St. Francis of Assisi is one of the most famous, and most popular, Catholic Saints in history. But as Pope Pius XI warned, “sometimes this admiration is not based on a true understanding of the Saint.” Although he was writing back in 1926, many of these reasons remain as relevant now as ever. So what were the reasons that Pius viewed as insufficient reasons to love St. Francis?
Some admired in him the character of the poet by which he so wonderfully expressed the sentiments of his soul, and his famous Canticle became the delight of learned men who recognized in it one of the first great poems of the early Italian language.
Others were taken by his love of nature, for he not only seemed fascinated by the majesty of inanimate nature, by the splendor of the stars, by the beauty of his Umbrian mountains and valleys, but, like Adam before his fall in the Garden of Eden, Francis even spoke to the animals themselves. He appears to have been joined to them in a kind of brotherhood and they were obedient to his every wish.
Others praised his love of country because in him Our Italy, which boasts the great honor of having given him birth, found a more fruitful source of blessings than any other country.
Others, finally, honor him for that truly singular and catholic love with which he embraced all men.
To this, Pius said,
All of this is quite admirable but it is the least that is to be praised in our Saint, and it all must be understood in a correct sense. If we stop at these aspects of his life and look upon them as the most important, or change their import so as to justify either our own morbid ideas or excuse our false opinions, or to uphold thereby some of our prejudices, it is certain that we would not possess a genuine picture of the real Francis.
In other words, these aren’t bad things – these are all great things about St. Francis! But if you try to take just these things, you’ll end up with a distorted vision of Francis. These weren’t idle concerns for Pope Pius XI, either: one of his (explicit) concerns was the way that St. Francis was being coopted by the Italians, under Fascist leader Benito Mussolini, to turn him into a sort of quasi-nationalistic figure. And it would be naive to assume that opportunists have stopped coopting St. Francis for their secular (and even anti-Catholic) agendas. So what should we be praising St. Francis for? Pius tells us:
As a matter of fact, by his practice of all the virtues in a heroic manner, by the austerity of his life and his preaching of penance, by his manifold and restless activity for the reformation of society, the figure of Francis stands forth in all its completeness, proposed to us not so much for the admiration as for the imitation of Christian peoples. As the Herald of the Great King, his purposes were directed to persuading men to conform their lives to the dictates of evangelical sanctity and to the love of the Cross, not that they should become mere friends or lovers of flowers, birds, lambs, fishes or hares. He seemed filled with a great and tender affection for animals, and “no matter how small they were” he called them all “by the name of brother and sister”-a love which if it is kept within bounds is assuredly not prohibited by any law. This love of animals was due to no other cause than his own love of God, which moved him to love these creatures because he knew that they had the same origin as he (St. Bonaventure, Legenda Maior, Chap VIII, No. 6) and in them all he perceived the goodness of God. St. Francis, too, “saw the image of the Beloved imprinted on all things, and made of these things a ladder whereby to reach His throne.” (Thomas of Celano, Legenda Chap. II, No. 165)
All of those things that the world (rightly) loves about St. Francis are, in fact, simply the natural result of St. Francis’ love of God. If you ignore that root of sanctity, you end up with these false Francises: Francis the Hippie, Francis the Italian Nationalist, Francis the poet, etc. The true Francis is Francis the Lover, which is to say, Francis the Saint. G.K. Chesterton put it this way:
But since I have mentioned Matthew Arnold and Renan and the rationalistic admirers of St. Francis, I will here give a hint of what it seems to me most advisable for such readers to keep in mind. These distinguished writers found things like the Stigmata a stumbling block because to them a religion was a philosophy. It was an impersonal thing; and it is only the most personal passion that provides here an approximate earthly parallel.
A man will not roll in the snow for a stream of tendency by which all things fulfil the law of their being. He will not go without food in the name of something, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness. He will do things like this, or pretty like this, under quite a different impulse. He will do these things when he is in love.
The first fact to realise about St Francis is involved with the first fact with which his story starts; that when he said from the first that he was a Troubadour, and said later that he was a Troubadour of a newer and nobler romance, he was not using a mere metaphor, but understood himself much better than the scholars understand him. He was, to the last agonies of asceticism, a Troubadour. He was a Lover. He was a lover of God and he was really and truly a lover of men; possibly a much rarer mystical vocation.
A lover of men is very nearly the opposite of a philanthropist; indeed the pedantry of the Greek word carries something like a satire on itself. A philanthropist may be said to love anthropoids. But as St. Francis did not love humanity but men, so he did not love Christianity but Christ. Say, if you think so, that he was a lunatic loving an imaginary person; but an imaginary person, not an imaginary idea.
And for the modern reader the clue to the asceticism and all the rest can be found in the stories of lovers when they seemed to be rather like lunatics. Tell it as the tale of one of the Troubadours, and the wild things he would do for his lady, and the whole of the modern puzzle disappears. In such a romance there would be no contradiction between the poet gathering flowers in the sun and enduring a freezing vigil in the snow, between his praising all earthly and bodily beauty and then refusing to eat, and between his glorifying gold and purple and perversely going in rags, between his showing pathetically a hunger for a happy life and a thirst for a heroic death. All these riddles would be easily be resolved in the simplicity of any noble love; only this was so noble a love that nine out of ten men have hardly even heard of it. […] The reader cannot even begin to see the sense of a story that may well seem to him a very wild one, until he understands that to this great mystic his religion was not a thing like a theory but a thing like a love affair.
Having begun with Pope Pius XI, I want to close with something that Pope Francis had to say three years ago. His point builds upon Pius XI’s, in warning against false Francises, and upon Chesterton’s, in recognizing Francis as a Lover. But his empahssis strikes me as just right, that Francis is above all a Saint, a lover of Christ:
This is the second witness that Francis gives us: that everyone who follows Christ receives true peace, the peace that Christ alone can give, a peace which the world cannot give. Many people, when they think of Saint Francis, think of peace; very few people however go deeper. What is the peace which Francis received, experienced and lived, and which he passes on to us? It is the peace of Christ, which is born of the greatest love of all, the love of the cross. It is the peace which the Risen Jesus gave to his disciples when he stood in their midst (cf. Jn 20:19-20).
Franciscan peace is not something saccharine. Hardly! That is not the real Saint Francis! Nor is it a kind of pantheistic harmony with forces of the cosmos… That is not Franciscan either! It is not Franciscan, but a notion that some people have invented! The peace of Saint Francis is the peace of Christ, and it is found by those who “take up” their “yoke”, namely, Christ’s commandment: Love one another as I have loved you (cf. Jn 13:34; 15:12). This yoke cannot be borne with arrogance, presumption or pride, but only with meekness and humbleness of heart.
We turn to you, Francis, and we ask you: Teach us to be “instruments of peace”, of that peace which has its source in God, the peace which Jesus has brought us.
The world is right to love St. Francis, but not for the reasons of cheap political expediency. They love him because they seem in him a true Lover, and see in him a greater sense vision of what love of neighbor (and love of Creation!) ought to look like. But all of this, and the man himself, is incomprehensible without Jesus Christ. So let us praise Francis today precisely because he shows us, in the course of a beautiful life, what Christianity ought to look like.