When Francis started to work in God’s name, having renounced his worldly possessions and aspirations, he began to do penance and followed the Gospel as he felt led to by God. It was not long after Francis began living this new way of life that others came seeking to imitate his efforts and follow his manner of life in what Franciscan scholar Thaddée Matura calls the “Franciscan project.” This project, while initially devoid of an articulated course of development and not the intentional goal of Francis himself, quickly grew within Francis’s lifetime to include thousands of friars and hundreds of sisters. What attracted such a number to follow in the footsteps of this medieval man through the renunciation of property, the adherence to a life of obedience, and the voluntary adoption of chastity?
One element of the Franciscan project that emerged from the work of those who were with Francis was the radical adherence to subordinate positions in society. Those early followers of Francis saw the humility of a man who left behind the life of a wealthy merchant to live among lepers and outcasts. In his Earlier Rule, Francis instructed those who were to come after him where within the social strata they should strive to live. He says, “Let no one be called ‘prior,’ but let everyone in general be called a lesser brother. Let one wash the feet of the other.” Francis continued by enjoining his brothers to be “lesser ones” who should always “be subject to all.”
This spirit of humility acts as the foundation for all subsequent characteristics that compose a Franciscan approach to ministry. Francis was less concerned about what someone did in the world than about how someone did it. Here we see the saint’s admiration for the humility of Christ emerge as part of the centerpiece of his spirituality; to be a Franciscan is to live the Gospel by following in the footprints of Jesus Christ. Michael Blastic summarized this well when he wrote, “As Jesus turned toward those around him, so Francis and Clare in contemplation and compassion incarnate the praxis of Jesus as they follow him in their world by turning to those around them.” From the Incarnation and birth to death on the Cross, Jesus’ life served as Francis’s model for humble service.
Perhaps the most succinct articulation of Francis’s image of humble service is found in Admonition XIX. Here Francis says,
Blessed is the servant who does not consider himself any better when he is praised and exalted by people than when he is considered worthless, simple, and looked down upon, for what a person is before God, that he is and no more. Woe to that religious who has been placed in a high position by others and [who] does not want to come down by his own will. Blessed is that servant who is not placed in a high position by his own will and always desired to be under the feet of others.
Humility is a virtue of ministry, being of service to and among people, that Francis often reiterated in his writings. In addition to being a reoccurring theme in his Admonitions, humility becomes concretized as a constitutive characteristic of the Franciscan way of life when it appears three times in his Later Rule. In chapter III, we read, “I counsel, admonish and exhort my brothers in the Lord Jesus Christ not to quarrel or argue or judge others when they go about in the world; but let them be meek, peaceful, modest, gentle and humble, speaking courteously to everyone, as is becoming.” Two chapters later in the same document, Francis exhorts his followers to, at all times, work humbly as a servant of God and a disciple of poverty. Toward the end of the Rule, Francis again reminds his followers that even amid persecution, hardship and infirmity, they are to have humility and patience while loving those who persecute them. Francis echoed the theme of humility at every opportunity because it was in this way that Christ served his brothers and sisters, and it was in this way that Francis desired to serve.
Matura makes a keen observation about the importance humility held for Francis’s way of life and the subsequent movement that emerged from his example. Matura believes that Francis was well aware of the temptation, perhaps within himself, for pastoral ministers to consider themselves better or above those whom they served. It is possible that his concern about friars judging others and seeking special privileges was rooted in his own experience as the son of a wealthy merchant, a well-off young man who was disgusted by lepers and people of lower social status. Regardless of Francis’s initial motivation, we are the inheritors of a vision that inspires ministers to always put others before themselves. In a world that is fraught with the promotion of self-centeredness and material accumulation, where even good-minded ministers are tempted to seek personal reward, a Franciscan approach to ministry rooted in humility remains a prophetic stance.
This is an excerpt from the chapter titled, “A Franciscan Way of Ministry,” in my new book Francis of Assisi and the Future of Faith: Exploring Franciscan Spirituality and Theology in the Modern World (Tau Publishing, 2012). To read more, check out the book in Paperback and for the Amazon Kindle.