We sometimes think of St. Francis, who is arguably one of the best known and most beloved saints, as a solitary radical—wandering out in the woods to preach to the birds or crossing enemy lines in the midst of the crusade. We think of his encounters with God, when he was touched most deeply in his heart, as profoundly private moments. To be sure, this might be the case with his reception of the stigmata or when he heard the voice on the cross.
But there was another side to the saint.
It was November 1215 and the Fourth Lateran Council was underway. In his opening remarks, Pope Innocent III recalled Ezekiel 9, where the prophet envisions a linen-clad man who went throughout Jerusalem, marking the foreheads of those who lamented the sins of their city. The letter was a Tau, which is reportedly cross-shaped. This speech had a profound impact on St. Francis, according to historian Warren Carroll:
St. Francis was moved to his soul by these words of the Vicar of Christ. For the rest of his life he made the letter Tau the emblem of his order, using it as a signature, placing it upon his door and his writings.
One thing that marks saints like St. Francis apart from the modern notion of the individual hero is that they achieved their greatness in the context of a community, in submission to and deference to the historic authority of the Church.
This is completely foreign to the modern mindset, which views the freedom of the individual and the authority of an institution as having some kind of a zero sum relationship: as one increases, the other must decrease. You can only truly be yourself—you can only be authentic—by breaking free from the shackles of social norms, so the thinking goes. This is a deep-seated idea that constantly resurfaces throughout modern thought, from romanticism to transcendentalism to existentialism. And truth be told, it is one that ultimately has its roots in the Reformation, and its spurious notion that the individual is his own best judge of what Scripture has to say.
St. Francis puts the lie to all this—and shows us how far from suffocating the individual, Church authority can be a source of inspiration. In other words, it is in the community—in the Church— that a person is able to be fully himself.