March 2005 – On Franciscan Foundations I

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

March 2005

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the Lord give you Peace!

As we mark yet another Lenten season and are reminded of our ongoing call to conversion, we do well to recall that Saint Francis approached his own conversion with the courage to align his life with his evolving outlook on the meaning for himself of faith and love – to “walk the talk” in peace and joy. Saint Francis avoided esoteric theology or apologetic theories and relentlessly sought to make decisions that were concrete and authentic when faced with contradictions and dark spaces between daily life, church life and the Gospel life.

Increased consciousness of the importance of Gospel teachings caused him to accept the need to change his life in order to make it more coherent with his new understanding. Among the key decisions that he took are those concerned with priesthood and brotherhood.

Saint Francis’ decision to not become a priest, despite his strong and very evident attraction to religious life, must be viewed from at least two angles. First, he does not appear to have felt a call, at least initially, to life within hierarchical structures of the church. His first impetus was to personal conversion, and then came the formation of brotherhood to deal with those that God had sent, and only later – mostly out of obedience – did arise the question of forming an institution. Second, the life and privilege that clergy enjoyed was not compatible with his view of penance.

He did not at all want to become a cleric or a priest. That would have entailed his entrance into a social group that was well ordered, well normalized, well protected…He had not renounced his father, his business, his secure work, his social rank, only to gain another position that was still more prestigious and no less secure. (Raoul Manselli, St. Francis of Assisi)

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The call to live the Gospel in the footsteps of Jesus Christ was of paramount importance for Saint Francis. Without disparaging the call to priesthood or monastic life in others, he vigorously opted for a life in union with Lady Poverty that he regarded as the enduring reflection of Christ. Consequently, he understood his call as being “to give witness to the Gospel by having nothing and being nothing, by living on the social and geographical margins of urban Italian society.” (Keith Warner, The Franciscans: A Family History) Perhaps too, having lived a life of privilege and prestige, he feared getting too close to familiar categories for fear that he might succumb to temptation and fall into less desirable habits that he saw in some church officials. Surely he understood how compelling is their lure, and how power can corrupt – how difficult it is for the rich man to enter into heaven, wealth being understood broadly to encompass all forms of power and privilege.

Regardless of the reason or combination of reasons for Saint Francis’ decision not to be ordained a priest, there is abundant evidence that he fully integrated this decision into his spirituality. In his various writings, in contrast to hundreds of references to the term “brother”, we find comparatively few to clergy: priests, 32; clerics, 28; and religious, 14. (Thaddée Matura, The Church in the Writings of Francis of Assisi)

Clearly, Saint Francis did not count himself among the ranks of clergy: “The relative richness of the vocabulary when it is a question of designating the personnel of the Church is striking when the one who is speaking calls himself ‘simplex et idiot’, that is, a man without intellectual formation.”(Matura) There is ample indication to suggest that he was neither simple-minded nor ignorant. While his schooling was not advanced, he was astute in observation, sound in judgment and able in communication. But this self-understanding of simplex et idiota suited him by giving him sufficient freedom to operate authentically in fidelity to Christ and His Church without the inevitable constraints of existing categories. Rather, he settled upon simple evangelical brotherhood.

Fraternal life was so important to Saint Francis that his spirituality is not fully comprehensible without an appreciation of why he put so much emphasis on it. Among other things, he saw in his brothers a divine sign about how he was called to live his faith: “…the Lord gave me brothers…” In fact, it appears that the arrival of these brothers struck Saint Francis, who had at first seemed inclined to a more solitary form of penance, as an unexpected manifestation of his true vocation.

Soon brotherhood became his hermeneutical lens and the horizon in which he understood the Gospel and applied its teachings to his own life: “The Lord himself showed me that I should live according to the holy Gospel.” To some degree, Saint Francis’ interpretation of Scripture as a call to fraternal living was conditioned by his surroundings.

The establishment of Assisi as a city-state breaking away from the feudal system happened before Francis’ conversion but its effect was clear. The emerging economic order witnessed tradesmen beginning to gather into guilds. A sense of the strength found in solidarity was beginning to surface in all aspects of society, no less so for Saint Francis than for Assisi’s tradesmen.

While he sought to find his true place in a new social order, he intentionally avoided reference to rank in establishing the brotherhood, in contrast to the class system in which he found so much injustice. Among the salvific characteristics of true fraternal living, Saint Francis found the quality of genuine compassion. His was to be a community of equals bonded by a genuine caring for each other: “How great was the love that flourished in the members of this pious society!”(Celano, First Life) There is evidence of this affection, among other sources, in his Rule for Hermitages: “Those who wish to live religiously in hermitages should be three brothers or four at the most; two of these should be mothers and they many have two sons or at least one.”

His model was the relationship of Jesus, Mary and the early disciples, “which is slightly different than the prevailing monastic understanding which was based on the First Century Church of the Apostles.”(Warner) We can assume that Francis did not feel called to this ecclesiae primitivae forma, with its assured security, but to affirm what he believed to be the true and radical poverty of Jesus.

Everyone who does the will of his Father is my brother, sister and mother. (Matt. 12: 50)

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Further evidence of the importance of brotherhood in Saint Francis’ spirituality and self-understanding can be found in perhaps his most original work, The Canticle of The Creatures, written near the end of his life. In it, he identifies all of creation as one large family, in union with the Holy Trinity, the ultimate form and meaning of relationship: “Francis, therefore, understood himself as a brother: a brother to Jesus, a brother to those in his fraternity, and a brother to all Creation.”(Warner) From this evidence, we may conclude that one of the key foundations of Saint Francis’ spirituality was his insight that, at least for him, “spiritual direction” comes not so much from a “master” but from “living out one’s calling to be brother and sister”.(Warner)

It is quite understandable, therefore, that Saint Francis would want to lead a fraternal and Gospel life within a particular horizon, and it is not entirely surprising that he deliberately chose to live that life under the authority of the Pope, despite his disappointment with some aspects of church life. Rather than operate negatively in regards to excesses and laxities in the church, he chose to operate positively in fidelity to Christ’s Gospel and to the pope that he felt Jesus had designated to lead new generations of his disciples.

Consciously or otherwise, Saint Francis must have wanted to guard his fraternity from the temptation to evolve into a protest movement. This would have entailed further temptations, each with its own risk of stubbornly resisting official church teachings and its own opportunity for deviating from truth out of pride and self-sufficiency. Saint Francis intentionally chose, therefore, to align himself with the Pope, to pledge the obedience of his brotherhood to the Holy See, and to ask papal permission for his form of life.

He wished that a brotherly love similar to his own should reign among his disciples; because of this his wish, the Franciscan brotherhood grew to be “a noble edifice of charity, from the living stones of which, gathered from every part of the world, there was built a dwelling for the Holy Ghost.” (Pope Pius XI, Rite Expiatisquoting Celano’s First Life)

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May Holy Week be a hope-filled time conversion. May you celebrate Easter in the Joy of God’s infinite Love. And may Peace be with you always.