Lessons from St. Francis of Assisi on How to Transform the Church

Today we celebrate the Memorial of St. Francis of Assisi. As a young man, Francis was praying alone in front of a crucifix in the abandoned chapel of San Damiano when he suddenly heard the words of Christ coming from the cross: “Francis, rebuild my church, which is falling into ruin.” Francis took our Lord’s words literally, and immediately began repairing the chapel of San Damiano. It wasn’t until later that Francis realized that the Lord was calling him not to repair church buildings, but to rebuild the Church, which was falling into spiritual ruin.

After St. Francis met with Pope Innocent III, requesting approval for the Rule of St. Francis, the pope had a dream in which he saw the great Lateran Basilica crumbling in on itself. Just as it was about to fall, the pope saw a man in peasant clothes take on the weight of the falling church, hold it up with his shoulders, and straighten it up again. The pope then knew that Francis would play a great role in transforming the Church of his day. There is still a statue of St. Francis of Assisi outside of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, and when you stand from behind it looks as though St. Francis is holding up the church, as he did in Pope Innocent III’s dream.

Just as St. Francis transformed the Church when it was beset by heresies and scandals, so too are we called to rebuild the Church today. To teach us some lessons we can learn from St. Francis of Assisi, Bret Thoman, author of St. Francis of Assisi: Passion, Poverty, and the Man who Transformed the Catholic Church stopped by Morning Air®and pointed out that a key characteristic of St. Francis was that he was a man who was unafraid to speak the truth in love to all he met.

“His charisms and calling, and the way he lived his life there’s really a whole breadth of views that he had,” Thoman said. “And I think probably one half of the people in his day did not appreciate what he was doing, and the other half very much did.”

“And I think if he were around today you might have a similar reaction. St. Paul even refers to the Scriptures being like a sword, it really cuts. And that happened to Francis with his family. His family was cut off from him after his vocation, and I’m sure today he would be very controversial in some of the things that he did.”

Though he was rejected by many, St. Francis did not abandon the radical witness of his love of God and love of neighbor. Today, we can learn from St. Francis and work to live our lives in such a way that even those who disagree with us will see our love for God and love for the poor, and the joy that comes from living the Gospel.

Thoman also pointed out that while St. Francis is known for his holy deeds, these were not the result of his positive personality traits, or habits he cultivated on his own. His charity was an outpouring of his life of prayer. As a Third Order Franciscan, Thoman explained that those who follow the example of St. Francis bring love and truth to the world, but only because they have been filled by the source of all love and truth.

“We follow that spirituality of St. Francis, which is both active and contemplative,” he explained. “It’s active in that it engages the world. We don’t retreat from the world permanently. But it is contemplative. We do temporarily retreat into prayer, or St. Francis in his day retreated to the hermitage.”

“Some scholars think he spent about half of his life retreating in these hermitages up in the hills. Getting away from the world, and that way he had something to bring into the world. The other half of his life he was down in the valley serving lepers, serving the sick. He was a preacher, he was a peacemaker, he was a reconciler, he was devoted to Creation.”

If we are to transform the Church in our own time, we must learn from St. Francis and dedicate ourselves to prayer, immersing ourselves in the presence of the Lord so that we can bring His presence into the world. St. Francis heard the Lord’s call in prayer. May we all strive to hear the call of the Lord in our own lives, and answer it as willingly as St. Francis did.

St. Francis of Assisi, pray for us!