Francis of Assisi: Pattern for Lay Holiness

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.

In all this the historical Francis suffers: the conflicted, erratic Umbrian, the product of the Italian commune of Assisi, the man of penance, the faithful, if often perplexed, son of the Church.  In truth this remaking of Francis is not merely recent.  After his death, his order nearly tore itself to pieces in internal conflicts in the late 1200s over issues which had never been problematic to Francis.  Each side, “Spiritual” and “Conventual” attempted to make Francis fit their conceptions of the religious life.  The “struggle for Francis” is not new.

This is where the new biography of Francis by Augustine Thompson, O.P. (recently reviewed by our own Christopher Blum) comes in so handy.  Thompson is a specialist in Italian medieval history, and he is right to attempt to situate Francis in his own space and time, refusing to look at him through the layers of interpretation that came to dominate later.  Some of these became so outrageous as to be heretical (Francis as a second Christ, an Angel, or the final messenger to herald in the Third Age of the Spirit).  Some scholars have been so disheartened by these layers of construction that they have discarded the search for Francis entirely, and focus solely on interpretations of Francis.

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To really understand where Francis was coming from one must be familiar with lay Italian piety in the age of the communes: the uneasy, popular, violent, democratic cities of the North and central Italian peninsula.  These were areas of nascent capitalism, violent public demonstrations, desultory inter-city warfare, and heroic sanctity.  In terms of the last, laity in the Italian city-states knew what it took to become holy within their state in life: reception of the sacraments, almsgiving, and, above all, penance.  It is remarkable how little poverty, as an end in itself, had to do with it.  Rather the devotional ideal of the central middle ages was the imitation of the Apostles: wandering preachers of penance who supported themselves by manual labor. Indeed Francis himself was very insistent on manual labor, rather than begging. There was also increasing concern among the laity for religious purity, for correctly-celebrated sacraments, and for a holy clergy.  One example of lay action in this direction was the expulsion of the corrupt, simoniacal archbishop—along with all his immoral clergy—from Milan in the 1060s, with a demand for new, holy priests.  Now that is what I call Active Participation!

Francis partook of all of these devotional ideals.  When he converted to the religious life, he confirmed this programme in his First Letter to all the Faithful: asceticism, regular communion, and the doing of good.  More than anything, Francis typifies the lifestyle of a medieval lay conversus, or one who dedicated his life to penance, and affiliated himself with an established religious community, for the purpose of doing manual labor.  His foundation of an order was almost accidental.  Francis constantly is perplexed by the responsibilities of leadership, and flummoxed by papal directives to preach.  Even so, dozens, and then hundreds, came to follow this simple soul.  Such is the attraction of holiness.

What then is at the heart of the historical Francis’ devotional life?  It is certainly not poverty. Thompson clearly demonstrates how such concerns were read back into his life by later groups.  Rather, at its heart is the Incarnation itself.  For Francis the greatest poverty was the self-emptying of God, taking on human nature. Here one finds the center of Francis’ being.  Here one sees his affinity with creation, his creation of the Christmas Creche at Greccio, and his all-encompassing devotion to priests and the Blessed Sacrament.  Many have wondered why Francis was not active in anti-heretical enterprises.  It is not because he was a closet Waldensian (as some would have him be); it is that his entire life was a sermon against Catharism.  Against the world-denying anti-materialists Francis has the Canticle of the Sun.  Against their anti-life message, Francis offers the Christ-Child.  Against their unnatural attack on nature itself, Francis pauses to speak to the birds.  Against their attack on the Church and on the sacraments, Francis introduces genuflection before the Eucharist.

Francis’ concerns become clear, once the interpolation of subsequent ages are rolled back.  In the vast majority of his remaining, authentic works, one matter comes repeatedly to the fore: “these Most Holy Mysteries I want above all things to honor, to have venerated, and to be placed in precious places.” The holy Eucharist is at the center of Francis’ personal concerns.  His writings are not abstract musings on poverty, they are concrete: veneration for priests, love for the Sacrament, horror at the poor condition of the Mass paraments and of churches.  His “Letters to the Clergy” are shocked and angry at the failure to worthily celebrate the Mass, with much stronger language than he ever directs against any other issue.

Francis’ last words to his brethren are about the same matter.  He exhorts them to the celebration of Mass with full ritual solemnity, once a day, in the houses of the friars.  He tells them of the great dignity of priests, and of the woeful condition of bad ministers.  What Francis leaves as his inheritance to his followers then is an Incarnational life that finds its summit in the place where heaven and earth, time and eternity, come together: in the celebration of the Mass.  The Franciscan founder then, seen in this light, is the greatest of models for the lay life: a person dedicated to the truth of the Incarnation, living a life of penance and good works, which find their summit in the reverence and care for the offering of the Holy Sacrifice.  Francis demanded the liturgical best for the consummation of the marriage of God and Man, we, in imitation of him, should do no less.

In the end we should be more than challenged by some of Francis’ touching words during his last sickness to his companions, “Let us begin, brothers, to serve the Lord God, for up until now we have done little or nothing.”


  • Donald S. Prudlo

    Donald S. Prudlo is Chair and Warren Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa. His specialty is saints and sainthood in the Christian tradition, and he is the author of The Martyred Inquisitor: The Life and Cult of Peter of Verona (Ashgate, 2008) and has recently edited The Origin, Development, and Refinement of Medieval Religious Mendicancies (Brill, 2011).

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