Will The Real Saint Francis Please Stand Up?
Updated: Oct 4
What if some of what you thought you knew about Saint Francis of Assisi was false? This may not be true for some, but it is possible that others have picked up some pseudo-Francis facts along the way. Some have come to associate this holy saint with certain facts or images:
He was named “Francis.”
He was more at peace among the plants and animals of nature than in the typical Church activities. This is demonstrated by more statues of the saint existing in yards and gardens than in churches and shrines, and such statues are often accompanied by animals.
He said, “Preach the gospel at all times, use words if necessary.”
He authored the “Peace Prayer” or “Prayer of Saint Francis” which begins, “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.”
Saint Francis created a cross in the shape of a “T”, the Franciscan Tau cross.
What if everything I just told you was false (at least partially)? This sounds like Morpheus talking to Neo in the 1999 Matrix movie. There are often reasons for these Saint Francis misunderstandings. First, his name was originally Giovanni (John), but was changed by his father to Francis upon returning from France. Yes, we should still call him “Francis”, but I wanted to start with this interesting fact.
I recall reading the complete works of Saint Francis at Franciscan University of Steubenville and was shocked by how little he mentioned animals or nature, in fact it seemed like the Eucharist, prayer, penance and liturgical matters were of greater importance for him, although the biographies do mention scenes with animals and nature. This does not mean he never mentions them, there is the “Canticle of the Sun,” but their infrequency was shocking for someone who is nearly universally associated with love for nature. My undergraduate students were equally surprised in our Franciscan studies class. When some say to me that Saint Francis was not so much a Catholic as he was a lover of nature trying to survive in Catholic society, one only needs to read his writings and also recall that he is not simply Saint Francis but Deacon Francis. None of this is intended to cause a movement to remove the Saint Francis birdbaths from the garden, but to realize that love of nature alone is an insufficient image of this man of history. One must emphasize his love for the Gospel, the Church, the Eucharist, and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Once we begin to understand Francis the Catholic, we might stand a better chance of understanding his views of nature.
He never said, “preach the gospel as all times, use words if necessary” nor did he write the famous “Peace Prayer” (“Prayer of Saint Francis”) associated with him. Regarding the quote concerning preaching, it seems to be contrary to some of his writings and his own lifestyle where we find an emphasis not on one over the other but that Franciscan friars are to balance both. We see this in his texts when addressing the issue of preaching. The challenge with applying his views on preaching to us today is that he often speaks of preaching or good example within the context of clerics or the Franciscan Order, not the lay faithful throughout the world. Taking in the totality of his life and works it may be more accurate to say, “Preach the gospel at all times, and do not forget you must do so by your deeds.” Although, this is not as catchy. Regarding the “Peace Prayer,” it was likely written at the start of the twentieth century and then later wrongly attributed to Saint Francis. While the themes throughout it can find reconciliation in either his life or writings, it does not quite have his style. As an example, consider the conclusion of the “Canticle of the Sun.”
Praised be my Lord for those who for Thy love forgive And weakness bear and tribulation. Blessed those who shall in peace endure, For by Thee, most High, shall they be crowned. Praised be my Lord for our sister, the bodily death, From the which no living man can flee. Woe to them who die in mortal sin; Blessed those who shall find themselves in Thy most holy will, For the second death shall do them no ill.
Praise ye and bless ye my Lord, and give Him thanks, And be subject unto Him with great humility.
Finally, let us consider the “T” shaped cross, the tau. If you are familiar with this cross it is either because of contemporary Franciscans that wear the “T” cross or because you know that Saint Francis sometimes used it as his personal signature/seal or associated it with the Franciscan habit’s shape. Its origins are biblical and Catholic. He was not the first saint to adopt this symbol. Its presence in his life may be partially due to his relationship with Pope Innocent III. Innocent III approved the early Franciscan community and way of life and a few years later preached on the tau at the Fourth Lateran Council with Saint Francis present. The pope spoke of the symbol in relation to its roots in Scripture and Christ and called for champions of the tau; he called for renewal in Christ. This had an influence on Saint Francis.
I taught my first university course on Saint Francis more than a decade ago and I will never forget a student that approached me after class and commented, “So, he was like really Catholic. Wasn’t he?” My response was simple, “Absolutely, through and through a Catholic.”