He shone in his days as a morning star in the midst of the clouds.
~Pope Gregory IX at the canonization of St. Francis of Assisi (1228)
There lived in the town of Assisi a man whose name was Francis. . . . In him we can contemplate the excess of God’s mercy: he brought the good news of peace and salvation to all, like a true Angel of peace.” Thus Bonaventura, the official biographer of St. Francis, introduced his readers to one of the most popular and attractive figures in medieval Christianity. In his own lifetime, though, Francis did not seek glory and fame for himself—he shunned them. He wanted to be known only as il poverello, the little poor man, or fratello, little brother.
More than anything else, Francis wanted simply to be like Jesus. As he put it in the Rule of 1221, the aim of his life was “to live in obedience, in chastity and without property, following the teaching and footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Long before he received the stigmata, the marks of Jesus’s passion, in his own body, some of his contemporaries began to call him alter Christus, another Christ. That term must be used with care, however, for it cannot mean that Francis was a rival to—or, much less, a substitute for—Jesus himself. No, Francis was single-mindedly devoted to Jesus Christ, “the glorious Word of the Father,” who by the power of the Holy Spirit took on our human nature in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Francis was alter Christus in the sense that the first followers of Jesus were called christianoi—partisans of Christ, “little Christs,” those stamped by and conformed to Christ (see Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16). As the Apostle Paul could say, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1), so too Francis gathered disciples who followed him in the way of the cross.
Beyond doubt, Francis was a Jesus-saturated saint. As Thomas of Celano said: “He was always occupied with Jesus; Jesus he bore in his heart, Jesus in his mouth, Jesus in his ears, Jesus in his eyes, Jesus in his hands, Jesus in the rest of his members.” In recent times, it has become popular to present Francis as the prototypical saint of secularism. One scholar has praised a recent biographer for “not larding his narrative with a piety that might alienate a secular reader.” But such an un-larded Francis, one shorn of miracles, mystery, exorcisms, and an ascetic rigor that would make anyone wince, is not the Francis we meet in the documents of his life. The “quest for the historical Francis” has produced a manageable figure we can domesticate and manipulate.
There is a twofold danger in our study of Francis. The first is to romanticize him and his message, to see him as a worthy ideal from the chivalrous past, lovely and admirable but quite out of touch with the harsh realities of everyday life. The other danger, less kind, is to dismiss him as an utter fool. Voltaire, the prophet of the Enlightenment, reacted to Francis in this way: “A raving lunatic who goes about stark naked, talks to animals, catechizes a wolf and makes himself a snow wife.” Neither reaction comes to grips with the reality of Francis. For all of his poetic spirit and passion for life, including his love for all creatures great and small, Francis never removed himself from the drama of human life about him: bishops, popes, princes, crusaders, soldiers, Muslims, lepers, poor women, orphaned children. For him these were all persons to be cherished, with faces and names of their own.
Was Francis crazy? It is not only modern rationalists like Voltaire who have thought so. This was also the considered opinion of many people in his own day. His father, Pietro Bernadone, could not comprehend the “upside-down” mentality of his foolish son who wanted to squander what he, by hard work and business skill, had spent a lifetime accumulating. Many of those who had known Francis before his conversion—the well-dressed, carousing “master of revels”—were totally confounded by the radical change that had come over him. They could make no sense out of the playboy turned penitent. “Shouting out that he was mad and demented, they threw the mud of the streets and stones at him.”
There is a famous story that Jesus once appeared to Francis and said to him: “You are mad, Francis.” To which the saint replied: “Not so much as you are, Lord.” Francis knew that to follow Jesus deliberately and seriously was to appear foolish before the wisdom of the world. Francis challenged the structures of violence and oppression, not by force of arms or by the power of intimidation, but by exposing the shallow pretensions on which they rested. This was indeed folly, and Francis was truly a fool—for Christ’s sake. Nor was he unaware of how he must have seemed to other people. Near the end of his life he said to Cardinal Ugolino (who later became Pope Gregory IX), “The Lord told me that he wished me to be a new kind of simpleton in this world.” The record says that even the cardinal was dumbfounded and said nothing!
The little poor man of Assisi holds an enduring fascination to all those who have been touched by his life. Some of those who had known him best remembered his life and tried to summarize its effect. They compared him to the sun which shone upon a world lying torpid amid wintry cold, darkness and sterility. They said he had illuminated it with rays of truth and set it aflame with love. “Thus did he bring the world to a kind of season of Spring.”
Francis is best described as a “horizonal” person. Like St. Augustine before him and Martin Luther afterwards, he embodied an outlook from beyond the horizon of his own age. In place of the Benedictine ideal of stabilitas, he gave to his friars a new modus vivendi—mobilitas. He sent them into the changing world of the High Middle Ages, into the new cities and towns, into the universities, and into the marketplace with a message of forgiveness and transforming grace. In a muscular medieval world, he was caring, and loving, and unashamed. In a proprietary culture based on status and accumulation, he gave everything away and identified with social nobodies. In a violent age in which war and bloodshed were common realities of everyday life, he called men and women to compassion and reconciliation.
Today, the Umbrian town of Assisi where Francis was born in 1181 is the fourth most visited pilgrimage site in the Christian world—after Jerusalem, Rome, and Santiago de Compostela. Each year, more than three million persons visit the Basilica of St. Francis, a magnificent structure overlooking the beautiful Spoleto Valley below. Here, in a candle-lit crypt, throngs of pilgrims gather around the mortal remains of Francis of Assisi. Francis, like Jesus, is a sign of contradiction in our time no less than in his own. Further up the hill in Assisi stands the Basilica of St. Claire, which houses the original cross of San Damiano from which Jesus spoke to Francis commanding him to “go, repair my house, which as you see, is falling completely to ruin.” Before that cross, Francis responded with this prayer:
Most high glorious God, bring light to the darkness of my heart. Give me right faith, certain hope and perfect charity, insight and wisdom, so I can always observe your holy and true command. Amen.
Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture. His email address is email@example.com.