St Francis and Loving a Sinful Church

St Francis of Assisi, 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.

Oct 12, 2018

By Paul Moses
St Francis of Assisi, 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’ 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 St Augustine, nor of St Bernard, nor of St 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 that 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.

Sexual misconduct by clergy seems to have been rampant in the thirteenth century, judging from the chronicle of Salimbene, a Franciscan friar who wrote in the latter part of the century. In one instance, Salimbene recounts a story in which a priest attempts to rape a woman behind the altar of his church after she comes to him for confession. The woman puts the priest off by promising to meet him for a tryst, and once home, bakes him a pie that she sends to him with a bottle of wine. She has filled the pie with human excrement, however. The priest was so pleased with the pie that he brought it to his bishop, who discovered the contents once it was cut open. Ultimately, the priest was punished after the woman explained to the bishop why she had baked such a pie. According to Salimbene, a first-class ecclesial gossip, Pope Alexander IV heard this story directly from the bishop involved and passed it along to St. Bonaventure when he was minister-general of the Franciscan order.

St Francis was well aware of the moral laxity of the clergy in his day; he condemned the “great sin and the ignorance” that some priests exhibited through irreverent treatment of the Eucharist. In a way, this ties in with his feeling about how clergy maltreated the Church, Christ’s body. In a letter Franciscan scholars date to before 1219, Francis wrote, “Let all those who minister such holy mysteries…especially those who minister them illicitly, consider how very dirty are the chalices, corporals and altar linens upon which His Body and Blood are sacrificed.” Clergy who fail to treat the Eucharist with reverence will have to give an account on Judgment Day, he adds.

Francis distinguished himself from other wandering, ascetic Church reformers by seeing through the monarchical trappings of the medieval Church to the Body of Christ below, defaced as it was by the flagellating sins of greed, pride, and abuse of power. Today, we might say he envisioned the Church as sacrament. For Francis, the Church remained the ark of the Gospel, even if those bearing it had failed to heed the message they carried.

The Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff discussed these tensions in his 1982 biography Francis of Assisi (re-published by Orbis in 2006). “Overcoming all aspects of Pharisaism, the evangelical love of Francis allows him to love the Church with its deep limitations, above all in that which has to do with the evangelisation of the poor,” he wrote. He wrote this long before a fellow Latin American was installed as Pope Francis, with aims very much like those Boff attributes to the saint from Assisi. For, as Boff wrote of St Francis:

Francis did not opt for the Church of imperialism of the feudal popes but, rather, for the Church of the mistreated and lowly. However, he respected, venerated, and also considered the Church of Rome to be his own…. His strategy was not backhanded but, rather, one of conquest through goodness and the radicalness of living the Gospel.--Commonweal Magazine

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