Thursday, February 2, 2012

Man Seeks God - Who are the Franciscans?

The Franciscans are NOT a religion. They are a Catholic religious order of friars started by St. Francis of Assissi in the thirteenth century. St Francis was a wealthy young man in Tuscany who was made a prisoner in a war between Assissi and Perugia. After he was ransomed, he began to rethink his former existence of wine and song. A turning point in Francis' life came when he heard the voice of God telling him to restore a ruined chapel. Francis sold valuable cloth belonging to his father in order raise the money he needed. When confronted by his father, Francis dramatically stripped off all his belongings, which he returned to his father, and took up a life of poverty and good works.

Franciscans are expected to serve God through action - to serve others. At the same time, they are also expected to contemplate God and spirituality. Francis placed much emphasis on practical actions - feeding the hungry, ministering to the sick, providing shelter to the homeless. He also encouraged periodic spiritual retreats to speak with God and refresh the spirit.

Stories about Francis always emphasize his happy nature. In his youth, he was known for his music, singing, and what today would be viewed as partying. As a friar, he encouraged his friars to be happy and cheerful. There is a collection of stories about St. Francis and his early followers called "The Little Flowers of St. Francis:

One of Francis's followers was Brother Juniper, known as the "jester of God". When I first read the Brother Juniper stories, I was hit with a realization that Brother Juniper is a more extreme version of St. Francis. Francis himself in the stories is sometimes frustrated by Juniper; at this this time Francis is the leader of a growing Catholic order (in fact three orders according to the Catholic Encyclopedia) sanctioned by the pope and has been forced to become more practical and less spiritual. Brother Juniper's actions make Francis remember what he himself was like before he had to deal with Church beauracracy.

In one Brother Juniper story, Juniper is ministering to a sick man who has a craving for pigs' feet. Juniper runs out to a nearby herd of swine, which is not owned by the Franciscans, grabs a pig, cuts off a foot, and makes soup for the sick man. The man eats the soup and becomes much healthier. The swineherd finds the injured three-footed pig and immediately reports it to the pig's owner. The owner is outraged and complains to Francis. Francis realizes that this is a potential PR nightmare - his friars are known for constantly begging for the poor, asking for work so that they can use their wages for the poor, and now people will accuse them of not respecting private property. He immediately sends for Juniper and berates him for his actions.

Juniper, however, insists that he has done the will of God. He wanted to help a sick man, there was a nearby pig, he made the soup, and the man was cured. The pig was obviously sent by God. Juniper was so convincing that the pig's owner kills the pig (who probably wasn't going to live much longer due to blood loss and the loss of a foot) and gives the meat to the Franciscans. Francis praises Juniper for reminding him of the true meaning of the Franciscan mission. 

An interesting aspect of this story is that St.Francis does not berate Juniper for the pain that he caused the pig. In the Little Flowers, Francis is very compassionate towards wild animals. He preaches a sermon to the wild birds of the field. He persuades the town of Gubbio to agree to feed a wolf so that it will stop eating people. However, he seems unfazed by Juniper's removing a foot from a live pig. Today St. Francis is the patron saint of environmentalists. Churches thoughout the world hold a Blessing of the Animals on October 4th where pets can be brought to church for a special blessing.

Additional information about modern American Franciscans can be found here:

The Catholic Encyclopedia has information about St.Francis and the Franciscans at:

My next post will be about Weiner's experiences with an NYC Franciscan order.

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