Pope Benedict XVI- General Audiences
On Francis of Assisi
"The Secret of True Happiness: To Become Saints"
H.H. Benedict XVI
January 27, 2010
Dear brothers and sisters,
In a recent catechesis, I already illustrated the providential role that
the Order of Friars Minor and the Order of Preachers, founded
respectively by St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic Guzmįn, had in the
renewal of the Church of their time. Today I would like to present to
you the figure of Francis, an authentic "giant" of holiness, who
continues to fascinate very many people of every age and every religion.
"A son is born to the world." With these words, in the Divine Comedy (Paradiso,
Canto XI), the greatest Italian poet, Dante Alighieri, alludes to
Francis' birth, which occurred at the end of 1181 or the beginning of
1182, in Assisi. Belonging to a wealthy family -- his father was a
textile merchant -- Francis enjoyed a carefree adolescence and youth,
cultivating the chivalrous ideals of the time. When he was 20 he took
part in a military campaign, and was taken prisoner. He became ill and
was released. After his return to Assisi, a slow process of spiritual
conversion began in him, which led him to abandon gradually the worldly
lifestyle he had practiced until then.
Striking at this time are the famous episodes of the meeting with the
leper -- to whom Francis, getting off his horse, gave the kiss of peace;
and the message of the Crucifix in the little church of San Damiano.
Three times the crucified Christ came to life and said to him: "Go,
Francis, and repair my Church in ruins." This simple event of the Word
of the Lord heard in the church of San Damiano hides a profound
symbolism. Immediately, St. Francis is called to repair this little
church, but the ruinous state of this building is a symbol of the tragic
and disturbing situation of the Church itself at that time, with a
superficial faith that does not form and transform life, with a clergy
lacking in zeal, with the cooling off of love; an interior destruction
of the Church that also implied a decomposition of unity, with the birth
of heretical movements.
However, at the center of this Church in ruins is the Crucified and he
speaks: he calls to renewal, he calls Francis to manual labor to repair
concretely the little church of San Damiano, symbol of the more profound
call to renew the Church of Christ itself, with his radical faith and
his enthusiastic love for Christ.
This event, which probably occurred in 1205, makes one think of another
similar event that happened in 1207: the dream of Pope Innocent III. He
saw in a dream that the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the Mother Church
of all churches, was collapsing and a small and insignificant religious
supported the church with his shoulders so that it would not collapse.
It is interesting to note, on one hand, that it is not the Pope who
helps so that the church will not collapse, but a small and
insignificant religious, whom the Pope recognizes in Francis who visited
him. Innocent III was a powerful Pope, of great theological learning, as
well as of great political power, yet it was not for him to renew the
Church, but for the small and insignificant religious: It is St.
Francis, called by God.
On the other hand, however, it is important to note that St. Francis
does not renew the Church without or against the Pope, but only in
communion with him. The two realities go together: the Successor of
Peter, the bishops, the Church founded on the succession of the Apostles
and the new charism that the Holy Spirit created at this moment to renew
the Church. True renewal grows together.
Let us return to St. Francis' life. Because his father Bernardone
reproved him for excessive generosity to the poor, Francis, with a
symbolic gesture, and before the bishop of Assisi, stripped himself of
his clothes, thus intending to renounce his paternal inheritance: As at
the moment of creation, Francis had nothing, but only the life that God
gave him, and into whose hands he entrusted himself. Then he lived as a
hermit until, in 1208, another fundamental event took place in the
journey of his conversion. Hearing a passage of the Gospel of Matthew --
Jesus' discourse to the Apostles sent on mission -- Francis feels he is
called to live in poverty and to dedicate himself to preaching. Other
companions associated themselves to him and, in 1209, he went to Rome,
to submit to the Pope the project of a new form of Christian life. He
was given a paternal reception by the great Pontiff who, enlightened by
the Lord, intuited the divine origin of the movement awakened by
Francis. The Poverello of Assisi had understood that every charism given
by the Holy Spirit is placed at the service of the Body of Christ, which
is the Church; hence, he always acted in full communion with the
ecclesiastical authority. In the life of saints there is no opposition
between a prophetic charism and the charism of government and, if some
tension is created, they must wait patiently for the times of the Holy
In reality, some historians in the 19th century and also in the last
century tried to create behind the Francis of tradition, a so-called
historical Francis, just as there is a desire to create behind the Jesus
of the Gospels, a so-called historical Jesus. Such a historical Francis
would not have been a man of the Church, but a man linked immediately
only to Christ, a man who wished to create a renewal of the people of
God, without canonical forms and without the hierarchy. The truth is
that St. Francis really had a very immediate relationship with Jesus and
with the Word of God, which he wished to follow sine glossa, exactly as
it is, in all its radicalism and truth. It is also true that initially
he did not have the intention of creating an order with the necessary
canonical forms, but, simply, with the Word of God and the presence of
the Lord, he wished to renew the people of God, to call them again to
listening to the Word and to literal obedience to Christ. Moreover, he
knew that Christ never is "mine" but always is "ours," that "I" cannot
have Christ and "I" cannot reconstruct against the Church, his will and
his teaching -- but only in communion with the Church, built on the
succession of the Apostles, is obedience to the Word of God also
It is also true that he did not intend to create a new order, but only
to renew the people of God for the Lord who comes. But he understood
with suffering and pain that everything must have its order, that even
the law of the Church is necessary to give shape to renewal and thus he
really inserted himself totally, with the heart, in the communion of the
Church, with the Pope and the bishops. He knew always that the center of
the Church is the Eucharist, where the Body and Blood of Christ are made
present. Through the priesthood, the Eucharist is the Church. Where
priesthood, and Christ and communion of the Church go together, only
there does the Word of God also dwell. The true historical Francis and
the Francis of the Church speaks precisely in this way also to
non-believers, to believers of other confessions and religions.
Francis and his friars, ever more numerous, established themselves in
the Porziuncola, or church of Saint Mary of the Angels, sacred place par
excellence of Franciscan spirituality. Also Clare, a young lady of
Assisi of a noble family, placed herself in Francis' school. Thus the
Second Franciscan Order originated, that of the Poor Clares, another
experience destined to bear outstanding fruits of sanctity in the
The successor of Innocent III, Pope Honorius III, with his bull "Cum
dilecti" of 1218, also upheld the singular development of the first
Friars Minor, who were opening their missions in several countries of
Europe, and even in Morocco. In 1219 Francis obtained permission to go
to speak with the Muslim Sultan Melek-el-Kamel in Egypt, and also to
preach the Gospel of Jesus there. I want to underline this episode of
the life of St. Francis, which is very timely. At a time in which there
was under way a clash between Christianity and Islam, Francis, armed
deliberately only with his faith and his personal meekness, pursued with
efficacy the way of dialogue. The chronicles tell us of a benevolent and
cordial reception by the Muslim Sultan. It is a model that also today
should inspire relations between Christians and Muslims: to promote a
dialogue in truth, in reciprocal respect and in mutual understanding
(cf. "Nostra Aetate," 3).
It seems, then, that in 1220 Francis visited the Holy Land, thus sowing
a seed that was to bear much fruit: his spiritual sons, in fact, made of
the places in which Jesus lived a privileged realm of their mission.
With gratitude I think today of the great merits of the Franciscan
Custody of the Holy Land.
Returning to Italy, Francis entrusted the government of the order to his
vicar, Friar Pietro Cattani, while the Pope entrusted the order, which
continued gathering more followers, to the protection of Cardinal
Ugolino, the future Supreme Pontiff Gregory IX. For his part the
founder, totally dedicated to preaching, which he carried out with great
success, wrote a Rule, later approved by the Pope.
In 1224, in the hermitage of La Verna, Francis saw the Crucified in the
form of a seraphim and from the encounter with the crucified seraphim,
he received the stigmata; he thus became one with the crucified Christ:
a gift, hence, which expresses his profound identification with the
Francis' death -- his transitus -- occurred on the evening of Oct. 3,
1226, at the Porziuncola. After blessing his spiritual sons, he died,
lying on the naked earth. Two years later Pope Gregory IX inscribed him
in the register of saints. A short time later, a large basilica was
raised in Assisi in his honor, still today a destination for very many
pilgrims, who can venerate the tomb of the saint and enjoy Giotto's
frescoes, a painter who illustrated in a magnificent way the life of
It has been said that Francis represents an alter Christus, he was truly
a living icon of Christ. He was even called "Jesus' brother." Indeed,
this was his ideal: to be like Jesus; to contemplate the Christ of the
Gospel, to love him intensely and to imitate his virtues. In particular,
he wished to give a fundamental value to interior and exterior poverty,
teaching it also to his spiritual sons. The first Beatitude of the
Sermon on the Mount -- blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the
Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5:3) -- found a luminous fulfillment in the
life and in the words of St. Francis.
Truly, dear friends, the saints are the best interpreters of the Bible;
they, incarnating in their lives the Word of God, render it more than
attractive, so that it really speaks to us. Francis' witness, who loved
poverty to follow Christ with dedication and total liberty, continues to
be also for us an invitation to cultivate interior poverty to grow in
trust of God, uniting also a sober lifestyle and detachment from
In Francis, love for Christ is expressed in a special way in adoration
of the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist. In Franciscan sources
one reads moving expressions, such as this: "The whole of humanity
fears, the whole universe trembles and heaven exults, when on the altar,
in the hand of the priest, there is Christ, the Son of the living God. O
wonderful favor! O sublime humility, that the Lord of the universe, God
and Son of God, so humbles himself as to hide himself for our salvation,
under the low form of bread" (Francis of Assisi, Scritti, Editrici
Francescane, Padua, 2002, 401).
In this Year for Priests, it pleases me also to recall a recommendation
addressed by Francis to priests: "When you wish to celebrate Mass,
certainly in a pure way, carry out with reverence the true sacrifice of
the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Francis of
Assisi, Scritti, 399).
Francis always showed great deference to priests, and recommended that
they always be respected, even in the case when, at the personal level,
they are not very worthy. He cherished, as motivation for this profound
respect, the fact that they have received the gift of consecrating the
Eucharist. Dear brothers in the priesthood, let us never forget this
teaching: the holiness of the Eucharist asks us to be pure, to live in a
consistent way with the mystery we celebrate.
From the love of Christ is born love of people and also of all God's
creatures. Here is another characteristic trait of Francis'
spirituality: the sense of universal fraternity and love for Creation,
which inspired his famous Canticle of Creatures. It is a very timely
message. As I reminded in my recent encyclical "Caritas in Veritate,"
the only sustainable development is one that respects Creation and does
not damage the environment (cf. No. 48-52), and in the Message for the
World Day of Peace of this year I underlined that also the building of a
solid peace is linked to respect for creation. Francis reminds us that
in creation is displayed the wisdom and benevolence of the Creator. In
fact, nature is understood by him as a language in which God speaks with
us, in which reality becomes transparent and we can speak of God and
Dear friends, Francis was a great saint and a joyful man. His
simplicity, his humility, his faith, his love of Christ, his kindness to
every man and woman made him happy in every situation. In fact, between
sanctity and joy there subsists a profound and indissoluble relation. A
French writer said that there is only one sadness in the world: that of
not being saints, that is, of not being close to God. Looking at St.
Francis' witness, we understand that this is the secret of true
happiness: to become saints, close to God!
May the Virgin, tenderly loved by Francis, obtain this gift for us. We
entrust ourselves to her with the same words of the Poverello of Assisi:
"Holy Virgin Mary, there is no one like you born in the world among
women, daughter and handmaid of the Most High King and heavenly Father,
Mother of our Most Holy Lord Jesus Christ, spouse of the Holy Spirit:
pray for us ... to your most holy favorite Son, Lord and Master"
(Francis of Assisi, Scritti, 163).
[Translation by ZENIT]
[The Pope then greeted pilgrims in several languages. In English, he
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Continuing our catechesis on the Christian culture of the Middle Ages,
we now turn to Saint Francis of Assisi, one of the greatest figures of
the Church's history.The story of Saint Francis' life and conversion,
and his complete devotion to Christ, poor and suffering, is well known.
After gathering a small group of companions and followers, including
Saint Clare, Francis sought the approval of Pope Innocent III for his
movement, which was completely committed to the renewal of the Church in
holiness and to the preaching of the Gospel. Near the end of his life,
Francis' configuration to the Crucified Lord culminated in his reception
of the stigmata at La Verna. His deep piety found expression in a great
devotion to the Eucharist, as the sacrament of Christ's real presence,
and his love for creation as God's handiwork. The life and teaching of
Saint Francis has inspired countless people to the imitation of Christ
through the embrace of inward and outward poverty. May his example teach
us ever greater love for the Lord and his Church, and help us to know
the immense spiritual joy born of the imitation of Christ and the
pursuit of holiness.
A warm welcome to all the English-speaking pilgrims present at today's
audience! I particularly greet high school students from Jordan and
Israel, members of the initiative Aqabat Eilat: "one more step towards
peace," students and faculty from the Bossey Graduate School of
Ecumenical Studies, as well as pilgrims from England, Gibraltar, Hong
Kong and the United States. God bless you all!
©Copyright 2010 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana
[In Italian, he added:]
Finally, I greet you dear young people, dear sick and dear newlyweds,
and I hope that each one in his or her own condition will contribute
with generosity to spread the joy of loving and serving Jesus Christ.
[He also said:]
Sixty-five years ago, on Jan. 27, 1945, were opened the gates of the
Nazi concentration camp of the Polish city Oswiecim, known with the
German name of Auschwitz, and the few survivors were liberated. Such an
event and the testimony of survivors revealed to the world the horror of
crimes of unheard of cruelty, committed in the extermination camps
created by Nazi Germany.
Today is observed the "Day of Remembrance," in memory of all the victims
of those crimes, especially the planned annihilation of the Jews, and in
honor of all those, who at the risk of their own lives, protected the
persecuted, opposing the murderous madness. With a moved spirit we think
of the innumerable victims of a blind racial and religious hatred, who
suffered deportation, imprisonment, death in those aberrant and inhuman
May the memory of such events, in particular the tragedy of the Shoah
that struck the Jewish people, awaken an ever more convinced respect of
the dignity of every person, so that all men will perceive themselves as
one great family. Almighty God illumine hearts and minds, so that such
tragedies will not be repeated!
[Translation by ZENIT]
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