The real historical Francis
is the Francis of the Church
On Wednesday, 27 January ,
during his General Audience Catechesis Benedict XVI spoke to the
faithful gathered in the Paul VI Audience Hall about St Francis of
Assisi, thus continuing the discussion he had begun in the previous
week's Catechesis on the Franciscan and Dominican Orders in the Middle
Ages. The following is a translation of his Catechesis, which was given
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In a recent Catechesis, I illustrated
the providential role the Orders of Friars Minor and the Order of
Preachers, founded by St Francis of Assisi and St Dominic de Guzmán
respectively, played in the renewal of the Church in their day. Today I
would like to present to you the figure of Francis, an authentic "giant"
of holiness, who continues to fascinate a great many people of all age
groups and every religion.
"A sun was born into the world". With
these words, in the Divine Comedy (Paradiso, Canto XI),
the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri alludes to Francis' birth, which
took place in Assisi either at the end of 1181 or the beginning of 1182.
As part of a rich family
his father was a cloth merchant
Francis lived a carefree adolescence and
youth, cultivating the chivalrous ideals of the time. At age 20, he took
part in a military campaign and was taken prisoner. He became ill and
was freed. After his return to Assisi, a slow process of spiritual
conversion began within him, which brought him to gradually abandon the
worldly lifestyle that he had adopted thus far.
The famous episodes of Francis' meeting
with the leper
to whom, dismounting from his horse, he gave the kiss of peace
and of the message from the Crucifix in the small Church of St Damian,
date back to this period. Three times Christ on the Cross came to life,
and told him: "Go, Francis, and repair my Church in ruins". This simple
occurrence of the word of God heard in the Church of St Damian contains
a profound symbolism. At that moment St Francis was called to repair the
small church, but the ruinous state of the building was a symbol of the
dramatic and disquieting situation of the Church herself. At that time
the Church had a superficial faith which did not shape or transform
life, a scarcely zealous clergy, and a chilling of love. It was an
interior destruction of the Church which also brought a decomposition of
unity, with the birth of heretical movements.
Yet, there at the centre of the Church
in ruins was the Crucified Lord, and he spoke: he called for renewal, he
called Francis to the manual labour of repairing the small Church of St
Damian, the symbol of a much deeper call to renew Christ's own Church,
with her radicality of faith and her loving enthusiasm for Christ.
This event, which probably happened in
1205, calls to mind another similar occurrence which took place in 1207:
Pope Innocent III's dream. In it, he saw the Basilica of St John
Lateran, the mother of all churches, collapsing and one small and
insignificant religious brother supporting the church on his shoulders
to prevent it from falling.
On the one hand, it is interesting to
note that it is not the Pope who was helping to prevent the church from
collapsing but rather a small and insignificant brother, whom the Pope
recognized in Francis when he later came to visit. Innocent III was a
powerful Pope who had a great theological formation and great political
influence; nevertheless he was not the one to renew the Church
but the small, insignificant religious. It was St Francis, called by
On the other hand, however, it is
important to note that St Francis does not renew the Church without or
in opposition to the Pope, but only in communion with him. The two
realities go together: the Successor of Peter, the Bishops, the Church
founded on the succession of the Apostles and the new charism that the
Holy Spirit brought to life at that time for the Church's renewal.
Authentic renewal grew from these together.
Let us return to the life of St.
Francis. When his father Bernardone reproached him for being too
generous to the poor, Francis, standing before the Bishop of Assisi, in
a symbolic gesture, stripped off his clothes, thus showing he renounced
his paternal inheritance. Just as at the moment of creation, Francis had
nothing, only the life that God gave him, into whose hands he delivered
himself. He then lived as a hermit, until, in 1208, another fundamental
step in his journey of conversion took place.
While listening to a passage from the
Gospel of Matthew
Jesus' discourse to the apostles whom he sent out on mission
Francis felt called to live in poverty and dedicate himself to
preaching. Other companions joined him, and in 1209 he travelled to
Rome, to propose to Pope Innocent III the plan for a new form of
He received a fatherly welcome from that
great Pontiff, who, enlightened by the Lord, perceived the divine origin
of the movement inspired by Francis. The Poverello of Assisi
understood that every charism as a gift of the Holy Spirit existed to
serve the Body of Christ, which is the Church; therefore he always acted
in full communion with the ecclesial authorities. In the life of the
Saints there is no contradiction between prophetic charism and the
charism of governance, and if tension arises, they know to patiently
await the times determined by the Holy Spirit.
Actually, several 19th-century and also
20th-century historians have sought to construct a so-called historical
Francis, behind the traditional depiction of the Saint, just as they
sought to create a so-called historical Jesus behind the Jesus of the
Gospels. This historical Francis would not have been a man of the
Church, but rather a man connected directly and solely to Christ, a man
that wanted to bring about a renewal of the People of God, without
canonical forms or hierarchy.
The truth is that St Francis really did
have an extremely intimate relationship with Jesus and with the word of
God, that he wanted to pursue sine glossa: just as it is,
in all its radicality and truth. It is also true that initially he did
not intend to create an Order with the necessary canonical forms. Rather
he simply wanted, through the word of God and the presence of the Lord,
to renew the People of God, to call them back to listening to the word
and to literal obedience to Christ. Furthermore, he knew that Christ was
never "mine" but is always "ours", that "I" cannot possess Christ
that "I" cannot rebuild in opposition to the Church, her will and her
teaching. Instead it is only in communion with the Church built on the
Apostolic succession that obedience too, to the word of God can be
It is also true that Francis had no
intention of creating a new Order, but solely that of renewing the
People of God for the Lord who comes. He understood, however, through
suffering and pain
that everything must have its own order and that the law of the Church
is necessary to give shape to renewal. Thus he placed himself fully,
with his heart, in communion with the Church, with the Pope and with the
Bishops. He always knew that the centre of the Church is the Eucharist,
where the Body of Christ and his Blood are made present
through the priesthood, the Eucharist and the communion of the Church.
Wherever the priesthood and the Eucharist and the Church come together,
it is there alone that the word of God also dwells. The real historical
Francis was the Francis of the Church, and precisely in this way he
continues to speak to non-believers and believers of other confessions
and religions as well.
Francis and his friars, who were
becoming ever more numerous, established themselves at the Portiuncula,
or the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, the sacred place par
excellence of Franciscan spirituality. Even Clare, a young woman of
Assisi from a noble family, followed the school of Francis. This became
the origin of the Second Franciscan Order, that of the Poor Clares,
another experience destined to produce outstanding figures of sainthood
in the Church.
Innocent III's Successor, Pope Honorius
with his Bull Cum Dilecti in 1258 supported the unique
development of the first Friars Minor, who started missions in different
European countries, and even in Morocco. In 1219 Francis obtained
permission to visit and speak to the Muslim sultan Malik al-Kāmil, to
preach the Gospel of Jesus there too.
I would like to highlight this episode
in St Francis' life, which is very timely. In an age when there was a
conflict underway between Christianity and Islam, Francis, intentionally
armed only with his faith and personal humility, travelled the path of
dialogue effectively. The chronicles tell us that he was given a
benevolent welcome and a cordial reception by the Muslim Sultan. It
provides a model which should inspire today's relations between
Christians and Muslims: to promote a sincere dialogue, in reciprocal
respect and mutual understanding (cf. Nostra Aetate, 3).
It appears that later, in 1220, Francis
visited the Holy Land, thus sowing a seed that would bear much fruit:
his spiritual sons would in fact make of the Sites where Jesus lived a
privileged space for their mission. It is with gratitude that I think
today of the great merits of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land.
On his return to Italy, Francis turned
over the administration of his Order to his vicar, Br Pietro Cattani,
while the Pope entrusted the rapidly growing Order's protection to
Cardinal Ugolino, the future Supreme Pontiff Gregory IX. For his part,
the Founder, dedicated completely to his preaching, which he carried out
with great success, compiled his Rule that was then approved by the
In 1224, at the hermitage in La Verna,
Francis had a vision of the Crucified Lord in the form of a seraph and
from that encounter received the stigmata from the Seraph Crucifix, thus
becoming one with the Crucified Christ. It was a gift, therefore, that
expressed his intimate identification with the Lord.
The death of Francis
occurred on the evening of 3 October 1226, in the Portiuncula. After
having blessed his spiritual children, he died, lying on the bare
Two years later Pope Gregory IX entered
him in the roll of saints. A short time after, a great basilica in his
honour was constructed in Assisi, still today an extremely popular
pilgrim destination. There pilgrims can venerate the Saint's tomb and
take in the frescoes by Giotto, an artist who has magnificently
illustrated Francis' life.
It has been said that Francis represents
an alter Christus, that he was truly a living icon of Christ. He
has also been called "the brother of Jesus". Indeed, this was his ideal:
to be like Jesus, to contemplate Christ in the Gospel, to love him
intensely and to imitate his virtues. In particular, he wished to
ascribe interior and exterior poverty with a fundamental value, which he
also taught to his spiritual sons.
The first Beatitude of the Sermon on the
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven"
found a luminous fulfilment in the life and words of St Francis. Truly,
dear friends, the saints are the best interpreters of the Bible. As they
incarnate the word of God in their own lives, they make it more
captivating than ever, so that it really speaks to us. The witness of
Francis, who loved poverty as a means to follow Christ with dedication
and total freedom, continues to be for us too an invitation to cultivate
interior poverty in order to grow in our trust of God, also by adopting
a sober lifestyle and a detachment from material goods.
Francis' love for Christ expressed
itself in a special way in the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament of the
Eucharist. In the Fonti Francescane (Writings of St Francis) one
reads such moving expressions as: "Let everyone be struck with fear, let
the whole world tremble, and let the heavens exult, when Christ, the Son
of the living God, is present on the altar in the hands of a priest. Oh
stupendous dignity! O humble sublimity, that the Lord of the universe,
God and the Son of God, so humbles himself that for our salvation he
hides himself under an ordinary piece of bread" (Francis of Assisi,
Scritti, Editrici Francescane, Padova 2002,
In this Year for Priests, I would also
like to recall a piece of advice that Francis gave to priests: "When you
wish to celebrate Mass, in a pure way, reverently make the true
sacrifice of the Most Holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ"
(Francis of Assisi, Scritti, 399).
Francis always showed great deference
towards priests, and asserted that they should always be treated with
respect, even in cases where they might be somewhat unworthy personally.
The reason he gave for this profound respect was that they receive the
gift of consecrating the Eucharist. Dear brothers in the priesthood, let
us never forget this teaching: the holiness of the Eucharist appeals to
us to be pure, to live in a way that is consistent with the Mystery we
From love for Christ stems love for
others and also for all God's creatures. This is yet another
characteristic trait Francis' spirituality: the sense of universal
brotherhood and love for Creation, which inspired the famous Canticle
of Creatures. This too is an extremely timely message.
As I recalled in my recent Encyclical
Caritas in Veritate, development is stainable only when it
respects Creation and does not damage the environment (cf. nn. 48-52),
and in the Message for the World Day of Peace this year, I also
underscored that even building stable peace is linked to respect for
Francis reminds us that the wisdom and
benevolence of the Creator is expressed through Creation. He understood
nature as a language in which God speaks to us, in which reality becomes
clear, and we can speak of God and with God.
Dear friends, Francis was a great Saint
and a joyful man. His simplicity, his humility, his faith, his love for
Christ, his goodness towards every man and every woman, brought him
gladness in every circumstance. Indeed, there subsists an intimate and
indissoluble relationship between holiness and joy.
A French writer once wrote that there is
only one sorrow in the world: not to be saints, that is, not to be near
to God. Looking at the testimony of St Francis, we understand that this
is the secret of true happiness: to become saints, close to God!
May the Virgin, so tenderly loved by
Francis, obtain this gift for us. Let us entrust ourselves to her with
the words of the Poverello of Assisi himself: "Blessed Virgin
Mary, no one like you among women has ever been born in the world,
daughter and handmaid of the Most High King and heavenly Father, Mother
of our Most Blessed Lord Jesus Christ, spouse of the Holy Spirit. Pray
for us... to your most blessed and beloved Son, Lord and Master"
(Francesco di Assisi, Scritti,