On Saint Francis of Assisi, my Patron Saint

I do not write as much as I used to, my tendinitis in both hands has prevented me from doing so. It’s been quite painful for many weeks now, so I have been wearing hand braces and reserving my efforts for work purposes.

However on this day, I must share a few different notes. Some of which is about my Patron Saint, on this his feast day and after the Transistus. And some words about other things as well.

A lot of people associate St. Francis with animals and being peaceful, but there’s more to the story. I have a book about the early history of the Franciscans, which details Francis’ life as a child, the Order’s founding, and the events after. There’s one piece which has always stuck with me, which I will share now.

One day, Francis left on a mission trip and left someone else in charge. In a precursor as to what would happen after his death, the person that was left in charge in his absence began changing many things regarding the Order. Among them, he had a library/school built, placed all the “smart” people there. “Less intelligent” people did menial labour.

For those who don’t know, within the Franciscans, everyone is Brother, – they are equals. The word “Friar” comes from “Frater”, which is Latin for “brother”. Within the Franciscans, everyone except the “Guardian” (aka “Superior”) is a Brother, even if they are a priest. It’s the Guardian is who is called “Father”, and he doesn’t need to be a priest to obtain that position. The priesthood within the Franciscan order is “accidental”, they could function entirely without any due to the fraternal nature of the Order. They also all wear the same habit, you shouldn’t be able to tell which Friar is a priest unless you asked one of them for Confession (then, obviously the priest would make himself known).

Along with the fraternal elements, people were to be treated as equals. The reason why Francis banned what is now known as Gregorian Chant was twofold; first because they were poor and couldn’t afford books, along with embracing voluntary poverty. Second, to use that kind of chant would have required a schola, which would have created some separation with the Brothers.

With that in mind, the creation of the school and separation of the Brothers was a big deal. And it wasn’t that education in itself was a bad thing, it was the method of going about it. There are ample cases of Franciscans scholars throughout the centuries. Bonaventure worked with Aquinas for many years, for example. However, seeking knowledge above fraternity and serving the poor was a huge deviation.

While on the mission, Francis found out about the situation. Knowing that the Order’s general council was upcoming, he then turned to his travel companions and said:

“When I return for the general council, I will show them my will”.

Amazing.

Upon his return, he rebuked those who deviated from the principles of the Order. He stood at the steps of the Dominican Priory and proclaimed that those who wanted knowledge first should enter their building. That the Poor Brothers would serve the poor through charity, service, and fraternity. He then proceeded to bring things back to the way that he originally envisioned.  Francis’ life was filled with moments like those. Like when approaching the Pope regarding a Rule for the Order, the Pope said “no new Rules for Orders”. Francis said “no, Jesus Himself is guiding me with this”. After a dream one night, the Pope agreed. When creating the Rule, Francis had a vision; and was determined to see it through despite many objections.

Throughout all of these situations, it was tempered with holy obedience. He helped reform the Church, but did so with Biblical principles, and without schism or scandal. There are traditions we use today like the nativity scene which are due to him. The Tabernacle being behind the alter? That’s a modern invention; Francis moved it to behind the alter for two reasons. He greatly respected how the Jews kept some of their sacred objects in a similar area, so why not do that with the most sacred Eucharist? The second is a much more practical reason; they did not have space for the traditional side chapel, which is what the Benedictines used (and still often use to this day).

Many of the traditions that Francis started are used by the Latin Church to this day. We have him to thank for the rise of the Mendicant spirituality as a whole. The influence his spirituality has had within the Church is nigh incalculable. In all of these situations, we must also consider that he adhered to the teachings of the Church – there was no dissent as it pertained to doctrine. A man of will, a man of principle. And a man who had a desire to follow what God’s Will was unquestionably.

There’s something else regarding Francis which I would like to touch on; “preach the Gospel at all times, when necessary use words”.

Some will use that quote to say “we should keep our Faith to ourselves” or “don’t evangelize with words”. The extreme of this can lead to people not wanting to offend anyone with their words, and keeping quiet. Francis would never say that, would never think that. For one, he had great respect for Dominic and the order of Preachers. If words were not important, he wouldn’t have said “when I return for the general council, I will show them my will”. He would not have stood on the steps of the Priory. He would not have rebuked his fellow Brothers, nor would have privately rebuked others.

A Francis rebuking story found in a book I have which details Franciscan history; there was a man named Bernard who had many possessions and coins, and joined up with Francis as one of his first followers. Before this, there was a priest who sold Francis some stones. Some time after the transaction, he noticed Francis and Bernard getting rid of Bernard’s belongings, and thought he wasn’t compensated enough. Apparently, Francis gave him the money as the priest requested, however Francis also said something along the lines of “take it, it take it all, money means nothing in the eyes of the Lord” or something to that effect – rebuking him for his greed.  Later on, the priest took those words to heart. He pondered his life and his actions, and what caused him to approach those giving away things in order to get more to get more for himself. The priest eventually gave all of his belongings away, and joined Francis and the brothers, and in fact became one of Francis’ favored travel companions. The priest? That would be Servant of God, Brother Sylvester of Assisi. His canonization case is currently still open.

There’s a second segment that speaks about “preach the Gospel at all times, when necessary use words” – those who are reactionary towards the idea that the quote discourages speaking up. Among other things, they’ll often say that Francis never said the quote attributed to him, and will champion the use of proclaiming the Gospel through words. Sometimes, in the very opposite of what I said in a previous paragraph, people will disparage the quote because they tend to use uncharitable language or are not concerned at all with offending others when having dialogues with others.

It is correct, Francis never said that quote. However, context is needed. After Francis went on a failed mission trip, he began to consider that he should devote all of his time to prayer. There were two people who counseled him; one was Saint Claire, who implored him that he should definitely continue preaching. In what is incredibly important, some Franciscan scholars attribute the quote regarding preaching the Gospel with actions to *her*. That Saint Claire said it to Francis. The other person who gave him counsel, and essentially said the same thing as Claire?

Brother Sylvester.

This shaped Francis’ work throughout the rest of his life. At some point, he went and had an audience with the Sultan. He requested that he and the Brothers could go into the Sultan’s lands, and work extensively with the poor. He also requested fair treatment of Christian prisoners, and for Christians in general. He said that while they were working with the poor that if the people asked about Christ, they would share the Gospel without hesitation – however they would not engage in active proselytism (ie; no “Bible thumping”). The Sultan agreed to this, thus beginning some Franciscan presence in that area. The work they have done there and their influence extends to this day; the Franciscans are the custodians of the Holy Land.

If you want a modern example of what Franciscan spirituality entails, there is a story that many of you likely heard. We journey to Auschwitz, during World War II. In July 1941, three prisoners escaped. To deter further attempts, an SS officer picked ten people to starve to death. One of the men selected cried out “my wife, my children!” Upon hearing that, a Friar spoke up said “I am a poor man, I have no family. Allow me to take his place”. Simple words, powerful action. The SS took him up on that, and so the Friar joined the other nine.  During the detainment, the Friar led the other nine in prayer specifically praying to Our Lady for her intercession. Powerful words, with powerful truth. Guards would pass by, hearing the starving prisoners praying. An old man with nothing, yet seemingly having everything. After two weeks of dehydration and starvation, only the Friar remained alive. Eventually, the Nazis killed him via lethal injection.

The Friar above distills what Franciscan spirituality entails, and what Francis envisioned. Yes you use words, and there are times when words are vital, important. There are times when you must charitably rebuke someone. Education is fantastic, knowledge is powerful, there is nothing inherently wrong with learning extensively. But you can have the most heroic willpower in the world, the most charitable language used to date, a knowledge of a library within your mind – at the end of the day you must serve others in charity, lead a fraternal life, and not be ruled by temporal possessions.

For those who never heard the story before, that Friar is now known as “Saint Maximillian Kolbe”.

Tragically, over the course of several centuries, some within the Order began straying from the original vision of Francis. Some Friars had become “clerical”, where priests outranked the non-ordained, which shouldn’t be happening in an order where the priesthood is accidental. Some Friars were living on their own, not with Brothers, which shouldn’t be happening in a fraternal Order. Some owned cars, owned homes, had independent wealth. These things are not bad things, of course! But to a Franciscan, those things were never to be in the picture, they interfered with how life was to be lived in a temporal and spiritual sense. At some point around 1960 or so, the leaders of the Franciscan Order realized if Francis was alive, there would be many who would not welcome him in the Order. Because he embraced voluntary poverty, he wouldn’t be welcome as some were too attached to “stuff”. Because of the Brotherhood he desired, he would be shunned – as some just wanted to be left alone to their own devices. And tellingly, because Francis was never a priest, there were some who would never accept him as the leader. This was the Order he founded, and there were several who would never accept his authority if he was the leader! This wasn’t unique to the Franciscans, several Orders found themselves with many members who were straying from their founder’s original vision.

So, the leaders of the Franciscans and the leaders of some of the other Orders petitioned the Pope at the time for assistance and asked for guidance. In yet one more pivotal point in this Pope’s Papacy, he responded. If you look at this Pope’s writings, you see that he was one whom stood firm on the traditional teachings of the Church. He knew that the consecrated religious were the “life blood” of the Church in many respects, a critical piece that brings the Church to life. It makes perfect sense that the Pope who wrote Humanae Vitae and reaffirmed the Church’s teachings on human life would also write Perfectae Caritatis – which was about bringing Orders back to life by having them return to the vision of their founders. The Pope in question is whom I refer to as “the Lawyer turned Prophet”, Blessed Pope Paul VI – whose future canonization seems likely.

We see the fruits of Perfectae Caritatis, and Saint John Paul II’s “Vita Consecrata”, to this day. Within the Franciscans, the Friars Minor began to remobilize and got back to their roots. Friars who lived along at parishes left and rejoined communities. Friars and communities who lived in high income, upper class neighborhoods moved to different locations to focus on serving the poor. Those who owned excessive material goods sold or donated them, embracing voluntary poverty. Some resisted, and those who did either joined other Orders, or became diocesan priests. Which was totally understandable! They didn’t sign up for those things, because they were not practiced when they did. And some, amazingly, said “your will be done, Lord” – and walked away from their comfort zones, walked away from their material goods, from money, from social standing, from independence – and stayed with the Friars. Ironically, just like the original Brothers did.

Further fruits are evident with branches of Franciscans, seeking to go back to the basics even further. The Community of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal are one, with “renewal” meaning they sought to renew certain practices, traditions, and methods. You also see this happening with Franciscan-run ministries, where they are now going back to traditional Franciscan spirituality, and encouraging the use of Franciscan practices and the reading of Franciscan theologians like Bonaventure and Duns Scotus.

Once may wonder, with the current pain in my hands, why would I write all these things. Why would I inflect such pain on myself to share these writings. I do this because of the significance of this day, this Feast of Saint Francis, and how it pertains to me and why it is so important within my life.

I have spoken about my past before, back when my hands were in better shape I wrote about it here; https://vagrantcatholic.com/…/on-forgiveness-the-beginning…/ – the link details what is effectively the origin story of the “Vagrant Catholic”. It was at a conference in 1996, a fateful Saturday evening where I was released from my past anger and bitterness. The anger and rage I held against my father who abused and neglected me. The man who was to protect and guide me, who instead betrayed me with physical violence and malevolent words and deeds. Essentially, for fifteen years I held onto that hate and anger, and the ghosts of the past which impacted my life in so many concrete ways. Palatable anger, oppressive loneliness. It was all present, until that Saturday evening – through the divine intervention of Jesus Christ though the Sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation, I then found myself free. A life reborn. I went from literally thinking of ending my life to finally knowing what joy and freedom felt like. And hope. Glorious hope.

In what is sometimes lost in this story, is the significance of not just the conference itself, but those who run the annual conferences. Of the group who ran that specific conference in 1996. The group that runs these annual events happen to be another group who subscribes to the vision of Perfectae Caritatis, and the vision of Saint Francis.

The Third Order Regular of St. Francis of Penance.

Sons of Francis, who were aided by other Sons and Daughters of Francis. This was no accident, there are no coincidences in this story – there is simply purpose.

Years after the conference, I began to understand this significance. I then began devoting my life to living in accordance with Franciscan and mendicant spirituality. The idea of not being overly attached to material goods, the idea of prayer through actions, the idea of “bringing things back to the manger” – the journey to the Child Jesus, the idea of fellowship and brotherhood. I went from thinking I wouldn’t make it past sixteen, and now I’m thirty six. Miraculous.

It is also for this reason I strongly believe in the power of intercessory prayer. That when one dies and goes to heaven, you do not cease to be a Christian. Like any Christian who is on earth, the Christians in heaven pray for others, and do so unceasingly since they are no longer bound by the same temporal chains that we are. The Saints are in heaven, and can likewise pray on our behalf. And, in my opinion, can guide us in the right direction.

My life transformed due to Jesu Christ, through the efforts of The Third Order Regular of St. Francis of Penance. Whose founder and father’s feast day is today, the date of my birth.

No accidents. No coincidences. Simply purpose.

On this, the day of my Patron Saint and the date of my birth, I thank you for taking the time to read this.

Saint Francis & Saint Claire, pray for us.

 

Until next time, courage.

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2 Responses to On Saint Francis of Assisi, my Patron Saint

  1. janekorvemaker says:

    Gosh that was a lot of cool info. Thanks for enduring the pain to write!

    Question: which scholars think that it was St Claire who said those words to Francis? (… If necessary use words….)

    • Several years ago on the Catholic Answers message boards, there was someone who used to post there who has a MA in theology and specialized in Franciscan spirituality/history. At one point he mentioned that Clare said it to Francis. When I asked him for the source, he said that is what he was taught by those who taught him in his studies while obtaining his masters in theology, plus from other sources. Considering his overall track record as it pertained to those kinds of topics, I accepted what he said. So in this case, it’s a scholar and the scholars that taught him.

      Catholic Answers has since migrated to a new message board platform, and I’ve spent a couple of hours now trying to find the post he said this to no success. He’s no longer active on the boards either due to health issues, so I can’t message him. Which is a shame on multiple fronts, the least of which is once more it becomes a “who really said this?” situation.

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