October 4th is the Feast Day of Francis of Assisi. He is surely one of the most famous Christian saints. A sense of his impact upon the world can be gauged by the fact that Francis was canonized by Pope Gregory IX just two years after his death in 1226. In 1979, Pope John Paul II proclaimed Francis in his Bula Inter Sanctos as the Patron Saint of Ecology.
Francis is rightly characterized as highly influential in shaping Christianity through the West. The numerous Franciscan religious orders inspired by his life and works are ample testament to this.
Unfortunately, numerous myths have also been propagated about Francis. Some of this reflects the innocent passing-on of legends. In other instances, such efforts have primarily been about trying to advance particular ideological agendas inside and outside the Christian church. The Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff, for example, presented Saint Francis in his book Francis of Assisi: A Model of Human Liberation (1982) as someone capable for propelling society away from cultures dominated by “the bourgeois class that has directed our history for the past five hundred years.” That, frankly, is Marxist ideological claptrap.
Truth, however, is the polar opposite of ideology. And you won’t find a better outline of the truth about Francis of Assisi than Augustine Thompson O.P’s well-researched Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (2012). Among other things, it sifts out the legend from the facts, some of which may surprise some readers but also disconcert those who have tried to coopt Francis for various contemporary causes.
Here are some of the more pertinent facts stated in Thompson’s book and the relevant page numbers:
• The “Peace Prayer of Saint Francis”—which many of us grew up hearing sung endlessly (and) badly in churches in the 1980s—can’t be traced further back than the pages of a French magazine, La Clochette, published in 1912 (p. ix). “Noble as its sentiments are,” Thompson states, “Francis would not have written such a piece, focused as it is on the self, with its constant repetition of the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘me,’ the words ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’ never appearing once” (p. ix).
• Francis sought radical detachment from the world. Yet he also believed that he and his followers should engage in manual labor to procure necessities like food. Begging was always a secondary alternative or “when those who had hired the brothers refused them payment” (p. 29).
• Francis thought that the Church’s sacramental life required careful preparation, use of the finest equipment (p. 32), and proper vestments (p. 62). This was consistent with Francis’s conviction that one’s most direct contact with God was in the Mass and the Eucharist, “not in nature or even in service to the poor” (p. 61).
• Francis is rightly called a peacemaker and someone who loved the poor. At the same time, Thompson stresses the saint’s “absolute lack of any program of legal or social reforms” (p. 37). The word “poverty” itself appears rarely in Francis’s own writings (p. 246). Instead, “What he harps on, much to modern readers’ annoyance, is Eucharistic devotion, proper vestments, clear altar lines, and suitable chalices for Mass” (p. 246).
• Francis was no proto-dissenter when it came to Catholic dogmas and doctrines. He was “fiercely orthodox” (41). In later life, he even insisted that friars “who committed liturgical abuses or transgressed dogmatic deviations” should be remanded to higher church authorities (pp. 135-136).
• Francis’s famous conversation in Egypt in 1219 with Sultan al-Kamil and his advisors wasn’t an exercise in interfaith pleasantries. Francis certainly did not mock Islam and he “never spoke ill of Muhammad, just as he never spoke ill of anyone” (p. 60). Nonetheless during his audience with al-Kamil, Francis “immediately got to the point. He was the ambassador of the Lord Jesus Christ and had come for the salvation of the sultan’s soul” (p. 68).
• Francis’s affinity with nature and animals was underscored by those who knew him. The killing of animals or seeing them suffer upset him deeply (p. 56). Unlike many other medieval religious reformers, however, Francis rejected religious abstinence from meat (p. 56) and “he was emphatically not a vegetarian” (p. 56).
• There was “not a hint trace of pantheism in Francis’s approach to nature” (p. 56). Francis’s references and allusions to nature in his writings, preaching, and instruction were overwhelmingly drawn from the Scriptures rather than the environment itself (p. 56).
• Francis regarded the beauty in nature and the animal world as something that should lead to worship and praise of God (p. 58)—but not things to be invested with god-like qualities (p. 56). The saint’s relationship to nature, Thompson underscores, shouldn’t be romanticized. He viewed, for example, mice and vermin as “agents of the devil” (p. 225) and “even considered a gluttonous bird that drowned as cursed” (p. 225).
In the introduction to his book, Thompson writes that “In years of teaching, I have often been astounded at how unhappy students can be when they encounter a different Francis from the one they expect” (p. ix). Facts that explode myths or highlight the falsities of any ideology have a way of doing that. But the disappointment presumably illustrates just how far legends about Francis of Assisi have penetrated the thought, practice and priorities of many Christians of all confessions. All the more reason, I’d argue, to refute them. After all, it’s the truth – not ideologies or romantic fables – which set us free.