The following commentary was submitted by Roy Gasnick, OFM, editor of The Francis Book, 800 Years with the Saint from Assisi, who is former director of communiations for the Province.
For Franciscans who have taken for granted the common dictum that St. Francis is truly “everyone’s saint,” it comes as something of a shock to discover that the ancient eastern Church of Orthodoxy — one, holy, catholic and apostolic — not only does not believe that Francis was a saint and that no Christian should have devotion to him, but that he might actually have been beguiled by the devil.
That is the thrust of a major study, “A Comparison: Francis of Assisi and St. Seraphim of Sarov,” by Fr. George Macris, a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church, writing in Synaxis: Orthodox Christian Theology in the 20th Century and also appearing on the Web site of the Orthodox Christian Information Center (link below).
The thesis of the study states: “The Orthodox Church does not include Francis of Assisi among its saints. He was a fanatic papist, lived after the separation of the Roman Catholic Church from Orthodoxy, and practiced a romantic and emotional spirituality foreign to genuine Orthodox spiritual traditions.”
The arguments here against Francis’ sanctity center around the very characteristics that make Francis so enduringly distinctive and attractive to us and to the rest of the world: his humanity, his personalism, his individualism, his common touch, his openness to the world and to its peoples, his Christo-centrism, and his identification with the passion and identity of Christ.
A major part of the study denigrates Francis’ stigmata. According to the author, there has never been a stigmatic in Orthodox history but there have been plenty of mystical saints such as St. Seraphim, who were like Francis but far superior to him. Those Orthodox saints were saints of the spirit, not saints of the body. Francis, on the other hand, prayed to feel in his own body the sufferings of Christ. This, in Orthodox spirituality, is presumption and pride. His stigmata, simply stated they say, came from intense auto-suggestion.
“As a matter of fact, all of the things Francis experienced in the process of his stigmatization are the very beguilements (temptations from the devil) the church fathers repeatedly warned against,” Macris notes.
Such a harsh stance against Francis stands in bold contrast to that of Protestant denominations. In the early 1980s, when HNP’s Communications Office led the successful drive to have the U.S. Postal Service issue a commemorative stamp in honor of the eighth centenary of St. Francis’ birth in 1982, the presidents or leaders of the10 major mainline Protestant denominations in the U.S. had no hesitancy in endorsing the petition. Their attitude seemed to be, “Who can argue against St. Francis?”
This Orthodox stance, it would seem, would also affect Pope Benedict XVI’s major thrust toward reuniting Orthodoxy with Catholicism. Francis represents a whole new tradition of spirituality, developed after the split between the Western and Eastern Christian churches in 1054. It takes into consideration the human body and emotions as means to leading to mental and contemplative prayer, including such avenues of prayer as the sacred heart, the stations of the cross, and divine mercy.
This study can be found on the Internet. Enter “St Francis of Assisi and the Orthodox Church” in Google. Click on the article, “A Comparison: Francis of Assisi and St. Seraphim of Sarov.”
— Fr. Roy, a resident and staff member of St. Anthony Friary in St. Petersburg, Fla., is the founder of the Province’s Communications Office.