The True Story of St. Francis
Francis is today one of the most loved saints, especially among non-Catholics and progressive Catholics. Francis seems to embody everything good, everything beautiful, everything true about the Christian tradition. Francis was a model environmentalist, a lover of animals, and the picture of contended and willing poverty. Francis even visited and tried to convert Sultan of Egypt, an early example of amicable Muslim-Christian relations. That is why today’s pope—a man who until very recently was loved passionately outside, and to a somewhat less intense degree inside, the Catholic church—chose Francis I for his papal name. Francis’ legacy is deeply loved, and that legacy offers an intriguing insight into how religious communities, and all communities, define themselves.
Many who know Francis only as the hero of Catholicism will be surprised to learn that Francis himself was almost condemned as a heretic during his time, and his monastic heirs the Franciscans always bore the shadow of the same suspicion. In fact, in order to understand Francis’ life accurately we need to first understand one of his rough contemporaries: Peter Waldes. Waldes was a wealthy businessman who lived the 12th–13th centuries, and his life changed forever when he heard the story of an ascetic monk named Alexius. Alexius was the son of a wealthy Roman who, on hearing the Gospel, left his life of luxury and wealth (and his wife, actually) and moved to the desert in Syria to live out a life of piety and worship. On hearing this story preached, Waldes was struck with the sinfulness of his own wealth and luxury, and went to the church to ask what he might do to save his soul from hell. The theologian responded, with fateful consequences, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21). Waldes did just that. He provided an income for his wife, dowries for his daughters, and then threw all the rest of his money out into the streets of Lyons where he lived. Waldes spent the rest of his life wandering Europe, commissioned the translation of parts of the Bible to give out to ordinary people, and preaching to anyone who would listen about the dangers of wealth and luxury. The most important of these, for our purposes, is the last.
Waldes’ preaching ministry attracted a good amount of attention, and numerous followers. Soon whole flocks of “Waldensians” were running around Europe, preaching against greed and moral laxity. This caused quite a bit of trouble for the church, and eventually Waldes was summoned to Rome to give account of his teaching. He was asked to sign a profession of faith, to subscribe to orthodox Catholic doctrine, and he did. Waldes was perfectly orthodox. But then they told him to stop preaching; he was a businessman, not a theologian. He didn’t have the right qualifications. That he would not do. Waldes and the Waldensians refused to obey the church hierarchy, and instead chose to obey God’s command to preach the Gospel to everyone. This led very quickly to excommunication and, eventually, physical persecution. The church had had enough of the troublesome merchant; it was time to expunge the disease through blood-letting.
Those who know the story of Francis might be shocked at the eerie similarity between Waldes’ story and Francis’. Francis too was a powerful layperson, a successful military leader, who renounced his power and prestige to follow Christ’s command of radical obedience and poverty. Francis too spent his time wandering Europe, preaching against luxury and greed and excess. Francis too attracted a group of followers who spread his message of unorthodox discipleship around Christendom. And Francis too was seen by the church in his time as a troublesome pest, disturbing the peace and order of the church. Francis may as well have been just another Waldes, spawned 30 years later to trouble the church again. But the church had learned from its mistake. When the church persecuted the Waldensians, there was chaos and rebellion and bloodshed. The church had destabilized itself when it tried to silence the voice of the converted merchant. Now, 30 years later, the church decided that accepting critique was safer than rejecting it. Now, 30 years later, the church decided that allowing dissent and disagreement was safer than enforcing uniformity and obedience with violence. And that, I think, is the most important thing to remember about Francis. Not that he talked to animals, that he paid no regard to worldly hierarchies or titles, or even that he preached against wealth with poisonous acerbity. The most important thing about Francis is that he was one of the many moments throughout history when the church, maybe even for impure motives, learned once again to be the church. We are still learning, it seems.
If you are celebrating Francis’ life today, celebrate it by remembering the true, difficult, and profound story that Francis’ life tells. The story Francis’ life tells about us. Remember that as much as we shape our histories, our histories shape us. The church decided to be a certain kind of church when it condemned Peter Waldes. The church decided to be a different kind of church when it decided, grudgingly, to accept and then canonize Francis of Assisi. And the church has become a yet different kind of church as it has heard, again and again, the incredible, wonderful, somewhat fabricated story of the little flower of Italy. Be careful little ears, what you hear.