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St Francis of Assisi

St Francis of Assisi

Fr Martin Henig introduces us to St Francis of Assisi, whose name the present Pope elected to take, and whose feast day falls on the 4th of October.


Many saints are shadowy figures. There is admittedly usually what purports to be a “life”, but that is generally hagiography, following stock topoi: birth, acts of healing and other miracles, death (perhaps as a martyr), and posthumous miracles. Such accounts often share details with other saints or, on occasion, with mythical figures not necessarily Christian. Thus, England’s own patron saint, St George, may in part be descended from a pagan hero such as Bellerophon.

Francis is different. His life is well documented. He was born in Assisi in 1181 or 1182, as Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, the son of a wealthy silk merchant Pietro and a  Provencal mother, and was given the nickname Francesco by which he is remembered. In his youth he lived the life of many other young men of his class and culture, attracted to the romance of troubadour songs and serving as a soldier. In 1202 he was taken prisoner in a battle against Perugia and spent a year in confinement, though on his release he returned to his carefree life. However, a mystical vision in a ruined country chapel of San Damiano, in which the icon still hanging on the wall asked him to repair God’s house, changed all that.

He set about physically restoring San Damiano, selling some of his father’s goods for materials, precipitating a dramatic breach with his father in which he renounced his inheritance and took on the life of holy poverty. Dressed as a peasant, he set about repairing other chapels including Sta Maria degli Angeli (the Porziuncola) where he heard and was struck by Our Lord’s admonition to those who would truly follow him to leave all and effectively embrace a life of poverty (Matthew  10:7-19). By  1208 he was drawing followers to himself and having composed a ‘rule’ he took eleven followers to seek permission of Pope Innocent III to found an order. With the help of Giovanni di san Paolo, Cardinal Bishop of  Sabina he gained access to the Pope who had a dream that led him in 1209 to license Francis to found  his order of friars minor (fratres minores). 

Francis was a charismatic preacher and amongst those drawn to his message of Holy Poverty was a young noblewoman called Clare who heard him preach in the Church of San Rufino in Assisi. She left her home and joined the movement and became leader of a second order of enclosed women, the Poor Clares centred on S. Damiano. Francis also established a third order of laypeople who continued to lead a secular life.

Perhaps the most famous episode in Francis’s life after the foundation of his order was his participation in the Fifth Crusade in 1219 when, during a truce, he elected to meet the sultan at Damietta. His fearlessness and integrity on this occasion led to the Franciscans becoming very much involved as amongst the guardians of Holy Places in the East.

Francis was a founder, not an administrator and he resigned the governance of the order in 1220. The Franciscan order was indeed expanding at an extraordinary rate; the Franciscan rule was formally approved by Pope Honorius III in 1223 and the Franciscan order began spreading widely throughout Europe, including England, to which Friars were  sent in 1224; within weeks houses they founded in Canterbury, London and Oxford, followed within a year or so by Northampton, Cambridge, Norwich and Worcester. 

1224 was a key year in the Francis story for on September 14th, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, he received the Stigmata, the five wounds of Christ at the mountain retreat of La Verna which had been gifted to the order in 1213 by Orlando di Chiusi, Two years later he was brought back to die in a hut beside the Porziuncola  on the evening of 3rd October 1226, and less than two years after that he was canonised by Pope Gregory IX who as Cardinal Ugolino of Segni had been his friend (16 July 1228).

  St Francis . Benedictine abbey of Subiaco.

St Francis. Benedictine abbey of Subiaco.

St Francis was not a trained theologian in any formal sense. Of course. he composed a practical rule for his Order, the only order allowed to follow its own Rule rather than a version of the Benedictine rule, and he wrote prayers and exhortations, some of them versified, of which the best known is his Canticle of the Creatures (in English best known as the hymn, All creatures of our God and King). These are all directed to the love of  God, but the troubadour tradition of romantic love to which he was attracted as a youth perhaps had an influence.

Francis’s life was directed to the imitation of Christ, which his life especially and the lives of those who followed him were designed to mirror. Everything, absolutely everything in this world was of God, and thus the Canticle of the Creatures, apart from praising God, invokes Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Wind, Sister Water, Brother Fire, and Sister Mother Earth. Towards the end of his life he added Sister Bodily Death. 

 Because every being, whether inanimate or animate, was created from the same Divine source, Francis directed his attention to the poor, the outcast including lepers who were feared and shunned by society in the Middle Ages as they were in Antiquity as also to animals. While his relationship with animals may spring in part from an ancient topos widespread in stories about holy men, expressive in particular of their closeness to Eden. His sanctity gives him the power to command chattering birds to be silent and to tame the wolf of Gubbio.  Animals might be symbolic and so he is said to have rescued from the hands of those who would have butchered them because they symbolised Christ as the Lamb of God. However, despite this which has resulted in attempts to minimise his compassion for other creatures, there was almost certainly a new aspect here. As all creation comes from God, it follows that every living being is a brother or a sister. This has been recognised in Pope Francis’ Encyclical Laudato Si’ with its ecological imperative.

Francis’s understanding arose from his life experiences, his visions, his passion and his emotion. Unlike the order of Friars founded by St Dominic as a teaching order the Franciscans were not primarily intellectuals at first. The early lives by Julian of Speyer (c. 1200-1250) and Thomas of Celano (c. 1190-1260) written shortly after his death reflect that, but with Bonaventure of Bagnoregio (St Bonaventure; c. 1217-1274) after the middle of the thirteenth century. Bonaventure, as a trained theologian, excluded or toned down some of the more exuberant legends about the founder of an order which had now assumed so important a place in Christendom. Other important intellectuals in the Franciscan tradition all of them associated with Oxford included Roger Bacon (c. 1220-c. 1292) and Duns Scotus (c. 1265-1308) and William of Ockham (c. 1285-1347). Thus, although their founders were apparently so different, both orders contributed to the theological and philosophical developments of the Middle Ages and beyond. 

Francis became one of the most popular of all saints, and his popularity has grown down to the present day, and not only in the Roman Church where the current pontiff previously Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio took his name when elected Pope in 2013, and as mentioned above entitled his Encyclical with the first words of St Francis’s Canticle of the Creatures.  All three Orders exist in the Anglican Church as well, with the Third Order especially flourishing. The attraction for me and for many others of the Franciscan Order  is its  simplicity, its focus on  Christ’s love and compassion. We humans are not in control of the world, the creation was not made for us, but through the divine love for God’s own purposes. All we can do is to praise God calling to him as Francis did on his deathbed in the words of Psalm 142, Voce mea ad Dominum, ‘With my voice I cry to the Lord’.

The most comprehensive collection of documents in English translation is the three volume Francis of Assisi: Early Documents edited by R.J.Armstrong, J,A, Wayne Hellmann and W.J.Short (New York 1999-2001) with an additional volume on Clare of Assisi:Early Documents edited by R.J.Armstrong (2006). Amongst the most popular writings, culled from earlier material is the Fioretti. The Little Flowers of St Francis’, the earliest manuscript of which dates from 1396, and which was translated by Leo Sherley-Price for Penguin Books in 1959.

The story of St Francis has been dramatized many times but never more beautifully than in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1952 film ‘Brother Sun, Sister Moon’. This has the ring of truth about it; we are a very long way from Academic Theology but then, for me, the greatest Wisdom as our Lord himself told us is simple and child-like. St Francis connects us all with what is really important in our faith, love of God, love of each other, love for all creation.

While most Franciscans are Roman Catholics, there are Franciscan orders within the Anglican Communion. The main international one is the Society of St Francis. Lay and ordained Anglicans may also become members of the Third Order, who embrace the original Franciscan ideals of living lightly on God's earth with joy and love.

Christian Spiritual Practice: Five Books

Christian Spiritual Practice: Five Books

Catholic Social Teaching: Five Books

Catholic Social Teaching: Five Books