Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata, 1420 Wikimedia Commons

Charles Lewis: St. Francis sets an example for reformers

  • October 25, 2018

St. Francis of Assisi means a lot to me. Reading about him during the early days of my conversion really made Catholicism come alive. I even took the name Francis when I entered the Church.

It helped to have read his writings and many biographies. Best among them, though, was a novel called Saint Francis by Nikos Kazantzakis, which put flesh and blood on the great saint.

When my wife and I travelled to Assisi in 2010 it was as if we were visiting a long lost relative, given we knew so much about him.

Everyone knows of St. Francis’ love of the natural world. Just read his “Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon” to see how deep that love was. 

“Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,
In the heavens you have made them bright, precious and fair.” 

But my attraction to him was also for other reasons: He was a true radical and reformer, but unlike other so-called reformers he did it within the Church with the blessing of Pope Gregory IX.

He was also a prisoner of war, a brutal experience that I am sure radically changed him. My father was a prisoner of war in Europe for part of the Second World War. All in my family knew how much that experience was etched into his soul.

As Paul Moses wrote in his excellent biography, The Saint and the Sultan: “For many, Francis’s actions seemed irrational, but he was not the first or last war veteran to experience a change after confronting the demons of the battlefield or prison.” 

This is not to say that Francis was simply a man gone mad. He was a great holy man, but the violence he experienced was likely a trigger that sent him on another way. God, it is said, works with the material he has. 

On the feast of St. Francis Oct. 4, a priest at St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica said we in the pews could learn a great lesson from Francis. He said that, like Francis, there is a need to stand outside mainstream society in a way that is recognizable. Meaning, not to forsake our duties to the world but to not let secularist views swamp us into wrong beliefs. 

As Catholics we have a bad habit of explaining ourselves that waters down what we are supposed to believe. I have noted before that 70 per cent of Catholics in Canada support euthanasia, something that’s a mortal sin.

We all know Catholics who play down some of our more profound teachings, relegating sacraments to mere symbols and agreeing all too quickly that the Church must do something about divorce and female ordination. 

The danger of being swamped by the surrounding culture comes with the added problem of becoming invisible. 

When we seem to agree with everyone outside the faith we suddenly seems bland. Nothing about us stands out. And when we do not stand out we are not noticed. How do we preach a faith that is not distinguished from other faiths and isms? 

I have been reading a wonderful book called Four Witnesses: The Early Church in Her Own Words. It covers the lives of Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons. 

In those early days the Church was under tremendous pressure from the authorities. If there was not outright persecution, there was a push to at least make Christians acknowledge the Roman gods. Rome had no trouble with different gods but did not like the idea of worshipping a single God. That was considered an affront to society and the state. 

Under that pressure, a heretical movement popped up called Docetism. It held to nearly every Christian belief but one: It said that Christ’s body was not really a human; He was more a phantasm and His pain on the cross was not real, only apparent. 

Four Witnesses author Rod Bennett speculates that the motivation for the Docetists was less fear of the physical pain of violent persecution but of being perpetual outsiders in Roman society. 

“What they seem to have wanted … was something all of us are still tempted to want today. They just wanted to belong a bit better.”

The Docetists went the way of the dodo bird and flew off into extinction. I am guessing its adherents either eventually wanted the true faith or got bored with their innovation and marched off elsewhere to a new faddish movement, which in turn faded away, too. 

Perhaps some realized that a compromised faith was no faith at all. 

This is not to say the Catholic Church is in danger of becoming a footnote of history. With 2,000 years of history and 1.2 billion current members that seems unlikely. 

But we are in danger in certain pockets of the world, Canada included, of having our message drowned out. Not so much by secularists who fear and hate us, but by Catholics who have no stomach for a fight or the truth.

(Lewis is a Toronto writer and regular contributor to The Catholic Register.)

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