St. Bonaventure on St. Francis of Assisi
DM 101: Week 27
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Jan 20, 2006)
In the High Middle Ages, the theme of the merciful love of God was certainly not the exclusive property of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, and the Dominicans. The early Franciscans also contributed to the Church's meditations on Divine Mercy in their own distinctive way. For example, we know from The Life of St. Francis, written by St. Bonaventure (1217-1274) that one of the divine perfections that St. Bonaventure saw most clearly reflected in St. Francis of Assisi was the Divine Mercy. Bonaventure writes the following lines in the very "Prologue" to the biography:
In these latter days the grace of God our Savior has appeared in his servant Francis to all who are truly humble and lovers of holy poverty. In him they can venerate God's superabundant mercy, and be taught by his example to live in conformity with Christ, and to thirst after blessed hope with unflagging desire.
Later in the same work, St. Bonaventure tells us that one of the principal intentions of St. Francis's own prayers was pleading for mercy upon the world, on the basis of the sorrowful passion of Jesus Christ (chapter 10, section 4):
When the man of God was left alone and at peace, he would fill the groves with sighs, sprinkle the ground with tears, striking his breast with his fist, and having found there a kind of secret hiding place, would converse with his Lord. There he would answer his Judge, there he would entreat his Father, there he would entertain his Friend; and there also on several occasions the friars who were devoutly observing him heard him groan aloud, imploring the divine mercy for sinners and weeping for the Lord's passion as if it were before his eyes.
Still later in his biography, St. Bonaventure tells the story of the words of St. Francis about Divine Mercy to a hardened sinner that brought about the man's conversion (chapter 11, section 6):
Another time, a noble woman, devoted to God, came to the saint to explain her trouble to him and ask for help. She had a very cruel husband who opposed her serving Christ. So she begged the saint to pray for him so that God in His goodness would soften his heart. When [St. Francis] heard this he said to her: "Go in peace, and without any doubt be assured that your husband will soon be a comfort to you." And he added: "Tell him on God's part and on my own, that now is the time of mercy, and afterwards of justice." After receiving a blessing, the woman went home, found her husband and delivered the message. The Holy Spirit came upon him (Acts 10:44) making him a new man and inducing him to answer with gentleness: "My lady, let us serve the lord and save our souls." At the suggestion of his holy wife, they lived a celibate life for many years, and both passed away to the Lord on the same day.
We know from other sources that the message of Divine Mercy was also on the mind of St. Francis at the time of his death. In a biography entitled Francis of Assisi: The Man Who Found Perfect Joy (Sophia Institute Press), Michael de la Bedoyere tells how, as Francis lay dying, he asked his brethren to sing with him the "Canticle of the Sun" that he had composed in praise of the Creator. Brother Elias, seated by his side, protested: "Should you not keep recollected and silent?" St. Francis replied (p. 302): "O let me rejoice in God, and in praising Him in all my sufferings, since by a wonderful grace, I feel myself so close to my Lord that, in the knowledge of His mercy, I can sing again." As the litter on which he lay was carried out in sight of the city of Assisi, Francis offered up this prayer (p. 315-316):
Lord, whereas this city was in olden times a place inhabited by wicked men, I see now that through Your great mercy, in Your own good time, You have been merciful to it more than to other cities. You have chosen it to be the home of those who acknowledge and give glory to Your holy Name. It is giving the world an example of good report, saintly life, full and pure teaching, and of evangelical perfection. I ask You then, my Lord Jesus Christ, Father of all mercy, to overlook our ingratitude, and always to bear in mind Your great pity, that the city should forever be the home of those who truly know Thee and glorify Thy blessed Name forever and ever. Amen.
If we turn from these relatively reliable sources on the life of St. Francis to the early legends told about him, as recorded in the delightful 14th century collection known as the "Fioretti," or "The Little Flowers of St. Francis," we find several touching and beautiful stories about Divine Mercy. Although some of this material is indeed legendary, it is also traceable in part back to oral testimony from some of the earliest companions of the saint. Thus, the whole collection breathes something of the childlike spirit of the early friars: poor mendicants who lived as "holy fools" for the love of Christ Jesus.
(This series continues next week with examples of devotion to the Divine Mercy found in The Little Flowers of St. Francis).