By Bret Thoman, OFS
Pope Francis recently said in his Mass homily on April 23: “It is not possible to find Jesus outside the church. The great Paul VI said it is ‘an absurd dichotomy’ to want to live with Jesus without the church, to follow Jesus outside the church, to love Jesus without the church.”
Francis of Assisi certainly believed this, and he was Catholic through and through. He was born into a Catholic family, baptized shortly after birth, and given the name, John, after the Baptist. As a boy, he received his primary education from priests associated with the church of San Giorgio, and virtually everyone who surrounded him was Catholic, albeit with different levels of spiritual maturity and understanding. His conversion as a young man meant not that he changed religions; rather, he began to live out his Catholic faith in a much more profound and sincere way.
To those of us here, this is nothing new. As members of the Secular Franciscan Order we are fully aware that Francis was Catholic, a Vir Catholicus (Catholic Man) as he was frequently referred to in the medieval legends written about him. However, there are others outside our Order, who hold Francis up as the saint of ecumenism, dialogue, ecology, and ‘universal brotherhood.’ They look at his Catholicism as something he “endured” at best or railed against at worst. To them, Francis followed the Gospel in a way that was originally “free” of the institution and trappings of the Church, which eventually would take over his movement, institutionalize it, and make it into an Order to serve its own ends. Following this line of thinking, these same people say, “God gave the world Jesus Christ, but the world instead received the Catholic Church.” To them, “God gave the world Francis of Assisi, but the world instead received the Franciscan Order.”
This notion that Francis’s pristine, evangelical movement was somehow usurped by the Catholic Church started with the French Protestant, Paul Sabatier, who was the first to begin studying the life of Francis from a critical perspective in the late 19th century. In his monumental “Life of Francis,” he said:
The mystics whom we have seen going from village to village, drunk with love and liberty, come to this inebriation without thinking of accepting the yoke… [which love and liberty impose]… The flowers of the clerical rhetoric hide from them the bonds St. Francis became, in spite of him, an ecclesiastical institution; … Unknown to him, the Franciscan movement was not faithful to its origins. The prophet had abdicated himself into the hands of the priest; not without consequences, however, because when one has once been free, I wish to say “thought freely” — … one makes a rather mediocre slave; one might attempt to be submissive, but in spite of oneself, one proudly lifts one’s head, shakes off the chains, recalls the battles, the sadnesses, the anxieties of freedom, and one cries. (Sabatier, Paul, Vie de S Francois d’Assise, 3rd ed. Fischbacher, Paris 1894, p. 115-116)
Yet, despite these contemporary attitudes about St. Francis, we shall see how they are just not true: Francis willfully sought to live his life and Rule within the context of the Church; he sought the advice and direction of bishops and popes; he allowed Church teachings, councils, and directives to guide him; and all the while, he was edified by the sacraments (especially the Eucharist), Scripture, and devotion to the saints (especially Mary).
Now having said this, it is true that Francis’s relationship to the Church remained unique, and despite his faith in the Church, he never sought to become a priest, canon, or monk (essentially the religious options for a man of his time); instead, he began a unique spiritual movement within the official canonical structure of the Catholic Church. But despite their shortcomings, Francis never condemned the clergy and hierarchy; rather, he sought to be submissive to them, and he remained Catholic and orthodox on his own accord, always maintaining a deep faith in the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, through his movement, he sought to help renew the Church, rather than reject it and separate from it. And we shall see how Francis wished to serve priests.
Yet, despite Francis’s devotion to priests, he never wanted to become one. He says that he did not become a priest because he felt unworthy, and this is likely true. The fact is that had he become a priest or canon, he would have entered into a hierarchical and clerical tradition with fixed ways and expectations of how things were done. Further, most priests lived lives that were well ordered, well off, and protected. Or if he had become a monk, the other traditional religious vocation, he would have entered into an even more structured way of life. Familiar with the comfortable trappings among many monks, clerics and bishops, Francis avoided the traditional orders and went his own way. This permitted him to be free to live and follow the Gospel as he felt called. The old ways of doing things did not fit his ideals of the Vita Evangelica, or Gospel Life of total poverty. Francis, ever the penitent, sought to live poverty taking “nothing for the journey…” He and the brothers would live out the Gospel in service to the poor, community, and fraternal brotherhood, not in a hierarchical institution based on power and order. Nonetheless, almost paradoxically, he always wished to submit to the clerical structure as a loyal son of the Church. Francis never wished for himself or the brothers to personally be recipients of the dignity and respect that the clergy deserved.
Let’s begin by looking at the context in which Francis lived. To assert that Francis was Catholic might seem strange since he lived during the High Middle Ages a good three centuries before Martin Luther was born. After all, wasn’t everyone Catholic in Western Europe before the Reformation? The truth is that medieval religious culture was a lot less homogenous than most think. There was much laxity among the clergy and monks causing scandal and dissatisfaction among the laity. Criticism of the Church, its priests, monks, and bishops was commonplace. As a result, there were many mixed groups out there. It was a lot like stew – there was a little of this, a little bit of that.
In fact, there were many groups who had separated from the Catholic Church. One of the strongest anti-Catholic groups among these heterodox movements was the Cathars. They were a sect originating in the East, whose dualistic beliefs echoed those of 5th century Manichaeism. Also known as Albigensians, they believed in two gods – the good god of the spirit, and the bad god of matter. Therefore, they embraced poverty because they rejected the world as evil (they also rejected the act which causes procreation and would lead to more evil matter). They considered themselves Christian; however, their beliefs were very far from the orthodox teachings of the conventional Church.
Two other groups were considered heretical not so much due to what they believed, but because of schism: the Humiliati and the Waldensians. These two groups embraced penance and evangelical poverty, as well as itinerant preaching. The interesting thing is that these groups began as orthodox, and even directed much of their preaching in favor of mainstream Catholicism and against the Cathar heretics. The Humiliati had a large following and were initially given approval from the hierarchy to live their way of life. Similar to the Franciscan family, they were divided into three Orders: canonical, monastic, and lay. However, they were not given complete permission to preach – they could only preach in a diocese whose bishop allowed them. This would be their downfall, as some ignored this directive and preached anyway. This led to schism, and subsequent excommunications. However, it was on a case-by-case basis, based on individual circumstances of orthodoxy or heterodoxy. Later many were re-communicated.
Another group was founded by Peter Waldo (aka Valdo, Valdes or Waldes) from Lyons, France. Like the Humiliati (and eventually Francis), he went to Rome, France seeking papal approval for his way of life. His beliefs were examined, and he was judged orthodox. However, as they were laypersons, Peter and his followers were expressly forbidden to preach when and where the local bishop would not allow it. Here Waldo would choose his fate and split from the orthodox Church quoting the book of Acts, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). He continued to preach and was excommunicated. During the Protestant Reformation, the Waldensians eventually merged with the Swiss and German Calvinists and became the Calvinist branch in Italy.
So with this background, we can see that there were indeed many choices and roads that Francis could have followed. In this, his situation was not that different from today in which there are many diverse confessions, denominations, creeds, etc. Those of us who know what our Catholic faith teaches and make a conscious effort as an adult to follow our faith are doing so despite the fact that there are other options. We are Catholic because we choose to be so. So was Francis.
So in this context, we see how in the early days of Francis’s movement, his position was unique. Here was a layperson – without any formal training, ordination, or mandate – who was preaching. He was also admitting priests into the Order, who were giving their obedience to him – a layperson. He had also given Clare the tonsure – the sign of consecration and initiation into religious life – an act ordinarily reserved to a bishop, abbot, or superior of some kind. It is true that Francis is known to have been a deacon, but we do not know when precisely he was ordained. It is unlikely that he was already a deacon in 1209 when he went to Rome seeking approval from the pope.
Thus, with this background, we can see how important it was for Francis to receive approval from the pope. This would distinguish Francis and his followers from the heretics described above. The heretics embraced evangelical poverty; they were laypersons who preached; they claimed inspiration directly from the Holy Spirit and Scripture. These groups were not subject to any clerical control, and they were turning many of the faithful against the official Church. The fact is that Francis looked a lot like them, and he needed to clarify which side he was on. As the movement was growing, so was confusion about who they were and what they stood for. Hence, papal approval or a bull would distinguish Francis from them. Therefore, Francis discerned that they needed to have approval for their way of life.
So in 1209 when Francis was 27 years old and was living in Rivotorto with about a dozen followers, he wrote a brief Rule and set out to Rome. He hoped for an endorsement from none other than Pope Innocent III. Pope Innocent III was one of the most powerful popes of the Middle Ages. Yet he was not a corrupt pope. Approval for their life directly from the Holy Father would leave no doubts as to whether they were orthodox or heretical. However, initially it did not go as Francis wished and the Holy Father dismissed Francis. But after a dream, the pope sent for Francis and granted his request unconditionally.
Later, when Francis wrote his formal Rule, he wanted to ensure that his whole brotherhood would follow his example. In the Prologue of the Regula non bullata (the Earlier Rule of 1221), Francis wrote, “Brother Francis and whoever will be the head of this Order promises obedience and reverence to the Lord Pope Innocent and to his successors. And all the other brothers are bound to obey Brother Francis and his successors.” In the later Regula bullata (Rule of 1223), Francis repeated himself, “Brother Francis promises obedience and reverence to the Lord Pope Honorius and his canonically elected successors and to the Roman Church. And let the other brothers be bound to obey Brother Francis and his successors.” In these lines, we see how Francis wanted his community to submit to the authority of the Pope. The friars were not to act apart from or in opposition to the Church and its leaders. So we can see here how Francis wished for his movement and order to always remain within the Catholic Church.
Let’s now turn to Francis’s writings in order to get an idea of how he sought to keep his beliefs aligned with those of the Church. Shortly before his death in October, 1226, Francis dictated a document that he called “my testament” in which he declared that he had written it “so that we may observe in a more Catholic manner the Rule which we have promised to the Lord” (Testament, 34). As it was written at the end of his life, the topics in it can be considered a synthesis of his experience over many years summarizing what he considered important in his life.
After beginning by stating that at the foundation of his penance (or conversion) was his encounter with a leper (which we dealt with in a former lesson) – Francis immediately wrote about his faith in churches. He wrote, “And the Lord gave me such faith in churches, that I would simply pray and speak in this way: ‘We adore You, Lord Jesus Christ, in all Your churches throughout the world, and we bless You, for through Your holy cross You have redeemed the world.” (Testament 4-5). This prayer was inspired by the Holy Thursday liturgy.1
We see his love of churches in action after he received the command from Christ in San Damiano when the Crucifix told him, “Go and rebuild my house that has fallen into ruin.” Initially Francis understood that command to mean that he was to restore the structure of that particular church edifice. After working on San Damiano, he set out to restore two more churches in the area: St. Mary of the Angels (the Portiuncula), and San Pietro in Spina near Rivotorto. Only later did Francis understand the universal implications of his work, and the command to rebuild God’s church would ultimately mean the universal Church when his movement repaired not only the material edifices, but the communities held within the buildings. Later in his life, Francis is known to have brought brooms with him when he preached which he used to clean up dirty churches as an example to the people.2
In the next few verses of the Testament, Francis then declares his belief in priests:
Afterward the Lord gave me and still gives me such faith in priests who live according to the manner of the holy Roman Church because of their order, that if they were to persecute me, I would still have recourse to them. And if I possessed as much wisdom as Solomon had and I came upon pitiful priests of this world, I would not preach contrary to their will in the parishes in which they live. And I desire to fear, love, and honor them and all others as my masters. And I do not wish to consider sin in them because I discern the Son of God in them and they are my masters. (Testament vv. 6-9)
Francis echoed these statements in one of his Admonitions, “Blessed is the servant who has faith in the clergy who live uprightly according to the norms of the Roman Church. And woe to those who look down upon them; for even though they may be sinners, nonetheless no one is to judge them since the Lord alone reserves judgment on them to Himself.” (Admonitions XXVI)
A story told by a 13th century Dominican named Stephen of Bourbon illustrates Francis’s steadfast devotion to priesthood. He recounts Francis being interrogated by a Cathar heretic:
Francis was travelling in Lombardy and entered into a church to pray. A Patarine or a Manichean [dualistic heretic of that period], a witness of Francis’ renown for sanctity among the people, resolved to take unfair advantage of this influence to attract the people to his sect, destroy their faith, and reduce the priesthood to scorn. The pastor of this parish was causing scandal by living with a woman. The man, therefore, ran and said to the saint: “Tell me, if a priest maintains a concubine, and thereby stains his hands, must we believe in his teaching and respect the sacraments he administers.” The saint was not taken in by the trap the heretic had set; in the presence of all the parishioners he went to the priest’s house, knelt down before him and said: “I do not really know whether these hands are stained as the other man claims they are. In any case, I do know that, even if they are, this in no way lessens the power and efficacy of the sacraments of God; those hands remain the channel whereby God’s graces and blessings stream down on the people. That is why I kiss them out of respect for what they administer and out of respect for Him who delegated his authority to them.” Francis prostrated himself before the priest, kissed his hands to the great embarrassment of the heretics and their sympathizers who were present. 3
Here, Francis is merely reiterating a Church teaching that had been conceived against the Donatists by St. Augustine many centuries earlier. The question was whether a priest’s objective sacramental ministry was dependent on his subjective holiness. Was the Eucharist consecrated ex opere operato (from the work by the work itself), or ex opere operantis (from the work of the one working it)? The opinion of the Church was that the sacramental ministries of the priest was not conditioned by the personal sanctity of the particular priest.
And in the next verse of his Testament, we see why Francis was so steadfastly devoted to churches and priests: “And I act this way since I see nothing corporally of the Most High Son of God in this world except His Most holy Body and Blood which they [priests] receive and which they [priests] alone administer to others.” (Testament 10). This echoes one of the Admonitions in which he says, “For inasmuch as their ministry is greater in that it concerns the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which they receive and which they alone administer to others, so those who sin against them commit a greater sin than [if they sinned] against all other people of this world” (Admonitions XXVI).
His thoughts on Eucharist are mentioned elsewhere in his writings. See Admonition I, the Earlier Rule: Chap XX, and the Eucharistic Letters, i.e. the Letter to the Clergy, the letters to the Custodians, the Letter to the Entire Order, and the letters to the Faithful. Further, Francis is known to have been quite concerned with the proper reservation of Eucharistic bread in addition to the proper care of Eucharistic vessels and buildings.4 In fact, in the rather small collections of Francis’s writings that have been conserved, he wrote quite extensively about the Eucharist. This shows us how devoted Francis was to the Eucharist.
There were many heretics at the time who maintained the contrary. The Waldensians fervently maintained that that sacraments given by unworthy priests were not valid, and that any layman (who believed in Christ and led an exemplary, Christ-like life) may consecrate the sacrament of the altar. However, the Waldensians were not well-established in Umbria, as they were concentrated mainly in Lombardy, northern Italy. The Cathars, probably the largest such group in direct opposition to the Eucharist, in fact, are known to have been the most averse to Eucharistic realism. And it is well known that the Cathars’ teachings were well established in the Spoleto Valley in the early 13th century, during Francis’s lifetime. As laypersons, the Cathars consecrated Eucharist during their Masses, claiming that it was done by their particular holiness, not their ordinations (or lack thereof). Pope Innocent III launched the Council in 1215 in an attempt to address the heresies that these groups were promoting, in addition to reforming Eucharistic practice, respecting churches and vessels, and reforming the clergy (among other things). This theological question continued on for centuries and disturbed also Martin Luther who said he never felt worthy enough to consecrate the host. In the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church codified the teaching as canon that the validity of the sacraments did not depend on the holiness of the priests performing them.
So given the widespread diversity and confusion of beliefs in his era, we see how Francis’s statements and writings on the Eucharist were strong statements. Francis was present at the Lateran Council, and was clearly influenced by its teachings. In comparison to the beliefs of the heretics, Francis asserted respect for priests, respect for the Body and Blood of Christ that are present in the sacrament of the Eucharist, and, above all, respect for Christ himself. This appears to be implicit refutations of the Cathars’ and Waldensians’ beliefs.
The fact is that Francis never wished to condemn priests – regardless of their conduct. On the contrary, he always wanted to submit to them. According to the Great Chain of Being, which we have spoken of, he wished for his own order of Friars Minor to be submissive and subservient to the order of priests, bishops, and the Pope; he wanted it to be at the bottom of the hierarchy, never above it. The friars were to be the “lesser brothers.”
The fact is that Francis believed in churches because the Church gave him the Eucharist; he believed in priests because they were the instruments through whom he received the Eucharist. Francis believed literally in the real Presence, and he loved and adored the Eucharist with all his heart. Without churches or priests, he would not be able to receive Jesus.
It is true that Francis’s writings and teachings on the Eucharist focus primarily on the “consecratory” power of the words of the priest of institution and his role of celebrating, not to the total action of the praying assembly (taught at Vatican II). But in this, Francis’s writings on Eucharist echo the teachings of the Church as promoted in the Councils and Papal Bulls of his day. In fact, the Church in that period was heavily concentrating on and extensively promoting the Eucharist. This is because of the great number of heretics and schismatics (described above) who were preaching against the clergy. And since consecration of the Eucharist is one of the priests’ main duties, most heretics also preached against Eucharist.
Perhaps Thomas of Celano said it best in his description of Francis and the Eucharist:
Toward the sacrament of the Lord’s Body he burned with fervor to his very marrow, and an unbounded wonder of that loving condescension and condescending love. He considered it disrespectful not to hear, if time allowed, at least one Mass a day. He receive Communion frequently and so devoutly that he made others devout. Following that which is so venerable with all reverence he offered the sacrifice of all his members, and receiving the Lamb that was slain he slew his own spirit in the fire which always burned upon the altar of his heart. (Thomas of Celano, II, Chap CLII)
I believe we can summarize Francis’s devotion to Christ, Eucharist, churches, priests, and the Church by looking at it in the following way:
Francis loves Christ.
Francis sees Christ in the Eucharist.
Eucharist is housed in churches.
The Eucharist is consecrated by priests.
Priests are ordained through the Church.
Let’s move on and look at the next few lines of his Testament. Here Francis declares his love for and devotion to Scripture. He says:
Wherever I come upon His most holy written words in unbecoming places, I desire to gather them up and I ask that they be collected and placed in a suitable place. And we should honor and respect all theologians and those who minister the most holy divine words as those who minister spirit and life to us. And after the Lord gave me brothers, no one showed me what I should do, but the most High Himself revealed to me that I should live according to the form of the Holy Gospel. (Testament 12-14)
It is telling that Francis would be so devoted to the written Word, since he discovered his life’s vocation and calling through it. On February 24, 1208, at the church of St. Mary of the Angels (the Portiuncula), Francis heard the Gospel of Matthew read on the Feast of St. Matthias. The Scripture was from Matthew 10:9, “Do not take gold or silver or copper for your belts; no sack for the journey, or a second tunic, or sandals, or walking stick.” Inspired by these words of Scripture, Francis discovered his vocation, which he would embrace as a rule of life: to imitate Christ perfectly, to embrace poverty, and to preach penance. Bonaventure describes his reaction,
“This is what I desire with all my heart!” Immediately, [Francis] took off the shoes from his feet, put down his staff, denounced his wallet and money, and, satisfied with one tunic, threw away his leather belt and put on a piece of rope for a belt. He directed all his heart’s desire to carry out what he had heard and to conform in every way to the rule of right living given to the apostles. (Bonaventure, Major Legend, 3).
Francis responded to Scripture with his heart, desire, and immediacy. He did not react to Scripture solely with his head, but with entire heart, being, and feelings. He took the Word literally and allowed it to move him and his life.
Just a few months later (probably in April of 2008), Francis began to receive the first followers. Once again, their way of life together was confirmed through Scripture. The first to come to Francis was Bernard of Quintavalle, a wealthy merchant from Assisi or possibly a noble knight. He invited Francis to his house for dinner (incidentally, the house still stands in Assisi). At night Francis pretended to fall asleep, but once he believed Bernard to be asleep (he was also pretending), Francis got up to pray the entire night, repeating over and over, “My God and my all, my God and my all.” Bernard secretly watched Francis pray. The following morning Bernard told Francis he wished to follow him. In order to discern God’s will, they decided to reference Scripture. They went together to the church of San Nicolò in the town square, and together they opened the Gospels at random. The Bible opened at the following words: “If you wish to be perfect, go and sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21); “Take nothing for your journey” (Luke 9:3); “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me” (Luke 9:23). These Scripture verses would constitute the basis of the life and Rule of the evangelical movement initiated by Francis.
Francis often quoted from Scripture in many writings and teachings. When he went to Pope Innocent III and received oral approval to live his way of life, his first rule, or way of life, was essentially a series of Scriptural verses. And in fact, this demonstrates Francis’s attitude toward Scripture: it was to be primarily lived, not merely learned or studied. In fact, Francis always sought to make sure knowledge of Scripture never pulled himself or his followers away from humility. He believed that the study and knowledge of Scripture should not be an end of itself; the Bible should not merely be learned, but rather followed. Francis wrote:
A man has been killed by the letter when he wants to know quotations only so that people will think he is very learned and he can make money to give to his relatives and friends. A religious has been killed by the letter when he has no desire to follow the spirit of Sacred Scripture, but wants to know what it says only so that he can explain it to others. (Admonition VII)
Thomas of Celano said of Francis and Scripture:
Although this blessed man was not educated in scholarly disciplines, still he learned from God wisdom from above and, enlightened by the splendors of eternal light, he understood Scripture deeply. His genius, pure and unstained, penetrated hidden mysteries. Where the knowledge of teachers is outside, the passion of the lover entered. He sometimes read the Sacred Books, and whatever he once put into his mind, he wrote indelibly in his heart. (Thomas of Celano, II, Chap LXVIII)
Lastly, any discussion of Francis and the Church would not be complete without reference to his love for the angels and saints, especially Mary. Devotion to Mary was a foundational part of Francis’s spiritual life. Thomas of Celano wrote that Francis was devoted to Mary as the Mother of God even before he had any followers. When Bernard of Quintavalle invited him to stay overnight in his home, Thomas said that he spent most of the night in prayer “praising God and the glorious Mother of God.” (Thomas of Celano I; IX: 22). When he began repairing churches after hearing the voice of San Damiano, Bonaventure wrote of St. Mary of the Angels:
He came to a place called the Portiuncula where there was an old church dedicated to the Virgin Mother of God which was now abandoned with no one to look after it. Francis had great devotion to the Queen of the world and when he saw that the church was deserted, he began to live there constantly in order to repair it. He heard that the angels often visited it, so that it used to be called St. Mary of the Angels, and he decided to stay there permanently out of reverence for the angels and love for the Mother of Christ. (LM 11:8)
Bonaventure later said of Francis and the Portiuncula:
As he was living there by the Church of our Lady, Francis prayed to her who had conceived the Word, full of grace and truth, begging her insistently and with tears to become his Advocate. Then he was granted the true spirit of the Gospel by the intercession of the Mother of Mercy and he brought it to fruition (LM I11:1).
We have already said that at the Portiuncula, dedicated to Mary, while attending Mass, Francis heard his life’s vocation. Later, this would become Francis’s favorite place in the world. In fact, he once said, “If they kick you out of one door, go back through another door.” Lastly, Francis had a vision in which Mary asked him if he had any desires. He would like to see all people receive complete pardon from their sins. The Pope granted a plenary indulgence to any person who visits the Porziuncola, confesses, receives communion, and prays the intentions of the Pope, traditionally on August 2.
Francis’s attitudes toward Mary are evident in his writings, especially the Salutation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Here we have the most important insight into his views on Mary. It is short enough to reprint here:
Hail O Lady,
Mary, holy Mother of God:
You are the virgin made church
And the one chosen by the most holy Father in heaven whom He consecrated
With His most holy beloved Son
And with the Holy Spirit the Paraclete, in whom there was and is
All the fullness of grace and every good.
Hail, His Palace!
Hail, His Tabernacle!
Hail, His Home!
Hail, His Robe!
Hail, His Servant!
Hail, His Mother!
And, [hail] all you holy virtues which through the grace and light of the Holy Spirit are poured into the hearts of the faithful so that from their faithless state you may make them faithful to God.
Francis’s profound devotion to Mary is rooted in the divine action that took place “ex Maria Virgine.” Without Mary, the incarnation of God into human history would not have taken place. And that which is central to our profession of faith, would not have taken place. Francis, a man devoted to the “God with us” knew that it would not have happened without Mary’s “Yes.” Thus Mary, who in her poverty and will turned toward the Father, became the dwelling place of God, the tabernacle, the home of God. In effect, she became like a church.
Thomas of Celano said of Mary:
He embraced the Mother of Jesus with inexpressible love, since she made the Lord of Majesty a brother to us. He honored her with his own Praises, poured out prayers to her, and offered her his love in a way that no human tongue can express. But what gives us greatest joy is that he appointed her the advocate of the Order, and placed under her wings the sons to be left behind, that she might protect and cherish them to the end. (Thomas of Celano, II, Chap CL)
St. Francis was also greatly devoted to the angels. Regarding them, Thomas said of Francis:
He venerated the angels with the greatest affection, for they are with us in battle, and walk with us in the midst of the shadow of death. He said that such companions should be revered everywhere, and invoked as protectors. He taught that their gaze should not be offended, and no one should presume to do in their sight what he would not do in the sight of others. and since in choir one sings the psalms in the presence of the angels, he wanted all who were able to gather in the oratory and sing psalms wisely. He often said that Blessed Michael should be especially honored because his duty is presenting souls to God. In honor of St. Michael he would fast with great devotion for forty days between the Feast of the Assumption and St. Michael’s feast day. For he used to say: “Each person should offer God some special praise or gift in honor of such a great prince.” (Thomas of Celano II Chap CXLIX)
In conclusion, I hope you now see how impossible it is to see Francis as anything other than a devoted and loyal Catholic. Francis wished to follow the Lord in poverty and simplicity. And despite the fact that he avoided entering an established religious Order of his day, he was not a rebel, a dissident, or an anti-cleric; on the contrary, he wished to follow the Gospel not as a monk, priest, heretic, but as an ever faithful son of the Church. For Francis, the Church is the bride of Christ through which he received Christ and found salvation: it is a people-Church, a mystery-Church, a place for salvation. Not unlike today, Francis lived in an era in which the Church was constantly criticized (both from within and without). Nonetheless, Francis not only defended its priests, practices and teachings, but he strove to promote them through his own writings, preaching, and actions. His faith and devotion to Eucharist shows us how in line he was with current Catholic teaching, despite the many individuals and groups who dissented. In fact, precisely through the Eucharist did he experience the presence of Christ, which he received through priests’ hands in churches. And in a period where so many had been excommunicated or were in schism, Francis always sought to remain within the Church and work for its renewal from within through his example and Order. For Francis to be anywhere else would mean to lose the most precious thing in his life, in effect the only thing he desired to possess: Jesus.
So how does this apply to us today? As Franciscans, we don’t necessarily seek to live our spirituality exactly in the same way as our founder; rather, we seek to make it relevant to us today.
What is clear and remains relevant is that Francis sought to remain within the Church, even though there were other options. Then as well as today there were and are many other options of following Christ. We choose to do so as Catholics. Further, there were then (as well as today) many who strongly criticized the Catholic Church. We seek to remain faithful to the Church, while being an example of reform from within, where necessary.
And just as Francis was guided by the current teaching of his day — the IV Lateran Council — we are guided by the Second Vatican Council which expanded thought and encouraged changes in the liturgy and an understanding of Eucharist. Today, our understanding of Eucharist goes beyond the physical qualities of transubstantiation of Christ in the host and wine. In addition to the species of bread and wine, the Council declared Christ present also in the minister, the word, and in the community of believers assembled in prayer. All the while, Vatican II maintained traditional teachings of the Real Presence.
To accomplish so great a work, Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations. He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of His minister, “the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross” , but especially under the Eucharistic species. By His power He is present in the sacraments, so that when a man baptizes it is really Christ Himself who baptizes . He is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church. He is present, lastly, when the Church prays and sings, for He promised: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20) (CONSTITUTION ON THE SACRED LITURGY SACROSANCTUM CONCILIUM, 7) (see also Sacrosanctum 14, which demands full participation by the faithful in the liturgy; this teaches that Eucharistic presence has as much to do with the sharing of the word, bread and wine as it does with the word, bread and wine themselves.)
Recently, I went to confession while in Italy with a group to an elderly Capuchin friar who spoke with a strong local accent of the Marches. A local Franciscan saint from that Marches region of Italy (whose name I cannot recall) once said, “My medicine is the Eucharist and Confession.” Ignatius of Antioch famously wrote that the Eucharist is “the medicine of immortality, the antidote we take in order not to die but to live for ever in Jesus Christ” (Letter to the Ephesians, 20:2b). St. Joseph Cottolengo recommended to the physicians of his House of Divine Providence that they hear Mass and go to Communion before undertaking their difficult surgeries. This was because, as he said, “Medicine is a great science, but God is the great Physician.”
How many medicines are given out today for depression, anxiety, or general unhappiness? How many people take medicine for physical pain, discomfort, or a host of ailments? While I am certainly not discrediting medicine or doctors who provide people a great service, I do think there are plenty of people who take all kinds of medicines seeking relief for ailments that only God can heal.
So what is your medicine? How often do you receive Eucharist? Monthly, weekly, daily? Most of us, I believe, receive Eucharist at least weekly, and many go to Mass daily. While in the past there was general reluctance to frequently receive the Eucharist, today its reception is quite common. However, how often do you go to Confession/Reconciliation? Do you go once a year, as is the minimum requirement of our Church? How about monthly? How about weekly? Many of the great saints went once a week.
In fact, I would recommend that frequent reception of the Eucharist should only be done in connection with frequent confession. I am not saying that you can receive Eucharist only after confession; however, I believe that many more graces are granted through the Eucharist to those who confess often.
At Mass, Francis heard his call to poverty and itinerant preaching in the Scriptures. He wrote in his Testament, “no one showed me what I should do but the most High Himself revealed to me that I should live according to the form of the Holy Gospel.” We see how he reacted by saying, “This is what I desire with all my heart.” How do you respond to Scripture? Do you allow it to guide you, to move you, to discern and hear the will of God? How do the Scriptures guide your life? How do you listen to them? Do you believe what St Jerome once said – that “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ”?
I would like for you to identify your a Scriptural passage that is meaningful to you. Is there one particular Scriptural verse that you are aware of that has given you direction more than any other? For Francis and many Franciscans, it might be this, “Take nothing with you for the journey.” For Francis, his life’s vocation was summed up in those words. What is yours? Once you discover it, write it down, memorize it keep it with you and repeat it often.
We have seen how devoted Francis was to Mary. What is your devotion to her like? Obviously, we do not worship Mary as a goddess, and we look to her as spiritual children as to a mother. How often do you say the rosary? The rosary is one of the most powerful prayers we have. Padre Pio said that he wished there were 48 hours in each day so he could pray more rosaries every day.
Saints and Angels:
Lastly, I would like to add that St. Francis himself was very devoted to the saints and angels. He preached at the cathedral of San Rufino, who was the patron saint of Assisi and whose relics were housed in that church during his day (and remain so to this day). How do the saints guide your live?
How about the angels? St. Padre Pio used to counsel his spiritual children to engage their guardian angels in some way, to entrust tasks to them, to have them intercede; he encouraged them to get their Guardian Angels to “fly” so as to not let their wings “rust.” The guardian angels are not just cute little stories we tell our children to help them get to sleep and not be afraid of the dark. The angels are with us and they help us. In fact, each one of us has guardian angels assigned to us to help us. However, if we do not ask them to intervene and protect us, they will get bored and “rusty.” Do not let your guardian angel get bored!