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St. Francis of Assisi, a Spiritual Father

The Italian friar can be a witness to inspire priests

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In 2013, following the unanticipated resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, the College of Cardinals elected Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ, to serve as supreme pontiff. When it became apparent that Bergoglio had received the number of votes necessary to be elected, Brazilian Cardinal Cláudio Hummes comforted Bergoglio and told him not to forget the poor.

With that directive calling to his mind the witness of St. Francis of Assisi, the new vicar of Christ was inspired to be called Francis, the first pope to do so. He chose the name because of St. Francis’ witness on poverty, peace and the care of creation. On several occasions throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has revisited the life and works of St. Francis as a source of personal inspiration.

Pope Francis later made a pilgrimage to Assisi to observe the feast of the beloved saint. As he celebrated holy Mass there, Pope Francis said: “What does St. Francis’s witness tell us today? What does he have to say to us, not merely with words — that is easy enough — but by his life?”

He offered three proposals about why the witness of St. Francis is relevant today. First, Francis demonstrated “that being a Christian means having a living relationship with the person of Jesus; it means putting on Christ, being conformed to him.” Second, Francis explained “that everyone who follows Christ receives true peace, the peace that Christ alone can give, a peace which the world cannot give.” Third, Francis’ witness encourages us “to respect all that God has created, and that men and women are called to safeguard and protect, but above all … to respect and love … every human being” (Homily of Pope Francis, St. Francis Square, Assisi, Oct. 4, 2013).

Thus, according to Pope Francis, St. Francis continues to mirror the importance of personal conversion, the peace found in Christ and the need for us to care for all that God created.

Pope Francis returned to these themes in Laudato Si’, his 2015 encyclical on climate change, and in Fratelli Tutti, his 2020 encyclical on fraternity and social friendship. Looking to St. Francis as his guide, Pope Francis wrote: “He was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast. He loved, and was deeply loved for his joy, his generous self-giving, his openheartedness” (Laudato Si’, No. 10). He identified the saint’s love for all persons as the foundation for his encyclical Fratelli tutti. St. Francis “calls for a love that transcends the barriers of geography and distance, and declares blessed all those who love their brother ‘as much when he is far away from him as when he is with him’” (Fratelli Tutti, No. 1).

Numerous people have pointed to Francis of Assisi as a model for contemporary life. Yet, we should be careful not to become focused on the “fictional character” of Francis and attach words or deeds to him for which there is no clear evidence. We have all seen the T-shirts and coffee mugs attributing to Francis the quote: “Preach the Gospel at all times — use words if necessary.” While these words might be consistent with the manner in which he lived his life, there is no direct evidence that Francis actually said them. Nevertheless, there is much that we can still learn from the life of Francis.

Spiritual Fatherhood

For the Franciscans, Francis is “Our Holy Father, Francis.” He established the Franciscan orders. He is our “spiritual father.” As I reflect upon the charism of Francis and the value of his contemporary witness, it seems appropriate to address this idea of Francis as a spiritual father, not just for the Franciscans, but for all of us who have been called to sacred orders. Recall that while Pope Francis has repeatedly looked to St. Francis for his spiritual witness, he is certainly not the only pope to do so.

Other pontiffs, most notably Pope St. John XXIII and Pope St. Pius X, were so influenced by St. Francis earlier in their lives that they became members of the Order of Secular Franciscans. Moreover, St. John Vianney, the patron saint of diocesan priests, was also known to be a Secular Franciscan.

So, although this concept might seem to be misplaced since Francis was not a biological father and was not a priest, Francis became the spiritual father to the men who were drawn to him and the evangelical way of life that he modeled. He welcomed them as his spiritual sons. Within the first 10 years of his ministry, Francis’ notoriety grew so quickly that nearly 20,000 men embraced this evangelical brotherhood of minority and humility. Moreover, in addition to the Franciscans, many other people have considered Francis to be their spiritual father.

Francis’ example of spiritual fatherhood is particularly relevant today as “fatherhood” is challenged. Pope Francis observed that the absent father figure and the diminished influence of an authoritative, yet loving, father figure have seriously wounded our young people (cf. General Audience, Jan. 28, 2015).

With such challenges continuing to emerge, the role of the priest as a spiritual father becomes an even more essential component of our ministry. Yet, perhaps some of us might be reluctant to fully embrace this spiritual fatherhood because our actions or intentions might be misinterpreted by the world in which we minister. We must, however, be careful not to become absent spiritual fathers. We, too, need the treasured model of spiritual fatherhood that Francis embodied. Even though he was neither a biological father nor a priest, Francis recognized his role as a spiritual father and acted upon it out of obedience, humility and love.

Obey the Will of God

St. Francis understood that he must obey the Father’s will. He chose obedience, emulating the example of Jesus, who always obeyed God’s will. Francis submitted to the divine will out of love, just as Jesus did.

In his reflection on the Lord’s Prayer, Francis wrote, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven: That we may love you with our whole heart by always thinking of you; with our whole mind by directing our whole intention towards you and seeking your glory in everything; and with all our strength by spending all our energies and affections of soul and body in the service of your love alone” (“The Paraphrase of the Our Father”).

Francis wanted his followers to obey God, the Church and her ministers. He, himself, was obedient in serving God. Francis affirmed that as their leader, like Jesus, he served God by being their servant: “I am the servant of all and so I am bound to wait upon everyone and make known to them the fragrant words of my Lord” (“Letter to All the Faithful”).

Thus, following the example of Jesus, who “did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28), Francis encouraged all leaders to obey the will of God as the servants of those entrusted to their care. As servant leaders, they were to treat their followers with mercy, patience and humility, and to support them in every way possible, even when it became necessary to admonish them.

As spiritual fathers, Francis encourages us to obey the divine will on our journey to holiness. He encourages us to obediently lead as the servants of all and to strengthen our relationships with the people entrusted to our care. As spiritual fathers who respond freely to the will of God and the call to serve others, our personal witness will also draw others to Christ.

Demonstrate the Humility of God

Inspired by Christ, Francis wanted to be the most humble of Jesus’ followers. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart, and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Mt 11:29-30).

Much of Francis’ spirituality focuses on the humility of God as demonstrated in the Incarnation, the Crucifixion and the Eucharist. Francis looked at these interventions as tangible expressions of God’s humility and his desire to live among us, to suffer for us and to remain with us. He embraced this message of God’s humility when the Lord asked him to be the most humble of his followers.

Humility includes an awareness that we are not God. Rather, we accept that we are dependent upon God for every good. We should recognize our weaknesses and acknowledge the goodness of God that we receive and not take credit for it. “Praise and bless my Lord and give himm thanks and serve him with great humility” (“The Canticle of Brother Sun”). Humility demands that we use to their fullness the gifts and talents that we receive and give glory to God as the source of those gifts. Humility takes courage, passion and great determination, which are qualities that are not always valued today. Yet, these are the very gifts that we should embrace as spiritual fathers to those entrusted to our care.

In his humility, Francis wanted to become more like Christ. God gave us Francis, the humblest of the humble, as a model to follow so that we might also point to Christ in all that we say and do. In humility, true spiritual fathers know their dependence upon God. Through their example of humility, they will lead others to Christ.

Make Known God’s Merciful Love

Francis made the love of God accessible to everyone. He shared the merciful love of God that he experienced through God’s willingness to forgive everyone. According to Francis, the lepers led him to a reorientation of his life that brought about his conversion. As Francis showed mercy to the lepers, he, himself, experienced God’s love and mercy. What was once bitter to Francis became sweet. He became a new man. He found a new direction in his life. He became joy-filled because he accepted that God loved him. And he wanted to share that love with everyone.

Through Jesus, we also encounter God’s loving presence. He comforts us and is with us each day. He forgives us and gives us the grace that we need. Having received God’s merciful love, Francis often implored God for mercy upon all sinners. He converted robbers by telling them about God’s merciful love. He comforted those who believed they were beyond God’s merciful love. He invited others to know of and share in that merciful love.

Francis’ life presents a model of how to make known the merciful love of God. As a spiritual father, all that Francis did, all that Francis taught, was intended to bring others to Christ and to share with them God’s merciful love. As spiritual fathers, we, too, need to know God’s merciful love and make it known to others. By doing so, we will lead others to Christ.

We live and minister in a world filled with challenges, but also filled with people looking for spiritual guidance in their daily lives. As priests, God has called us to lead; but, at times, we likewise need spiritual guidance to follow. Some 800 years ago, St. Francis of Assisi ministered in challenging times. But the manner in which he did so continues to inspire people of faith, including saints and popes, one of whom even chose to be called by his name. As a spiritual father himself, Francis espouses the witness of spiritual fathers who are obedient to the will of God, humble, and make known the merciful love of God.

St. Francis will guide those who strive to be spiritual fathers today.

FATHER SEAN SHERIDAN, TOR, is vicar general of the Third Order Regular of Saint Francis, Rome, Italy.


Fathers Without Borders

From Fratelli Tutti (“On Fraternity and Social Friendship”), Pope Francis writes: “Francis did not wage a war of words aimed at imposing doctrines; he simply spread the love of God. He understood that ‘God is love and those who abide in love abide in God’ (1 Jn 4:16). In this way, he became a father to all and inspired the vision of a fraternal society. Indeed, ‘only the man who approaches others, not to draw them into his own life, but to help them become ever more fully themselves, can truly be called a father.’ In the world of that time, bristling with watchtowers and defensive walls, cities were a theater of brutal wars between powerful families, even as poverty was spreading through the countryside. Yet there Francis was able to welcome true peace into his heart and free himself of the desire to wield power over others. He became one of the poor and sought to live in harmony with all” (No. 4).


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