Renowned worldwide for his radical poverty and profound humility, St. Francis of Assisi is among the most famous of God’s saints. It is no wonder, then, that, like his master Jesus of Nazareth, Francis has been misunderstood and deliberately misappropriated for various causes that depart from—and often ignore—the singular cause that inspired Francis’s every move: unquenchable love for God.
Francis’s inimitable holiness has won the esteem of people across religious and geographic boundaries for eight centuries. Yet this holiness is blinding for those who cannot comprehend that someone would go to such unspeakable lengths for God. As was done to Jesus before him, different ages have made efforts to refashion Francis into someone more respectable for the non-religious elite, to abstract the virtuous acts from their religious origins. Such has been the popular fate of the Poor Man of Assisi.
Controversy over Francis and his legacy is not a modern phenomenon. Even within Francis’s own lifetime, there were conflicting interpretations over how his rule ought to be lived. Shortly after Francis died, his order divided, with a group called the Spirituals, who demanded a more rigorous living of the rule, opposed to the Conventuals, who interpreted the rule more moderately. Divisions would continue to appear over the centuries between men and women who all have called themselves Franciscans, and who all have thought they were living according to their master’s will.
The Modern epoch has sought to strip Francis of his religious zeal, just as it has deliberately ignored Jesus’ divinity in reducing Him to a “great moral teacher.” Today popular convention portrays Francis as a tree-hugging hippie devoted to the causes of nature and of peace. Take, for example, the “Prayer of St. Francis,” which was not composed by Francis, but by an anonymous French writer in the early 20th century. It never mentions God or Jesus by name, and, true to the modern spirit, it puts disproportionate emphasis on the self: “Lord, make me a channel of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me bring love.” Now set to a sappy musical melody, it is hard to imagine the firebrand Francis strumming his lyre to this one. The saint sang a different tune in his Regula Prima, 17: “Let us refer all good to the Lord God most High and Supreme; let us acknowledge that all good belongs to Him, and let us give thanks for all to Him from whom all good proceeds.”
Then there is the famous saying attributed to St. Francis: “Preach the Gospel. When necessary use words.” It is possible to mistake this maxim as absolving us from the need to speak about Christ to others. Francis, in fact, said no such thing. He did exhort his Friars, “Let all the brothers preach by their works” (Regula Prima, 17). What Francis wanted was for his men’s actions to live up to the Gospel they were preaching. He did allow his Friars living among the Saracens “not to make disputes or contentions” if they confessed to being Christians. But the first Franciscans were hardly cruising the Mediterranean Sea in a boat whose bumper sticker read “Coexist.” Rather, Francis urged, “when [the Friars] see it is pleasing to God, they announce the Word of God, that [the Muslims] may believe in Almighty God,—Father, and Son, and Holy Ghost, the Creator of all, our Lord the Redeemer and Savior the Son, and that they should be baptized and be made Christians, because, ‘unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God’” (Regula Prima, 16). The first Franciscan martyrs gave their lives while trying to convert the Muslims in Morocco in 1220.
More recently, popular cinema has coopted Francis to advance new age ideas in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1972 film “Brother Sun, Sister Moon.” The wise encyclopedists at Wikipedia saw through this move: “The film attempts to draw parallels between the work and philosophy of Saint Francis and the ideology that underpinned the worldwide counterculture movement of the 1960s and early 1970s.” Lest we think that Francis gave up on the Church for a more emotive, spiritualized Christianity, we can read his Second Letter to the Faithful:
We must also frequently visit churches and venerate and revere the clergy not so much for themselves, if they are sinners, but because of their office and administration of the most holy Body and Blood of Christ which they sacrifice upon the altar, receive and administer to others. And let all of us know for certain that no one can be saved except through the holy words and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ which the clergy pronounce, proclaim and minister. And they alone must minister and not others.
Finally, we cannot forget Francis the nature lover. Around Francis’s feast day each year, Christian churches of all denominations offer a blessing of animals. It is certainly true that Francis loved animals and nature. But as biographer André Vauchez correctly notes, Francis’s attitude “did not flow from a sentimental compassion or from any pantheistic fervor” that marks the animal rights and the radical environmentalist movements of today. Rather, his famous Canticle of the Creatures, which is quoted to open Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si, is very clear that the brilliance of nature lies in its reflection of God: “Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars, in the heavens you have made them bright, precious and fair. Praised be You, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air.”
Nature and animals, for Francis, are not an end in themselves, but a reminder of God’s glory. Such was his mindset when he cursed a sow for killing a lamb, whose slaughter reminded Francis of Christ: the sow immediately fell ill and died three days later.
How, then, can we recover the real Francis? By reading his writings. There we will find not a Woodstock spiritualist, but a faithful man devoted to the holy Church of God; not a minimalist in religious matters, but a maximalist who saw to it that churches and altars sparkled for God; not a sentimentalist, but a lover of the holy Eucharist; not a chartering member of PETA, but a man who understood the hierarchy of creation; not a man “tolerant” of all religions, but certain that Catholicism was the one true religion; not a man given to niceties, but to mortification and suffering for Christ whose five wounds he was asked to bear in his own flesh.
In the 13th-century God called Francis to rebuild His Church. If we are to rebuild our own tattered Church in the 21st-century, the only way forward is in the footsteps of the real Francis of Assisi.
(Editor’s note: This essay was originally published by CWR on October 3, 2020.)
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