In our previous installment, speaking of Francis’ unique view of nature, we ended with the idea that Francis “held that the whole world is a sacrament, a sacred thing, a gift; and the sacramental character of the world reminds us of the central sacrament, the Incarnation, continued among us in the seven sacraments of the Church, especially in the Eucharist.” But did Francis have any thoughts specifically on the Eucharist itself?
I would wager that most people would guess that in Francis’ own writings he spoke at length about poverty, his love of nature and animals, and other topics for which Francis is so well known in the modern world. Yet, in his own writings, there is perhaps no other topic that he addresses more than the Eucharist. In his Eucharistic writings, Francis expresses a deep view of the continuing Incarnation of Christ in the world, and in that vision is an entire way of life. These writings represent part of the movement of Francis’ mystical life from prayer and devotion in solitude before the cross, to a pattern of communal prayer and devotion in the Mass as well as a devotion to the Eucharist apart from Mass.
At the end of his life, Francis dictated a document that has remained a primary expression of his Gospel vision. He says in what has become known as The Testament:
“…the Lord gave me, and gives me still, such faith in priests who live according to the rite of the holy Roman Church because of their orders that, were they to persecute me, I would still want to have recourse to them…..And I act in this way because, in this world, I see nothing physically of the most high Son of God except His most holy Body and Blood which they receive and they alone administer to others. I want to have these most holy mysteries honored and venerated above all things and I want to reserve them in precious places.” (Test 6-11)
For Francis, then, the Eucharist is the primary way in which he sees Christ’s continuing Incarnation in the world. It is the sign of the presence of Christ with the Church in his continuing salvific role. This explains the veneration in which he held the sacrament, and the fact that in his early ministry he would make sure that the sacrament was not left lying inadequately housed in churches. When sending out brothers on mission we would equip them with pyxes (2 Cel 201). But Francis was also attentive to his own “house.” He wrote to the Guardians of other friaries in his Order to ensure that they housed the sacrament properly. And whenever the sacrament was being carried anywhere he would have his friars “glorify and honor on bended knee Lord God living and true.” (1LtCus 7) Clearly Francis had an intense reverence for the Blessed Sacrament – to him it was Christ himself.
And for Francis, the sacrament was a sign of the complete self-emptying of Christ. In the first of his Admonitions, which is about the Eucharist, Francis stresses that the sacrament is a symbol of the poverty and humility of Christ. He writes:
“…Behold, each day he humbles Himself as when he came from the royal throne into the Virgin’s womb; each day He himself comes down to us, appearing humbly; each day He comes down from the bosom of the Father upon the altar in the hands of the priest. As he revealed himself to the holy apostles in true flesh, so He reveals himself to us now in sacred bread.” (Adm 1:16-19)
And in the Letter to the Entire Order, Francis writes in poetic vein:
“Let everyone be struck with fear, let the whole world tremble, and let the heavens exult when Christ, the Son of the living God, is present on the altar in the hands of a priest! O wonderful loftiness and stupendous dignity! O sublime humility! O humble sublimity! The lord of the universe, God and the Son of God, so humbles himself that for our salvation he hides himself under an ordinary piece of bread! Brothers, look at the humility of God, and pour out your hearts before him! Humble yourselves that you may be exalted by him! Hold nothing back of yourselves for yourselves, that he who gives himself totally to you may receive you totally!” (LtrOrd 26-29)
Franciscans vow to live life sine proprio – often simplistically translated as a vow of poverty. But the expression is more accurately translated as “without possessing” or more literally, “without grasping.” For Francis, the Eucharist is a sign of the sine proprio of Christ – he holds nothing of himself back for himself, but pours himself out totally in saving and redeeming grace to us in the Sacrament. And yet the Sacrament is also the means by which we may return all that we are and have to Christ – what Francis saw as the holy exchange.
It was because Francis saw the humility and poverty of Christ, this pattern of living without grasping, so clearly expressed in the Eucharist that he had such a great veneration of it and urged his brothers to hold it in the same veneration. The Eucharist was, if you like, the symbol of so much of what he held to be at the heart of the Gospel. And the Eucharist lies at the heart of Franciscan spirituality still for the same reasons. It puts us in touch with the living Christ as nothing else can. In the Eucharist, Francis saw the expression of Christ’s pattern of living through dying, a pattern that we are also called to make our own. And as we do that we are following Christ after the example of St. Francis in a particularly powerful way.