Much is being made of the newly elected pope’s taking of the name “Francis”. It’s been suggested that the name jointly invokes Francis of Assisi and Francis Xavier, one of the first Jesuits. I thought I’d take this opportunity to make a few remarks about Francis of Assisi. Many people have seen the familiar portraits of him, frequently surrounded by animals, but I thought I’d talk about the historical Francis.
Francesco di Pietro di Bernardone, born in 1181 in Assisi, a small, ancient town smack dab in the middle of the Italian peninsula, must have been a truly remarkable human being. He attracted an enormous following, mainly by force of personality, and created institutions, the Franciscan Order, the women’s Order of St. Clare, and the Third Order of Saint Francis, that have survived for a millennium dedicated to serving the poor and preaching the Gospel in conditions of extreme austerity without the ostentation of some austere religious movements.
He is, perhaps, one of the earliest important religious figures that we can have confidence actually existed. The portrait in this post, from the Sacro Speco in Subiaco, has been authenticated as having been painted from life when Francis visited there in 1216.
In the past skepticism about historical sources and figures, particularly from the ancient past, has been a common theme here. I think that we have very good reason to believe that Francis lived and that he did many of the things attributed to him. Some of his writings and writings about him by people who actually knew him have come down to us with solid provenances, something rare in very old historical materials.
Francis’s writings that have come down to us consist mainly of a few prayers, some letters, three rules he wrote for the religious orders he founded, his testament, and an odd little piece called “Perfect Joy”.
Francis’s Testament, written shortly before he died in 1226, is an account by Francis of his life, calling, and works.
Perfect Joy is an anecdote recorded by his early companion, Leo. It gives an idea of how severe a model Francis set.
Of the writings by Francis’s close associates among the most significant and informative about Francis are the “Mirror of Perfection” and “The First Life of St. Francis”.
The Mirror of Perfection is a polemic, written by Leo, recording Francis’s responses and reactions to errors which had crept into his order. I find it rather tough sledding but, again, it gives you the idea of how severe a model he set.
The First Life of St. Francis was written by an early follower of Francis’s, Thomas of Cerrano. Thomas had met Francis but probably did not know him well. He had access to many of Francis’s earliest followers and closest companions. The Life was written shortly after Francis was canonized a saint in 1228. It suffers by being, clearly, the life of a saint. I don’t find quite the vibrancy or vitality in it I see in Francis’s own works and those of his close associates.
I find reading Francis’s works and those of his close associates a very emotional, moving, even difficult experience. It makes me recognize how mean, trivial, and imperfect a person I am.
Here’s Francis’s blessing for his associate, Leo:
May the Lord
bless you and keep you.
May He show His face to you
and be merciful to you.
May He turn His countenance to you
and give you peace.
I don’t know that any human being in history has better exemplified than Francis the prescription of the prophet Micah: “Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God.”