header icons

Catholic Workers wanted to be like St. Francis of Assisi

This is the fourth article in the series on saints, philosophers and spiritual guides who influenced Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in their founding and creative living out of the Catholic Worker movement.

Dorothy and Peter were inspired by the lives of the saints, by those disciples of Jesus who are models for the Christian life–models of faith and courage, of prayer, of vision, of leadership in transforming society, great women and men who participated in the will and plan of God for their lives and their times.

St. Francis was one of the most important models for the Catholic Worker because of his radical commitment to the Gospel. The heart of the Worker movement, expressed in love and service of the poor, personalism, voluntary poverty, pacifism, and participation in manual labor had been brought to the world in a dramatic and unique way by St. Francis.

Dorothy and Peter and the early workers studied, especially, the Johannes Jorgensen biography of St. Francis and the encyclical Rite Expiatis about him.

St. Francis is truly the saint for all seasons!

He is one of the most influential figures of history because of his personal concern for the poor and the oppressed, his disarmingly simple approach in dealing with the Church and with civil authorities and because the many thousands who flocked to him carried his vision to the ends of the earth (Fr. Roy Gasnick, The Francis Book).

Francis wrote the book on reform and revolution.

He changed the face of Europe without firing a single shot. His was a great reformation and like Attila the Hun he decided not to sack Rome to accomplish it.

Francis was totally changed by his encounter with the Jesus of the Gospels and the Jesus of the poor. He became an evangelical militant instead of a political militant.

Having kissed the leper, he was never the same.

Francis discovered that the Gospel must become flesh where the Lord became flesh, among the poor. Francis went first to Christ and through Him to the poor: then the poor drew him towards Him with them. (Bertrand Duclos, “Francis, Image of Christ,” Concilium, 1981.

Francis knew that it was not the poor who have the Words of eternal life, but the only Lord who announces the Good News to the poor.

Ironically, we write this as we think of a number of people at Casa Juan Diego who don’t have eyes or ears or lips that speak.

“Francis carried Jesus in his heart, on his lips, in his ears, in his eyes, in his hand, Jesus everywhere” (Thomas of Celano, first biographer of Francis).

The world flocked to this Francis.

In the midst of church and state corruption, little brothers and sisters emerged like flowers that rise out of dung heaps, springing up everywhere, crowding out the weeds of power and corruption.

The little brothers and sisters abandoned all seeking of power–Francis relentlessly hunted them down if they didn’t–to become the most powerful people on earth. They didn’t need guns (in fact, Francis forbade them to be soldiers).

The fire of reform burned so strongly in Francis that people thought the Church would go up in smoke. Brother Leo would caution him, “Put yourself out, Brother Francis. Put yourself out before you burn up the world.”

But Francis wanted to save the Church, not destroy it.

He knew that the Church existed to make Saints in order to make the Church present in society. People need to see the splendor of their Redeemer in the faces of the Saints and in their works.

Don Divo Barsotti, confessor to recent Popes, says:

“Witnesses are needed to make sure that there is a living reality–the living reality created by the Saint.

Without the saints the Church becomes a despotic power (I say this with a shiver), as in the frightening image of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. Only holiness justified the Church’s teaching; otherwise even all the documents and statements of the Magisterium become empty words. There are men and women who are evident signs of a reality that is not of this world. Their differentness is thrust upon one; it is like finding oneself in front of a miracle. This is not because they are not subject to nature (they are wretches, like all others); but nature cannot explain this.

Salvation is not an assent to a generic moral code, or to the values of peace, of humanism, but to the person of Christ and to one’s own person. It is a passionate love for Christ that moves the people who meet saints.”

St. Francis is one of those saints who speaks to people of all ages and centuries. His life was a very radical adherence to the Gospel and is a continuing challenge to the Catholic Worker movement and to all Christians.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XV, No. 5, July-August 1995.