St. Francis: Model of Humility
Deacon saint shows that service stems from ‘finding the leper’
Throughout history plenty of men have been born poor and, through hard work, good fortune or even deceit, died wealthy. We often remember who they are because of their achievements or the influence and impact they had in their communities or throughout the world. Rarely does history, hundreds of years later, still remember a man who died a pauper.
St. Francis was born wealthy, and, if his father had his way, the son would have followed in his dad’s footsteps and become wealthy himself. Instead, St. Francis chose to follow Christ; he chose to focus not on himself but instead aimed his love on others, serving the poor like a humble servant.
How did St. Francis do it? How was he able to overcome the lure of his family’s wealth, which could have tempted him to stay trapped in a world of possessions and pleasures? How did St. Francis’ humility influence his service to others, and how could the humility displayed by Francis, as a deacon, inspire other deacons today?
Francis the Servant
Capuchin Father Regis Armstrong, a longtime professor in the School of Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., has some answers. He’s an expert on St. Francis of Assisi and St. Clare of Assisi, having written several books on them, including being editor-in-chief of the four-volume “Francis of Assisi: Early Documents.” In the first volume of that series, Father Armstrong quotes Thomas of Celano, an early biographer of St. Francis, who describes the saint assisting at a Mass on Christmas Eve, surrounded by a live manger scene, with a crib set up between a huge ox and a small donkey.
Thomas of Celano described Francis as “the holy man of God” who was “dressed in the vestments of the Levites since he was a Levite and with full voice sings the holy Gospels.”
“What did Thomas [of Celano] mean by a Levite?” Armstrong wrote. The answer he pointed to was in a footnote in the book, which stated: “With this description of Francis in the vestments of a Levite, Thomas is the first to suggest that Francis was a deacon. Levita [Levite or deacon] refers to the Old Testament Levite, one set aside for service within the Temple. Thus the text is ambiguous in nature. Later texts … are more precise in identifying Francis as a deacon. How and when he was ordained is not known.”
Father Armstrong said he believes that what Thomas of Celano was trying to accentuate in that passage was this: “Francis was what a deacon, or Levite, should be: servant,” he said. “And in other passages where it emerges, Julian of Speyer and St. Bonaventure have it in the context of the washing of the feet. … With that in mind, the best source I can give you for what that means is to go to Francis’ admonitions.”
The admonitions are a group of 28 short, deeply spiritual exhortations given by St. Francis to his brother friars. The dominant image that St. Francis shares about Christ in the admonitions is that of a servant of God.
“Over and over and over again,” Father Armstrong said, “you will find what it means to be a servant — or, if you prefer, what it means to be a deacon.”
Poverty and the Eucharist
According to Father Armstrong, here’s how Francis referred to the Eucharist in that admonition: “And so it is really the Spirit of the Lord, who lives in his faithful, who receives the most holy body and blood of the Lord. All others who do not share in this same Spirit and who presume to receive him eat and drink judgment to themselves (cf. 1 Cor 11:29). Therefore, O sons of men, how long will you be hard of heart? (Ps 4:3) Why do you not recognize the truth and believe in the Son of God? (Jn 9:35) See, daily he humbles himself (Phil 2:8) as when he came from the royal throne (Wis 18:15) into the womb of the Virgin; daily, he comes to us in a humble form.”
Father Armstrong pointed out that St. Francis realized that he had to receive the body and blood of Christ with the same “infinite love” as the Holy Spirit. As a result, Francis was “completely transformed” by the Eucharist, as well as challenged by it in several ways: It inspired him to be vulnerable; he also learned not to cling to anything of his own.
“We say ‘poverty,’” Father Armstrong said. “He rarely uses that word ‘poverty.’ What he does use is sine proprio — without anything of his own. He empties himself as Jesus emptied himself, and from that flows humility. Everything he has he owes to God. He can claim nothing that is not pure gift.”
How can we achieve St. Francis’ level of humility? Father Armstrong did not hesitate in his response: “You go to what repels.”
Humility Is Key
Equally invaluable in understanding St. Francis, he added, was the saint’s “Testament.” In it, Francis wrote: “While I was in sin, it seemed very bitter to me to see lepers. And the Lord himself led me among them, and I had mercy upon them. And when I left them, that which seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness of soul and body.”
Francis used the word “mercy” in that passage, and Father Armstrong pointed out that the Latin word is misericordia — a heart sensitive to misery. “That’s what a deacon is all about. That’s what mercy is all about,” Father Armstrong said. “Your question was: How do I help [others] grow into this sense of humility? And that’s how — you get the smell of the sheep. You discover your own brokenness. You discover your own misery.”
Father Armstrong believes that having a deep understanding of misericordia is the key for deacons becoming more of a servant. He referred to the late Cistercian nun, Sister Edith Scholl, who, in one of her books, equated someone who had misericordia as being “heart sore.”
“She says to live the mercy of God is to become heart sore,” he said. “Your heart is aching when you see people in need or people who are hurting or people who are broken.”
How did St. Francis teach us, through his actions, to be that way?
“Find the leper,” Father Armstrong said. “Find the one who is so repugnant to you and embrace him or her.”
CARLOS BRICEÑO is the editor of Christ is our Hope, the magazine for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois. He is a longtime journalist whose work has appeared in Our Sunday Visitor, the National Catholic Register and Vatican Radio.