People sometimes hear friars talking about a "Chapter of Mats" that the friars are going to attend or have attended and wonder what kind of meeting this can be. Well, what is it?
From the first beginnings of the Franciscan form of life led by the men who gathered around Saint Francis, the meeting together of the Brothers to nourish the brotherhood by lstening together to explanations of their Rule of life and by deepening their commitment to it was a basic part of their daily routine. So we learn that already when the primitive little group reached the number of eight members, Saint Francis called them together and spoke to them about the Kingdom of God, of despising the world, of denying their own wills, of the mastery they had to exercise over their own bodies. He then divided them into four groups of two and told them to go out into the world and announce peace and penitence to all. After a short while he felt the need to bring them together again to hear about their experiences. They all instinctively felt this call and joyfully returned to meet together with him again to give an account of their experiences. This became the pattern of their meetings together.
As the Order grew, Saint Francis had no hesitation in using the monastic word 'chapter' to designate their meetings. The word derived from the earliest days of Benedictine monastic life: the monks met daily to discuss the business and issues of the day and the observance of the Rule, and it became customory to read a chapter ( capitulum ) of it at each meeting. Eventually the word 'chapter' came to designate the meeting itself and the place where it happened was called the 'chapter room'. Every monastery came to have one.
The General Chapter was established by the Cistercian Monks in 1195. The IV Lateran Council in 1215 (that is during the life-time of St Francis) established that all religious Orders should celebrate Chapters at regular intervals (annual, triennial, etc.) after the example of the Cistercians as a means of promoting the reform of the religious life.
It is obvious by the way Saint Francis talks about them that the 'General Chapters' of his Order were moments of great joy for him as he greeted his Brothers flocking together from far and wide. We know that at the beginning they occurred twice a year: once at Pentecost and then at the Feast of St Michael (29 September). But after a few years they met only once a year, at Pentecost, the feast of the Holy Spirit, whom Francis called the 'real' Minister General of the Order. They usually took place at the Porziuncola and continued to be annual events until the death of St Francis. As the number of frars rapidly increased, in the 1217 Chapter it was decided to divide the Order into Provinces, so that the Ministers Provincial could then represent their friars at the General Chpter and hold a Provincial Chapter for them on their return.
One of these annual General Chapters was given the nickname 'The Chapter of Mats'. St Francis himself referred to it by this name. There were five thousand friars present, he said, and they lived in huts or tents made of reed mats and slept on such mats, hence the name. Unfortunately scholars are not agreed on the year of this Chapter, but it is usually thought to be the Chapter of 1221. St Francis in that year wrote his Rule, amplifying the primitive Rule he had presented to Pope Innocent III in 1209 who had approved it orally. This newly written Rule he now presented to the 1221 General Chapter, who approved it, but it was never presented for approval to the Pope, and so is referred to as the Regula non bullata . Two years later, at the1223 Chapter Francis presented a new version which was then approved by Pope Honorius III with the Bull Solet annuere. This is the Rule professed today by all members of the First Order of St Francis. Our normal practice today establishes a Chapter in the Povince or Custody every three years and a General Chapter of the whole Order every six years.
The term "Chapter of Mats" which originally referred to that particular occasion when a meeting open to all the friars of the world was still possible has been revived in modern times to describe a fraternal meeting open to all the friars of a region, or all the friars of a particular age group, as distinct from the canonical chapters laid down by law with their membership prescribed.