St. Francis of Assisi
Mystic, Teacher, Founder of the Franciscan Order,
Patron Saint of animals and the environment
Francis of Assisi brought light into the darkness of the late Middle Ages. He was, in the words of Dante, his countryman, the “Morning Star,” or sun, that rises from the East to shine new light upon the dawn.
Francis’s life was full of poetry—both lived and spoken. His greatest biographer, Paul Sabatier, goes so far as to say: “The sermon to the birds and the first Blessing of the Animals closed the reign of Byzantine art and of the thought of which it was the image. It is the end of dogmatism and authority. Uncertainty became permissable in some small measure. It marks a date in the history of the human conscience.”
The century before Francis Bernardone was born in Assisi, Italy (b. 1170), was one of the most corrupt in the history of the Christian Church. It was so bad in those days that it was often said that the majority of priests and bishops were either practicing simony (extorting money), keeping prostitutes, or both. They were not just corruptible and prone to adultery, but they were extortionists and worse. The situation in France and Italy was such that it could not even be covered up. There was widespread opinion among the good elements of the Church leadership that the pope must deal severely with the negative elements, but there was also fear that his sanctions would be so widespread as to induce the faithful into the heresy of Donatism, a rejection of the Church because of some bad elements in it.
Nevertheless, in several encyclicals published between 1074 and 1109, Pope Gregory VII told all Christians that they must reject the sacraments given from the hands of corrupt priests. These letters sent out into the parishes and read aloud in public squares caused riots. Remember: This was the late Middle Ages. The Church stood at the center of public life. Religion—which was only Christianity in many of these communities—was not a private affair, but a series of public pieties and obligations, all of which depended on the Church and the local priest for their authority.
It was into these troubled and confusing times that Francis was born. I will not outline his life story for you, here. Go and read Chesterton’s Life of Francis, or Julien Green’s God’s Fool, or The Road to Assisi, by Paul Sabatier. All of these will give you a good understanding of the little poor man who became known to the world as St. Francis.
It is his spirit that I still cling to, and I am not alone. Millions of people pray to Francis for peace. His is a legacy of peace; and even though he didn’t actually pen that famous prayer, “Lord, Make Me an Instrument of Peace” (it was written anonymously a century ago), it is full of his spirit. The stories of the Wolf of Gubbio and the Preaching to the Birds are not just fanciful tales, but part of the chronicle of Francis’s extraordinary life. Sometimes saints make extraordinary things appear ordinary. We can learn from their examples that transformations of matter through the power of spirit are within our grasp, too.
Francis knew inner doubt and conflict. He often wondered whether or not his life—wandering around the hill-top towns of Umbria, preaching the Good News, caring for lepers, talking with and caring for animals—was really God’s work, or some sort of ruse. I love him for that. I pray to Francis in my own moments of self-doubt, asking him to help me in having the clarity of vision to see God at work in my life.
His feast day is October 4. He did not die that day so much as he was born anew. His devotion to the Virgin Mary was great, and wherever heaven is to be found, Francis is singing the Angelus, there. Also, he is not only praying for peace, but urging us on toward it.
Portrait of Saint Francis by James Starks, an artist living and working in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Copyright ©2005 Jon Sweeney