Francis of Assisi (October 4)

From the Martyrology:

Assisii, in Umbria, natalis sancti Francisci, Levitae et Confessoris; qui trium Ordinum, scilicet Fratrum Minorum, Pauperum Dominarum, ac Fratrum et Sororum de Poenitentia, Fundator exstitit. Ipsius autem vitam, sanctitate ac miraculis plenam, sanctus Bonaventura conscripsit.

At Assisi in Umbria, the heavenly birth [i.e., the worldly death] of Saint Francis, Levite and Confessor: who became the founder of three Orders, namely, the Friars Minor, the Poor Ladies [AKA, the Poor Clares], and the Brothers and Sisters of Penitence [AKA, the Third Order]. Saint Bonaventure wrote of his life, replete with holiness and miracles.

I have spoken much of the “Fantasy Francis” phenomenon (here, here, and here), which is a contrast between popular perceptions of Pope Francis and the real Pope Francis. The fact that Cardinal Bergoglio chose this particular regnal name upon his election reawakened popular attention to his namesake, Francis of Assisi. Here too, we find the existence of another “Fantasy Francis”– a Francis of Assisi who is an archetype of the modern hippy, a peacenik all about 1960’s-style peace, love, and understanding. Fr. Augustine Thompson, OP, whose recent book Francis of Assisi: A new biography is a masterful synthesis of all the extant sources we have on Francis, contains this little gem, among many others:

“Peace Prayer of Saint Francis”—a popular hymn best known by its opening words “Make me a channel of your peace,” and sung to a tune written by the Anglican composer Sebastian Temple. Many are quite shocked to find that this song is not identical to Francis’s “Canticle of Brother Sun,” from which Zefferelli took the name of his movie. The “Peace Prayer” is modern and anonymous, originally written in French, and dates to about 1912, when it was published in a minor French spiritual magazine, La Clochette. Noble as its sentiments are, Francis would not have written such a piece, focused as it is on the self, with its constant repetition of the pronouns “I” and “me,” the words “God” and “Jesus” never appearing once.

As postmodern thought tries to reduce Jesus Christ into one great guru among many, so too do we see Francis reduced . We have, however, at our disposal a plethora of facts and details like the one above, all of which collectively explode common misconceptions of the saint. The real Francis was a true homo ecclesiasticus, deeply rooted in the life and institution of the Catholic Church and radically conformed to Christ crucified and risen. His entire existence has no meaning apart from Christ and the Church. Among other absurd things attributed to St. Francis is the quote, “Preach the Gospel, using words if necessary”. This is, of course, nonsense.

Most people know his basic biographical outline: born into a family of privilege, he lived a life of decadence as a young soldier. Between captivity in war and illness, Francis experienced a gradual spiritual awakening which culminated in a vision recevied at the little chapel of San Damiano at Assisi. It seemed as if Christ spoke to him through the crucifix, saying, Va’ e ripara la mia Chiesa che, come vedi, cade in rovina— “Go repair my Church, which, as you see, has fallen into ruin”. Taking the command literally, he sold his clothes to buy building supplies, and he began to fix the little chapel by hand. He did not simply fix the structural faults; Francis procured precious fabrics and gold to ornament the house of God, as befits the Divine Majesty. This instigated a conflict with his father, who was incensed that their riches should be “wasted”. Eventually, in the presence of the local bishop, Francis renounced his patrimony and inheritance, publicly laid aside his fine clothing, and took a sackcloth habit. Living as a beggar for two years, he rebuilt and repaired little chapels around Assisi. By 1209, he had gained some followers and Francis composed their rule of common life, according to which they would live as “lesser brothers”– fratres minores— preaching the Gospel in the countryside.

Francis and his companions were hardly the first mendicant group; another group, the Waldensians, had similar roots: starting in 1170, they lived in poverty and preached radical adherence to the Gospel, with one major difference from the Franciscans– the Waldensians rejected the authority of the Church. As a consequence, Waldensian doctrines and exegesis took a strange turn. It was due to Franciscan loyalty to the Catholic Church, an unquestioned virtue in the new order, that Pope Innocent III approved the Friars Minor and their rule in 1209. In Rome, Francis and his brothers received ecclesiastical tonsure and Francis was ordained a deacon.

One overlooked fact of Saint Francis’ life is that he was never a priest, only a deacon. When the Martyrology entry cited above calls him a “Levite”, one might immediately think of the Old Testament priesthood which has found fulfillment in our sacramental priesthood. Here, however, the term “Levites” refers to clerics in general, including priests and deacons. We only need to recall the Exsultet, customarily sung by a deacon, which contains the words: …ut qui me, non meis meritis, intra Levitarum numerum dignatus est aggregare… [that he who was pleased, not through my meritis, to number me among the Levites]. He obtained a dispensation from the Pope that he not become a priest, so that he not receive the worldly dignities which priests enjoyed at the time. Yet in order to preach in the name of the Church, he needed to be a cleric, and thus he received the diaconate. As a deacon, he prayed the old Divine Office (all seven hours) daily in Latin, in addition to hearing daily Mass. Again, as a cleric of the Church, all his works took place within the context of the Church. Far from being a radical anti-establishment figure, Francis drew inspiration from the rhythms and structure of ecclesiastical life.

When we compared Francis’ original Cantico del frate sole against Marty Haugen’s “Canticle of the Sun” (see here), we saw the disconnect between the radical God-centered sentiments of the saint one one hand, and the strange, almost idolatrous praise of the created world on Haugen’s part. Yes, Francis acutely discerned the presence of God made manifest in the beauty of creation, but he never mistook the splendor of the world as worthy of praise in itself. Neither did his appreciation of nature’s wonders trump his absolute devotion to the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist. As we have mentioned in another post, Francis was serious about liturgical beauty and propriety, going so far as to forcefully admonish fellow clerics who did not carry the Eucharistic species in precious vessels.

In 1219, with the Fifth Crusade underway, Crusader armies had besieged the city of Damietta in Egypt, where the Ottoman Sultan and his court were trapped. Francis resolutely endeavored to follow Christian forces. Upon arrival, he (without permission from the Crusader command), slipped past the siege line, that he might be captured and brought to the Sultan. I seen a decent amount of content online, from amateur blog posts to academic term papers, that try to frame Francis’ mission to the Sultan in Damietta as a prototype of modern-style interreligious dialogue, as if Francis did not try to convert the Sultan and his people. Such commentators say that he only sought to understand Islam in order to engage its culture effectively. Certainly, he engaged in reasoned disputation with the Sultan and his theologians. Certainly, he learned about Islam and taught the Sultan’s court something about Christianity. But mutual understanding and respect was never an end in itself; Francis’ simple purpose was to bring the Sultan and his people to Christ. Nothing does more injustice to Saint Francis than the implication that he did not take seriously that grave commission of Christ: “Go and preach to all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you”. In Saint Bonaventure’s biography of Francis, the first thing the Poverello told the Sultan was this:

If you wish, convert to Christ with your people, by virtue of his love which he has freely given you. But if you hesitate to accept faith in Christ on account of the law of Mohammed, command that a raging fire be lit, and I will walk into it with your priests, and thus you will know whose faith is more certain and more holy, and not held without reason.

Si vis, converti tu cum populo tuo ad Christum, ob ipsius amorem vobiscum libentissime commorabor. Quodsi haesitas propter fidem Christi legem Mahumeti dimittere, iube ignem accendi permaximum, et ego cum sacerdotibus tuis ignem ingrediar, ut vel sic cognoscas, quae fides certior et sanctior non immerito tenenda sit.

Bonaventure then recounts that the Sultan, impressed with the friar’s ardor, did not accept the challenge, for he feared a riot from his people. Francis’ companion during the mission to the Sultan, Brother Illuminato, recounts one of many disputations between the Sultan and the saint. Illuminato writes:

The same sultan submitted this problem to him: “Your Lord taught in his gospels that evil must not be repaid with evil, that you should not refuse your cloak to anyone who wants to take your tunic, etc. (Mt 5,40): All the more Christians should not invade our land!”. And Blessed Francis answered: ”It seems to me that you have not read the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in its entirety. In fact it says elsewhere: “if your eye causes you sin, tear it out and throw it away” (Mt 5 , 29). With this, Jesus wanted to teach us that if any person, even a friend or a relative of ours, and even if he is dear to us as the apple of our eye, we should be willing to repulse him, to weed him out if he sought to take us away from the faith and love of our God. This is precisely why Christians are acting according to justice when they invade the lands you inhabit and fight against you, for you blaspheme the name of Christ and strive to turn away from his worship as many people as you can. But if you were to recognize, confess, and worship the Creator and Redeemer, Christians would love you as themselves instead”.

In the end, Francis’ attempt to convert the Sultan failed, though he did win the high esteem of the Sultan and his court. He and Illuminato were dismissed from the besieged city and brought back to Crusader lines. His fame grew after this incident, and the ranks of the Friars Minor swelled with new members.

On account of his indisputable holiness, Francis was the first known person to receive the stigmata, the wounds of Christ’s Passion. On the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross in 1224, he experienced a mystical vision of a seraph who gave him the wounds. His body already made frail by a life of continual mortification, Francis’ sufferings increased in the last two years of his life, with medical treatments failing to support him. In the end, he was brought back to the Porziuncola, the place where his ministry began. In a little hut near the chapel, Francis took not even a deathbed but the bare floor. Knowing death to be near, he added one more verse to his Cantico del frate sole:

Laudato si’ mi’ Signore per sora nostra morte corporale, da la quale nullu homo vivente pò skappare: guai a quelli ke morrano ne le peccata mortali; beati quelli ke trovarà ne le tue santissime voluntati, ka la morte secunda no ‘l farrà male.
Blessed are you, my Lord, through our sister bodily death, from whom no living man can escape: woe to those who die in mortal sin; blessed are they whom death finds in your most holy will, for the second death shall not harm them.

In the presence of his weeping brethren and approaching the final transitus, the Poverello achingly recited Psalm 142, that heart-wrenching cry of distress, which ends in this manner:

Educ de custodia animam meam
ad confitendum nomini tuo;
me exspectant justi donec retribuas mihi

Bring my soul out of its prison,
to the confession of your Name;
the just shall surround me until you ransom me.

Surrounded by his closest brothers, he passed into death; now he is surrounded by the hosts of heaven, for he has been ransomed into new life, where the second death does no harm. In 1228, Pope Gregory IX, the former Cardinal Ugolino di Conti, under whose patronage the Franciscans flourished, raised Francis of Assisi to the glory of the altars. As the Extraordinary Synod on the Family prepares to convene in Rome, let us beg the intercession of St. Francis, that his example of apostolic fervor may fill the hearts of the bishops, inspiring them to stand with Christ and his Gospel against the desacralizing trends of the day.

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