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St. Francis of Assisi Model for the Catholic Worker Movement – St. Francis Transformed Church and World

Excerpts from the Encyclical Rite Expiatis by Pope Pius XI

The terrible conditions existing in the times when St. Francis lived are well known.

Although the Catholic faith still lived in the hearts of men, the charity of Christ had become so weakened in human society as to appear to be almost extinct. To say nothing of the constant warfare carried on by the partisans of the Empire, on the one hand, and by those of the Church on the other, the cities of Italy were torn by internecine wars because one party desired to rule, refusing to recognize the rights of the barons to govern, or because the strong wished to force the weak to submit to them, or because of the struggles for supremacy between political parties in the same city. Horrible massacres, conflagrations, devastation and pillage, exile, confiscation of property and estates were the bitter fruits of these struggles. Peace-loving people were harassed and oppressed with impunity by the powerful. Those who did not belong to that most unfortunate class of human beings, the proletariat, allowed themselves to be overcome by egotism and greed for possessions and were driven by an insatiable desire for riches. These men, regardless of the laws which had been promulgated in many places against vice, ostentatiously paraded their riches in a wild orgy of clothes, banquets, and feasts of every kind. They looked on poverty and the poor as something vile. They abhorred from the depths of their souls the lepers and neglected these outcasts completely in their segregation from society. What is worse, this greed for wealth and pleasure was not even absent, though many of the clergy are to be commended for the austerity of their lives, from those who should have most scrupulously guarded themselves from such sin.

To bring light to the people of this world which we have described, and to lead them back to the pure ideals of the Gospels, there appeared, in the Providence of God, St. Francis of Assisi.

On a journey to Puglia on a military mission, Francis felt himself commanded by God in unmistakable terms to return to Assisi and learn there what he must do. After much wavering and many doubts, through divine inspiration and through having heard at solemn Mass that passage from the Gospels which speaks of the apostolic life, he understood at last that he, too, must live and serve Christ according to the very words of the Holy Gospels. From that time on he undertook to unite himself to Christ alone and to make himself like unto Him in all things.

Let us now see with what exercise of perfect virtue Francis prepared himself to follow the counsels of divine mercy and to make himself a capable instrument for the reformation of society.

It is not hard to imagine the love of evangelical poverty which burned within him. Everyone knows how he loved to befriend the poor, and how he was so filled with kindness that being “no mere hearer of the Gospel” he had decided never to deny help to the poor.

On one occasion he was with a party of young men, singing in the streets after a banquet, when he stopped suddenly and, as if lifted outside himself by a wonderful vision, turned to his companions who had asked him if he was thinking of getting married and quickly replied, with some warmth, that they had guessed rightly because he proposed to take a spouse, and no one more noble, more rich, more beautiful than she could possibly be found, meaning by these words Poverty or the religious state which is founded on the profession of poverty. In fact, he had learned from Our Lord Jesus Christ Who, “although he was rich made Himself poor for us” (II Corinthians 8:9) that we, too, should become rich by His poverty, which is, in truth, divine wisdom. For Christ has said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit; if thou wilt be perfect, go, sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come follow me.” (Matt. 5:3 and Matt. 19:21)

Poverty, which consists in the voluntary renunciation of every possession for reasons of love and through divine inspiration and which is quite the opposite of that forced and unlovable poverty preached by some ancient philosophers, was embraced by Francis with so much affection that he called her in loving accents, Lady, Mother, Spouse.

Often when thinking of these things, St. Francis used to break down and shed bitter tears.

Francis believed himself the greatest of all sinners. He was accustomed to say that if the mercy shown him by God had been given to any other sinner, the latter would have become ten times holier than he, and that to God alone must be attributed whatever was found in him of goodness and beauty, for from God only was it derived. For this reason he tried in every possible way to hide those privileges and graces, especially the stigmata of Our Lord imprinted on his body, which might have gained for him the esteem and praise of men. Finally, what must we say about the fact that he thought so humbly of himself that he did not consider himself worthy to be ordained a priest?

What evil they do and how far from a true appreciation of the Man of Assisi are they who, in order to bolster up their fantastic and erroneous ideas about him, imagine such an incredible thing as that Francis was an opponent of the discipline of the Church, that he did not accept the dogmas of the Faith! As a man who was truly Catholic and apostolic, he insisted above all things in his sermons that the faith of the Holy Roman Church should always be preserved and inviolably, and that the priests who by their ministry bring into being the sublime Sacrament of the Lord, should therefore be held in the highest reverence.

We must speak also of that chastity of soul and body which he kept and defended even to the maceration of his own flesh. As a young man, although fashionable, he abhorred everything sinful, even in word. When later on he cast aside the vain pleasures of this world, he began to repress the demands of his senses with great severity. Thus at times when he found himself moved or likely to be influenced by sensual feeling, he did not hesitate to throw himself into a bush of thorns or, in the very depth of winter, to plunge into the icy waters of a stream.

It is also well known that our Saint, desiring to call back men so that they would conform their lives to the teachings of the Gospel, used to exhort them to love and fear God and to do penance for their sins. Moreover, he preached and invited all to penance by his own example. He wore a hair shirt, he was clothed in a poor rough tunic, went about barefoot, he slept resting his head on a stone or on the trunk of a tree, ate so little that it was barely sufficient to keep him from dying of starvation. He even mixed ashes and water with his food in order to destroy its taste. He passed the greater part of the year in fasting.

Is there anyone who cannot see that all these virtues proceeded from the one and same fountain of divine love? In truth, he was ever afire with divine love and longed to perform deeds of great heroism. This love of God he poured out in love for his neighbor, and conquering himself loved with a special tenderness the poor and, among the poor, the most miserable of all, the lepers, whom as a youth he had so abhorred; he dedicated completely both himself and his disciples to their care and service. He also wished that a brotherly love similar to his own should reign among his disciples.

Many infected by the false spirit of secularism habitually attempt to strip our saintly heroes of the true light and glory of their sanctity. These writers view the saint merely as models of human excellence or as professors of an empty spirit of religion, praising and magnifying them exclusively because of what they have done for the progress of arts and sciences, or because of certain works of mercy which they have accomplished. We do not cease to wonder how an admiration of this kind for St. Francis, so false and even contradictory in itself, can in any way help his modern admirers who devote their lives to the search for riches and pleasure or who decked out in finery frequent public places, dances and theaters, or who roll in the very mud of voluptuousness, who ignore and cast aside the laws of Christ and His Church.

Francis, either by his own apostolate or by that of his disciples and, by the institution of the Third Order, laid the foundations of a new social order built on lines in strict conformity with the very spirit of the Gospel. We will not call this merely a brotherly fellowship based on the practice of Christian perfection, but rather a shield of the rights of the poor and the weak against the abuses of the rich and the powerful, and all this without prejudice to good order and justice. The Tertiaries no longer were called upon to take the so-called solemn oath of vassalage, neither were they conscripted for military service, nor had they to go to war or to bear arms, for in this the Rule of the Third Order was opposed to the feudal law, and by their membership in the Order they achieved a liberty which was otherwise impossible under the conditions of servitude under which they had lived.

From this source, therefore, there arose that profound impulse toward a saving reform of human society, toward that vast expansion and growth among Christian nations which had its beginnings in the new Order of which Francis was the Father and Teacher.

From our earliest years we have with great devotion venerated St. Francis as our patron. We have numbered ourselves, too, among his children, having received the badge of the Third Order.

Given at Rome, at St. Peter’s, on the thirtieth day of April, in the year 1926, the fifth of our pontificate.

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