FRANCISCAN FAMILY - II
LIFE OF ST FRANCIS
The Life of Saint Francis, written in 1228-1229 by Friar Thomas of Celano, is the first written account of the life of St Francis and is a main source of the many biographies of the Poverello written since.
It is recommended that the Postulant read this account during the time of postulancy in preference to any other biography of St Francis. He may find the time to read another biography as well, and to compare it with Celano’s account.
Reading this work can be the Postulant’s introduction to the first volume of Francis of Assisi: Early Documents (FA:ED). The following notes are mainly a summary of the Introduction to Celano’s work, on pages 173 to 178.
The Life is more a theological construct than a strictly historical account, when judged by modern tenets of history.
The author captures the original enthusiasm of a fresh new movement in the Church on the occasion of the canonization of St Francis.
St Clare of Assisi, Brother Elias and Cardinal Hugolino, feature strongly in the account. Clare was still a young woman when Thomas was writing in 1228. He heaps high praise on her and on the Poor Ladies of San Damiano. Brother Elias enjoyed Francis’s high esteem and deep affection, and received a special blessing from the dying Saint. Hugolino, before becoming Pope Gregory IX, was made the Cardinal Protector of the infant Franciscan fraternity in l220 and did much to nurture it, through his intellectual gifts and political weight.
Pope Gregory IX intended that The Life of St Francis would promote the cult of the Saint whom he canonized in 1228. Accordingly, Celano situates Francis in the age-old tradition of Christian sanctity. He did not write this account about Francis for the friars or at their request, but rather he served the Pope’s aim to promote spiritual renewal throughout the Church.
Thomas followed the standard pattern at the time of writing a saint’s life. He aligns Francis with the greatest and most popular saints, such as St Martin of Tours, and draws out the parallels in Francis’s life and theirs. He stresses the experience that they had in common, of conversion through hearing and heeding the Word of God. He presents St Francis as rebuilding the life of the Church on its ancient foundations, namely, the Blessed Virgin, the apostles and the martyrs, symbolized by the three chapels that he physically restored.
Celano, from his personal experience of Francis, includes specific biographical and historical facts. He gathered these facts also from living witnesses, including Clare. Consequently, The Life of Saint Francis is a primary historical source and not merely the application of a set formula for writing saints’ lives.
However, Thomas’s primary purpose in writing this Life was not to recount historical events about Francis and his companions. St Francis was canonized already and belonged to the universal Church. Celano had to announce the new Saint to the world.
Thomas structured his work into three books that follow in chronological order, first until 1223, then covering the last three years of Francis’s life, 1224 to 1226, followed by the collection of miracles that was read at his canonization in 1228.
Book One focusses on Francis’s life: his conversion, teaching and example. He lived and peached the humility of the Incarnation. The Church and all creation is renewed because the Word made flesh comes to life again in the life of Francis, most strikingly at the crib at Greccio.
Book Two focusses on another aspect of Francis’s life. He lived and preached also the charity of Christ’s Passion. The Word made flesh and crucified comes to life again in the body of Francis, supremely on Mount Alverna.
Book Three differs from the previous two books in its literary style and in its function. It recounts miraculous events in the Church after the death of Francis. It flows from the first two books as a Pentecost experience after the Crucifixion. The universal Church reaps the fruit of Francis’s conversion and his conformity to Christ Crucified. Healing, deliverance and joy abound.
The Postulant can read The Life of Saint Francis from a number of perspectives. He can discern the aims of the Pope in commissioning the work; he can compare it with other lives of the saints, especially that of St Martin of Tours and discover a common formula; he can look for historical elements.
But those are secondary perspectives. The Postulant can read The Life of St Francis to nourish his spiritual formation, to catch the spirit of St Francis that Celano wanted the whole world to catch. He can accept Thomas of Celano’s invitation to experience, as Francis did, a love that will transform him into the image of the incarnate Word and Christ Crucified, in union with God, his all-loving Father.