Celebrating the Real St. Francis of Assisi

Nazario Gerardi as St. Francis of Assisi, from the film Francesco, Giullare di Dio
Nazario Gerardi as St. Francis of Assisi, from the film Francesco, Giullare di Dio

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.


  1. As someone who has St. Francis as his Confirmation namesake, and has grown up under the backyard statue of the same, I appreciate learning of the true heroic depths of this great saint. Thanks, Joe, for more to chew on.

  2. I doubt that many who admire Francis as a poet, political reformer or environmentalist have ever read this passage in his official biography by St. Bonaventure:

    “…as a brave leader of Christ’s army, he himself grew still more fervent in his endeavour to attain the palm of victory by the practice of every sublime virtue. And, considering those words of the Apostle, “They who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its concupiscences,” to clothe his body in the strong armour of the cross, he began to exercise such severe discipline over all his sensual appetites, that he hardly took such food as was necessary for the support of nature. For he said that it was hard to satisfy the necessities of the body without indulging the inclinations of the senses. Therefore, he rarely ate any food which had been cooked with fire; and when he did so, he mixed so much water therewith as to render it insipid. And what shall I say of his drinking?—for he would hardly allow himself cold water enough to slake the burning thirst with which he was oftentimes tormented. He continually discovered new ways of exercising abstinence, increasing daily in its exercise; and even when he had attained the summit of perfection, he still endeavoured, as if only a beginner, to punish, by fresh macerations, the rebellion of the flesh. Nevertheless, when he went abroad, he conformed himself (according to the words of the Gospel) to the manner of life of those with whom he abode, eating what was set before him; but when he returned home, he resumed the practice of his rule of rigid abstinence. So that, being austere to himself, and gentle to his neighbour, and thus subject in all things to the Gospel of Christ, he gave edification in all things, whether by eating or abstaining. The bare earth was the ordinary bed of his wearied body, and he often slept sitting, leaning his head against a stone; or a block of wood, and being covered only with one poor tunic. Thus he served the Lord in cold and nakedness.” (On the Austerity of His Life, Bon., Legenda Mayor)

    1. Craig,

      I’m taking a copy of the text from the link that Joe provided above, from Pope Pius XI, and am reading part of it to a group in my Church tonight. It’s a pretty good, quick, summary of St. Francis’ life. But I think reading the other, longer, historical accounts are invaluable for any pious Christian. St. Francis is a monumental figure in Christian history.

    2. Thanks, Craig. One of the people who instilled a love for St. Francis in me was my major professor in college. He was a Dutch Calvinist who argued that, if Francis had been taken more seriously throughout the Church, the Reformation never would have happened (in his view, might not have been “necessary”).

      1. Joe,

        A great post, or even a book, might be titled something like… “Luther and Francis, comparing and contrasting two monumental souls”.

        Maybe you can try to analyze the two, side by side someday?

          1. It is clear that the Church teaches that Luther was a ‘Christian’ as he was both baptized and validly ordained a Catholic priest. But an analysis of his apostasy and heresy is another story.

            I was thinking more about a psychological/ spiritual contrast between Martin Luther and St. Francis, as they were both extreme in their own ways. It would be a fascinating contrast between the two– that is, on their particular outlooks concerning the nature of Christianity.

          2. Yes, I think Al’s point was to contrast the dichotomous natures of Francis and Luther. Luther was boisterous, uncouth, attacked his enemies, and advocated violence.

            Eph 4:17-25 speaks of how walking obediently before God is the basis to speaking truth to one’s brother:

            So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, 18 being darkened in their understanding, [m]excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; 19 and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality [n]for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. 20 But you did not learn [o]Christ in this way, 21 if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, 22 that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old [p]self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, 23 and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 24 and put on the new [q]self, which [r]in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.

            25 Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth each one of you with his neighbor, for we are members of one another.

            I infer from Al that if Luther is walking as the gentiles walk, how can he lay aside falsehood and speak truth to his neighbor? The “therefore” in verse 25 means that speaking truth is contingent upon right living (which Al would be arguing Francis’ example is the better one.)

    3. That’s good to know. You once boasted that “there is no one who seeks God”. Just how boring such lamentations are. I said St. Francis did (just an example). You scoffed at my answer and retorted: “Was he sinless?”. That’s like the following dialogue:

      — There are no green ducks.

      — Yes, there are some green ducks.

      — Are they geese?

      Notice your absolute nonsense and warped “logic” (or lack of it) when you’re cornered?

      By the way, there’s a great book on him by the French historian Jacques le Goff.

  3. “I think Al’s point was to contrast the dichotomous natures of Francis and Luther.”

    Yes Craig, you got it right. And here is a little sample from quotes of Francis and Luther…with the sayings of Jesus to also compare and judge by:


    “And when you shall stand to pray, forgive, if you have aught against any man; that your Father also, who is in heaven, may forgive you your sins. But if you will not forgive, neither will your Father that is in heaven, forgive you your sins.” (Mark 11:25)

    St. Francis:

    “Our Father….if we do not forgive perfectly, make us forgive perfectly, so that we may truly love our enemies for love of You and pray fervently to You for them, returning no one evil for evil, anxious only to serve everybody in you.” (From Paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer)

    Martin Luther:

    “…I cannot pray without cursing. If I should say: Hallowed be thy name; I must add; Cursed, damned, and reviled be the name of the Papists, and of all who blaspheme against thy name… Indeed so I pray every day aloud, and continuously in my heart, as do all with me who believe in Christ, and I do feel that we are heard.” (Erlangen edition, vol. 25, p. 108).

      1. Imprecatory prayers, according to the Catholic Church, are related to exorcisms and it is a bit complicated to distinguish them from deprecatory prayers and imperative prayers. The distinctions are very fine even for those involved in the ministry of performing exorcisms. From what I read it is not to be used by laymen in the Church, but deprecatory and imperative prayer can be used, in certain circumstances. Most Catholics know nothing about this, and probably shouldn’t. Normally exorcisms are left to the clergy who are appointed by the bishops for this very purpose. Even in the Pre-Nicaean Church you find exorcisms being routinely performed on catechumens at their baptisms by bishops and priests.

        In an example from the Gospel of Luke, regarding the subject, we read of the disciples once being angered at the refusal of hospitality by a Samaritan town wherein they sought to rest and refresh themselves on their way to Jerusalem:

        “And when his disciples James and John had seen this, they said: Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them? [55] And turning, he rebuked them, saying: You know not of what spirit you are.[56] The Son of man came not to destroy souls, but to save. And they went into another town.” (Luke 9:54)

        And if there was any time for imprecatory prayer, one might think it would be in the ‘hour of darkness’ of Jesus on the Cross. But again, Jesus’ example teaches us against imprecatory, curse, prayers, even in extreme circumstances…as again, he ‘came not to destroy souls, but to save”. We all know that on of Jesus’ last words on the Cross was “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”.

        Moreover, Jesus also taught:

        “But I say to you, Love your enemies: do good to them that hate you: and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you: [45] That you may be the children of your Father who is in heaven, who maketh his sun to rise upon the good, and bad, and raineth upon the just and the unjust.”

        It doesn’t seem that Martin Luther paid much attention to these particular Gospel teachings of the Lord. Especially when He notes above that his imprecatory prayer was not a ‘one and done ‘ occurrence…but as Luther states:

        “Cursed, damned, and reviled be the name of the Papists, and of all who blaspheme against thy name… Indeed so I pray EVERY DAY aloud, and CONTINUOUSLY in my heart…”

          1. I’ll have to review the psalms. But I think that Jesus gives ample teachings on the subject in the four gospels. I’m sure I can collect many other sayings if I take a closer look. Forgiveness, love, patience, peace making, mercy etc… are all major themes in the New Testament. Condemning, judging, picking out splinters in eye’s,insulting and name calling, and refusing to forgive…etc… is also warned against, in one way or another, as a common theme throughout the Gospel teachings.

            Maybe another reader here, can chime in if they have more info. on the psalms of David and examples of cursing?

          2. Generally we would keep in the tradition of Augustine (not sure which commentary on the Psalms, but I remember reading it from him. Other Church Fathers from the era think similarly. [ex: Origen and the commands to wipe out settlements in Joshua]):
            Christ commands that we pray for our enemies. The psalms curse their enemies. Which is right? The enemies we pray for (for conversion, for reconciliation, for mercy, et cetera) are our neighbors/people/the people we would actually consider to be enemies in our general way of thinking. The enemies which we pray against/curse without mercy would be sin in our own lives and demons.

        1. Craig,

          In all fairness, I just remembered an account of St. Francis, where it is said that he did indeed curse some brother’s who were giving evil example, and negating his efforts at ‘rebuilding’ the Catholic Church at his time. This would be good to compare with Martin Luther’s examples of cursing. Here is the account by Bonaventure:

          “Francis, therefore, desiring with his whole heart the salvation of souls, and being full of most fervent zeal for their conversion, was wont to say that he was perfumed with sweet odours, and, as it were, anointed with precious ointment, when he heard that, by the sweet odour of his brethren’s sanctity diffused throughout the world, many were brought into the way of truth. And when he heard such tidings he rejoiced in spirit, and poured forth most abundant blessings upon those brethren who, by word or deed, brought sinners to the love of Christ. But they who by their evil deeds dishonour holy religion, incurred the most heavy sentence of his malediction. “By Thee,” said he, “Most Holy Lord, by the whole heavenly court, and by me, Thy little one, let them be accursed, who by their evil example confound and destroy that which, by the holy brethren of this Order, Thou hast built up, and ceasest not still to build.” And he was oftentimes so oppressed with sadness at the scandal thus given to the little ones of Christ, that it seemed he would have even sunk under it, had he not been supported by the consolation of the divine mercy. As he was one day greatly troubled on this account, and was praying with an anxious heart to the Father of mercies for his children, he received this answer from the Lord: “Why art thou troubled, poor little one, as if I had in such wise set thee as a pastor over Mine Order, that thou shouldst forget that I am its chief Master? I have chosen thee, a simple man, for this office, that whatsoever I shall work in thee may be ascribed not to thee, but to divine grace. I have called, I will preserve, I will feed these my sheep; and if some be cut off, I will bring others into their place; and if they be not yet born, I will bring them into being; and by whatever attacks this poor religion shall be assailed, by My help it shall be preserved, and shall abide for ever.” (Legenda Mayor, “Of his tender piety”)

  4. He who thinks Jesus is a composite of good and evil, who thinks that Jesus was a serial fornicator, is not a Christian.

    2 John

    9 Omnis qui recedit, et non permanet in doctrina Christi, Deum non habet: qui permanet in doctrina, hic et Patrem et Filium habet.

    9 Whosoever revolteth, and continueth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that continueth in the doctrine, the same hath both the Father and the Son.

    9 The man who goes back, who is not true to Christ’s teaching, loses hold of God; the man who is true to that teaching, keeps hold both of the Father and of the Son.

    1. Martin Luther was baptized and received a valid ordination, therefore, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, this applies:

      1582 As in the case of Baptism and Confirmation this share in Christ’s office is granted once for all. The sacrament of Holy Orders, like the other two, confers an indelible spiritual character and cannot be repeated or conferred temporarily.74

      1583 It is true that someone validly ordained can, for grave reasons, be discharged from the obligations and functions linked to ordination, or can be forbidden to exercise them; but he cannot become a layman again in the strict sense,75 because the character imprinted by ordination is for ever. The vocation and mission received on the day of his ordination mark him permanently.

      1. Yes, awims, you are absolutely correct. Objectively he was a Christian but he was not one in his faith, or actions; that was my point and I apologise for not making that clear.

        He clearly was an apostate and he deserves to be remembered as such rather than being feted as some great religious who restored some Christian principle long forgotten as Fr Cantalemessa (sp?) asserted in his preaching form the pulpit inside Saint Peter’s.

        Lord have Mercy.

        Ecumenism is the universal solvent of Tradition

  5. Wonderful article on the true character of St. Francis of Assisi. I have read The Little Flowers, have read a few biographies of the saint, and have listened to this course on his life . I hope that it is the true person and not the myth that I have fallen in love with.

    The priest where I attended Mass indeed mentioned this very difference between the man and the myth, offered up a few examples, and asked us to follow his commitment to Christ.

    Thank you!

  6. But we cannot understand any of this if we do not know exactly what the expression “the righteousness of God” means. There is a danger that people can hear about the righteousness of God but not understand its meaning, so instead of being encouraged they are frightened. St. Augustine had already clearly explained its meaning centuries ago: “The ‘righteousness of God’ is that by which we are made righteous, just as ‘the salvation of God’ [see Ps 3:8] means the salvation by which he saves us.”[2] In other words, the righteousness of God is that by which God makes those who believe in his Son Jesus acceptable to him. It does not enact justice but makes people just

    Luther deserves the credit for bringing this truth back when its meaning had been lost over the centuries, at least in Christian preaching, and it is this above all for which Christianity is indebted to the Reformation, whose fifth centenary occurs next year. The reformer later wrote that when he discovered this, “I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”[3]


    Luther had Catholic ideas about Justification?

    This is simply an insane assertion but that is what Ecumenism has wrought; rot.

    Ecumenism is the universal solvent of Tradition

    1. “I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”[3

      What I think it really means is that it relieved Luther’s multitude of obsessive compulsive disorders that tormented him in many areas of the actual living out of his Christian faith. Stories of daily, and even multi-hour, confessions is a hint that something was seriously wrong with him ‘psychologically’ from the very start of his religious life. His true vocation was probably ANYTHING but that of a Catholic monk or priest. Deciding to become a monk just because he had a deathly fear of being killed by lightning was no way to start an authentic religious vocation.

  7. Dear Father-to-be. I apologise for having taking this thread off topic.

    The great Seraphic Saint ought to be the focus.

    1. Still… an honest study and analysis of the lives, virtues, and varying spiritualities of St. Francis and Martin Luther, side by side, story by story, quote by quote…is a very profitable and revealing spiritual exercise that can bear much fruit in the understanding of the nature of true Christian faith. And isn’t this really what we’re all really trying to achieve? Personal character is a powerful witness to the true faith, not just doctrine and philosophy. And, it is said that even the great philosopher Plato acknowledged this, in a quote attributed to him: “You can learn more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”

      So, to compare Luther and Francis, here, helps the conversation and understanding of Francis, and doesn’t detract from it.

  8. Joe,
    Thanks for this post! As a Franciscan who has, as of late, been speaking on this very topic, it warmed my heart to know that there are others trying to unveil the REAL Francis. I’ve always chuckled at the irony that I’m not a big animal fan and yet most people equate my religious family to animals. I think that the heart of Franciscan Spirituality is actually the Incarnation (Crib, Cross, Eucharist). As for what draws me to this spirituality, you can read about that in this vintage post from my younger days (http://1franciscanway.blogspot.com/2010/10/francis-in-word.html).

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