Francis of Assisi: Christian History Interview — Modern Medieval Man

Francis of Assisi is one of those rare figures who still appeals to Christians of many denominational and theological stripes. Christian History asked Conrad Harkins, O.S.F., a scholar at the Franciscan Institute at Saint Bonaventure University in New York, to talk about Francis’s continuing attraction. Harkins is one of America’s leading scholars of Francis and editor ofFranciscan Studies.

Christian History:There were many traveling preachers in Francis’s day. Why is Francis remembered when others have been long forgotten?

Conrad Harkins: First, because Francis was utterly committed to God. Everyone says the great problem in Western society today is our collapse of values. For Francis the supreme value, the value that gave value to everything else, was God.

Francis was so committed to Christ, he took the Gospels as a manual of Christian life. When he heard that the Gospel said not to possess money, wear shoes, or own more than one tunic, Francis obeyed.

In addition, and just as important, he obeyed joyfully. There was a tremendous optimism and enthusiasm about Francis. For him a life of Gospel poverty was never depressing or sorrowful.

As Francis was being converted to God, he went with some young friends singing, dancing, and cavorting through the streets of Assisi. At one point, he fell behind the group. They turned back to find him and saw a dreamy look in his eyes. They teased him: “Oh, Francis, you’re in love!”

Francis replied, “You’re right. And I shall take a bride more beautiful and more lovely than any you can even begin to imagine.”

He was talking about God. That’s what transformed him. His joy in God, his love for God, was and is infectious.

What did Francis preach about? How was his theme different from preaching then and now?

Francis considered John the Baptist his patron saint, and like John he dedicated himself to penitential preaching. But even though Francis spoke about punishment for sin, he mainly exhorted people to see the goodness and love of God.

Sometimes while preaching to crowds, he would turn and look at some birds and address them: “Look how God feeds you! How good God is to you, because he gives you wings to get from place to place. He gives you the sky to fly around in. And you praise God by singing!”

Then he would turn to the people and say, “How do you people praise God for all the good gifts he gives to you?”

Instead of hearing about a vengeful deity, people heard about a loving God, and they would respond, “Yes, Francis! We want to make God the center of our lives. What do we do?”

What counsel did Francis give?

His earliest advice included six items:

• Love God with your whole heart, soul, strength, and mind.

• Love your neighbor as yourself.

• Control your body lest it lead you into vice and sin.

• Receive the Eucharist.

• Confess your sins.

• Bring forth fruit—good works—in penance.

Francis believed that he and the friars were a prophetic witness to the world. People would see their dedication and say, “These friars give themselves completely to God; they manage to live on so little! Maybe I don’t need so many things in order to survive.”

Why was Francis so committed to poverty and the poor?

To Francis the disadvantaged were his brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of the same Father. It wasn’t just social service he was performing; he revered the poor as people given to him by God.

For Francis, the poor were a gift. Serving them wasn’t a dutiful sacrifice; it was something a good God called him to do, something that brought him great joy.

Francis was in love with God, and God was the good behind all that is good, and the highest good. If you value God above everything else, then possessions, fine clothes, and money just don’t matter.

How did Francis, the spiritual radical, feel about the institutional church?

Surprisingly, Francis held deep respect for it. Other radicals of his day were critical of the church. Though Francis called everyone, including priests and bishops, to repentance, he respected the church’s authority.

One time Francis preached in a town where a priest was living with a woman. One man asked Francis whether the townspeople should continue to receive the sacraments from this immoral priest.

Francis took those listening to him to the priest’s house and knocked on the door. When the priest came to the door, Francis said, “I do not know whether these hands are stained as the man . . . claims. In any case . . . these hands remain the channel whereby God’s graces and blessings stream down on the people” [in the Eucharist]. Then he prostrated himself before the priest and kissed his hands.

Francis often seems too good to be true. What faults did he have?

In his biographies, there are stories after his conversion of his repenting of pride and hypocrisy (though in some cases, his guilt seems to be the result of a very tender conscience).

In addition, he definitely was a poor administrator. For example, when he first sent the friars to foreign lands, they went completely unprepared. One contemporary describes the friars who went to Germany. When some Germans asked them, in German, if they were hungry, the friars responded with the only word they knew: “Ja.” So they were given something to eat.

Then the friars were asked if they were thirsty; they said, “Ja,” and they were given something to drink.

Then they were asked if they were heretics. They said, “Ja,” and they were beaten!

In addition, Francis once sent friars to various regions without getting permission for them to preach in other church jurisdictions. He eventually recognized his administrative shortcomings and resigned as minister general of his own order.

Where do we see the effects of Francis’s ministry today?

In one allegorical story about Francis, he is courting Lady Poverty. She says that she must first examine his cloister, or monastery, before she agrees to wed him. Francis takes her to a hill overlooking Assisi and the whole Umbrian Valley and says, “There, Lady Poverty, is our cloister,” extending his hands out to the whole world.

In other words, his followers were to live God-centered lives in the world. That was revolutionary. Most preachers before Francis founded settled religious houses, where people tried to live out the ideal Christian life in work, prayer, and contemplation. Francis instructed his friars to practice prayer and contemplation, but he also told them to live out a Gospel life in the world.

After Francis, many cloistered communities began moving out into the world. Today we take it for granted that if you are deeply committed to the Gospel, you will go into the world to serve. That assumption is due in large measure to Francis’s ministry.

Francis says if we’re going to make peace, we’re going to suffer. 
Conrad Harkins

Sometimes Francis is portrayed as the environmental saint. Is that fair?

Francis saw that everything—dogs, cats, birds, flowers, sun, rivers, mountains—is a creature of God. So Francis had tremendous reverence for all creation. Like Paul, he sees all creation groaning, waiting to be brought into perfection (Rom. 8:22). That’s why he preaches to the birds, picks up worms who are in harm’s way, and writes a song extolling “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon.” Francis anticipated our rightful concern for the environment by hundreds of years.

What else does Francis teach us today?

I could list dozens of things, but let me mention this one: his way of practicing peace.

In one early account of Francis’s life, it says that Francis grieved that no one “intervened to make peace.” It’s a beautiful phrase. Christians often pray for peace as if it’s something that drops out of the sky. Instead, Francis believed peace is something that is made. So he insisted that his followers become peacemakers, as he was. For example, Francis once helped a magistrate and a bishop of Assisi resolve their quarrels.

Francis also teaches us that if we’re going to make peace, we’re going to suffer, and we’re going to have to give up something. Most people want peace by simply imposing their wills upon others, giving up nothing. Peace can be had only if we see the other person’s needs and grievances and willingly relinquish some of our own.

Making peace, then, is hard work. That’s why in The Canticle of Brother Sun, Francis adds that line, “Blessed are those who endure in peace.”

What does Francis mean to you personally?

Though it sounds blasphemous, Francis is sometimes called a second Christ. Why? Because he lived Christ’s teachings more purely than did anyone else in his age, and in any age since. I read about Christian values in the Gospels, but in Francis I see someone living them out.

That example both supports and inspires me. I want my life to be like his: totally centered on Christ. CH

By Conrad Harkins

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #42 in 1994]

interview with Conrad Harkins one of America’s leading scholars of Francis and editor of Franciscan Studies.
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