St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226)
There’s a large statue of St. Francis of Assisi with his arms outstretched facing the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. If you stand 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 to the poison of their world”.
What was poisoning Francis’ world? In the Italy where Francis lived the economy was booming; he belonged to Italy’s new rich merchant class. As a young man he had everything money could buy. But then, as now, wealth can corrupt your values.
Italy’s cities were fiercely competing with one another, and they were often at war. Outside Italy, the Turks would soon be dreaming of ruling Europe. People were grabbing for power everywhere. It was the time of the crusades. People wanted to settle things through the power of arms.
At the same time, the church was in bad shape and there was a yearning for reform. Saints like Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) and popes like Gregory VII (1015-1085) and Innocent III (1160-1216) were part of a growing movement looking for change.
When Francis of Assisi came with twelve disciples to see the pope in Rome in the summer of 1220 about reforming the church, 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 clothed like 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 from the gospel of Matthew: 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 : 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)
Now, the pope was a good judge of people and he sensed in Francis the grace of God, so he gave him his blessing and told him to live those gospel teachings and tell them to others. That’s what Francis and his companions did, and their movement spread like fire throughout Europe.
It’s interesting to see how Francis made those verses from scripture his own. First, he embraced poverty, not just by renouncing the rich lifestyle that he was born into, but by renouncing any way that could lead him to power. For example, he never became a priest or a bishop or a pope, because these were positions of power that people especially fought for and sometimes paid for in his day.
He did not ask to take over a monastery or a religious order that could become his base of power. Saints like St. Bernard and St Norbert before him had adopted monasticism as a way to bring about church reform, but Francis wanted a life where you went with 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 they would become 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 was crippling his world and his church. He imitated the “Son of Man” who was a poor man himself and 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 praying: Will God send us a saint to deal with the poison of our time?
T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”