Three years ago when we concluded our 84th general Chapter and the Capitulars returned, to their respective provinces with a challenging question, “Who am I and what is the depth of my Catholic Faith”? Fr. Paolo Martinelli, one of the Franciscan scholars, who presented a paper on our Holy Constitutions, in which he made a reference to the Faith of St. Francis of Assisi and the response of all the Franciscans to his challenge, to live our Catholic faith. I have taken most of the material from his presentation, in order to prepare this article on the topic “St. Francis and Faith”. The Catholic Church has announced the “year of Faith” to be celebrated, throughout the coming year. I am sure, everywhere the catholic community will reflect and meditate, on the gift of faith that we have received. It is an opportunity, to recognize and accept, that it is a free gift from the Loving father. One of the great heroes of the faith, is undoubtedly is St. Francis of Assisi. As the Franciscans will be celebrating the founders day on 4th of October, it would be appropriate and in place, to speak about Francis as a man of faith. His life of faith has definitely touched millions of people in the world and he continues to do the same even today. Francis sought God, with an intensity and constancy that might be instructive. As a young man, Francis joined the forces in order to fight against the enemies, but God had a different plan for him. After his return to Assisi, he was trying to find a meaning and significance in his human life. Every day, at length, he knelt before a crucifix, in a little broken down church and prayed these words, over and over: O most high, glorious God, Enlighten the darkness of my heart, and give me a correct faith, certain hope, and perfect charity, wisdom and perception, that I may do, O Lord, Your most true and holy will.
The experience of Christ in the life of Francis has been very well noted and indicated, in the rule and many other writings. The study of faith, in these writings and biographies contains the spirituality of Francis. These writings reveal to us, that Francis was a man who believed intensely. We need to ask a question about emergence of faith and its role in his life, as a man of God. We know from his writings and encounters with brothers, that faith determined and challenged everything in his life, mind and emotions. His relationship with the triune God helped him to strengthen and grow in his faith. He believed, that the Father sent Jesus, to save the world. For him, faith was Trinitarian and Christocentric. In his admonitions, he writes that “to see and believe” in Jesus and the Eucharist – the Son of God sent by the Father, who takes the form of humility. The faith in Holy Trinity, the fundamental mystery of Christianity leads him, to preach the Gospel to the infidels. Francis’ faith in Jesus led him to have a close communion with Him and one of the writers write about Francis saying that “He was always with Jesus: Jesus in his heart, Jesus in his mouth, Jesus in his ears, Jesus in his eyes, Jesus in his hands; he bore Jesus always in his whole body”.
The followers and devotees of Francis, are aware of his faith in the Church and in the Priests, so, he not only uses the word ‘faith’ in relation to Trinity, but also to authority too. In his Testament, he writes that, “that the Lord gave me such faith in churches, that I would pray with simplicity and say: “we adore You, Lord Jesus, in all your churches throughout the whole world and we bless You because by Your Holy Cross, You have redeemed the word.” Afterwards the Lord gave me, and gives me still, such faith in priests who live according to the rite of the Holy Roman Church because of their orders so that, were they to persecute me, I would still want to have recourse to them.” So faith in church and priests don’t indicate something more to be believed in, but manifest how faith is lived, in concrete situations. The faith of Francis, is always a ‘faith situated’ which means, that he encouraged to express faith in Churches, by entering and praying, participating in the Eucharistic liturgy and listening, to the proclamation of the word of God. He makes us, believe the importance of the church, as essential in the life of faith. He teaches us, that we can encounter Christ in the church, as he encountered Christ who spoke and transformed him.
Francis’ faith in Christ, Church and priests led him to have a deep faith in the Eucharist, which sustained and made strong his faith in God. For Francis, Eucharist became a moment, where he could meet and encounter Christ, the word of God made flesh. The Eucharist became the heart of life of faith for Francis. For Francis, all the three realities are inter-related and connected, which helped him to be close to God. Let us see, what he speaks, in his Testament, where he explains his faith in priests. He affirms: “And I do not want to consider any sin in them, because I discern the Son of God in them and they are my Lord's. And I act in this way because, in this world, I see nothing corporally of the Most High, Son of God except His most holy Body and the most holy Blood, which they receive and they alone administer to others”. His faith in the priests, irrespective of their sin or ignorance, and to whom one returns, even if persecuted by them, is founded on his faith in the sacrament of Eucharist. Therefore, it must be said that Francis's life of faith, is deeply related to the sacrament. In him , there is a real sacramental dimension, to the act of faith, which however, determines its relationship, not only with the Eucharist, but also with the whole reality. In fact, we could say that Francis‟ faith, as seeing with the eyes of the spirit, has got to do with every human relationship and every fragment of reality, is a way of seeing the whole reality, to which the Eucharist itself educates us continuously.
Francis believed and lived the intrinsic relationship, between the Eucharist and the Word of God. He believed and lived the Word of God. He listened to and read the Scriptures in faith. He read as a believer, because in those Words he recognized the Word that is addressed to him personally, here and now. For him God spoke through the words of the Scripture and this made his faith stronger and deeper in God. Through the reading of the Word of God he would experience the presence of Christ. Hence the obvious link between the Word and the Eucharist, as two facets of the same mystery: the person of Christ as the Word of God, who became flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and he who remains permanently in the sacrament of the Eucharist. This aspect of the Franciscan spirituality, is connected with a conception of the Fathers of the Church, in relation to the concept of "body of Christ", which included not only the Eucharist but also the body of the Scriptures and the Church.
There is another aspect of Francis‟ faith that we must know: it is the importance of the "Catholic faith." We call to mind, the well-known expression in Regula non-Bullata: “Let all the brothers be, live and speak as Catholics. If someone has strayed in word or deed from Catholic faith and life and has not amended his ways, let him be expelled from our brotherhood”. He wants his friars, to live according to the faith professed by the Church and therefore they must not alter in any way, the content of the Catholic faith. This appears in the writings of Francis, as one of the true motivations for authentic vocations. The candidates who would like to join the Order, must be tested in the catholicity of faith, as it is reminded in the Regula Bullata: If there are any, who wish to accept this life and come to our brotherhood, let them be sent to their provincial ministers [...]. Let the ministers examine them carefully, concerning the Catholic faith and the sacraments of the Church. These days, in the Order not much attention is paid to Catholic faith of the candidate, but to the psychological and emotional life of the candidates is given importance. It is good to recognize the importance of human sciences,, but one cannot bypass totally the fact of solid and deep Catholic faith. Francis of Assisi was willing and ready to forgive the weaknesses of the brothers, but he did not compromise on the fact of the catholicity of the faith. He wanted his friars to have good catholic faith and they were admonished, to spread the same catholic faith, wherever they went.
The writings of St. Francis, will show us, that he was truly a man of faith and the faith of Francis was certainly, also a matter of the doctrine of faith, which was fixed, to a very precise content; moreover, it was not simply a matter of outward formulas. Many might raise a question, as to what is the difference, with regard to the life of faith between Francis and us? And the answer would be found in his writings, where we observe, that for him faith was something very personal as well as communitarian and hence intimate as well as universal. The faith of Francis, was never closeted in his conscience, but exhibited in his personality, writings and prayers. For Francis, the experience of faith was always the experience of the truth, which Jesus Christ revealed. It is evident that the faith in Francis in its existential core is strong. The intensity of his belief and his missionary zeal reveal a definite faith. This is evident in his prayer before the crucifix, "Give me true faith", that is attributed to him.
Finally, it seems necessary to remember, that for Francis, faith is essentially a gift that is to be accepted with gratitude and cultivated above all, through prayer. It is not a gift acquired, once and for all. That is why, we find an interesting exhortation in the Regula non-Bullata, in this regard: “Let us pray and beseech in humility, so that we may persevere, in the true faith”. Even here in fact, not about perseverance in a generic, but in the true faith, so that our faith, may be a real theological act and may never be reduced, to a mere "belief".