Franciscanism 101: Intro To St. Francis, Via Cate’s Mom


St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of pets and pet owners, founded the Franciscan order

Because today is the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, I thought it would be a great chance to understand Franciscan spirituality better. Most people think of St. Francis as the patron saint of animals, but the Franciscan Order offers wise guidelines for a spiritual life.

My mother, a Third Order Secular Franciscan, offered to share her knowledge and experience with the CatholicMatch community. We chatted over coffee one morning.

“I remember when you first became a Franciscan. It was in the mid-80s, right?”

“I think it was, wasn’t it?”

“I think so, because I was in high school at the time. So, what initially called you to the order?”

“The charism of St. Francis. His entire being was focused on following the example of Jesus, as opposed to his own family. He didn’t want to follow the family business; his father was a fabric merchant and a leader in the community – rich and successful. St. Francis rejected those values. I felt a similar way because within my own family, I never aspired to wealth or showed off with things that others would envy. His values drew me to him because I had a comfortable life growing up. I always had a job and the security that I could earn a living; but none of those things gave me that…what’s that French phrase?”

“Raison d’etre?”

“Yes! A ‘reason for being.’ So as I read about St.Francis, I saw that one of his core values was to imitate Christ, who owned nothing. He wanted his life to be as frugal as the life of Christ. It’s a detachment from the material world.”

“So what are some other values St. Francis had?”

“Another core belief of Franciscans is to always be aware of others’ suffering. Some people don’t want their suffering exposed, so St. Francis had the sense to help people in ways that didn’t embarrass them. That’s the way Jesus was, too; he didn’t make a spectacle out of helping people.”

“So it sounds like St. Francis did two things: renounced wealth and prestige and believed in maintaining  the dignity of all beings … “

“Yes, definitely. I think the main things with St. Francis are his sensible values: family, community, helping others, being aware that you are an example for others to see;  because people notice everything these days!” She laughed, because we’d just been talking about public scrutiny,  before continuing on: “It’s about saying that you are immersed in your faith and in these particular activities,  but not because you want to show off. It’s about being sensitive to the needs of a community, wanting to make a difference, and being an example to others.”  

“So, how do Franciscans  exemplify these core values?”

“Well, on Thanksgiving we prepare food and deliver it to people in their homes. This helps maintain dignity because they might feel ashamed to go to somewhere public, like a soup kitchen. That’s how we sometimes get new members, because they’re  impressed with everything we do at Thanksgiving. They say, ‘Maybe that would be a good thing to do; I don’t do enough for anyone else.’ It makes them aware of that.”

“Oh, I see. So speaking of new members, it reminds me that shortly after you became a Franciscan, you started doing formation so that others could join the order. How was that for you?”

“It was very rewarding to see other people develop and grow spiritually. They have to go through a learning process, just like anyone who applies for a job, so they know what’s expected of them. I did that for several years.”

“I know, I remember.”

“It was rewarding because  a lot of us retain the Catholicism we learned in childhood, which is fine; but in becoming a Franciscan you try to see the world through St. Francis’ eyes and emulate his behavior. So any time something’s going on in our community or in society, we find a way to help. We have committees to address those needs.”

“I also remember when you went to Assisi. How was it for you as both an Italian and also as a Franciscan to go there?”

“Well, as an Italian, I’m speaking in very general terms, but the Italians really enjoy celebrating all the Catholic holidays.”

“Yeah, they like the fanfare,” I interrupt with a joke we’ve shared for years about the stereotypes (think San Gennaro feasts and overdone Christmas lights) we’ve endured as Italians.

“Right, the fanfare. But those holidays are one way of solidifying the family, so the feast days and the celebrations are important. Everyone grew up with memories of that one favorite celebration, or when Mama cooked certain foods associated with feasts. Italians are big on that.”

“Right. So you noticed that when you went to Italy? What else did you notice about Assisi?”

“When I went, it was loaded with birds. All you heard is the chirping.They have these big birdbaths and bird feeders, and they attract birds on purpose to continue his respect for nature …”

She laughed and gestured to her own bird feeders outside.

“St. Francis treasured all life, human and animal. Birds just flocked to him! When we went to the Franciscan church in Assisi, there was birdseed all over the place! But it feels like the birds are there because of him, not the seeds. I mean, they could find food anywhere else.”

“So that reminds me: St. Francis is known for, as you say, his respect for nature. What about the animals and the environmental movement? Did any of that speak to you?”

“That’s not really me. Of course, I like animals,” she gestured to the bird feeders again, “but I’m not an activist. Animals were important to him and he respected them as God’s creations. He even called the animals his brothers and sisters!”  

“Right. So what was unexpected about your visit to Assisi?”

“The emphasis on St. Clare, because she played a major role in his life.”

“Really? So what’s her story?”

“She was ill and couldn’t leave her room, so people would come to her for counsel, helping them make decisions.”

“Oh, right – the television?”

“Yes, the television: she could see what was going on outside because the image would appear on the wall in front of her. So, even though she couldn’t get outside, people came to her. She was a strong influence in the community. “

“I see, that makes a lot of sense.”

“Yes, right. We always learned about Sts. Francis and Clare together, because she was such a big part of his life and work. They grew up together and as adults they influenced each other greatly.”

“They did? I didn’t know that!”

“Yes! She had that bond with him from childhood, so she could tell him exactly what she thought. She also influenced him in his prayer life. He depended on her wisdom; she was  very wise. I doubt St. Francis made any decision without consulting her. She was a big influence on me too, because it’s easier for me to relate to a woman.”

“Oh, can you tell me more about that?”

“A major part of our faith is the balance of feminine and masculine. Women have made a major contribution – what would our faith be without Mary? Women are the source of feminine qualities that inform a heartfelt connection to God.”

“So how has your spiritual life changed since becoming a Franciscan?”

“I put myself out there a lot more. My lifestyle was never out of the ordinary. I always led a quiet life and did a lot of spiritual reading, which is what I enjoy anyway. But I gravitated  to the order because it’s nice having a group of people that become like a family. I’m not really outgoing, but this is a another kind of connection.”

“So what you said about seeing the needs of  the community, it sounds like being part of a community fulfilled a need for you as well.”

“Yes, that’s right!”

“And can you describe the cross that Franciscans wear?”

“It’s called a Tau. St. Francis preferred it because he didn’t want to presume to take over the cross that Jesus died on, because it was so sacred. Just a bar across the top.”

“That ties in with his core values, right? Not anything others would envy, just plain wood–”

“That’s right, and for the Third Order, that’s the cross we use.”

“So, one final question: Do you think Franciscans are misunderstood by other orders?”

“No, I don’t think so. People gravitate to the order that resonates with them. All orders are focused on engaging other people. We engage others as a service group; that’s how we evangelize. Others evangelize by words instead of action, because that’s their charism, and that’s fine. Not to diminish other orders, of course, because there’s room for everybody!”

Room for everyone, indeed! Hopefully, CatholicMatch members enjoyed this glimpse into not only Franciscan spirituality, but into the life and work of the amazing woman who raised me.






2 Comments

  1. Maria-689654 October 5, 2011 Reply

    Hi Cate,
    I’ve always had a good understanding of Saint Francis’ life and his love of Jesus, his life without attachments to the things of the world. But what really made a connection for me is the movie “Brother Sun, Sister Moon”. I know it was not accurate but I was impressed by the relationship between the two siblings- it was very special. Give my thanks to your Mom on her contribution to todays’ Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi. God bless you. I have been looking for that movie for my grandchildren. If you know where I can acquire it, I would be much obliged.

    Thank you,
    Maria M. Esling

    • Cate-291547 October 6, 2011 Reply

      Hi Maria,
      Thank you for your kind words; I will certainly let my mother know what you thought. As far as I know about “Brother Sun…”, I think it’s available on Netflix. Good luck, and thanks again!
      C

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