Francis of Assisi: A Saint for Our Age

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Like most Catholic schoolboys in the 21st century, I grew up saying the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi more than the Our Father. You know the one: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…” Oh, how I hated it. The prayer seemed to encapsulate everything noisome about liberal religion. It was moral pacifism, refusing to defend Truth against heresy and Good against sin. It was spiritual vegetarianism, subsisting on damp green stuff.

The business about preaching to animals, I thought, was just as bad. Brother Wolf is eventually—inevitably—joined by Brother Sun, and even Sister Moon. There’s a distinct note of pantheism about the good friar that made him seem more like the hero of a medieval fairy story—half-pagan and half-Christian, a kind of tonsured Beowulf—than a saint of God.

That was all wrong, of course, and I’m embarrassed to admit it. But it was perfectly in keeping with everything I’d been given to believe about St. Francis.

As I noted in a recent column, as early as the 1930s, Msgr. Ronald Knox was already poking fun at progressives who admire St. Francis yet openly scorn the Church (“what meekness, what cheerfulness, what love of animals! … Not a bit like a Roman Catholic.”). He’s the darling of lapsed, cafeteria, and Christmas-and-Easter Catholics. He’s the patron saint of middle-aged ladies who wear track suits to serve as Eucharistic Ministers and write letters to the bishop when their pastor mentions abortion in his homily. When a mob of graying SJWs in Portland went into open revolt against their new conservative priest, nobody was surprised to learn the parish was named after the Poor Man of Assisi.

 

Speaking of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, let me ask you this: were the Vatican to release a document affirming the “God Father-Mother Creator” of the “Amazon cosmovision,” what do you think the Pontiff’s name would be?

My opinion of St. Francis began to soften when I was invited to attend Mass with an extraordinary group of men called the Franciscans of Primitive Observance. I visited their friary in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in January of 2018. When I arrived, one of their number was shoveling snow—in his sandals.

The FPO are just that: priests and brothers who keep strictly to the Rule of St. Francis. Their ascetism is impressive for a pampered layman like myself: I walked a block down the street and around the corner before lighting a cigarette. What’s more impressive, perhaps, is how seriously they take their vow of poverty. They literally don’t have a cent to their name—no cash, credit, or even a bank account. One of the brothers (called the “quester”) goes door to door, begging for “food for the love of God.” That’s even more difficult than it sounds: having grown up in neighboring Haverhill, even as a kid I knew Lawrence is one of the roughest towns in New England.

It’s also one of the poorest cities, and this is what caught my attention: whenever I told somebody back home about the FPO, they were aghast. “Healthy young men begging in Lawrence?” they’d scoff. “That’s shameful.”

Those tuts and tisks no doubt surprised me more than they should have. My community then was predominantly white, middle-class, and heavily Protestant. The concept of holy poverty is as foreign to us as… well, wearing sandals in the middle of winter. But a heavily Latino city like Lawrence is full of pious abuelas—widows with two small copper coins they can almost spare.

St. Francis called himself the Jongleur de Dieu—God’s court jester—precisely because his virtue was so absurd by the standards of our own convention. But to say that he looked foolish in the eyes of the world is an understatement. His charity gave as much offense as any sinner’s meanness. St. Francis’s spirituality demands such uncommon virtue it’s offensive to common decency. Our aversion to the Franciscans’ holy poverty is one example.

Another comes from St. Bonaventure’s Legenda Sancti Francisci. Even before his conversion, St. Francis is said to have possessed an “innate and natural love of the poor of Christ.” It was his custom to give alms to every beggar who approached him. Yet Bonaventure recalls how, one day, when Francis was “engrossed by the tumult of worldly business,” he passed a beggar without paying him any heed. Coming to his senses, Francis turned around, “ran after the poor man,” and “charitably relieved his wants.”

Were we in Francis’s shoes (and if we felt any regret at all for ignoring a panhandler), we would no doubt resolve to do better next time and simply keep walking. We may even resolve to give two dollars to the next homeless person we meet instead of one. But to go back and find the man would surely be a waste of time! Besides, what difference would a few bucks make? There’s always another beggar who needs another dollar.

Imagine the scene, then: St. Francis, the son of a well-to-do merchant and a French noblewoman, chased down a wandering vagabond in a crowded market. Finding him at last, he “loaded the astonished mendicant with money,” as G.K. Chesterton rather charmingly puts it.

It’s all a bit weird. His contrition borders on scrupulosity, and we’re naturally cynical about such ostentatious displays of humility. Surely (we ask) Francis should have gone into his room and shut the door and prayed to his Father who is in secret?

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat coined the phrase “Make Catholicism Weird Again” following last year’s Met Gala. Douthat argues that this “beautiful and blasphemous spectacle” proves the Church’s efforts to “demystify” herself were counter-productive. People like the mystery. We like the lace and silk, the candles and incense. We like the medieval pomp that suggests medieval circumstance—the vast, rotating cosmologies and disciplined celestial hierarchies evoked by the haunting lilt in the chanting of in saecula saeculorum.”

I don’t disagree. On the contrary. I would only suggest there’s something equally weird and compelling we may try, too: the radical simplicity of St. Francis.

There’s a story that tells of the Poor Man taking his lunch (probably just a bit of stale bread) to sit beside a brook and have a picnic. He plopped himself beneath a shady tree, propped himself against a rock, and watched the water go babbling toward the sea. Between mouthfuls of food, he would exclaim: “What a treasure we have here, what a treasure!” There’s definitely something indispensable about the majesty and solemnity of Catholic tradition for drawing one away from the omnipresent screen and into something deeper, more human, more real. Yet there’s something particularly compelling in our day and age about a saint who shuns the artificial and takes so much delight in the ordinary beauty of Creation.

What gave me a new opinion of Franciscan spirituality was the new Slate interview with Theodore McCarrick—the former Archbishop of Washington who caused of the largest scandal in the history of the American Church. The intrepid reporter travelled to the Capuchin friary in Victoria, Kansas, where McCarrick has been living since his fall from grace. She also interviewed Fr. Christopher Poprovak, a spokesman for Capuchins’ local province. Here’s how he explained his reasoning for accepting McCarrick into the priory:

“Our mission is very much tied up with helping people to amend their life, to change their life, to repent,” he said. “Christians, even when it’s difficult, are called to show mercy.” Pope Francis had sentenced McCarrick to a “life of prayer and penance,” and a bare-bones friary in rural Kansas seemed to Popravak an appropriate place to do that. Capuchins are Franciscans, and Saint Francis, he observed, was known for embracing lepers.

That, too, is an understatement. According to Bonaventure, Francis was ashamed of how repulsed he was by the deformity of lepers. St. Francis therefore sought them out “in spite of himself” to humble himself by serving them. In one instance, a leper approached Francis, knowing of his holiness, and begged to kiss the holy friar’s feet. Bonaventure says that Francis, “who could not suffer it, kissed his diseased and loathsome mouth.” Instantly, the leper was healed.

“I know which of these two things is the most worthy of admiration,” Bonaventure remarks; “the profound humility of the kiss, or the marvelous power which wrought so stupendous a miracle.”

It’s easy to dismiss Bonaventure’s remark as a bit of pious fluff. In fact, that’s really the last thing it is. We regret the thousands of Catholics who’ve been scandalized by McCarrick’s crimes and left the Faith—as we should, of course. And yet these priests spend every day with the man, living and eating alongside him. Many of us find it hard enough to be on the same planet with him; they live in the same house. They embraced a vocation to live in a small friary in a small town on the plains of Kansas, away from the bustle and intrigue of the East Coast, for the sake of Holy Mother Church. Now they have in the midst of them the very embodiment of the corruption and decadence that’s tearing her children from her breast—not to mention the scandal he carries with him like a noxious odor. And yet their priority isn’t revenge: it’s mercy.

Here, again, the Franciscan charism is so single-mindedly good that it almost seems wicked. The Slate reporter found an online forum where residents of Victoria complained about McCarrick’s new digs. “Couldn’t they have found another place in the country that isn’t 15 feet from an elementary school?” one asked. “Like the cemetery?” wrote another. That, to us, would be justice. Men like McCarrick don’t deserve mercy.

Most saints know they’ll heal the leper’s wounds when they kiss them, and the Capuchins have no reason to believe McCarrick will ever repent of his crimes. Yet St. Francis didn’t know the leper would be cured. He kissed his wounds for the love of Jesus Christ, “whose property is always to have mercy.” And so the Capuchins of Victoria, Kansas, show mercy to Theodore McCarrick all the same.

Our Holy Mother Church needs reform, to be sure. She needs diligent bishops and laymen to stand watch for predators and their enablers—men like McCarrick and his ilk. Crisis will be on the frontlines of that battle. Yet one can’t help but think she’s best helped by men who not only remove the shrapnel in her leg, but also cauterize the wound, too, so it can begin to heal.

Another Capuchin made headlines recently: Charles Chaput, the Archbishop of Philadelphia. He turned 75 last week—the traditional age when bishops submit their letter of resignation to the Vatican. One doubts Pope Francis will be reluctant to see the owl-eyed prelate off.

Chaput has been known for decades as one of the most consistent voices for orthodoxy in the American Church. It wasn’t until last year, however, that he became the conservatives’ leading light in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops—their conscience, if not their whip. Archbishop Chaput sent shockwaves through the Church by publicly calling on the Holy Father to cancel the 2018 Synod on the Youth. Revelations of widespread complicity by America’s bishops in McCarrick’s crimes were still fresh. The Archbishop of Philadelphia insisted that “the bishops would have absolutely no credibility in addressing this topic” until all episcopal predators and their enablers were brought to justice.

Rome ignored his request, of course, and the synod proceeded on schedule. Yet, in a subtle act of protest against the Vatican, members of the USCCB elected Chaput as one of their delegates to the synod—despite the fact that, as leader of the Conference’s committee on young people, he was already an ex officio delegate. A clear majority of bishops agreed with Chaput, even if he was the only one willing to raise his voice

Last week, Chaput was again lauded by the traditional laity for warning against the chronic ambiguity of Fr. James Martin, SJ, who had recently delivered a speech at St. Joseph’s University, a Jesuit college in Philadelphia. Acknowledging the controversial priest’s work to advance the dignity of people struggling with “same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria,” he also noted “a pattern of ambiguity in his teachings” that “inspires hope that the Church’s teachings on human sexuality can be changed.”

Rather, those who struggle with sexual disorders “need support and encouragement in the virtue of chastity.  They deserve to hear—as all people do—the truth about human sexuality spoken clearly and confidently. Anything less,” he concluded, “lacks both mercy and justice.”

Fr. Martin quickly replied to the Archbishop’s rebuke, explaining that it was never his intention to challenge “official Church teaching” on sexuality. Chaput pressed him further, saying:

I’m sure Father Martin would agree that “official” Church teaching (as opposed to some alternative, imagined, unofficial system of belief and practice) is simply what the Church believes based on the Word of God and centuries of experience with the human condition.

Moreover, the point is not to “not challenge” what the Church believes about human sexuality, but to preach and teach it with confidence, joy, and zeal. Biblical truth liberates; it is never a cause for embarrassment.

Conservatives rightfully applauded Chaput for speaking up where so many other of his brother-bishops have kept quiet, terrified of reprisals from the LGBT lobby and the Vatican (Fr. Martin is a consultant to the Secretariat for Communications). Yet Chaput’s comments were beyond reproach. There’s no duplicity here: he really does want Catholics to treat gay people with the requisite amount of human dignity, and he really does want gay people to embrace the call to chastity. These are Gospel truths spoken with clarity, conviction, and charity—just as St. Francis would have it.

Lest there be any lingering doubt about the theory of St. Francis qua proto-hippie, I was thumbing through his essential writings to prepare for this essay when I came across his “Letter to Those Who Rule Over People.” In this short missive, the Poor Man admonishes mayors and magistrates to keep their final destination always in mind. So, too,

may you foster the same honor to the Lord among the people who are entrusted to your care. Every night you could announce, via messenger or some other simple sign, that your subjects might take time to offer their prayers and thanksgivings to the one, all-powerful God.

It brought to mind the Ahmari-French debate, but not only in terms of liberalism vs. illiberalism. Yes: clearly, St. Francis would be more in Ahmari’s camp; he isn’t a proponent of value-neutral public spaces. But there’s no whiff here of the political salvation sought by some illiberals—what the great Dr. Senior characterized as right-wing liberation theology. He simply asks that rulers help their subjects to improve their prayer lives and deepen their personal commitment to holiness.

The more momentum that illiberalism picks up, in the absence of any attendant religious revival, the more I wonder if it isn’t an effort to make the Great Commission less daunting by sort of “collectivizing” it. This new generation of Catholic intellectuals recognizes the desperate need of Western civilization to return to the Faith—not only spiritually, but also politically and culturally as well. And yet, where as little as two percent of Americans are true-believing, Mass-going Catholics, the task seems virtually impossible. So, perhaps we downplay the need for penance and evangelism and emphasize the need for a politics of the common good.

That’s not to detract from the common good, of course, and I’m probably as “illiberal” as the next guy. But politics plays a grossly oversized role in our culture. I should think any Catholic thinker would take it as their mission to place religion back at the center of our common life—to say,

Right: now it’s time to log off Twitter, turn off the television, and shut down your phone. For every news article you read, go and read ten chapters of the Bible. For every minute you spend thinking about Trump, spend an hour thinking about Christ. For every person you talk to about the 2020 election, talk to ten people about the good news of the Resurrection.

I know that’s apt to make you sound like a yobbo; it’s certainly not going to get you a column in The Washington Post. But sanctity isn’t measured in retweets, and the Gospel doesn’t always lend itself to spots on Fox News.

If we want to be saints—if we want to restore the Faith across our civilization—we can do no better than to begin with St. Francis’s first lesson: “that the spiritual merchant must begin with the contempt of the world, and the soldier of Christ must begin with victory over himself.”

St. Francis of Assisi, ora pro nobis.

Michael Warren Davis

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Michael Warren Davis is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine.

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