Because of an enormous crush of work finishing the documentary, I wasn’t able to put anything up for the feast of St. Francis. But today, Papa Luciani’s 98th birthday, I thought of this little piece of his, which really says it all. Enjoy. (1)
The time of St. Francis of Assisi has been defined by Daniel-Rops as “the age of the cathedrals and the crusades.” An age of splendor at first sight; but behind the facade, how many painful events and situations! Popes succeed one another too quickly: five in only 16 years (1182 98). Lucius III has to flee from Rome and Urban III and Gregory VIII cannot return there. The emperors Frederick Barbarossa, Henry VI and Frederick II carry on a constant struggle against the papacy. The hordes of Genghis Khan overflow from Asia, making all of Europe tremble. Saladin seizes Jerusalem from the Christians. Cities fight against one another: Francis himself, as a young man, takes part in the war between Assisi and Perugia. Pope Innocent III, with a little too hard of an iron hand, gives back a certain amount of peace to the Christian world, but when he launches an interdict against the king of France in order to induce him to take back the legitimate wife he has repudiated, he sees the majority of the French bishops side with the king against the Pope. In turn, even the bishops, who have unfortunately become politically powerful, are molested by the same bourgeoisie that is committed with such zeal to erecting the splendid cathedrals.
Any number of errors threaten the purity of the faith. Translations of Aristotle seasoned with the pantheistic sauce of Averroes are multiplying; Joachim da Fiore, by prophesying that the “age” of the Spirit is near, provokes the anarchical charismatic movement of the “Fraticelli;” Peter Waldo becomes the founder of the “Poor Men of Lyon,” good men when they live an exemplary poverty, but heretics when they claim that the whole of sanctity consists solely of being poor, and when they assert that everyone is a priest and a trustee of the Holy Spirit in the same way; the Albigensians are spreading very dangerous religious and social theories and have set themselves up in a separate church with their own bishops, provoking an exaggerated repression from the Catholic side.
Into this picture, with his life and his message, comes Francis. Is he a protester in a Church and a society that have gone so far wrong? Yes, but he protests against himself, not against others. While walking with Brother Leo, who was called the “lamb of God” because of his ingenuousness, and not having a Psalter, Francis, in a “creative” spirit, attempts a psalter of his own. “We will recite some alternate verses,” he says to his companion. “I will say: Oh Brother Francis, you have done such terrible things that that nothing but hell awaits you! You will answer: It is true, you deserve to go to the bottom of hell.” They begin. Brother Leo is the most obedient of brothers, he is as docile as a child, and he is ready to say the antiphon as learned, but he can’t manage it. The untruth sticks in his throat, and instead his lips pronounce: “Oh Brother Francis, God will do so much good through you that you will go to heaven.”
Saddened, Francis says: “Pay more attention, let’s start over.” And they start over again and again, but every time it is the same fiasco: the more Francis humbles himself, the more
his companion exalts him. “I cannot do otherwise, it is God who is making me speak this way,” concludes poor Brother Leo. (2)
In line with this peaceful, humble and gentle spirit, comes all the rest.
They make war and Francis says: “Peace and good.” He directs his brothers: “Whoever may come to the Friars Minor, friend or foe, thief or robber, let them receive him kindly.” (3) They hunger and thirst for power; he leaves everything for the Kingdom of God and orders that his religious family be called, and feel themselves to be, “Lesser Brothers.”
The heretics spread new writings, he, on the other hand, insists on the whole Gospel, “without a gloss.”
There is the temporal power of the Popes; he does not attack it. There are many corrupt prelates; he does not denounce their vices. On the contrary: in the bishops and priests, even the sinful ones, he sees the Son of God, (4) he calls the Roman Church “our Mother” and orders that his brothers, above all the superiors, must “promise respect and obedience to the Lord Pope and to the Roman Church.” (5)
The people are demanding an authentically Christian life. But a holy life is lived only by imitating Jesus, says Francis, and he tries to make himself into a copy of the Lord. This is the message of Francis for his own times.
But it is also valid for ours. Today too, society has the impression that it is on the brink of an abyss. Today the Church finds itself faced with the expansion of atheism, with many errors, the most representative example of which is the baptizing of the class struggle and making it into a myth with imprudent and reckless experiments, and with constant appeals to charismatic gifts that are recognized in everyone, except the Pope and the bishops, whose authority is rejected even by a bishop. (6)
Many people are asking themselves: from where is the remedy to come? St. Francis answers: “From the saints: from Christians who, after my example, try to reproduce in themselves the life of Christ, and who live in the love of God and their neighbor, in humility and the spirit of poverty.”
It sounds incredible, but Lenin himself once said: “It would have taken only ten Francis of Assisis to save Russia.” Let’s multiply the saints, and the whole world will be saved.
1 This article was originally published in Gente Veneta, October 2, 1976; Opera 7:452 54.
2 Cf. The Little Flowers of St. Francis, ch. 9. Trans.
3 First Rule of the Friars Minor, ch. 7.
4 The Testament of St. Francis.
5 First Rule, ch. 1.
6 A reference to Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, whose rebellious attitude against the Church and the teachings of Vatican II, were in the headlines when this article was published.