He was always new, always fresh, always beginning again
Is what one of the recent biographers wrote of St Francis of Assisi, one of the early proponents of the order of the franciscans in the 13th Century. (Aside from the extract below you can google yourself his life plan) . Last week I picked up for £1 in a charity shop a little book on this most celebrated, but also sometimes forgotten about saints in the movement of the early church, and as I read the book, and have since looked up a few articles I began to wonder whether St Francis in his actions, his temporality and attitudes possessed something in order that the righteous title of Patron Saint of detached youthwork might be bestowed (assuming I have the right to bestow such an honour)
Francis (and his wife Clare) had an agenda for Justice which was foundational, living outside the society of production and consumption and a continued vow to identify with the marginalised in society, they chose to live a life of peace and justice and not just do acts of peace and justice.
Thomas of Celano wrote of St Francis ‘Towards little worms even he glowed with great love.. he picked them up from the road and placed them in a safe place, lest they be crushed by the feet of the passerby’ St Francis picked up even the worms from the road, because he was known for his travelling, walking, and journeying, it was said Francis was more at home in the yard than in the sanctuary. Maybe a methaphor of the (faith based) detached youthworker that is more at home on the street than in the church perhaps..?
Writes Richard Rohr; Franciscan Spirituality – that which formed from St Francis- is a ‘sidewalk spirituality’ for the streets of the world and the paths of the forest. Francis spent most of his time on the road and in the dwelling spaces between the towns in the small gatherings, his own life was further outside the walls of church, than the Franciscan orders that succeeded him. As GK Chesterton said’ what benedict stored ( in buildings) , Francis scattered’ Francis was risky, little discipline clear direction or boundaries – where life in the orders maintained these.
From his life span we read that these events happened:
Year 1208: Francis is back in Assisi; during the spring he listens to an Apostolic Mass inside the Porziuncola, and the evangelical, apostolic vocation grows up inside of him. In the same year, the first followers (Bernard, Peter Catani, and Giles) start gathering around him, building the first embryo of the first Franciscan Order.
1209 He writes a first version of the Rule. He goes to Rome with his 12 companions to ask the Pope for his approval, receiving an “oral” acceptance. On the way back to Assisi they stop in Orte for a while, then they arrive at the Augustinian hovel in Rivotorto. Francis and his companions are friars (“brothers”) rather than monks, because they continually travel from place to place, living among the very poor.
They walked in small groups, yes three small communities (orders) were formed, but Francis spirituality was honed from the walking and formed through the experiences of life there. For those sympathetic with faith and detached youthwork; Francis it was said ’emphasised an imitation and love of the humanity and suffering of Jesus, and not just the worshipping of his divinity’ . This was how he acted to the poor he encountered on the roads. And his faith underpinned what we would now define as empathy:
‘In seeking peace through right relationships with God and others, we become much more open, non-judgmental, and inclusive with those who are different from us. Francis admonished his followers not to look down upon or judge others but to look down upon and judge themselves first. God sanctioned judgment, and therefore, he seldom referred to damnation and did not condemn anyone or any particular belief (L3C, 58). In a modern sense, seeking peace means moving out of one’s comfort zone to understand a perspective and way of being that is different from one’s own. It means to be comfortable enough with one’s differences to try not to change or condemn them. True peace cannot occur without opening oneself up to the differences of others.’
and Murray Bodo (1995) writes of St Francis:
There he [Francis] embraces another kind of leper, a young nobleman who has been excluded by the other prisoners because of his constant bickering and complaining. By his cheerfulness and patience Francis is able to bring this person out from behind those walls of his own making. And this becomes a bold pattern in Francis’ life: by love he helps people to find the opening through their walls; then the gates of the cities begin to open. The lepers, even symbolically, always live outside the walls, and you have to pass through armed gates to embrace them. That is Francis’ formula for peace: You have to come out from behind your defenses and risk embracing what is seemingly repulsive and dangerous.
Rohr again; ‘Francis created a very different classroom for his followers, sort of an underground seminary if you will, where you had to live faith before you talked about faith, our rule was initially ‘tips for the road’ an itinerant lifestyle’ We might call that correct ethics or personal conduct – what it also was how to connect with those on the road in accordance with the beliefs, and a classroom which emphasised the doings not the knowings – informal education – well definitely experimental….
St Francis of Assisi – the faith filled, non judgemental, walker across Europe who identified with the poor whom he met, who found home outside the walls, yet still recognised from within. Maybe he was the patron saint of detached youth work. But if not, still an inspiration none the less.
The leadership story of St. Francis of Assisi: Toward a model of Franciscan leadership Holbrook, Peter J.Author Information. Cardinal Stritch University, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2008. 3313852.
Rohr, Richard; Eager to love, The alternative way of Francis of Assisi, 2014