 1970). t. eccleston, "The Coming of the Friars Minor to England" trans. P. Hermann, in XIIIth Century Chronicles (Chicago 1961), 79191. a. fortini, Francis of Assisi, tr. h. moak (New York 1981). jordan of giano, "The Chronicle of Brother Jordan of Giano" tr. p. hermann, in XIIIth Century Chronicles (Chicago 1961), 1777. salimbene, The Chronicle of Salimbene de Adam, ed. j. l. baird, g. baglivi, and j. kane (Binghamton, N.Y. 1986).

[j. a. hellmann]