The Vitality of the Franciscan Spirit: Reflections on the 750th Anniversary of the Death of St. Fran

by Lawrence S. Cunningham

Dr. Cunningham is associate professor of religion at Florida State University, Tallahassee.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 13, 1976, pp. 865-868. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


St. Francis of Assisi stands as an example of the cultured European mind during the Enlightenment period, who caused a tremendous outpouring of cultural activities after his death.

When Goethe visited Assisi in Italy in the late 18th century, the only thing he found worthy of his attention was the Roman temple in the main square. He indicated no desire to see the frescos of Giotto, Cimabue or the Lorenzetti brothers, nor did he evince the slightest interest in the man who inspired that outpouring of art in the early Trecento: Francesco Bernadone -- now better known as St. Francis of Assisi.

Goethe’s attitude was not atypical; indeed, he can well stand as an example of the cultured European mind during the Enlightenment period. Saint Francis and his view of life had caused a tremendous outpouring of cultural activity after his death in 1226. His passionate vision of Christianity not only changed the course of the visual arts in Italy but inspired a movement of belles-lettres (a recent American scholar has argued that fully 90 per cent of Middle English lyrics owe their inspiration to the Franciscan impact on English life), producing the great mystical poetry of Jacopone da Todi and inspiring the vision of Dante’s Divine Comedy, especially in the culminating cantos of the Paradiso.

By the 15th century, outside of strictly ecclesiastical circles this was all part of the larger history of European culture. Petrarch, in the 14th century, might have praised and encouraged the poor and simple life as that appropriate for the true humanist, but the civic humanists of the 15th century felt that there was no good reason why a mercantile fortune was inimical to the pursuit of learned virtue. Niccolò Machiavelli, that paradigmatic humanist, had harsh words for the otherworldliness of Francis despite his admiration for the persona of the saint.


The interest in things medieval in particular and romanticism in general helped pave the way for a renewed interest in St. Francis in the 19th century. Central to this revival was the work of the French Protestant historian and writer Paul Sabatier. Sabatier’s interest in Francis had been inspired by his teacher at the College de France, Ernest Renan. This interest was fueled by his researches in Franciscan historiography in Italy and culminated, in 1894, with the publication of The Life of Saint Francis.

Sabatier’s biography of the saint was an immediate success and the focus for a critical storm that has hardly lessened to this day. The portrait of St. Francis drawn by Sabatier was that of a simple Christ-intoxicated mystic who wished to lead a life totally dedicated to the gospel ideals of evangelical purity and poverty, only to see his lay fraternity clericalized and routinized by the imposition of older monastic constraints -- constraints demanded by curial authorities in Rome -- while the simple life of poverty was undermined by shallow members of his own Franciscan family. Sabatier’s mentor, Renan, once quipped that Jesus preached the Kingdom of God and the world ended up with the Catholic Church. Sabatier’s biography was a variation on this theme: Francis had preached a lay Christianity bent on radical spiritual renewal, and Europe ended up with the Franciscan order.

It was an unwitting tribute to the persuasiveness of the Sabatier thesis that Rome put his book on the Index Libororum Prohibitorum. More directly, one can say that every serious scholar who has treated the Franciscan question has had to reckon with Sabatier’s thesis. To be sure, Sabatier wrote from the perspective of liberal continental Protestantism, and his presuppositions colored his interpretation. Yet, making allowances for a certain degree of parti pris, there is much persuasiveness in Sabatier’s picture, and quite respectable scholars today (I have in mind especially John Moorman and Rosalind Brooke in England) have attempted to elucidate a modified version of it. It is a sure and happy sign of the ecumenical spirit that the most spirited attack on the Sabatier thesis, outside of those who write from within the Franciscan order and have their own vested interests at stake, is that of E. Randolph Daniels, a contemporary American Protestant historian.


For the average person, however, these donnish disputes must give way to a consideration of the more common image of the saint, best characterized by those innumerable bad concrete statues displayed in suburban nurseries and firmly planted in the corners of well-manicured lawns all over the Western world: St. Francis as a vague Doctor Doolittle talking to the animals, taming bad wolves, and saving little lambs from the abattoir. This picture of the saint has its roots in 19th century attitudes but still speaks powerfully today.

Matthew Arnold praised St. Francis as a poetic naïf, while Hermann Hesse in his first novel, Peter Kamenzkind, depicted the artist as a sort of secularized St. Francis, a vocation that the hero, Peter, recognized after a visionary experience in the town of Assisi. This absorption of the Franciscan spirit puts him in harmony with both nature and the lumpenproletariat. In our own day, the distinguished UCLA historian Lynn White, Jr., has suggested that St. Francis of Assisi should be designated the patron saint of ecology because, in White’s words, Francis had a "democratic spirit" in viewing all parts of the created universe.

There are, of course, good historical reasons for emphasizing the affinity of St. Francis and the beauties of the created world. His early legends and memoirs are full of a profound and poetic love of the world: it is the very theme of the poem he wrote in the last years of his life, The Canticle of Brother Sun. The danger in such an emphasis -- and G. K. Chesterton noted this 50 years ago in his life of the saint -- is to detach the deep theological insight that motivated Francis to praise the world and its creatures. It would be the most grievous of errors to see St. Francis as a pantheist or a romantic nature mystic after the manner of Richard Jeffries. The Canticle of Brother Sun was not a medieval Tintern Abbey. In the Franciscan canticle, deeply rooted in the psalmic language of the Bible, the world of nature praises God or is used as the medium of praise, but nature itself is never identified with God. St. Francis totally affirmed the Genesis credo about the world: "God created it and it was good." In that sense St. Francis stood squarely in the sacramental tradition of Catholicism. The world was a sign (sacramentum) of God. Francis was in fundamental accord with Aquinas except that the Angelic Doctor founded his whole metaphysical system on the intellectual grasp of being while the Poverello began his world view with the simple seeing of the beauty of a flower or the flash of a bird’s wing.


In the final analysis, however, the significance and the relevance of Francis is founded not in the charm of his personality or in the magnitude of his gentleness but in the seriousness with which he took the person of Jesus as he saw it in the Gospels. The whole complex of virtues, attitudes and motivations of the saint must be related to his holistic view of Christology. For Francis, God first manifested his love in the uttering of the creative word of creation; he spoke a second time in the Word made flesh. For Francis, the life of poverty was tied to the kenosis of Christ just as the beauty of the world was a real evidence of the presence of Ineffable Beauty in the world. As one reads the prose writings of the saint (and surprisingly they are, with the exception of the Canticle, graceless and flat) it is easy to see that for him the presence of Christ is breathed forth in the sacramental ministry of the church, a church to which he was profoundly attached, just as the presence of Christ was evident in the beauty of the world.

Can that Franciscan spirit demand attention today? It has for many persons. Simone Weil, that tortured and rather unfranciscan person, first felt the compulsion to pray in the town of Assisi. In her scattered remarks, later in life, she spoke glowingly of the inspiration of Francis, who had made possible a new form of spirituality. But a further question intrudes. Can groups or structures live the Franciscan spirit? That question burns in the lives of the various Franciscan families found in the Catholic Church today. There is much to recover. Let a simple personal anecdote stand for the magnitude of the problem: last year I was in Chicago for an academic meeting and went, more antiquo, to mass at a downtown Franciscan church on All Saints Day. As I left the church I watched an armored car pull up, presumably to take the day’s collection to the bank. Not a sinful or even an unedifying sight, but hardly a Franciscan one; an exercise not of caritas but of prudentia.

Another memory, this to exemplify the possibility of the Franciscan charism: Dorothy Day of the Catholic Workers speaking to a small group of us in Tallahassee, Florida, with evident fatigue and real effort after having taken the Greyhound bus down from the north. Why the bus? To spend money on an airline ticket was to rob money from the needs of the poor. Here, I submit, is the living continuity of the Franciscan spirit. To think of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers is to think of a Franciscan movement that would satisfy both Sabatier and his critics: a lay movement, supremely orthodox in its religious allegiance, truly poor, zealously evangelical, and totally committed to the social and religious vision of Catholic Christianity. Like the early Franciscans, the Catholic Workers have also spawned a desire to articulate a broad and embracing humanism, with the result that among its members it has had the attention of such disparate persons as the short story writer J. F. Powers, the social critic Michael Harrington, and the late journalist John Cogley; its movement has caught the imagination of many other persons ranging from Robert Lowell and Daniel Berrigan to Robert Coles.

You will not find the Workers or the followers of another great Franciscan personality, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, padding about in sandals and cowl talking to the animals; that is the stuff of the romantic legend. You will find them embracing the lepers of the world and teaching the goodness of creation and the love of Christ. That alone should prove that, 750 years after his death, the way of Francis seems still one authentic method by which to read and live the gospel message.