Birdfeeders, lush gardens, and ancient cathedrals are the contexts that most of us associate with Francis of Assisi. If anything more of substance occurs to us regarding Francis is might be his association with animals, though he was not a veterinary, or his popularity as a spiritual all star in certain traditions of the Christian Church. Yet, what we often miss is that Francis of Assisi was one of the most dynamic and perhaps the most influential preacher of the 13th century inspiring a revival in personal discipleship among people of all social classes in Europe and beyond.
More Than Myth
Francis wasn’t a mere product of myth and legend he was a historical personality born in the year 1181 in Assisi Italy to a wealthy cloth merchant named Giovanni di Peitro di Bernardone (and you thought Old Testament names were difficult to pronounce!). Francis received a basic education and as he grew into young adulthood was expected to continue in the family business. Francis did not much care for the cloth business and showed more interest in living the life of a party boy: singing songs, chasing woman, and participating in a life of general revelry. Captivated like many young men by romantic notions of battle he participated in a local war in the year 1202 where he was captured and imprisoned for the entire year. A couple of short years later Francis set out for war with Walter de Brienne of the papal armies but returned the next day after receiving a vision from God. This event marks the beginning of the radical transformation that Christ would work in the life of Francis. Over the next two years Francis would experience different visions from God which eventually put him into conflict with his father. Francis began using the profits of his father’s business to give money to the poor. Finally, in the summer of 1206 Francis assumed a hermit’s habit, disowned his father and claimed God as His only Father. Subsequently he began to repair the Church of San Damiano, talking a vision from Christ to ”rebuild His Church” literally.
A Barefoot Preacher
One day in 1208 Francis was sitting in a church service and heard the Gospel of Matthew read where Jesus told the disciples they were to take with them no money, no extra belongings, and not even a staff as they went out preaching about the Kingdom of God. Francis believed that Christ was speaking these words directly to him. Immediately, after the service Francis gave up all of his meager possessions, including his shoes, and began to travel about Assisi preaching the Gospel message.
As a preacher Francis was not known for the depth of his theological insights but rather for the passion and poetic character of his simple messages. Just as Francis had heard the Gospel and choose to follow it literally in the spirit of poverty and obedience so he challenged others to do in his sermons. Francis’ messages, while we have only bits and pieces of them, were always simple, passionate, and direct. Francis tended to preach on the themes of repentance and Gospel living. He challenged his listeners to live simply and to focus on their relationship with Christ and service to their fellow men. Francis message was much the same for nobles, for priest, as it was for married people. He preached a basic Gospel message tailored after the Lord’s injunctions in the Sermon on the Mount.
Soon other men joined Francis in his life of apostolic wandering for the Gospel and the majority of them were ordinary Christians not clergy from the hierarchal structures of the medieval church. In fact, the preaching ministry of Francis and his subsequent following which eventually encompassed thousands of people from peasants, to nobles, to priests, and bishops could best be described as charismatic and spirit driven. Francis had no project, no purpose statement, and no formal training in homiletics but rather his preaching came from his dramatic relationship with the Savior.
A Lifestyle Preacher
Numerous stories abound about Francis and his understanding of what we might call lifestyle evangelism today. A particular famous one involves when Francis asked one of the younger members of his brotherhood if he would like to go into town to preach. The young friar was very eager and quickly agreed to come with Francis. Francis and the young friar spent all day walking through the marketplaces, side streets, and even the fields. Finally, as the sun was beginning to set Francis and his young companion returned to where they began. The day’s journey was now done. The young friar looked very disappointed and finally said “I thought we were going to preach today?” and Francis replied, “My son, we have preached. We were preaching while we were walking. We were seen by many and our behavior was closely watched. It is of no use to walk anywhere to preach unless we preach everywhere as we walk!” Perhaps the most famous quote of Francis is, “Preach the Gospel everywhere, and if necessary, use words.” Francis understood that a preacher wasn’t merely a person who said some words out of the Bible from time to time. Rather, a preacher was someone who lived out the words of the Bible everyday and in every aspect of his life. Francis and his followers, sought to follow Jesus, and dedicate themselves to poverty, to works of care and compassion for the poor, and the preaching of the Word. What made Francis so appealing to the Europe of his time was more than his poetic style as a preacher but that his life was a poem for God. Modern day preachers would benefit to ponder Francis’ success not on the merit of his sermon outlines but rather the context he provided for every one of his sermons, which was his very own life fully dedicated to Christ.
Kevin Goodrich OP is a traveling teacher on Christian spirituality and the author of the book Cell Phone Spirituality: What your cell phone can teach you about life and God.