Tag Archives: Francis of Assisi

St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226)

francis assisi

October 4th is the Feast of Francis of Assisi.  A large statue of  Francis  with arms outstretched stands facing the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. If you face the the basilica from behind the statue, you might think the saint was holding up the church in his arms. And that’s what he did: Francis raised up a church that was falling down

We need to see saints in the light of their times as they met the needs of their day. Chesterton called saints “God’s antidotes for the poison of their world”.

What was poisoning Francis’ world? Twelfth century Italy’s economy was booming when Francis was born. His family was among its new rich merchant class. As a young man he had everything money could buy, but then, as now, money could be a poison.

Italy’s cities, often at war, fiercely competed with one another, fighting for power.. It was the time of the crusades and everything was settled through force of arms.

It was a time too when the church had become weak and in need of reform. Before Francis, saints like Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) and popes like Gregory VII (1015-1085) and Innocent III (1160-1216) sought renewal and change. The church was looking for a saint.

And so when Francis of Assisi came with twelve disciples to see the pope in Rome about reforming the church in the summer of 1220, he came at the right time. They say that the pope had a dream the night before that St. John Lateran, the mother church of Christendom, was falling down and a young man resembling the 28 year old Francis came to hold its walls up.

The pope asked Francis what would he do and Francis replied with three verses of scripture. The first was from the gospel of Matthew in which Jesus says to the young man ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’(19,21)  The second from Luke’s gospel in which Jesus sends his disciples out saying “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic.”( 9,3) The third from Matthew: Jesus says, “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross.” (16,24)

The pope was a good judge of people and, sensing the grace of God in Francis,  told him to live those gospel teachings, sending  him on his way. Francis and his companions started a movement that spread like fire throughout Europe.

Francis made Jesus’ teachings his own. He embraced poverty, not just renouncing the rich lifestyle that he was born into, but  renouncing any way that led to power. For example, he never became a priest or a bishop or a pope, because they were positions of power fought for and sometimes paid for in his day.

He did not want a monastery or a religious order as a base of power. Saints like St. Bernard and St Norbert before him thought monasticism was the way to bring about church reform, but Francis wanted a life style where you had nothing, “no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic.” He distanced himself and his movement from the religious institutions of his day, because he feared them becoming places of power.

He took the gospel teachings literally and lived them literally. His renunciation of power became an antidote to the poisonous attraction to power that crippled his world and his church. He imitated the “Son of Man” a poor man who said to his followers the “foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”

Like the Son of Man, who suffered and died on a cross and rose again, Francis experienced the mystery of the cross and was blessed by it.

Remembering him, we might pray: God send us saints to deal with the poison of our time.


“Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future.”      

T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”

Is Francis Speaking Now?

These days it’s hard to think of St. Francis without thinking of the one who recently took his name, Pope Francis. Like Francis of Assisi, this Francis seems bent on recalling the church to simplicity and poverty. There’s something radical in his approach and it’s winning respect from people in the church and beyond it.

Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) was born into a well-to-do family which was prepared to give him all he could possible wish for. You could say he had it all. Yet he chose to follow Jesus Christ who embraced a cross.

Recently in one of his daily homilies, the pope described similar choices we have before us. He reminded me of his namesake, Francis of Assisi.

“The Holy Father spoke of the different attitudes a Christian can take: either you follow Jesus to a certain point or you follow him to the end. The danger you run, he warned, is giving in to ‘the temptation of spiritual well-being, of thinking that we have everything already: the Church, Jesus Christ, the sacraments, Our Lady and so on– no need to search for anything. But ‘this is not enough. Spiritual well-being is fine to a certain point.’ the Pope explained.

“’What’s missing is the anointing of the cross, the anointing of humiliation. He humiliated himself unto his own death, a death on the Cross. This is the touchstone, the measure of our Christian reality. Am I a Christian of the culture of well-being or am I Christian who accompanies the Lord unto the Cross?’”

Sounds like Francis of Assisi, doesn’t it?

Here’s how the pope sounds to a group at Georgetown, Washington, DC. A wonderful roundtable with David Brooks, Mark Shields and other on Catholic Social Teaching.

A Christmas Crib

These days as we prepare for Christmas, why not offer some prayers at the crib?

St. Francis of Assisi first popularized the Christmas manger. He wanted to see how Christ was born with his own eyes, and so he had a stable and some images made before Christmas and then invited his neighbors and friends to come and join him at his “Bethlehem.”

As we look on our manger, may the Christmas story unfold before our eyes, too.

Some reflections from the Gospel according to Luke:

In those days a decree was issued by the emperor Augustus for a census to be taken throughout the Roman world. This was the first Registration of its kind; it took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone made his way to his own town to be registered. Joseph went up to Judaea from the town of Nazareth in Galilee, to register in the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was of the house of David by descent; and with him went Mary, his betrothed, who was expecting her child.

The figures are then placed in the manger, and after a short period of quiet, the reading continues.

While they were there, the time came for her to have her baby, and she gave birth to a son, her first born. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Luke 2:1-7

O God,
whose mighty Son was born in Bethlehem
 long ago,

lead us to that same poor place 
where Mary laid her tiny Child,

nd as we look on in wonder and praise,

help us welcome him in all new life,

see him in the poor,

and care for his handiwork. 
the earth, the sky and the sea.

O God, bless us again in your great love.
We pray for this through Christ our Lord.


Assisi November 17th

November 17th we’re going to visit Assisi.

When I think of Francis of Assisi, I think of that large statue of him facing the Lateran Basilica in Rome. His arms are outstretched and if you look at the statue in a certain way it seems he is holding up the basilica in arms.

That’s what it’s meant to say.

According to some stories, Francis approached Pope Innocent III at the Lateran early in the 13th century requesting permission to found a new order in the church. The times were bad then, and according to one story, the pope in a dream saw the Lateran church falling down, but being held up by Francis and his new community.

I’m not sure the pope was so taken by the Franciscans then, or saw them as a reforming movement in the church. From what we know of Innocent III he was interested in papal power more than charismatic power.

But I think Francis’ statue gets it right. There will always be a charismatic element in the church working for its reform and reinvigorization.

Here’s something the Franciscan Leonardo Boff wrote about Francis:

“Francis is more than a saint of the Catholic Church and founder of the Franciscan family. He is the purest figure of Western history, of the dreams, the utopias, and  of the way of relating panfraternally that we are all searching for today. He speaks to the most archaic depths of the modern soul, because there is a Francis hidden within each of us, struggling to emerge and expand freely among the moles of the modern age.”