Franciscan Spirit Blog

St. Francis: Reformer, True Son of the Church

Mural of Saint Francis in prayer

Encircling the choir of our college chapel in Southfield, Michigan, were the words of Julian of Speyer, taken from an antiphon he wrote for the Divine Office for the Solemnity of Saint Francis, which began: Franciscus vir catholicus et totus apostolicus (Francis, a catholic and totally apostolic man). I saw those words often as I began my Franciscan formation, but I had no idea what they meant. But they must have impressed me since I remembered them all these years.

Eventually, however, I learned more about St. Francis of Assisi. But I also discovered conflicts because sometimes the romanticism that has surrounded Francis over the years doesn’t fit well with the historical facts. The temptation is to admire the saint, gush over his attractive qualities, and miss what he stood for. We run the risk of losing the real Francis and replacing him with an image often of our own making.

For example, there is an image of Francis as somewhat of a rebel who challenged the Church and his society, and advocated a freedom from Church and social structures. Some even see him as the forerunner of what would become the Protestant Reformation. Yet Julian of Speyer, in calling St. Francis “Catholic” and “totally apostolic,” adds that Francis strongly recommended adherence to the teachings of the Church.

A practical example of this is the requirement in the Friars’ Rule of Life that, upon admission, the Minister Provincial is to see that the candidate who comes to us seeking to live our way of life is Catholic and that he believes, professes, and observes the faith of the Catholic Church. Does that sound like a rebel? Someone intent on challenging and changing the Church? But the real Francis was, in some ways, a nonconformist. So, how does that image fit with his recommendation for adherence to the teachings of the Church?

Let’s look at Francis as a “catholic and totally apostolic man” and see what we find.

An Affirmation from Rome

Early in the life of what would become the Order of Friars Minor (the Franciscans), when the group who had opted to follow him and his way of life numbered a dozen, Francis took them to Rome to see the pope. The pope in those days lived at St. John Lateran, the cathedral of Rome, since the Vatican as we know it had not yet been built.

Francis was well-aware that his followers resembled a number of heretical groups who preached, among other things, a form of poverty that was not consistent with the Gospel. Francis did not want his band of men to be included with them. Furthermore, he wanted the assurance that he and his followers were on the right track.

He wanted firm affirmation, backed by the authority of the Church, that his way was legitimately consistent with the Gospels—which he got from the pope in verbal form.

Later, in his Testament, Francis would say that it was the Lord who gave him brothers and that no one showed him what to do. The Lord himself revealed to him the way he should walk. In the mind of Francis, the order and its way of life were not his, but the Lord’s. As such, the order was always subject to the jurisdiction of the institutional Church. And he wanted to be faithful to that Church.

A Deep Devotion for Priests

In the Testament, Francis also expresses his deep faith and reverence for priests “who live according to the rite of the holy Roman Church.” He goes on to state that even if they were to persecute him, he would still have recourse to them and honor them. Why this respect? (It almost sounds like fawning!). Upon further reading, however, we find that for Francis, every priest—even those who sin—brings him the only visible sign on this earth of his Lord Jesus Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist. They, and they alone, bring him Jesus.

I believe that we can correctly view this matter as Francis’ deep faith in and love for not only priests, but also in and for the Church and the Sacraments of the Church, and not as a mere submissiveness to priests, which would be idolatry. Francis is a man who thinks and emotes along with what the Church teaches and holds. It’s not a blind obedience or a submissiveness to authority on his part; it is faith. And that faith is what makes him a “Catholic” man.

Totally Apostolic

According to Brother Bill Short, a Franciscan scholar from California, Francis most likely spent about half of his life actively evangelizing and the other half in quiet prayer or contemplation. Brother Bill bases this on the medieval liturgical calendar, which Francis would have known and followed. 

In that calendar, there were many more lenten-type periods of preparation for major feast days than we have today, and the saint often observed them alone in quiet prayer. For instance, when he was on the mountain of La Verna and received the stigmata, Francis was in prayer preparing for the feast of St. Michael. These preparation periods totaled approximately six months.

So St. Francis only spent about half the year actively preaching and evangelizing. It was in this context, however, that Julian of Speyer called him “totally apostolic,” not that he spent his entire life evangelizing, but that his prayer and active lives lent themselves to such an intimate union with God that his whole life became a lived presentation of the Gospel. And Francis had a great passion for living the Gospel life.

The same could be said of St. Clare, who, while she lived an enclosed life, proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ by her example and way of life and thus was also totally apostolic.

Reformer, Not Revolutionary

What do we do with the argument that Francis laid the groundwork for later challenges to the Church? I believe that the facts of his life refute these claims and present him as a true son of the Roman Church, ever faithful and obedient. Let me explain.

Few people would deny that Francis changed both the Church and his society. He was not naive. He recognized that both institutions needed a renovation. He loved his homeland—he even went to war to defend it—and his Church, but that did not mean that either was above criticism or reform. It was the way he orchestrated his proposed changes that distinguished him as a “reformer” as opposed to a “revolutionary.” He would have never considered turning his back on the Church or his country. A few examples may help.

Francis saw his adoption of a radical life of poverty as a personal choice. He never implied that he expected everyone to follow his choice—actually, he seemed genuinely surprised when fellow Assisians started following him.

It appears from his writing and behavior that he did not intend to found an order or start a movement. He simply chose a way of life that he felt God was calling him to live. As a result, Francis never condemned those who did not choose to live as he did. He was more focused on his own need for conversion than on that of others. But in that very attitude, he created the change that was needed.

Perhaps one of the best examples of Francis’ rejection of what he viewed negatively within his society was his literal stepping away from Assisi and living outside the walls with the lepers and the poor at the Portiuncula. Like Ezekiel, who packed his bags, crawled through a hole in the city wall, and left town (cf Ez 12:7), Francis left the security and the world of Assisi in a clear statement of his rejection of his former way of life within that city. Again, without pointing any fingers at his family members, contemporaries, or friends, Francis made a choice for himself that spoke loudly, but did not condemn others.

I believe that upon reading the works of Francis, one finds someone fervently obedient to the Church and state, but not opposed to working quietly to improve both. There’s no railing against or leaving the Church or society. Rather, there must be a deep love for the institutions and a willingness to purify them from within.

That is, in part, what made St. Francis a “catholic and totally apostolic man.”

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