Of all the post-biblical saints recognised in Western Christianity, Francis of Assisi is certainly the best known and most widely admired. His love of the created world makes him an acceptable pattern for the education of children, while his persistent embracing of poverty as a way of life brings a salutary challenge to our constant striving after affluence. One example of the current popularity enjoyed by Francis in our society is a recent sensitive - though highly romanticised - portrayal of the life of Francis. It was produced for television in Italy and screened on SBS television last year. Another example of Francis's popularity is the proclamation in 1992 by Pope John Paul II of Francis as the patron saint of ecology. Francis continues to exercise his charm and challenge even in our society, which seems so remote from his. He also serves to encourage unity across the divisions of religion. As Julien Green wrote in 1985: “He was and still remains the man who transcends our sad theological barriers.” (272)
Francis was born in the town of Assisi in the province of Umbria, central Italy, in 1181 or early 1182. In the absence of his father, Pietro di Bernardone, who was on a business trip probably in France, the child was baptised Giovanni (John). However, on his return, the father insisted that the child be called Francesco, at that time a most unusual Christian name. It reflected the father's liking for things French, especially his love of the French language, which he successfully communicated to his son. So it was that very early in life Francesco was set apart from others of his contemporaries by an unusual name that forged a link across national boundaries. This was to set a pattern for his later life.
The Bernardone household was wealthy, the family fortune coming from trade in fabrics imported from France and elsewhere. In consequence Francis enjoyed a childhood free of financial cares. Encouraged by his father, he became accustomed to dress with studied elegance. This was at a time - the end of the twelfth century - when war and natural catastrophe had brought poverty to about third of the population in his region. At school Francis was not particularly successful at his studies, though he was very popular among his peers.
Francis grew up at a time of political unrest and sporadic warfare. As with many of his generation, this turbulent atmosphere inspired in Francis a desire to distinguish himself militarily and to acquire glory in this violent, worldly way. His first opportunity came with a successful attack that the authorities in Assisi launched against the German garrison that occupied territory above the town. The second opportunity was in late 1202, when Assisi found itself at war with the neighbouring town of Perugia. This was a complete disaster for Assisi. Their forces were completely routed and Francis, along with a number of Assisi knights, was taken prisoner. After a year in a Perugian gaol and suffering from tuberculosis, Francis, now 22 years old, was ransomed by his father. Though chastened by his experience as a prisoner in difficult conditions, Francis continued his extravagant lifestyle in Assisi for several years. He even acquired a new suit of armour with the short-lived intention of becoming a Crusader.
At the age of 25, however, a change manifested itself in Francis's life. He underwent a radical conversion experience, prompted not only by the poverty and misery that he saw around him, but also by a reaction against the luxury and corruption that he saw in high places, including in the church at Rome. He was also doubtless influenced by a number of widespread popular movements which had as their catchcry to live more in conformity with the way of life of Jesus. One of the key events in Francis's life was a vision he had in the ruined church of San Damiano near Assisi. He heard the crucifix say “My church is in ruins; Francis, repair my house”. Though these words were later applied to the wider church, Francis at first took them quite literally and began the task of rebuilding the church of San Damiano. It was at this stage that Francis decided to espouse poverty. This was a decision that received dramatic expression when in public he divested himself of his fine clothes and gave them to his father, as a sign of his break with the past.
During the twenty or so years between his conversion and his death, Francis acquired an increasing number of followers. He visited Pope Innocent III in Rome and in 1223 had a Rule officially approved for the movement constituted by his Fratelli (Brothers). The Brothers travelled to several European countries with their simple message of “Pax et bonum” (Peace and goodness). Francis himself travelled to Spain and Dalmatia, across the Adriatic. Moreover, in an effort to convert the Muslim world, he even travelled to Syria and Egypt and had conversations with the Sultan Saladin. Dogged by ill-health throughout his life, Francis succumbed at the age of 46. Just two years later, in 1228, he was canonised.
Francis strove to emulate Jesus in action, and he wrote very little in his lifetime. He was neither theologian nor writer. The principal document we have from his hand is the famous Canticle of the Sun, a version of which we frequently sing in our churches today: “All creatures of our God and King; Lift up your voice and with us sing.” However, there was significant writing about Francis in the years following his death. Two biographies were written by Tommaso da Celano, and one of the later leaders of the Franciscans, Bonaventure, also wrote about the founder of his Order. These are two of the principal sources we have for our knowledge of the saint. Since that time, of course, much has been written about Francis and his followers.
The continuing popularity of Francis of Assisi is an intriguing phenomenon. Why should Francis be so popular in an age so different from the one in which he lived? Let me suggest two reasons for this strong contemporary interest in the medieval saint.
First, Francis helps to put us in touch with something valuable that we sense we have lost in contemporary society. Francis's love of creation and his extreme respect for it are values that have largely been submerged in the acquisitive, exploitative society that we have created. For a considerable period in the Western world we have seen the natural world as a source to be exploited rather than as an expression of God's love to be cherished and used wisely. Now that we are increasingly aware of the fragility of the web of life of which we are part, we are beginning to call into question the attitudes by which we have been living. Francis provides a focus for this burgeoning change in attitude and it is probably this fact that helps account for the current interest in him.
Francis's celebrated “sermon to the birds” provides us with a fine example of the contrast between the attitude of Francis towards an aspect of creation and our own. The incident that led to the story of the sermon to the birds is believed to have taken place near the town of Bevagna near Spoleto. A large number of birds appeared to be awaiting Francis in a meadow on the outskirts of the town. As he approached, they did not fly away but remained where they were, silently listening to what he had to say to them. Francis congratulated them on the beauty of their feathers and on the freedom of flight that their wings provided. He then pointed out that God loved them dearly, since their needs were provided for day by day. As he walked among them they did not move since they sensed from him no danger, only respect for them as creatures of God.
This charming story, frequently portrayed in art over the centuries, no doubt has its fanciful accretions. However, it is particularly salutary in illuminating the differences in attitudes towards creation that there are between Francis and our society. While Francis found much to admire and wonder at in the birds, we often treat birds with scant respect. There are many examples of this enshrined in our everyday language. When we want to insult someone, we may be tempted to call them a “bird brain”; something that is trivial or worthless is designated as being “for the birds”; and when we express disbelief about something we say “tell that to the birds”. Although we do admire birds from time to time, our traditional daily language betrays deep-seated values that are at odds with those of Francis. Because we feel this difference, and because we recognise the nobility of Francis's ideal of harmony with nature, we are attracted to the story.
Lost harmony with the rest of creation is also a feature of another well-known story of St Francis: the wolf of Gubbio. The inhabitants of this Italian town were being terrorised by a savage wolf that hunted in the region. Francis, however, approached the animal without fear, admonishing it for its past misdeeds and instructing it to mend its ways in the future. The story has it that the wolf listened to Francis's words, and followed Francis's instructions to desist from his savage habits. Here again we have a fanciful element in the story. However, central to it is the ideal of harmony with the created world, a harmony that explains the attraction that the story still has for us.
It is worth noting that this tradition of a restored harmony with nature attributed to St Francis reflects a similar tradition that is to be found in the Bible. Prior to the fall from grace in the Garden of Eden there is no mention of enmity between humankind and the rest of the created world. Indeed, in numerous paintings of the Garden of Eden, animals and humans are depicted as being in harmony with one another. Enmity arises only after God's commands have been disobeyed and sin enters the world. Harmony is, moreover, a feature of the vision that we find in Isaiah 11, as the most threatening of creatures are reconciled to humankind. In his preaching of harmony with nature, it is clear that Francis is continuing a distinctive biblical tradition.
There is a second reason for the perceived significance and the popularity of Francis in our day. It is his ability to bring together in his person several strands of the Christian life which are often separated and even at times are seen to be in conflict, or at least in contention. Through his extremely simple way of life, which frequently appears utterly naïve, Francis succeeds in combining reverence for creation with a deep love of his fellow humans, expressed through profound compassion. He literally embraced the lepers of his day in their misery, seeing in them an object of care. And his followers had service of those in need as one of their fundamental principles.
In our day, loving the natural world and devoting one's energies to human well-being are at times opposed and treated as conflicting priorities. Isn't there enough human need to address without worrying about animals or trees? Not so for Francis, whose ideal of harmony among all creatures allowed him to see compassion for his fellow humans as simply the other side of the principle of reverence for creation. For him there was no contradiction and no conflict in priorities: respect for the environment was as much a part of the Christian life as helping one's neighbour. Indeed, as we see in the Canticle of the Sun, he treated aspects of creation as his neighbours and even members of his family. This is a message that we need to relearn in our day, when we still take pride in subjecting the natural order to our whims.
A third strand of the Christian life that Francis succeeds in expressing through his simple way of life that actively embraced poverty is the need to spread the message of God's love as widely as possible. A belief in God's unconditional love for the whole world was the foundation of Francis's faith. It was this foundation that he sought to express and communicate in all his dealings in society and in nature. This is evangelism at its most profound, simply expressed and lived out from day to day in one's life in the world.
And so we have in Francis an ideal combination of reverence for creation, love and compassion for his fellows, and a fervent desire to spread the message of God's love to everyone and everything that he encountered. In our sophisticated and complex society we tend to compartmentalise and hence separate the various aspects of our existence and even of our faith. We seek to be “scientific”, in the name of efficiency dividing up the different facets of our lives into what we believe to be manageable areas for our attention. Perhaps that attitude is difficult for us to avoid in the complications of our way of living. But, in our attempts to live a Christian life, we do well to yield at times to the attraction of Francis's simple message. As integral aspects of our Christian evangelism, we need to show appropriate awe and respect for the world which God has created, at the same time as we exercise care for our fellow human beings. Francis teaches us that evangelism, compassion for our fellows, and respect for creation are all appropriate and interconnected responses to God's love for the web of life in which we find ourselves. That, I believe is one of the principal messages that Francis of Assisi has for the twenty-first century.