In the life of St Francis of Assisi, arguably the world’s best loved saint, there are so many interesting and rich facets which reveal the spirit of the man. Francis’ joy gushes forth impetuously from the depths of his heart and reaches up to perfect joy, his love knows no limits and embraces the entire world, and his peace touches even the most troubled soul, if only we will dare to approach his spirit, to contemplate his life, and to submit to his humility.
The last hundred or so years have seen renewed interest in this saint and a new wave of Franciscan literature exploring the details of his life, the depths of his spirit, and the meaning of his mission. There has even been intense and ongoing debate about the exact nature of St Francis’ intention in founding a religious order.
What exactly did St Francis intend when he founded the movement now known as the Franciscan Order? This question is not so easy to answer as it may seem, and this is evidenced by the history of the Franciscan Order and by modern research. It is a difficult question especially if you consider the great conflict which erupted in Francis’ later years between himself and certain of his friars who wanted to change his Rule of life (and its consequences throughout the centuries). Such conflict lasted for more than two years and caused Francis indescribable pain and anguish. This facet of St Francis’ life cannot be omitted in any serious study of his life and mission.
In order to appreciate the spirit of Saint Francis, to begin to understand his true depth, it is necessary to consider Francis’ life as an integral whole. Who really was this man who moved the earth so profoundly and who continues to move the lives of people more than 800 years later?
We have to look beyond popular images of piety to discover the real St Francis. For here was a man who humbled himself lower than a worm of the earth and yet soared higher than an eagle in the realms of the spirit. One needs to see how the variety of events in Francis’ life refer to one another and shed light on one another. Perhaps then we might discover what was Francis’ true spirit that drove him to the summit of his ‘Calvary’ where he became known as the ‘Second Christ’.
St Francis of Assisi was not educated in the wisdom of the world, but he was initiated into the Divine wisdom. He was not merely a pious lover of creatures. And he was more than an ordinary saint. Francis embraced the poorest of all poverty and yet he enriched the world with the richest of all graces.
Shortly after his conversion, Francis obtained verbal approval from the Pope for his mission when he had only a dozen followers. A few years later he had already acquired several thousand followers.
He embraced an apostolic form of life completely conformed to the Gospel, embraced penance, poverty and humility to perfection, sent missionary friars into nearly all the known parts of the world, performed miracles, was sometimes seen raised above the ground in prayerful ecstasy, was able to move and inspire even the hardest of hearts, effectively renewed the face of the earth, and after all this he was miraculously marked with the wounds of Christ, the Stigmata, even as his soul was supereminently suffused with the passionate love of Christ.
The significance of such Stigmata can hardly be overestimated. Francis was completely and utterly transformed into the image and likeness of Christ. It is no wonder that some early records refer to him as the ‘Second Christ’.
On another interpretation, and this, I believe, is compatible with various principles given in an outstanding biography of St Francis by Johannes Jorgensen, the Stigmata represents the fulfilment of Francis’ lifelong journey to embody the Form of the Gospel in the life of the Friars Minor. When Francis had made tremendous efforts to manifest the Form of the Gospel, both in his own example and in the Rule of the Order, and when the opposition of certain of his own friars had proven very extreme, Francis finally gave in to their wishes and excused himself before the Lord, resolving to fulfil in his own person what was lacking in the Order he had founded. Such a resolve lead him ultimately to the experience of the Stigmata. What Francis was not allowed to write in the Rule, Christ Himself inscribed in the body and soul of Francis. The Stigmata represents Christ’s fulfilment of Francis’ wish to embody the Form of the Gospel, which in Francis has become definitive and irreversible, and now opens up new and hitherto unknown possibilities in Francis’ ongoing mission.
St Bonaventure, the seventh leader of the Franciscan Order, after having a mystical experience on Mount La Verna (the site of St Francis’ stigmatisation), took this even further. As Joseph Ratzinger reminds us in “The Theology of History in St Bonaventure”, the Stigmata of St Francis reveals him as the angel in the Book of Revelation who ascends ‘from the rising of the sun’ and carries ‘the seal of the living God’ and has power to seal the ‘servants of God in their foreheads’ (Revelation 7:2). St Bonaventure and Ratzinger both contend that St Francis will in the future bring about a new Order of Franciscans who will emulate the original perfection that Francis manifested and will usher in an era of Peace in the world, in preparation for the final coming of Christ.
More coming soon…