October 4th is the Feast of Francis of Assisi. A large statue of St. Francis with arms outstretched stands facing the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. Facing 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.
T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”