St Francis of Assisi: Passionate Lover of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass

Saint Francis of Assisi, one of our most beloved saints, is perhaps best known for his appreciation of nature and animals. He should however, be recognised even more for his love of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, as that was one of the most important aspects of his spirituality and a major theme of his writings. 

Because of Saint Francis’ devotion to the Eucharist, he wanted churches to be clean, in good repair, and beautiful to honour Jesus. After his conversion, he donated money and sacred vessels to poor churches in honour of Jesus’ Presence there. He spent much of his time in prayer in the Church of San Damiano, and one of his early works of charity was to repair churches. Although he greatly valued poverty and did not spend money on himself, he wanted the best, most beautiful sacred vessels to be used in churches. He wrote in his Testament, “Above everything else, I want this most Holy Sacrament to be honoured and venerated and reserved in places which are richly ornamented.”

Catholics may assume there was great reverence toward Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament in the Middle Ages, but there were problems then as well. In his “Letter to All Clerics,” Saint Francis wrote that priests “should realise that the chalices, corporals, and altar linens where the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ are offered in Sacrifice should be completely suitable…” He spoke of the scandal of priests who “reserve the Blessed Sacrament in unsuitable places or carry It about irreverently, or receive It unworthily, or give It to all-comers without distinction…. Surely we cannot be left unmoved by loving sorrow for all this…” In Saint Francis’ “Letter to All Superiors of the Friars Minor,” he entreated them to ask the clergy “to have the greatest reverence for the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And whenever the Holy Sacrament was being carried anywhere he would have his friars “glorify and honour on bended knee Lord God living and true.” 

Saint Francis had great respect for priests because they celebrate the Sacrifice of the Mass, and give people Holy Communion. He encouraged his brother friars and lay followers to honour priests, and not to judge them, but leave their judgment to God. He tried to encourage priests to be faithful and holy, and addressed them directly in two of his letters. In his “Letter to a General Chapter, “he told the priests of the Franciscan Order, “Remember your dignity, then, my friar-priests, you should make and keep yourselves holy, because God is holy (Lev. 11:44). In this mystery God has honoured you above all other human beings, and so you must love, revere, and honour him more than all others.”

Saint Francis was not a priest himself, but was ordained as a deacon. He tried to attend Holy Mass at least once a day, whenever possible, and his biographer, Thomas of Celano, wrote that Saint Francis received Holy Communion frequently, and “he did so with such devotion that he made others also devout.” Saint Bonaventure wrote in his biography of Saint Francis, “He burned with love for the Sacrament of our Lord’s Body with all his heart, and was lost in wonder at the thought of such loving condescension.”

Saint Francis wanted priests to celebrate Mass with reverence and devotion. In his “Letter to a General Chapter”, he asked friars who were priests, friars who would be ordained as priests, and friars who wanted to become priests “…to be free from all earthly affection when they say Mass, and offer single mindedly and with reverence the True Sacrifice of the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, with a holy and pure intention, not for any earthly gain or through human respect or love for any human being, not serving to the eye as pleasers of men (Eph. 6:6), with the help of God’s grace, their whole intention should be fixed on Him with a will to please the most high Lord alone, because it is He alone who accomplishes this marvel in his own way. He told us, Do this in memory of me (Lk 22:19), and so the man who acts otherwise is a traitor like Judas, and he will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord (1 Cor. 11:27).”

Saint Francis was also concerned that all Catholics should know and truly believe in Jesus’ Presence in the Blessed Sacrament. In his “Admonitions”, he explained, “He shows Himself to us in this sacred bread just as he once appeared to his apostles in real flesh. With their own eyes they saw only his flesh, but they believed that he was God, because they contemplated him with the eyes of the spirt. We, too, with our own eyes, see only bread and wine, but we must see further and firmly believe that this is his most holy Body and blood, living and true. In this way, our Lord remains continually with his followers, as he promised, Behold, I am with you all days, even unto the consummation of the world. (Mt. 28:20).”

Saint Francis encouraged the friars to receive Holy Communion worthily in his Rule of 1221.  He wrote, “And when they have confessed their sins with due contrition, they should receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ with great humility and reverence, remembering the words of our Lord himself, He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has life everlasting (Jn. 6:55), and, Do this is remembrance of me (Lk. 22:19)”  Saint Francis gave similar guidance to all Catholics, advising them of the necessity of receiving the Blessed Sacrament. In his “Letter to All the Faithful, Saint Francis wrote: “…we should confess all our sins to a priest and receive from him the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. The man who does not eat his flesh and drink his blood cannot enter into the kingdom of God (Jn. 6:54).”

The Eucharist was the symbol of so much of what he held to be at the heart of the Gospel. For Francis, the sacrament was a sign of the complete self-emptying of Christ. In the first of his Admonitions, which is about the Eucharist, Francis stresses that the sacrament is a symbol of the poverty and humility of Christ. He writes:

“…Behold, each day he humbles Himself as when he came from the royal throne into the Virgin’s womb; each day He himself comes down to us, appearing humbly; each day He comes down from the bosom of the Father upon the altar in the hands of the priest. As he revealed himself to the holy apostles in true flesh, so He reveals himself to us now in sacred bread.” (Adm 1:16-19)

And in the Letter to the Entire Order, Francis writes in poetic vein:

“Let everyone be struck with fear, let the whole world tremble, and let the heavens exult when Christ, the Son of the living God, is present on the altar in the hands of a priest! O wonderful loftiness and stupendous dignity! O sublime humility! O humble sublimity! The lord of the universe, God and the Son of God, so humbles himself that for our salvation he hides himself under an ordinary piece of bread! Brothers, look at the humility of God, and pour out your hearts before him! Humble yourselves that you may be exalted by him! Hold nothing back of yourselves for yourselves, that he who gives himself totally to you may receive you totally!” (LtrOrd 26-

It was Saint Francis’ intention that his friars should preach devotion to Jesus in the Eucharist. He asked the superiors of his order to do this in his letter to them. “In all your sermons you shall tell the people of the need to do penance, impressing on them that no one can be saved unless he receives the Body and Blood of our Lord. When the priest is offering sacrifice at the altar or the Blessed Sacrament is being carried about, everyone should kneel down and give praise, glory, and honour to our Lord and God, living and true.”

Saint Francis of Assisi’s great love for Jesus and his understanding of the importance of the Eucharist in the lives of Catholics should inspire us to have greater love and reverence for Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament too.  We can also ask for Saint Francis’ intercession for priests in their celebration of Holy Mass, and for all Catholics to truly believe in Jesus’ Presence in the Sacred Host.

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