Francis of Assisi (c. 1181 – 4 October 1226)
Fr. John A. Roop
(Galatians 6:14-18, Psalm 148:7-14, Matthew 11:25-30)
Most high, omnipotent, good Lord, grant your people grace to renounce gladly the vanities of this world; that, following the way of blessed Francis, we may for love of you delight in your whole creation, with perfectness of joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
St. Francis once was living at the Convent of the Portiuncula, with Brother Masseo of Marignano, a man of great sanctity and great discernment, who held frequent converse with God; for that reason St. Francis loved him much. One day, as St. Francis was returning from the forest, where he had been in prayer, Brother Masseo, wishing to test the humility of the saint, went to meet him exclaiming: “Why after you? Why after you?” To which St. Francis answered: “What is this? What do you mean?” Brother Masseo answered: “I mean, why is it that all the world goes after you; why do all men wish to see you, to hear you, and to obey your word? For you are neither handsome nor learned, nor are you of noble birth. How is it, then, that all the world goes after you?”
St. Francis, hearing these words, rejoiced greatly in spirit, and lifting up his eyes to heaven, remained for a long time with his mind rapt in God; then, coming to himself, he knelt down, returning thanks to God with great fervor of spirit, and addressing Brother Masseo, said to him: “Would you know why all men come after me? Know that it is because the Lord, who is in heaven, who sees the evil and the good in all places — because, I say, his holy eyes have found among men no one more wicked, more imperfect, or a greater sinner than I am; and to accomplish the wonderful work he intends to do, he has found no creature more vile than I am on earth; for that reason he has chosen me, to confound all strength, beauty, greatness, noble birth, and all the sciences of the world, that men may learn that every virtue and every good gift comes from him, and not from any creature, that none may glory before him; but if any one glory, let him glory in the Lord, to whom belongs all glory in eternity.”
Then Brother Masseo, at such a humble answer, given with so much fervor, was greatly impressed, and learned with certainty that St. Francis was well grounded in humility (Brother Ugolino, The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi).
With the possible exceptions of St. Mary and St. Nicholas, there is likely no more widely and deeply revered saint than Francis of Assisi. And like his companion Masseo, it is reasonable for us to wonder why. Externally, there was little to commend him. He was the spoiled son of an Italian cloth merchant at just that point in history when the merchant class was on the ascendancy both in wealth and political influence. Francis was the leader of a local gang of young men in Assisi, those given to mischief and drinking and romantic exploits. He wasted his time and his father’s money with these adolescent adventures. He had visions of the glories and honor of chivalry and tried to earn a knighthood in battle with the nearby rival city of Perugia. Instead, he was captured and imprisoned, a sobering turn of events that likely began the deep self-examination that led Francis to his conversion. It didn’t happen all at once, but over months and years, Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone — his birth name — died, and Francis of Assisi — St. Francis — was born again.
Even then, there was little to commend him. While contemplating the cross in the tumbled-down local church of San Damiano, Francis received a vision — heard a voice saying: “Francis, go and rebuild my church which, as you see, is falling down.” Even here, Francis misunderstood the heavenly voice and thought it had something to do with carpentry and construction: refurbish this abandoned church at San Damiano. He did, and in the process gained some followers. But, the Lord intended more.
Francis embraced a radical form of spirituality centered around three vows: poverty, chastity, and obedience. It is hard to see these as particularly attractive, but, by the grace of God they were, and a group of dedicated men formed around Francis, a group which became an official order in the Church, the fratres minores — the friars minor, the little brothers. And this group did, indeed, rebuild the Church that was falling down. This little group did change the world. And Francis, Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, became Saint Francis of Assisi.
There are many good and sound theological definitions of a saint. I’m partial to this very imprecise — but quite true — description: A saint is a fool for Christ that everyone admires and that no one want to imitate. How true that is about Francis. The world loves him. The world admires, even reveres him. But few choose to imitate him as he really was, not as we re-create him to be — some gentle, animal-loving, tree-hugging, peace-promoting flower child, left wing radical. There is an element of truth in that description, but, taken in isolation it distorts the true nature of the saint. He was a faithful son of the Church who expressed his vocation through Gospel poverty, chastity, and obedience. Apart from those three vows, it is impossible to truly understand Francis. So, it is to those vows we turn.
As a young man, Francis was formed by the notion of chivalry, of a knight’s devotion to a lady. This relationship between knight and lady was one of chaste love in which the knight pledged himself to the honor and defense of his lady, a relationship in which he would risk anything, suffer anything in order to serve his lady. Francis’ patroness, his love, was Lady Poverty.
And why? Because when Jesus came among us he came not in riches but in poverty. Francis saw poverty as the way to follow the King of glory because Jesus himself chose poverty. For Francis, Jesus was the model in everything, the one to be imitated in everything. If Jesus were poor, then Francis and his followers would choose poverty.
He felt so strongly about this that the Friars Minor were prohibited from even touching money. They worked to provide for their needs when possible and begged when no work was available, but they accepted no money as wages or alms, only food and other material goods like clothing. Francis lived at a transition period in history when money was vying with titles in determining what a man was and what opportunities he had; Francis’ time was the rise of the merchant class. And Francis knew — perhaps by family experience — that money had a way of transforming itself into mammon, the idol and god of wealth, and transforming its owners into idol worshippers. Better to honor Lady Poverty and to follow her way to the Lord.
That attitude, the willing embrace of poverty, is counter cultural wherever and whenever it appears, in Francis’ twelfth century Umbria or in our twenty-first century Knoxville. While Jesus repeatedly warned of the dangers of wealth, he did not generally advocate absolute poverty for all. Neither has the Church. Neither did Francis. Francis depended upon wealthy patrons to support his ministry. But his way — not everyone’s way — but his was was the way of poverty.
Is there anything we can learn from Francis about wealth and poverty? Yes, I think so, and it comes by way of the Third Order Franciscans, lay people who follow the way of Francis while still living in the world: working in their professions, serving their families, taking their places in their communities and in the church. Their vows replace the vow of poverty with the vow of simplicity. They possess money, but they resist being possessed by money. They practice contentment with what they have while resisting the siren call of the new, the better, the fancier, the more impressive. They do not hoard goods; instead they give generously.
This goes against the grain of our consumer culture that tempts us to build meaning and identity around what we own. But the new thing we just had to have today becomes the old thing we wouldn’t be caught dead with tomorrow. Paradoxically, simplicity is more deeply satisfying than is satisfying every material desire. We have a lot to learn from Francis’ devotion to Lady Poverty.
Francis was not always devoted to chastity. If the stories about his youth are correct, his romantic and sexual escapades were the stuff of juicy gossip in Assisi. But all that changed with his conversion; the Friars Minor were expected to be chaste, which for them meant celibate.
Most of us are not called to be celibate. Some are, and it is a holy calling and a gift from God for the good of the Church. Celibates can teach us much about agapē, about holy love. Celibates love and love deeply, but they do not love possessively; there is no sense of ownership in their love. That means they can love the other precisely as other, not for their own benefit but for the benefit of the other, always willing the good of the other. And, holy celibates, those who are celibate as a calling from God, can teach us about rightly ordered love. Because they love God supremely, they are free to love all men subordinately. Celibacy is to be honored among us, not dismissed or diminished as unfortunate and — please God — temporary.
While celibacy is not for everyone, chastity is. Chastity is rightly ordered love within relationships. If single, chastity is expressed by celibacy. If married, chastity is expressed by fidelity. But chastity involves much more than just rightly ordered sexual relations. Chastity is a matter of the heart — the spiritual center of a person — as much as it is a matter of the body. It was this type of chastity that Jesus taught about in the Sermon on the Mount:
Matthew 5:27–30 (ESV): 27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
Lust is a violation of chastity. Failure to guard the eyes is a violation of chastity. Pornography is a violation of chastity, and one that is epidemic in our society. Any base, impure thought, word, or deed is a violation of chastity. It takes firm commitment and strenuous spiritual discipline to keep a vow of chastity, but, like Francis, it is that to which we are called.
In my ordination to the diaconate and the priesthood, I was required to publicly subscribe to the Oath of Canonical Obedience:
And I do promise, here in the presence of Almighty God and of the Church, that I will pay true and canonical obedience in all things lawful and honest to the Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of the South, and his successors, so help me God (BCP 2019, p. 485).
That was a sobering moment and act, because obedience does not come naturally to me. I have since found it to be a great blessing, but it is an acquired taste.
Francis was an obedient son of the Church. And, this is where many people misunderstand Francis. They want to extract him from his place in the church and make him spiritual but not religious, a saint for believers and atheists alike. But, that won’t do. Francis was a faithful Roman Catholic who obeyed his hierarchy from pope to bishop to parish priest, because he found in them the righty and duly authorized representatives of Christ.
Francis was absolutely obedient to Jesus as revealed in the Church and in Scripture. It has been said about Francis that for him, the Bible was not so much a book to be read as a script to be acted out. Why did Francis really embrace Gospel poverty? Because he read Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler as a commandment to himself, and he obeyed. Can you imagine living that way, or at least more nearly that way? What if we actually took the Sermon on the Mount as the script for our lives and determined to be obedient to it? What would change in your life, in my life? That was the nature of Francis’ obedience.
Masseo asked, “Why you, Francis?” His question reminds me of some comments I heard about Queen Elizabeth II following her death. One of her former Royal Chaplains, Gavin Ashenden, tried to explain why everyone seemed to love her, even those who have no use for the monarchy. He said that most people were drawn to a kindly, old lady who loved dogs and horses, who smiled and waved to everyone, who dressed in bright colors and always carried a handbag, who served faithfully for over seven decades. But, Ashenden went further. What they were really drawn to — though most didn’t know it, he said — was the fruit of the Spirit that she bore in her life. She loved the Lord Jesus and cultivated a life of Christian virtue. And that attracted people.
So, why Francis? Not because he loved animals and all nature, not because he preached and practiced peace, not because he cared for the poor, but rather because he loved Jesus above all else, because he disciplined himself to follow Jesus by embracing poverty, chastity, and obedience, because he exemplified the Christian virtues and bore the fruit of the Spirit. And people were and are and always will be attracted to that. That is among the most important lessons we can learn from Francis: the best evangelists are not those who know the most about Jesus and the faith, but those who most love Jesus and practice obedience to him.
May the Lord bless you.
May the Lord keep you.
May He show His face to you and have mercy.
May He turn to you His countenance and give you peace.
The Lord bless you.