May 2005 – On Franciscan Doctrine

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

May 2005

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the Lord give you Peace!

Key doctrinal statements can be articulated from among various foundational principles that emerged from the conversion of Saint Francis. Indeed, such statements underpin the belief system we associate with Franciscanism.

In the words of Pope Pius XII, “There is a Franciscan doctrine in accordance with which God is holy, is great, and above all, is good, indeed the supreme Good. For in this doctrine, God is love. He lives by love, creates love, becomes flesh and redeems, that is, he saves and makes holy, for love. There is also a Franciscan way of contemplating Jesus…in His human love.”

Here are some of the doctrinal statements that can be asserted.

1. God is good.

It was the inherent goodness of God – perfect and gratuitous – that Saint Francis chose to emphasize time and again. It was for him the pervasive and all-encompassing truth. No other aspect of God’s existence so stirred Saint Francis into joy and anguish as the profound realization that God so loved him that he sent His Son to reveal Himself fully and, ultimately, to die for our mistakes.
This would be communicated concretely at Greccio, where he reenacted the Lord’s Nativity, and La Verna, where he received the Stigmata of His Passion and Death.

The fact that God’s love was manifest in His infinite goodness resulted in his coining of the phrase we associate with Secular Franciscans to this day: Pax et bonum, “peace and all goodness.”

(The Legend of Three Companions, 1241-1247, states in reference to his habit of using the “May the Lord give you peace!” scriptural phrase: “It is certainly astonishing, if not miraculous, that this greeting of peace was used before his conversion by a precursor who frequently went through Assisi greeting the people with ‘Peace and good! Peace and good!’ It seems plausible that, as John heralded Christ but withdrew when Christ began His mission of preaching, so too, like another John, this man preceded Saint Francis in using the greeting of peace, but vanished when he appeared.”)

2. Voluntary poverty is the privileged path that disposes us to His goodness.

There is no Franciscan charism without poverty and no real knowledge of that charism without an appreciation of what it meant to him. Indeed, it is the thread that provides continuity through eight centuries of Franciscan tradition. “Francis of Assisi saw poverty exemplified in Christ and it becomes the Gospel value he embraces as he followed the ‘poverty and humility of Our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Clare embraced radical poverty to foster a life of contemplation of the poor Christ. Bonaventure taught poverty as the first step of the spiritual journey toward God.

(Jacapone da Todi believed that poverty was having nothing in order to possess all things in freedom. Subsequently, Spiritual Franciscan John Peter Olivi and Ubertino da Casale insisted that strict poverty was key to authentic living of the Rule. With Angelo of Clareno, poverty took on an eschatological significance necessary for the renewal of the whole Church. Later in the 15th century, the First Order Observant movement attempted to recapture and promote a simpler life of strict poverty as it was found in the tradition of the rural or more eremitical friaries. John Capistran and James of the Marshes were strong promoters for this renewal of poverty.)

It is generally agreed, however, that poverty was not an end in itself but a privileged means, the ultimate purpose of which was union with Jesus. To be sure, one can make assumptions about the importance Saint Francis accorded the practice of evangelical poverty, but it is unwise to speculate unduly about precise circumstances that led to this insight. Similarly, it may be affirmed that this tradition has been the keystone of Franciscanism but that – at times – its effect has been clearly divisive. The disciple of Franciscan spirituality must always, in my view, refer to the context in which its practice emerged and developed.

This is what Malcolm Lambert writes about it in Franciscan Poverty: The Doctrine of Absolute Poverty of Christ and the Apostles in the Franciscan Order 1210-1323: “To describe how the new theory of poverty made its appearance in the order, it will be necessary to describe at length and in detail the development of the life of the order in those crucial twenty years after the founder’s death. Almost all the changes in the way of life of the order necessarily affect the observance of poverty. If the formation of the doctrine of absolute poverty is to be understood, then these changes must be set out and their effects on the practice of poverty detailed.”

3. Humility is the grateful acceptance of God’s goodness, especially in the gift of God’s Son in Word and Eucharist.

In the face of grandeur, Saint Francis chose humility. He would encourage his brothers in his early rule to do so as well: “Let us, therefore, hold onto the words, the life, and the teaching and the Holy Gospel of Him Who humbled Himself…” Humility was not for Saint Francis a pious posture or a frivolous fantasy. Rather, it was the privileged path that leads to true self-understanding and enables the building of durable communities.

Saint Francis sought to be humble in relation to God, from whom all good things come. This attitude toward God was then reflected in his attitude toward all things and all people. His model was the humility of the Incarnation, which reflected love rather than any of the negative characteristics that some might ascribe to humility, and its expression was harmony with and fraternal love toward all of humanity and all of creation.

4. Compassion is our response to His goodness.

When we are conscious of what we receive and where it comes from, we are grateful, and if we are grateful we are inclined to reciprocate. The most direct – though never adequate way of doing so – is by acting towards others as God has behaved toward us. Clare mentioned the two basic sources of Franciscan compassion: “In her contemplation Clare gazes in the mirror and sees Him ‘who was placed in a manger’ and Him who suffered ‘on the wood of the cross.’” (New Catholic Encyclopedia)

These events came about because of God’s compassion toward us. For Saint Francis and his followers, the response became compassion for the poor. It is interesting to note that while Third-Order, or Secular, Franciscans have been less marked by the practice of poverty over the centuries, many have been exemplars of compassionate service. In addition to Angela of Foligno and Jacapone da Todi, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, St. Rose of Viterbo, St. Margaret of Cortona and even St. Louis IX were notable examples of an active compassion that embraced others in their suffering.

5. Jesus, the Incarnate Word, is at the very centre of human existence.

The overarching principle for Saint Francis was the truth behind the revelation that God is Love (1 John 4:8) and that Jesus is living evidence of the truth of love. While Saint Francis devoted equal attention to God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, an appreciation of the nature of his relationship to Jesus is probably the key to understanding and practicing his particular form of his spirituality. Whereas, in his day, the triumphant Christ was the way in which most Christians imaged Jesus, it was in the humanity of Jesus – poor and crucified – that Saint Francis found comfort from illness and solace in troubled times. Though not alone in reaching this insight, Saint Francis found a stable equilibrium between the humanity of Jesus and His divinity. In so doing, he enriched our understanding of two great mysteries of faith, the Trinity and the Incarnation.

6. We are brother and sister to all creation.

Because God the Father is creator of all, Saint Francis understood himself to be brother and sister to all, as he declared so lyrically in the Canticle of Creation, which he wrote near the end of his life. His preaching to birds is a reflection of this. His conciliatory attitude toward the wolf that was harassing residents of Gubbio was another reflection of this. And his numerous references to animate and inanimate objects, always in reverential terms, is also a reflection of this attitude.

Such insights came to Saint Francis as a blessing but also obliged him to develop a loving attitude toward people of other faiths. While he was passionately in love with Christ, the love he had for others brought about his innovative attitude toward non-Christians in particular. He was especially concerned about the need to develop suitable language “to preach the Word of God” to people of other traditions. Indeed, he was the first to speak of “going among the infidels” in a religious rule. In the context, this meant Muslims but, as Leonard Lehmann (Essential Elements of Franciscan Mission according to Chapter 16 in the Rule of 1221) explains, it also revealed a heart that was disarmingly respectful of the faith of others, replacing actio with passio.

Statements like the ones included here can be viewed as Saint Francis’ distillations of Gospel values. These went to the very heart of the meaning of Christianity, at least insofar as his own experience of it as a received religion was concerned. From this concrete manifestation of what he would have judged to be Gospel truths would have come a systemization of particular truths into a comprehensible structure of belief that would soon facilitate effective and efficient communication.

May the Lord allow you to know him as the supreme good. May you be filled with joy at the realization that he is love, that he lives by love and creates love. May you have peace with the knowledge that goodness became flesh, saving and making holy what was created in love.