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Francis: Saint for a New Millennium

[ Feature 1 Photo]
Photo by Everett Studios, White Plains, NY

This bust of St Francis by Anneta Duveen, S.F.O., commissioned by Franciscans International, was installed at the United Nations' University for Peace in Costa Rica on December 10--the 50th anniversary of the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


With the new millennium drawing near, governments and business leaders worry about computer crashes and software conversions. Pope John Paul II's concern is that we all experience a spiritual conversion. What better guide for such a conversion than St. Francis of Assisi?

By Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.

His Hometown Is Marked by Peace

He Changed Our Image of God

He Changed How We See Ourselves

He Changed How We See the World

He Influences Other Christians

He Inspires Those of Other Faiths

He Bridges Past and Future

FOR 800 YEARS ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI HAS BEEN A LIVING SYMBOL of God's generous, self-sacrificing love for the human family, of God's desire that all people recognize themselves as members of that same family and therefore live in the peace God intended for them.

Of all the saints who lived in the second millennium since Christ's birth, Francis (1182-1226) may have been the most influential in both the Christian and non-Christian worlds. In 1993, the editorial staff of Time magazine ranked him first among the 10 greatest people of the second millennium.

He certainly points the way for all Christians in the third millennium, identifying the gospel-based values and actions needed if the Good News of Jesus Christ is to have its full impact.

Pope John Paul II carefully selected Assisi as the site for a bold and historic peace initiative in which I was privileged to participate.

His Hometown Is Marked by Peace

"Is it all right if I go in?" a Muslim from Pakistan asked me the day after the October 1986 Prayer Day for World Peace. That day had brought to Assisi 235 leaders of 64 official Christian and non-Christian delegations. I joined thousands of others in the day, which began at Our Lady of the Angels Basilica on the plain below Assisi.

The next day I was wearing my Franciscan habit, standing outside that basilica when this Pakistani man told me that he had been so moved by the previous day's events that he wanted to pray in that church before returning home. On the day before, he had certainly been welcome at the Portiuncula, one of three small chapels which Francis rebuilt.

Perhaps the Pakistani man belonged to one of several Muslim delegations which had participated in the Prayer Day. Yet it was not obvious to him that he would be welcome another day. After I assured him that he was most welcome, he entered and I went back to the worldwide headquarters of the Order of Friars Minor, anxious to write the Order's international newsletter. I was eager to share with its readers some of what participants and observers had experienced on that historic, grace-filled day.

Would so many religious leaders have come if the pope had hosted that day at the Vatican? Almost certainly not; Assisi represented neutral yet ideal holy ground for this day of prayer and fasting. At the opening prayer service that day, Pope John Paul II said: "I have chosen this town of Assisi as the place for our Day of Prayer for Peace because of the particular significance of the holy man venerated here—St. Francis—known and revered by so many throughout the world as a symbol of peace, reconciliation and brotherhood. Inspired by his example, his meekness and humility, let us dispose our hearts for prayer in true internal silence."

In a very class-conscious society, Francis of Assisi and his friend St. Clare (1194-1253) attracted followers from all levels of society and from all over Europe. Both saints have attracted and continue to attract people across numerous presumed dividing lines of religion, race, nation, social status and gender.

At the end of the Assisi Prayer Day, Pope John Paul II described the permanent lesson of Assisi as "an ideal composed of meekness, humility, a deep sense of God and a commitment to serve all. St. Francis was a man of peace. We recall that he abandoned the military career he had followed for a while in his youth, and discovered the value of poverty, the value of a simple and austere life, in imitation of Jesus Christ whom he intended to serve. St. Clare was a woman, par excellence, of prayer. Her union with God in prayer sustained Francis and his followers, as it sustains us today. Francis and Clare are examples of peace: with God, with oneself, with all men and women in the world. May this holy man and this holy woman inspire all people today to have the same strength of character and love of God and neighbor to continue on the path we must walk together."

When Christians have followed Francis' example, they have given living witness to Jesus' life, death and resurrection. When they have failed to heed that example, they have become countersigns or witnesses against that same Good News.

During the Assisi Day of Prayer for World Peace, delegations from the 11 major religions represented there held their own prayer services. At the Christian service in San Rufino Cathedral, Pope John Paul II said: "Our prayer here in Assisi should include repentance for our failures as Christians to carry out the mission of peace and reconciliation we have received from Christ and which we have not yet fully accomplished....Prayer for peace must be followed by appropriate action for peace. It must make our minds more keenly aware, for instance, of those issues of justice which are inseparable from the achievement of peace and which lay claim to our active involvement. It must make us willing to think and act with the humility and love that fosters peace."

Who better than Francis of Assisi can help us identify the values and actions on which true peace can be built?

He Changed Our Image of God

Francis of Assisi has influenced the way many Catholics think about God and respond to God, the way they see themselves and respond to others, the way they see the world which God has created and entrusted to the human family.

In Francis' day many people had images of God the Father as judge and punisher of sin. Without denying those images, Francis lived out other biblical images, inviting people to think of God the Father as a generous and loving creator, to see God the Son as living proof of God's love and closeness to the human family, to appreciate God the Spirit as the One who makes us holy, preparing us for our eternal home.

At a time when many Catholics more readily thought of Jesus as divine rather than human, Francis promoted two devotions: the Christmas crib and Christ's death on the cross, powerfully symbolized in the Stations of the Cross, which Francis' followers popularized after his death.

When Francis put together a live Christmas crib at Greccio in 1224, he had only a cave and an empty manger, plus a donkey and an ox. In later years people added figures to represent Jesus, Mary and Joseph, angels, Magi, shepherds, sheep, camels and so on. Unlike their North American counterparts, Italian Christmas cribs today frequently represent whole villages: bakers, people carrying water or cutting wood, fishermen, knife sharpeners, children at play and numerous other figures emphasizing that Jesus has entered into ordinary life, becoming one of us!

Prior to Francis, Western European religious art often reflected the Byzantine artistic style, portraying the crucified Jesus in triumph with very discreet wounds and hardly a drop of blood on him. Christ looks straight into the viewer's eyes as if to ask, "And how are you going to respond?" After Francis, Western art began to portray Jesus as slumped on the cross, looking down, more bloody, a much more vivid reminder of his sufferings for our sins.

Three years before Francis was born, the Crusaders had suffered a crushing defeat near the Sea of Galilee, losing most of the Holy Land that they had conquered in the previous 80 years. Visiting the places connected to the life of Jesus was becoming more and more difficult. The Stations of the Cross devotion brought the Holy Land, so to speak, to Catholics who had little hope of praying in Bethlehem, Nazareth or Jerusalem.

In an age when a person could gain a plenary indulgence by going on a Crusade or visiting the Shrine of St. James at Compostela in Spain, St. Peter's Basilica in Rome or the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, Francis made the bold request that people coming to the tiny chapel of Our Lady of the Angels (the Portiuncula) outside Assisi should be able to gain the same indulgence if they fulfilled the usual conditions (Confession, holy Communion and prayers for the pope).

Although Francis wanted the indulgence for every day of the year, Pope Honorius III restricted it to the anniversary of the chapel's dedication (August 2). Every year on the Feast of the Pardon of Assisi, thousands of people from Italy and around the world still come to that little chapel to seek God's forgiveness and to be reminded of their need to extend that forgiveness to others.

He Changed How We See Ourselves

Francis has influenced the way Catholics see themselves and respond to others. He emphasized the virtue of humility, being honest about who we are before God and in relation to one another. The dying Francis succeeded in reconciling the bishop and mayor of Assisi, who had been feuding over something which seemed terribly important when the feud began. Mutual forgiveness restored the honesty and harmony which God wished these leaders and their city to enjoy.

In a world which often spoke of holiness as though priests, monks and nuns had the "inside track," Francis set up the Secular Franciscan Order, inviting men and women, single or married, like his husband-and-wife contemporaries Blesseds Luchesio and Buonadonna, to follow the gospel of Jesus Christ right where they were! You did not have to be ordained or enter a monastery in order to live out the Good News. Generous, self-sacrificing love started what God's grace would complete. The first Secular Franciscans refused to take up arms in warfare and made wills to avoid family fights over an inheritance.

Francis burned with a desire to share the Good News with others. He and his followers preached the gospel in city streets rather than wait for people to come to a monastery to hear it preached. Francis was the first founder of a religious order to make evangelizing non-Christians a part of its mission. In order to lead by example, in 1219 he preached to Sultan Melek el-Kamil in Egypt. Francis did not convert the sultan but was received with respect and given a safe-conduct pass, enabling him to visit the shrines in the Holy Land.

Since 1342, the Friars Minor have officially represented the Latin-rite (Roman Catholic) Church at the Basilica of the Nativity (Bethlehem) and at Holy Sepulcher Basilica (Jerusalem). The friars also care for many other shrines, parishes, schools, orphanages and other charitable works in the land where Jesus lived and in nearby countries.

Words alone will not spread the Good News unless those words are backed up by holy lives. In 1221, Francis wrote a Rule of Life for his friars, saying that those who went among the Muslims and other unbelievers "can live spiritually in two ways. One way is not to engage in arguments or disputes, but to be subject to every human creature for God's sake (1 Peter 2:13) and to acknowledge that they are Christians. Another way is to proclaim the Word of God when they see that it pleases the Lord, so that they believe in the all-powerful God—Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit—the Creator of all, in the One Who is the Redeemer and Savior, and that they be baptized and become Christians..." (Rule of 1221, Chapter 16).

At a time when many Christians saw Muslims as threats to be exterminated, Francis saw them as people created by God and invited to new life in Jesus Christ. How different might today's Christian presence be in the Middle East and Asia if later generations of Christians had taken Francis' message more to heart!

He Changed How We See the World

"Praised be you, my Lord, with all your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun, who is the day and through whom you give us light," prayed Francis in the Canticle of the Creatures, recognized by many Christians and non-Christians as a charter for a respectful use of the world God has entrusted to us. Pope John Paul II proclaimed Francis of Assisi the patron of ecology in 1979 and groups such as the World Wildlife Fund have held major meetings in Assisi, recognizing Francis' reverent use of God's creation.

In a world tempted to see creation as sinful and leading people away from God, Francis by word and example affirmed that creation was fundamentally good, no matter how people might twist it to destructive purposes. Francis' confidence in the Church's sacraments reflected his conviction that God has chosen to come to us within human history and through seemingly ordinary things like water, oil, bread and wine. Francis welcomed even Sister Death, seeing her as the gateway to eternal life.

Great as Francis' influence has been on Catholicism in the second millennium since Jesus' birth, his words and example have sometimes been diluted by believers who have preferred describing them as "extraordinary" and "heroic" rather than as something they could do themselves. Amazingly, saints can be praised and neutralized in the same breath! Thus, Peter Maurin, cofounder of the Catholic Worker movement, in one of his "Easy Essays" wrote, "What a fine place this world would be if Roman Catholics tried to keep up with Saint Francis of Assisi."

He Influences Other Christians

Roman Catholics do not have a monopoly on seeing Francis as a powerful example of what the Good News can look like if only we have the courage to live it out boldly and consistently.

Many Orthodox and Protestant Christians regard Francis as one of their own, sometimes making a place for him in their liturgical calendars or placing their works of compassion like soup kitchens or shelters for the homeless under his patronage. Each year thousands of Christians visit in Assisi the various places associated with Francis' life. They do not hesitate to use the Peace Prayer of St. Francis, which he certainly did not write but which wonderfully sums up his approach to God and to others.

Today there are Anglican Franciscans. The Roman Catholic Society of the Atonement began as an Episcopalian Franciscan congregation. It promotes Christian unity and works with compassion among Christ's least brothers and sisters. Ernest Renan, a 19th-century thinker who defended reason and science, wrote, "One might say that Francis of Assisi was the only perfect Christian since Christ." Although Francis himself would certainly have rejected that description, many Christians have reason to agree with Renan's assessment.

The overwhelming response to the 1986 Prayer Day for World Peace reflects the general esteem that the Orthodox and Protestants have for Francis. They understandably regret that not all Catholics today live out the virtues which made Francis a saint. Many Christians see him as a great peacemaker and a symbol for the ecology movement. They understand his great desire to be nourished by the Word of God, the Scriptures.

He Inspires Those of Other Faiths

As the question from the Pakistani Muslim showed me, it isn't only Christians who regard Francis as a holy man. Several delegations to the Prayer Day represented Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and traditional Christian religions. If I had not seen it for myself, I could not have imagined the enthusiasm, respect and cheers which welcomed non-Christian leaders as they entered Our Lady of the Angels Basilica that October day.

The issues of peace, ecology, religious freedom and respect for the individual person form a strong bond between Francis and many members of the world's great religions.

He Bridges Past and Future

In his apostolic letter On the Coming of the Third Millennium, Pope John Paul II writes that the joy of every Jubilee "is based upon the forgiveness of sins, the joy of conversion" (#32). The pope goes on to identify as needing repentance the sins "which have been detrimental to the unity willed by God for his People."

Later the pope writes that Catholics must repent of acquiescing "to intolerance and even the use of violence in the service of truth....Many factors frequently converged to create assumptions which justified intolerance and fostered an emotional climate from which only great spirits, truly free and filled with God, were in some way able to break free" (#35). Francis was such a guide for his followers of his day and can be again for us.

He clearly had the same desire as the pope has expressed for "an ecumenism of the saints and of the martyrs" (#37). Francis cautioned his own friars not to think that praising previous saints would excuse their own lukewarm response to the Good News.

The only valid reason for praising Francis of Assisi on the eve of the third millennium is to identify him as someone who allowed God's grace to bear fruit in his own life, as someone who became a "living Gospel" for his contemporaries, as someone who can help us become more authentic followers of Jesus, the Word-made-flesh, and who can help us to recognize one another as brothers and sisters, all created in God's image.

Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M., is a teacher and chaplain at Roger Bacon High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. His new book, Day by Day With Followers of Francis and Clare, will be published in May by St. Anthony Messenger Press.



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