Yesterday, after finishing my post on Pope Pius XI’s encyclical on St. Francis, I started to think about the discrepancy between how saints are presented in popular piety and how they actually were in real life to their contemporaries. For example, devotees of the Little Flower (St. Therese of Lisieux) are inundated with the pictorial representation of a young nun clutching roses and a crucifix. The image tends to be sentimental or even saccharine, but the real St. Therese was very different from the image that popular piety so often presents. Indeed, she was one of the most original thinkers of her time and someone that burned with tremendous zeal and love of souls. The photographs taken by her sister Celine (Sister Genevieve) are much more faithful to the person St. Therese is in her writings, especially her letters.
St. Therese, of course, lived much closer to our time than did some other saints. St. Francis, for example, lived some six hundred years before St. Therese was born. With the passage of time, the image of St. Francis has changed a great deal. Generation after generation has applied varnish to the portrait until it becomes increasingly difficult to discern the real man from the legend. Many of the stories found in the Little Flowers of St. Francis were not penned until decades after St. Francis’s death and it is through these stories that many devotees know St. Francis for his love of nature and his group of mischievous brethren.
The real St. Francis, as represented in the early biographies, is a man who is strikingly different from the popular image that is presented in popular piety and contemporary society. The poverello of Assisi was a man of great vision who sought to fulfill in his life what he thought God had asked of him. Indeed, his visionary outlook led him to do things hat would be looked on as ridiculous by his contemporaries. For example, his friends refused to believe that the man begging food in the streets was the same Francis with whom they had met and caroused with years before. So tremendous was the change that had taken place in him through God’s grace.
St. Francis was not only a visionary, but someone who did things. He not only preached poverty, but he lived it. Once, when he saw that a monastery was too richly appointed, he climbed on the roof and started to dismantle it tile by tile so that the friars within the monastery could experience real poverty. St. Francis not only told his friars to preach, but he showed them how. If we look at his life as an imitation of Our Lord, we see that St. Francis imitated Our Lord perfectly.