St. Francis of Assisi

Brother Sun, Sister Moon, a film by Franco Zefirelli

The Writings of St. Francis of Assisi, translated with an introduction and notes by Father Paschal Robinson, and edited by Paul A. Boer, Sr.

Intro

With his election to the papacy in 2013, the Argentinian cardinal, Jorge Mario Bergoglio has become a pioneer in a number of capacities: the first pope from the Southern Hemisphere, the first Jesuit, and the first from the Americas.  He is also the first, in the almost 900 years since the death of the Italian saint, Francis of Assisi, to take the name, Francis. And judging from the media coverage he has certainly lived up to the reputation of the 12th century saint–known for his simple lifestyle and identification with the poor–by pursuing a life of relative humility (living in the papal guest house instead of the papal apartments of the Apostolic Palace) and displaying an uncommon empathy for the marginalized and the sick (washing the feet of the disabled and the sick).

The Pope, to many (myself included), is truly inspiring. He has piqued my interest in his namesake. And so, here is an extremely high level view of the original Francis, as seen through a biographical film and a translation of his own writings.

Brother Sun, Sister Moon

In 1972 the motion picture Brother Sun, Sister Moon was released. Produced and directed by the renowned filmmaker, Franco Zefirelli (Romeo and Juliet, Jesus of Nazareth) it presents the early life of the Italian saint, Francis of Assisi, 1181/2-1226.  It follows ‘Francesco’, as he is referred to in the film, from his days as the son of a wealthy cloth merchant and his participation in the war between his native town and the city of Perugia to the north.  The film begins with Francesco bedridden and recuperating from an illness.  He notices and is profoundly affected by the simple life of a bird outside his window, and embarks on a journey that eventually leads to an extraordinary deepening of his faith and love for Jesus Christ. Mr. Zefirelli seems to have taken artistic license on the reason for change in his life for, according to other biographers, there were a number of factors that were instrumental in his transformation, including a vision of Christ and an experience of poverty while on a visit to Rome, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/216793/Saint-Francis-of-Assisi

This episode prompted the young Francesco to eschew all worldly possessions and adopt a life of poverty, wherein his one and only desire was to follow Jesus. The movie documents this clearly in a scene where, in Assisi, he is brought before the local bishop due to his eccentric behavior. He screams, quoting form Matthew 6: 24, ‘You cannot serve two masters, for you will love one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”

Francesco then truly devotes his life to Jesus, and embarks on a life of poverty in the countryside, living off the land. A small group of young men, taken with the purity of his faith and clarity of vision, likewise devotes their lives and follow him. They build a small chapel in an area called San Damiani.  A dear female friend Clare who, like Francesco, belongs to a wealthy family, begs to be part of the group, and is admitted.

One day however, the lives of the group of devout believers are violently disrupted when their chapel is set on fire and one of the followers is killed. Stunned, confused, and bewildered by this drastic development, Francesco ponders what he has done wrong. Why has this happened? He determines that he must go to Rome, and obtain an answer from none other than Pope Innocent III himself. But how? How can a poor little man with a ragtag group of followers obtain an audience with the Pope? Enter an old associate, Paolo, a fellow soldier in the old battles between Assisi and Perugia.  Paolo has retained his membership in the aristocracy that Francesco so emphatically rejected.  Paolo agrees to help Francesco have an audience with the Pope, but on his, Paolo’s, terms. Francesco agrees.

Francesco and his followers return to Rome, ostensibly to repent of their heresy, and beg for reinstatement in the church.  Before the Pope, Francesco begins reading from a text prepared by Paolo.  After a few lines however, and clearly repulsed by the trappings of grandeur and wealth surrounding the Pope, he discards the message and speaks from the heart.  He quotes from the book of Matthew, specifically Jesus’ parable of the lilies of the field where he exhorts his followers not to chase after earthly things, but to seek first the kingdom of God, whereupon God will provide for them.

The Pope and his attendants are of course insulted, and order Francesco thrown out of the church. Hoverer Pope Innocent III is almost immediately convicted by Francesco’s words, and orders the bedraggled preacher brought back before him. He acknowledges Francesco’s truth, and in a truly effective scene, approaches the dirty, barefooted young man in the rough, threadbare tunic. He then slowly falls to his knees and kisses Francesco’s bare, filthy feet.

With the blessing of Pope, Francesco’s band of followers is accepted by the church. His immediate band of followers eventually became the Friars Minor, the first of the three Franciscan orders. Later the Poor Ladies, an order for women, founded by his follower, Clare, became the second order. It was later renamed the Poor Clares after her death. Last, the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, an order for lay people and the third Franciscan order, was established.

The Writings of St. Francis of Assisi

One of the challenges of trying to understand St. Francis of Assisi through his writings is simply that he actually wrote very little. The translator of this work, Father Paschal Robinson, notes this early on in this treatment, p39. Nonetheless the writings do present some insight into the thinking of St. Francis, what was important to him.

The writings are presented in three parts:  ‘Admonitions, Rules, Etc.’; Letters; and Praises.  Extensive notes and comments on the authenticity of the writing are provided.

Admonitions, Rules, Etc.

There are twenty-eight admonitions, which include a passage on the Lord’s body, where followers of Christ are assured of their access to the Lord by the sacrifice He made with His body and blood. This ‘access’ is symbolized by the bread and wine of the Holy Communion.  Other admonitions include the evils of self-will and the punishment that results from it, and the danger of not being obedient to the Lord, which requires forsaking everything in one’s life that comes before Jesus.

Two rules to the Friars Minor are presented. The first contains twenty-three subsections, and the second, twelve. These rules include a command to live in Obedience, without Property, and in Chastity; instructions on what praises and prayers should be said, and when the Brothers should fast; on how ministers who offend should be corrected; and how those who seek to embrace the life of the Friars Minor should be received.

The writings make clear that his admonitions are not the musings of a pious saint, ruminating on personal preferences then throwing them out for his followers to obey. On the contrary each admonition or rule is preceded or followed by a specific New Testament passage that supports it.  This in itself is instructive in that it clearly illustrates how the Saint very seriously and thoughtfully takes the Word of God into the very core of his being, and structures the very basic elements of his life around them.

Letters

There are six letters here, including letters to the faithful and to the Friars.   The first two were written when he was ill and unable to preach. His letters quote the gospel s at length and are filled with repeated exhortations to be pure and humble.

Letter to the Faithful

This letter recounts Jesus’ last supper. St Francis reminds his followers that those who do not taste how sweet the Lord is, but who love darkness, are cursed. On the contrary, blessed are those who love the Lord.

It includes exhortations to: confess one’s sins to the priest; judge with ‘mercy’ so that those who do so will receive mercy from the Lord; fast and abstain from vices and sins and of superfluity of food and drink; be simple, humble and pure; and to never desire to be above others but be servants and subject to every human creature for God’s sake

Letter to the Friars

In this letter he exhorts the Friars to holiness and humility, but also confesses his own sins, namely his own failure to observe the Rule. The text does not specifically state which rule, and one is left to surmise that it is the First Rule to the Friars Minor—a rule that includes exhortations to Obedience, to poverty, etc—but if it is, is it just one section within that Rule, several, or all of them?

In other letters—to Rulers of the People, to a certain minister, to Brother Leo—he strongly encourages a close walk with the Lord Jesus, to eschew worldly cares, and to live a life of purity.  He also commands observance of the Holy Communion, the Body and Blood of Jesus.  Again what is striking about these letters is that they are not only warm, reassuring encouragements, but also harsh admonishments and warnings, as in a passage to the ‘Rulers of the People’. He encourages them to receive the Holy Communion, and every evening to ‘honour’ the Lord by giving Him praises and thanks. After which there is this not-so-subtle warning: [I]f you do not do this, know that you are beholden to render an account before your Lord God Jesus Christ on the Day of Judgment.

To his followers, Francis seems more of a harsh taskmaster, a tough CEO, than a soft, comforting soul to whom you can go to repeatedly for solace and soothing encouragement.

Prayers

The Payers comprise the final section of the book.  There is a paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer, a salutation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Hail, holy Lady, most holy Queen, Mother of God, Mary who are ever Virgin, chosen from Heaven by the most Holy Father, whom He has consecrated with the most holy beloved son and Ghostly Paraclete, In whom was and is all the fullness of grace and all good.

There is also a prayer to obtain divine love:

I beseech Thee, O Lord that the fiery and sweet strength of Thy love may absorb my soul from all things that are under heaven, that I may die for love of Thy love as Thou didst deign to die for love of my love.

Canticle of the Sun

While ill again in 1225 according to the author, Francis composed the Praise of the Creatures, also known as the Canticle of the Sun, a wonderful, ethereal, magical acclamation of the natural world, and praise for its Creator, strongly reminiscent of the happiest of David’s psalms.  In this work Francis acknowledges the wonders of the natural world—the sun, the moon, the stars,  wind, air , fire, mother earth,   praise for those who endure, and for those who find themselves in God’s holy will. Here are a few lines from this wonderful poem:

Praise be to Thee, my Lord, with all Thy creatures,
Especially to my worshipful brother sun,
The which lights up the day, and through him dost Thou brightness give;

And this passage

Praise be my Lord, for sister moon and for the stars,
In heaven Thou hast formed them clear and precious and fair.

Wrap Up

There are two distinct personalities that emerge from the motion picture and from the Writings. The Francis of the film is an everyman, seeking desperately to do the Lord’s will.  Even after his dedication to serve God and no one else he comes across as somewhat vulnerable, even a little naïve. The St. Francis of the Writings is extremely forceful, and entirely in control—very much like a no-nonsense manager who does not accept anything less than the very best from his followers.  What the real Francis of Assisi was like we of course do not know, and in reality is relatively unimportant. What is important is his obvious love for Jesus Christ, the extraordinary courage he displayed in being obedient to his calling, and the incredible legacy he has left for all believers. Given the amazing influence of this one man, one cannot help but ask the question: how can it be that the current Pope is only the first to have taken this name?

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