Tuesday, September 27, 2011

St Francis of Assisi was as Catholic as they come

He's honored in the Billy Graham Museum's Rotunda of Witnesses, he's cited as an inspiration for the New Monasticism movement, and he's just in general held in great respect among evangelicals. And rightly so, since his life of radical adherence to Christ is just as challenging today as it was 800 years ago.

But as many evangelicals are inspired by the life of St Francis of Assisi, they often are unaware or ignore that St Francis was about as committed to the Catholic faith as they come. He wasn't a Catholic who wished he was Protestant: instead, he held with all of his being as essential to the faith those very things by which Protestants have defined themselves by rejecting as Satanic corruptions of the faith.

In other words, he wouldn't be skipping Sunday morning Mass for a Eucharist-less rock concert at the local non-denominational ecclesial community.

Am I happy that evangelicals are interested at all in looking to the lives of pre-Reformation Catholic saints? Of course! - it played a significant role in leading me back to Mother Church! I ask only that as they do so, they look at the actual lives of the saints - not censored, watered-down versions made to fit modern American evangelicalism. As evangelicals do so, I hope that they will see that Protestantism truly is a fairly recent innovation and that the Catholic Church is indeed Christ's Church of the ages.

When we look at St Francis' life, we find one that was decidedly Catholic: he went to Mass, obeyed the hierarchy, fought against heresy, is credited with bringing Eucharistic Adoration to Italy, and founded a new monastic order that reported directly to the Pope. In a time when grave disorders and abuses in the Church were rampant, St Francis sought reform by living a life of even more radical adherence to the Church and her teachings - the opposite of the entire Protestant project.

We find more in the few writings he left behind: he exhorted people to confess all of their sins to priests, warned that mortal sin led to hell, and left behind a beautiful prayer of praise to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

But St Francis mostly wrote about the Eucharist - and rightly so, since the Eucharist has always been at the center of authentic Christian living. The Catholic Church's Second Vatican Council of the 1960s reaffirmed the faith of St Francis of Assisi when it taught that "the Eucharistic sacrifice...is the fount and apex of the whole Christian life" (Lumen Gentium, 11). The beliefs and practices of modern evangelicals, on the other hand, would be absolutely foreign - if not outright blasphemous - to St Francis.

Among the quotes from his writings below, you'll find that he firmly believed in the real presence in the Eucharist, the sacrifice of the Mass, that only priests can consecrate the Eucharist, and that all priests, regardless of their personal sanctity, should be reverenced as a result - all of which are rejected by modern day evangelicals.


Let the entire man be seized with fear; let the whole world tremble; let heaven exult when Christ, the Son of the Living God, is on the altar in the hands of the priest. O admirable height and stupendous condescension! O humble sublimity! O sublime humility! that the Lord of the universe, God and the Son of God, so humbles Himself that for our salvation He hides Himself under a morsel of bread. (Letter to All the Friars)

We ought...to visit Churches frequently and to reverence clerics not only for themselves, if they are sinners, but on account of their office and administration of the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which they sacrifice on the altar and receive and administer to others. And let us all know for certain that no one can be saved except by the Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and by the holy words of the Lord which clerics say and announce and distribute and they alone administer and not others. (Letter to All the Faithful)

But all those who do not do penance and who do not receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, but who give themselves to vices and sins and walk after evil concupiscence and bad desires and who do not observe what they have promised, corporally they serve the world and its fleshly desires and cares and solicitudes for this life, but mentally they serve the devil, deceived by him whose sons they are and whose works they do; blind they are because they see not the true light,—our Lord Jesus Christ. (Letter to All the Faithful)

For man despises, soils, and treads under foot the Lamb of God when, as the Apostle says, not discerning and distinguishing the holy bread of Christ from other nourishments or works, he either eats unworthily... (Letter to All the Friars)

We ought indeed to confess all our sins to a priest and receive from him the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who does not eat His Flesh and does not drink His Blood cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.  Let him, however, eat and drink worthily, because he who receives unworthily "eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the Body of the Lord," —that is, not discerning it from other foods. (Letter to All the Faithful)

I conjure you all to show all reverence and all honor possible to the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom the things that are in heaven and the things that are on earth are pacified and reconciled to Almighty God. I also beseech in the Lord all my brothers who are and shall be and desire to be priests of the Most High that, when they wish to celebrate Mass, being pure, they offer the true Sacrifice of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ purely, with reverence, with a holy and clean intention, not for any earthly thing or fear or for the love of any man, as it were pleasing men. But let every will, in so far as the grace of the Almighty helps, be directed to Him, desiring thence to please the High Lord Himself alone because He alone works there [in the Holy Sacrifice] as it may please Him, for He Himself says: "Do this for a commemoration of Me;" "if any one doth otherwise he becomes the traitor Judas and is made guilty of the Body and Blood of the Lord." (Letter to All the Friars)

For many things are sanctified by the word of God, and by the power of the words of Christ the Sacrament of the Altar is effected. (Letter to All the Friars)

I entreat you more than if it were a question of myself that, when it is becoming and it may seem to be expedient, you humbly beseech the clerics to venerate above all the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and His Holy Name and written words which sanctify the body. They ought to hold as precious the chalices, corporals, ornaments of the altar, and all that pertain to the Sacrifice. And if the most holy Body of the Lord be lodged very poorly in any place, let It according to the command of the Church be placed by them and left in a precious place, and let It be carried with great veneration and administered to others with discretion. The Names also and written words of the Lord, wheresoever they may be found in unclean places, let them be collected, and they ought to be put in a proper place. And in all the preaching you do, admonish the people concerning penance and that no one can be saved except he that receives the most sacred Body and Blood of the Lord. And while It is being sacrificed by the priest on the altar and It is being carried to any place, let all the people on bended knees render praise, honor, and glory to the Lord God Living and True.  (Letter to the Custodes)

Let us all consider, O clerics, the great sin and ignorance of which some are guilty regarding the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and His most holy Name and the written words of consecration. For we know that the Body cannot exist until after these words of consecration. For we have nothing and we see nothing of the Most High Himself in this world except [His] Body and Blood, names and words by which we have been created and redeemed from death to life.But let all those who administer such most holy mysteries, especially those who do so indifferently, consider among themselves how poor the chalices, corporals, and linens may be where the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ is sacrificed. And by many It is left in wretched places and carried by the way disrespectfully, received unworthily and administered to others indiscriminately. Again His Names and written words are sometimes trampled under foot, for the sensual man perceiveth not these things that are of God. Shall we not by all these things be moved with a sense of duty when the good Lord Himself places Himself in our hands and we handle Him and receive Him daily? Are we unmindful that we must needs fall into His hands? Let us then at once and resolutely correct these faults and others; and wheresoever the most holy Body of our Lord Jesus Christ may be improperly reserved and abandoned, let It be removed thence and let It be put and enclosed in a precious place. In like manner wheresoever the Names and written words of the Lord may be found in unclean places they ought to be collected and put away in a decent place. And we know that we are bound above all to observe all these things by the commandments of the Lord and the constitutions of holy Mother Church. And let him who does not act thus know that he shall have to render an account therefor before our Lord Jesus Christ on the day of judgment. And let him who may cause copies of this writing to be made, to the end that it may be the better observed, know that he is blessed by the Lord. (On Reverence for the Lord's Body and the Cleanliness of the Altar)

**All of these quotes were taken from his writings as they appear here.**


  1. Back in the day, I remember being so annoyed when I found out how Catholic St. Francis. I had the same experience with St. Max Kolbe. Grrr! ;-)

  2. This isn't exactly related to the post, but I was wondering if you're aware of the books by Francis Chan or David Platt or the things they're preaching. If so, what are your thoughts?

  3. Hey Anon,
    I've heard of Francis Chan and know that he's very popular nowadays, but haven't read any of his books. I have never heard of David Platt.

  4. You do a great job of tracing out just how Roman Catholic St. Francis was. Of couse, it is historically anachronistic to call him 'protestant' because protestantism did not exist. Evangelicals who claim him and who seek to understand his life respectfully will no doubt admit this. Those who refuse to are simply ahistorical postmoderns (people I am sure neither of us would want to associate with). Be careful not to lump all evangelicals into this category, for to do so would truly misrepresent the movement. God knows the Roman Catholic Church herself is incredibly diverse and thus, to a certain degree, is resistant to broad sweeping generalizations. The minium amount of respect for Evangelical diversity would also seem proper.

    That being said, I think you over look a crucial connection between St. Francis and the reformation. As Michael Allen Gillespie points out in his book 'Theological Origins of Modernity,' nominalism was mostly a Franciscan movement. The radical Christianity of St. Francis set a precedent within his movement that contributed to the philosophical developments in figures such as John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham (both Franciscans). So insofar as nominalism influenced/ motivated the reformation, the Franciscans had a part to play. The order was threatened with disbandment by the Vatican (especially during its years in Avignon) on numerous occasions for their particularly un-Thomist positions.

    Perhaps American Evangelicals are not broadly aware of this fact. Fair enough. But mainline Protestants are. And if Evangelicals are attracted to St. Francis rather than say Bernard of Clairvaux, in may be due to these underlying tendencies or impulses within his thought more broadly.