Like most Catholic schoolboys in the 21st century, I grew up saying the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi more than the Our Father. You know the one: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…” Oh, how I hated it. The prayer seemed to encapsulate everything noisome about liberal religion. It was moral pacifism, refusing to defend Truth against heresy and Good against sin. It was spiritual vegetarianism, subsisting on damp green stuff.
The business about preaching to animals, I thought, was just as bad. Brother Wolf is eventually —inevitably — joined by Brother Sun, and even Sister Moon. There’s a distinct note of pantheism about the good friar that made him seem more like the hero of a medieval fairy story—half-pagan and half-Christian, a kind of tonsured Beowulf—than a saint of God.
That was all wrong, of course, and I’m embarrassed to admit it. But it was perfectly in keeping with everything I’d been given to believe about St. Francis.
As I noted in a recent column, as early as the 1930s, Msgr. Ronald Knox was already poking fun at progressives who admire St. Francis yet openly scorn the Church (“what meekness, what cheerfulness, what love of animals! … Not a bit like a Roman Catholic.”). He’s the darling of lapsed, cafeteria, and Christmas-and-Easter Catholics. He’s the patron saint of middle-aged ladies who wear tracksuits to serve as Eucharistic Ministers and write letters to the bishop when their pastor mentions abortion in his homily. When a mob of graying SJWs in Portland went into open revolt against their new conservative priest, nobody was surprised to learn the parish was named after the Poor Man of Assisi.
Speaking of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, let me ask you this: were the Vatican to release a document affirming the “God Father-Mother Creator” of the “Amazon cosmovision,” what do you think the Pontiff’s name would be?
My opinion of St. Francis began to soften when I was invited to attend Mass with an extraordinary group of men called the Franciscans of Primitive Observance. I visited their friary in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in January of 2018. When I arrived, one of their numbers was shoveling snow—in his sandals.
The FPO is just that: priests and brothers who keep strictly to the Rule of St. Francis. Their asceticism is impressive for a pampered layman like myself: I walked a block down the street and around the corner before lighting a cigarette. What’s more impressive, perhaps, is how seriously they take their vow of poverty. They literally don’t have a cent to their name—no cash, credit, or even a bank account. One of the brothers (called the “quester”) goes door to door, begging for “food for the love of God.” That’s even more difficult than it sounds: having grown up in neighboring Haverhill, even as a kid I knew Lawrence is one of the roughest towns in New England.
It’s also one of the poorest cities, and this is what caught my attention: whenever I told somebody back home about the FPO, they were aghast. “Healthy young men begging in Lawrence?” they’d scoff. “That’s shameful.”
Those tuts and tisks no doubt surprised me more than they should have. My community then was predominantly white, middle-class, and heavily Protestant. The concept of holy poverty is as foreign to us as… well, wearing sandals in the middle of winter. But a heavily Latino city like Lawrence is full of pious abuelas—widows with two small copper coins they can almost spare.
St. Francis called himself the Jongleur de Dieu—God’s court jester—precisely because his virtue was so absurd by the standards of our own convention. But to say that he looked foolish in the eyes of the world is an understatement. His charity gave as much offense as any sinner’s meanness. St. Francis’s spirituality demands such uncommon virtue it’s offensive to common decency. Our aversion to the Franciscans’ holy poverty is one example.
Another comes from St. Bonaventure’s Legenda Sancti Francisci. Even before his conversion, St. Francis is said to have possessed an “innate and natural love of the poor of Christ.” It was his custom to give alms to every beggar who approached him. Yet Bonaventure recalls how, one day, when Francis was “engrossed by the tumult of worldly business,” he passed a beggar without paying him any heed. Coming to his senses, Francis turned around, “ran after the poor man,” and “charitably relieved his wants.”
Were we in Francis’s shoes (and if we felt any regret at all for ignoring a panhandler), we would no doubt resolve to do better next time and simply keep walking. We may even resolve to give two dollars to the next homeless person we meet instead of one. But to go back and find the man would surely be a waste of time! Besides, what difference would a few bucks make? There’s always another beggar who needs another dollar.