St. Francis as Peacemaker

By Bret Thoman, OFS

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (Matthew 5:9)

The Lord revealed to me a greeting, as we used to say: “May the Lord give you peace.” (Testament 23)

St. Francis was a man of peace. In everything he did, he always sought to create peace between people, families, and cities; most fundamentally, however, he hoped to reconcile God with man. And this during a period in which war and conflict were all too common: between rival towns, ruling families, Pope and Emperor, Majores and Minores, hierarchy and heretic, Christian and Saracen, Assisi and Perugia. Arnaldo Fortini, one of the great biographers of St. Francis, described well the violence during the time of Francis. 1 Fortini noted the number of wars fought between local towns, cities, regions, provinces, and he described with horror the brutality and atrocities committed both on the battlefield and towards captured prisoners.

Before his conversion, Francis knew such violence first hand. 1 He lived a youthful life doing things that did not bring him peace. His chivalric outlook on life led him to battle as a way to bring honor and glory to himself in his self-centered attempts at becoming a knight. His first attempt – a disaster for himself and the Assisian army – led to his capture and imprisonment for a year in a dungeon-prison in Perugia. A year after his release, he heard the call to arms, and he set out to Apulia to fight once again. However, this time, he never saw battle, as after only a day’s journey from Assisi, he had a dream in Spoleto. Francis heard a voice present him with a question: “Is it better to serve the Master or the servant?” Francis, in a society still feudal, responded that it was always better to serve the master. The voice then told him to return to Assisi where he would be told what to do. At that moment Francis became pacifist and never again picked up the sword. The next morning, he woke up, gave his armor and arms to a fellow traveler, and returned home.

After this experience, Francis would soon dedicate his life to peace as a peacemaker. Just before he died, he wrote in his Testament, “The Lord revealed to me a greeting, as we used to say: ‘May the Lord give you peace.’” 2 According to the words of Thomas of Celano, Francis began his sermons with a call for peace, “In all his preaching, before he proposed the word of God to those gathered about, he first prayed for peace for them, saying: ‘The Lord give you peace.’”3 In his Earlier Rule, he wrote, “And into whatever house they enter, let them first say: Peace to this house.” 4

In his Admonitions, Francis twice quoted Jesus’s Beatitude, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”5 In the thirteenth Admonition, Francis then wrote:

The servant of God cannot know how much patience and humility he has within himself as long as everything goes well with him. But when the time comes in which those who should do him justice do quite the opposite to him, he has only as much patience and humility as he has on that occasion and no more.

In another Admonition, Francis quoted the same Scripture, and then wrote: “The true peacemakers are those who preserve peace of mind and body for love of our Lord Jesus Christ, despite what they suffer in this world.”6

In these two Admonitions, Francis is saying that true peace does not take place when everything in the world goes well for us, but is something other-worldly. When our peace is centered not on receiving the things of this world that we desire – even when good and just – but on the will of God – even when God allows things to go badly – then the vicissitudes of this world do not affect us and cannot take away our peace. In fact, this is precisely what Jesus himself said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you.”7 And, according to Francis, precisely when the things of this world do not go according to our own will, our peace is tested. And, the amount of humility and patience we have at that moment is the amount of peace we may have – and no more. This peace is a gift from the Holy Spirit – not a material one from this world.

Now let’s look at Francis’s attitude toward peacemaking. The Legend of the Three Companions says that Francis always counselled the friars to carry peace in their hearts:

As you preach peace by word, so you should also possess peace, and superabundant peace in your hearts. Anger no one, nor vex any man; but by your meekness urge others to be peaceful, meek and merciful. For we are called to heal the wounded, to succor the injured, and to bring back the erring to the ways of righteousness.8

Here Francis is saying that one has to be at peace before preaching about, teaching about, or trying to mediate peace. In other words: if you want to bring peace to others, you must have it in your own heart first. There is a well-known tune that begins, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” I will spare you my singing voice, but you know the verse. The message is that only after we have received the gift of peace, can we then become an agent of peace in the world to those around us. “You cannot give what you do not have,” goes the old saying. Think for a moment about someone you know who is peaceful. Don’t you want to have that person around when you want to talk about something that is troubling you? Don’t you want to ask him or her for their advice and counsel? Now, conversely, think of someone who is not at peace. You probably do not want that person around when you have a conflict; often their advice and attitudes will create more problems for you.

Francis’s attitude toward peacemaking was not one of diplomacy, statecraft, or realpolitik. For him, peace came simply from a personal and subjective relationship with the incarnate God in the Person of Jesus Christ. Francis believed that peace was not something that could be “made”; rather, it had to be “embodied.” If peace originates in God – and is fully manifested in the Incarnation in Christ – then it has to be personally received before being applied to conflicts. He did not necessarily intend to become a peacemaker, he simply set out to follow Christ. Francis’s attitude towards peace was no different than his attitude toward life: he was a Christian and his response towards life and its complexities was always in Christ. The Lord gave Francis peace which spread to those about him.

So the question is this: “How do we have peace in our hearts?” This is a valid question, and one we have been attempting to answer in these reflections we’ve been doing each month. I think that the story of St. Francis gives us answers. And in each reflection, we have spoken of how St. Francis arrived at peace.

Question: What are some of those ways?

By humbly surrendering himself to God, by seeking the will of God, by living a life of penance and by becoming willing to suffer, serving the poor and seeking justice, forgiving, having a humble and surrendered attitude toward personal desires and needs (including food, clothing, shelter, and property), Francis found peace. The same man who spent his youth in seeking worldly desires, entertainment, knighthood, money, fine clothes, after his conversion, spent the rest of his life serving and helping the poor – especially the leper. His life as a merchant – in competition, calculating, evaluating, planning – did not bring him peace. Only by leaving everything and embracing the poor did he receive peace. In all of this, Francis imitated Christ, and by doing so, he found peace.

Francis’s journey to peace initially began when he surrendered himself in obedience to God. He converted his life centered on vice and sin. Obedience represents one of the three knots on the Franciscan cord and around the Secular Franciscan TAU. A fresco in the upper basilica of St. Francis depicts the moment in young Francis’s life just after he had stripped off his clothes in front of the bishop of Assisi, his father, and the townspeople, declaring that his father was no longer Pietro Bernardone, but his Father who art in Heaven. An often-overlooked detail in that fresco is highly significant and symbolic of Francis’s obedience. Francis is standing toward the right side of the panel with the clerics and bishop behind him, while his father and the townspeople are depicted on the left side. Francis’s earthly father appears enraged, clenching his fist, reared back, as if about to strike Francis. Another man (perhaps Francis’s brother) holds their father’s hand to prevent the blow. Francis, apparently oblivious to the action surrounding him, gazes heavenward with his hands clasped together in prayer. At the top of the fresco, directly above Francis’s earthly father, however, is another hand – the hand of God – which protrudes from the clouds in the traditional form of a blessing. Francis has just taken his obedience away from his earthly father – and all his earthly pursuits – and given it to his heavenly Father. And his Father blesses him for it, while his earthly father curses him for it.

For Francis, the will of God was to take on a life of penance. His penance consisted in rebuilding churches, fasting, praying, giving away his possessions, prayer, living in community, and faithfulness to the Church. Perhaps his biggest penance, however, was in serving the poor – especially the leper. We have already spoken of penance, but suffice it to say that penance is any action we take – whether voluntary or involuntary – to convert from the “old man” in order to embrace the “new man.”9 Through penance, God takes our old nature, turns it upside down, and makes us into something new. We are no longer focused only on ourselves- our hurts, pains, feelings, etc. Those things have been renewed in Christ – the New Man – we are now open to turn to others’ hurts, pains. A number of years ago, I had the honor of serving on the Parish Mission Team of the Archdiocese of New York led by a wonderful priest named Fr. Tom Devery. Fr. Tom used to say, “You begin with penance; then, after you remove two ‘N’s’ which stand for ‘no-no’s’ and ‘nonsense’ what are you left with? Peace.” In all of his penances, Francis found peace.

Since Francis had peace within his own heart, he was able to transmit to those around him. We have numerous stories recounted of how Francis served as a peacemaker. One interesting aspect about Francis that does not receive much attention is how, through preaching and mediation, Francis was able to reconcile feuds and civil wars in various towns and cities throughout Italy. In the Little Flowers of St. Francis, the tale is told of Francis and Masseo journeying to Siena, which they found in a state of civil war. Francis preached a sermon and “brought all of them back to peace and great unity and harmony.”10 Another story is told –depicted in one of the frescoes in the upper basilica – how St. Francis drove out demons and stopped a civil war in Arezzo. Thomas of Celano recounts how Francis and Silvester arrived in Arezzo to find the city “shaken by civil war to the extent that destructions seemed very close.”11 Francis prayed and told Silvester to sing a hymn and command the demons to leave. The fresco in Assisi notes the demons fleeing the city. After peace was restored, the citizens of Arezzo underwent a change of heart. Another story is told how Francis brought peace to warring families in Bologna in 1222.12 Finally, in Assisi, just before he died, Francis reconciled the bishop and mayor.13 After this reconciliation, he added a stanza to his Canticle of Brother Sun:

Praised be You, my Lord, through those who give pardon for Your love
And bear infirmity and tribulation.
Blessed are those who endure in peace
for by you, Most High, they shall be crowned.

Another way that Francis contributed to peace was by prohibiting his followers from carrying arms and swearing oaths, including the non-Religious Tertiaries (today’s Secular Franciscans). This created not a few problems in medieval feudal society when public order depended on the oath of allegiance sworn to one’s liege lord backed up with a call to arms when necessary. The civil authorities were okay with monks and friars not bearing arms, but not the lay penitents. After rigorous defense on behalf of the Church hierarchy, the civil authorities eventually ceded and allowed the Franciscan prohibition against carrying arms for lay Franciscans to continue. Eventually, many people entered the Third Order of St. Francis precisely to avoid military service. This had the effect of lessening violence as there were fewer people willing to fight.

Question: what do you think it was about Francis that allowed him to be a peacemaker?
When St. Francis set out to mediate peace, he was simple and his message was simple. He arrived in towns in a simple manner dressed in poverty. As he had dispossessed himself of everything, he approached conflicts from the outside and people did not feel threatened by him; he had renounced everything – money, position, politics, and worldly honors. He did not stand to gain anything from the conflicts he mediated; people could sense peace within him. Thus, Francis’s approach to peace reflected his emphasis on being “minor,” or “lesser” in society; without power, wealth or social privilege. In the feudal system in which he lived, this struck people. And they listened to him. As he traveled around preaching – his example was much more convincing than the words he spoke.

Francis did not expect to bring peace into the world by simply withdrawing and praying for the world (which he did periodically); but, rather, by directly engaging the world where the world was. His attitude toward conflict was to get inside it. But always as a Christian and always with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Just as the Word became incarnate and came down into the world – in all its ugliness and sin – so did Francis get involved in the complexities and difficulties of the world. But always with Christ at the center. He did so by engaging the world through witness, service, patience, penance and suffering, prayer, dialogue – ultimately through love.

Now let’s look a little more deeply at Francis and peacemaking. When attempting to negotiate peace, Francis did not hope for merely an end to the struggle and violence, but something more concrete. He was attempting to bring peace that comes from an active spiritual experience, a changed soul, the peace that does not come from the world, but from God through Jesus Christ. So for Francis, peace was not simply the absence of war or tension, but was a concrete experience and expression of living the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”14 Pope Paul VI said the same thing slightly differently, “If you want peace, work for justice.”15 Isaiah says, “The work of justice will be peace; the effect of justice, calm and security forever.”16 In other words, true peace between individuals or groups in conflict with one another cannot be negotiated by merely removing the tension; instead, the presence of justice must take place. In some areas of the world, extensive walls are built up along borders to separate groups of people who have had long-simmering tensions. Taking away the possibility of conflict may temporarily remove the potential for struggle; yet, this only gives the appearance of peace. In fact, such a situation can actually foster more hatred and anger leading to more war in the future. So, if long-term, authentic peace is to take root, justice must be present.

So the next question we may ask ourselves is, “What is justice?” Justice involves respect, forgiveness, fraternal concern, compassion, and care for others. In effect, justice is love. Pope Paul VI elaborated on the statement (quoted above) during his speech on the Celebration for the Day of Peace:

It is an invitation [to celebrate peace] which does not ignore the difficulties in practicing Justice, in defining it, first of all, and then in actuating it, for it always demands some sacrifice of prestige and self-interest: Perhaps more greatness of soul is needed for yielding to the ways of Justice and Peace than for fighting for and imposing on an adversary one’s rights, whether true or alleged. We have such trust in the power of the associated ideals of Justice and Peace to generate in modern man the moral energy to actuate them, that we are confident of their gradual victory. Indeed we are even more confident that on his own modern man has an understanding of the ways of peace, sufficient to enable him to become a promoter of that Justice which opens those ways and sets people traveling them with courageous and prophetic hope.17

There is an old Latin saying, Amor omnia vincit, which means “Love conquers all things.” In fact, it is true love that brings true peace: wherever one works for the good of others, there is peace. Where there is love, there is God – Ubi caritas, Deus ibi est. And where there is God, there is peace.

When we begin to direct and order our lives towards love and justice, what happens? Do we focus primarily on our own needs, desires, problems, challenges, goals, etc.? Or do we open ourselves up to others? Having had a spiritual experience and having received the gift of peace, a desire wells up within our hearts to help and give to other people. We stop focusing on ourselves and begin to consider the needs of others. This is the Golden Rule, “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” When we perceive difficulties, we desire to find a way to help resolve such challenges: this is working for justice. Working for justice is observing what is broken and seeking to rebuild it. And here is peace.
This is reflected in the Franciscan Peace Prayer:

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, the truth;
Where there is doubt, the faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

In this prayer, written by a French priest in the years leading up to World War I, we see how various negative attitudes or situations are countered with something positive. Each desire to “get” or “receive” something is responded with a desire to “give” the same thing sought. And precisely through giving, we receive. Here is peace.
Yet, there is another aspect to working for peace that is reflected in this prayer. When we begin working for justice, we find it necessary to sacrifice something of ourselves. In its most materialist sense, this sacrifice demands our time, energy, and resources. However, sometimes the sacrifice asks more. It may ask us to sacrifice ourselves. Mother Theresa said we must give to each other to the point that it hurts:

Jesus gave His life to love us and He tells us that we also have to give whatever it takes to do good to one another. And in the Gospel Jesus says very clearly: “Love as I have loved you.” Jesus died on the Cross because that is what it took for Him to do good to us – to save us from our selfishness in sin. He gave up everything to do the Father’s will to show us that we too must be willing to give up everything to do God’s will – to love one another as He loves each of us. If we are not willing to give whatever it takes to do good to one another, sin is still in us. That is why we too must give to each other until it hurts.18

“Giving until it hurts” is embracing the cross. When we have undergone our own spiritual transformation through the cross, and have walked the road from sin to redemption, and have moved from war to peace in our own lives, we can bring that peace to others. Just as God has embraced and redeemed the ugly aspects within us, we extend that to others.

In fact, perhaps the highest form of spirituality within the Christian life, is to sacrifice ourselves for those who have harmed us. We voluntarily make sacrifices to atone for the sin that others have committed against us. This is what Martin Luther King Jr. was striving for in his ways of non-violence. By voluntarily submitting to his oppressors who did violence against him – during marches, sit-ins, protests, etc. – he was able to show the righteousness of his cause and the wrongness of those harming him.

St. Camilla Battista da Varano, a 16th-century Poor Clare nun canonized in 2010, wrote about how she did penance for those who had harmed her. She suffered terribly when her father, a Renaissance duke, was murdered by agents of the Borgia family (possibly with the approval of the pope, also a Borgia). Camilla wrote in her work, Purity of Heart:

the prelates and pastors of our souls … to whom belong the care of souls … beat me with harsh words and wounded me with worse deeds and under a pretext of good, they took from me a father who was my refuge in my tribulations. These prying prelates are guardians of the ceremonial walls of religion, but not the walls of the good and holy life; … [nevertheless], we should not stop honoring these prelates because of this; rather, we must frequently pray for them … [and] I will dress in sackcloth and ashes of humility and patience [for them].19

She shows us how penance is sacrificing a part of ourselves for others. In this case – innocence for guilt.
Saint Bonaventure wrote in the Triple Way that only the zeal for martyrdom leads to the repose of peace. And is martyrdom anything other than imitation of Christ on the cross? Francis wrote of the cross in his Letter to the Faithful:

And, as the Passion drew near, He celebrated the Passover with His disciples and, taking bread, giving thanks, and blessed and broke it, saying: Take and eat: this is my Body (Mt 26:26). And taking the cup He said: This is My Blood of the new covenant which will be shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins (Mt 26:28). Then He prayed to His Father, saying: Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me (Lk 22:42). And His sweat became as drops of blood falling on the ground (Lk 22:44). Nonetheless, He placed His will at the will of the Father, saying: Father, let your will be done (Mt 26:42); not as I will but as you will (Mt 26:39). And the will of the Father was such that His blessed and glorious Son, Whom He gave to us and was born for us, should, through His own blood, offer Himself as a sacrifice and oblation on the altar of the cross: not for Himself through Whom all things were made, but for our sins, leaving us an example that we should follow in His footprints (cf. 1 Pet 2:21). 20

“… that we should follow in his footprints” – in the footprints that led to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The cross is the highest form of the love of God incarnate, a love which does not die, but triumphs over evil and death. The peace of Christ is love: love of others, love of God, love of the cross. Only through the cross can one change painful, even violent situations, into life-giving encounters. This is what being a peacemaker is: transforming the difficulties, tragedies, even violence that life can sometimes present into life, into peace. It is a peace that only Christ can give – a peace the world cannot give.

Francis’s Christian life began with his gaze on the crucifix at San Damiano and ended with the wounds of the cross on his body in Laverna. Just as Christ on the crucifix of San Damiano was not depicted as dead, but alive, and the wounds of Christ came alive in Francis’s own body, God is able to make life out of death. The Passion, crucifixion, and death of Christ did not have the final say – the Resurrection did! The cross was not defeat and failure; paradoxically, it gave life.

The cross is the martyrdom that each of us is called to – whether as Christians, Catholics, or Franciscans. For some of the early Franciscans – the protomartyrs who gave their lives in Morocco – their martyrdom was actual; Giles referred to embracing what he called the “martyrdom of contemplation”; for Clare martyrdom was illness and her desire to die a martyr. For others – perhaps Francis himself – martyrdom was and continues to be his work to build up the Kingdom of God in prayer, community, the leprosaria, penance, poverty, and in working to reconcile people with each other, with God, with themselves. This is working for peace.

When we have peace from the Holy Spirit, we can stand with St. Paul who was “convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”21
Francis – who stridently sought to follow Christ, namely Christ’s commandment to love one another as he loved us22 and who followed Christ all the way to the cross – received this true peace. It is the peace that the Risen Jesus gave to his disciples when he stood in their midst and said: “Peace be with you!”, and in saying this, he showed them his wounded hands and his pierced side.

Reflections:
How do you understand your life as peacemaker?
How have you concretely been a peacemaker?
What are some areas within your own life, family, parish, or community where there is a lack of peace? Can you think of a way to bring peace to that situation?
Very few of us can be like Francis, Clare, and the first followers who desired to die the actual death of the martyr. For most of us today, our martyrdom will consist in our struggles with our communities or family members, finances or jobs, health and illness. Yet, just the same, as we
“work out our salvation” in the throes of life, we find peace. Where do you find peace working through the difficulties of ordinary life? 23

1. Cf. Francis of Assisi, A Translation of Nova Vita di San Francesco by Helen Moak. 1985. Crossroad Publishing Company, New York. Pp. 53-63

2. Testament 23

3. 1 Celano, chapter X, 23

4 Earlier Rule, Chapter XIV

5 Matthew 5:9

6 Admonitions 15

7 Cf. John 14:27

8 Legend of the Three Companions, 58

9 Cf. Rom 6:6; Eph 2:15; 4:22-24; and Col 3:9-11

10 Little Flowers of St. Francis 11

11 2 Celano 108

12 from the writings of Thomas, Archdeacon of Spoleto; from Omnibus 1602-01

13 Legend of Perugia 44

14 As quoted in “Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr (1982) by Stephen B. Oates. MLK said this in 1955 in response to an accusation that he his activism was “disturbing the peace” during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama.

15 MESSAGE OF HIS HOLINESS POPE PAUL VI FOR THE CELEBRATION OF THE DAY OF PEACE, 1 JANUARY 1972

16. Is 32:17

17. SPEECH GIVEN FOR THE CELEBRATION OF THE DAY OF PEACE, 1 JANUARY 1972

18 Speech of Mother Teresa of Calcutta to the National Prayer Breakfast, Washington, DC, February 3, 1994.

19 “Purity of Heart” and quoted in “From Worldly Princess to the Foot of the Cross.” by Bret Thoman, published by TAU Publisher, Phoenix, p. 205.

20 Second Version of the Letter of the Faithful. 6-13

21 Rom: 8:38ff.

22 cf. Jn 13:34; 15:12

23 cf. Jn 20:19-20

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