The Friar Who Inspired the Pope: The Original Francis

A full-length fresco portrait of St. Francis of Assisi, protected under glass in St. Gregory’s Chapel in Monastero di San Benedetto, Subiaco (Lazio) South of Rome. It is labeled “Fr. Franciscus” and the saint is shown without the stigmata or a halo, indicating it was painted during his lifetime, before 1224.

Today the Installation Mass of the new Pope Francis officially inaugurated his papacy. He chose the name Francis, he said, because upon his election, his friend, Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, “hugged me. He kissed me. He said, ‘don’t forget about the poor.’ And that’s how in my heart came the name Francis of Assisi, the man of the poor. The man of peace. The man who loved and cared for creation.

The man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man.” 

It is altogether sensible that a Jesuit would adopt an identity with the lowly friar who championed the poor, embraced lepers, and won the heart of the Sultan during a peace mission he took on the fourth crusade. Saint Francis is loved by just about everybody and people of all walks of faith claim him in some form or another.

I too claim him. I wrote a book about him and moved to Assisi, Italy to write it and to stay close to him. Does this sound odd? Indeed it is odd. But, as G. K. Chesterton noted in the introduction of his biography of Francis, his attempt to capture him was “certain of failure.” But he was “not altogether overcome by fear,” because Francis, he said, “suffered fools gladly.”

I have joined the litany of fools who have come to know him, love him and capture him (in so far as his life can be reduced to mere words) in a book. I include below the conclusion of the book,  which invites all pilgrims, saints, poets and lunatics to embrace this beloved friar who, by simplicity and humility, changed his world and continues to change ours: 

We who write of him are the company of fools. We sequester ourselves in lonely libraries before unyielding sources and wish courage for ourselves. We are hounded. We tread where angels fear to. Yet, don’t you see, being the fool is the only way to find Francis? That is because he went where fools go. He called himself God’s greatest fool.

He gave up every consolation in order to know God. For Francis, the knowledge of God opened in every moment. Every moment exacted a decision. And every decision demanded exertion. Every exertion required strength of a kind he did not possess. Choices had to be made with strength he did not possess toward a destination he did not see. Each moment offered that choice and the chance to exert what it took to execute that choice, even (especially) without certainty of calculable results. Ultimately these little moments accumulated and triggered the transaction. Matter became antimatter. For Francis it involved hard years that culminated in the race to the leper, flesh against flesh. Then it involved a lifetime of staying true. He would say that the transaction doesn’t demand the same process for everyone. He would say, however, that it does demand the dismount and the dash to the radical embrace. For Francis, truth of belief comes in the running. Francis would say, Dismount and run with everything you’ve got. Everything may turn upside down at that point. But he would encourage you to make even the slightest decision and then the slightest movement in the direction of that decision. He would say that at that point you will be given another step and then another decision. You will be nudged. That is how he found his way—or, rather, how his way found him.

He saw the whole picture of God’s expansive purpose as he lay naked on the ground before he died. Until that moment he had been a traveler on the journey, scratching through wreckage, moment by moment and choice by choice. Francis would say time—this life—renders the opportunity to make decisions. It is the opportunity to find one’s part in the cosmic performance of thanks.

Francis was a mystic. He embodied the odd and inexplicable mingling of cosmic and human elements. Many people in our time do not know what to do with mysticism, because it involves mystery. It is easier to reduce it to a statue or to exaggerate it in a hagiography. Francis was a mystic because he understood human nature to its core as it exists in the flesh and in the spirit. That is because he experienced both flesh and spirit, both burning and both thoroughly. And he was not a mystic only, but a mystic who kept his feet on the ground. That is why he insisted that his order be called the Friars Minor, “lesser brothers.” Francis understood the human core and, being Francis, he confronted it honestly and unsentimentally. He not only pointed the way to conquer it but also conquered it ahead of those who would follow him, eliminating the excuse that it could not be done.

That, he would say, is what living is for. It involves loneliness, at times hopelessness. Francis would say it involves shame. Even amid chaos and wreckage you begin to believe you will find what you are looking for, or that it will find you, even if the only thing you see for a time is the wreck. It commands strength you do not possess. It involves looking for something you can’t quite see. Francis says, Take heart! There will never be enough certainty in this life to convince anyone of the truth of a fool. The story of Francis of Assisi is the story of a man who went where fools go. It is a canticle. It is waiting while not seeing, hoping and acting in hope as if the promise were as clear as a new day. He sang his song in gentle airs. It came to him in the final moments of his life, naked on the ground, when he hurled it into light.

Almighty God, bestow upon us the meaning of words, the light of understanding, the nobility of diction, and the faith of the true nature. And grant that what we believe we may also speak.

Saint Hilary (c. 315-368), Bishop of Poitiers

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About Wendy Murray

Wendy Murray is a veteran and award-winning journalist. She served as associate editor and Senior Writer at Christianity Today magazine and has written extensively for other publications such as Books & Culture and The Christian Century. She has written 11 books.