Prior to his current parish ministry as parochial vicar at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Triangle, Virginia, George was pastor of Sacred Heart Church in downtown Tampa, Florida.
Every year – or so it seems – very good biographies of St. Francis of Assisi are published. The ones published in the last 10 years all share some great qualities: readable and increasingly historical – introducing the “real” St. Francis of Assisi to the world. You might ask why I say the “real” St. Francis?
Did you know that statues of St. Francis are the second-most popular lawn/garden ornament sold every year – right behind pink flamingos. I suspect that most people’s image of St. Francis is like the one reinforced by Franco Zeffirelli’s film Brother Sun, Sister Moon – another in a long line of romantic interpretations of the poor man from Assisi.
Francis is source material for well-meaning folks. Especially in the 20th century, Francis was portrayed as “a free spirit, a wild religious genius, a kind of medieval hippie, misunderstood and then exploited by the ‘medieval Church.’ Or perhaps they know him as the man who spoke to animals, a nature mystic, an ecologist, a pacifist, a feminist, a ‘voice for our time.’ For others he is the little plaster man in the birdbath, the most charming and nonthreatening of Catholic saints… almost everyone has his or her own Francis.” (Francis of Assisi, Augustine Thompson OP)
In our times Francis seems to be reinvented and marketed as needed. For example, one of the popular bits of wisdom attributed to Francis is “Preach the Gospel at all times, use words if necessary.” Another quote making the rounds – “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” Both are mis-assigned to the saint from Assisi. That’s a nice way of saying, he never said it.
Comparatively speaking, we have lots of Francis’ own writings. Most are letters to the Franciscan order, but some are personal testaments. And then there are other sources: authorized and other biographies, and collections of stories, legends and, later, official compositions about Francis. There are even accounts about Francis and the Franciscans from outside the religious Order. Many of these were written or compiled within 25 to 35 years of Francis’ own death in 1226.
There are also the “sources” coming from later periods that tend to be increasingly hagiographic, offering Francis as a saint from the moment he was born. This is a far cry from the person who grew up in Assisi, struggled with his direction in life, and was uncertain about what God was asking of him – in other words, all the same issues we face in life.
The writings by and about Francis of Assisi are akin to Wisdom literature. As most friars can attest, they need to be read, re-read, and reflected upon for a lifetime. The wisdom of his life speaks to finding one’s way through a complicated world.
During a presentation on the Life of Francis to the parish elementary school’s teachers, the group immediately connected with the “early” Francis who struggled to find his place in the world and the meaning of his life. The teachers saw echoes of his struggles in middle and high-schoolers and with their own children in college and just graduated. It was a story they had never heard.
What can Francis of Assisi offer our times? A choice: we can settle for the easy, soft images of Francis with catch phrases and slogans. Or we can engage the “real” Francis whose authentic stories will challenge, inspire, unsettle, amaze, and maybe… just maybe, change your world as you begin to understand what moved Francis of Assisi to struggle but find his way to follow Jesus and then give his all to God. Deus meus et omnia.