The Reform of St. Francis

St. Francis of Assisi is often described as a reformer in the Church; however, he did not seek to change the Church’s institutions or teachings, but instead to reform himself. By his preaching and example, St. Francis showed people how to faithfully follow Jesus, which brought about many conversions.

St. Francis’ story is familiar to most Catholics. He was the son of a wealthy merchant, and as a young man spent much of his time going to parties with his friends. While serving in the military, he was imprisoned by the opposing army for over a year. When he returned home, he was in poor health for a long time. After he recovered, he was going to return to the military, but had a dream in which he heard God ask him, “Why are you abandoning the Lord for a servant and the rich God for a poor man?” and was told to return to his town. He went back home to dedicate himself to prayer, penance, and giving food, money, and clothing to the poor. He no longer went to parties. He regarded a meeting with a leper one day as an important part of his conversion. When he saw a leper on the road, he overcame his initial fear, gave the man money and kissed his fingers. Francis spent a lot of time praying at the Church of San Damiano. While praying before the Crucifix one day, he heard Jesus say to him, “Francis go and repair my house, which you see is falling down.” Francis assumed Jesus meant him to repair the building, and after he sold some material belonging to his father to obtain money for the repair, his father became very angry and locked him up. His mother later freed him and he returned to repairing the church. He was then summoned to a meeting with the Bishop of Assisi and his father. Francis returned the money and even the clothes he was wearing to his father, and renounced any claims to his inheritance. He did manual labor and begged for money to repair the Church of San Damiano and other local churches, lived in poverty, took care of lepers, and spent much time in prayer. Other men wanted to join Francis and his community became the Order of Friars Minor.  Francis found a way of life for his new community in the following passages of the Gospels: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven” (Matt 19:21). “Take nothing for your journey… “(Luke 9:3). “Whoever wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24 – 28). As his community grew, Francis and his companions went to Rome to ask for the Pope’s approval for their rule of life. At the request of Pope Innocent III, he and the friars began preaching in different towns in Italy. In his preaching, he called people to repentance and conversion. People were drawn to Francis by his joyfulness and warmth. He began his sermons by saying: “Good morning, good people.”

St. Francis and the friars greeted people by saying, “May the Lord give you peace,” and St. Francis was a peacemaker, helping people be reconciled with each other. At the end of his life, he brought about peace between the mayor and bishop of Assisi, who had been involved in a feud.

St. Francis’ example inspired many people. One young woman, Clare, wanted to follow his way of life, and with Francis, founded the second order of Franciscans, the Poor Clares. Laypeople too, wanted to live in a similar way, and Francis founded the Third Order for them, so they could still live in the world but follow a Franciscan rule of life.

One aspect of St. Francis’ idea of reform was to be faithful to what the Church teaches. In his biography, St. Bonaventure wrote that Francis taught his brothers “… to firmly believe and simply profess the true faith as held and taught by the Holy Roman Church.” Francis sought to go further than the teachings and to imitate Jesus as much as possible. Jesus made Francis even more conformed to himself by giving him the stigmata at the end of his life.

One form of reform St. Francis wanted in the Church was for priests to celebrate Mass reverently and to use clean, beautiful altar linens and sacred vessels, and for everyone to show great love for Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. In his Letter to All Clerics, he advised priests about reverence for the Eucharist. He gave the friars this beautiful prayer that Franciscans continue to pray today. “We adore you, O Lord Jesus Christ, here and in all your churches throughout the world and we bless you because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”

While St. Francis’ way of life–involving absolute poverty and seeing all of creation as reflecting the goodness and beauty of God–was new, he maintained many of the traditions of the Church. He prayed the Liturgy of the Hours, had great love for Jesus in the Eucharist, was devoted to the Blessed Mother, and practiced the works of mercy.

From St. Francis of Assisi, we learn that the only way to reform the Church is for her members to reform their lives with God’s help. St. Francis did not preach a complicated way of life but one that is faithful to the teachings of the Gospel and to using the means the Church has given us to grow in holiness, such as prayer and the sacraments. In his Letter to All the Faithful, St. Francis wrote, “… We should confess all our sins to a priest and receive from him the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

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Louise Merrie is a freelance writer on Catholic subjects. Her articles have been published in Catholic Life, Novena Magazine, and the Saint Austin Review. She is the founder of the Community of Mary, Mother of Mercy, an organization in which senior priests and Catholic laity support each other through prayer and friendship in living as disciples of Jesus.

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