Some of my Franciscan sisters and brothers will not like what I’m about to tell you. And what I’m about to say can easily be misunderstood, so I will try my best to be clear.
Contrary to popular belief, there is nothing particularly special about Franciscan spirituality!
I confess this perspective frequently when I’m speaking to groups that have invited me to share insights about the Franciscan tradition, groups I imagine are eagerly anticipating the “sell,” the “hook,” the “distinctive feature” of Franciscan prayer and life. Often, these same groups at first appear disappointed when I share that, at its core, Franciscan spirituality isn’t so special.
The Jesuits have their Ignatian Exercises and examen, the Benedictines have their structured life of Ora et Labora, the Trappists have their silence and contemplation, the Dominicans have their learned preaching, and so on, but what do the Franciscans have?
The Gospel. That is all.
This isn’t to suggest that the members of the Society of Jesus or the Order of St. Benedict or the Order of Preachers do not have the Gospel. Of course they do. But the Franciscan tradition advances only the Gospel in a way that is at the same time shockingly simple and incredibly difficult. Francis of Assisi began his Rule or “way of life” for the Franciscan friars with the line: “The Rule and Life of the Lesser Brothers is this: to observe the Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” Sounds simple enough.
Francis went on to say that the so-called first order (the Franciscan friars) is to do this “by living in obedience, without anything of one’s own, and in chastity.” But this mandate to live according to the pattern of the Gospel is not unique to the friars. In fact, the respective rules of each of the different branches of the Franciscan family begin similarly. The beginning and end of the way of life that Francis envisioned was just to live the Gospel.
This helps explain why there is absolutely no particular ministry or apostolate associated with the Franciscan charism. Nowhere in the Rule did Francis explain that it is the priority of those who would come after him to minister in hospitals or staff local parishes or serve as missionaries or lead retreats or teach at the great universities. All Francis said is that the friars are to work and receive in return “whatever is necessary for the bodily support of themselves and their brothers.”
The vision that Francis had for his community was that the brothers would live together, pray together, support one another like a family and work in the world among and alongside ordinary members of society. There was no special commission apart from what Christ tells all his followers to do in the Gospels. In other words, the core of so-called Franciscan spirituality is the universal call to holiness that all women and men receive at baptism. To be a good Franciscan means to be a good Christian.
It is my experience that the simplicity of this message oftentimes seems just too difficult to accept. There is a temptation to complicate it, to qualify it, to repackage it and make it palatable. In its truest form, Franciscan spirituality cannot be reduced to any one thing or even a series of bullet points, which is why I believe that Franciscan spirituality is simultaneously attractive to so many people and also nearly impossible to articulate in terms of distinctiveness.
Pope Francis, now two years since taking his name after the saint from Assisi, seems to exemplify the concurrent simplicity and challenge of Franciscan spirituality. That he is a Jesuit doesn’t conflict with the Franciscan outlook, because, as already stated, the core of this spirituality is the baptismal vocation. His gestures and statements are simple in the best sense. They are clear and direct reminders of the Gospel life. Whether Pope Francis is preaching at a weekday Mass or connecting with strangers in an impromptu visit, one sees a man trying to be open to all relationships in a way that reflects St. Francis’ vision.
Though we may not all formally profess to follow Francis of Assisi’s way of life, it seems to me that we can all cultivate “Franciscan hearts” open to what Pope Francis calls the joy of the Gospel. This not-so-special spirituality is an invitation to relationship with all people, working with our brothers and sisters in everyday life and following in the footprints of Christ.