Francis of Assisi – An Introduction

Every year – or so it seems – very good biographies of St. Francis of Assisi are published. The ones published in the last 10 years all share some great qualities: readable and increasingly historical – introducing the “real” St Francis of Assisi to the world. 

You might ask why I say the “real” St Francis? Did you know that statues of St Francis are the second most popular lawn/garden ornament sold every year – right behind pink flamingos.  Rather like the popular icon shown above. That is an image many people have of St Francis, certainly one reinforced by Franco Zefferelli’s film Brother Sun, Sister Moon, another in a long line of romantic interpretations of the poor man from Assisi.  Especially in the 20th century, Francis was portrayed as “a free spirit, a wild religious genius, a kind of medieval hippie, misunderstood and then exploited by the ‘medieval Church.’ Or perhaps they know him as the man who spoke to animals, a nature mystic, an ecologist, a pacifist, a feminist, a ‘voice for our time.’  For others he is the little plaster man in the birdbath, the most charming and nonthreatening of Catholic saints…. almost everyone has his or her own Francis” (Francis of Assisi, Augustine Thompson OP).

In case you were wondering, the Italian painter Cimabue is credited with likely having the most accurate likeness of the saint. 

Nonetheless, Francis seems to be reinvented and marketed as needed. For example, one of the popular bits of wisdom attributed to Francis is “Preach the Gospel at all times, use words if necessary.”  Sorry – he didn’t say it – even if it sounds very Francis-like.  Another quote making the rounds is: “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” This one does not even sound like Francis (at least to me) – and it too is mis-assigned to the saint from Assisi.

And sorry to tell you, the “Peace Prayer of St Francis” – the one that begins “make me an instrument of your peace” – not from St Francis. It certainly captures one aspect of the Franciscan tradition, but it dates to 1912 and was first published as a poem in the French spiritual magazine, La Clochette. Later during World War I it appeared on the back of a holy card bearing an image of St Francis and the association of the two became cemented in our minds.

Francis has become the source material for well-meaning folks. People as diverse as John Michael Talbot and Sr. Joan Chittister have enlisted Francis for their own ideological projects. Even the Franciscan friar, Fr. Richard Rohr once proposed Francis as a “feminist-pacifist with no apparent sacramental life” (Thompson) – an odd thing since in Francis’ own writings Eucharist is one of the topics he most writes about.

And comparatively speaking, we have lots of Francis’ own writings.  Most are letters to the Franciscan order, but some are personal testaments.  And then there are lots of other sources: authorized and other biographies, collections of stories, legends, and later official compositions about Francis.  There are even accounts about Francis and the Franciscans from outside the religious order. Many of these were written or compiled within 25-35 years of Francis’ own death in 1226.  And then there are the “sources” about Francis that come from later periods – and these seem to be the ones that contemporary people use for their projects. The problem is that these later sources are far more concerned with Francis as “their” saint than the person who grew up in Assisi, struggled with his direction in life, was uncertain about what God was asking of him – in other words, all the same issues we face in life.

Typical of the later sources is the Fioretti (The Little Flowers) a collection of stories – many miraculous and all very saintly – that first appeared in 1390 in Tuscany.  One of the popular stories from the Fioretti is about the wolf of Gubbio who terrorized the city of Gubbio until it was tamed by St. Francis of Assisi acting on behalf of God. Is it a true story? The people of Gubbio would say it is true.

But my point is this: to settle for the pop-culture or Fioretti images of St Francis is to miss the “real” Francis whose story will challenge, inspire, unsettle, amaze, and maybe…. just maybe, change your world as you begin to understand what moved Francesco of Assisi to follow Jesus and give his all to God.  Deus meus et omnia.  “My God and my all.”

So in the weeks to come I hope you find these periodic writings engaging and fruitful. And may you come to know the “real” St Francis of Assisi.

9 thoughts on “Francis of Assisi – An Introduction

  1. Great article. I want to read more of your blog. I stumbled upon this when searching for the validity of a “quote” that didn’t seem right to me. I do like the way you write and hope you will see this comment even though the article is from 2012.

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  8. Interesting! Agree that he has been” used” a little unscrupulously for many causes.
    Got a question for you.
    A friend of mine keeps insisting that St Francis had “anger problems”, but can’t show me anything concrete. I think maybe he was angry at himself for being so arrogant to send Brother Rufino to preach in his underwear, but I would call that a pride issue. If he was angry at himself, it would seem appropriate.The only other issue I recall was when he found the huge building being built when he returned.That too, seems justified as it was against poverty

    • There is a period (1220-1221) upon his return to Italy from the Middle East when there are several other incidents (including the “huge building” incident to which you refer). Francis discovers that there had been a slow movement towards some monastic-like practices (under the interim leadership of Brothers Matthew and Gregory) as they introduced ascetic practices and dietary changes in response to lay criticism. Francis seems particularly upset that the brothers were not willing to endure the humiliation of pious misunderstanding (the lay people thought they should be monks). But Francis seems have made a quite harsh correction to Brother John of Capella who had gone off on his own and formed a community to server lepers (reasons are the fodder of debate). And equally harsh was his reaction to Brother Phillip Longo (responsible for serving the Poor Clares) when he begin to petition for papal privileges. “Anger issues?” It is hard argument to make, but what makes more sense is that it is this period when Francis was no longer able to simply be the “teacher by example” he needed to impose leadership or he needed to let his vision slowly morph. He did neither, he resigned, appointing Brother Peter of Cataneo as his replacement. ….and then proceeded to intervene time and time again.
      My point is this: the Order was growing and Francis was not suited by temperament or desire to lead nor to let the Spirit lead others. It is a classic personal and communal tension of growth in any organization, when the charism of the leader becomes different from the charism of the fraternity as the Order passed through a flexture in its history. Francis is betwixt-and-between and does not always handle it well. But anger issues? Bit of a stretch

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