Getting to Know the Real St. Francis
Franciscan peace is not something saccharine. Hardly! That is not the real Saint Francis! Nor is it a kind of pantheistic harmony with forces of the cosmos. That is not Franciscan either! It is not Franciscan, but a notion that some people have invented!
These words were not articulated by a representative of the Texas oil industry. They were spoken in a homily given by Pope Francis himself during a much-publicized visit to Assisi in October 2013. Moreover, after emphasizing how Saint Francis underscored man’s need to respect the natural world and “help it grow, to become more beautiful and more like what God created it to be,” the Pope added: “above all, Saint Francis witnesses to respect for everyone, he testifies that each of us is called to protect our neighbor, that the human person is at the center of creation, at the place where God—our creator—willed that we should be.”
Such ideas about Saint Francis don’t fit well with some portrayals of the medieval hermit and friar that have emerged in recent decades. Many of these have been developed, as illustrated by the doyen of Italian historians of Francis and the Franciscan movement, Grado G. Merlo, to exploit Francis for numerous contemporary religious and political agendas, ranging from pacifism to radical environmentalism. Franco Zefferelli’s well-known 1972 film Brother Sun, Sister Moon presented the saint, for example, as a type of winsome eccentric who was all about shattering conventionality. In his 1982 book Francis of Assisi: A Model of Human Liberation, the liberation theologian Leonardo Boff portrayed Francis as one who, conceptually speaking, would help us move away from a world dominated by “the bourgeois class that has directed our history for the past five hundred years.”
Then there are the outright myths. Francis of Assisi didn’t author the famous 1967 hymn “Peace Prayer of Saint Francis.” It was written by Sebastian Temple, a twentieth century South African born composer. The prayer on which Temple based the hymn can’t be traced further back than a French magazine published in 1912.
The text to which I always turn whenever claims about Francis of Assisi are made is Augustine Thompson O.P’s meticulously researched Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (2012). The real strength of this biography is the way it rigorously analyzes the documentary record and sources and shifts out what is reliable from that which is hearsay and legend.
So what are some aspects of Saint Francis’s life detailed in Thompson’s book that will surprise many? One is that although he sought radical detachment from the world, Francis believed that he and his followers should engage in manual labor in order to procure necessities like food. Begging was always a secondary alternative (29). Another is that Francis thought that the Church’s sacramental life required careful preparation, use of the finest sacred vessels (32), and proper vestments (62). This is consistent with Francis’s conviction that one’s most direct contact with God was in the Mass, “not in nature or even in service to the poor” (61). While Francis is rightly called a peacemaker and one who loved the poor, Thompson stresses the saint’s “absolute lack of any program of legal or social reforms” (37). The word “poverty” itself appears rarely in Francis’s own writing (246). It seems Francis also thought that it was absolute rather than relative poverty which “always had a claim on compassion” (40).
When it came to Catholic dogma and doctrine, Francis was no proto-dissenter. He was, as Thompson puts it, “fiercely orthodox” (41), even insisting in later life that friars guilty of liturgical abuses or dogmatic deviations should be remanded to higher church authorities (135-136). Hence it shouldn’t surprise us that Francis’s famous conversation in Egypt in 1219 with Sultan al-Kamil and his advisors wasn’t an exercise in interfaith pleasantries. While Francis certainly did not mock Islam, the saint politely told his Muslim interlocutors that he was there to explicate the truth of the Christian faith and save the sultan’s soul (66-70). Nothing more, nothing less.
Francis is of course especially remembered by Christians and others for his love of nature, so much so that another saint, John Paul II, proclaimed him the patron saint of “those who promote ecology” in his 1979 Bula Inter sanctos. Francis’s deep affinity with nature and animals was underscored by those who knew him. The killing of animals or seeing them suffer upset him deeply (56). In this regard and many others, Francis didn’t see the natural world and animals as things to be feared or treated solely as resources for use (57).
Unlike many other medieval religious reformers, however, Francis rejected abstinence from meat and wasn’t a vegetarian. Nor was there a trace of pantheism in Francis’s conception of nature (56). Francis’s references and allusions to nature in his writings, preaching, and instruction were overwhelmingly drawn from the scriptures rather than the environment itself (55). More generally, Francis saw the beauty in nature and the animal world as something that should lead to worship and praise of God (58)—not things to be invested with god-like qualities. G.K. Chesterton’s 1923 popular biographyof Francis makes a similar point: though he loved nature, Francis never worshipped nature itself. Francis’s relationship to nature, Thompson observes, shouldn’t be romanticized. The saint even viewed vermin and mice, for example, as “agents of the devil” (225).
No-one should be stunned by any of this. Saint Francis of Assisi was, after all, a Catholic. He therefore accepted the Jewish and Christian insight that not only is the Creator the Lord of his creation, but that the summit of his created world is man. Awareness of this basic truth, according to Saint Ignatius of Loyola—the founder of the Jesuit order to which Pope Francis belongs—is central to growing closer to God. In hisSpiritual Exercises, Ignatius identifies the “fundamental principle” for overcoming self as knowing that
Man has been created to praise, reverence and serve our Lord God, thereby saving his soul. Everything else on earth has been created for man’s sake, to help him achieve the purpose for which he has been created. So it follows that man has to use them as far as they help and abstain from them where they hinder his purpose.
Neither Ignatius of Loyola nor Francis of Assisi treated the created world as a rosy abstraction. Appreciating and respecting the environment didn’t mean disdaining everything else—including human beings, human work, and human creativity—or forgetting that, as the Church Father, Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, once wrote: “The glory of God is man fully alive.”
However much legend and mythology has blurred the real Francis of Assisi over time, the genuine drama of his life and the forces he unleashed in medieval Europe mean that he’s perhaps fated to have any number of ideological programs thrust upon him. In the end, however, we should remember that while Francis of Assisi continues to have many things to say to everyone today, at the core of all those things is the Catholic vision of God, man and the world.
One can safely say that, for Saint Francis himself, any other interpretation would be impossible.