When people find out that I am 3rd Order Franciscan and that I have written a book that reflects on the life of St. Francis of Assisi, it is not uncommon for some to do a double take. “You’re not Catholic, right?” When I tell that I am actually a Mennonite pastor, they might say, “You should really be careful. Catholics worship saints and that is idolatry.” And so, taking a deep breath, I try to patiently explain the difference between adoration- that which is due to God alone- and veneration- that which is appropriate in honor of those deserving of our esteem and recognition. Usually, they leave unconvinced.
In fairness, some Roman Catholics have lost this distinction, especially in cultures where folk-religions are syncretistically embraced (though the hero worship in parts of Evangelicalism deserves some hard scrutiny too). Even when we don’t go so far as worship of the saints, it is not uncommon for us to embrace exaggerated version of these women and men, painting pictures of super-human holy people who stand above (and thus somewhat distant from) humanity. St. Francis is no exception, a saint all too commonly placed on so high a pedestal, he can only ever be revered.
Why is this a problem? First, it is dishonest. We are blessed that in the last several decades, records about Francis, long thought to be lost, emerged. In these priceless documents we discover a man far different than the often sanitized version put forward by others. Second, it allows us to play at a spirituality of reverence that costs us very little. After all, if Francis only impacted the world because he was especially holy, blessed and set apart, why even bother trying to follow his example? This is why Dorothy Day is often quoted for saying, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” Finally, it robs us of the gift that the imperfection of the saints offers us. Let me explain what I mean.
Without question, St. Francis of Assisi is a man who deserves to be honored and esteemed for his selfless devotion to Christ and the continued, positive influence his movement has had in building the kingdom of God. However, we do Francis a disservice when we minimize or ignore his failings- and they were many! In his passionate zeal to literally embrace the teachings and example of Jesus, Francis often embraced an extremism that hurt both himself and his followers. Some of those failings, he never acknowledged, but many he clearly repented for in his life. Even at the end of his life, dying a premature death in a worn out body, he repented to “Brother Body” for his excesses. Francis was far from perfect, yet most of his failings are found in the results of his well-intentioned attempts to live as Christ would.
It is these very imperfections that make saints like Francis worthy of our veneration. We venerate them as fallen, broken, thoroughly human individuals who, despite their mistakes, pursued obedience to Christ at any cost, thus changing their world (and ours) as a result. They are deserving of our esteem because they refused to allow their own weaknesses to be used as excuses to live merely “good”, but ultimately mediocre lives. St. Francis followed Jesus in and through his own sinful nature, yet through the redemptive work of Christ and by the power His Holy Spirit, the kingdom was born. Women and men like Francis should be venerated because they prove what we work so hard to ignore in our own lives: that our own obedience can equally transform our world if we are just willing to step into radical obedience.
I do not venerate Francis because Jesus is not enough. I follow in the footsteps of Francis- human and flawed- because his steps so clearly follow those of Jesus Christ.
Jamie Arpin-Ricci. CJ, is a writer, 3rd order Franciscan and pastor of Little Flowers Community (www.littleflowers.ca) an inner city church plant in Winnipeg, MB. His NEWLY released book is entitled “The Cost of Community: Jesus, St. Francis & Life in the Kingdom” (IVPress, Nov 2011). He blogs regularly at www.missional.ca .