Renowned worldwide for his radical poverty and profound humility, St. Francis of Assisi is among the most famous of God’s saints. It is no wonder, then, that, like his master Jesus of Nazareth, Francis has been misunderstood and deliberately misappropriated for various causes that depart from—and often ignore—the singular cause that inspired Francis’s every move: unquenchable love for God.
Francis’s inimitable holiness has won the esteem of people across religious and geographic boundaries for eight centuries. Yet this holiness is blinding for those who cannot comprehend that someone would go to such unspeakable lengths for God. As was done to Jesus before him, different ages have made efforts to refashion Francis into someone more respectable for the non-religious elite, to abstract the virtuous acts from their religious origins. Such has been the popular fate of the Poor Man of Assisi.
Controversy over Francis and his legacy is not a modern phenomenon. Even within Francis’s own lifetime, there were conflicting interpretations over how his rule ought to be lived. Shortly after Francis died, his order divided, with a group called the Spirituals, who demanded a more rigorous living of the rule, opposed to the Conventuals, who interpreted the rule more moderately. Divisions would continue to appear over the centuries between men and women who all have called themselves Franciscans, and who all have thought they were living according to their master’s will.
The Modern epoch has sought to strip Francis of his religious zeal, just as it has deliberately ignored Jesus’ divinity in reducing Him to a “great moral teacher.” Today popular convention portrays Francis as a tree-hugging hippie devoted to the causes of nature and of peace. Take, for example, the “Prayer of St. Francis,” which was not composed by Francis, but by an anonymous French writer in the early 20th century. It never mentions God or Jesus by name, and, true to the modern spirit, it puts disproportionate emphasis on the self: “Lord, make me a channel of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me bring love.” Now set to a sappy musical melody, it is hard to imagine the firebrand Francis strumming his lyre to this one. The saint sang a different tune in his Regula Prima, 17: “Let us refer all good to the Lord God most High and Supreme; let us acknowledge that all good belongs to Him, and let us give thanks for all to Him from whom all good proceeds.”
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