True Devotion to St. Francis
The English word, “devotion”, is derived from the Latin verb, devovere (to consecrate). Devotion, as a relationship between wayfarers and the Saints, is nothing other than fidelity, loyalty, and resoluteness in the following of Christ after their admirable example.
The devoted follower, is one who has consecrated, that is, dedicated, his entire life to discipleship. The devotee of a saint is in common parlance one who invokes the Saint daily and frequents celebrations, churches, chapels, sanctuaries built in the Saint’s honor. But the devoted follower, the devoted disciple, is something much more. For him, the imitation of the Saint is the fundamental character of his existence, the foundation of his identity, the key to his personal destiny in Christ.
Devotion to St. Francis is no less such devotion. The devotion that the sons of St. Francis should have no less such a devotion.
One can imitate a Saint by incorporating into one’s behavior, ideals, habits, customs, things taken from the life and virtues of the Saint. But such devotion moves only on the material level. Just as the material cause is subordinate to the formal cause in Aristotelian philosophy, so is a devotion to particular things associated with the life and times of a Saint subordinate to true devotion.
True devotion to a Saint necessitates a formal union of heart and mind with the Saint. There is no greater imitation than for the disciple to become one with his teacher. Our Lord taught this kind of devotion when He said of his own disciples, “No disciple is greater than his Master; a disciple should rejoice to be like his Master.”
True devotion then, to a Saint must transcend material devotion. For such a devotion fails to incorporate the truth in Christ that the Saints are means not ends to imitation of Christ Jesus, the One Teacher of all. To truly imitate a Saint then, is to make the desire, wisdom, and resoluteness that was his to follow and imitate Christ, one’s own. In such a manner, devotion to a Saint is transfigured into authentic Christian life and perfection.
True devotion to St. Francis then, must not strive to attain nor merely admire the spirit of the Poverello and his way of life. True devotion to St. Francis must love what he loved with the love and purpose he loved it.
Now the historical sources on the life of St. Francis delineate clearly what this preeminent love in the heart of St. Francis was. He himself declares it on the morning of February 24, 1208 A.D. at the Portziuncula, outside Assisi: “This is what I want; this is what I long for with all my heart.”
The Saint said this of the passage of scripture which the priest had just explained to him, and which had been read than morning at the Mass in honor of St. Matthias, the Apostle. It was Our Lord sending out the Apostles and establishing the apostolic life of mendicancy: “Take nothing with you on the way …”.
The unlimited entrustment that this form of life requires of the disciple to the Master was the essential hallmark of the spirituality and religious consecration of the Poor Man of Assisi. This is the key to his life and love of Christ Crucified.
It follows then, that true devotion to St. Francis necessitates this essential adoption of the life of mendicancy in all its rigor and simplicity, and not for the reason that St. Francis lived it, but for the reason that Christ taught it. Not so as to become a disciple of St. Francis; but rather, to walk with the Saint in this life so as to become a perfect disciple of Christ Jesus Our Lord.
Such devotion requires, then, nothing less that a return to and resolute observance of the precepts of the Rule of St. Francis. This is the form of life that the Saint wanted expressly to hand down to his sons as a perpetual inheritance and heritage. This Rule embodies simply and rigorously the principles of the life of mendicancy that Christ taught to the Apostles. This is the teaching of Popes Nicholas III and Clement V.
To be a true son of St. Francis is to be, then, an observer of the Rule. One who finds the essence and form of his life, vocation, and charism, not in the constitutions or statutes or customs of the Franciscan community to which he may belong; but rather, one who finds essence and form of his consecrated life and vocation; indeed of his very identity and destiny in the Rule of St. Francis, and holds this to be the very day to day discipline that guides his personal life and apostolate.