St. Francis is probably the most popular, widely recognized, and most misunderstood saint in the Church’s history. It’s not that people don’t know a lot about him, it’s the opposite: since there have been so many stories written about him over the past 800 years, everyone knows something, but it can be difficult to separate fact from folklore.
As someone who has studied the early sources of his life, it can be frustrating sometimes to see how his name is used or what people are saying about him. Take the “Prayer of St. Francis.” It’s a nice prayer, but those who have read Francis’ actual writings know that it sounds absolutely nothing like him. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that it was a prayer for peace written during World War I.
Francis preaching to the birds is another example. Did Francis preach to the birds in a literal sense? Maybe. We do have one or two references to it in his early biographies. But what’s interesting is that so many other saints before him were also said to preach to animals, and that, for some, the birds represented the many types of people of the world. And besides that, he did and wrote about many other things; preaching to the birds is something he never mentions, and is really insignificant to all of the other more important things he said and did. And yet, he is the man of the birdbath.
These are just two examples of the many ways the image of Francis has been misunderstood throughout the years, and it’s no wonder that he can be found promoting such vastly different causes. Once, for instance, our novitiate class was forced to attend an etiquette because, as the friar hosting it said, “Isn’t this what Francis would have done?” An etiquette workshop. Right.
That’s the feeling that Rob Goraieb, OFS had a few weeks ago when we were preparing for the feast of St. Francis, coming up this weekend. How could we deal with this frustration in a positive way? Like the 40 minute video we filmed a few months ago about vocations and church in the modern world, we decided to just sit down and talk about it on camera. What things frustrated us? What aspects of Francis’ life are often overlooked or forgotten? What do we as Franciscans want the world to know about St. Francis?
We sat for about an hour on camera and we hardly scratched the surface of what we wanted to say. In fact, both of us were initially left dissatisfied with what we had done. The fact of the matter, as we realized, is that there is no way to totally encapsulate the inspiration of the life of Francis, and in some ways, we didn’t even want to try. But we did want to share with you what we found most essential to Francis’ life and what it might mean to follow Francis today.
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