St Francis of Assisi: Truth and Misconceptions

May 10, 2012

The Meeting of Sts. Dominic and Francis by Fra Angelico
In April, we announced the publication of a new book on St. Francis Assisi by Dominican historian, Fr. Augustine Thompson, OP, of the Province of the Most Holy Name of Jesus.  The book, entitled Francis of Assisi: A New Biography, is an attempt to provide a new perspective on this legendary saint based on the historical record. Recently, Our Sunday Visitor had the opportunity to interview Fr. Thompson about his book.  In that interview, published on the OSV website, Fr. Thompson discusses many of the common views of Francis that find little support in the historical record.  In discussing the book, the article lists three of the most common misconceptions that people make about Francis, according to Fr. Thompson.  The first misconception revolves around the story of his parents’ strong opposition to him.  Rather, says, Fr. Thompson, the earliest accounts of Francis’s life reveal that:

they don’t understand they have a saint on their hands, that’s the earliest description of the relationship. … By the time you get to the 1240s, his father has been turned into a totally evil person and his mother has become the secret protector, but in the earliest versions [his father is presented] as someone who is suffering and doesn’t understand his son.

The second misconception revolves around the timing of his conversion.  The common view is that this occurred at about the same time Francis renounced his fortune, removing even the clothes on his back so as not to take a anything from his family.  But, Fr. Thompson is quoted in the article as pointing to another far more important event in his life:

[St. Francis’s] encounter with lepers, not the act of stripping off his clothing before the bishop, would always be for Francis the core of his religious experience.  As near as we can tell, it happened on the outskirts of Assisi. … Wherever the leprosarium was, Francis lodged there with the residents and earned his keep caring for them. His experience with them had nothing to do with choices between wealth and poverty, knightly pride and humility or even doing service instead of conducting business. It was a dramatic personal orientation that brought forth spiritual fruit. … Francis says, ‘When I was in my sins, God took me among the lepers and he worked mercy through them and he made what was previously bitter to be sweet. I did not wait long to leave the world.’

St. Francis of Assisi
Finally, the third greatest misconception regarding St. Francis relates to the modern tendency to bestow upon Francis a modern, progressivist outlook.  The modern world tends to view him as fiercely independent and individualistic, and in such a way that runs in opposition to the authority of the hierarchical Church.  But, according to Fr. Thompson, as a devout 13th century Catholic, Francis would never have identified himself as “an ecologist, a feminist, you can go down the list.”  He would have identified himself as a faithful Catholic, obedient to the Church’s legitimate authority. This is most clearly seen, for Fr. Thompson, in his approach to the liturgy.  In his writing, Francis exhibits what a modern progressivist might term a near obsession over the need for clean altar linens, proper liturgical vessels, and correctly following rubrics.  But the proper and worthy celebration of the Holy Mass was a major part of Francis’s own understanding of a healthy and Catholic spirituality.  As Fr. Thompson is quoted in the article:

[Francis] has six letters harping on this. The usual biography of Francis just deep sixes that because today being a rubric hound and sacristy rat is not what those who like to talk spirituality think a saint should be.

Confronting these truths about St. Francis can often bring anxiety to people used to the Francis of modern myth.  As Fr. Thompson explains:

I have often been astonished at how unhappy students can be when they encounter a different Francis from the one they expect. Oddly enough, the most painful moment usually comes when they discover that St. Francis did not write the ‘Peace Prayer of St. Francis.’ … The ‘Peace Prayer’ is modern and anonymous, originally written in French, and dates to about 1912, when it was published in a minor French spiritual magazine, La Clochette. Noble as its sentiments are, Francis would not have written such a piece, focused as it is on the self, with its constant repetition of the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘me,’ the words ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’ never appearing once.

But it is important to clear away some of the modern clutter that obscures the real story of one of the Church’s greatest saints.  Only then can we understand truly what his life can teach us.  As Fr. Thompson observes:

The core of his spirituality was absolute dependence on God, and the desire to always be the lesser brother. … His willingness to follow wherever God leads him even when it’s not something he expected, that kind of spontaneous seeking to do God’s will … is a theme of his life, a beautiful theme and I think it’s true.

For more information, or to purchase the book, see the Friars’ Bookshop.

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