St. Francis of Assisi—Setting the Record Straight
This post was written in October 2014. This year, 2015, October 4 falls on a Sunday, so the memorial St. Francis is not universally observed, but we still might want to honor him in small ways without overshadowing the primacy of Sunday.
October 4 marks the memorial of St. Francis of Assisi, a feast honoring one of the most popular saints in the Church. It seems that everyone knows about St. Francis, or at least they claim they know him. This saint has become even more well-known due to our current pope taking the name of Francis. For this feast day, may we all ask for the intercession of St. Francis for our Holy Father? Then shall we set the record straight on a few areas of St. Francis?
Excuse the rant, but it is continually irksome to see so many aspects, quotes and anecdotes mistakenly attributed to St. Francis. If I were to compile a quick modern (incorrect) composite of St. Francis, he would be a barefoot, soft-talking, sentimental, free-thinking, anti-church, head-in-the-clouds, tree and animal hugger and social activist. And really, while there might be some outward appearance to give people these ideas, so much of this portrait is very mistaken. I can’t address all the areas in this small space, but I did want to correct a few aspects of mistaken identity.
Who really was St. Francis of Assisi? He was a man who wholeheartedly answered Jesus’ call to follow Him. One could strip down his life to three essential elements: loving Jesus above all else, living the Gospel completely, and preaching the Gospel by his words and life.
Literally Living the Gospel
St. Francis lived the Gospel to the letter. Reading the different versions of the Rule for the Friars Minor, the instructions are all based on the Gospel. Initially the Pope did not approve his Rule because it was too difficult. How could an order not own anything? His first rule from 1209 is lost, but it is thought it simply worked together key teachings from the Gospel as the later rules reflect, such as:
- Matthew 19:21: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.“
- Matthew 16:24: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
- Luke 14:26: “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.“
- Mathew 19:29: “And every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.”
- Luke 9:62: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.“
- Matthew 6:16: “And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”
People know from experience how it is easier to read the Good News than to put it completely into practice. In worldly eyes, Francis was a radical. Because he lived the Gospel, he was considered crazy. Yes, he was crazy for love of God.
St. Francis didn’t live a soft life. He was demanding of himself and his brothers, and lived so austerely that we modern people cannot handle one finger’s worth of his personal mortifications.
And he certainly wasn’t against the Church. He respected the clergy, was obedient to the Church, especially the pope. If he truly was anti-church, he wouldn’t have set up rules and three orders within the Church. He didn’t come to abolish the Church, but he brought in a breath of fresh air, reminding people that living our Faith means loving Jesus and following the Good News. These coincide with the Liturgy, but often worldly matters can overshadow the heart of living the Faith.
Two October Saints Embracing the Heart of the Gospel
Similar to St.Thérèse, St. Francis always preserved that childhood wonder. He lived the same Gospel message we heard twice this week: “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven“ (Matthew 18:3-4). Today’s Gospel reinforces that message: “I give you praise, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned, you have revealed them to the childlike.”
I have often thought that Francis would have acted like Will Ferrell in the movie Elf. Ferrell acted childlike in the world, stopping and marveling at wonders, both great and small. Everything is new and amazing, and there is no worry or rush. There is only time to stop, observe, and wonder. Children do this; grown-ups often forget. We all have to embrace and find that wonder. From then Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI):
Wonder should not be lost—the capacity, that is, to marvel and to listen, to ask not only about what is functional but equally to perceive the harmony of the spheres and to rejoice precisely that it is no obvious use to us (Ratzinger, Journey to Easter).
St. Thérèse manifested a smaller, less visible way of embracing the Gospel. She was bound and restricted by obedience and physical limitations that she couldn’t do the great things of austerity, like fasting and penance and praying all day, like St. Francis. There is a connection and similarity in these two saints. They loved and lived the Gospel, loved Jesus above all things and saw Jesus in everyone and everything, and allowed wonder and childlike confidence in their lives!
Patron of Animals and Environmentalism
Ah, St. Francis! One would think he was the patron of PETA and Serra Club by all the things attributed him with nature. He was such a tree hugger, right? He’s become larger than life in the legends of being kind to animals, and praising the different aspects of nature, that people have jumped to conclusion that he’s a staunch environmentalist.
Francis loved Jesus above all things. He was united in prayer with Christ almost continually. Because of his love of God, this extended in recognizing God’s handiwork in all of creation. Seeing the beauty and marvels in nature was another way to continually praise and love God. This wasn’t an elevation or worship of creation, but a respect and love of God’s gifts for man. Gifts of nature brought thoughts of God, and united Francis with God in prayer.
Francis was not opposed to using the gifts of creation for man’s purpose, but he always recognized that is what they are: gifts, and only temporary gifts. We thank our Giver through prayer and are to be good stewards of our gifts, as in the Parable of the Talents. So yes, Francis is an effective intercessor for us for use of the gifts of nature, but we must recognize that he didn’t elevate nature higher than God nor man, but recognized nature as a tool and a gift, and that man must be good stewards.
Blessing of animals on the feast of St. Francis is a newer sacramental. There are blessings of animals in the older form of the Roman Ritual, but they were not nested around the feast of St. Francis. The newer Book of Blessings includes a new blessing of animals that can be used on the feast of St. Francis.
St. Francis: Man of Few Written Words
St. Francis wrote very little, and so few of his words have been recorded. Two primary sources, St. Francis of Assisi: Omnibus of Sources and Francis and Clare: The Complete Works are only one-volume works, neither overly large. And yet, there are quite a few written things attributed to St. Francis.
- While it is a beautiful hymn, the Prayer of St. Francis, Make Me a Channel of Your Peace, is not a prayer or hymn written by St. Francis. It is written in a style similar to St. Francis, but not by him at all.
- “Preach without ceasing; use words only if necessary” is a quote extensively and falsely attributed to St. Francis. St. Francis did not say this. He did preach, and used his words often. He also believed in using his good example, and never preached differently from what he practiced. There is a story attributed to him about how he took a brother into a town to preach. They walked through the whole town without saying a word. The brother asked when they were going to preach, and St. Francis responded that they already did. Last night I pored through the Omnibus and I couldn’t find the reference to the story, so I’m not even sure if that is based on the historical writings. Perhaps the quote has been formed based on the story, but please, let’s not say St. Francis said this! Just because it can be found on the Internet does not necessarily mean it is true.
Honoring and Imitating the real St. Francis
The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy emphasizes how we must carefully present the saints in the correct light:
231. It is always necessary to ensure that the feast days of the Saints are carefully prepared both liturgically and pastorally.
Such requires a correct presentation of the objectives of the cult of the Saints, i.e. the glorification of God “in His Saints”318, a commitment to live the Christian life following the example of Christ, of whose mystical Body the Saints are preeminent members.
It is also necessary to represent the figure of the Saint in a correct manner. Bearing in mind the prospect of contemporary society, this presentation should not only contain an account of the legendary events associated with the Saint, or of his thaumaturgic powers, but should also include an evaluation of his significance for the Christian life, the greatness of his sanctity, the effectiveness of his Christian witness, and of the manner in which his particular charism has enriched the Church.
Legends of St. Francis abound. Everyone knows of his stories with the Wolf of Gubbio, his preaching to the birds, and admonishing the swallows. While it is a natural outpouring of the cult of a saint to have legends and stories, these need to be portrayed not as signs of wonder done by one man. The stories need to portray a saint who was humble, lived the Gospel, loved Jesus above all things. The stories show Francis recognized the hand of God in all of nature, and respected God’s gifts to man. In that holy humility, God worked wonders through St. Francis. All the miraculous wonders do not reflect Francis, but they point back to God. So in finding appropriate stories for our children about St. Francis, measure whether the reader will come away with wanting to imitate the saint. Will they praying for his intercession? Will the reader want to love God more and want to be a saint just like St. Francis? Do the wonders portrayed show the hand of God, or is it all explained as either a supernatural or natural phenomenon performed by exclusively Francis?
So on this feast of St. Francis, let us recognize the true and living saint from Assisi. Let us not put words in his mouth and assign false attributes to him. St. Francis lived a uncomplicated life, following the Gospel to the letter. It might have been simple, but it was radical and difficult. May we ask his intercession to see how we can imitate him and live the Gospel in our lives everyday.
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