Pope’s Assisi visit will put focus on St Francis

Before the papal election Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio hadn’t given a thought to what name he would choose if he was elected Pope. The very idea hadn’t even entered his mind. Even immediately after his election he still hadn’t thought what name to choose. Then a good friend of his, Cardinal Claudio Hummes, Archbishop Emeritus of Sao Paolo whispered in his ear, “Don’t forget the poor!” It was whilst thinking about the poor that the Holy Father immediately thought of St Francis, and how he would like to preside over a Church that was poor, and which worked for the poor. Within minutes it all seemed so obvious to him, – he would choose the name of St Francis of Assisi to inspire him and the Church over which he was to preside.


The Jesuit writer Fr Gerald Blaszczak said that whilst most Jesuits were shocked that a Jesuit was elected Pope, “any Jesuit worth his salt, would not be surprised that the new Pope took the name of St Francis of Assisi”.



There are two main reasons for this assumption firstly St Ignatius himself had written in his diary that he admired and wished to emulated St Francis more than any other saint and secondly the spirituality that he bequeathed to the Society of Jesus that he founded depended on, and grew out of, Franciscan spirituality in the first place.


Despite the abuses of the Crusades, their initial victories nevertheless opened up the East to pilgrims, whose experiences fuelled a newfound spirituality that began to emphasise the historical person of Jesus. St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) was the first to make devotion to the humanity of Jesus central to his spiritual theology, but it was St Francis of Assisi (1181–1226) who spread this devotion to ordinary people, through his extraordinary life, in which he so imitated the man he called Friar Jesus that in the Middle Ages he came to be seen as a Second Christ. It was immediately after his own pilgrimage to the Holy Land that he built the first crib at Greccio in the Rieti valley, for the Christmas of 1223. It began the practice that, to this day, symbolises the rebirth of the incarnation, that is at the heart and centre of Christian spirituality.


Ascetical practices

The influence of Franciscan spirituality spread out and down through subsequent centuries through a new popular spirituality that came to be called the Devotio Moderna, known to most of us by its most famous work The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis. Although the mystical prayer that was the mainspring of everything Francis said and did faded into insignificance, it encouraged ascetical practices, softened with sentiment, that enabled ordinary Christians to make the imitation of Christ a reality in their daily lives. At this time many lives of Christ were written, like the Life of Jesus by Ludolph the Carthusian, that inspired St Ignatius and encouraged him to embrace much of the spirituality of the Devotio Moderna. However, he also assimilated Franciscan spirituality in its pristine purity through the Benedictine monks of  Montserrat in  Spain, who had been deeply influenced by their Italian brethren at the Benedictine Abbey at Bobbio in the Province of Piacenza, where  many scholars believe St Francis stayed in his early years.


It must be remembered that the magnetic presence and preaching of the great Franciscan Reformers, Saints Bernadine of Siena, John Capistrano, James of the Marches and Albert of Sarteano had set all Italy on fire in the fifteenth century from the humblest lay person to the most erudite monk.



It was just before his famous ‘retreat’ at Manresa in 1522, that St Ignatius visited the Abbey of Montserrat where the Abbot Dom Garcia Ximenes de Cisneros, had not only produced his own Spiritual Exercises, imbued with Franciscan  spirituality, but published them for the use of pilgrims on a newly installed printing press. That St Ignatius was influenced by these exercises when he came to perfect his own, is beyond question. The series of reflections for the last three weeks of the thirty days owed much to the spirituality of the Poverello from Assisi.



The Exercises are not only deeply devotional, but under a competent director, are a highly effective means of helping a person make crucial and significant decisions that can determine the direction of their lives. Since the Council of Trent they have had perhaps more influence on Catholic spirituality than any other single form of devotional exercise.


However their impact has been blunted by a failure to realise that these exercises are, as they were originally meant to be, primarily for beginners. Once the fervour that they generate begins to give way, quite naturally, to contemplative prayer at the outset of the mystic way, believers are often left floundering.


The Exercises of St Ignatius were never explicitly designed to lead believers onward into mystical contemplation, nor are the majority of directors able to lead them there, when such an eventuality arises. The stillness and the deep interior silence into which contemplative prayer eventually leads a beginner could not be emphasised by the first Jesuits for fear of seeming to lead the faithful into the heresy of Quietism. This heresy condemned in 1685 encouraged the Protestant belief that we do absolutely nothing, in or out of prayer to attain perfection, not even resist temptation. So, down to the present day, the prayer that was for St Francis and for his followers like St Bonaventure, St Bernadine of Siena, and the other great Franciscant reformers, the only form of prayer with which to prepare for effective apostolic action, fell into abeyance to the present day.


It seems to me that this momentous visit of Pope Francis to Assisi should be a clarion call for Jesuits and Franciscans alike to unite and to harness the best in both their complimentary spiritualities for the well-being and renewal of the Church.


Unique vision

We certainly need more than ever the simple Christ-centred spirituality that St Francis re-introduced so effectively at the beginning of the thirteenth century, with his own unique vision of the journey into the Father, in, with and through  Friar Jesus, in whom all creation are related to each other as brothers and sisters. But we need something of the Jesuit genius for translating that spirituality into clear and coherent ‘spiritual exercises’ so structured that they can appeal to  men and women, who live in the 21st century. Add to this the need for leaders, teachers and spiritual directors versed in the Franciscan mystical tradition, who know from both learning and from their own personal experience, how to lead beginners onward in mystical contemplative prayer. For, as the Jesuit mystic Père Lallement put it, “You can do more in a month with contemplative prayer than you can do in a lifetime without it.”


It is in this area that the present Pope has a deeply personal contribution to make to the future renewal of the Church from his own personal experience that parallels the personal experience of St Francis perfectly. St Francis was not a born saint. He admitted, like our present Pope, that he had made many mistakes in his early life some of them serious mistakes that could not easily be forgotten. However both of them had conversion experiences when they encountered Christ in the poor. St Francis writes about this explicitly in his Last Will and Testament.


This experience had the same effect on both of them. They both turn back to Christ radically through the deep and prolonged interior prayer that leads to contemplation. In his brilliant book on Pope Francis, Paul Vallely describes how he gets up very early in the morning for two hours of personal prayer before Mass. All evening engagements that could prevent this time for prayer are simply cancelled.



If there is a secret to the inner spiritual life of Pope Francis then, it is to be found here, as it was to be found in the saint whose name he has chosen to bear. St Thomas Aquinas defines contemplation as “a simple gaze upon the Truth accompanied by awe”. It is here more than anywhere else that Pope John XXIII not only sees what needs to be done to change the Church, but simultaneously receives the power to do it. For the Fathers of the Church, as for St Francis of Assisi this was above all else the one thing necessary, if the Church is to be continually renewed.



The Roman curia may well be reformed today, collegiality may be introduced tomorrow, with full consultation of the laity to follow, but it is not enough. It is undoubtedly necessary, but without a Church committed to seeking ‘the one thing necessary’ it will still fail to achieve what we all hope and pray for. If this is done then future ages will look back on the papacy of Pope Francis, and to his visit to Assisi this October, as the symbolic beginning of the deep and lasting renewal for which we have all been hoping and praying.

David Torkington is the author of Wisdom from Franciscan Italy: the Primacy of Love.