The Catholic Who Paved the Way for Martin Luther’s Reform

St. Francis Receives the Stigmata, by Caravaggio
St. Francis Receives the Stigmata, by Caravaggio

Three centuries before Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses on the church door at Wittenberg, Francis of Assisi had already rocked the Roman Church with radical, controversial and irrepressible reform. Whereas Luther brought to the foreground the concept of justification by grace through faith in contradistinction to the corrupt practices of the Catholic Church of his time, Francis of Assisi had not only brought the concept to the foreground of his religious movement, but had cleared the path for living out its practical implications. 

Martin Luther tacks his 95 Theses to the door at Wittenburg
Martin Luther tacks his 95 Theses to the door at Wittenburg

Francis founded the order of the Friars Minor, which means he was a monk—or, better, a friar—as Luther himself had once been. Luther entered the cloister as an Augustinian friar in Erfurt in 1505 after being frightened in a thunderstorm. He later renounced his vows, insisting that “monks have erred and if they have not repented, they have been damned.”

He posited that monastic spirituality was the enemy of faith and hostile to Christian liberty. For the centuries following the sixteenth-century Reformation the evangelical community has championed Luther’s stance against a theology of works in deference to salvation by grace and faith alone.

Francis would assert, however, that his monastic vows, rather than manifesting a theology of works, were his ultimate assertion of God’s salvation by grace. In order to understand how this could be so, it is necessary to understand Francis within the context of his age.

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Francis of Assisi lived during the period referred to as the Middle Ages—more or less a thousand years between the fall of the Roman Empire (fifth century) and the start of the Renaissance (sixteenth century). It was a time marked by brutal religious wars, assaults from foreign invaders, famine, and misery among the masses. The holy sites in Jerusalem, which for centuries had been cherished pilgrimage sites, had fallen to the Saracens (Muslims), while the Mother Roman Church was vying for political control power with the Holy Roman Empire.

The Western church had evolved to assume the form of Catholicism.

By the Middle Ages, the Church faced corruption in its ranks, squalor among the masses, political wars, and the rise of alien beliefs. 

During the Middle Ages in the West, if one was not a Catholic, one was considered a heretic and (it was believed) outside of God’s graces. Yet the well-known corruptions and opulence of the Roman Church of that time proved problematic for some earnest religious seekers. As a result, a “grassroots” movement emerged called the Ordo Poenitentium, “the penitential order.” The penitential movement flourished during the Middle Ages and is credited for the proliferation of monasteries and hermitages. It gained wide popularity among laity, oblates, and pilgrims of the age and showed itself through living a life of poverty, mendicant preaching, and performing acts of mercy toward outcasts and lepers.

Francis of Assisi was attracted to this expression of the religious life as a young man in his mid-twenties. After a tortured two-year conversion process, in 1206, he renounced his life as a wealthy merchant’s son, a warrior and aspiring knight, and Assisi’s party-king and premier ladies’ man. To the shock of neighbors, friends, and family, Francis assumed a pauper’s tunic and embraced a life of poverty as a penitent. At the time, he had no intention of starting a religious order.

Francis took literally the words Jesus commanded when he told his followers to sell all their possessions, give to the poor, and follow him. He embraced this gospel mandate entirely. Over time his curious allegiance commanded attention, and even respect, among many of Assisi’s most prominent citizens, who—adding to the shock of Francis’ own conversion and renunciation of rank—soon joined him. Francis’ first follower was a wealthy man of arms and a respected and learned member of the nobility in Assisi who held degrees in civil and canon law. His second follower was another man of law and a prominent citizen. Within a year of Francis’ conversion, he had commanded a following of a contingent of Assisi’s high-ranking citizens who voluntarily assumed beggars’ garb in order to follow him. They included (among others) members of the nobility; the poet laureate of the Empire; a knight and minstrel from a powerful local family; and a Catholic priest, who put aside the silks of his mantle to assume the coarse tunic of a penitent. Francis’ example continued to command still more followers until he recognized he had a “movement” underfoot. This forced him to concede that his small band needed validation from the Church in order to survive.

Francis wanted papal approval for his infant order so it would be clear beyond any doubt that what he proposed was not heretical or in violation of the teachings of the Gospel. He wrote a short Rule (governing document) in which he articulated a literal application of Jesus’ words to sell all possessions and serve the poor, which he and his fellow friars obliged themselves to appropriate. He was asking the Church to affirm that his rule as a legitimate and authentic assertion of Christ’s teaching. He sought—even as Luther did when he posted the ninety-five theses–to win the acquiescence of the sole governing authority of the age for all things Christian, the pope himself.

Francis before Pope Innocent III in 1209, depicted by Giotto
Francis before Pope Innocent III in 1209, depicted by Giotto

In 1209 Francis and his brothers went to Rome to see the pope directly. The pontiff at the time was Innocent III who, as it happened, was “more spiritual than other popes,” as one friar told me, and understood the advantage of bringing penitents under the obedience of the Church. (This accounts for one of the many contrasting social and historical factors that differentiate Francis’ situation from Luther’s.) Even so, Innocent was not initially convinced by Francis’ plea for approval of his Rule. Worse, his request put the Curia in a predicament and squabbling within the Curia ensued. Some felt his claims to poverty would be impossible for any order to embrace in a sustainable way. Others said his rule smacked too much of heretics who made similar claims of renunciation, such as the Catharists and the Waldensians. (Catharists and Waldensians similarly embraced poverty, as Francis did, but denied the authority of the Roman Church, asserting that Jesus conferred on every individual authority as a “priesthood” — from the New Testament, I Peter 2. The Cathars also upheld the notion that the flesh corrupted the divine spark within every human being, thus concluding the material world was evil. Waldensian conviction was not altogether inconsistent with that of Francis. However, when the movement’s founder, Peter Waldo, solicited permission to preach from Church authorities, he was refused. Nevertheless, he continued to preach without permission. Waldensians and Catharists were both deemed heresies.)

Francis maintained that renunciation to live as Christ lived was not an attempt to earn merit by works but, to the contrary,  was a gift from Christ himself and so did not depend upon man’s abilities or weakness. It was rendered only by grace. He said, “The King of Kings himself will provide for all the sons he wills to raise up through me because, if he cares for strangers, he will also do so for his own children.”

At the Curia, Francis made it humbly but forcefully clear that he was simply asking that he and his fraternity be allowed to live out the Gospel freely as they understood it from Jesus himself—and that they be able to do so without interference from the Church.

Ultimately, Francis won papal approval to live the life as outlined in his Rule. Thus the new Order of the Friars Minor (“lesser brothers”) was born. Francis and his brothers went back to Assisi where he “began to speak out more boldly owing to the apostolic authority he had been granted.”

Francis’ validation from the then-politicized and corrupt church changed the landscape of Christian belief of his time. Rather than being a theology of works, Francis’ “monasticism” was his ultimate assertion of grace. The vows taken by the Friars Minor included those of poverty, chastity, and obedience. This meant, for Francis, grace was not an abstraction but an exercise in the particulars. If one made himself poor, by grace would supply his every need. If one chose to be chaste, God by his grace would give strength to persevere. If one put himself under obedience, by grace, God would keep in check those tendencies in the human heart that crave adulation and aspire to power. These vows were not the vehicles by which to earn salvation, as Luther suggests, but the avenues through which God’s grace could reach into the human situation, claim dominion and transform.

Francis never intended to start a religious order. He simply wanted to live the gospel. He remains in history a Christian champion Protestants ought not only to know but also to embrace. 

Luther set the Roman Church ablaze in a moment of cataclysmic repulsion of its mounting corruptions. But it ought not be overlooked that it was the faith of a humble friar who, centuries earlier, lent tinder that fueled the fire of the house that Luther burned.

On his deathbed, Martin Luther uttered his dying words: “We are beggars, that is true.”

Three hundred years earlier Francis of Assisi was living it. He made himself poor. So he feared nothing. The humble friar from Assisi single-handedly demonstrated that the New Testament Gospel of Christ crucified could be lived truly and with integrity in a violent, chaotic and un-Gospel-like age.

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