Saint Francis of Assisi, one of our most beloved saints, is perhaps best known for his appreciation of nature and animals. He should however, be recognized even more for his love of Jesus in the Eucharist, as that was one of the most important aspects of his spirituality and a major theme of his writings.
Because of Saint Francis’ devotion to the Eucharist, he wanted churches to be clean, in good repair, and beautiful to honor Jesus. After his conversion, he donated money and sacred vessels to poor churches in honor of Jesus’ Presence there. He spent much of his time in prayer in the Church of San Damiano, and one of his early works of charity was to repair churches. Although he greatly valued poverty and did not spend money on himself, he wanted the best, most beautiful sacred vessels to be used in churches. He wrote in his Testament, “Above everything else, I want this most Holy Sacrament to be honored and venerated and reserved in places which are richly ornamented.”
Catholics may assume there was great reverence toward Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament in the Middle Ages, but there were problems then as well. In his “Letter to All Clerics,” Saint Francis wrote that priests “should realize that the chalices, corporals, and altar linens where the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ are offered in Sacrifice should be completely suitable…” He spoke of the scandal of priests who “reserve the Blessed Sacrament in unsuitable places or carry It about irreverently, or receive It unworthily, or give It to all-comers without distinction…. Surely we cannot be left unmoved by loving sorrow for all this…” In Saint Francis’ “Letter to All Superiors of the Friars Minor,” he entreated them to ask the clergy “to have the greatest reverence for the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Saint Francis had great respect for priests because they celebrate the Sacrifice of the Mass, and give people Holy Communion. He encouraged his brother friars and lay followers to honor priests, and not to judge them, but leave their judgment to God. He tried to encourage priests to be faithful and holy, and addressed them directly in two of his letters. In his “Letter to a General Chapter, “he told the priests of the Franciscan Order, “Remember your dignity, then, my friar-priests, you should make and keep yourselves holy, because God is holy (Lev. 11:44). In this mystery God has honored you above all other human beings, and so you must love, revere, and honor him more than all others.”
Saint Francis was not a priest himself, but was ordained as a deacon. He tried to attend Mass at least once a day, whenever possible, and his biographer, Thomas of Celano, wrote that Saint Francis received Holy Communion frequently, and “he did so with such devotion that he made others also devout.” Saint Bonaventure wrote in his biography of Saint Francis, “He burned with love for the Sacrament of our Lord’s Body with all his heart, and was lost in wonder at the thought of such condescending love, such loving condescension.”