The following essay was originally written in 2013 while I was studying at Marylhurst University. To this day, Franciscan spirituality has had a huge influence on me and my spiritual journey, and I am happy to share this with all of you.
Legend has it that there was once a “terrible and… fierce” wolf that was bringing terror to the town of Gubbio in the medieval Italian region of Perugi. The townsfolk were in a constant state of fear because, as the legend goes, this wolf “not only devoured other animals, but made a prey of men also”. Because of the terror that this wolf caused the people of Gubbio, they would be “in great alarm, and used to go about armed, as if going to battle…” Instead of sticking with the old method of fight or flight, Saint Francis of Assisi came along with a third creative and nonviolent approach to solving the problem. Saint Francis, the legend says, approached the wolf peacefully addressing him as “Brother Wolf,” and was able to convince the wolf to cease attacking the villagers; in exchange, the villagers would bring the wolf food each day. This action was successful and from that day on the wolf of Gubbio knew he would have food, and the people of Gubbio knew that they could once again live in peace from the wolf’s attacks, all because of the creative peacemaking of one saintly man.
In many ways the Franciscan spiritual tradition is inseparable from the ideas of peace and peacemaking. Although not written until the early twentieth century, many modern people view Saint Francis through the lens of the Prayer of Saint Francis—a prayer that begins with the words, “Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace,” though the connection to Saint Francis and peacemaking is surely much older. The words “pace e bene”—Italian for “peace and good”—and the Latin counterpart “pax et bonum” have long been used as something of an unofficial motto of the Franciscan family. Peacemaking has been a part of the Franciscan tradition since Saint Francis himself, but what exactly has been the role of peacemaking and nonviolence over the last 800 years?
To understand the Franciscan tradition, it is important to understand a bit about the man the tradition is based on. Orthodox theologian and peace activist Jim Forest says that “no saint in the west has been more identified with the beatitude of peacemaking than Francis of Assisi.” Francis, who was born into a wealthy family, joined the military in his youth in an attempt to gain wealth and glory. In a battle between Assisi and Perugia, Francis was captured along with many others and was held for a year as a prisoner of war. After his release from prison, Francis spent some time recuperating and then set out to fight in the Crusades, but he never made it. One early Franciscan document tells the story:
When [Francis] set out for Apulia, he got as far as Spoleto, where he began to feel a little ill. No less anxious about the trip, as he was falling asleep, half awake, he heard someone asking him where he wanted to go. When Francis revealed to him his entire plan, the other said: “Who can do more good for you, the Lord or the servant?” When [Francis] answered him: “The Lord,” he said to him: “Then why are you abandoning the Lord for the servant, the patron for the client?” And Francis said: “Lord what do you want me to do?” “Go back to your land,” he said, “and what you are to do will be told to you. You must understand in another way the vision which you saw.”
This experience led Francis to abandon his military career to adopt a life of humility, simplicity, poverty, and peace. In the Franciscan tradition, the values of poverty, humility, and simplicity are inseparable from each other, and all of them are intertwined with the idea of peace. After Francis’s conversion, he abandoned every earthly possession to live a life of gospel poverty and charity, attempting to follow in the footsteps of his greatest example: Jesus of Nazereth. Forest speaks of Francis and the possible motivations behind this decision:
Before long a dozen friends joined him, forming the nucleus of a new order, the Minores—Lesser Brothers—rather than the Majores, the great ones who ruled the cities and organized wars. They were not simply poor but had, he explained, married the most beautiful bride, Lady Poverty. Assisi’s bishop didn’t approve. “You and your brothers are a disgrace,” he told Francis. “At least you can provide what will make you a bit more respectable.” “O Domini mi,” replied Francis, “if we had possessions we should need weapons to protect them.”
It was not that owning material possessions was bad in itself, but the effect that these possessions had on those who cling to them which seems to have bothered Francis the most.
The biographies of Saint Francis are many and they are filled with examples of this saint using creative and nonviolent solutions in otherwise violent situations. One of the best known examples of this can be seen when Francis met with the Sultan of Egypt in 1219. During the time of the Fifth Crusade, Sultan Malik al-Kamil was considered one of the biggest enemies to Christendom. Forest says that “Francis, who opposed all killing no matter what the cause, sought the blessing of the Cardinal who was chaplain to the Crusader forces to go and preach the Gospel to the sultan.”  Francis, however, was told “that the Muslims understood only weapons and that the one useful thing a Christian could do was to kill them.” In the end, Francis and his companion, Brother Illuminato, were allowed to leave the security of the Crusader encampment, all present believing they would die as martyrs.
After being captured and brutally beaten by the sultan’s army, Francis and Brother Illuminato were brought to Malik al-Kamil who inquired if they had come to convert to Islam. Francis told the sultan no, in fact they had come to ask him to either convert to Christianity or behead them; neither happened. Malik al-Kamil and Francis came to have a strong respect for each other and for the faith of one another, even meeting for conversations daily for a month. In the end, Malik al-Kamil gave Francis a “beautifully carved ivory horn which is now among the relics of the saint kept in the Basilica of Assisi,” along with permission to travel safely to the holy places under Muslim control.Perhaps even more amazing, however, is that it is recorded that when Francis and Malik al-Kamil parted ways, they did so considering each other to be brothers.
In her examination of the encounter between Francis and Malik al-Kamil, Sr. Kathleen Warren, OSF, suggests that “Francis went to Egypt to actively oppose the Crusades.”Although she does comment in the footnotes that this idea is one that is debated by scholars, with several contemporary writers taking positions on both sides of the argument. With his devotion to peacemaking and the love of the enemy that Christ commanded in the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:9; 43-48), it would not be a far stretch to accept the idea that stopping the violence of the Crusades was the primary reason Francis went to Egypt.
Saint Francis rooted his peacemaking in three gospel-based convictions: “God is all good, and all good comes from God;” “the gospel way is the way of active love;” and “voluntary poverty serves and sustains true peace.” It was these principles which Francis sought to establish in his community, and it is also these principles that Francis worked so hard to get put into writing as part of his community’s Rule.
Before Francis was finally able to achieve success in having a Rule written and approved by Rome for his order of mendicant friars, he put together what has become known as the Earlier Rule—a rule which would form the foundations for the Later Rule which would get papal approval, but which itself never got such reinforcement. The Earlier Rule, which clearly shows the influence of the Gospels on the teachings of Francis, pulls some of the themes of peace and nonviolence from the Gospels and refocuses them to be lived by the friars. Some of the chapters of the Earlier Rule which are specifically relevant to the idea of peacemaking include Chapter XI (“The Brothers Should Not Revile or Detract, But Should Love One Another”), Chapter XIV(“How the Brothers Should Go Through the World”), Chapter XVI (“Those Going Among the Saracens and Other Nonbelievers”), and Chapter XXII (“An Admonition to the Brothers”). This can be seen in an example from Chapter XXII:
All my brothers: let us pay attention to what the Lord says: Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you for our Lord Jesus Christ, Whose footprints we must follow, called His betrayer a friend and willingly offered Himself to His executioners.
Our friends, therefore, are all those who unjustly inflict upon us distress and anguish, shame and injury, sorrow and punishment, martyrdom and death. We must love them greatly for we shall possess eternal life because of what they bring us….
The Final Rule of the Friars Minor, also known as the Later Rule, was given papal approval on November 29, 1223. Chapter III (“The Divine Office and Fasting and the way the Brothers should go about the world”) of this Rule again called the early Franciscans to adopt a lifestyle of humility and peacemaking:
I counsel, admonish and exhort my brothers in the Lord Jesus Christ, that, when they go about the world, they do not quarrel or fight with words, or judge others; rather, let them be meek, peaceful and unassuming, gentle and humble, speaking courteously to everyone, as is becoming.
Chapter III of the Later Rule goes on to instruct the friars that “[in] whatever house they enter, let them say: Peace to this house.”
The Rule for the Third Order Franciscans—lay men and women who desired to answer Francis’s call of Christ-centered living but who were unable to become friars or nuns—included in it the prohibition against carrying weapons. Chapter 16 of the Third Order Rule from 1221 simply stated: “They are not to take up lethal weapons, or bear them about, against anybody.”
With many men and women joining the lay Franciscan movement, it became harder to recruit people to fight in the feudal wars of the day. Fr. Noel Muscat, OFM, writes that this “was a courageous witness of evangelical peace in a quarrelsome society, and it certainly dealt a blow to the feudal regime and to the petty quarrels between rival Comuni in the Italian peninsula.” According to Fr. Muscat, this “evangelical witness of peace” resulted in frequent persecution of these early peacemakers, leading to Pope Gregory IX releasing the Papal Bull “Detestanda,” defending the right of the Third Order Franciscans to not carry arms or participate in military service.
The first real great Franciscan theologian was a man named Giovannie di Fidanza—better known as Bonaventure of Bagnoregio. Peace was an essential element of Bonaventure’s theology, and he viewed Francis, Jesus, and peace as being inseparable in many ways. Bonaventure writes about Saint Francis:
At the beginning and end of every sermon he announced peace; in every greeting he wished for peace; in every contemplation he sighed for ecstatic peace— like a citizen of that Jerusalem of which that Man of Peace says who was peaceable with those who hated peace: Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.
For Bonaventure, peace is rooted in love and willingness to die for that love. Franciscan scholar Sr. Ilia Delio, OSF, says that it is this “level of peace and perfect love [that] is the desire for martyrdom”. Sr. Delio goes on to say that this “is the desire to love one’s neighbor by way of self-gift out of love of God”. This same willingness to suffer self-injury or even death in the name of peace is a core tenant of nonviolence today, and it is a concept which is in many ways epitomized by the crucifixion of the nonviolent Christ on Calvary:
If we follow Bonaventure’s thought through his labyrinth of symbolic language, we come to realize that peace is a choice…. Clearly, in Bonaventure’s mind, peace must flow out of an inner source of love and be expressed in the actions of our lives. Thus, if we fail in love we fail in peace, and if we fail in peace we must bear the triumph of violence. Such is the sorrow of being called Christians or the joy of loving Christ.
It is this sense of complete love and total giving of oneself which characterizes the ideal follower of Christ, and it is this incredibly radical idea which is also at the heart of nonviolence.
When people speak of nonviolence today, they are typically speaking of the active refusal to resort to violence or harm. In the twentieth century, Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood out as the two greatest examples of this kind of nonviolence in action. The term nonviolence is a relatively recent addition to our lexicon, and was not known or spoken of specifically by the early Franciscans. The term is actually an attempt to translate the Sanskrit word ahiṃsā: “The doctrine of non-violence; avoidance of killing or causing harm out of respect for all living things” as found in the Eastern traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism.” The concept, which was in integral part of Gandhi’s own nonviolent Satyagraha movement, became commonly known as nonviolence in the West. But just because the term has Eastern roots, that does not mean the concept is entirely foreign to the Christian concepts of justice and peacemaking, as figures like Saint Francis or George Fox and his Quaker followers show us. Franciscan friar and nonviolence advocate Br. Alain Richard, OFM, has said that “there are deep connections between the nonviolence of the Gandhian nonviolent methods, imbued with the gospel of the Beatitudes and the example of Christ, and the Franciscan way of taking the gospel seriously.”
Historian Phyllis Mack has noted another connection between these great peacemaking traditions. According to Mack, “[t]he first Franciscans, the early Quakers, and the followers of Gandhi… are three radical religious movements widely separated in time and place but sharing elements identified by their adherents as ‘feminine.’” In her analysis of these different peacemaking traditions, she made a connection:
One of Gandhi’s adopted children wrote a biography of him which she called Bapu—My Mother. Disciple Margaret Fell called Quaker founder George Fox ‘our dear nursing father.’ The most intimate term used by the Franciscan brothers to address the founder was ‘mother.’
Mack suggests that the qualities of Francis, Fox, and Gandhi which are perceived as ‘feminine’ “may be transposed into the public sphere and transformed into highly effective forms of activism by both women and men.” She goes on to say that “[o]ne might even speculate that these feminine modes of behavior gained moral and political credibility for Francis, Fox, and Gandhi because they were being used creatively by men.” Mack concludes by suggesting that “we would do well to contemplate the virtues of these partisans of nonviolent public behavior, and that we can find affinities with their compassionate activism very close to home as we move to embrace our own political and spiritual struggles.” Whether creative and nonviolent forms of peacemaking are ‘feminine’ qualities or not, they are arguably necessary transformative qualities of all great peacemaking traditions.
Today it is becoming easy to associate Franciscans with nonviolent peacemaking. From the large nonviolence education organization Pace e Bene, which has been endorsed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to the work of Franciscans like Fr. Louis Vitale, OFM, who has been arrested over 400 times in nonviolent demonstrations and who cites Jesus, St. Francis, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. as his guides. The General Constitutions of the Order Friars Minor—the largest and most well known of the Franciscan Orders—even calls for this peacemaking in Article 69:
(1) In protecting the rights of the oppressed, the friars are to renounce violent action and have recourse to means that are otherwise available even to the powerless.
(2) Conscious also of the terrible dangers that threaten the human race, the friars are to denounce in the strongest terms every kind of warlike action and the arms race as a very serious calamity for the world and a very great injury to the poor; they are to spare neither work nor sacrifice to build up God’s kingdom of peace.
The Franciscan tradition has had its fair share of sinners over the course of its history (and quite a few saints, as well!), but the Franciscan tradition has always been filled with men and women desiring to follow in the footsteps of Christ by following the example of Saint Francis, and Francis’s example was one that required of all who chose to follow him to seek always to apply the gospel message of peace to their daily lives.
Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM, commented once on the beatitude of the peacemakers that it is clear that “Jesus is not on the side of the violent but on the side of the nonviolent. Jesus is saying there must be a connection… between means and ends. There is no way to peace other than peacemaking itself.” Fr. Rohr than reminds us that Jesus followed this with a warning that the peacemakers will “be hated from all sides.” Fr. Rohr says that whenever “you’re working outside the system, when you work for peace you will not be admired inside the system. In fact you will look dangerous, subversive, unpatriotic, and all the other things that people’s fears will create.”
The very heart of Franciscan peacemaking is the love of the enemy. Biblical scholar Walter Wink believed that “love of enemies has, for our time, become the litmus test of authentic Christian faith.” Wink goes on to note that “[l]ove of enemies is the recognition that the enemy, too, is a child of God.” As more people become increasingly aware that one of the core messages at the heart of the Gospels may very well be the need for nonviolent peacemaking in the world, there will continue to be an 800-year-old tradition of Franciscan peacemaking to support them—a tradition itself supported by the 2000-year-old faith founded by the Nonviolent Christ.
1. ^ Francis and Clare: The Complete Works (1982). New York: Paulist Press. ISBN: 0809124467. Buy now.
2. ^ Forest, Jim. “Blessed Are the Peacemakers.” In Communion. Orthodox Peace Fellowship, 11 Dec. 2004..
3. ^ Butigan, Ken, Mary Litell, and Louis Vitale (2003). Franciscan Nonviolence: Stories, Reflections, Principles, Practices, and Resources. Las Vegas, NV: Pace E Bene Nonviolence Service. ISBN 0966978390. Buy now.
4. ^ Warren, Kathleen A. (2003). Daring to Cross the Threshold: Francis of Assisi Encounters Sultan Malek
Al-Kamel. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock. ISBN 1620324210. Buy now.
5. ^ Long, Michael G. (2011). Christian Peace and Nonviolence: A Documentary History. Maryknoll, MY: Orbis. ISBN 1570759227. Buy now.
6. ^ Armstrong, Regis J., and Brady, Ignatius C., eds. (1982). Francis and Clare: The Complete Works. New York: Paulist Press. ISBN: 0809124467. Buy now.
7. ^ Handbook of the Confraternity of Penitents: Living the Original Third Order Rule of Saint Francis as a Lay Person in the Modern World. Sixth ed. (2010). N.p.: Confraternity of Penitents. ISBN 1452877386. Buy now.
8. ^ Muscat, Noel. “History of the Franciscan Movement.” The Franciscans of the Holy Land and Malta, 30 Dec. 2001.
9. ^ Delio, Ilia (2013). Simply Bonaventure: An Introduction to His Life, Thought, and Writings. 2nd ed. Hyde Park, NY: New City. ISBN: 1565484843. Buy now.
10. ^ “ahimsa, n.” – Word of the Day from the OED. Miami Lakes Educational Center, September 20, 2015.
11. ^ Mack, Phyllis. “Feminine Behavior and Radical Action: Franciscans, Quakers, and the Followers of Gandhi.” Signs 11.3 (1986): 457-77.
12. ^ Horan, Daniel P. (2013). Franciscan Spirituality for the 21st Century. Boston, MA: Koinonia. ISBN: 061559753X. Buy now.
13. ^ Feister, John and Rohr, Richard (1996). Jesus’ Plan For A New World: The Sermon on the Mount. Cincinnati, OH: Franciscan Media. ISBN: 0867162031 Buy now.
14. ^ Wink, Walter (2003). Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress. ISBN:0800636090 . Buy now.