The original Francis

OK, so since Pope Francis is going to Assisi this Saturday to sign an encyclical I’m going to be focused on, let me take some time tonight to tell you a couple of things about St. Francis of Assisi. If you know me at all, you know that the little medieval hill town of Assisi is about my favorite place in the world, and while I’m late to the whole “saint thing,” St. Francis of Assisi is the one I know the most about and probably have the most kinship with.

Which is not to say that he’s the saint I like the most. Saint Pope John XXIII had a wonderfully wry sense of humor, never lost touch with regular people, and didn’t let the fact he was meant to be a temp keep him from completely shaking up the Catholic Church. St. Philip Neri used joyous improv to spark a new wave of faith in Rome. St. Thomas More died at the order of his former ally because he wouldn’t sacrifice his principles. St. Catherine of Siena had the temerity to lobby the powers that be to bring the Church back together. Those are just off the top of my head.

But St. Francis is special. If you want to read a really well-told biography about him, pick up my friend Bret Thoman’s book. (Get his one on St. Clare, too!). If you’re not Catholic and are a little weirded out by the whole “saint thing,” pick up the wonderful Chasing Francis by Ian Morgan Cron, which tells Francis’ story through the travails of a disillusioned evangelical pastor.

Morgan Cron pulls some themes out to capture Francis’ spirit; I like that approach, but I come to some different themes. Here are eight to understand why Francis is special:

Creation: The kitschy stereotype of Francis has him talking to birds and taming a ferocious wolf. Catholics and Episcopalians (and the occasional Methodist) blesses house pets on or around his feast day. It’s a bit hokey. But beneath the legends and the kitsch is a deep reverence for creation. Pope Francis’ first encyclical, Laudato Si, takes its title from a poem, the Canticle of the Creatures, that St. Francis wrote at the end of his life in the early 13th century (perhaps the first poetry in modern Italian), and it is a beautiful song of praise to God for the “brothers and sisters” of creation – sun and moon, water and fire, earth and wind. St. Francis wasn’t a pantheist by any means, but he recognized God’s fingerprints on the natural world around him.

Community: While St. Francis didn’t set out to start a community, when guys (and eventually women) were drawn to his example, he embraced them in a radical form of community. I suspect that the encyclical we’ll get on Sunday will focus on this part of St. Francis’ life and teaching, the recognition of our calling to be brothers and sisters to each other.

Poverty: There were other monastic orders when St. Francis set out to form his own, which would be different because they were going to minister among the people rather than hole up behind the walls of a monastery. That significant difference from the norm wasn’t the barrier he faced in getting official approval; it was the radical sense of poverty Francis demanded, which he got from opening a Bible to a passage in which Jesus commanded the disciples not to carry anything with them. (Which is in Luke 9, btw.) If Jesus said that to his apostles, Francis thought, then that’s what we need to do. But not only did he and his followers embrace poverty; they embraced the poor and outcast. There are plenty of Catholic orders with more of a history of running hospitals, but what converted Francis to the Gospel was the embrace of a leper, among the most sick and outcast of his era. His devotion to serving lepers in his life exemplified a larger commitment to casting his lot with the poor and outcast.

Peace: It’s hard to read the gospels without having a call to peace wash over you. As with just about everything else, St. Francis took it to extremes. When a robber mugged him, Francis chased him down to give the guy something he forgot. Before his conversion, Francis wanted to fight in the Crusades; after it, he wanted to stop them by converting the Sultan who led the followers of Islam (which, while not the most interreligious approach, was how Francis thought he could stop the bloodshed). In fact, he added a verse to his Canticle of the Creatures just to stop a fight between local leaders in Assisi.

Witness: It wasn’t just big time Sultans St. Francis tried to convert; he used the “pop culture” of the time – troubadours singing love songs – as a model to evangelize, coming up with similarly entertaining ways to talk about the Gospel. 

Worship: St. Francis wasn’t a priest, which surprised me. But he rebuilt churches with his own hands (and his dad’s money) and instituted the first modern Nativity scene as acts of worship. That “Canticle of the Creatures” was an Italian poem, but it was first and foremost an act of worship.

Suffering: Among the other things St. Francis is known for is the stigmata – a replication of the wounds of Jesus in his hands and feet that came as a result of his fervent prayer to feel what Jesus felt.  In part because St. Francis was over-the-top on almost everything, and in part as a person of his time, Francis was pretty rough on himself in using suffering to bring himself closer to God.

Simplicity: St. Francis was incredibly creative, but he wasn’t complicated. He wasn’t a philosopher or an administrator or in any way sophisticated. Most of what we would consider excesses sprung from a desire to break down the Gospel to its simple and essential form. In a world that overthinks a lot, that simplicity stands out, then and now.

Anyway, those are the themes I get from Francis of Assisi. That’s the guy that the current pope took a name to emulate, the first to do so in the 800 years since the original article roamed around central Italy. That’s the guy he’ll quote at the start of the encyclical that comes out Sunday.

One response to “The original Francis”

  1. […] is distinctly Francis, and Franciscan. I wrote before Fratelli Tutti came out about St. Francis of Assisi, whose name Jorge Bergoglio chose as […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: