Some of my Franciscan sisters and brothers will not like what I’m about to write here. And what I’m about to say can easily be misunderstood, so I will try my best to be clear: Contrary to popular belief, there is nothing particularly special about Franciscan beliefs and spirituality!
I sometimes confess this perspective when I’m speaking to groups that have invited me to share insights about the Franciscan tradition, groups whom I imagine are eagerly anticipating the sell, the hook, the distinctive feature of Franciscan prayer and life. Often, these same groups at first appear disappointed when I share that, at its core, Franciscan spirituality isn’t so very special.
The Jesuits have their Ignatian Exercises and Examen, the Benedictines have their structured life of Ora et Labora, the Trappists have their silence and contemplation, the Dominicans have their learned preaching, and so on, but what do the Franciscans really have? The Gospel. That is all.
This isn’t to suggest that the members of the Society of Jesus or the Order of St. Benedict or the Order of Preachers do not have the Gospel; of course they do. But the Franciscan tradition advances only the Gospel in a way that is at the same time shockingly simple and incredibly difficult. Francis of Assisi begins his Rule or way of life for the Franciscan friars with the line: “The Rule and Life of the Lesser Brothers is this: to observe the Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” Sounds simple enough.
Francis goes on to say that the so-called First Order (the Franciscan friars) is to do this, “by living in obedience, without anything of one’s own, and in chastity.” But this mandate to live according to the pattern of the Gospel isn’t unique to the friars. In fact, the respective Rules of each of the different branches of the Franciscan family begin similarly. The beginning and end of the way of life that Francis envisioned was just to live the Gospel.
This helps explain why there is absolutely no particular ministry or apostolate associated with the Franciscan charism. Nowhere in the Rule does Francis explain that it is the priority of those who would come after him to minister in hospitals or staff local parishes or serve as missionaries or lead retreats or teach at the great universities. All Francis says is that the friars are to work and receive in return “whatever is necessary for the bodily support of themselves and their brothers.”
The vision that Francis had for his community was that the brothers would live together, pray together, support one another like a family, and work in the world among and alongside ordinary members of society. There was no special commission apart from what Christ tells all his followers to do in the Gospels. In other words, the core of Franciscan spirituality is the universal call to holiness that all women and men receive at baptism. In other words, to be a good Franciscan means to be a good Christian.
It is my experience that the simplicity of this message oftentimes seems just too difficult to accept. There is a temptation to complicate it, to qualify it, to repackage it, and to make it palatable. In its truest form, Franciscan spirituality cannot be reduced to any one thing or even a series of bullet points, which is why I believe that Franciscan spirituality is simultaneously attractive to so many people and also nearly impossible to articulate in terms of distinctiveness.
Pope Francis, who was of course the first Holy Father to take his name after the saint from Assisi, seems to exemplify the concurrent simplicity and challenge of Franciscan spirituality. That he is a Jesuit doesn’t conflict with the Franciscan outlook because, as already stated, the core of this spirituality is the baptismal vocation. His gestures and statements are simple in the best sense. They are clear and direct reminders of the Gospel life. Whether preaching at daily Mass or connecting with strangers in an impromptu visit, he looks like a man trying to be open to all relationships in a way that reflects St. Francis’ vision.
Though we may not all formally profess to follow Francis of Assisi’s way of life, it seems to me that we can all cultivate Franciscan hearts open to what Pope Francis calls the Joy of the Gospel. This not-so-special spirituality is an invitation to a relationship with all people, to work with our brothers and sisters in everyday life, and to follow in the footprints of Christ. On second thought, maybe that is pretty special after all.