By Timothy George
May 16, 2016
He shone in his days as a morning star in the midst of the clouds.
~Pope Gregory IX at the canonization of St. Francis of Assisi (1228)
There lived in the town of Assisi a man whose name was Francis. . . . In him we can contemplate the excess of God’s mercy: he brought the good news of peace and salvation to all, like a true Angel of peace.” Thus Bonaventura, the official biographer of St. Francis, introduced his readers to one of the most popular and attractive figures in medieval Christianity. In his own lifetime, though, Francis did not seek glory and fame for himself—he shunned them. He wanted to be known only as il poverello, the little poor man, or fratello, little brother.
More than anything else, Francis wanted simply to be like Jesus. As he put it in the Rule of 1221, the aim of his life was “to live in obedience, in chastity and without property, following the teaching and footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Long before he received the stigmata, the marks of Jesus’s passion, in his own body, some of his contemporaries began to call him alter Christus, another Christ. That term must be used with care, however, for it cannot mean that Francis was a rival to—or, much less, a substitute for—Jesus himself. No, Francis was single-mindedly devoted to Jesus Christ, “the glorious Word of the Father,” who by the power of the Holy Spirit took on our human nature in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Francis was alter Christus in the sense that the first followers of Jesus were called christianoi—partisans of Christ, “little Christs,” those stamped by and conformed to Christ (see Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16). As the Apostle Paul could say, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1), so too Francis gathered disciples who followed him in the way of the cross.
Beyond doubt, Francis was a Jesus-saturated saint. As Thomas of Celano said: “He was always occupied with Jesus; Jesus he bore in his heart, Jesus in his mouth, Jesus in his ears, Jesus in his eyes, Jesus in his hands, Jesus in the rest of his members.” In recent times, it has become popular to present Francis as the prototypical saint of secularism. One scholar has praised a recent biographer for “not larding his narrative with a piety that might alienate a secular reader.” But such an un-larded Francis, one shorn of miracles, mystery, exorcisms, and an ascetic rigor that would make anyone wince, is not the Francis we meet in the documents of his life. The “quest for the historical Francis” has produced a manageable figure we can domesticate and manipulate. Read the rest at First Things.