Eight hundred years ago, a little man from Assisi, a man without tremendous wealth, power, stature, or societal influence, set a movement in motion that would leave the Church and world forever changed. That man was St. Francis of Assisi.
Within just a short decade, there were already more than 5,000 friars in countries all across Europe, the Poor Clares had spread to multiple monasteries and established itself as a new way of monastic living, and the penitent movements had received their rule and amassed a larger number even than the rest.
It’s difficult to underestimate the effect that the Franciscan movement had on history. With its great size and diversity came the ability to spread its culture and values, including a number of innovations, in a way that had never been seen before. Constantly on the move, they could respond to the signs of the times, enflaming a people with passion before moving on to the next place. The way they served the poorest of the poor, living humbly themselves, preaching in new and popular ways, and not asking for much in return challenged the secular priests of their day to serve in a different way. The nativity scene and stations of the cross, while not invented by the Franciscans, are popular devotions today because of their insistence on an incarnational way of prayer. And the breviary, the shortened and compacted way of praying the psalms found in every religious house in the world today, was first employed by these traveling preachers.
At every level of the Church, in every country in the world, the Franciscans have not only been present, but have left their mark in irreconcilable ways.
But why? Why didn’t the Dominicans, who were formed around the same time, not grow as quickly? Why did it take the Jesuits, who were founded to do similar forms of ministry, so long to get its first pope (who took the name Francis!) Why haven’t the Benedictines, who have existed for much longer, had such a lasting effect on the imagination of the Church? And why haven’t the countless other religious orders that were founded throughout the history of the Church been able to match what the Franciscans have done in 800 years?
I ask these questions not to put down other Orders or even to shamelessly promote the Franciscans (okay, a little bit of the latter), but simply to marvel at what seems inconceivable: a religious movement started by a simple man like Francis should have never worked at all, let alone have changed the Church and world as it did.
Why is that? And maybe more importantly, what might we learn from the success of this movement 800 years ago in what our Church and world are facing today? That is what I was employed to talk about last weekend at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Arizona. While I can’t repeat all 5 hours of talks, I wanted to share the central points here in this week’s vlog.
I hope it inspires you to join in the movement, in however you can in your situation, and happy Feast of St. Francis to you all!