Saint Francis of Assisi’s life is a study in contrasts. He is admired the world over, yet he’s a hard one to neatly categorize. Born into great wealth, the young Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone stripped himself, literally, of all material affluence to embrace “lady poverty.”
He longed for obscurity—so much so that he fled to caves and mountaintops for solitude—yet his model for living started a worldwide movement. He is often thought of as the “birdbath saint,” a tree-hugging lover of all creatures great and small, yet he was also deeply institutional Catholic who lived a life committed to the teachings of the Church.
Relegating the poor man of Assisi to a Catholic garden gnome—or any single descriptor—is a disservice to his legacy. Though care for creation was a so entwined into Francis’ spirituality that he was declared the patron saint of ecology in 1982 by Pope John Paul II, it was the building blocks of the faith that both grounded and motivated him. The Eucharist, for Francis, was the foundation on which his faith life was built.
In his “Letter to All Clerics,” in fact, Francis wrote that, “in this world there is nothing of the Most High himself that we can possess and contemplate with our eyes, except his Body and Blood.” For the poor man of Assisi, the Eucharist was both his compass and his journey’s end.
These quotes from Francis of Assisi and the meditations on him and the Eucharist are good for spiritual reflection.
“All those who refuse to do penance and receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ are blind, because they cannot see the true light, our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Letter to All the Faithful)
Humility is the heart of Franciscan spirituality. Francis showed, by word and by action, that only a humble and penitent spirit could be truly readied for a gift as important as the Body and Blood of Christ. Francis’ message here may seem severe, especially from a saint so fundamentally tied to simplicity and peace, but the directness of his message only illustrates his primal need for union with the divine.
Francis takes a noticeably softer tone in this letter to clerics, but the heartbeat of his message is no less serious: When we receive the Eucharist—either by hand or by mouth—we are taking in essential food for the journey. The Eucharist, to Francis, offered the promise of everlasting life and guided him into a realm of greater compassion for his fellow man.
“We should visit churches often and show great reverence for the clergy, not just for them personally, for they may be sinners, but because of their high office, for it is they who administer the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Letter to All the Faithful)
It might be difficult for 21st-century Catholics to mirror so pure a temperament toward the clergy as Francis did in his day. But look closer. He is acknowledging the importance of their station while recognizing clergy as sinners—just as we are. Francis saw all of life as threads in God’s vast tapestry, truly one unified body of Christ. And we cannot receive the Eucharist without dedicated clergy who serve as conduits for such a moment of grace.
“In all your sermons you shall tell the people of the need to do penance, impressing on them that no one can be saved unless he receives the Body and Blood of our Lord.” (Letter to Superiors of the Order)
It might surprise some to know that Francis was never ordained a priest. Historians opine that he didn’t think himself worthy and, thus, never progressed beyond the diaconate—which certainly falls in line with his humble character. But he nonetheless had stern words for priests in his Order to guide their flock to Eucharist. It is within that sacrament, Francis understood, that we can find oneness with the Creator.
“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.” (Letter to the General Chapter)
The life of Francis was plagued by trial, illness, and great physical pain. One adjective seldom associated with the saint is joyful—but joy was a hallmark of his life and his life’s work. (Read his Canticle of the Sun for further proof.) What makes his message here so extraordinary is, first, a mastery of poetic language. He is, after all, considered one of the first Italian poets by scholars. But it is the joy and vigor behind his words that leave a mark. When we partake in the Eucharist, it is a solemn moment but also one of celebration and joy. It is, foremost, a meal.
Thomas of Celano, an early friar and author of three hagiographies of Francis, wrote that the saint “burned with a love that came from his whole being for the sacrament of the Lord’s body.” And Francis sought to spread that fire to his brothers, to the lepers he embraced outside the walled city of Assisi, indeed to all those who longed for a closer relationship with God. It was the summit of his faith—and he wanted everybody at the table.
Francis of Assisi’s adoration of the Eucharist lit a fire in the hearts of those who have followed in his footsteps as daughters and sons of God. After 800 years, it burns there still.