September 2005 – On the Legacy of St. Francis I

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

September 2005

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the Lord give you Peace!

Evidently, how Saint Francis communicated his spirituality has been a resounding success.

Eight hundred years after he walked the dusty roads of Italy and neighboring countries, roughly clad and lacking in all things save for the virtues of faith, hope, love, and the qualities of peace, joy and compassion, we still speak of this fun-loving romantic who would become a self-effacing man of God, thrust onto the world stage by a series of disturbing insights and the conflicted circumstances that surrounded them. His charism has been celebrated and condemned. He himself has been imitated and ridiculed. Still, his communication of meaning endures.

We can learn something about this long-lasting legacy by examining what people say and write about it today. Keith Warner (The Franciscans: A Family History) recalled our traditional association of Saint Francis with peacemaking, preaching by example the brotherhood of creation and the balance between prayer and action. William Short (Poverty and Joy: The Franciscan Tradition) pointed to the continuing relevance of these insights: the “down-to-earthness” of the experience of God, the real meaning of evangelical poverty, the spirituality of creation and the spirituality of reconciliation. And Pierre Brunette (Francis of Assisi and His Conversions) concluded that the “state of spiritual itinerancy” of Saint Francis serves as a powerful inspiration or compass, if not an actual road map for our own life’s journey of conversion.

Anyone undertaking the task of communicating these spiritual insights must first grapple with two questions. The first is whether or not it is important to do so. It is my conviction that it is. In part, this conviction is based on the following appreciation of the similarities that exist between the age of Saint Francis and our own, notwithstanding the vast differences in our respective social, political and ecclesial environments. The second is whether his way of looking at things is compatible with our own.

In order to answer the first question, it is helpful to recall some similarities. For instance, his cry for peace was set in a context of war with neighboring cities, war between church and state, and war between Islam and Christianity. Today, we face strife between rich and poor countries, conflict between church and state, and tension between Islam and Christianity. During his time, Saint Francis sought simplicity amid a constant struggle to survive, constant fear of disease and violence and people locked into social structures. Today, we are reminded of rampant and growing stress at work, growing fear of brutal economic forces, and the social alienation of the individual.

In humanity’s relationship to creation, Saint Francis witnessed disregard for the welfare of vassals, lack of awareness of ecology, and people and nature were mere resources. Today, we see people disregard the welfare of others and neglect or abuse ecosystems. In Church matters, Saint Francis lived with ubiquitous heretical groups, the monumental impact of Lateran IV and concern about control by the magisterium. Today, it is said that we are witnessing a Church struggling with growing concerns about orthodoxy, the impact of Vatican II and the role of the magisterium.

What can we learn from Saint Francis in relation to these vital and pressing matters? In this reflection, I would like to focus on this question as it relates to humanity’s deep-seated and almost desperate yearning for peace.

Scarcely anyone feels immune from conflict. As anxiety grows about the nature of our all-encompassing distrust and dispute, aggressiveness and armed conflict, many dream of peace. Sadly, some have already lost the ability to even think of such a possibility, so the need for peacemakers – people who bring reconciliation and healing to individuals, families, nations and the world – is as clear today as it was in the time of Saint Francis.

Peace was for Saint Francis a subject of prime importance. His rule instructed brothers to say upon entering someone’s home, “Peace be to this house” and on his deathbed he said to them, “Go dearest brothers, two by two into all the country, and preach to men peace and penance unto the remission of their sins.” His method was based on a profound understanding of brotherhood and sisterhood, which implied true love for all created things and respect for the inherent dignity of all of God’s children. It also implied a willingness to see all things as gifts from a benevolent and providential God and to let go of the fear that causes us to hoard, as though our mere possessions had the power to protect us from the real dangers in life. And, it implied a dismantling of the barriers that block out the light more than they keep out the enemy.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
– Matthew 5:9

Today, the charism of peacemaker is understood to take on three crucial forms. The first is to facilitate genuine dialogue. History would suggest that this is more difficult than it might seem. Perhaps Saint Francis would have observed that this is so because to engage in meaningful dialogue one must pre-suppose that the dialogue partner is a brother or sister equal in the eyes of God, with the capacity to be an instrument of His will and the capability of acting with divine grace. This is why his notion of brotherhood is so fundamental to the building up of a world order crowned by peace: the Kingdom of God on earth.

The second modern strategy for peace is the promotion of justice. Saint Francis understood that to achieve peace, certain conditions had to be met. While the so-called Prayer of Saint Francis was not actually written by the poverello, it is generally regarded as being aptly steeped in his spirituality: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon.…For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned…” Reflecting on the tradition surrounding that prayer, Leonardo Boff (The Prayer of Saint Francis: A Message of Peace for the World Today) recalled a principle that “comes from Saint Augustine: peace is the work of justice.…Peace cannot be sought by itself without first achieving justice.…Justice is giving to each one his or her due.”

Today social justice represents one of the most serious challenges to the conscience of the world. The abyss between those who are within the world “order” and those who are excluded is widening day by day. The use of leading-edge technologies has made it possible to accumulate wealth in a way that is fantastic but perverse because it is unjustly distributed. Twenty percent of humankind controls eighty percent of all means of life. That fact, according to Boff, creates a dangerous imbalance in the movement of history. We are living in times of grave disequilibrium, of real war declared against the Earth, against ecosystems which are plundered, against people who are shunted aside because world capital is no longer interested in exploring them, against whole classes of workers who are made expendable and excluded…war against two-thirds of humankind who do not have the basic goods they need to live in peace.

Finally, the third enabler of peace is social and economic development, a role that Saint Francis actively assumed, particularly in favor of the poor.

On one hand, Saint Francis can be offered as the exemplar of all three strategies. He showed by example what it means to enter into meaningful dialogue with a Muslim sultan. He advocated on behalf of those who were exploited and oppressed. He worked alongside the poor in order that their situation might be improved, even if only modestly. Clearly tradition shows that we should receive Saint Francis not only as a lover of peace but also as a maker of peace.

William Cook (“Beatus Pacificus: Francis of Assisi as Peacemaker” in The Cord) recalled that various episodes in his life point to that fact. For instance, Saint Francis and Masseo stressing that friars must see the importance of peace while on the road to Siena in the Fioretti; driving out demons in Arezzo in accounts by Celano and Bonaventure as well as the Legend of Perugia; restoring peace in Bologna as in the writings of Thomas, archdeacon of Spoleto; and reconciling the podesta and the bishop in Assisi itself according to the Legend of Perugia: “Francis is not only a lover of peace – he was a maker of peace. He did not concern himself only with preaching the peace which should penetrate the hearts of all men; he set out to create an end to war without which his goal of bringing salvation would have been largely unachieved.”

On the other hand, we must be cautious in our portrayal of Saint Francis as an ideal peacemaker, particularly as we look for lessons relevant to our own circumstances. Joseph Chinnici (“The Lord Give you Peace” in Westfriar) has presented a persuasive argument to suggest that this misrepresents historical facts about what Saint Francis did and the spirit in which he did things: “Inasmuch as we make of Francis an ideal and the peace he incarnated an ideal peace, we rob him of his history and ourselves of our freedom to act.” Rather, Saint Francis offered peace as bread “to a war-torn, hungry world.” In effect, wrote Chinnici, it is martyrdom that is the relevant motif in early Franciscan writing. Some are martyred in Morocco. Some, like Saint Francis and Saint Bonaventure, are martyred in community. And some like Saint Clare receive the martyrdom of illness and struggle within the Church. All are martyred in the cause of peace, searching for the presence of Christ and a way to make that presence effective.

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May the good Lord bless you abundantly with all the graces needed to live in Peace, Goodness, Joy and Holy Simplicity. May He grant you to live in perfect harmony with all His Creation and to find in the Church His true body and mind.