A Green Saint – Francis of Assisi

Reprinted from The Common Good, no 50, Spring 2009

Jim Consedine

What has Saint Francis of Assisi to offer the more than one million people who live in the greater Auckland area and who are faced with a government determined to ‘solve’ Auckland’s transport problems by creating more roads and rolling nine local councils into one super-city council? One might think very little. St Francis never drove a car. He did not use any gasoline and never visited Auckland.

Yet he might have a very important lesson for the people of Auckland as they contemplate their future of a ‘big is better’ social structure. With our world facing peak oil production and use and the climate heating more every day, we cannot sustain a hydro-carbon economy which continues chew up resources and spew out gases at ever increasing rate threatening the very planet we live on. More highways and a centralized super bureaucracy are symbols of a dying system. The super-city notion comes from the same super-ego stable as failed banks and financial institutions, huge multi-million dollar salaries and gross incompetence. This type of thinking lacks imagination and creativity in the face of a need for a radical change to embrace not further damage the Earth.

Francis knew about radical change. He did it himself and lived it. That is why he continues to speak to an age seemingly out of control. His life of simplicity, voluntary poverty and his spiritual vision still resonate in the hearts of humankind today. He remains the archetypal embodiment of a universal spirituality which sees the divine all around and recognizes the interdependence of all creation. In addition, he remains a champion for the poor and the oppressed of every age. No wonder his appeal is global.

At this time we honour St Francis, 800 years after the official recognition of the Franciscan order by the pope, and reflect on why he has become the most loved and widely known saint in history. And why he continues to appeal to people of all backgrounds.

The Francis years

Context is everything. We can’t understand the sacred scriptures properly if we ignore the context in which they were written. The same applies to the life of Francis of Assisi. We run the risk of sentimentalising him if we don’t understand the times in which he lived and the events which shaped them.

What was the world like in the early 1200s when Francis lived? Firstly, it was a world totally dominated by the Church in every aspect. There was no escaping its influence. There was no nation state as we know it today, independent from the Church. In turn, the Church was controlled by an elite consisting of two overlapping groups: the clerical culture consisting of bishops, priests, religious and monasteries, and a wealthy elite of rich families, nobles, business interests and feudal landlords. The family of Francis was numbered among the latter. According to Leonardo Boff in his 1981 biography of Francis, ‘beneath the papacy of Innocent III, the Church achieved its highest level of secularisation, with explicit interest in dominating the world’. It was the Church of the great feudal lords. More than half of all the lands of Europe were ecclesiastical holdings. The monastic life was widely feudalized; to be a monk was …to enter into the system of power, of lands, of material goods.’[i]

Secondly, it was a world where the vast majority of people were poor and uneducated. The rich/poor divide was as real then as it is today. Structurally the majority of people were discriminated against by reason of their birth, not their abilities. The institutional Church was often more interested in administering its lands and goods than it was in defending the rights of the poor or evangelizing them. The Church helped maintain these unjust structures in place, often holding them to be of divine origin.

Thirdly, it was the era of the Crusades and the fight against Islam in the Holy Land. In a society built around the twin poles of clericalism and empire, the clerical Church believed itself to be the heir to the promises and glory of the Roman Empire.[ii] As with empire, might was right with the Church. Nobles and knights and the middle classes, fuelled by a desire to fight for Christ in ways that only military minds could conjure up, flocked to join the Crusades against the foreign infidels. Those who fought in the Crusades were assured of many indulgences and eternal life if they were killed. Those whom they fought were perceived as being evil and condemned to hell if they died.

It was from within this context that Francis saw the corrupting influences of power around him and the violence it generated. From the comfort of his sheltered and wealthy home, he experienced a call for radical conversion to something quite different. When he heard the voice of Christ while praying in the church at San Damiano to ‘go and repair my Church, which as you see is in ruins,’ he understood that to be a spiritual renewal from the bottom up. He sought to turn the model of Church on its head by becoming poor and discarding wealth. For him the foolishness of Christ was a far more powerful weapon than any army. Love of enemy, non-violence and peacemaking became his weapons, replacing war, the sword and the arrow.

It is important to note his conversion is within the context of the Church, not outside it or against it. Francis understood his vocation to be as a servant of the Church, acting within it. In order to do this, he moved from the centre of wealth and power that his family had come to represent to the periphery. As Boff says, ‘the periphery is where the great prophets arise, where the reforming movements are born, and where the spirit flourishes. The periphery possesses a theological privilege because it is there that the Son of God was born.’ [iii]

The dramatic stripping of his clothes in front of his astonished and angry father was Francis’s way of symbolically leaving behind the privileges of his upbringing so he could genuinely be poor among the poor. As Joseph Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) wrote, ‘Francis’s no to that type of Church could not be more radical. It is what we would call a prophetic protest.’[iv]

Francis envisaged a new way of being Church. He chose to remain a lay person for most of his life and only agreed to be ordained deacon after much persuasion. He felt the laity especially the poor had been pastorally abandoned by the Church. The simple living out of the Beatitudes became the cornerstone of his approach to the poor. As Boff says so succinctly, ‘for the first time in history, the poor have gained ecclesiological worth and not just charitable value.’ [v]

Francis could not tolerate clericalism and laid down strict laws refusing to allow his followers to accept privileged positions including leadership in the wider Church. He instructed his ‘friars minor’ not to found new monasteries but rather lives together in small communities and support each other, thus proposing a fraternal model of community rather than a hierarchical one. In an age when Latin was the norm in Church circles, Francis placed the preaching of the Gospel in the language of the people at the forefront of his mission. He wanted ordinary people to get to know and love Christ through their knowledge of the scriptures. He was led to see all of creation as reflecting the presence of the divine. While much of his love of animals has evolved into mythology, it remains true that he developed a wonderful love of birds and animals and he made such love a part of his creation centered spirituality.

The Church Francis committed to rebuild was a Church of the poor whom he recognized and acknowledged as being closest to God. It was a Church of servanthood rather than control and domination, a Church that celebrates life in all its created goodness and sees the interconnectedness of all of creation, a Church fed on the Word of God and the sacraments and a Church that reaches out to those most in need.

In our time

Where do we see the influence of Francis in our own time? In a society dominated by the gods of consumerism and greed for money and power, Francis has become an archetypal figure representing change to a more simple style of life. He is fondly recognized as a patron saint of the ecological movement. He represents simplicity, goodness and a care for the Earth. His statue sits comfortably in many household gardens in our modern suburbs.

In an age which demands a radical change in lifestyle for the majority of First World people, Francis stands as a model and an inspiration. We should not sentimentalise his efforts. In many respects, his was a harsh life. His voluntary poverty often left him hungry and cold. His peacemaking efforts were the fruit of long hours of prayer and fasting. But his efforts did lead to a liberation of his spirit, leaving him a joyful man. The joie de vivre of Francis echoes down through the centuries.

For many he is a far more important figure than the sentimentalized secular version. Both Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, co-founders of the Catholic Worker, were greatly taken with his simplicity, his love of ‘Lady Poverty’, his closeness to mother earth and all living creatures, his peacemaking efforts and his love of the Beatitudes as the wellspring of spiritual life. They were attracted by his integrity of spirit, his love of the poor, his vision of the common good, his driving passion to make love the generator binding all social relationships. The CW has long held him up as one of its patrons. Many of the CW houses and farms offering hospitality around the world are named after him, including St Francis CW Farm at Whirinaki in the Hokianga.

Many others have been deeply influenced. The prophet, E. F. Schmacher, author of the 1977 classic Small is Beautiful, presented economics ‘as if people mattered’ in small local models as being the way to live sustainably. It is a deeply Franciscan model and a fruit of Schumacher’s Christian faith. More and more this model is seen to make most sense in our own day. However, it does fly in the face of the global free market economic model of the past 30 years so beloved by transnationals and the banking and financial corporations. These same corporations have proved to be such liabilities, creating the current financial fiasco. Thesimple life of Francis stands in stark contrast to these systems.

More recently the ‘transitional town’ movement has reflected something of the Franciscan spirit in its processes. It is a movement which has emerged from the UK but taken root in many parts now, including New Zealand, where already nine towns are following its processes. Basically, it recognizes we cannot keep using finite resources like oil and hydro-carbons at the same frenetic pace of recent decades. It seeks ways within local communities to create alternatives that respect the planet we live on and the interdependent relationships which govern it. This leads transitional towns to seek ways of developing things like affordable housing, sustainable transport, and shared communal gardens. They seek to create where possible a return to small town economies, the values they represent, and the shared accountability that goes when people take personal responsibility for such endeavours. The sense of community is a wonderful by-product of such co-operation. Francis would approve wholeheartedly. The ‘transitional towns’ movement has a Franciscan spirit running right through it.

The spirit of Francis calls us to better judgment, to greater respect for the planet, to work more for the common good, and for the need to take control and responsibility back of our lives. Francis took an option for the poor. He had a heart for social justice. His commitment in his time remains a challenge to us in our time.

[i] Leonardo Boff, Francis of Assisi, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 1982, 2006, p100

[ii] Ibid. p101

[iii] Ibid. op.cit.

[iv] J.Ratzinger, in Zeit Jesu (Freiburg-Vienna) 1970, p258 – 72

[v] Ibid. p98

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