A large statue of St. Francis of Assisi with arms outstretched stands facing the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. From behind the statue, facing the basilica, it looks like the saint is holding up the church in his arms. That’s what St. Francis did: he raised up a church that was falling down
We need to see saints in the light of their times, because they answer 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 and Francis was born into its new rich merchant class. As a young man he had everything money could buy, but then, as now, money can poison values.
Italy’s cities fiercely competed with one another and were often at war. A thirst for power was everywhere. It was the time of the crusades and there was a belief in settling things through force of arms.
It was a time too when the church had become weak and there was a yearning for 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.
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 the Lateran Basilica, 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, a good judge of people, sensed the grace of God in Francis and told him to live those gospel teachings and sent him on his way. Francis and his companions did that and their movement spread like fire throughout Europe.
Francis made Jesus’ teachings his own. He embraced poverty, not just by renouncing the rich lifestyle that he was born into, but by 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 some 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 also might wonder– and maybe pray: Will God send us a saint 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”