When I entered into the Catholic Church the confirmation name I chose was Francis, after the man whom we celebrate on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. I have to be honest. I didn’t put a whole lot of thought into this choice. I was not familiar with too many of the saints. Just the biggies: Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John of course. And St. Augustine. Maybe one or two more based upon whatever name to a “saint” city that I could think of (Louis? Diego? Bueller?) And so I settled onto St. Francis. I liked what little of the man I knew and everyone else seemed to as well. So I just ran with it.
Over the years I’ve neglected my patron and not really learned much about him. I’ve leaned a lot more heavily towards favoring St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas. Dozens more actually, including more than one solid woman, too. St. Teresa of Avila is a dynamo, St. Therese of Lisieux, too. Anyhow, back to St. Francis.
The more I have learned about him the more I’m disturbed by the way he has been co-opted by…I’m not sure what to refer to them as really. As Donald Prudlo writes today in Crisis Magazine:
For over 100 years, there has been a veritable “Francis industry,” going well beyond the plastic kitsch in Assisi gift shop windows (after all, no one can capitalize on poverty like a Minorite!). For that whole period of time, people have been making and remaking Giovanni Francesco di Pietro Bernardone to fit their own images of what they think he was really about. From the neutered figure made appealing to agnostic Victorians and gardening aficionados, to Francis the PETA activist, the poor man of Assisi has been made poorer in the process. We have had Francis the Socialist Hippie, with the twentieth-century made-for-acoustic-guitar “Peace Prayer” put in his mouth. (It originated in 1912.) Some have even argued for “Francis the Capitalist” and “Francis the Feminist.” On a more scholarly plane, we have Paul Sabatier’s classic portrait: “man thumbing his nose at the institutional Church”—a perennially popular riff, especially among intellectuals. Everyone has their own Francis, but few pay attention to the man himself.
St. Francis was not a garden gnome. He was not a doe-eyed hippy singing or dancing with the animals and hugging trees. He bore the Stigmata of Christ’s wounds. I’ve yet to see a garden gnome that did. He was not a vegan. He adhered strictly to the ceremonials and rubrics of the Mass and he dismissed any friar from his order who parted from the Pope on the slightest article of the faith. Far from a pacifist he joined the Fifth Crusade which had its origins the fact that over eleven thousand Muslims invaded Rome, desecrating the tombs of Peter and Paul in the year 846.
This man traveled to North Africa in 1219 to convert the Muslims and confronted Sultanal Malik al-Kamil, who himself had just slaughtered five thousand Christians at Damietta. As they stood face to face Francis told the Sultan “It is just that Christians invade the land you inhabit, for you blaspheme the name of Christ and alienate everyone you can from His worship.” While the Sultan’s advisors demanded that Francis be beheaded due to Muslim law, the Sultan was so impressed with the humility of Francis that he “only” had him beaten, chained and imprisoned. In time he released him.
Francis died in 1226 at the age of 44; the same age as I am now. His reported last words were: “I have done what was mine to do; may Christ teach you what you are to do. Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old; seek what they sought.”
Seek what they sought. And what is it they sought? The truth of Jesus Christ. Not sentimentality or relativism. Jesus Christ. Wonderful advice from this humble friar.
Francis started the tradition of setting up a crib in church to celebrate the Nativity. Outside of the statues of Francis with a bird placed in the garden there are two things he is known for. One is a popular tune in churches called “Prayer of Saint Francis” (link is to a lovely version sung by Sarah MacLachlan) which begins: “Make me a channel of your peace.” (Or, “Make me an instrument of your peace” is commonly used.) This was actually the work of an anonymous author in France who published it in 1912.
The other is the Canticle of the Sun. That wasn’t its original name however.
The Canticle of the Creatures
Most High, all-powerful, all-good Lord,
All praise is Yours, all glory, honor and blessings.
To you alone, Most High, do they belong;
no mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your Name.
We praise You, Lord, for all Your creatures,
especially for Brother Sun,
who is the day through whom You give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor,
of You Most High, he bears your likeness.
We praise You, Lord, for Sister Moon and the stars,
in the heavens you have made them bright, precious and fair.
We praise You, Lord, for Brothers Wind and Air,
fair and stormy, all weather’s moods,
by which You cherish all that You have made.
We praise You, Lord, for Sister Water,
so useful, humble, precious and pure.
We praise You, Lord, for Brother Fire,
through whom You light the night.
He is beautiful, playful, robust, and strong.
We praise You, Lord, for Sister Earth,
who sustains us
with her fruits, colored flowers, and herbs.
We praise You, Lord, for those who pardon,
for love of You bear sickness and trial.
Blessed are those who endure in peace,
by You Most High, they will be crowned.
We praise You, Lord, for Sister Death,
from whom no-one living can escape.
Woe to those who die in their sins!
Blessed are those that She finds doing Your Will.
No second death can do them harm.
We praise and bless You, Lord, and give You thanks,
and serve You in all humility.
I have neglected my patron for too long. There have been many books written about him, including a biography written by Augustine Thompson and published in April 2012. A review of it is here and it is on Amazon here, including a Kindle version.
St. Francis of Assisi, pray for us!