Few men impacted Church History or achieved the deep and sincere levels of spirituality as did St Francis of Assisi. Pope Pius XI called him the “second Christ” and in many non-Catholic faith traditions he is viewed as an example of the imitation of Christ. Francis was born at the end of the 12th Century, a time when Christianity was facing internal Church corruption, heretical movements, and the on-going struggle against Islam. In his Testament, Francis bequeathed his order the elements of faith most important to him at a time his own supporters were already altering the simplicity of the Christian experience that Francis preached and lived.
Francis Speaks of Poverty and Labor
Francis viewed poverty as an absolute. Throughout the medieval period, the Church had acquired vast holdings. Groups like the Cathari and the Waldenses preached against the wealth of the Church, declaring that property ownership was evil. The Church viewed such movements as heretical and highly dangerous. Francis, however, understood his vocation as rebuilding Christ’s Church. This came from one of his first encounters with God when, as a young man, he was told to “repair my house.”
In his Testament, Francis reminds the friars that they are “strangers and pilgrims” and not to receive “churches, poor dwelling-places, and all other things that are constructed for them…” The term “pilgrim” came into general use during the life of Francis and may have French origins. It denotes one who is from abroad or a foreigner. Acquiring estates, such as the great European monastic orders had, was antithetical to Francis’ spirituality and structure for his pilgrim friars.
Francis reminded the brothers that they were foreigners in a strange land. In the imitation of Christ, they were in the world but not of it. The friars were to be itinerant preachers, living lives of poverty, and associating with all people, notably the very poor and the lepers – outcasts. Francis did not differentiate poverty as did other religious orders that imposed vows of poverty on monks and nuns yet accepted wealth to build institutions. Franciscans had no bishops living in palatial homes.
The Testament also referred to labor – work “with my hands…” Francis wanted all brothers to work in “labor which is compatible with honesty.” Labor by the brothers was not for profit, but for “the sake of example and to repel idleness.” Poverty did not mean sloth. Begging alms was recourse when “the price of labor is not given to us…”
Francis’ Testament Emphasizes Obedience to the Rule
Every medieval religious order followed a Rule. One of the earliest was the Rule of St Benedict, which proscribed the duties and responsibilities of monks. Francis’ Rule was the Gospel of Jesus. One of his biographers sums up the Rule as a life of poverty, humility, and compassion. It was this imitation of Christ that compelled Francis to celebrate God’s creation through nature (The Canticle of the Sun) and to preach Christ to the Muslims.
Francis lived during a time when the crusading mentality was strong. Many evils came out of the Crusades, resulting in the deaths of countless innocents. Francis did not resort to the sword. Unlike the bishop leading a crusade against the Albigensians in France and ordering the soldiers to kill all – including infants, Francis traveled to Egypt to preach Christ to the Sultan.
His Testament stressed obedience to the Rule and to the Catholic Church. The Rule was not to be amended in order to weaken it. The Testament declares Francis’ warning and exhortation to observe the Rule as he gave it and as it was approved initially by Pope Innocent III (although the Rule was adjusted at least three times and would change significantly after Francis’ death with Bonaventure and the “conventual” Franciscans).
Unwittingly, obedience to the Rule, notably the proscription against property ownership that kept the friars moving without a permanent home, may have strengthened the papacy at the expense of the ordinary clergy, according to historians of Church History.
The Testament of St Francis Begins with Penance and Ends with Humility
Francis begins his Testament with the gift of penance. Penance was an integral part of medieval worship. Francis speaks of his bitterness toward lepers, a bitterness turned to the “sweetness of body and soul” after the “Lord Himself” led him to minister to these social outcasts. Significantly, the first paragraph ends with Francis’ declaration that “by Thy holy cross Thou hast redeemed the world.” Francis “conversion” as a young man was part of a transformation that included a vision of the crucified Christ.
Much later in life, Francis received the wounds of Christ after another vision of the crucified Lord. His movement grew rapidly and substantially as others saw his example. Yet he ends his Testament referring to himself as “your little one and servant…” There is no hint of pride in his Testament. Francis points not at himself, but to Christ. This confounded and challenged the medieval world which revolved around the Church. Few bishops and popes saw themselves as “servants.”
Like Bernard of Clairvaux and Innocent III, Francis impacted the next centuries of Church History. He died in 1226 but his Testament continues to remind Christians what to St Francis was the very nature and essence of faith and redemption. The Testament also points to an atypical medieval lifestyle for Christians and for the Church. Church corruption was always met eventually by reform, but swiftly reverted to past evils, often within a few decades. Although the Franciscans continued to expand in numbers, including the addition of a lay order, Francis’ Testament was changed as his view of poverty was deemed too extreme.