Even the most inattentive of Catholics know who St. Francis is, and that his feast day is celebrated annually by pet blessings. But as one Franciscan brother said, their spirituality is about so much more than a love for animals.
Franciscans explain that the image of St. Francis surrounded by animals and birds symbolizes only a fraction of their order. And while it is certainly an important aspect — taken from the edict that all things are created equal and no part of creation is above another — Franciscans want the world to know the whole of St. Francis.
Priests, brothers, sisters and secular followers all try to model their lives on the saint, who in his turn was passionate about walking the path of Christ.
What would Jesus do?
The centrality of Jesus in their lives is one of the most prominent guidestones, said Franciscan Father Aubrey McNeil, pastor of St. Mary of the Angels Church in Anderson.
“He wanted to walk as a poor man in the footsteps of a poor Christ,” Father Aubrey said. “He wanted to imitate Him in all things — even to suffer as He suffered.”
He added that receiving the stigmata a few years before his death was the highlight of Francis’ life.
Franciscan Sister Sheila Mary Byrne said for her, the thirst for Jesus is what guides and touches her most.
“Of all the saints who walked the earth, Francis was the one who had the deepest passion for Christ,” she said.
Now, almost 800 years later, Father Aubrey said they strive for that same intimacy and follow the saint’s other spiritual mandates in a continual call to conversion.
Here is a glance at Franciscan rules:
– A love of Scripture
Sister Sheila said it was the saint’s passion for Jesus — our brother — and the Gospel that led him to see all of creation as brothers and sisters. Not just the animals, but everything in the created universe.
– Divine wisdom
St. Francis believed devoutly that God knew best, even if man could not see the wisdom at the time.
Father Aubrey noted that the saint was considered a mad man by his contemporaries. He gave up all his worldly goods to serve the poor and marginalized, and embraced the worst of the outcasts. He did what God asked regardless of what other people thought.
– Put prayer into action
Prayer is not just a part of worship; it is a union between faith and action.
Sister Sheila noted that Franciscans should be a physical embodiment of prayer.
“Our very being should be the Gospel,” she said.
– God is good
Father Aubrey refers to the belief in goodness as the all good, the perfect good.
“Everything good is of God,” he said.
– Strong Marian element
Franciscans have a deep love and respect for Mary, whom St. Francis considered noble but simple, Father Aubrey said. Today, his followers are called to serve as mother of the Lord and bring Jesus into our world.
– Help those in need
Sister Sheila, director of programs at the Franciscan Center on St. Helena Island, said she relates well to God’s call to help the poor.
One of her favorite stories is about the first time Francis saw a leper.
He was repulsed, and started to gallop away on his horse. But something brought him back, not only to help, but to embrace the leper. She said it was the saint’s first experience with spiritual joy.
His work with the poor gave rise to the vow of poverty and a pledge to own no material possessions.
“I think Francis is a great saint for our day because he said the material things of life can’t make you happy. This is a good lesson for now,” she said.
Franciscans today still don’t own anything — not property or cars or ERA accounts.
“We really don’t retire,” Father Aubrey said with a chuckle. “We just do less and less work.”
Secular Franciscans don’t follow the rule of poverty and possessions because they aren’t supported by the order, but they follow his spirituality in all other regards.
Cindy Bryan, minister of the Fraternity of the Crucified Christ in Charleston, said ongoing formation, living the Gospel, and a belief in ecology are aspects that appeal to her.
“We see God’s grace in the whole created world. We have God’s goodness in everything,” she said. “It is possible to live as Jesus wants us to, even in the modern world; we just have to work at it a little bit.”
Franciscans acknowledge it is a struggle, and they constantly look to St. Francis, the Gospel and Christ to help them follow the path. Each one seems to have a special bit of spirituality that speaks to their heart and guides them.
For Father Aubrey, it is St. Francis’ quote: “What I am before God is all I am and nothing more.”
He explained that, while others call the saint Christ-like, St. Francis considered himself only a worm. Father Aubrey said he was humble because he saw his own sinfulness and knew he was no better than any other part of creation.
“It helps me to be able to work with the sinfulness I see around me, because I’m not above it, I’m part of it,” he said.
Going back to the story of the leper, Sister Sheila said it is her desire to respond to the needs of the poor and give them spiritual joy.
“It’s a wonderful journey,” she said. “We want it for everyone.”