Born in 1181, St. Francis of Assisi was one of the most influential Roman Catholic saints of modern times. Known for his extreme asceticism, monasticism, passivism, and self-denial. St. Francis was a pioneer of modern ecological and animal rights activism. He was a reformer known for his unorthodox and eccentric sermons and his religious visions, one of which (in 1224) foretold the appearance of the stigmata, which he experienced afterward until his death (Brady). On his religious missions, he would often appear in villages barefoot, his clothes filthy and in tatters. He routinely slept on hard dirt floors. St. Francis adhered to a system of “self-imposed poverty,” meaning that his self-denial routinely led him to denounce all possessions and live a life of harsh austerity (Wolf 5). His rigid lifestyle, lack of self-care, and extensive travelling abroad contributed to his poor health in the later years of his life. He contracted malaria in Egypt, along with a severe eye and ear infection that resisted treatment; however, he bore his suffering with the type of extreme fortitude for which he had been emblematic his entire life. He died in 1226, two years after having received the stigmata (Brady).
St. Francis was canonized in 1228 and a basilica made in his honor in Assisi. Pope John Paul II, in 1979, established St. Francis as the Patron Saint of Ecology (Brady). Over the years since his death and subsequent canonization, St. Francis has had a lasting effect on the Catholic orthodoxy and its adherents, not all of whom agreed with his teachings. St. Francis derived his ascetic ideology from the belief that Jesus lived much the same type of life, self-repentant and devoid of comfort and material possession. His order came to be known as the Spiritual Franciscans, and, dubbed the Order of St. Francis, the brothers were allowed to continue their Church-sanctioned missionary work in the generations after St. Francis’ death. However, controversy still surrounds today at the application of St. Francis’ principles, which, some believe, differ greatly from his literal and exemplary commands. Overall, the impact of St. Francis’ legacy can still be felt today in the 21st century, particularly in his ascetical and monastic views and influence on the current Pope and his namesake, Pope Francis.
St. Francis’ monastic views derived directly from his idea of Jesus’ own ascetical life. Ironically, however, St. Francis did not grow up in poverty; in fact, he once led a life of privilege. He came from a family of prosperous cloth sellers and, early on, enjoyed a life of carefree pleasure. When war broke out between Assisi and Perugia, he fought for his homeland but was captured in the war and spent a year in confinement (Brady). After his release, he came back a humbler man, and he subsequently experienced a vision from God that made him decide to alter his life trajectory and serve the Catholic faith. Soon, he began to receive other visions, and something in those portents made him decide to renounce his worldly possessions and live an ascetic life. He participated in a pilgrimage to Rome, joining a group of homeless beggars in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. Here, he had an experience with a leper in which he overcame his disgust to kiss the leper’s hand and show the kind of extreme denial of the self for which he would later be known (Brady). A defining point in St. Francis’ monasticism came when he stripped naked in front of his father and the bishop of Assisi, handing over the remainder of his possessions, proclaiming, “Until now I have called you my father on earth. But henceforth I can truly say: Our Father who art in heaven” (Brady). St. Francis believed in literal translation of the Bible, regarding Jesus’ humanity and poverty, as evinced in Philippians, Chapter 2: “[He] made himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men…He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (7-8). It is clear to see how St. Francis would be influenced by a passage such as this. It both confirms Jesus’ essential humanity and His monasticism and practice of self-denial, an aspect of devotion that St. Francis set as a model through which to live his life.
St. Francis’ extreme monasticism resonates into the 21st century. Current Pope Francis, who took his name from St. Francis, is known to have been deeply influenced by St. Francis’ precepts. While not subjecting himself to the kind of extreme asceticism as St. Francis had eight-hundred years prior, Pope Francis does largely adhere to humble Franciscan principles. In fact, Pope Francis broke with Vatican tradition when refusing the Apostolic Palace lodgings for the far more modest Vatican guesthouse (Yardley). His morning services, in the tradition of St. Francis, are performed in simple surroundings, and his target audience are not high-ranking clergymen and viceroys, but common people (Yardley). Seemingly channeling St. Francis, Pope Francis is quoted as saying, “The church asks all of us to change certain things…to let go of decadent structures—they are useless” (Yardley). Also, Pope Francis’ anti-materialistic stance (he has been known to be critical of capitalism as a corruptive force) harkens back to St. Francis’ avowal to shed his material limitations in favor of a higher, more spiritual order. Elements of St. Francis’ influence can also be seen in Pope Francis’ younger years. Before he was Pope Francis, he was Jorge Mario Bergoglio, an archbishop who shunned the spotlight and did his good works without the need for popularity or vocal public appreciation (Yardley). He spent most of his time in the Argentinian slums, helping the poor, infirm, and less fortunate. His works harken back to St. Francis’ own, particularly with regard to how St. Francis felt the need to integrate with and represent the common people, shunning the extravagant aspects many clergymen enjoyed. Here, it is easy to see the parallel not only between St. Francis and Pope Francis, but between the two religious leaders and the portrayal of a humble Jesus as shown in Philippians.
St. Francis was a remarkable man whose influence can be felt in modern times, all the way up to the current 21st century and its current Pope Francis. In the equivalency in both humility of lifestyle and monastic teachings between the two, we can see St. Francis’ enormous reach across many centuries. His precepts spawned a new group of followers who began to refuse the more extravagant lifestyles of the papacy in favor of a more direct communion with God. In this sense, St. Francis’ break from the main Catholic orthodoxy of the time would be later echoed by Martin Luther in his Protestant Reformation; however, it should be noted that St. Francis worked within the predominant structures of the Catholic Faith, in which he believed wholeheartedly, in contrast to Martin Luther, who sought to break down those structures. Whatever the case, St. Francis was truly a religious pioneer, visionary, and devout believer in the faith. He gave his life in service of the tenents of God, and his veneration, lasting all the way up to current times, is very much well-deserved.
- Brady, Ignatius Charles. “Saint Francis of Assisi.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc, 12 Dec. 2011. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Francis-of-Assisi. Accessed on 10 Feb. 2017.
- Holy Bible. New King James Version. Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1982.
- Wolf, Kenneth Baxter. Oxford Studies in Historical Theology: The Poverty of Riches: St. Francis of Assisi Reconsidered. New York, US: Oxford University Press, 2005. ProQuest Ebrary. Accessed on 10 Feb. 2017.
- Yardley, Jim. “A Humble Pope, Challenging the World.” The New York Times. World. 18 Sept. 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/19/world/europe/pope-francis.html?_r=0. Accessed on 10 Feb. 2017.