Franciscan Spirit Blog

The Legacy of the Franciscans

There have been several Franciscan popes in history, most recently Pope Clement XIV (1769–1774). He is remembered, among other things, for having suppressed the Society of Jesus. Ironically, the first Jesuit elected pope, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, became the first to assume the name of Francis. Some initial speculation focused on whether he had meant to invoke the great Jesuit missionary Saint Francis Xavier, or perhaps Saint Francis de Sales. But no, as the new pope soon made clear—his inspiration was none other than Saint Francis of Assisi.

That no previous pope had ventured to take that name is unsurprising. Among the many associations conjured by the name of Francis, one of the most obvious was his utter rejection of the trappings of status, power, and importance. He called his followers the Lesser Brothers. He esteemed Lady Poverty as his spouse. He called it “perfect joy” when he was reviled or treated with contempt. Whatever one may say about the papacy, its incumbents have not typically been averse to pomp and pageantry.

The Popularity of the Poor Man

Yet, as soon became clear, Pope Francis aspired to live up to the challenge posed by his name. This was reflected immediately in his choice to dispense with fancy garments and the custom-made red shoes and, more notably, in his decision to forgo the Apostolic Palace in favor of a modest room in the Vatican guesthouse. But beyond these gestures of humility, the remembrance of Francis implied an agenda and a program for renewal. Francis, after all, was the saint who set out to rebuild and reform the Church by evoking the example and spirit of the Poor Man, Jesus. He spurned violence and power.

He reached out to members of other religions. He treated women with dignity and respect. He cherished the earth and all its creatures. He pointed to a new form of human and cosmic community, marked by love. And he did all this with such a spirit of joy and freedom as to make him a source of wonder and attraction to many of his contemporaries.

This attraction continued in the years that followed his death in 1226. And it continues still. Nearly eight hundred years later, Francis undoubtedly remains the world’s most popular saint—honored in every land, even by the secular-minded and people of other faiths. This reflects, in part, his winsome qualities and the romantic gestures that sometimes encourage sentimentality. But beneath all that, Francis stands as one who made the way of Jesus credible and concrete, both for those called to formal religious life and for men and women living in the ordinary world.

The Franciscan Way

Jesus left no formal religious rule for his followers. The closest he came was his proclamation of the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers…. Francis took to heart this spiritual vision and translated it into a way of life. In various ways, other saints before and since have done the same.

But for many men and women since the time of Francis, his particular example has offered a distinctive key to the Gospel—or, as Pope Francis might say, “a new way of seeing and interpreting reality.”

Among the central features of this key: the vision of a Church that is “poor and for the poor”; a resolve to take seriously Jesus’s example of self-emptying love; the way of mercy and compassion; above all, a determination to proclaim the Gospel not only with words but with one’s life.

The first followers of Francis joined him in walking into the unknown, improvising as they went along. Later, that path became more regularized and even institutionalized. Within years of the founder’s death, his order was buffeted between factions divided over how literally to adhere to the Poverello’s extreme ideal of poverty. There were those who leaned toward greater structure and discipline, while others favored Francis’s more spontaneous, charismatic style. Yet for all the diversity within the broad Franciscan movement, the figure of Francis remained the essential touchstone and guide.

The Franciscan Saints

In my book, I have selected more than a hundred Franciscans—many, but not all, drawn from the long list of official Franciscan saints. Beginning with the founders, Francis and Clare and their first generation of followers, they include friars, women religious, and the diverse family of tertiary or Third Order Franciscans, a company comprised of laypeople, clergy, and even popes. As the original Franciscan message spread like wildfire through the kingdoms of Europe, many of the early followers were sons and daughters of royalty, suddenly moved to renounce their power and privilege.

There followed preachers and penitents, hermits and vagabonds, poets, theologians, missionaries and martyrs. Some of them lived in organized religious communities. Others were immersed in the world of family, work, and secular life. And yet they are linked by a family resemblance. Among the notable features: evangelical zeal, humility and simplicity of life, closeness to the poor, a spirit of prayer, and a certain freedom from the cares of a world preoccupied with greatness, power, and grandiose ambitions.

Clearly, the influence of Francis extends beyond the company of his avowed followers. His life has inspired numerous novels, films, and works of art. There are movements with no official Franciscan connection, which yet bear the spirit of Francis. One thinks of the Catholic Worker, founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, which embraces a radical spirit of voluntary poverty, while engaging in works of mercy and the witness for peace.

Or the Community of Sant’Egidio in Rome, which promotes the cause of reconciliation, engages in service to the homeless and those with AIDS, and campaigns against the death penalty. In those who promote the cause of interreligious dialogue, who show care for creation, who remember the poor and respond with mercy and compassion, we can see the true spirit of Francis. Insofar as Pope Francis has embraced these concerns, one can say that he has truly recalled the vision of Francis in our time.

In different ways, and under various circumstances, that vision was felt by all the men and women whose stories are recorded in my book. In one way or another they were all struck by the question that came to Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, whose dramatic conversion was prompted by his meditation on the saints: “What if I should do as Saint Francis did?” Another translation of that question might be: What if I were to live as if the Gospel were true?

As Carlo Carretto, a modern admirer, has observed: “At least once in our lives we have dreamed of becoming saints…. Stumbling under the weight of the contradictions of our lives, for a fleeting moment, we glimpsed the possibility of building within ourselves a place of simplicity and light…. This is when Francis entered our lives in some way.” 


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