by Valentin Breton, O.F.M.
When we come to the chapter on Franciscan spirituality in a book like this,
we are impressed by its lack of originality. This absence of a distinctive
spirituality seems a sign of inferiority and we ask ourselves whether this
is a consequence of a devotion to poverty which is said to be the virtue
which is the true fountain for the Franciscan soul? Furthermore this
spirituality offers no visible principles which are peculiarly its own, no
practices which it does not share with other schools.
The devotion, dare we say, the apparently .sentimental devotion that the
Order professes for the sacred humanity of the Son of God, the Passion, the
Blessed Sacrament, the Blessed Virgin, is part of Christian piety. Its
distinctively Franciscan character is slight. All devout souls consider it
a privilege to take part.
No one denies that the Franciscan founder, Francis of Assisi, is a saint
whose personality is forceful and original. Yet we cannot claim that it is
his imitation of Christ that makes him unique. The very name that
Christians bear shows quite clearly their dependence on Christ.
Were Saint Francis' disciples all to profess, in imitation of a few whom
the Church has canonized, his marked cult of poverty, or his lyric love for
creatures, or even his literal interpretation of the Gospel--because all
cannot be required to go as far as the stigmata--their profession would not
make them different from other Christians.
Followers of Francis seem to use the same books, to practice the same
devotions, to cultivate the same virtues and (to speak for a moment in a
lighter vein) they commit the same faults as do devout souls who are known
to have other spiritual connections!
That some men more frequently make the Way of the Cross, while others are
fond of reciting the rosary, or conform themselves to a certain method of
particular examen--preferences like these do not constitute a notable, nor
even an essential distinction of spiritual ways.
And so it goes. The impression persists: Franciscan spirituality is without
differentiating characteristics. It is, not to press the point further,
among the other more distinctively different schools of spirituality, a
Good. Let no one expect us to attempt to refute, not even to discuss, a
statement which is so categorically in accord with our convictions: we
forthrightly affirm our belief without any ambiguity:
The spirituality adopted by the Franciscan family:
I. according to the example and teaching of its head,
II. according to the principles formulated by its doctors,
III. is purely Christian.
By that we mean that it conforms to the doctrine of the Gospels without any
addition of heterogeneous elements or the subtraction of any revealed
Therefore we must demonstrate and prove, first, that this spirituality is
derived from the examples and teaching of Saint Francis;
then, that it puts into practice the principal doctrines developed by the
finally, that the practices, which are inevitably the same as those found
in other schools, are animated with a spirit that may not make any basic
changes but, at least to speak with greater exactness, does give them new
Then it will be possible for us to conclude that its absolute fidelity to
Revelation, certified in its origins, its systematic elaboration, its
strict observance constitute an exceptional differentiation which, while
hidden from human eyes, is thereby no less real and characteristic.
Because, for a spirituality that wishes and must be Christian, to be
Christian purely and solely is no disadvantage.
I. EXAMPLES AND TEACHING OF SAINT FRANCIS
Everyone agrees that Saint Francis understood his personal vocation to be a
call to the exact imitation of Jesus Christ. Then he realized that his
mission was to spread his own ideal among men. This, too, no one
challenges. "Imitate me as I have imitated Christ". "Imitatores mei estote
et sicut ego Christi." These words of the Apostle Saint Paul can serve as
an epitaph for the life and work of Saint Francis. In the first days of his
conversion, he may have interpreted in a material way the order given him
by the Crucified Christ of Saint Damian to repair His ruined house. The
arrival of many disciples, then the realization of the needs of souls
quickly clarified his true purpose and showed him the spiritual ruins which
in God's providence he was meant to restore.
Others were as ignorant of Jesus Christ as had been Francis. In that day
Christians who were faithful to the Church professed a formal religion
without a soul. To them Christ was a name that recalled the memory of a
benefactor of times long past who in distant ages had ascended to a far
away heaven. Other men, some baptized, some not, repulsed by this cold and
lifeless doctrine, sought among non-believers the spiritual up-lift and
satisfaction of soul, that the misunderstood official worship no longer
When Francis returned to Christ he discovered a new meaning in his life.
This same return also gave a meaning to the life of men and women who were
wandering like a flock more in need of shepherds than of pastures. He could
not fail to see that his personal vocation and his providential mission
were identical, and that the means that brought about one would also bring
about the other.
"Christ is living. He loves us. Let us believe in Him. Let us attach
ourselves to Him and from Him receive Life. Let us imitate Him and we will
find that we are transformed into Him. Therefore let us observe His Gospel
to the letter and without any additions. This is the Way, the Truth and the
Do not think that this is mere conjecture. It is based on many formal
As early as 1209, the first Rule presented to Pope Innocent III opens with
these words: "This is the Brothers' (the word "Minor" was not yet used)
rule of life: to live in obedience, in chastity, without anything of their
own and to follow the doctrine and footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ". The
whole spirit of this first Rule is the imitation of our Savior and is based
on His words and example. Chapter 23 which is a prayer of praise and
thanksgiving shows with inspired precision the motive of this "following of
Jesus Christ". We will return to this text in a moment.
The Rule that Pope Honorius III approved in 1223 was more juridical and
concise than the earlier edition of 1209, yet it defines the Brothers' rule
of life in the same way. This time it refers to them as BROTHERS MINOR,
that is to say, lesser or lessened. Their rule of life "consists in the
observance of the holy Gospel of Jesus Christ our Lord, living in
obedience, without anything of their own, and in chastity". In this
connection it is interesting to notice that the imitation of our Lord,
which was a corollary of the practice of the evangelical virtues has become
the foundation of Franciscan life and that these three virtues have become
the means towards this imitation.
Let us quote once again from the letter that Francis sent in 1226 to the
brothers assembled in general chapter when he was too sick to go to them
himself. It closes with a singularly luminous and explicit prayer which is
a perfect epitome of his spiritual way and if we dare to use the word, of
his theology. In it imitation is central. Here is the prayer:
"O God, Thou who art all-powerful, eternal, just and merciful to poor
miserable creatures, grant that because of Thyself, Thou wilt do what we
know Thou dost desire and desire what is pleasing to Thee, so that purified
without and enlightened within, and enkindled with the fire of the Holy
Spirit, we may FOLLOW IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THY SON, JESUS CHRIST OUR LORD,
and by Thy grace alone we may come to Thee, O most high, who in perfect
Trinity and most simple Unity livest, and reignest, and glorify Thee, all-
powerful God, forever and ever. Amen."
Now the Rule of the Brothers Minor is the model Francis followed literally
when he first regulated the manner of life for the Poor Clares and later
with suitable modifications for the Penitents.
Besides the Rule which he gave to Saint Clare we have a short letter to her
which he dictated a few days before his blessed death. And if similar
documents are missing for the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, this is but
a textual gap for which the Father's authentic letters addressed to "All
the faithful, the heads of peoples, priests and clerics," legitimately
supply. For the sake of brevity, we will not multiply quotations but
everywhere and always Francis proclaims the same doctrine of the need to
return to the Gospel and to the Master of the Gospel, the Lord Jesus.. .
Nor has he left us in ignorance as to why he has acted in this way. And on
this point in particular, he who used to call himself "a little unlettered
man" reveals himself to be a sublime theologian, a descendant of Paul and
As proof of this assertion we can first offer the Saint's ADMONITIONS which
are placed at the head of the oldest collections of his writings because of
their relative length and richness of content.
This work is entitled: "Concerning the Body of Christ" and it is, in fact,
a study of the holy Eucharist. It is, also, a glowing and luminous
demonstration of the necessity of the mediation of the Man-God, and it
shows how communion with His Body makes it possible for us to share in His
Spirit, and this in turn enables us to draw near to the Triune-God and
makes us pleasing to Him.
A systematic analysis of the doctrine of this beautiful text may be
expressed in these propositions.
Because Jesus is all: the Way, the Truth and the Life, the Beginning and
the End, no one can please or serve God, except through Him. And God
reveals Himself and gives Himself only in Him and through Him. In fact God
is Himself invisible unknowable, inaccessible to the creature. Therefore
the creature in order to know, love and serve God, needs a Mediator, One
who is equal to God and men, the Man-God, Jesus-Christ.
However, it is not enough to become attached to His humanity; beyond that
humanity we must through the spirit reach the divinity which belongs to the
Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
The apostles, too, were bound by this law, they who saw Jesus in His flesh.
All the more reason for it to bind us. And from this fact may be formulated
the principles of our spiritual life.
According to Saint Francis, this life consists in our identifying ourselves
with Jesus Christ, whom the Church presents to us, whom the Holy Ghost
accredits in us, so that, by faith and obedience, we may live and act to
the glory of the blessed Trinity.
Now this identification is brought about not only through the efforts of
the faithful soul that tries to conform itself to its divine model by
exterior imitation, it is also realized from within in a manner that is
apparently figurative and obscure but which is true and efficacious: this
is the fruit of sacramental communion.
Saint Francis concludes this Admonition with these words:
It is the Lord's Spirit who dwells in Christ's faithful ones, who receive
the Body and Blood that are divine. In this way the Lord remains always
with them according to His promise: Behold I am with you all days even unto
the end of time.
Who is not enlightened and convinced by the mere statement of this
doctrine? Its profundity testifies to its truth. We must remember that it
is not painstakingly fashioned by a trained theologian, skilled in
philosophical speculation and exegetical discussions. It comes from the
heart of a little poor man who attended no school but the school of prayer,
who knew no master but the Crucifix.
Francis ascended still higher, tracing the path which the doctors of his
order were to follow, Bonaventure, Duns Scotus and their disciples,
enlightening their genius with the brilliance of his own, like the eagle
who tempts her little ones to fly and lifts them with the power of her
We will quote one brilliant text. It is to be found in the "Elevations"
which form chapter 23 of the Rule of 1209-1221. In a few words it expresses
the saint's whole thought on the unique and necessary role of the Man-God.
This chapter is entitled, as we said before:
PRAYER, PRAISE AND THANKSGIVING
It opens with the solemn words: "All powerful, most high, most holy and
sovereign God, Father holy and just, Lord of heaven and earth, because of
Thy sake we give Thee thanks..."
Then follows a list of the divine works which merit our praise, blessing,
and gratitude. Here we must notice the place given to the unique and
necessary Mediator, Jesus Christ:
"because according to Thy holy will, Thou hast created all things spiritual
and corporal through Thy only Son and in the Holy Spirit; Thou hast made us
to Thy image and likeness, Thou hast p aced us in paradise; and through our
own fault we have failed..."
"... and as Thou created us through Thy Son, because of Thy true and holy
love for us Thou hast ordained that Thy Son, true God and true man, be born
of the glorious and ever blessed virgin Mary and that He redeem us from our
captivity by His cross, His blood and His death..."
The resemblance is evident between these statements and the sublime
prologue of Saint Paul's epistle to the Ephesians: "In Christo Jesu." For
it is in and through Christ, the Mediator that predestination, adoption,
creation, and redemption of the elect attain their perfection in Christ,
the goal of all God's loving designs and the highest point of the Apostle's
In this way Francis goes beyond human wisdom. He reaches the summit of his
theology with these words:
And because we are all poor sinners, we are not worthy to pronounce Thy
name, therefore we pray Thee to deign to be pleased that our Lord, Jesus
Christ, in whom alone Thou art well pleased, render Thee thanks for all
things, together with the Holy Spirit, the Consoler. May He be pleasing to
Thee and to them, because THIS SON SUFFICES ALWAYS AND FOR ALL THINGS TO
THEE, and it is through Him that Thou hast granted us all graces.
His Christ suffices always and in all things to God! He alone is the object
of the Father's good pleasure. No one pleases the Father except in Him and
This is, for Francis, the supreme reason for His devotion to Christ and his
efforts to be conformed to Him!
II. THE DOCTRINE FORMULATED BY THE MASTERS OF THE ORDER
The place assigned by the Triune-God to Jesus Christ in His work and
consequently in the destiny of men, as Francis has conceived it perhaps by
a pleasing intuition and one that is surely charismatic, has been treated
more systematically by the thinkers of his Order. They have shown its
importance and its consequences. They have applied to it all the findings
of revelation and the traditional scholastic techniques. Their meditations
are the basis of what we call today Franciscan spirituality.
The spirit of Saint Francis is recognizable in the speculations of the
theologians of his Order, as well as in the works of its saints. We will
name only the greatest and the most renowned, because here we are not
interested in presenting quotations but in studying principles and
practices in the growth of a living thought. The names of these men are
well-known, even if their writings are not read as they should be: Saint
Bonaventure and Blessed John Duns Scotus.
Besides his "Commentaries on Sacred Scripture" and his "Sermons" (those
vast storehouses of theological knowledge and popular teaching), Saint
Bonaventure has written works of pure spirituality. These are not merely
marginal or additional works, but they are in strict dependence and vital
application because he felt that all knowledge is vain that is not founded
on Christ and does seek to know God in Him in order to love and serve Him.
On this point the work (unhappily incomplete) which sums up all his
doctrine is the "Collationes in Hexaemeron." This is a synthesis of all
human knowledge and it includes spirituality.
According to our present purpose let us point out a basic and definitive
work "The Triple Way;" then, "The Itinerary of the Soul to God," a treatise
that has been much praised, often imitated, less often understood, because
it must be seen that this WAY is Christ; and finally "The Six Wings of the
Seraphim," an explanation of the Christian exercise of authority. Among his
lesser works we must mention "The Tree of Life," "The Soliloquy," "The
Soul's Guidance," etc.
Saint Bonaventure, the seraphic doctor, is deeply penetrated and imbued
with the mind of his seraphic Father. Etienne Gilson has said that in
reading Saint Bonaventure one receives the impression that it is a Saint
Francis who has been raised up--or who has forgotten himself--and who is
The second author who reveals Franciscan thought and therefore its
spirituality is John Duns Scotus, honored as blessed in his Order and among
Christians in the dioceses of Cologne and Nola.
On every point except the one we are going to discuss, Duns Scotus differs
notably from Bonaventure. In early education, in training, in his days at
Oxford as student, later as master, he deepened the understanding, which
was in his very blood, of the real and the concrete. This affirmation was
opposed to the speculative tendencies of continental thinkers. He entered
the School just in time to profit from the works of Alexander of Hales,
Albert the Great, Bonaventure, Thomas, Roger Bacon and to free the
pragmatic teaching of Revelation from secular infiltrations and Islamic
accretions. Thus he joined his predecessor, Bonaventure, on the one point
that we mentioned above, namely the interpretation of the function and
mission of Jesus Christ given by their Father Francis.
Too easily is it forgotten. Too willingly and systematically is it ignored
that the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady, today a defined dogma, is in
Scotist Christology but a corollary of the absolute primacy and universal
mediation of Mary's Son, the Man Christ Jesus, "Homo Christus Jesus."
The second of the great Franciscan masters has produced no notable or well-
known treatise on spirituality but he has systematized the absolute primacy
on which Franciscan spirituality is founded. And he has given so many
suggestions and produced so many texts that his disciples and his
commentators can be guided by him.
To Saint Bonaventure and to John Duns Scotus, as to their Father Saint
Francis, Christ is the highest grace God offers His creatures. Their
response to this offer controls their attitude to God and this includes
their religion, their "mystique," their spirituality.
Under these conditions, what place in human thought and act is it
appropriate to give to Christ Jesus?
The same, these Franciscans answer, that He holds in the thought and the
work of God.
They claim, therefore, that according to Scripture, in Him, who as man is
called Jesus Christ, we must acknowledge the first being conceived, the
first being willed by the Triune-God in their resolve to manifest "ad
extra," that is outside of the intimacy of their Persons, their Power,
their Wisdom, their Goodness.
Christ is the first predestined being, the first being allowed to share in
the life and happiness of God. And this without any other motive than the
divine free will, through a personal union with the Son.
In the communication of His blessed fullness to a uniquely, privileged
being, God finds not only an adequate manifestation of Himself, but also in
the adoration, love and service of this privileged being, an adequate
return of His gift. Christ's response to these advances of the Triune-God
satisfy, as a matter of equality, the plan of love that decided God to
abandon His blessed solitude. God could have stopped there. His work was
perfect. This assertion is capital in the Franciscan mystique. It must not
God went still further. He pushed, as it were to excess, the communication
of His life, of His activity, of His happiness. With His First-born He
associated companions, brothers, but this communication is as it were an
overflow of benevolence which has been previously rewarded, repaid,
balanced by the absolute value of the homage paid the Triune-God by His
Christ, the Man-God, in return for His first gift. No ingratitude, were any
to appear among the beneficiaries of His overflowing gift, could count
because of the return Christ has already made.
Now it is because of Jesus Christ, at His request, to His credit and
according to His plan that in Him, for Him and through Him all creatures in
their turn receive their being. Of all these creatures in heaven and on
earth, organic, inert, voiceless, intelligent, free, Christ is the
principle of their creation.
So true is it that Christ depends on no creature, that on the contrary
without Christ no creature would exist.
He is also and primarily the cause of the predestination of free creatures-
-angels and men. These moral and spiritual creatures are from the beginning
established in the order of charity, that is to say they are predestined to
share in the personal life of the Triune-God. In Christ they are called to
glory. Because of this glory, graces are prepared and offered to them which
will make them capable and worthy to receive it. These graces were merited
for them by Christ. For this reason they are created in a nature adapted to
this grace and to this glory.
Let us study the order, or, if we prefer, the hierarchy of the
manifestations of divine charity, of the God who is Love.
Eternally, essential Love subsists in a trinity of Persons The going out of
the Son, willed absolutely for its own sake, is the Incarnation and gave
God "One who loved Him". Further manifestations are:
1.--the adoption of spirits, the ordering of grace to glory, of nature to
grace; predestination; the Incarnate Son is the first-born of many
2.--the creation of beings according to their nature, decreed and
accomplished to realize the gift already decided upon; the Son Incarnate is
the model (the archetype) and the artisan of creation;
3.--the revelation to free beings of God's plan: the Son Incarnate is the
image and spokesman of the Father.
From the essential function of the Incarnate Son, Christ Jesus, results the
necessity and efficacy of His mediation. He is the only mediator between
God and men. Because all depends on Him, all comes from Him, passes through
Him from God to other beings, in existence, in action, in knowledge, merit
and reward, so all returns to God through Him. What has value, has value
only in Him. God knows, wills, approves only Christ, or in Christ, or
because of Christ. Reciprocally no one knows God, loves God or serves Him
efficaciously, no one comes to God, no one pleases Him but in Christ and
Christ, the principle of God's works is the means (medium) of created
activity, He is the center of the Universe.
Furthermore whoever lives, thinks, loves, acts, serves in Him can be sure
of God's good pleasure; the infinite pleasure taken by the Father and the
First-born give value to the works of all His other children. This is the
second important affirmation of Franciscan "mystique." It must be
The all-loving plans of the Triune-God unfold in this manner.
Created later, the free creature (restrictively man) did not maintain the
high level of his vocation and fell by sin, both original and actual.
1.--His defection does not destroy all order that is not based on him; it
does remove him from this order. Sinner, as he is, he is still, despite his
rebellion, subject to Christ, tributary to Christ in his being, in his
life, in his end.
2.--And if Christ, in His goodness, is pleased to repair man's fault, He
does not need to create a new order, nor to impose it by force, but simply
to restore the primitive order which although violated is permanent and to
which the repentant guilty creature can return.
3.--Franciscan spirituality represents in this way the mystery of the
Redemption with its proper object, distinct from that of the Incarnation
and apart from the role of pain, passion, and compassion.
God is not the implacable redresser of his offense, but a loving Father who
authorities His eldest Son, His beloved Son to devote Himself to the
salvation of His rebel brothers and makes it possible for Him to make this
reparation by giving Him a freely-chosen power of suffering, extraordinary
Christ is not the victim of a sanguinary prosecution, which takes delight
in torturing One who is innocent in place of those who are guilty. He is a
friend who offers Himself spontaneously, out of love for Father and
children, to draw His guilty loved ones from the abyss where they have
hurled themselves and to ransom them at whatever cost to Himself.
Compassion, in souls who have been redeemed at so high a cost, is less a
debt that has been contracted or a payment, but rather a voluntary
imitation; and pain that is accepted, even deliberately sought in penance,
becomes not so much a disciplinary procedure but is rather a return of
love: Christ loved me and delivered Himself up for me!
From this absolute priority of the predestination of Christ Jesus; from His
universal primacy over all creatures; from the subordination of all other
destinies to His own; from the necessity of His mediation flow consequences
that limit, determine and govern all Franciscan spirituality.
I.--God's work is done in unity. It is not made up of disparate and
heterogeneous parts. Seemingly this, too, is true of man's total existence.
Because all creatures owe their being to Christ and are ordained to Him as
to their end, in their activity and their destiny, the order of the world
is Christian. Nothing in the world, nothing that has ever been in the
world, nothing that ever will be in the world can be pagan, or apart from
God or contrary to God, nor bad in itself, nor even dangerous. The revolt
of sinners, the disorder of original or actual sin made right by grace,
promised or given, can harm their free and responsible agents since they
are for all the others an occasion of common effort, or of merit.
Under the various forms of temporal trial and eternal fulfillment, of
activity by the individual, the family or civil and ecclesiastic society,
of personal or liturgical piety, of human labor, of scientific or moral
culture, man's life remains one and the same.
All in Christ and through Christ are unified and tend to charity, that is
God's love for man and man's love for God, man's love of God and of his
neighbor man's salvation and God's honor.
II.--Free creatures, angels and men (here we are especially interested in
the latter), are established from the beginning in the order we call
supernatural. Their "nature", their end, their actions are
supernaturalized, whether they know it or not, whether they want it or
refuse it. To remain in the truth, in the objective and ontological reality
of their psychology and of their history, we must therefore never forget
the secret presence of the internal activity of this element which is not
logical but vital. The ascetic and the apostle ought to count on it. He
ought always remember that the just man lives "supernaturally", as in his
normal state, not through his individual effort but through communication
in the life of Christ. The sinner and formal infidel do not live
"supernaturally", consequently they are in a state of violence from which
the whole power of the divine order tends to withdraw them, just as the law
of gravity tends to draw bodies to their center. In the same manner a stone
held in an instable position is not withdrawn from the pull of gravity, so
the sinner is not excluded from the order he is violating, on the contrary
he is being constantly invited to integrate himself in it once again. There
is great power in this thought for those who seek to convert souls!
III.--The whole work of the salvation of men is already truly accomplished
by Christ, not only in His title of Redeemer which is, so to speak, only
accessory, but in His deeper and essential title of Principle of
predestination and creation. As a matter of fact each one must do this work
for himself, surrendering himself to whatever demands are made by Christ
and by his coheirs in this great act of collaboration because, although
"salvation is a personal work, it is not individual".
Nevertheless, no one is asked to work for a vague and uncertain result. No:
the result is secured and success is certain. Because the efforts made by
the faithful soul who works for his salvation, and the functional or
ministerial efforts of the apostle who labors for the salvation of his
brothers are in reality the works of Christ Himself, so they are bound to
attain this end and please God.
IV.--The formula that sums up Franciscan spirituality is this: "I live now
not I but Christ lives in me".
The efforts required, the practices proposed, the exercises undertaken, are
obviously those recommended in other schools of spirituality. But there is
1.--Here, efforts and practices, are no longer those of a human activity--
even supported by grace--which seeks by these means to win Christ, but the
manifestation of an activity which is already informed and animated by the
Spirit of Christ, as by an inner movement and control.
2.--They are unified among themselves and identified with the very life of
which they are an expression because they are the action of the Head in the
members, of the sap in the branches.
3.--Among these different exercises, the liturgy and the sacraments hold a
more esteemed position than private practices such as examen and meditation
because they are of divine and ecclesiastical institution and their
authenticity and efficacy are divinely assured.
V.--Charity gives life to this spirituality when it begins, as it
progresses, until its end. Motives of fear and hope are neither disdained
or underestimated, but they are kept in a subordinate position, enlivened
by faith which provides their objects and by love which widens their
Christ loved me and delivered Himself up for me, this is the motive of
conversion, perseverance and consummation. The dominant motive of charity,
truly affecting unity of life, of activity and of fruit between Christ and
the faithful soul, not by outward imitation but by an inner transformation
is the formal work of the blessed Eucharist. It is known first by faith, is
accepted by the will, and realized in every domain, and when the goal is
reached it can be consciously verified. This awareness can be considered as
the summit of mystical union, the prelude to eternal union where Christ
will be all in all in God, according to His promise: "I will manifest
myself to him".
VI.--According to the Franciscan "mystique" (in the modern and restricted
meaning of the word, that is: "new" relations of "conscious" intimacy with
God) the place accorded Christ, the object and means of contemplation
according to man's whole being, is fixed according to the same principles.
Since Christ is by nature--can we say, and not by a subsequent and
arbitrary will of God--the sole mediator between God and men, no one comes
to the Father except through Him and in Him. In return, no one is pleasing
to the Father and heard by Him except in Christ and through Christ. Nor
does the Father ever hide from anyone who asks for Him in the name of and
out of love for His Beloved: whoever the soul may be, the Father welcomes
him and answers his prayer.
Taught these truths, the Franciscan soul does not pretend to present
himself alone before God, not to know God except through the visible image
which He has pleased to give us of Himself. To see the Son is to see the
On the one hand the Franciscan soul does not in his unworthiness place any
obstacles to divine favors because his unworthiness is fundamental; to free
himself of this unworthiness, would that not be to imply that these favors
can be merited and reduced to something that man can condignly acquire? The
Franciscan asks and waits.
On the other hand, the soul will not admit that the holy Humanity can be an
obstacle to the knowledge of God: but through the wounds of Jesus
crucified, he will try humbly to attain to the contemplation of the
This point is also characteristic: the God of the Franciscan soul is indeed
the Triune-God, the Father of Jesus Christ, the living God and not the
abstract God of philosophers and savants.
VII.--In Franciscan asceticism, therefore, there is no question of
introducing the supernatural into one's actions or into one's life, as
something that comes from above or from outside. Nor is this done, as it
were, by constraint or by force. Our desire is to be clothed, not
despoiled, in order that what is mortal in us can be absorbed by life. To
do this all that is necessary is:
1.--to admit according to the revealed doctrine that our whole life and all
that we do are truly supernaturalized in truth and in fact by a fundamental
dependence on Christ and through His life-giving influence;
2.--to realize this doctrine, by making ourselves docile and attentive to
Christ's will as it is revealed to us, moment by moment, by the common
precepts and the duties of our state, circumstances, inspirations or
impulsions of the Spirit of Jesus, under the direction of the Church;
3.--to accomplish this will with joy, confidence, submission, generosity;
not fearing that this attitude of basic deference to Christ will paralyze
initiative; only the sallies of self-love will be mortified and these are
always ready to substitute themselves, under the pretext of zeal, for the
spirit of Jesus.
III. ATTITUDES AND PRACTICES
Who can fail to see that this spirituality generates joy, optimism,
generosity and sacrifice, because it is based on charity, confidence and
humility as is amply attested by the life and number of the saints of the
I. How can we explain the attitude of the Franciscan soul?
1. Towards God.
Whatever may be the sum total of the creature's resistances and defections,
the soul knows that the loving plan of the Trinity is not frustrated. This
has been perfectly accomplished and can never be undone. Besides, to give
glory to God and to rejoice with Him, the soul need not have recourse to
this supposition (a horrible thought if we dwell on it), that hell
glorifies God as much as does heaven. For such a soul it is enough to know
that Christ has, in advance, given all due adoration, all due service, and
that through Christ and in Christ, the soul may worthily adore, love and
serve God. The soul may love Him above all things and more than self,
without needing to be pleased with a profit from the unhappiness of any
2. Towards creatures.
The Franciscan finds all creation good. All creation is his brother. It
contains no hidden snares. It lifts him to God. He can trust it, use it,
enjoy it with thanksgiving and discretion. "Tamquam non utentes." He uses,
as if not using, all the good things that it offers him according to the
divine order and plan.
Men, more than all other creatures are dear to us. They are our brothers.
Redeemed by Christ, they are coheirs with Christ, God's children by the
same title that we are. Fraternal charity is for us a privilege that we
ought to enjoy rather than a duty that we must perform with pain. We do not
look upon ourselves as enemies, but as ignorant men who are to be drawn to
the truth, as wanderers who are to be led back to the way, as dead men to
be brought to Life.
This work of life and love is to us more precious and seems more urgent,
more easily accomplished and more likely to succeed, because it is Christ's
work not our own. Moreover, collaborating with us in this work are all the
orders of the world, the activity of spirits, the invitations of grace. And
whatever seems to resist us, may do so only because of our ignorance and
may in reality be enveloped by the Savior's charity. So we treat, neither
Truth nor Life, as if they were our own possessions, nor do we act as if
God's glory were our own and could be harmed when we harm ourselves.
3. Towards oneself.
The discipline whereby the ascetic controls his faculties and his senses in
order that they be docile and faithful to the directives of the spirit of
Jesus, is for the Franciscan not a work of violence, repression or
destruction but of growth and perfection. According to other schools of
spirituality the old man is enemy number one, he must be hounded until
death. To the Franciscan he is a brother in chains who must be freed from
his fetters. Nature is a daughter of God and therefore good: all she needs
is discipline. Brother Francis himself admitted that "brother ass" had
served him well and he reproached himself for treating him so badly on many
occasions. So it is our duty to be fully and totally ourselves, that is to
say "each one must in his own way be Christ".
The abnegation required of us, as it is of all Christians, consists in
substituting for our imperfect thoughts, wills and feelings which are so
often centered on a visible good, the perfect thoughts wills and feelings
of Christ which are raised to the unseen good above. We write renouncement,
we read plenitude. Sorrow is for us not an end in itself but a means of
giving proofs of our faith and thanksgiving to Christ who was crucified
II. Fully conscious that alone we can do nothing and that Christ Jesus our
head can and wishes to do all in us and with us; conscious, too, that as a
matter of fact He has already successfully done all, our joy is immense and
our hope unshakable. When we humble ourselves before Him, when we unite
ourselves to Him, when we substitute for the imperfection of our ways and
our works His plenitude and perfection in the adoration of the Blessed
Trinity, the loving service of God and of neighbor, we can repeat with
certitude, knowing the full meaning of our words: "I live, now not I, but
Christ lives in me; for what I now do in the weakness of the body, I do
through faith in the plenitude of Him who loving me has given Himself to me
and for me". "With Christ I am nailed to the cross". "Christo confixus sum
cruci." Crucified with Christ, we are happy on the cross through which with
Him we reconcile all things to God.
The Franciscan soul is never alone whether he presents himself before God
or whether he goes to serve his brethren. He knows that he is always "in
Christ Jesus", "in Christo Jesus," guided by the Spirit of Jesus and that
he acts according to that guidance.
Through Christ and with Christ, the Franciscan adores, praises, prays. This
"elan" towards God is paralyzed neither by unworthiness nor powerlessness,
because, although he comes empty-handed and unadorned, he is rich with the
graces and merits of his Mediator who is always living to intercede for him
with God. Like Christ and with Christ, the Franciscan adores, exalts,
pleads and repairs for the Church. Christ is dearer to him than he is to
For Christ and with Christ, he serves. Set-backs have no meaning for him.
His works are not his own. His zeal is all the greater because he is
personally disinterested. Temporal success is not his goal, either in the
conquest of souls or the slower, harder conquest of self, because the
Master looks to the effort and gives no creature the glory of achievement.
Is it not the Master who acts through and with and in the soul? To Him be
all honor because from Him comes the power to will and to act!
III. To complete this synthetic exposition of Franciscan spirituality we
must now show the role and the relative importance of devotions that are
part of the spiritual life.
1.--The Eucharist, sacrifice and sacrament, is an anticipated realization,
at once symbolic, figurative, actual and efficacious of our life in Christ,
of Christ's life in us, of our union with God in Christ. The Franciscan
knows with the certitude of faith that he already possesses the object of
his hope and of his love, so he is not overly concerned about some form of
a higher and more or less unverifiable experience of these realities. In
spite of this--or perhaps because of this--charismatic prayer has never
been lacking among Franciscans.
2.--The Imitation of Christ is for us not one means among many other
equally good means. Nor is it even the best means. It is the only and
essential means and without it there can be no conformity. This is true
because conformity is not a series of exterior acts designed to produce
some outer resemblance. It is a vitalizing effort to reproduce in the
disciple by interior assimilation the Master's life and ways, just as
children resemble their parents. It follows that this identification is the
result rather of eucharistic communion than of any personal striving.
3.--The Holy Ghost, as is now transparently evident, cannot even be, for
the Franciscan, the object of an excellent devotion. He is in fact the
devotion. By this we mean that He is the inner principle of Franciscan
spiritual life, the dynamic of Franciscan activity, the author of a living
transformation in Christ. As a result the soul, like a child, is freed from
the letter that kills. Christ's life, through the power of the Spirit of
Christ and the collaboration of our Lady, becomes the soul's life.
4.--Because our Lady is, with her divine Son, the object of the same divine
decree, she is His Co-Mediatrix in creation, redemption, distribution of
grace and entrance into glory. In Franciscan spirituality her place must be
next to Christ, after Him and with Him. She is the Mother of Christ the
Head by God's choice and her own consent. She is also the Mother of His
5.--of the Mystical Body, the living center of the Franciscan soul. This
three-fold Church triumphs in the heaven of angels and saints, suffers in
purgatory, and struggles on earth where it is visible and invisible,
hierarchic and spiritual. From this Church the soul receives doctrine and
sacraments, to this Church the soul returns love and obedience.
6.--The reception of the sacraments and liturgical life are neither
supplementary nor superfluous, but as we observed when discussing the
Eucharist, the Franciscan knows that Mass, public prayers, and sacramental
ceremonies are means of union with Christ--peerless, authentic and divinely
efficacious because of their institution. They are valued highly but other
7.--for example, such ascetical exercises as examen or meditation are not
for that reason neglected or despised. The latter is not to be confused
with prayer because the enlightened Franciscan docile to the Holy Spirit
and conformed to the acts and thoughts of Christ (that is to His mysteries
and His states) is by nature contemplative and Christ is the object ant
means of a tender knowledge of God, of a wisdom which is eternal life.
These examples will suffice. They show that the introduction of these
devotions does no violence to our theses and adds nothing incongruous. On
the contrary, they serve to bring out the integrity and true meaning of
Franciscan spirituality. They do not endanger its unity nor obscure its
IV. We have seen that the practices of virtue of the Franciscan are those
of every Christian soul. Yet we allowed ourselves to claim at the beginning
of this chapter that these practices which are to be found in every school
have here a spirit that if not essentially different, is at least
This is the spirit of the first beatitude:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
Lest this study be incomplete and our readers be deceived, we must now show
how the virtue of poverty gives a special modality to Franciscan
spirituality, and we must describe the spiritual reality that is hidden in
It is along this path that the Franciscan follows his guide and grasps,
adopts and fulfills his highest purpose more perfectly and more profoundly.
Francis is not merely poor. He is the poor man, the little poor man,
"pauperculus, il poverello." How far he carried poverty, renunciation,
disappropriation, there is no need to repeat--the facts are well known. His
poverty is legendary. Excesses and unjustifiable exaggerations have been
imputed to him. There is a proverb "Loans are made only to rich men," and
it is true that of the plenitude of Franciscan poverty practices are
alleged that verge on the superstitious.
Saint Ambrose, in accord with all the Fathers and Doctors justifies the
choice of poverty as the foundation of the spiritual edifice on the grounds
that the root of all evil springs from its contraries, cupidity and
But Francis was not guided by dialectics. He was not influenced by theories
of asceticism or social economy. Love was his lodestar. He loved Christ and
wanted to make himself in all things like Christ. He saw that Christ taught
poverty by word and example. He willed to make himself poor. He exhorted
his followers to live in poverty and by poverty.
Rich as Christ was, for our sakes He made Himself poor. "For you He was
made poor". "Propter vos egenus factus est." Beyond the state of need to
which Jesus reduced Himself during His mortal life, Francis discovered the
deep and radical self-stripping of which this external poverty seemed to be
the sacrament: "He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant."
"Semetipsum exinanvit, formam servi accipiens." Francis united himself to
the mystery of the annihilations of the Incarnate Word. He considered
Christ as stripped of human personality in favor of the person of the Son,
not claiming the condition of God to which He had a right, or the condition
of a free man which might have been His. He made Himself like the most
wretched among us, like slaves without civil rights, like criminals
condemned and punished.
"Nudum nudus sequitur." But who is there who will not admire the deep
theological insight of this little unlettered man and the likeness to His
divine Savior to which it brought him?
According to his Father's example the Franciscan finds in evangelical
poverty, most vitally in Jesus Christ poor, the rule of his life, the form
of his spirituality.
He lives not only in poverty (to please God, all disciples of His crucified
Son must do this), he also lives by poverty, so that this poverty which
according to other schools is only a secondary virtue connected with
temperance, becomes for him the means of inner union and transformation in
Every school of spirituality manifests some special aspect of the
inexhaustible plenitude of Christ's sanctity. It is this that gives it a
special "cachet," a center of spiritual unity, a way of holiness. As a
matter of fact, the end of every school is charity and the ultimate means
is humility through which charity flourishes, because charity is a
theological virtue and a gratuitous gift which is neither acquired nor
merited. It is God's overflowing gift to the soul He loves, because of His
exceeding love. "Propter nimiam charitatem." But in which soul? In the
humble soul, emptied of self, stripped of self, in other words in the soul
reduced to its essential poverty. Humility makes room for charity, charity
fills the soul in the measure of its poverty.
In humility, in the emptying of the old man, as Saint Augustine calls it,
Francis saw an aspect--but only one aspect of poverty. Rightly so. Poverty,
Saint Ambrose affirms, is more vast than humility. It is also more loving.
If it empties man of self, it is for the sake of a more perfect plenitude.
Christ, being rich, made Himself poor, to enrich us.
Notice how every virtue can lead to poverty because all virtues suppose or
impose some kind of renunciation or disappropriation. Faith surrenders
reason's certitudes. Hope gives up earthly cravings. Temperance (and this
includes chastity) deprives the body of its pleasures. Let it not be said
that these renunciations are made for the sake of a better good, for that
is their meaning. Charity, in its turn, strips man of what he has most at
heart: his longing, his need to be a center, to make himself the equal of
For Francis this is the efficacious value of poverty. It is not to be
understood in the use of things, pushed even to the most extreme needs. It
requires man's sincere correspondence to his condition as creature.
In Franciscan asceticism, poverty is seen to be a fount, a source of virtue
whence all other virtues flow, whether they are exercised towards God and
His Christ, towards neighbor or towards self. This is its exacting ideal of
a never satisfied love, a Christocentric virtue, the epitome of all theory
and all practice. We end where we began. Poverty has gone full circle.
Daily practice proves that all can and all must come from Christ, the first
Predestined, the universal Mediator, the Cause, the Exemplar, and the End
of God's work.
V. Before concluding, let us confirm the efficacy of this doctrine by
citing the number of those who, inspired by its lessons, have been
acclaimed by the Church for their holiness. These figures speak with an
eloquence all their own.
The litany of saints approved for Franciscan use contains the names of 30
martyrs in six different categories, besides Saint Fidelis, as well as 33
confessors and 14 virgins or widows.
It would be beyond the scope of this work to list these servants of God and
to add the names of the blessed. Such an enumeration, however, would excite
wonder, because it would include men and women of great renown and of
widely different social classes. More useful is the observation that a
saint recognized by the Church never leads his or her heroic life in
isolation. On the contrary such an ardent soul is a center of faith and
Before the days of the pontificate of His Holiness Pope Pius XII, the
Franciscan family gave the Church 121 saints (61 in the First Order, 6 in
the Second and 54 in the Third) and 352 blessed (118 in the First Order, 22
in the Second, 92 in the Third). These Tertiaries were monarchs or
merchants, working men or women who won their holiness in the world and
helped to make the world holy. In the twentieth century, 91 Franciscans
have been canonized or beatified. Of these Pius XI canonized five and Pius
XII has added new names to the list, let us mention only Saint Jeanne of
Valois and two French Franciscans among the 29 martyred by the Boxers in
1900 and who are now blessed.
More than 550 causes have been introduced in Rome. Almost one-third, that
is about 180 of these causes are Franciscan. Four of these servants of God
are our contemporaries.
By its fruits, our Lord has told us, the tree is to be judged.
May we not claim (unless we are completely and blindly deceived) that we
have achieved our purpose and have shown that the spirituality adopted by
the Franciscan family is:
1.--conformed to the examples and teaching of its founder,
2.--signally faithful to the doctrines laid down by its teachers and based
3.--and that its devotional practices are inevitably the same as those
found in other schools, yet their spirit is, if not entirely its own, at
least and more correctly basically made new.
To this spirituality no extraneous elements have been added From it no
revealed doctrines have been subtracted. It is purely and solely
evangelical. In it Christ is all: foundation and crown, door and key, way
and goal, truth and life.
So absolute a fidelity to revelation, attested to at its inception in its
consistent development in its strict observance, leads to a result that is
distinctively and really its own even though hidden from human eyes.
"God forbid", the Franciscan can repeat in the words of the Apostle Paul,
in the words of his own father Francis, in the words of his masters,
"God forbid, that I ever glory in aught else than in Jesus, my crucified
Lord. To Him be honor, glory, love eternally. Amen."