During these last days as the topic of racial justice was omnipresent around us, someone emailed to ask if Francis of Assisi had ever written on race relationships. The short answer is “no.” Francis of Assisi lived in the 13th century growing up in the Umbria region of Italy. His world was provincial and focused on the world in which diversity meant which town you were from and the “other” referred to the “Saracens,” against whom the Crusades were aimed in order to free the Holy Land from Islamic control.
Francis might have been aware of “ethnicity,” but I would speculate that too would be narrow in concept. Perhaps limited to the awareness of the different ethnicity of his Umbrian father and French mother. His father was a cloth merchant and by the start of the 13th century the trading centers of Venice and Genoa had markets in which Persian silk was available. Marco Polo was a Venetian merchant, explorer, and writer who travelled through Asia along the Silk Road between 1271 and 1295. His travels are recorded in The Travels of Marco Polo (c.1300), a book that described to Europeans the then mysterious culture and inner workings of the Eastern world, including the wealth and great size of the Mongol Empire and China in the Yuan Dynasty. This book gave Europeans their first comprehensive look into China, Persia, India, Japan and other Asian cities and countries. Was Francis aware of Polo’s writing? If so, he might have been fascinated with the description of their language, ancestry, history, society, and culture – in other words the ethnicity of these people from a world far away. But the idea of “race” is one that emerges more than 400 years after Francis’ time.
As I mentioned, the short answer is “no.” But I hope the curious mind would inquire about the topics that Francis of Assisi did write. 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. Something to consider for our celebrations of Corpus Christi.
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. In what has become known as The Testament, Francis says:
“…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 worship 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 he 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 any where 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 – it was Christ himself.
And for Francis, the sacrament pointed to a way he was to live in the world. The Eucharist 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)
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 love of it and urged his brothers to hold it in the same love. The Eucharist lies at the heart of Franciscan spirituality; 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 also are called to make our own. And on this weekend, as we celebrate the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, may we follow Christ after the example of St. Francis in his love of the Eucharist.