Monday, September 24, 2018

St. Francis of Assisi: Eucharistic Mystic and Reformer

Although we are still a little ways out from the better-known of the two feasts of St. Francis, namely, the one that falls on October 4 (the day after he died), I would like to continue reflecting on the saint of Assisi in connection with last week's article about his stigmatization in 1224.

My fellow NLM contributor, Fr. Augustine Thompson, O.P., is well known for Francis of Assisi: A New Biography, which a broad spectrum of people (including those who assign books to Franciscans in formation) now consider the definitive biography of the saint in all of his personal complexity, zeal, idealism, and contradictions, set within the fraught context of his age.

One of the most striking elements of this biography is the author’s insistence that the dominant theme in Francis’ spirituality is not poverty or service to the poor, but devotion to the Mass and to the Body of Christ. One of Francis’ few writings is a letter to priests rebuking them for using dirty or unworthy items in the Mass, and his mature letters on the spiritual life also rotate around the Eucharist and the Mass.

For those who have not yet had a chance to read the biography, I will quote the passages that demonstrate this point well, gathering them in one convenient place.
Within a year of his return to Assisi, Francis composed his first extant letter. Something had triggered his decision to go to France, where the Eucharist was venerated properly, and now he was unable to go. Instead, he dispatched this letter, the first of his two “Letters to the Clergy.” Its language is heated, pained, and almost frantic in tone. In it he includes himself among the clergy, a good indication that he had already been ordained to the deaconate. What motivates him is the same passion that sent him on the road to France: his love of the Eucharist. He is outraged at the “great sin and ignorance some have toward the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and his most holy names and words that consecrate his Body.” How that sin expressed itself, and its remedy, he made clear: “Let all those who administer such most holy mysteries, especially those who administer them illicitly, consider how very dirty are the chalices, corporals, and altar linens, on which his Body and Blood are sacrificed. It is placed in many dirty places, carried about unbecomingly, and ministered to others without care. Even his written names and words are at times left to be trampled under foot.” Francis directs that the Host be kept in a “precious place” and locked up, and that scraps of parchment with the words of scripture or the name of God be collected and put in suitable places. Those receiving his letter are to clean their altar linen and polish their chalices without delay.
          This theme reappeared regularly in Francis’s writing, but seldom with such passion and anger. Francis returned to the theme of reverence for the Eucharist in other writings about this time. His “First Admonition,” even if influenced by the mystical understanding of the Mass found in Cistercian writers as some suggest, is authentically Francis’s own. For him, the change of the elements from bread and wine to Christ’s Body and Blood was like the Incarnation. Christ gives himself to those viewing the Host or receiving communion as literally as he allowed himself to be seen and touched by the apostles. By this giving, he is with believers until the end of the age. The locus of Francis’s “mysticism,” his belief that he could have direct contact with God, was in the Mass, not in nature or even in service to the poor. 
          Thus his harsh words for those who ignored the Eucharistic presence are unique: he never used such language about peace breakers or those who oppressed the downtrodden, deeply as those sins pained him. Francis always preferred to speak by actions and gestures rather than words: he expressed his reverence for churches by sweeping and cleaning them. In response to clerical failure to keep the Host in honorable containers, Francis once tried to have his friars bring precious pyxes to all the regions where they were active. He asked that these be used to reserve the Host when other decent containers were lacking. One can imagine the effect of Francis’s poor followers, with their miserable habits, presenting silver pyxes to parish clergy for the reservation of the Sacrament. (Kindle ed., pp. 60–61)
In his “Letter to the Clergy,” Francis spoke warmly of reverence for priests as well as for the Blessed Sacrament. He demonstrated his devotion by kissing the hands of any priest he met: consecrated with sacred chrism, they handled the Host. For the Host itself Francis practiced acts of reverence that, although not uncommon in France, were just becoming popular in Italy. He begged the brothers who met a priest on horseback, especially one carrying the Blessed Sacrament, to kiss the horse’s hooves rather than wait for the priest to dismount.  (p. 62)
Beyond its rubrical concerns, Francis’s first letter gives a window into his developing spirituality. His earlier piety had focused on praying before the Crucifix, repairing or cleaning churches, and reverence for priests. All involved symbolic or mystical manifestations of the Crucified Lord: churches as the place where God chose to dwell, and priests because they have the power to draw Christ down from heaven during Mass.
          Francis’s piety has now focused on God’s most tangible manifestation in the world: the Host itself. Francis was developing an ever greater sense that God is present to Christians in the Sacrament, and that it was to be reverenced above all other presences. In both the Host and Christ’s words, the work of Calvary is delivered to the believer. The Host is Christ’s real Body, the same one that suffered and died for us. The sacred words that especially concerned Francis are those used in the canon of the Mass and found in the Last Supper narratives of the New Testament. These record his action of offering himself to his disciples “on the night before he suffered.”
          Modern observers find Francis’s growing concern about the writing on scraps of parchment somewhat embarrassing or perplexing. Even pious Christians today have lost this sense of the concrete divine presence. In the thirteenth century, however, this attitude was not some oddity that Francis had picked up from Jewish or Muslim practice. For Christians of his age, the words of scripture were not merely didactic reminders of past events or moral norms. As divine words, they were a locus of power. Merely pronouncing them, as when the bishop read the beginning of the four Gospels toward the city gates facing the four points of the compass during springtime Rogation processions, put demonic powers to flight. When used by Brother Silvester over the city of Arezzo, the divine words could, by their very power, end civil strife.
          Now, when Francis began to chant from the book of Gospels as a deacon, he himself proclaimed and enacted the words of power. A perplexed brother once asked Francis about his practice of collecting such scraps of parchment, and he replied: “Son, I do this because they have the letters that compose the glorious name of the Lord God, and the good that is found there does not belong to the pagans nor to any human being, but to God alone, to whom every good thing belongs.” This identification between names and the realities they signify was not only a commonplace in medieval sensibility; it spoke to Francis’s profound sense of God’s presence in the concrete here and now, and in the most commonplace of things and events.
          For a layman like Francis, only marginally able to write, letters themselves were mysterious and somehow sacred: friars knew well that when Francis made a mistake in writing, he let it stand, rather than “killing the letter” by crossing it out. Before, as a simple cleric singing the Office, he had chanted the psalms of David; now, as a deacon, he read the very words of Christ. At Solemn Mass, he did so facing north—the direction of darkness and, for medieval minds, paganism, and thus putting both to flight. That certain clerics treated these powerful and holy texts with disrespect outraged Francis’s acute spiritual sense. To leave sacred books on the floor or in dishonorable places was, in its own way, as sacrilegious as the desecration of the Host.
          Ever more intensely, Francis associated his own experience before the Cross, his transforming encounter with the lepers, and the divine commission to live the Gospel perfectly with the immediate, unmediated presence of Christ given to each Christian in Word and Sacrament. (pp. 62–63)
Not satisfied with writing to priests, Francis also wrote a circular letter to the local superiors in his order, the custodians. In it he made them directly responsible for ensuring that Franciscan communities properly reverenced the Eucharist and had worthy vessels and appointments for Mass. Typical of his unwillingness to place himself (or his brothers) in a position superior to priests, he instructed the custodians, who would often be lay brothers, to “humbly beg the clergy to revere above all else the most Holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 
          In addition, he returned to a theme first mentioned in the letter to priests from before his departure for the East. He begged recipients to pick up and keep in a place of reverence any piece of parchment on which was written one of the holy names of God (Lord, Jesus, Holy Spirit, etc.) or the words of institution (“This is my Body”; “This is the chalice of my Blood”) used in the consecration at Mass. Here cooperation of the clergy was not needed; any friar could show reverence to the holy words.
          Writing as much to nonordained brothers as to priests, Francis expressed in this letter his own spiritual preferences, without concern for clerical tradition. Instead of Pope Honorius III’s bow, Francis insisted: “In every sermon you give, remind people about penance and that no one can be saved unless he receives the most holy Body and Blood of the Lord. When it is sacrificed on the altar by a priest and carried anywhere, let all peoples praise, glorify and honor on bended knee the Lord God, living and true.” This instruction on sermons, whether by ordained or unordained brothers, shows his determination to encourage the more dramatic and humbling act of kneeling before the Sacrament in place of the older bow. 
          Francis was himself a leader in this new lay style of prayer and reverence. He considered this message so important that within the year he wrote again to the custodians, reminding them of the instructions in his first letter and again reminding them to preach reverence for the Sacrament, whether this was in the piazza before people or in sermons before “podestas, consuls, or other rulers.” That he wrote twice on this topic to those in the best position to make his will known is a window into the founder’s frame of mind at this time.
          We have from Francis one other message written in 1220, an appeal to the very rulers to whom his friars were to preach repentance and devotion to the Eucharist. Addressed “to the podestas, consuls, and other rulers” of cities, the letter is short and stern, a reminder of death and judgment: Reflect and see that the day of death is approaching. With all possible respect, therefore, I beg you not to forget the Lord because of the world’s cares and preoccupations and not to turn away from his commandments, for those who leave him in oblivion and turn away from his commandments are cursed and will be left in oblivion by him. When the day of death does come, everything they have will be taken from them. The wiser and more powerful they were in the world, the greater will be the punishment they will endure in Hell. He then turned to his favorite topic in this period, the Eucharist, writing that “therefore” they should receive communion with fervor and foster honor to the Lord among those they rule. “If you do not do this, know that, on the day of judgment, you must render an account before the Lord your God, Jesus Christ.”  (pp. 83–84)
He writes: “We must be Catholics. We ought to visit churches frequently and venerate clerics, and revere them, not so much for their own sake, for they may be sinners, but on account of their office and administration of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, which they sacrifice on the altar and receive and minister to others.” The logic, or better poetic associations, in Francis’s thought have taken us full circle. The subordination of the Christian to the Church makes sense only because Christ has chosen to use its clergy, sinners as they are, to make his own self-emptying present to the world through the Mass. To participate worthily in this is, for Francis, what it means “to love God above all things.” (p. 87)
His retreat and return are the background to the “Letter to the Entire Order,” which was, in a way, Francis’s public farewell address. The Latin is carefully crafted, although colloquial enough to suggest it is Francis’s own work, not much revised by his secretaries.
          After a formal greeting in which he kisses the feet of the brothers, Francis arrives at his issues and concerns. The first concern would be familiar to anyone who has read his other letters. All possible reverence is to be had for the Body and Blood of the Lord, and priests who celebrate Mass are to do so with the utmost care. In treating the celebration of Mass, Francis’s tone is urgent, indeed harsh and peremptory. Like the priests of the Old Law who violated the laws of temple sacrifice, priests of the New Covenant who celebrate unworthily are damned and cursed. He elaborates on the priestly office in a long section, extolling its dignity and the exalted nature of the priestly calling. Although not a major theme in early letters, Francis’s well-known reverence for the clergy is reflected in his words. In his final words to his followers, the issue he found most pressing was not poverty, not obedience, but proper reverence for the Eucharist. (pp. 119–20)
The issue he found most pressing was not poverty, not obedience, but proper reverence for the Eucharist. Not immigration, starvation, dehydration, disease, global warming, ecology, or endangered species (unless it be the endangered species of bread and wine unworthily treated); not faux obedience to apostolic exhortations, brain-fever fervorinos, or councils of cardinals; but proper reverence for the Lord in His true Body and Blood, expressed through the careful and devout offering of the Mass, the most worthy vessels and vestments one can supply, signs of adoring love, and an unyielding insistence on penance and renunciation of sin prior to communion. This is what St. Francis believed in; this is what he stood for; this is what his order was meant to believe, say, and do.

So, the next time someone tries to invoke Pope Francis on you to downplay the importance of liturgy, you might want to tell them about the real Francis who apparently inspired the pope with his choice of name. The saint was radically different from the modern sentimentalized and romanticized proto-hippie and peacenik. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that this poor deacon who started the single greatest popular religious movement in the history of the Church would not recognize many of his twentieth-century followers as having anything to do with him, his religion, or his priorities—and the same might be said of others who have taken his name upon themselves, but for the wrong reasons.

Hippie Francis... step aside.
Even hipper Francis... definitely step aside.

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