Asceticism and Humility The Life of Pope Francis' Namesake

At a time when the Catholic Church was sinking into opulence and pomposity, a powerful religious countercurrent formed in the High Middle Ages: beggar-monks like Francis of Assisi, who preached abstinence and humility. A profile of the religious leader who has become the new pope's namesake.


By Hans-Ulrich Stoldt

Editor's note: After his election to the papacy this week, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina chose Pope Francis as his name. It's an homage to Saint Francis of Assisi, the 13th century Catholic friar and preacher who founded the beggar-monk movement through his Franciscan order. He emphasized a life of asceticism and humility, and created a powerful voice for the poor the church couldn't ignore. SPIEGEL's history magazine, SPIEGEL GESCHICHTE, published the following article about the influence of the new pope's namesake in 2010.

It was one of those nights when young people made their happy, noisy way through the streets of Assisi. With a good meal and more than a few rounds of drinks behind them, they danced and sang loudly as they navigated the alleyways of this central Italian town.

Not all of Assisi's residents were amused. One commented sourly that the young people had "filled their stomachs to bursting and now are despoiling the city squares with their drunken songs."

This particular group of merry youths was headed up by one Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, known as Francesco, around 22 years old at the time. The scion of a wealthy and well-respected cloth merchant family, Francesco had a penchant for extravagant clothes and enjoyed the good things in life. As a sign of his elevated position among the other young men, he was never seen without a walking stick swinging jauntily from his hand, and he was well-liked thanks to a propensity for picking up the group's tab after a night of revelry.

Francesco's inebriated companions took no particular notice when their leader lagged behind on this particular evening. When they did finally realize and turn back, they found Francesco lost in an ecstatic reverie, as if struck by lightning, in the middle of the street. "Suddenly he was visited by the Lord's spirit and his heart filled with such joy that he could neither speak nor move," one chronicler later wrote.

From that point on, young Francesco gradually renounced all earthly riches, broke off contact with his wealthy family and began to wander the country as an itinerant preacher in a simple frock, just as Jesus had once done, in poverty and humility.

A Truly 'Subversive, Revolutionary Element'

He obtained what he needed to survive by begging among the faithful, and whatever he had left over he shared with the poor and the sick. He saw all of humanity as brothers and sisters, equals, and believed no person should be elevated above others. He preached peace and peacefulness, and even the animals listened to the words he spoke.

This, at least, is the legend of the religious awakening of the man from Umbria who would later achieve global fame as Saint Francis of Assisi. Countless stories surround this man who is "surely the most important figure in the history of Christianity since Jesus himself," in the words of Helmut Feld, a renowned scholar on Saint Francis.

Both the life and the teachings of the man from Assisi held a truly "subversive, revolutionary element," Feld says. "By expecting the greatest possible humility from himself, from leaders within the order and from officials in the church, Francis was in a certain sense dismantling the hierarchical structures of religious orders and of the church as a whole."

To this day, Christians of all denominations remain fascinated by the ideas and ideals Saint Francis preached in the early 13th century, as he sought to teach through the example of a life lived in almost complete self-abandonment.

Dramatic Changes in Nearly All Aspects

Even during his lifetime, Saint Francis' example spread far beyond the borders of Umbria. His order drew a large following, and other similar orders also saw their numbers swell. A powerful reform movement grew, made up of beggar-monks whose simple, peaceful existence called into question the dominant powers of both the state and the clergy.

During this period, society in many places was undergoing considerable upheaval, as peasants' rural way of life gave way to urban structures. This shift was accompanied by dramatic changes in nearly all aspects of society and the economy.

Factories came into being capable of producing goods on a mass scale. Trade flourished, a money economy developed and a city-dwelling, educated, increasingly self-aware upper class emerged.

People were freer than ever before to devote themselves to enjoying earthly pleasures, and the church's commandments and prohibitions that had once seemed carved in stone were suddenly called into question. What had previously been seen as certain now began to falter. Fashions, courtly love songs and splendid finery -- for those who could afford such things -- all offered up a promise of pleasures that could be enjoyed here and now, not only in the hereafter.

For the many others who had to struggle for their daily existence at the margins of society, meanwhile, such things served as an obscene provocation. Especially in the cities, the contrast between rich and poor was growing extreme, and with it grew criticism aimed at the excessive, and less than pious, way of life among the ruling classes. This was fertile soil for movements based on poverty and for orders of beggar-monks, such as the Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, Servites and Carmelites.

Inspired and led by charismatic figures, these orders spread the ideal of a life of renunciation, penance and piety. Helping the poor and the lepers was just as important as one's own humility, and these orders held up Jesus Christ and his Apostles as a constant guiding example. Some engaged in prayer so excessively that they tied themselves in place with ropes so as not to collapse from exhaustion, later even inventing equipment to keep believers upright through long bouts of prayer.

Itinerant preachers such as the merchant Peter Waldo from Lyon, France -- founder of the Waldensian movement -- gave fiery speeches denouncing wealth and the pursuit of riches. Women established their own orders as well.

One thing many of these religious groups had in common was the obsessive battle they waged against human desire of every kind. Francis, for example, mixed cold water and ash into his food so as to ruin its flavor. To keep sexual desire under control, he advised his followers to abuse their bodies with ice water, ropes or thorns until their corruptible flesh ("carnis corruptela") had been subdued.

This World Was Only a Vale of Tears

Sometimes it seemed these orders differed from one another in only the tiniest details, for example whether their beggar-monks should be permitted to wear shoes and socks, or if it was in closer accordance with God's will that they wear nothing but sandals.

There were more serious differences, though, within this movement of pious poverty. The Capuchins, for example, required their adherents to follow the teachings of Saint Francis down to the smallest detail, including the exact cut of their cowls, and saw even the Franciscans themselves as deviating from the correct path.

Then there was the particularly radical approach of the Cathars, who viewed themselves as the only "true Christians" and believed in a strict dualism between good and evil. For the Cathars, this world was only a vale of tears. Procreation, whether of humans or animals, was considered the devil's work. Cathars abstained from eating meat, fat and milk products. Only the soul was worth saving, so it could meet God in Heaven.

The Cathars were also radical in their rejection of the Roman Catholic Church, a dangerous position to take. It had certainly not escaped the notice of the mainstream clergy that more and more of its lambs were seeking their salvation with other religious movements -- especially since these movements' leaders often preached in the local language rather than Latin, enabling them to speak to large segments of the population directly.

Rome and its representatives made every effort to keep the renegade poverty movements and beggar-monk orders within the fold of the church itself. In cases where it failed to do so, it vilified these deviators as heretics and persecuted them with the brutal methods of the Inquisition.

Voices Calling for Reform and Self-determination

While the Franciscans and Dominicans accepted the supremacy of the Pope and the Catholic Church, the Cathars and other groups came to be seen as dangerous opponents, and the church fought them fiercely.

At the same time, the church could not entirely ignore these new mass religious movements. Even within the Catholic Church itself, the voices calling for reform and self-determination were growing louder, with the censure of opulence, debauchery and immoral behavior within the church's own ranks expressed increasingly openly.

When Pope Innocent III brought together over 1,200 participants, including numerous bishops and abbots, for the Fourth Lateran Council in Rome in 1215, these leaders clearly condemned the deplorable conduct common among many leading clergy members: "They waste nearly half the night in needless feasting and unseemly chatter, not to mention other things."

Given these circumstances, the church was quite willing to have beggar-monks and poverty orders remain within its ranks, helping to improve the conscience of the church as a whole.

Pope Gregory IX also made the smart move of canonizing Francis in 1228, barely two years after his death, and at the same time starting construction of a grand basilica in honor of Francis of Assisi. In this way, the church was able to triumph over one of its greatest challengers in death, drawing his followers close to the Catholic Church once again.


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