Pope Francis says he chose the saint from Assisi as his papal namesake. What do we know about the 12th century Christian? Writes Sister Ilia Delio, OSF:
Francis of Assisi was a simple man from a merchant class family who knew the world of business and rejected an economy of money because it divided people into classes. His father was a cloth merchant and owned a shop in Assisi where Francis worked for some time. He was not only familiar with the daily business of buying and trading cloth but he came into contact with many different types of people--farmers, craftsmen, artists, bakers--people who worked with their hands and valued the material things of the earth. After being wounded in battle, he had a spiritual conversion and began to pray in broken down churches.
In his youth he had complete disdain for lepers and loathed their sight. Around the beginning of his conversion, however, Francis met a leper one day along the road and instead of turning away in disgust, he dismounted his horse, gave the leper alms and kissed his hand. Care for the lepers became the center of his life. Just as he realized that God humbly bends over in love to embrace us in Jesus Christ, so too he realized that the suffering of humanity and all creation could only be lifted up through solidarity in love.
Francis lived a poor, itinerant life but he wrote very little on poverty. What was important to him was to live—not without possessions—but without possessing (sine proprio). He was keenly aware of the human person as weak and fragile and thus prone to greed, selfishness and power. To be poor is to live without possessing anything that could prevent true human relatedness as a brother.
Francis has been described as a nature mystic, one who finds God in the vast and beautiful fields of nature. Everything spoke to Francis of the infinite love of God. Trees, worms, lonely flowers by the side of the road—all were saints gazing up into the face of God. In this way, creation became the place to find God and, in finding God, he realized his intimate relationship to all of creation.
He did not consider himself at the top of a hierarchy of being nor did he declare himself superior to the non-human creation. Rather, Francis saw himself as part of creation. His spirituality overturned the spirituality of hierarchical ascent and replaced it with a spirituality of descending solidarity between humanity and creation. Instead of using creatures to ascend to God (from earth to heaven), he found God in all creatures and identified with them as brother and sister; that is, he found heaven on earth. By surrendering himself and daring everything for love’s sake, the earth became his home and all creatures his brothers and sisters.
As he continued to move more deeply into the mystery of God through his relationship with Christ, he came to realize his familial relationship to creation. He came to live in peaceful relationships with all creatures. To live in the justice of love is to live in peace. For Francis, justice and peace are related to poverty, compassion, contemplation and on-going conversion by which we realize our familial bonds with all living creatures, joining with them on the journey into God.
Sister Ilia Delio, OSF is Senior Research Fellow, Science and Religion at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.