Three Truer-than-fact Francis Fables


October 4, 2015, falls on a Sunday this year, making it a Solemnity of the Lord.  Many of us remember that it also the Church’s memorial date for St. Francis of Assisi.

People are drawn to Saint Francis even though most know little about his life.  Images of the Saint preaching to the birds, kissing a leper, or receiving the stigmata during prayer, give us the essential Francis, and these images pull us to Francis just as the Crib and the Cross draw people to Christ.

As a Saint who clearly epitomizes Jesus Christ, St. Francis inspires conversations among Protestants and Catholics alike throughout the year.  And I am frequently struck by the fact that some of the “facts” most known about Francis are not facts at all.  They are fables, not history.   But, if we abandoned these fables, we would also risk losing important truths about Francis that inhere in the historic man, if not the historic record.  Here are three.

Fable One:  St. Francis was a deacon.

Deacons revere St. Francis as the ideal deacon.  Before my ordination to the permanent diaconate, my fellow ordinands and I promised to follow St. Francis as model of simplicity when we made our professions of faith and oaths of fidelity.  Even the Catholic Encyclopedia has claimed that Francis was an ordained deacon.

It never happened.  St. Francis consistently refused suggestions that he prepare for the priesthood, and he lived some five hundred years or more after the Church had last ordained any men as deacons except those preparing for the priesthood. As a friar, Francis was only “tonsured.” To be tonsured was to enter the first of five clerical states a religious or seminarian would go through before ordination to the diaconate, and it did not signify any plan for further advancement.

But this is one of those situations where “if it was not so, it should have been so.”  A deacon is ordained to serve the Word, Liturgy and Charity as an icon of “Christ the Servant.”  Unlike the orders of bishop and priest, the deacon is only ordered to a life of humble service.  Just as significant, all Christians are baptized into diaconia, charitable service to their sisters and brothers.  St. Francis who gave all his property to the poor, who kissed the leper, and who inspired others to follow him in the apostolic counsels, fulfilled his diaconia so completely that he can only be compared to Christ himself.   

The Office of Readings for the memorial of St. Francis quotes his letter to all the faithful which contains one of the Church’s greatest descriptions of our call to service:

“We must not be wise and prudent according to the flesh. Rather, we must be simple, humble, pure. We should never desire to be over others. Instead, we ought to be servants who are submissive to every human being for God’s sake. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on all who live in this way and persevere in it to the end. He will permanently dwell in them. They will be the Father’s children who do his work. They are the spouses, brothers and mothers of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

In deed and action, St. Francis teaches us all how to be deacons, that is, servants.

Fable two: St. Francis said, “Preach always and use words if you must.”

This quotation first appeared in the last few decades of the twentieth century, and it is confidently repeated in about ten different ways.  There is no earlier evidence that he ever said it.  Indeed, his life and his writings make it extremely unlikely that he did.   Also, if this fable about Francis is misinterpreted, it can work great mischief he would never have intended.

St. Francis was profoundly committed to preaching, and he preached with words.  All biographers agree that Francis preached constantly and converted many.  Francis converted no one, it seems from the record, merely by his deeds; only through deeds and words.  

Francis never avoided an opportunity to preach.  When he looked for a way to end the Crusades, he crossed enemy lines so that he could preach to Saladin.  Francis was in love with God, and a lover uses words.  According to Thomas of Celano, a Franciscan who knew Francis and wrote the Saint’s first biography, Francis would habitually greet the birds.  Once when a flock did not fly away from him, Francis was moved to preach to them, verbally admonishing them to obey the creator!

Francis was always using words.  His words convinced because they were rooted in the deeds of a committed heart.

The quotation “Preach always and use words if you must” begs the question, “When must we use words?”  Francis’ example pretty much says “always.”  The problem with this quotation for modern Americans, in my view, is that it gives false comfort to those of us who do good works.  We may feel that we are relieved from the responsibility of proclaiming.  Today, here in Chicago, some thirty percent of the population is routinely getting help from Catholic Charities.  How many of those people ever hear that we do-gooders are doing this with Christ?  That we are on mission from the Eucharist?  That we bring good news with our soup and shelter?  

If we are only doing good works, we are only preaching that we are good people.  No one objects to having help from good people, and no one is converted to Christ simply because they have met some good people.  They need to hear the good news.  Otherwise, Francis would tell us, “You are never preaching!”

The admonition to “preach always and use words if you must,” reminds us that our preaching begins with deeds, but it does not allow us to avoid words altogether.  

Fable three: St. Francis wrote the prayer “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”  

There is no evidence for this prayer before the twentieth century.  Its first publication may have been a 1943 sermon by Reinhold Niebuhr.

St. Francis surely would have loved this prayer.  It expressly asks God for the grace to be used by God as God used Francis himself.

G.K. Chesterton’s classic St. Francis Assisi stresses that Francis was a romantic, a troubadour  who could not restrain himself from reckless acts and expressions of his love for God.   The “Peace Prayer,” I believe, is more of a preparatory prayer for one who would want to fall in love with God as Francis did.  After his conversion, Francis was beyond that point.  He was a man who was in love.

For this reason I think that the “Peace Prayer,” like the other two “fables” here, is truly

“Franciscan” because it provides a valid point of access to a profoundly holy life, a life whose historical facts might confound us if we limited ourselves to their extraordinary content.  

-Gerald E. Nora

(photo credit: flickr)


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