FOR 800 YEARS
ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI HAS BEEN A LIVING SYMBOL of God's generous,
self-sacrificing love for the human family, of God's desire
that all people recognize themselves as members of that same
family and therefore live in the peace God intended for them.
Of all the
saints who lived in the second millennium since Christ's birth,
Francis (1182-1226) may have been the most influential in
both the Christian and non-Christian worlds. In 1993, the
editorial staff of Time magazine ranked him first among
the 10 greatest people of the second millennium.
points the way for all Christians in the third millennium,
identifying the gospel-based values and actions needed if
the Good News of Jesus Christ is to have its full impact.
Pope John Paul
II carefully selected Assisi as the site for a bold and historic
peace initiative in which I was privileged to participate.
Hometown Is Marked by Peace
"Is it all
right if I go in?" a Muslim from Pakistan asked me the day
after the October 1986 Prayer Day for World Peace. That day
had brought to Assisi 235 leaders of 64 official Christian
and non-Christian delegations. I joined thousands of others
in the day, which began at Our Lady of the Angels Basilica
on the plain below Assisi.
The next day
I was wearing my Franciscan habit, standing outside that basilica
when this Pakistani man told me that he had been so moved
by the previous day's events that he wanted to pray in that
church before returning home. On the day before, he had certainly
been welcome at the Portiuncula, one of three small chapels
which Francis rebuilt.
Pakistani man belonged to one of several Muslim delegations
which had participated in the Prayer Day. Yet it was not obvious
to him that he would be welcome another day. After I assured
him that he was most welcome, he entered and I went back to
the worldwide headquarters of the Order of Friars Minor, anxious
to write the Order's international newsletter. I was eager
to share with its readers some of what participants and observers
had experienced on that historic, grace-filled day.
Would so many
religious leaders have come if the pope had hosted that day
at the Vatican? Almost certainly not; Assisi represented neutral
yet ideal holy ground for this day of prayer and fasting.
At the opening prayer service that day, Pope John Paul II
said: "I have chosen this town of Assisi as the place for
our Day of Prayer for Peace because of the particular significance
of the holy man venerated hereSt. Francisknown and
revered by so many throughout the world as a symbol of peace,
reconciliation and brotherhood. Inspired by his example, his
meekness and humility, let us dispose our hearts for prayer
in true internal silence."
In a very class-conscious
society, Francis of Assisi and his friend St. Clare (1194-1253)
attracted followers from all levels of society and from all
over Europe. Both saints have attracted and continue to attract
people across numerous presumed dividing lines of religion,
race, nation, social status and gender.
At the end
of the Assisi Prayer Day, Pope John Paul II described the
permanent lesson of Assisi as "an ideal composed of meekness,
humility, a deep sense of God and a commitment to serve all.
St. Francis was a man of peace. We recall that he abandoned
the military career he had followed for a while in his youth,
and discovered the value of poverty, the value of a simple
and austere life, in imitation of Jesus Christ whom he intended
to serve. St. Clare was a woman, par excellence, of
prayer. Her union with God in prayer sustained Francis
and his followers, as it sustains us today. Francis and Clare
are examples of peace: with God, with oneself, with all men
and women in the world. May this holy man and this holy woman
inspire all people today to have the same strength of character
and love of God and neighbor to continue on the path we must
have followed Francis' example, they have given living witness
to Jesus' life, death and resurrection. When they have failed
to heed that example, they have become countersigns or witnesses
against that same Good News.
Assisi Day of Prayer for World Peace, delegations from the
11 major religions represented there held their own prayer
services. At the Christian service in San Rufino Cathedral,
Pope John Paul II said: "Our prayer here in Assisi should
include repentance for our failures as Christians to carry
out the mission of peace and reconciliation we have received
from Christ and which we have not yet fully accomplished....Prayer
for peace must be followed by appropriate action for peace.
It must make our minds more keenly aware, for instance, of
those issues of justice which are inseparable from the achievement
of peace and which lay claim to our active involvement. It
must make us willing to think and act with the humility and
love that fosters peace."
than Francis of Assisi can help us identify the values and
actions on which true peace can be built?
Changed Our Image of God
Assisi has influenced the way many Catholics think about God
and respond to God, the way they see themselves and respond
to others, the way they see the world which God has created
and entrusted to the human family.
day many people had images of God the Father as judge and
punisher of sin. Without denying
those images, Francis lived out other biblical images, inviting
people to think of God the Father as a generous and loving
creator, to see God the Son as living proof of God's love
and closeness to the human family, to appreciate God the Spirit
as the One who makes us holy, preparing us for our eternal
At a time when
many Catholics more readily thought of Jesus as divine rather
than human, Francis promoted two devotions: the Christmas
crib and Christ's death on the cross, powerfully symbolized
in the Stations of the Cross, which Francis' followers popularized
after his death.
put together a live Christmas crib at Greccio in 1224, he
had only a cave and an empty manger, plus a donkey and an
ox. In later years people added figures to represent Jesus,
Mary and Joseph, angels, Magi, shepherds, sheep, camels and
so on. Unlike their North American counterparts, Italian Christmas
cribs today frequently represent whole villages: bakers, people
carrying water or cutting wood, fishermen, knife sharpeners,
children at play and numerous other figures emphasizing that
Jesus has entered into ordinary life, becoming one of us!
Prior to Francis,
Western European religious art often reflected the Byzantine
artistic style, portraying the crucified Jesus in triumph
with very discreet wounds and hardly a drop of blood on him.
Christ looks straight into the viewer's eyes as if to ask,
"And how are you going to respond?" After Francis, Western
art began to portray Jesus as slumped on the cross, looking
down, more bloody, a much more vivid reminder of his sufferings
for our sins.
before Francis was born, the Crusaders had suffered a crushing
defeat near the Sea of Galilee, losing most of the Holy Land
that they had conquered in the previous 80 years. Visiting
the places connected to the life of Jesus was becoming more
and more difficult. The Stations of the Cross devotion brought
the Holy Land, so to speak, to Catholics who had little hope
of praying in Bethlehem, Nazareth or Jerusalem.
In an age when
a person could gain a plenary indulgence by going on a Crusade
or visiting the Shrine of St. James at Compostela in Spain,
St. Peter's Basilica in Rome or the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem,
Francis made the bold request that people coming to the tiny
chapel of Our Lady of the Angels (the Portiuncula) outside
Assisi should be able to gain the same indulgence if they
fulfilled the usual conditions (Confession, holy Communion
and prayers for the pope).
wanted the indulgence for every day of the year, Pope Honorius
III restricted it to the anniversary of the chapel's dedication
(August 2). Every year on the Feast of the Pardon of Assisi,
thousands of people from Italy and around the world still
come to that little chapel to seek God's forgiveness and to
be reminded of their need to extend that forgiveness to others.
Changed How We See Ourselves
influenced the way Catholics see themselves and respond to
others. He emphasized the virtue of humility, being honest
about who we are before God and in relation to one another.
The dying Francis succeeded in reconciling the bishop and
mayor of Assisi, who had been feuding over something which
seemed terribly important when the feud began. Mutual forgiveness
restored the honesty and harmony which God wished these leaders
and their city to enjoy.
In a world
which often spoke of holiness as though priests, monks and
nuns had the "inside track," Francis set up the Secular Franciscan
Order, inviting men and women, single or married, like his
husband-and-wife contemporaries Blesseds Luchesio and Buonadonna,
to follow the gospel of Jesus Christ right where they were!
You did not have to be ordained or enter a monastery in order
to live out the Good News. Generous, self-sacrificing love
started what God's grace would complete. The first Secular
Franciscans refused to take up arms in warfare and made wills
to avoid family fights over an inheritance.
with a desire to share the Good News with others. He and his
followers preached the gospel in city streets rather than
wait for people to come to a monastery to hear it preached.
Francis was the first founder of a religious order to make
evangelizing non-Christians a part of its mission. In order
to lead by example, in 1219 he preached to Sultan Melek el-Kamil
in Egypt. Francis did not convert the sultan but was received
with respect and given a safe-conduct pass, enabling him to
visit the shrines in the Holy Land.
the Friars Minor have officially represented the Latin-rite
(Roman Catholic) Church at the Basilica of the Nativity (Bethlehem)
and at Holy Sepulcher Basilica (Jerusalem). The friars also
care for many other shrines, parishes, schools, orphanages
and other charitable works in the land where Jesus lived and
in nearby countries.
will not spread the Good News unless those words are backed
up by holy lives. In 1221, Francis wrote a Rule of Life for
his friars, saying that those who went among the Muslims and
other unbelievers "can live spiritually in two ways. One way
is not to engage in arguments or disputes, but to be subject
to every human creature for God's sake (1 Peter 2:13) and
to acknowledge that they are Christians. Another way is to
proclaim the Word of God when they see that it pleases the
Lord, so that they believe in the all-powerful GodFather,
and Son, and Holy Spiritthe Creator of all, in the One Who
is the Redeemer and Savior, and that they be baptized and
become Christians..." (Rule of 1221, Chapter 16).
At a time when
many Christians saw Muslims as threats to be exterminated,
Francis saw them as people created by God and invited to new
life in Jesus Christ. How different might today's Christian
presence be in the Middle East and Asia if later generations
of Christians had taken Francis' message more to heart!
Changed How We See the World
you, my Lord, with all your creatures, especially Sir Brother
Sun, who is the day and through whom you give us light," prayed
Francis in the Canticle of the Creatures, recognized by many
Christians and non-Christians as a charter for a respectful
use of the world God has entrusted to us. Pope John Paul II
proclaimed Francis of Assisi the patron of ecology in 1979
and groups such as the World Wildlife Fund have held major
meetings in Assisi, recognizing Francis' reverent use of God's
In a world
tempted to see creation as sinful and leading people away
from God, Francis by word and example affirmed that creation
was fundamentally good, no matter how people might twist it
to destructive purposes. Francis' confidence in the Church's
sacraments reflected his conviction that God has chosen to
come to us within human history and through seemingly ordinary
things like water, oil, bread and wine. Francis welcomed even
Sister Death, seeing her as the gateway to eternal life.
Great as Francis'
influence has been on Catholicism in the second millennium
since Jesus' birth, his words and example have sometimes been
diluted by believers who have preferred describing them as
"extraordinary" and "heroic" rather than as something they
could do themselves. Amazingly, saints can be praised and
neutralized in the same breath! Thus, Peter Maurin, cofounder
of the Catholic Worker movement, in one of his "Easy Essays"
wrote, "What a fine place this world would be if Roman Catholics
tried to keep up with Saint Francis of Assisi."
Influences Other Christians
do not have a monopoly on seeing Francis as a powerful example
of what the Good News can look like if only we have the courage
to live it out boldly and consistently.
and Protestant Christians regard Francis as one of their own,
sometimes making a place for him in their liturgical calendars
or placing their works of compassion like soup kitchens or
shelters for the homeless under his patronage. Each year thousands
of Christians visit in Assisi the various places associated
with Francis' life. They do not hesitate to use the Peace
Prayer of St. Francis, which he certainly did not write but
which wonderfully sums up his approach to God and to others.
are Anglican Franciscans. The Roman Catholic Society of the
Atonement began as an Episcopalian Franciscan congregation.
It promotes Christian unity and works with compassion among
Christ's least brothers and sisters. Ernest Renan, a 19th-century
thinker who defended reason and science, wrote, "One might
say that Francis of Assisi was the only perfect Christian
since Christ." Although Francis himself would certainly have
rejected that description, many Christians have reason to
agree with Renan's assessment.
response to the 1986 Prayer Day for World Peace reflects the
general esteem that the Orthodox and Protestants have for
Francis. They understandably regret that not all Catholics
today live out the virtues which made Francis a saint. Many
Christians see him as a great peacemaker and a symbol for
the ecology movement. They understand his great desire to
be nourished by the Word of God, the Scriptures.
Inspires Those of Other Faiths
As the question
from the Pakistani Muslim showed me, it isn't only Christians
who regard Francis as a holy man. Several delegations to the
Prayer Day represented Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and traditional
Christian religions. If I had not seen it for myself, I could
not have imagined the enthusiasm, respect and cheers which
welcomed non-Christian leaders as they entered Our Lady of
the Angels Basilica that October day.
of peace, ecology, religious freedom and respect for the individual
person form a strong bond between Francis and many members
of the world's great religions.
Bridges Past and Future
In his apostolic
letter On the Coming of the Third Millennium, Pope
John Paul II writes that the joy of every Jubilee "is based
upon the forgiveness of sins, the joy of conversion" (#32).
The pope goes on to identify as needing repentance the sins
"which have been detrimental to the unity willed by God for
Later the pope
writes that Catholics must repent of acquiescing "to intolerance
and even the use of violence in the service of truth....Many
factors frequently converged to create assumptions which justified
intolerance and fostered an emotional climate from which only
great spirits, truly free and filled with God, were in some
way able to break free" (#35). Francis was such a guide for
his followers of his day and can be again for us.
had the same desire as the pope has expressed for "an ecumenism
of the saints and of the martyrs" (#37). Francis cautioned
his own friars not to think that praising previous saints
would excuse their own lukewarm response to the Good News.
The only valid
reason for praising Francis of Assisi on the eve of the third
millennium is to identify him as someone who allowed God's
grace to bear fruit in his own life, as someone who became
a "living Gospel" for his contemporaries, as someone who can
help us become more authentic followers of Jesus, the Word-made-flesh,
and who can help us to recognize one another as brothers and
sisters, all created in God's image.
McCloskey, O.F.M., is a teacher and chaplain at Roger Bacon
High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. His new book, Day by
Day With Followers of Francis and Clare, will be published
in May by St. Anthony Messenger Press.