St. Francis: a Giant of Sanctity

Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly catechesis

Dear brothers and sisters,

Today, I would like to speak about Francis, truly a “giant” in terms of holiness, who still fascinates countless people of every age and every religion.

“A sun is born in the world.” It is with these words from the Divine Comedy (Paradise, Canto XI) that Dante Alighieri, the greatest Italian poet, referred to Francis’ birth at Assisi towards the end of 1181 or the beginning of 1182. Francis was born to a wealthy family (his father was a textile merchant). His adolescent years were carefree, and he pursued the knightly ideals of the time. At the age of 20, he took part in a military campaign and was taken prisoner, but he fell ill and was set free.

After his return to Assisi, a slow process of spiritual conversion began within him that led him to gradually abandon the worldly lifestyle that he had practiced up to that point.

Several famous episodes date back to this time, but one in particular stands out: the message from the crucified Christ in the little church of San Damiano, in which Christ on the crucifix came to life three times, saying, “Go, Francis, repair my Church, which is in ruins.”

This simple incident, revolving around the Lord’s words that Francis heard in the church of San Damiano, contains deep symbolism. At that moment, Francis was called to repair the little church itself, but the ruinous state of the building was a symbol of the tragic and disturbing situation of the entire Church at that time: a superficial faith that neither formed nor transformed life, a clergy that displayed little zeal, and a love that had grown cold.

That interior decay of the Church also included the decomposition of her unity due to the rise of heretical movements.

This event, which took place probably in 1205, recalls a similar event of 1207: Pope Innocent III’s dream. In his dream he saw the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the mother of all churches, collapsing, with a small and insignificant religious propping it up with his shoulders to prevent its fall.

It is interesting to note that it was not the Pope who was helping to keep the church from collapsing, but a small and insignificant religious, whom Innocent III recognized as Francis when he later came to visit the Pope.

Innocent III was a powerful pope, who possessed vast theological knowledge as well as great political power. However, it was not he who would renew the Church, but a small and insignificant religious, St. Francis, who was called by God.

Yet it is also important to note that St. Francis did not renew the Church without the Pope or in opposition to the Pope, but only in communion with him. The two go together: Peter’s successor, the bishops and the Church founded on apostolic succession; and the new charism that the Holy Spirit creates at that moment to renew the Church. When both join together, true renewal flourishes.

When Francis’ father, Bernardone, reprimanded him for being too generous to the poor, Francis, in front of the bishop of Assisi, threw off his clothing in a symbolic gesture whereby he renounced his father’s inheritance. As at the moment of his birth, Francis had nothing, only the life given him by God, into whose hands he entrusted himself.

He then lived as a hermit until 1208, when another pivotal event on his conversion journey took place.

While listening to a passage from the Gospel of St. Matthew — Jesus’ words to the apostles as he sent them out on mission — Francis felt called to live in poverty and to devote himself to preaching. Some companions joined him, and in 1209 he traveled to Rome to seek Pope Innocent III’s approval for his plan for a new form of Christian life. The great pontiff welcomed him like a father and, enlightened by the Lord, sensed the divine origin of the movement started by Francis.

The Poverello of Assisi had understood that every charism given by the Holy Spirit must be put at the service of the body of Christ, which is the Church.

For this reason, Francis always worked in full communion with the authority of the Church. In the lives of saints, there is never any contradiction between the prophetic charism and the charism of governance. If there ever is any tension, the saints know how to wait patiently for the Holy Spirit’s timing.

Actually, some historians in the 19th and also the 20th century sought to create behind the Francis of tradition a so-called historical Francis, just as some have sought to create behind the Jesus of the Gospels a so-called historical Jesus.

The true historical Francis is the Francis of the Church, and it is in this way that he speaks as well to nonbelievers and to the believers of other denominations and religions.

Growth and Mission

Francis and his friars, who grew constantly in number, settled down at the Portiuncula — the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli — the spiritual site par excellence of Franciscan spirituality.

Clare, a young woman of Assisi from a noble family, also joined Francis’ school, thereby giving birth to the Franciscan second order, the Poor Clares, another experience that was destined to produce exceptional fruits of sanctity within the Church.

Pope Innocent III’s successor, Pope Honorius III, with his papal bull Cum dilecti of 1218, supported the extraordinary development of the first Friars Minor as they undertook missions in many European countries and even in Morocco.

In 1219, Francis obtained permission to travel to Egypt to talk to the Muslim sultan Melek-el-Kâmel in order to preach the Gospel of Jesus there, too.

I would like to highlight this episode in St. Francis’ life because of its relevance today. In an age marked by ongoing conflict between Christianity and Islam, Francis, armed only with his faith and his gentleness, made great strides on the path of dialogue.

Accounts tell us the Muslim sultan received him graciously and cordially. This is a model which even today should inspire relations between Christians and Muslims — promoting dialogue in truth and in mutual respect and understanding (see Nostra aetate, 3).

In 1224, at the hermitage of La Verna, Francis had a vision of the crucified Lord in the form of a seraph, an encounter in which he received the stigmata, thus becoming one with the crucified Christ. This gift was a manifestation of his intimate identification with the Lord.

Francis’ death — his transitus — took place on the evening of Oct. 3, 1226, in the Portiuncula. After blessing his spiritual children, he died, lying on the bare earthen floor. Two years later, Pope Gregory IX enrolled him in the book of saints.

A short time later, a great basilica was erected in his honor in Assisi. Countless pilgrims still visit it today to venerate the saint’s tomb and view the frescoes of Giotto, the painter who depicted Francis’ life in a magnificent way.

It has been said that Francis represents an alter Christus and that he was a living icon of Christ. He was also called the “brother of Jesus.” His ideal, in fact, was to be like Jesus — to contemplate the Christ of the Gospels, to love him intensely, and to imitate his virtues. In particular, he wished to give a foundational value to interior and exterior poverty, teaching this to his spiritual children.

The first beatitude of the Sermon on the Mount — “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3) — is radiantly fulfilled in St. Francis’ life and words.

Model for Christians Today

Truly, dear friends, the saints are the best interpreters of the Bible. Incarnating the word of God in their lives, they make it more attractive than ever, so that it truly speaks to us. The testimony of Francis, who loved poverty so he could follow Christ with total dedication and freedom, continues to invite us to cultivate interior poverty so that our trust in God might grow, along with a lifestyle of moderation and detachment from material goods.

Francis expressed his love for Christ in a special way through adoration of the Eucharist. In the writings of St. Francis, we read moving expressions like the following: “All mankind is in awe, the entire universe trembles and the heavens exult, when on the altar, in the hands of the priest, there is Christ, Son of the living God. What a stupendous favor! What sublime humility that the Lord of the universe, God and Son of God, can be so humble as to hide himself for our salvation in the modest form of bread!” (Francesco di Assisi, Scritti, Editrici Francescane, Padova 2002, 401).

During this Year for Priests, I would like to recall as well a recommendation that Francis made to priests: “When they wish to celebrate Mass, pure themselves and in a pure manner, may they celebrate the true sacrifice of the most holy body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ with reverence” (Francesco di Assisi, Scritti, 399).

Francis always showed great deference towards priests and urged that they always be respected, even in instances where they might be personally unworthy. The reason for this profound respect was the fact that they have received the gift of consecrating the Eucharist.

Dear brothers in the priesthood, let us never forget that the sanctity of the Eucharist requires us to be pure and to live in a way consistent with the mystery we celebrate.

Love for Christ gives birth to love for people and for all God’s creatures. This was another feature characteristic of Francis’ spirituality: the sense of universal brotherhood and love for God’s creation, which inspired his famous “Canticle of the Creatures.” This message is very relevant today.

As I recalled in my recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, the only form of sustainable development is that which respects creation and does not harm the environment (see Nos. 48-52), and in the Message for the World Day of Peace this year, I also emphasized that even the development of lasting peace is linked to respect for creation. Francis reminds us that creation reflects the wisdom and benevolence of the Creator. He understood nature as the language in which God speaks to us, in which reality becomes transparent and in which we can speak of God and with God.

May the Blessed Virgin, whom Francis loved so tenderly, obtain this gift for us! Let us entrust ourselves to her with the words of the Poverello of Assisi himself: “Blessed Virgin Mary, there is no one like you among women who has been born in the world, daughter and handmaid of the most high King and heavenly Father. Mother of our most blessed Lord Jesus Christ, spouse of the Holy Spirit, pray for us ... to your most blessed and beloved Son, Lord and Teacher” (Francesco di Assisi, Scritti, 163).

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