Joseph Emmanuel SSF discusses the teachings of St Francis


I would like to begin by saying what an honour it is to have been asked to give one of the keynote addresses at this conference. Although I began my journey to priesthood and religious life in the Scottish Episcopal Church and then subsequently found refuge from its illiberal liberalism in the Diocese of London (in which I was ordained), the See of Beverley has figured large in my spiritual development. When I went to the seminary (that being the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield in case anyone thinks I mean somewhere else…), Bishop John Gaisford was Bishop of Beverley and his ministry to my fellow students and I was greatly appreciated, giving us a sense of security in what might, in other circumstances, have been a potentially challenging environment. By the time I left Mirfield for St Paul’s, Tottenham (a church Bishop Tony also knows well, having served as curate there a few years before me), Bishop Martyn Jarrett had succeeded Bishop John as Bishop of Beverley and he, too, gave a great deal of encouragement to us; I still treasure the card he sent me on my ordination to the diaconate. 

Now, as a priest of the Society, I am in the very fortunate position of receiving sacramental ministry and pastoral care from Bishop Glyn and recently helping out—to a small degree—in one of his parishes in the Diocese of Newcastle. To have the reassurance of a catholic bishop in our diocese is a great comfort and source of inspiration to me as, indeed, is the presence of a generous diocesan bishop who acknowledges—even if she does not agree—with that need. 

As a Franciscan friar (rather than a secular priest), I am in the fortunate position of not having to attend too many meetings (although we have our own alternative form of purgatory in the shape of meetings of the Provincial Chapter). I was therefore slightly unclear what a ‘keynote’ address was until I Googled it and found that the purpose of a keynote address is (and I quote) ‘to give a speech that sets out the central theme of a conference.’ On thinking about this it seemed sensible to me that I talk about something of which I know a little (rather than holding forth knowledgeably about something I know absolutely nothing about; I leave that to politicians) and therefore I decided that I should speak about St Francis of Assisi and his teaching on the eucharist in the hope that this might contribute something to our thinking and praying together and also in the hope that, together, we might reflect on this ‘little poor man of Assisi’ who has so captured the hearts and minds of many, many people. 

Before I do this, however, I want to explore a couple of avenues of thought which will, I hope, clarify some misunderstandings about St Francis and which also place his teaching on the eucharist into context. The first thing is that there is a common misperception that St Francis was, to use a medieval expression, unlettered; or in modern terms that he was nearly illiterate. In many respects this isn’t entirely surprising because the humble St Francis was quick to make that assertion about himself and more than happy for others to say it about him. However, the truth of the matter is that, although not as highly educated as the great medieval scholar-saints (like the Dominican St Thomas Aquinas or Francis’ fellow Franciscan St Bonaventure), Francis was able both to read and to write to a modest level. We know, according to the sources of his life, that St Francis was educated in the parochial school attached to the Church of San Giorgio in Assisi where, under the tutelage of the parish priest, he would have been taught the rudiments of arithmetic and Latin (and his Latin is, indeed, extremely rudimentary), gaining what St Bonaventure describes in his Major Legend of St Francis (at I.1) as ‘a slight knowledge of reading and writing…’ 

St Francis was not—and I repeat this again—an academic of the stature of Aquinas or Bonaventure, but they were, to use a rather anachronistic expression, ‘superstars’ in medieval academe; they were, to the Middle Ages, what the late Sir Stephen Hawking was in our time. Instead, Francis was able to write to a modest level which whilst not distinguished from today’s perspective nonetheless placed him in the top 10% of a world in which over 90% of the population (in western Europe at least) are thought to have been totally illiterate. In addition to having a ‘slight knowledge’ of reading and writing, we also know two other significant things about St Francis which affected his ability to communicate in writing. The first thing is that he could also speak French (which presumably he learnt from his French mother Pica). In the Legend of the Three Companions (written around 1246 by Brothers Leo, Rufino and Angelo who knew Francis personally, having grown up with him) we are told that, on their first—and less than successful—visit to seek the approval of the Pope for the Franciscan Order ‘Francis quietly borrowed the [clothes of a beggar and] stood on the steps [of the church], asking for alms in French, a language he delighted to speak, though he did not know it very well…’ (L3C Xc). This means that Francis had a degree of linguistic aptitude which, again, was much more unusual in the Middle Ages than it would be today. Secondly, we know that St Francis loved to sing and that he was deeply influenced by the whole genre of troubadour literature which was prevalent in the High Middle Ages. That this is the case is clearly seen when we consider Francis’ courting of what he called ‘the Lady Poverty.’ In the Legend of the Three Companions (which we have already encountered), there is an incident (known by students of St Francis as ‘the Lord of the Revels Incident’) in which Francis and his companions go out on the town (to use a more modern turn of phrase). His fellow revellers turn around and, seeing Francis in a daze, ask him if he is thinking of getting married, to which he replies: ‘You are right: I was thinking of wooing the noblest, richest and most beautiful bride ever seen…’ His companions laugh at him thinking that he’s joking, but the Legend goes on to explain that ‘The bride was none other than that form of true religion which he embraced; and which, above any other, is noble, rich and beautiful in its poverty…’ (L3C III.7). The characterization of evangelical poverty—which was, undoubtedly, St Francis’ ideal—as a beautiful woman is, of course, completely consonant with the troubadour tradition in the Middle Ages in which the affections of a beautiful woman had to be fought for and earned, up to and including the slaying of a dragon. 

As we near the end of this particular avenue of exploration let me summarize what I’ve said thus far: St Francis was not, contrary to popular perception, unlettered or illiterate. He was educated sufficiently to read, to write and to work as a merchant (which he did before his conversion). In addition, he was able to communicate using different languages and registers of language and, lastly, from his love of the troubadour tradition, he learned to use analogies and images, express himself in song and vividly craft words. That this is the case means that, when we read St Francis’ writings on the eucharist we can be assured, most importantly, that he wrote them himself (or at the very least dictated them) and that they are not writings simply attributed to him by others (as some have suggested). We may say then, that what he wrote about the eucharist he believed about the eucharist. 

My second task is one I gladly undertake because it is, I hope, to rectify a great wrong which has been done to our perception of St Francis by what one might call ‘Bird Bath Franciscanism.’ This phenomenon is shown clearly by an incident which happened to me a few years ago when I was serving as the Guestbrother of Alnmouth Friary (a task with which I was entrusted prior to being appointed Novice Guardian of the European Province). During one meal, I found myself sitting next to a recently ordained priest of a southern diocese who, by her own admission, knew absolutely nothing about St Francis or the Franciscan Orders. As a good Guestbrother I initially asked her whether she was comfortable in her room; whether it was warm enough; whether her bed was comfortable etc, and she confirmed that this was, indeed, the case. Relieved by her answer I forged on ahead and asked her if there was anything which puzzled her about friary life and which I might be able to clarify for her and she said that indeed there was something: ‘I’m not sure about the amount of time the brothers spend in chapel.’ I immediately wondered whether she was puzzled that we didn’t say the traditional seven-fold Office in the friary chapel and I hastily explained that the majority of western religious orders, both Roman Catholic and Anglican, following the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, now used a reduced ‘four-fold’ Office augmented by the daily celebration of the eucharist and set times of private prayer. But no… this was not why she was puzzled at all. Instead she said: ‘No, no that’s not it; I don’t see why you spend so much time in chapel.’ I didn’t have time to query her befuddlement because she went on to explain (in the self-assured way that people who know nothing about something often do): ‘You see, Francis of Assisi has nothing really to do with Christianity; he was mainly about ecology…’ I only managed to half stifle the scream which rose to my throat and it took me more than a moment to recover my equilibrium before moving on to a less involved topic of conversation. 

In certain respects, I should not have been so offended by this gross misrepresentation of St Francis because, to be honest, modern sentimentalism has done much to promote it. If one performs an ‘image search’ for St Francis on Google one may be fairly certain that he will be accompanied by some form of living creature, whether it be an insipid-looking wolf, a bird, a fish or a combination of the above—what our late and much missed Brother Reginald termed ‘the usual blooming menagerie.’ It would, of course, be completely wrong to suggest that St Francis had no connection to the created world, but it is extremely important to explore that connection for Francis’s view of creation and his view of the eucharist are, in many respects, intrinsically linked. 

Within the corpus of his extant writings there are very few documents which allude to Francis’s connection with creation for, as we will see in a moment, the vast majority are, in fact, about the eucharist. Of the small body of texts which do address the created world, perhaps the most famous is St Francis’ ‘Canticle of the Creatures’ known also as ‘The Canticle of Brother Sun’ and sung, in hymn form, as ‘All Creatures of our God and King’ which was written throughout St Francis’ life verse by verse and which was completed by two of his most trusted companions as the saint himself lay dying. In its non-metrical version the canticle opens thus: ‘Most high, all powerful, all good Lord! All praise is yours, all glory, all honour/And all blessing/To you alone, Most High, do they belong. No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name. All praise be yours, my Lord, through all that you have made, and first my Brother Sun/who brings the day; and light you give to us through him’ (Habig p.130). Here we see, encapsulated in a phrase, the truth of St Francis’s apprehension of creation. Creation is not something to be worshipped in itself (St Francis was most definitely not a heretic or Gaia worshipper), nor is creation even something which simply attests to the generosity and love of its great creator. 

Instead, creation in and of itself gives praise to God. Francis asks ‘Brother Sun’ to praise God by being as sunny as he can be; he asks ‘Sister Water’ to praise God by being watery; he asks ‘Sister Moon,’ ‘Brother Fire,’ ‘Sister Earth’ and ‘Sister Death’ to do the same. By being as sunny, as moony, as fiery, as earthy and as death-like as possible so that these aspects of creation (which Francis the troubadour characterizes as he characterized the Lady Poverty) give praise to God. So, to St Francis, the purpose of all parts of creation (in which he would have also firmly situated humankind and placed Christ both incarnate and eucharistic at the pinnacle) is to glorify God by being most truly and fully itself, a belief which St Ireneaus articulated when he famously declared: ‘The Glory of God is a human being fully alive!’ Like the 7th century Greek Father St Maximus the Confessor, Francis perceived a ‘cosmic liturgy’ in which all things animate and inanimate gave unending praise to God with Jesus Christ—incarnate and eucharistic—at the pinnacle, the ‘first among creation’ to quote St Paul. You will note that, thus far, I’ve only really alluded to the place of Christ (whether eucharistic or incarnate) as the pinnacle of all creation in St Francis’ thought and, as we finish this section, I want to point very briefly to the teaching of one of St Francis’s most illustrious sons to develop this idea a little further. Blessed John Duns Scotus was distinguished by two important things: he was Franciscan and he was Scottish (not that I have any vested interest in making that connection whatsoever). In his teaching on the incarnation (and we do not have nearly enough time to explore it here), Duns Scotus argued the following: (a) God is absolutely good and it is His nature, therefore, to give that which is utterly good to His creation; God’s goodness overflows; (b) Jesus is the pinnacle of creation and is himself utterly good therefore God (who is, in Himself, utterly good) will give Jesus to creation; therefore (c) Jesus—the pinnacle of all Creation—was always going to be given to creation as an incarnate man and in the eucharist; he was not and never could have ‘merely’ been God’s ‘Plan B’ following the fall of humanity. This is a gross oversimplification of Duns Scotus’ thought (and I apologize unreservedly to any scholars of Duns Scotus who may be writhing quietly in a corner) but it shows the integral inter-relationship in medieval Franciscan theology between Christ—the ultimate good, incarnate and eucharistic—and creation. 

We can therefore state with confidence that St Francis’s apprehension of creation as the ‘dynamo’ of all praise and adoration towards God and his love of the eucharist—in which people received the eucharistic Christ (who is the pinnacle of that same creation and the total fulfilment of God’s goodness)—were integrally linked. And, in parenthesis, one could also say to anyone who, like my interlocutor in the friary refectory, thinks that St Francis was about ecology rather than Christianity—that they are simply wrong; to Francis creation was, like everything else, profoundly Christ-centred and Christ was ‘all in all.’

We’ve spent quite a lot of time on these two avenues of thought. Having done so, I hope that we can agree two things. First, St Francis was perfectly capable of expressing himself and his own thoughts (even if his Latin was not always perfect and occasionally descended into the vulgar Italian tongue, as one of his biographers put it) and therefore we may receive his writings on the eucharist with confidence and with certainty that they do encapsulate his own thinking; they are not, contrary to some suggestions, the product of another mind. Secondly, St Francis’s view of creation was profoundly centred on the idea that creation in and of itself praises God and that Christ incarnate and eucharistic, the ultimate good, was, and was always intended to be, the very pinnacle of creation. 

I mentioned some time ago that Francis wrote little about creation and a great deal about the eucharist and I want to justify that statement because it may well come as a surprise. Unlike many saints and fathers of the Church, Francis did not write much; his own writings account for only 159 pages of an omnibus of sources of over 1,800 pages or, in other terms, less than 10%. Of those documents, some are concerned with the administration of the early Franciscan movement (St Francis took two attempts at writing a Rule before a Rule was finally approved by Pope Honorious in 1223); then there are a number of letters written by St Francis to the Order and to the secular and ecclesiastical authorities (for, even without official recognition by the Holy See, St Francis was nonetheless an important and influential figure in medieval Italy) and lastly devotional hymns and prayers account for approximately a quarter of the writings. Of the 23 extant writings directly attributed to St Francis, over half are either directly or indirectly concerned with the eucharist and touch on various aspects of eucharistic life. 

First and foremost in St Francis’ thinking on the eucharist is wonder at the eucharistic miracle; the fact that the host becomes the body of Christ, full humanity and full divinity, and the wine becomes the blood of Christ, and, importantly, the divine condescension—the love and humility of God—which lies behind this wonder. Given what I have already said about St Francis’s modest educational achievements you will not be surprised to know that he does not attempt to work out ‘how’ this miracle occurs. Unlike St Thomas Aquinas, St Francis had no wish to apprehend let alone comment on the ‘mechanics;’ he simply believed with all his heart that he received the divinity of Christ in its fullness when he received the holy eucharist and that, for him, was enough. Commenting on Francis’s reverence for the eucharist and his wonder at the eucharistic miracle, Thomas of Celano, one of Francis’ most important biographers wrote: ‘Francis burned with a love that came from his whole being for the sacrament of the Lord’s body, and he was carried away with wonder at the loving condescension and the most condescending love shown there… he frequently received Holy Communion, and he did so with such devotion that he made others also devout. Showing toward that Sacrament deserving of all reverence all the reverence he could, he offered a sacrifice of [his entire being]…” (2C CLII). 

Secondly, St Francis had a very high theology of priesthood: in order for the eucharistic miracle to take place; in order for a valid sacrament to be confected (to use slightly arcane terminology) there had to be a priest and because of the authority entrusted to them at their ordination which allowed them to celebrate the eucharist, if for no other reason, priests were worthy of respect and, importantly, support (and the medieval friars very much saw themselves in a supporting role for the parish clergy). 

Lastly, St Francis was extremely exercised by what he perceived as a shameful indifference to the Blessed Sacrament: he railed against clerics who failed to treat it with due respect; he begged clerics to ensure that the Sacrament was reserved reverently and in ‘beautiful places’ and he ordered his friars to ensure that both the body of Christ and also the books of the Mass (the Missal, the Gospel and the Bible) were treated with reverence. 

Given the number of St Francis’s writings which comment on the eucharist it is difficult to choose a small number of examples to illustrate these aspects of St Francis’s eucharistic teaching, but I want, initially, to refer to St Francis’s Letter to the General Chapter which is thought to have been written by him, by then already grievously ill, around the feast of Pentecost in the year 1224. A General Chapter was—and still is—a meeting of all of the brothers of the Order throughout the world identified by Francis as ‘the Minister General of the Order of Minors and to his successors; to all the ministers and custodes; to the Ordinary Priests of the Orders in Christ, and to all the friars who are obedient and without pretensions…’ (Letter to the General Chapter). Therefore one can say with certainty that Francis’s choosing to write about the eucharist to all of the brothers (to say nothing of their successors) is not only an indication of the importance of the subject to him but also a clear instruction that this should be the case for all friars and for all time. In a section of instruction to his friar priests (and then, as now, not all friars are priests) he writes perhaps his most famous meditation on the eucharist using words which inspired the title of this talk. He writes: ‘Our whole being should be seized with fear, the whole world should tremble and heaven rejoice, when Christ the Son of the Living God is present on the Altar in the hands of the priest. What wonderful majesty! What stupendous condescension! O sublime humility! O humble sublimity! That the Lord of the whole Universe, God and the Son of God, should humble himself like this and hide under the form of a little bread for our salvation. Look at God’s condescension, my Brothers and pour out your hearts before him. Keep nothing for yourselves so that he who has given himself wholly to you may receive you wholly…’ (Letter to the General Chapter). In this wonderful section we see many things. First, we see Francis’s facility with language which, as I noted earlier, was influenced by his love of and interest in troubador literature and song. See the contrasting images: ‘wonderful majesty’ and ‘stupendous condescension’ and then the inversions of ‘sublime humility’ and ‘humble sublimity’ which work as well in Latin as they do in English. Most importantly, however, this conveys very fully the wonder and awe which St Francis felt—and which he wanted his friars to feel—when they encountered the Blessed Sacrament or were at a celebration of the eucharist. To St Francis—and I would venture to suggest and to us—the celebration of the eucharist is the single most significant event we can participate in. Another thing to note—and this is, I think, important—is that St Francis does not dictate how the eucharist should be celebrated; he does not specify that this wonderful miracle only happens when it is within the context of a High or Solemn Mass or when there are hundreds of people present; he isn’t in the least bothered about vestments or liturgical actions or choreography approved by Fortescue and O’Connell. It is simply enough for him that the eucharist is celebrated and the body and blood of Christ made present on the altar in the hands of the priest. So, whether we attend a mass celebrated with all the pomp and circumstance we associate with, perhaps, a National Pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady in Walsingham or whether we attend a quiet 8am celebration on a Sunday morning with only a few worshippers and very little ceremonial, let us always rejoice in the wonderful incarnation which is taking place before our eyes ‘when Christ the Son of the Living God is present on the altar.’ 

In the same letter, St Francis gives some instruction on the importance of priests. Before I turn to that I think that it is extremely important that we make a sharp distinction between the office of the priest and the man who is entrusted with it. Tragically, over the past few years, it has become apparent that some priests have abused their office—and the mystique which surrounds it—to exploit and harm those entrusted to their care. This is simply evil and inexcusable; it is a wicked betrayal of the trust placed in them by Our Lord and his Church. St Francis is not, however, advocating that the man called to be the priest should be venerated and treated as a holy thing. Those of us who are priests and those of you who know priests will not be under any illusion that all priests are men of clay! What St Francis is teaching, however, is that the office held by priests through no personal merit of their own is extremely important. When asked about his respect for parish clergy, St Francis apparently justified it by saying: ‘If I were to meet at the same time some saint coming down from heaven and any poor little priest, I would first pay my respects to the priest and proceed to kiss his hands first. I would say, “Ah, just a moment St. Lawrence, because this person’s hands handle the Word of Life and possess something that is more than human. These hands have touched my Lord, and no matter what they be like, they could not soil Him or lessen His virtue… To honour the Lord, honour His minister.”’ So, perhaps this should remind us to pray for priests; not only for vocations to the priesthood, but also for those who are already priests and especially for those who minister in difficult or demanding areas or who encounter suffering in their own lives. If we have no priests we have no eucharist; the priesthood and the eucharist are intrinsically linked as are the eucharist and the people of God and therefore, in a conference in which we are thinking about the eucharist, let us also pray for the strength, the empowerment and the well-being of those who serve our communities as parish priests. 

The third area with which St Francis was concerned was, as I noted earlier, that the Blessed Sacrament should always be treated with awe and respect and that it should be reserved fittingly. In addition, and related to this, he also taught that the books associated with the Mass should be reverently stored and cared for (no ASBs propping up the organ bench!). In another of his letters (this time to all Superiors of the Friars Minor written around 1223), St Francis writes: ‘With everything I am capable of and more, I beg you to ask the clergy with all humility, when it is called for and you think it is a good idea, to have the greatest reverence for the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, together with his holy name and the writings which contain his words, those words which consecrate his body. They should set the greatest value, too, on chalices, corporals, and all the ornaments of the altar that are related to the Holy Sacrifice.’ I have absolutely no doubt, whatsoever, that all of the churches represented here today will show ‘the greatest reverence for the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ’ but is this true for those parishes which surround them? A friend of mine was recently visiting a parish in another Province of the Anglican Church within the United Kingdom and was horrified to see, amongst other things, that consecrated hosts and wine were being ‘put back’ to use the following week at the next Eucharist… This is not, of course, innately sinful and the good souls who were doing this were doing it not out of malice but out of ignorance, but it does happen and perhaps not as far away from us as we might like to think. How good it would be if, as a result of attending this conference, there were a revival and a reawakening of devotion and reverence to the Blessed Sacrament and the holy eucharist not only in ‘our’ churches but in all churches. Perhaps teaching people to love the eucharist, to rejoice in the goodness and love of the God who allows it to happen (or the ‘divine condescension’ as St Francis would put it), and to see it as integral rather than incidental in the Christian life is something we should all commit to? Aesthetics, rite, vestments, ceremonial, incense—these are all lovely and wonderful and I love them along with everyone else but they are not and must never be seen as integral; the eucharist is not dependent on these things because the eucharist is of God and is God and God is not ever dependent on the customs of human beings. How wonderful it would be if all Christian people came to love it and also to live it.

Perhaps to summarize I could make the following observations. First, St Francis, contrary to his popular ‘sentimental’ image, was deeply and passionately in love with the eucharist and with the Lord who came to him during it. Secondly, he teaches us, above all things, to rejoice in it, to give thanks for it and to participate in it. He teaches us to adore the God and the Lord who make it possible and who lower themselves to participate in the things of the earth. Thirdly, St Francis teaches us to honour the office of the priesthood, not the individuals who hold it, because the connection between the priest and the eucharist is integral: we must pray for our parish priests and pray that they will be faithful in their celebration of the holy eucharist. Lastly, St Francis teaches us that the Blessed Sacrament is the greatest treasure given by the Lord to the Church; let us strive to behave in a manner which speaks of our belief in the truth of this; let us try and attend the eucharist more; to pray before the eucharistic Lord more and above all to encourage in all Christian people a love of the holy eucharist. Let me finish by repeating a piece of advice given by St Francis to ‘The rulers of all the people’ written towards the end of his life. In it he says to those men of power, burdened with the cares of government: ‘And so, my Lords, this is my advice. Put away all worry and anxiety and receive the holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ fervently and in memory of him.’


Brother Joseph Emmanuel is a member of the Society of St Francis. This keynote address was delivered at the Bread for the World Conference in Liverpool.