Recalling a pious appreciation for the Mass

Father John A. Kiley

The choice of the name Francis by our present Holy Father has expectedly generated a renewed interest in the life and work of the ever-popular St. Francis of Assisi. By a serendipitous co-incidence, Dominican Father Augustine Thompson, professor at Berkeley, recently authored an extensive biography on the saintly poor man.

The familiar outline of the saint’s life is approached frankly and objectively by this professor of Italian history. As the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Jesus Christ is observed this coming Sunday, St. Francis’ pious and practical appreciation of Holy Mass is well worth reviewing.

The Bible is often thought to have been ignored by Catholics before (and even after) the era of Martin Luther. But St. Francis puts the lie to this mistaken notion by his practical and personal devotion to Scripture. On more than one occasion, St. Francis and his companions “cracked the Bible” opening the text randomly in an effort to discern God’s will concerning the future of the Franciscan brotherhood. St. Francis, as a deacon, was deputed to read daily the copious psalms that constituted the Divine Office in the Middle Ages. While less educated friars recited the Lord’s Prayer over and over during the time allotted for the Office, St. Francis prayed and thrilled to the imagery of the psalms and the Gospels. Dominican author Thompson contends that St. Francis’ appreciation of nature derived less from his enjoyment of the Tuscan countryside and more from his pleasure of reading about the lilies of the field and the birds of the air that he encountered in Sacred Scripture. St. Francis’ love of nature thus happily sprang from the beauty and imagery of nature which he discovered by reading the Bible. The word of God spoke more vividly and graphically to the saint than any stroll in the rural Italian landscape. Accordingly the Scripture’s imaginative depiction of wildlife and landscape, animals and flowers, readily found its way into St. Francis’ own prayers and preaching.

Not only pictorially but also stylistically, St. Francis’ texts drew much from the Bible. There is a noticeable similarity between St. Francis’ famous Canticle of the Sun and the Biblical canticle sung by the three young men in the fiery furnace. St. Francis also had a curious but understandable for respect even for bits of paper on which a Bible verse or the Holy Name might be written. These scraps were to be “honored and respected.”

Equally practical, according to the Dominican biographer, was St. Francis’ concern for the proper observance of the Service of the Eucharist during the celebration of Mass. Although poorly clad and easily satisfied with his own accommodations, St. Francis was very intent on the freshness of the linens and the cleanliness of the utensils used during Mass. Country churches which St. Francis and his company would visit during their walks about central Italy were often neglected and even in disrepair. The disrespect thus evidenced toward the Eucharist pained St. Francis and he, like St. John Vianney long after him, would always insist on the best appointments for the Body and Blood of Christ even though he required only the barest necessities for himself. The author writes tellingly of St. Francis: “In his final words to his followers, the issue he found most pressing was not poverty, not obedience, but proper reverence for the Eucharist.” In spite of the fact that St. Francis is remembered much more today for his poverty, references to the Mass and to the Eucharist vastly outnumber any references to poverty in the writings of St. Francis that remain today.

In 1986 the US Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp, appropriately in San Francisco, honoring the 800th anniversary of the birth of St. Francis.

The postmaster general made clear that the saint was being honored for his respect for nature, an early environmentalist so to speak, and for his concern for the poor, a pioneer social worker as it were. However persons of faith should recall that St. Francis’ principal passions were the Bible and the Body and Blood of Christ. His last spoken request was to have St. John’s Passion account read over his dying body.