Was St. Francis of Assisi a proto-environmentalist? Was he a feminist? Did a crucifix really speak to him? Was he rebellious toward Church authority? Did he hold views that were inconsistent with Catholic doctrine? Did he believe that embracing poverty equalled living in squalor? Did he really preach to birds? Wasn’t he basically an activist? Didn’t he disregard rules and rubrics? Weren’t the Church’s “trappings” not a very big deal for him? Did he really write the “Make me a channel of your peace” prayer? Wasn’t he essentially a free spirit – a proto- “flower child” – who said and did whatever seemed right in the moment? Did he have a great love for the Holy Eucharist?
Depending upon whom you ask, the answer to any of these questions could be “yes”. And some of those “yes” answers would make the fact of his being a saint really problematic!
A saint who rejects Catholic teaching? A saint who broke the rules as it pleased him? A saint who picked and chose what aspects of Church life he liked? Hardly a saint!!!
No, we really need to “stop the madness” with St. Francis and find out who he really was.
Fr. Augustine Thompson, O.P. has done just that, in his recently-published book, Francis of Assisi: The Life (paperback | kindle). In compiling this excellent biography of the saint, Fr. Thompson sorted through the plethora of historical documents, in order to distinguish in a scientific manner between those that were credible and those that fit more likely into the category of “legend” or “myth”.
Many things that we have traditionally taken to be historical fact about St. Francis are doubtful, at best. For example: did he really say, “Preach the gospel always; if necessary, use words”? Such a statement is certainly consonant with the example he gave, but we actually have no reliable historical record of his saying that. Did he really write the “Make me a channel of your peace” prayer, which we sing so often in church (which, incidentally, never once mentions Christ)? No, this we know for sure: it was written in the beginning of the 20th century and published in a French journal.
Fr. Thompson’s book will help you to set the record straight on these and many other aspects of St. Francis’ life, enabling you to have a more accurate picture of who Francis was, so that your devotion might actually be directed toward him, and not toward some figment of popular imagination!
For those who have more academic interest in this matter, or simply want to go deeper and see how Fr. Thompson arrived at his conclusions, you can get a copy of his book Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (hardcover | kindle). The first part of this book is exactly the same as the one I linked to above; but the second part contains a scholarly apparatus that goes through each chapter of the first part and explains, with a view to the various historical sources, how he arrived at his conclusions. For example, in that second, more academic part, Fr. Thompson explains why he thinks that the tradition concerning the San Damiano Crucifix (which allegedly spoke to the saint saying, “Francis, rebuild my church!”) was not an historical event – and so we can understand better why Fr. Thompson doesn’t even mention it at all in the relevant section of the biography (first part of the book).
What I like most about Fr. Thompson’s excellent biography of St. Francis of Assisi is the fact that he shows us how St. Francis was not some super-human figure who came down from heaven; much less was he anachronistic, as many modern accounts make him out to be, imputing 21st century ideals to a 13th century man. Fr. Thompson shows us how Francis was very much a man of his time and place – that is, of the Middle Ages in central Italy. He was not, in effect, impossible to imitate, as many legends make him out to be, but someone to whom we really can relate on a human level, with all of his faults, conflicts, aspirations, and holy desires. Fr. Thompson’s portrait of St. Francis can help us better to appreciate how we, ordinary folks with our problems and crosses, can allow ourselves to be transformed by God’s grace like St. Francis did, and so become saints as well.
Something that might surprise you about Fr. Thompson’s biography is what he discovered about St. Francis’ love for beauty and decorum in churches and proper care and reverence for the Holy Eucharist. Many modern portraits of St. Francis depict him as basically shabby and careless: the last thing he could have cared about was whether a church was clean or well-decorated, or whether the Eucharist was kept within a vessel made of silver and gold or of plastic! “Please! Let’s stop wasting our time with these details and go serve the poor!…” (some might say). But these ideas could not be farther from the truth. You will be surprised and delighted to discover these lesser-known aspects of the saint’s life, which indeed need to become better-known.
Finally, I think this book will help you to understand Pope Francis better. Since his election a little over a year ago, he has placed a great deal of emphasis on seeing Christ in the poor and serving them – just as St. Francis of Assisi did. But as people have often done with St. Francis, co-opting him and re-working his image into whatever suits their political and ideological agenda, so often they have done and are doing with Pope Francis as well. I think that with a proper understanding of the saint, we can also better and more correctly appreciate certain things that the Pope who took his name is doing: serving the poor does not exclude beautiful and dignified worship; being a good steward of the earth does not mean becoming a crazed environmentalist; going out to the “peripheries” does not mean neglecting those who are closest to us.
Indeed, with a proper understanding of who St. Francis of Assisi really was, and so a devotion that actually centers upon him and not upon a sort of chimera (!), we can more effectively support Pope Francis by our prayers to his papal patron.
Please consider reading this book, and so do your part to “stop the Franciscan madness”!