St. Francis, whose feast is celebrated on October 4, somehow managed to reconcile his love for the church with his understanding of it as an institution corrupted by power. Eight hundred years later, many Catholics still find that to be a challenge.
Recovering from his devastating experience as a soldier and prisoner of war, Francis formed a lay movement that aimed to preach penance and poverty. Rather than join an existing religious order, he undertook a countercultural life based on powerlessness and voluntary poverty—an implicit critique of the church’s thirst for secular power and wealth.
As Jacques Dalarun wrote in his book Francis of Assisi and Power, a monastic chronicle written during Francis’s lifetime noted with irritation: “But what is the meaning of introducing a new movement of this kind, unless it is in some reprobation for the careless and idle life led by those who are established in the Orders upon which the Church, up until now, has based itself?”
Francis refused to adopt the Rules used in existing orders, even when Cardinal Ugolino, the future Pope Gregory IX, urged him to do so. “My brothers, my brothers, God has called me to walk in the way of humility and has showed me the way of simplicity,” Francis was quoted as saying in the Legend of Perugia. “I do not wish to hear you speak of any other Rule—not of Saint Augustine, nor of Saint Bernard, nor of Saint Benedict. The Lord told me that he wished for me to be a new fool in the world, and God did not wish to direct us by any other means than by this particular knowledge.”
For Francis, the Rule of his order was essentially to live the Gospel as closely as humanly possible; it came to him from the Highest Authority. And yet he treated the pope, bishops, and other clergy with enormous respect. In one Franciscan chronicle, Francis urges his friars to make peace with the corrupted clergy of his day because “revenge is for God, and he will repay them in due time.” In Franciscan friar Thomas of Celano’s second chronicle of the life of Francis, the saint is quoted as saying,
If you are children of peace, you will win over both clergy and people for the Lord, and the Lord will judge that more acceptable than winning over the people while scandalizing the clergy. Cover up their failings, make up for their many defects, and when you have done this, be even more humble.
That advice to “cover up their failings” has a sinister ring nowadays, but I would not take it to mean Francis counsels covering up the abuse of children. In fact, he instructed his friars to be disobedient if necessary. “A friar is not bound to obey if a minister commands anything that is contrary to our life or his own conscience, because there can be no obligation to obey if it means committing a sin,” Francis wrote in his Earlier Rule.
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