If any of you have some notion that St. Francis of Assisi was in life like the kitty-hugging, pastel-toned image you see on a holy card or garden statuette, with little birdies sitting on his arms… think again. Some think that had Francis seen gold vessels and elaborate vestments and rich ornamentation for liturgy, he’d have a cow, right?
“NO!”, the saint would gasp. “Sell all this and give to the poor. Let us use clay as Christ did, wear burlap as He did, and protect the environment from ACTON INSTITUTE! Wealth is bad!”
Francis had, of course, his tender side, but mostly he was as hard as nails, and not pastel at all. This is, after all, the guy who faced down a Sultan (Islamic ruler for those of you in Falcon Heights) when things between Christianity and Islam weren’t exactly cordial.
Francis was also into rich liturgy with the most beautiful accouterments possible.
At the Catholic Online Forum, which I ran for years with the help of super staff such as The Great Roman Fabrizio™, there was a fascinating entry about what St. Francis was really is about. Fabrizio pulled quotes directly from the texts of Francis, most not translated into English elsewhere, and presented them for our edification. I’ll share one here. These are St. Francis words as found in the original Franciscan Sources and quoted in Latin (or Italian) original when available online. Otherwise, Fabrizio 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. With my emphases and comments.
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 [okay!] 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. [It doesn’t sound to me like he would be against “triumphalism”.]
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.
And then there’s this. Some people think that Francis had a rather sketchy grasp of the Eucharist, that perhaps (like we heard in seminary – I’m not making this up) the “sacrament” happens when the Communion minister looks into the eyes of the communicant. Let’s hear from St. Francis says:
Epistola ad clericos
Let us all consider, O clerics, the great sin and ignorance of which some are guilty regarding the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and His most holy Name and the written words of consecration. [He’s talking about the ignorace of clerics not just general ignorance.] For we know that the Body cannot exist until after these words of consecration. For we have nothing and we see nothing of the Most High Himself in this world except [His] Body and Blood, names and words by which we have been created and redeemed from death to life.
But let all those who administer such most holy mysteries, especially those who do so indifferently, consider among themselves how poor the chalices, corporals, and linens may be where the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ is sacrificed. And by many It is left in wretched places and carried by the way disrespectfully, received unworthily and administered to others indiscriminately. [Does any of this sound familiar?] Again His Names and written words are sometimes trampled under foot, for the sensual man perceiveth not these things that are of God. Shall we not by all these things be moved with a sense of duty when the good Lord Himself places Himself in our hands and we handle Him and receive Him daily? Are we unmindful that we must needs fall into His hands? [Remember… he wrote this to clerics, who handled the Eucharist. Lay people would not have touched it. He would have been horrified at the suggestion of Communion in the hand. And judgement awaits us, Fathers!]
Let us then at once and resolutely correct these faults and others; and wheresoever the most holy Body of our Lord Jesus Christ may be improperly reserved and abandoned, let It be removed thence and let It be put and enclosed in a precious place. In like manner wheresoever the Names and written words of the Lord may be found in unclean places they ought to be collected and put away in a decent place. And we know that we are bound above all to observe all these things by the commandments of the Lord and the constitutions of holy Mother Church. And let him who does not act thus know that he shall have to render an account therefore before our Lord Jesus Christ on the day of judgment. And let him who may cause copies of this writing to be made, to the end that it may be the better observed, know that he is blessed by the Lord.
Attendamus, omnes clerici, magnum peccatum et ignorantiam, quam quidam habent super sanctissimum corpus et sanguinem Domini nostri Jesu Christi et sacratissima nomina et verba eius scripta, quae sanctificant corpus. Scimus, quia non potest esse corpus, nisi prius sanctificetur a verbo. Nihil enim habemus et videmus corporaliter in hoc saeculo de ipso Altissimo, nisi corpus et sanguinem, nomina et verba, per quae facti sumus et redempti de morte ad vitam (1 Joa 3,14). Omnes autem illi qui ministrant tam sanctissima ministeria, considerent intra se, maxime hi qui indiscrete ministrant, quam viles sint calices, corporalia et linteamina, ubi sacrificatur corpus et sanguis Domini nostri. Et a multis in locis vilibus relinquitur, miserabiliter portatur et indigne sumitur et indiscrete aliis ministratur. Nomina etiam et verba eius scripta aliquando pedibus conculcantur; quia animalis homo non percipit ea quae Dei sunt (1 Cor 2,14). Non movemur de his omnibus pietate, cum ipse pius Dominus in manibus nostris se praebeat et eum tractemus et sumamus quotidie per os nostrum? An ignoramus, quia debemus venire in manus eius? Igitur de his omnibus et aliis cito et firmiter emendemus; et ubicumque fuerit sanctissimum corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi illicite collocatum et relictum, removeatur de loco illo et in loco pretioso ponatur et consignetur. Similiter nomina et verba Domini scripta, ubicumque inveniantur in locis immundis, colligantur et in loco honesto debeant collocari. Et scimus, quia haec omnia tenemur super omnia observare secundum praecepta Domimi et constitutiones sanctae matris Ecclesiae. Et qui hoc non fecerit, sciat, se coram Domino nostro Jesu Christo in die iudicii reddere rationem (cfr. Mt 12,36). Hoc scriptum, ut melius debeat observari, sciant se benedictos a Domino Deo, qui ipsum fecerint exemplari.
So much for your gunny sacks and clay. Don’t ever think that Francis would be pleased if you could obtain better.
And he would also tell you to …
GO TO CONFESSION!
If you want to know more about St. Francis check out the book by a frequent commentator here, Fr. Augustine Thompson. Francis of Assisi: A New Biography UK- HERE
are these Epistolae ad clericos collected in a book you might recommend?
oh, it seems they were compiled and translated by Paschal Robinson around 1905. Most of the volumes for sale, it seems, are independently published print-on-demand.
Heh! Falcon Heights!! Perhaps Harriet Island also?
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Our priest this morning said that the three greatest things about St. Francis was his love for poverty, his love for creation and I forgot the third thing. But I would say that these were the three greatest loves: Love of God first, love of penance (including poverty) second, and love for the Church (including the Holy Eucharist and the Sacraments) third. Love for Our Lady, Queen of the Angels and of the Seraphic Order would also be in the top 5. Francis did not just tiptoe through the tulips, he fasted and prayed and slept in caves and so forth. He was a tremendous penitent.
I recently came across a talk shared on Youtube by Father Thompson about the real meaning of poverty for St. Francis, which reminds me quite a bit about this. Poverty was not seen by St. Francis about material possessions being evil, but about avoiding the self-centered tendency that seeking possessions typically goes hand-in-hand with, in order to better focus our lives on God.
Going beyond the topic of that talk at bit, that in no way excludes the use of valuable objects in manner centered on serving God. In fact, Fr. Thompson quoted Francis as becoming quite emotional at the thought of any semblance of indifference towards the Blessed Sacrament. I think it was an additional writing on the topic beyond the one quoted by Father Z. above, but I might be mistaken.
I suspect likewise that St. Francis repairing the chapel at San Damiano was not merely him being obtuse as the story is generally told, but an outcome of his desire for fitting places for the Blessed Sacrament, and frustration at seeing an altar where Consecration had taken place be neglected.
Thanks, Fr. Z., for the kindness of mentioning my biography of St. Francis. Readers looking for an English version of the writings of the saint, including the letters on the Eucharist, can find them in vol. one of the excellent collection “Francis of Assisi: Early Documents”:
A bit cheaper is the one volume collection _Francis and Clare_, which also includes St. Clare’s writings:
I had the (mis)fortune to be at a retreat preached by a Franciscan. The whole time I kept thinking, St. Francis was NOT the hippie you are making him out to be! (The priest was one of those environmentalists who hate people.) And he would be appalled at all the changes and clapping and lack of reverence you bring to your Mass! Thank you so much for this.
Father Z –
Thank you for clarifying what my good St. Francis really had to say about the proper, respectful treatment of the Eucharist and of Mass. While he happily insisted on the poorest rags for his habit, nothing but the very best would do for Our Lord, which is as it should be. The finest altar linens and the greatest devotion and respect was what St. Francis insisted on for Jesus, and those of us who faithfully follow his humble rule feel the same.
On the subject of books about St. Francis, may I suggest “God’s Fool” by Julien Green. I read it during my formation as a Secular Franciscan, and am still moved by it.
Pax et Bonum to you and all your readers, and a blessed feast of St Francis – Susan, ofs
An interesting recent sketch (to my way of thinking):
Thank you for bringing Fr. Thompsons’s book to our attention – and thanks to michael de cupertino for noting Paschal Robinson: I see various scans of his The Writings of Saint Francis are to be found in the Internet Archive – as is his The Real St. Francis of Assisi, and his A Short Introduction to Franciscan Literature, his The Rule of St. Clare, and his The Golden Sayings of the Blessed Brother Giles of Assisi!
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So what if he did hug cats?? Benedict XVI does, and that doesn’t diminish his theological stature. You should get a kitty, Fr. Z… it could wear a little black “GATTO GALERO” :)
“So much for your gunny sacks and clay. Don’t ever think that Francis would be pleased if you could obtain better.”
It’s perhaps not a stretch of the imagination to think that if Francis (the saint, not the pope) got wind of the fact that the incumbent pope (Innocent III) had standardized the liturgical colors to just four, he would have made sure only the best dyes available in nature were used for the service of the house of the Lord.