Many people focus on characteristics such as voluntary poverty or care for creation when considering the life and model of Saint Francis of Assisi. I often wish that, just as regularly, they would notice the theme of mercy that frequently appears in his writing. This is a theme that has become even more important as Pope Francis has dedicated much of his teaching and ministry to showing the compassionate and merciful face of God in the world.
So important was this theme in Francis’ own conversion experience that he recalls the mercy he was able to show lepers as a key turning point for him. He opens his deathbed Testament with that recollection:
The Lord gave me, Brother Francis, thus to begin doing penance in this way: for when I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers. And the Lord Himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body. And afterwards I delayed a little and left the world (Testament, 1:1–3).
While he previously embraced his social privilege to shun and despise the lepers and poor of his day, Francis came to discover the mercy of God in his own life alongside the showing of mercy to those whom he had earlier considered the least in society. Mercy is one of the most central elements of Christian discipleship because it always begins with God’s unconditional love for each of us.
In Francis’ life, the central place of mercy was not limited to his own conversion.He insisted that those who sought to live consecrated religious profession according to his “form of life” (forma vitae) would also adopt this sense of mercy in relating to one another.
This was especially important for those who were placed in positions of responsibility and leadership within the community. In one of the most profound passages from the writings of Francis, we see the poverello counsel a friar who had written to him for advice in dealing with another brother. Francis makes clear what the primary focus and priority of the minister should be:
I wish to know in this way if you love the Lord and me, His servant and yours: that there is not any brother in the world who has sinned—however much he could have sinned—who, after he has looked into your eyes, would ever depart without your mercy, if he is looking for mercy. And if he were not looking for mercy, you would ask him if he wants mercy (Letter to a Minister, 9–10).
It can be especially difficult in religious life to remember the importance of mercy in our interactions with one another. There is, of course, the close proximity in which we usually live with each other and share together in the life of community and ministry. This is equally true for those who are called to marriage and family life, as well as those who may live in some other form of intentional community. It may become difficult to step back and see each person apart from the little annoyances and habits that drive us crazy.
Additionally, we Christians are conditioned by the broader culture and society as much as anybody else. This logic of the world does not often consider mercy a value, but a weakness. Therefore, so-called blind justice or the mentality of an eye for an eye approach toward others tends to govern our interactions with those who have offended, hurt, or simply annoyed us.
But Francis of Assisi calls us to resist that temptation, to see those within and outside our religious communities not according to this logic of the world, but with the eyes of Jesus Christ who has called us to show mercy in the way mercy has been shown to each of us. For Francis, mercy wasn’t just an action or disposition, but the last and highest name for God. Written near the end of his life and said to be inspired by the ninety-nine names of God in Islam, Francis’s The Praises of God concludes with the line: “You are all our sweetness, You are our eternal life: Great and wonderful Lord, Almighty God, Merciful Savior.” In other words, the mercy of St. Francis is more than treating one another well; it is about living in a way more like God.