St. Anthony Messenger

St. Francis and the Eucharist

statue of saint francis with arms outstretched

St. Francis encouraged all of us to see the humble goodness of God in the Eucharist, and to “pour out our hearts” to him in gratitude.

Thomas of Celano, the first biographer of Francis of Assisi, tells us that the saint often used to tell people: “If I should happen at the same time to come upon any saint coming from heaven and some little poor priest, I would first show honor to the priest, and hurry more quickly to kiss his hands. For I would say to the saint: ‘Hey, St. Lawrence, wait! His hands may handle the Word of Life and possess something more than human!'” Such was the love of St. Francis for the Eucharist.

In Jesus Christ, Francis saw the incredible generosity of a God who assumed our poor, fragile human nature out of love for us and all creation. It was this good God, who did not insist on his divine prerogatives, but readily “emptied himself” to join us in our poverty, who captured Francis’ heart. Just as he had great affection for the God who became flesh, so Francis had profound respect and love for the Eucharist, in which the Word of the Father continues to pour forth God’s goodness by “coming down” to us daily on the altar under the guise of bread and wine.

Francis’ writings are filled with exhortations and exclamations about the astounding humility of a God who does not hesitate to offer himself to us. For Francis, the Eucharist is the most striking and regular reminder that God truly is “the fullness of good.”

The Most Holy Body and Blood

In his writings, St. Francis never uses the word Eucharist to describe the sacrament. Instead, he refers most often to “the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Such a concrete, descriptive phrase is to be expected from a saint who tended to avoid abstract thinking and language. But in this case, it is especially important because by referring regularly to “the Body and Blood of the Lord,” Francis emphasizes that the sacrament is not a static “thing” but a dynamic person, who is present on the altar just as much as he was when he walked with his disciples in Galilee. As he tells us in his Testament, which he wrote at the end of his life, “I see nothing corporally of the most high Son of God except His most holy Body and Blood.”

When Francis gazed upon the sacrament, he did not see a symbol or a reminder of the crucified Lord, but Jesus himself, who “puts Himself into [the priest’s] hands and we touch Him and receive Him daily with our mouth.” Even to refer to it as “Eucharist,” correct as the term might be, was not enough to capture the reality of the living, breathing presence of the One who each day “comes down from the bosom of the Father upon the altar.”

In all of this, Francis does nothing more than express orthodox Catholic faith in the Real Presence, but his sense of this presence is characteristically lively, concrete, and even intimate. For Francis, his Lord and brother Jesus came to him personally whenever he received Communion. This is a reality that can only be grasped by the grace of the Spirit, which is love.

Eucharist on a wood table

It is the work of the Spirit that allows us to believe that what we receive from the hands of the priest is truly the Lord himself, just as it is the Spirit who enables us to discern the word of the Father in Jesus of Nazareth. Therefore, he says, let those who believe that Jesus truly is the Son of God also believe that the bread and wine we see with our “bodily eyes” are in fact “His most holy Body and Blood living and true.” There may be those who, for whatever reason, do not believe in this great gift, but Francis urges those who cannot discern the true presence with “spiritual eyes” to therefore refrain from receiving it, lest—as St. Paul himself said—they “eat and drink judgment on themselves” (1 Cor 11:29). The saint repeats this warning throughout his writings.

Francis also recognizes that our reception of the Eucharist cannot be isolated from a larger determination to live within the will of God by eradicating vice and sin, and “producing worthy fruits of penance,” by which he means loving God and neighbor in concrete ways. The whole reason that Jesus humbly presents himself in the Eucharist is to enable us not only to be reconciled to God, but also to continue to become more and more like him. One cannot receive the divine gift, so lovingly offered, without understanding why Jesus offers himself in the first place—and striving to live accordingly.

O Sublime Humility!

Most astounding to Francis was the way in which Jesus is present to us in the Eucharist. When the Word of the Father first came to us in the flesh, he did so in great humility and poverty. In fact, for Francis, the very act of becoming human reflected the humility of the all-powerful God. Although he is now glorified and seated at the right hand of the Father, Jesus comes to us in even more humility and poverty, not only under the guise of ordinary bread, but as food.

In a letter he wrote to all the friars, Francis breaks into rapturous praise of the humility of the One who came to serve and still comes to serve: “O wonderful loftiness and stupendous dignity! O sublime humility! O humble sublimity! The Lord of the universe, God and 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!”

O sublime humility! And what humble awesomeness! The Eucharist captures for Francis the central and most beautiful paradox about the character of God revealed in Christ.

The all-powerful, magnificent, all-sufficient, and splendid creator of the universe loves his creation so much that he does not hesitate to lower himself—even coming as a piece of bread to save us. This is what makes God so lovable and so supremely good, so magnificent and splendid for Francis. First the Incarnation and now the Eucharist remind us constantly that the goodness, love, and mercy of God lead God in Jesus to “give Himself totally” to us. Out of love for us, God holds nothing back, and this is the humility and the poverty of God. Only the most exalted and all-powerful God could be this free, this generous, this good.

Hold Back Nothing of Yourselves

In the same letter to all the friars, Francis exclaims that there is only one possible response to such divine generosity and humility: “Humble yourselves that you may be exalted by him! Hold back nothing of yourselves for yourselves, that He Who gives Himself totally to you may receive you totally!”

All Christians bear the image and likeness of Jesus Christ, and so all Christians are called to be as much like him as possible. For St. Francis of Assisi, this means being as humbly generous with God as God has been with us. In the letter Francis wrote to the priests of the order, the saint makes the point a little differently: “Are we not moved by piety [that is, profound respect] . . . when the pious [profoundly respectful] Lord puts Himself into our hands and we touch and receive Him daily? Do we refuse to recognize that we must come into His hands?”

The Eucharist, as the humble offering by Jesus of his own body and blood to us, invites a reciprocal response. We are called to observe his humble generosity—he certainly doesn’t need to offer himself to us this way or any way—and to respond by being humbly generous toward him.

How, Francis says, can we receive the body and blood of the Lord, in which God holds back nothing of himself for our salvation, and not resolve to hold back nothing for God? How can we not show the creator of the universe the same loving respect he shows us in the Eucharist?

Honoring Christ in the Eucharist

In his letters and other writings, Francis frequently refers to the need to show great respect for the most holy body and blood of the Lord who gives himself completely to us. In the first place, anything that relates to the sacrifice of the Mass must be clean. In his letter to the Franciscan clergy, he urges those priests who are negligent in these matters to “consider how very dirty are the chalices, corporals, and altar-linens upon which His Body and Blood are sacrificed.”

He repeats this exhortation in his letter to those friars who are in charge of Franciscan houses (“custodians”), urging them to “humbly beg the clergy to revere above all else the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . . They should hold as precious the chalices, corporals, appointments of the altar, and everything that pertains to the sacrifice.” And in his letter to all the friars of the order, he urges once again that all vessels and liturgical items, including the books that contain Christ’s holy words, be treated with the reverence due them.

In all of this, Francis is reflecting not only his own reverence for the body and blood of Christ, but also recent Church attempts to address what appears to have been a widespread laxity when it came to honoring the Eucharist.

Friar Murray Bodo describes St. Francis’ love for Jesus and his desire to be transformed into a gospel Christian.

The Fourth Lateran Council, held in 1215, had ordered all churches and church vessels be kept clean. This was followed up by papal letters urging the same. The same council also decreed that the Eucharist itself must be carefully handled and secured under lock in appropriate places. (This was in an age before churches had tabernacles on the altar.) Here, too, Francis reflects the urging of the popes when he instructs the custodians that, “if the most holy Body of the Lord is very poorly reserved in any place, let It be placed and locked up in a precious place according to the command of the Church.”

The casual attitude toward the Eucharist that Francis and the popes opposed may have stemmed from a general failure to understand or believe that Jesus Christ was truly present in the sacrament, that it was in fact “the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In several places, Francis comments on the fact that the Eucharist is frequently “received unworthily [by priests] and administered to others without discernment.” The lack of discernment he has in mind is a failure to recognize that what we receive from the altar is not the same as other foods. In one of his “Admonitions” to the friars, he insists that we must see “the sacrament sanctified by the words of the Lord upon the altar . . . according to the Spirit and the Divinity.”

Humble Gift, Humble God

Francis’ frequent statements about the Eucharist are, of course, marked by his characteristic emphasis on the profoundly generous humility of God, who is goodness itself. It was not enough for God to have mercy on us in our brokenness and sin. God could have done that “from a distance,” keeping the divine holiness and majesty far away from us and our tendency to be very unholy. But God is too good, too generous for that, and chose instead to embrace our broken human nature, quite literally, by becoming one of us in Jesus. This is not only an astounding act of love, but even more remarkably a humble one.

This “awesome and exalted humility and humble awesomeness” is—unbelievably!—extended to us every day, if we choose to accept it, in the form of bread and wine. Once again, the humble God does not choose to come to us any other way but the most simple, subtle, and unintimidating.

For St. Francis, there was only one way to respond to such generosity and goodness, and it was with praise, thanksgiving, and a desire to allow Jesus to transform us into his image and likeness.

God gives us everything we need to attain all of God’s gracious promises. Especially, he gives us himself in the body and blood of his son. In the words of St. Francis, “O how holy and how loving, gratifying, humbling, peace-giving, sweet, worthy of love, and above all things, desirable: to have such a Brother and such a Son, our Lord Jesus Christ,” who offered himself and still offers himself for us. The saint’s words prompt us to consider how we ought to respond to such a great gift, which is, after all, offered to us out of the infinite goodness of God’s humble heart.

God's Love Song

1 thought on “St. Francis and the Eucharist”

  1. Thanks for putting the words of Francis about the Holy Eucharist in context. They carry much greater weight as a consequence. Thankyou and God bless you.

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