What Did St. Francis Really Say?

Now that we have a Pope named Francis, and we know that he intended to invoke St. Francis of Assisi, we might delve into Francis looking for some clues as to what (we hope) the new Pope might be up to.

First, if you have the notion that Francis was bunny-hugging, pastel-toned image on a holy card or garden statuette, with little birdies sitting on his arms.  Think again. Francis had his tender side, but he was as hard as nails.   This is, after all, the guy who went to face down a Sultan when things between Christians and Islam weren’t exactly cordial.

Over at the Catholic Online Forum, which I ran for years and of which I am still sort of the moderator – though the keys have been held for a long time by the great Roman Fabrizio – there is a a great entry about what Francis really is about.  Fabrizio pulled quotes from the texts of Francis, most not translated into English elsewhere, and presented them for our edification.  I share some things here.  He uses the exact words of St. Francis as found in the original Franciscan Sources and quoted in Latin (or Italian) original when available online.  Otherwise, he transcribed them from the print edition. Online source for St. Francis’ own writings: OPUSCULA OMNIA SANCTI FRANCISCI ASSISIENSIS

What Fabrizio does is explode myths about Francis.  Here is an example of a myth of poverty in liturgy which produced all that nonsense about clay pots and gunny sack vestments

MYTH: Francis hated the “triumphalism” of the Roman Liturgy. He wanted Mass celebrated in barns, the Sacred Species held in shoe boxes or recycled bottles. And he couldn’t stand the “ritualism” of liturgical norms and devotional practices (and shall we mention his murky understanding of the doctrine on the Eucharist?):

Epistola ad custodes

To all the custodians of the Friars Minor to whom this letter shall come, Brother Francis, your servant and little one in the Lord God, greetings with new signs of heaven and earth which are great and most excellent before God and are considered least of all by many religious and by other men.

I beg you more than if it were a question of myself that, when it is becoming and you will deem it convenient, you humbly beseech the clerics to venerate above all the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and His Holy Name and written words which sanctify the body. They ought to hold the chalices, corporals, ornaments of the altar, and all that pertain to the Sacrifice as precious. And if the most holy Body of the Lord is left very poorly in any place, let It be moved by them to a precious place, according to the command of the Church and let It be carried with great veneration and administered to others with discretion. The Names also and written words of the Lord, In whatever unclean place they may be found, let them be collected, and then they must be put in a proper place. And in every time you preach, admonish the people about penance and that no one can be saved except he that receives the most holy Body and Blood of the Lord. And whenever It is being sacrificed by the priest on the altar and It is being carried to any place, let all the people give praise, honor, and glory to the Lord God Living and True on their bended knees. And let His praise be announced and preached to all peoples so that at every hour and when the bells are rung praise and thanks shall always be given to the Almighty God by all the people through the whole earth.

And whoever of my brothers custodians shall receive this writing, let them copy it and keep it with them and cause it to be copied for the brothers who have the office of preaching and the care of brothers, and let them preach all those things that are contained in this writing to the end: let them know they have the blessing of the Lord God and mine. And let these be for them true and holy obedience.

Universis custodibus fratrum minorum, ad quos litterae istae pervenerint, frater Franciscus in Domino Deo vester servus et parvulus, salutem cum novis signis caeli et terrae, quae magna et excellentissima sunt apud Deum et a multis religiosis et aliis hominibus minima reputantur. Rogo vos plus quam de me ipso, quatenus, cum decet et videritis expedire, clericis humiliter supplicetis, quod sanctissimum corpus et sanguinem Domini nostri Jesu Christi et sancta nomina et verba eius scripta, quae sanctificant corpus, super omnia debeant venerari. Calices, corporalia, ornamenta altaris et omnia, quae pertinent ad sacrificium, pretiosa habere debeant. Et si in aliquo loco sanctissimum corpus Domini fuerit pauperrime collocatum, iuxta mandatum Ecclesiae in loco pretioso ab eis ponatur et consignetur et cum magna veneratione portetur et cum discretione aliis ministretur. Nomina etiam et verba Domini scripta, ubicumque inveniantur in locis immundis, colligantur et in loco honesto debeant collocari. Et in omni praedicatione, quam facitis, de poenitentia populum moneatis, et quod nemo potest salvari, nisi qui recipit sanctissimum corpus et sanguinem Domini (cfr. Joa 6,54). Et, quando a sacerdote sacrificatur super altare et in aliqua parte portatur, omnes gentes flexis genibus reddant laudes, gloriam et honorem Domino Deo vivo et vero. Et de laude eius ita omnibus gentibus annuntietis et praedicetis, ut omni hora et quando pulsantur campanae semper ab universo populo omnipotenti Deo laudes et gratiae referantur per totam terram. Et, ad quoscumque fratres meos custodes pervenerit hoc scriptum et exemplaverint et apud se habuerint et pro fratribus, qui habent officium praedicationis et custodiam fratrum, fecerint exemplari et omnia, quae continentur in hoc scripto, praedicaverint usque in finem, sciant se habere benedictionem Domini Dei et meam. Et ista sint eis per veram et sanctam obedientiam. Amen.


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  1. Philangelus says:

    I’m listening to a course from The Teaching Company about St. Francis, and the professors (secular) are both utterly enamored of him. The lecture I heard yesterday was about St. Francis’s preaching, and what a shame it is we don’t have transcripts of his actual preaching. I didn’t realize we still had such a large volume of his writings. Thanks!

  2. mamajen says:

    St. Francis is a special saint to our family. My youngest brother’s middle name is Francis. My husband’s Irish grandfather who died at age 25 also had Francis as a middle name. He was Catholic, and that played a role in my husband’s conversion from Anglicanism. Needless to say, I was excited to hear our pope’s choice of name! It’s unfortunate that liberals have hijacked St. Francis’ image, but not surprising since they have done the same with Jesus.

  3. Darren says:

    “Francis had his tender side, but he was as hard as nails.”

    How true. The statues I see with birds and squirrels are nice, if you fully understand him. But my favorite St. Francis statue was one I saw in a church where he is embracing a cross, with his eyes turned up to heaven.

    I have read a number of books on him, and the “hard as nails” Francis is very evident, and THAT is the inspiring Francis. He is no hippie tree hugging nature boy… no, he was – and is – a most fierce combatant in the spiritual warfare. I have read that in his journeys, when he would just see the top of the steeple of a Catholic church on the horizon, he would immediately drop to his knees in adoration of Our Lord.

  4. Gregorius says:

    I have heard rumors on the internet that St. Francis did not want his friars to sing the liturgy. It certainly doesn’t seem to match with his actual writings, but is this true?

  5. Traductora says:

    Thank you for posting this! Poor St Francis gets such a bad rap – for things he never said or did.

    As for liturgy, one thing that we shouldn’t forget is that St Francis was the originator of the Nativity Scene, which was in the tradition of the religious dramas (miracle and mystery plays) that had been suppressed by Rome because they had become increasingly seen as a distraction from the liturgical activities of the Church (and actually had in some cases become irreverent). In fact, he had to get special permission from the Pope to stage his living Nativity in Greccio in 1223.

    So while it seems that he felt the liturgy of the time wasn’t enough to speak to the faithful, he obviously did regard dramatic action as a means of communicating the Gospel and truths of the Faith. And we know that he was very devoted to the Eucharist and the Real Presence, so he wasn’t a proto-Protestant who rejected the Church’s function as the Mother of the Eucharist, so to speak. Formal liturgy in those days may actually have been rather lacking and remote from the faithful, and it’s very possible that only by going outside of it could he have communicated its truth.

    St Francis was also the creator of vernacular religious songs, and while he does not appear to have been very fond of chant, who knows exactly how chant was performed in those days? Maybe none of us would have liked it either!

  6. pseudomodo says:

    While watching the TV coverage of Francis I i was struck by how many commentators regurgitated the tired old myth: “Preach the Gospel always and, if necessary, use words.” Something St. Francis never said.


  7. ocalatrad says:

    THANK YOU for posting this. It certainly demolishes the “simplicity” and “humility” drivel in the news media and among many ignorant Catholics who believe, as you wrote, that such things mean we ought to use ceramic pots as ciboria and bath robe-like garments as albs.

  8. acardnal says:

    Fr. Mitch Pacwa, S.J. has been saying frequently that he is unaware of any documentary evidence that indicates that St. Francis said “Preach the Gospel always and, if necessary, use words.” Until proof appears to the contrary, it is a legend.

  9. gracie says:

    Anyone out there want to make some money? If so, now would be the perfect time to do an English translation of the writings of St. Francis of Assisi ( I happily would buy a copy.)

    Also, a question: Did St. Francis write in Italian or Latin?

  10. michael heartlein says:

    In addition to St. Francis of Assisi, I believe St. Francis Xavier factored into the pope’s choice of “Francis”. My wife and I prayed St. Francis’ Novena of Grace from March 4-12. The Novena is traditionally prayed from the 4th to 12th of March, the day Francis Xavier was declared a saint in 1622. There are too many coincidences — 12 march was the day the conclave ended and was also the last day of the novena. St Francis Xavier was also co-founder of the Society of Jesus and we now have Pope Francis for the first time and the first Jesuit Pope. I cannot help but believe that St. Francis Xavier’s intercession had something to do with Pope Francis’ election and that the novena March 4-12 Novena instituted by St. Francis himself played a part.

  11. pseudomodo says:

    Francis Cardinal George clarified last night on EWTN World Over that the popes inspiration was Francis of Assisi.

    But that could be altered again in the Acta Apostolis Seda….

  12. Pingback: St. Francis on Liturgical Propriety | Dr. Leroy Huizenga

  13. catholicmidwest says:

    Oh yes, deep into the “Franciscan Question.” Francis is at once the most well-known and the most mysterious saint in the Catholic Church. Many people have projected themselves onto him, almost as if he were a blank slate for their use. But he wasn’t a blank slate. We know historically that he was a man, a man who underwent a massive personal conversion to Christ Jesus and then lived that conversion out in the midst of an uncomprehending world. Even the years and all the conflicting biographies cannot obscure that.

    There are some worthy things to read about St. Francis out there. For anyone who really wants to get into the conversation, there is the work of the more serious and better sourced authors: Marion Habig, Raffaele Pazzelli, Cajetan Esser, Eloi LeClerc, Raoul Masselli, Thaddee Matura, and more. Do yourself a HUGE FAVOR and don’t pick up the devotional spam often found in popular bookstores. It will just confuse and repel you with its cloyness and repugnant taste.

    There is also the new “Francis of Assisi” by Augustine Thompson OP, which I have heard is very good. I have a new copy here and am about to read it myself. I trust the Dominicans with the story of the Franciscans implicitly as they are our mendicant brothers, and the quality of Dominican work is usually very, very sound. I look forward to reading this book and hope I can add it to my “best” pile of Franciscan books.

  14. catholicmidwest says:

    There are already copies of what St. Francis wrote in English. St. Francis wrote in both Italian and Latin. He also spoke some French and may have written some in it (not sure). Knowing French was was a bit unusual at the time in his part of the country, but being in the textile trade, his father made frequent trips to France and this is presumably why.

    About St. Francis’ use of Latin: Francis was born into a merchant class family and his father was prominent and wealthy in the town of Assisi. As the son of a well-to-do merchant, his family was upwardly mobile, as we say now, and Francis received an appropriate education at a local monastery school. He was capable in Latin, although not masterly. He could and did read scripture in Latin which was all that was available, and many of his own works consist of little more than concatenations of scriptural phrases strung together to make his point. This is one of the reasons that it takes some background to understand what he might have been trying to say, thus the “Franciscan Question.” Many of his works were dictated to his brothers, one or the other of which would serve as a scribe. Some of them were literate in both Italian and Latin as well, as they came from all classes of men, even at first.

  15. catholicmidwest says:

    It’s not that Franciscans then or now have any animosity for beauty in the liturgy. On the contrary. But you have to remember your ecclesiastical history. The 13th century was a period of enormous confusion and strife with much heresy and rebellion, corruption and confusion, rather like today in some ways. St. Francis role, given to him by God, was to rebuild by means of conversion and compassion, which were in short supply, and those became the foundations for the charism and still are. It’s not that there is opposition between the different charisms of the Church; rather, it’s that it takes all colors to paint a great masterpiece. You can’t do it with all blue paint of the same shade, for instance. We work together.

  16. SteelBiretta says:

    @pseudomodo: Re: “the tired old myth: ‘Preach the Gospel always and, if necessary, use words.'”

    Pretty sure that tired quote originated from a liturgical interpretive dancer. Or possibly a nun-on-the-bus in their ministry to the mimes.

  17. Captain Peabody says:

    I just finished reading Augustine Thompson’s excellent new book on Francis, and he was indeed not what you’d expect. The greatest theme in Francis’ writings is his profound respect and love for the Eucharist; and this respect was a profoundly liturgical and even aesthetic one. Some of the things that angered him the most were dirty altar linens and the reservation of the Eucharist in disrespectful places. For a time, Francis was known to wander around towns with a broom, entering churches unasked, sweeping them thoroughly, and washing the altar linens. He also strongly insisted on the correct saying of the Office among his brothers, and saw the alteration of the Office as virtually equivalent to heresy.

    And yes, just like many, many other saints, he loved nature, animals, and God’s creation, and he was kind and merciful to people. But he was a Catholic.

    I haven’t heard the chant thing before, but as a deacon he did frequently sing the Gospel at masses he assisted at.

    St. Francis of Assisi, pray for us!

  18. catholicmidwest says:


    The quote “Preach the Gospel, use words if necessary” does not appear in the works of St. Francis. In fact, it’s not known for sure where that phrase originated. It’s very likely to have been quite modern based on the linguistic structure and assumptions involved. There are many things like this surrounding the story of St. Francis, although many things about him are a mystery.

    The one that really gets people up in arms is when you tell them that the St. Francis Peace Prayer is also not in the works of St. Francis. That is actually fairly recent in origin. It first appeared in a French devotional magazine in 1912, and wasn’t even written by a Franciscan. The magazine was called La Clochette (The Little Bell) and the author was anonymous. It is surmised that the real author was a parish priest who was the magazine’s editor, Father Esther Bouquerel, but that remains a mystery.

  19. And it is a modern myth that he didn’t want the Office sung. There was no such thing as “said office” in 13th century Italy (see my book, _Cities of God: The Religion of the Italian Communes, 1125-1325, Penn State Press, 2005). When the numbers were too low to chant, they sang recto tono (straight tone). In fact the first friars sent by Francis to England were well-known for singing the office with chant, even if only three or four were present.

    Francis devotion to the liturgy and Eucharist is also high-lighted in the recently translated book by the great medieval historian of piety, Andre Vauchez: _Francis of Assisi: Life and Afterlife of a Medieval Saint_.

  20. You mean St. Francis didn’t prance around the altar with lambs and bunnies, singing Donovan songs? I’m bummed.

  21. Gregorius says:

    Thank you for your response, Father. Your sound research confirms my suspicion of that rumor I heard. I hope to be able to read your new book soon.

  22. catholicmidwest says:

    You must be remembering that corny old movie that the movie channel shows now and then…ROFLOL….the one where St. Francis says impertinent things to the Pope? NEVER. NO. WRONG.

    But then it was made in 1972, and that was the prevailing mood. I remember. I still like some of the music though. There’s a rather large amount of music that can be used for Franciscan events between this, John Michael Talbot and believe it or not, Rich Mullins who was on his way into the Catholic Church at the time of his death in 1997.

    BTW, I’ve had several interesting conversations in real life in the last day or so. There are some striking parallels between the Jesuits and the Franciscans. Both are among the great evangelizing orders; recall your N. & S. American and Asian history. Both were called into being by God to combat crises in the Church. Both hearken back to the primacy of each individual soul while projecting all energy and hope onto the corporate mission of the Church, understanding that faith is a mysterious and holy relationship between the two. Both pledge explicit obedience to the papacy at profession. Even then, there are differences between the two; and though the charisms are quite different, they are complementary, as all the legitimate charisms of the Church are, working together for the mission of the Church. A Jesuit with a Franciscan name and a Dominican habit isn’t such an odd thing, after all.

  23. Sword40 says:

    Its way too early to figure out from which direction he comes. So far I have mixed feelings. I pray that he will encourage the TLM but I have a “nagging” sense that he will not. I like his first comments on gay marriage but shudder watching his casualness with the Mass. Overall—– the jury is out. History will decide. And God already knows.

  24. Pingback: Benedict and Francis | Mary Victrix

  25. Melody says:

    When I was researching St. Francis before confirmation (he is my patron) I came across an interesting version of his preaching to the birds.
    According to that version, he was preaching to his brothers, who grew sleepy and inattentive. As a mild rebuke, he turned instead to the birds gathered on a nearby tree, who drew around, raptly listening, astonishing those present.

  26. Parasum says:

    @ gracie: FWIW, the first author quoted in “The Faber Book of Italian Poetry” is St. Francis. Just a bit of trivia. As for the sentimental piffle about him, ISTM that bad religious art – statues & holy cards that present Saints as wilting consumptives, for example – is to blame that, or at least for re-inforcing such ideas.

  27. catholicmidwest says:

    Some of that is pretty much anti-evangelization. It’s possible to inoculate people against the disease so that they never get a “full-blown case” (of Christianity). It happens more often than people realize I think.

  28. B.Questa says:

    It’s fascinating how much the writing style of Francis reminds me of that of St. Paul. The care to detai, the tone of authority, as well as their similair positions as founders of communities. Pope Francis is preaching with authority as well. He as already called us and how brother bishops to a number of things.

  29. B.Questa says:

    Sorry for the mistakes. Typing from my phone for the first time. Mea culpa.

  30. Will Elliott says:

    We can thank St. Francis and the Franciscans for the venerable custom of the tabernacle being in the sanctuary, on the high altar:

    The tabernacle on the main altar was an innovation introduced to Roman Catholicism by St. Francis of Assisi. Though it is beleived that others had already started this on a smaller scale. When our Holy Father built our first chapels, they were very small in comparison to the large monastic churches and cathedrals of the time. There was no other place to put the tabernacle but on the main altar.

    (per Brother Jay, F.F.V., superior of the Franciscans of Life)

  31. mwa says:

    does anyone know a source for this claim re St. Francis of Assissi?: He sent his brothers with precious chalices and elegant vestments to give to poor priests who had none. He encouraged his brothers to bake the host and often sent them to their missions with fancy irons to make them.

  32. Cosmos says:

    I agree with all everyone is saying, but it seems to me that the Pope chose the name Francis precisely because of the images that it conjures up in the popular imagination: poverty, peace, love of nature. The Pope wanted his papacy to be associated with the “patron saint” of these three things.

    While it is clear that the Pope knows that the real St. Francis was a corageous, zealous, and orthodox man, I am not sure the Pope chose the name based on the realities of the “historical” St. Francis. While you could read between the lines with everything Benedict did, I think this Pope is a little more straightfoward.

    We will be able to use the historical St. Francis to make key points because the Pope chose to bring him back to the front of our imaginaitons, but I expect the Pope’s use of the Saint to be a little more conventional.

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