Thursday, March 14, 2013

St. Francis and the Liturgy

With the election of the new pontiff and the selection of the name "Francis" there is the expected speculation as to what this name might signify. To be clear, I intend to offer no speculation on the question of what, if anything, the name might signify to the pontificate. That is not my purpose.

What is my purpose however is that with the name "Francis" at the forefront of our minds in these days, it reminded me of a couple of articles we have pursued here on St. Francis of Assisi, because many people often have a very stunted view of that saint -- one which seems to assume that the radical living of the gospel and poverty is somehow at odds with liturgical centrality, beauty and excellence. Nothing could be further from the truth!

With that in mind, I thought I would share these two articles we published over the past few years here.
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St. Francis and the Divine Office


When people think of St. Francis of Assisi, they typically do not think of the sacred liturgy. This is not because Francis was aliturgical or anti-liturgical of course, simply that this particular aspect of the saint's life has not penetrated into the popular piety which surrounds him. (That said, today if St. Francis is mentioned in relation to the sacred liturgy, it will likely be to defend or promote some kind of liturgical minimalism -- and one particularly popular film about his life could even leave some with the impression that he was a precursor to 20th century liturgical progressivism, but I digress.)

We have spoken of this co-opting of Francis just under a year ago, where his concern for beauty was noted by contrast. Recently, another quote came to my attention, this time commenting upon him in relation to the praying of the Divine Office.

In this as in all things Francis gave the most splendid example. He chanted the psalms with such interior recollection as if he beheld God present. Although he suffered from illness of his eyes, his stomach, his kidneys and his liver, he would not lean on anything while reciting the Office, but prayed in an upright position, with his hood thrown back, never allowing his eyes to wander, or interrupting in any way. If he happened to be on a journey, he would make a stop; if in the saddle, he would dismount. Even when the rain poured down upon him he would not depart from this custom.

Hilarin Felder, The Ideals of Saint Francis of Assisi, p. 402

Obviously this particular quotation comes from a modern author, rather than being a direct quotation from contemporary sources, but it is interesting nonetheless, giving us another lens in which to consider this saint.

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[The second article I wished to share -- an excerpt of an article in point of fact -- comes from our series on communities that use both forms of the Roman liturgy, this time of the Missionarii Franciscani Verbi Aeterni, or Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word -- who may be better known to many simply as the "MFVA" or "EWTN friars." In that piece I interviewed one of their number, and within that interview we touched on this matter of St. Francis and the liturgy. Here is what was said:]

You are Franciscans and sometimes the person of St. Francis is invoked in suggesting that our churches and the sacred liturgy should be done without beauty or magnificence. How would you respond to that suggestion?

Yes, that’s a very sad conclusion and suggestion people make a reference about St. Francis, the holy man of God who is passionately in love with Jesus Who is truly present in the Most Blessed Sacrament.

The biographies of St. Francis relate that it grieved him when he found a church that was dirty. He would personally set about to clean it, gathering the clergy and instructing them on the cleanliness of the churches, altars and everything concerned with the celebration of the Mass (cf. Legend of Perugia #18; Mirror of Perfection #56).

St. Francis also had a great love toward the Blessed Sacrament and wanted his followers to provide the best for our dear Lord. “He wished at one time to send his brothers through the world with precious pyxes, so that wherever they should see the price of our redemption kept in an unbecoming manner, they should place It in the very best place…” (Thomas Celano. Second Life # 201)

St. Francis had a tremendous influence in bringing about a warmth of devotion and appreciation of beauty to our Catholic Faith. St. Clare, likewise, spent her final years in ill health making altar linens for all of the churches in the area.

In addition, following and observing the various liturgical laws and liturgical practices according to the mind of the Church is very much in harmony with the true Franciscan spirit. In fact, being in union with the Church is what St. Francis exhorted his followers to do. For some, this may not be considered “very important” topic. There is the principle of preferential option for the poor in social justice, but that does not mean we are to be ignorant of or not be concerned with the liturgy because the poor attend the liturgy as well (the poor in spirit and the poor in fact). They deserved to be fed with the riches of the Church. If we don’t provide them with a beautiful liturgy, then we are robbing the poor of what Jesus wants to enrich them with through the liturgy of the Church; instead, they would become more impoverished. In the old days, it was very typical that the poor themselves were the ones who built the church. They are the ones who sacrificed their time, materials, money, etc. The beauty of some of the older churches was because of the devotion of the poor whose faith was not dead.

Furthermore, St. Francis is truly a holy man of God who loves the Church and who wants his followers to love Her, to be obedient to Her, and to think with the mind of the Church. This is obvious from his own Later Rule. Therefore, everything in it has to be understood in that context. So celebrating the liturgy with devotion and with beauty according to the mind of the Church and the spirit of the Church is to do so according to the will of St. Francis who loves Jesus Crucified passionately because the mind of the Church is the mind of Christ.