Exploring the little known other side of St. Francis

Oct 4, 2019

October includes the feast day of one of the most popular saints in the history of the Catholic Church, St. Giovanni di Bernardone.

This super popular saint is better known by his nickname, Francis, and his feast day is Oct. 4, which happens to be the day after the anniversary of his death in 1226.

St. Francis doesn’t fit his modern-day image. He wasn’t the jolly, bird-toting garden statue we’re used to seeing. In many cases he was the very opposite of that.

One of the most popular portrayals of Francis was a series of portraits done by the 17th century Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbaran. One of the portraits in the series has Francis looking more like the grim reaper, with a dark brown habit and a long, pointed hood on his head casting a deep shadow over his face while Francis is looking down at an upside-down skull he is holding in his hands. That, not the garden statue, is the real St. Francis.

St. Francis was fixated on death — his own death — not in a morbid way, but in a realistic way that our modern society has done away with. St. Francis, who wrote several letters and canticles, spoke often of “sister death” as someone we should love and welcome because that is why we are on earth to begin with, to get to heaven.

There are many other interesting facts about this great saint that paint a more accurate picture than what we are used to. In this age of over-the-top political correctness, many would take offense at the fact that Francis joined a crusade in Egypt not so much to fight as to work for the conversion of Muslims. Francis rightly believed that spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ and preaching repentance was carrying out Christ’s own command. He did not have much success converting Muslims to Christianity, but he did succeed in convincing the Sultan to allow him to continue to preach in Egypt.

It’s amazing that Francis would be so popular today when he seems so different from what Western Civilization has become. His was a life of humility and poverty. He demanded that his followers own absolutely nothing — no money, no shoes, no staff — and he himself followed that form of life, believing that he did not even own the habit he wore.

His humility showed itself in the fact that he refused to be ordained a priest. He held such a high regard for priests and more so for the Eucharist that he could not bring himself to become a priest, so St. Francis stopped at the level of the diaconate.

Another interesting fact about his humility is that he never had the intention to found a religious order. Although today the Franciscans number more than 30,000, he only expected to have a small group of disciples that he named “Friars Minor,” which literally means “lesser brothers,” the official name of the Franciscan order.

And as one last example of the saint’s humility, he ordered his disciples to bury him in a cemetery that was reserved for criminals unworthy of a Catholic burial. It is a command that was never carried out.

Another interesting and overlooked fact about St. Francis is that he is the one who popularized manger scenes at Christmas. He may not have been the first to create a manger scene (although there is no written record of an earlier example) but he certainly is the one who made displaying them a common practice. Even today if you ever go to his native town of Assisi during Christmastime, you will see how the town goes over the top on its portrayal of Christ’s birth.

Francis, in his own spirituality, was deeply Eucharistic, and it was a form of spirituality he wanted to foster in his followers. He once wrote in a letter to his entire order: “Let everyone be struck with fear, let the whole world tremble, and let the heavens exult when Christ, the Son of the living God, is present on the altar in the hands of the priest! . . . The Lord of the universe, God and the Son of God, so humbles himself that for our salvation He hides Himself under an ordinary piece of bread!”

He wrote at another time that anyone who did not believe that the Eucharist was truly the presence of Christ should be condemned. Hardly the sentiments of the saccharine saint many portray him to be!

Finally, it has been pointed out by others that Francis may have preached to the birds, but it was far more important to him to preach to people to save them from sin; he may have saved lambs from slaughter, but it was more important to him to save lepers from being unloved or uncared for.

And as for attempts of far-left environmental groups to adopt Francis as a patron saint, Butler’s “Lives of the Saints” says, “To have venerated anything in the created world without directly linking it with the worship of God would have been for Francis the greatest blasphemy.”

Francis is bigger than life and no one text or book adequately portrays him. Even today, nearly 800 years after his death, books are regularly written about his life. Here we just scratch the surface of this amazing man.

If you are wondering how he got the nickname Francis, his father was in France on a business trip when little Giovanni was born. He fell in love with all things French during this journey, so when he got home he started calling his little boy Francis, and it stuck.

Previously published October 2011