Talk on Saint Francis

Franciscan Theology of the Eucharist

Devotion to Jesus Christ was the passion of the life of St Francis of Assisi.  He saw the Eucharist as a unique meeting-place with Christ where he came as near as it was possible to see and touch Him.  Thomas of Celano who knew St Francis and wrote the life of Francis says; “ Francis  burned with a love that came from his whole being for the sacrament of the Lord’s Body, and he was carried away with wonder at the loving condescension and the most condescending love shown there” 2Cel 201.

Francis was a vernacular rather than an academic theologian, he had not been to the schools but the doctrine of the Eucharist was much discussed during his life time. Innocent the third, the Pope who received Francis and who had approved his first rule had convened the Fourth Lateran Council in response to various heresies and teachings which threatened faith in the Real Presence of the Lord in the Eucharist.

Theologians like Berengarius of Tours had raised questions regarding how the Lord was present in the Sacrament and had favored the opinion that Christ was present in figure or symbolically and not in truth or in reality. The Cathars had poured scorn on the traditional doctrine of the Eucharist as for them all matter was the creation of an evil god and thus the good God could not be present in bread and wine.

The Fourth Lateran Council had insisted that Christ is really and truly present in the Eucharist and had canonized the word ‘transubstantiation’ to explain what they meant.  This word would be the basic term which all the scholastics will use when they enter Eucharistic theology. Francis does not use it, he was not familiar with the philosophy of Aristotle which used the abstract metaphysical abstractions of  substance and accidents as a way of understanding reality. But Francis teaches what the Lateran Council defined as the Church doctrine of the Eucharist. At those Franciscan Chapters of the early days he gave admonitions.

In one of his Admonitions Francis writes;  “every day Jesus humbles himself just as he did when he came from his heavenly throne into the Virgin’s womb; every day He comes to us and let’s us see Him in abjection, when he descends from the bosom of the Father into the hands of the priest at the altar. 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 spirit. 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.”

Characteristics of Francis understanding of the Eucharist

a)  When Francis speaks about God he generally talks of a Trinitarian God.  God is Trinity, God is relationship, God is belonging, God is family.  We will see this will be brought out explicitly by the Franciscan theologians.  Creation itself, the Incarnation of Jesus, and institution of the Eucharist find their foundation in the goodness of God.  It is because God wants to enter into relationship with us that God has created us and also the Eucharist itself.  For Franciscans the Eucharist is an expression of God’s “need” for love rather than a manifestation of His power.

b) For Francis the Eucharist was a marvelous expression of the goodness of God. Others may be impressed by the power of God but for Francis it was the goodness of God which amazed him. “You are good”, he prayed, “all good, highest good” 1 Rule. For Francis all was gift.

c)  The Eucharist spoke to Francis of the goodness of  God but also of the humility of God. When Francis contemplated God and the Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ he was  impressed  above all by the humility of the Incarnation( I Celano) and by the suffering and death of Jesus on the Cross (2 Celano). Such humility, such simplicity and such generosity could only come from a totally good God.  “O sublime humility! O humble sublimity! That the Lord of the whole universe , God and the Son of God, should humble himself like this and hide under the form of a little bread for our salvation”.

d)  While the presence of the good God under the appearance of such humble material things like bread and wine scandalized the Cathars it was for Francis a source of confirmation and joy. It was a confirmation for him of the sacredness of all creation. For him creation contains the Word of God and the Bible contains the Word of God, but these are not two words of God.  The same Trinitarian God speaks and calls in scriptures and in creation. Brother Sun, just by being sun praises God, and Sister Moon just by being moon praises God

e)  Francis may have spoken to the birds and called all creatures his brothers and sisters but it was his fellow human beings, men and women who were for him in God his eminent brothers and sisters. His Order was the Order of Lesser Brothers. They were brought together not only by a common Father but through their reconciliation in Christ and unity in the Holy Spirit. “ I implore all of you brothers to show all possible reverence and honor to the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ in Whom that which is in heaven and on earth has been brought to peace and reconciled to almighty God” (Letter to the Order 12)

f) “ When Francis received the Holy Eucharist” his contemporaries tell us, “ he did so with such devotion that he made others also devout”  His closest follower, Sr Clare received the Lord with such tenderness and love that her fellow sisters wept with wonder.  He approached the Eucharist with a heart filled with affection. Francis put spirituality and theology together, for theology without spirituality is empty and spirituality without theology is a sham.

Franciscan Scholastics and theology of the Eucharist

i) There were three principle intellectual traditions in the Western Church in  medieval times, besides the Franciscan there were the Augustinian and the Dominican. All based their teaching on the same foundations namely, scripture , tradition and the magisterial teaching of the Church.  This Scholastic theology had three components, the Dialectical Method, the Aristotelian Philosophical texts and the Four Books of Sentences of Peter Lombard.

Difference in these traditions of Christian Theology will be based on the various theological ways in which the three intellectual traditions express the implications of the word of God  and on how they interface theology and spirituality.

Theological systems like that of Thomas Aquinas and the Dominican will use Aristotle to explain the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist in a new way.  Using Aristotle they were able to say that at the Consecration with  the words, “This is my Body and this is my Blood” the substance, understood as metaphysical reality, was changed from Bread and Wine to the Body and Blood of the Lord whiile the accidents of bread and wine remained.  All the great Scholastics, and this will include all the Franciscan teachers followed this principle.

Scholastic theologians concentrated on the sacramental presence of Jesus in the species of bread and wine.  They interpreted the link between the Mass and the passion of Christ in an allegorical fashion; the succession of the phases of the celebration must correspond to the successive stages of the passion. In the time of St Thomas the priest made the signs of the cross nine times in the celebration and Thomas chooses these nine points to establish a correspondence with nine stages in the passion.

The Franciscan Theologians were deeply influenced by the vision, affective response and the spirituality of St Francis.  This was a Spirituality of real intimate affectionate love for Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. This was what St Francis asked of them; “Kissing your with all the love I am capable of I beg you to show the greatest possible  reverence and honor for the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ”…

ii) St Bonaventure

St Bonaventure was born some years before the death of St Francis but did not know the saint, he entered the Franciscans as a young man and had as his professors at the University of Paris the Franciscans Alexander of Hales, William of Melitona and Odo Rigaldi

Bonaventure, as Minister General of the Order is deeply influenced by the vision of St Francis. His conception is the concrete Eucharistic Christology of St Francis and he completely identifies the sacrament with the person of the historical Jesus.  The Eucharist for him is a visitation of the Son of God, who humbles himself by coming in the Sacrament, the Eucharist is a kind of Incarnation. (Mazza 215)

St Bonaventure follows St Francis very closely in the way he treats the question of God.  He continually speaks of the Trinity, the Triune God. The Mystery of the Triune God stresses God as essentially relationship, belonging. Thus, the God of the Eucharist is a God of love and goodness. The medieval axiom, “ Bonum est sui diffusivum”—Goodness is diffusive of its very self” lies at the heart of Franciscan Theological discussion of God. The Eucharist is the embrace of God’s goodness.

Bonaventure explains all of God’s qualities, His power, His knowledge, His freedom within a Trinitarian context. When Thomas Aquinas deals with God his focus is on the one God.  In many ways this difference between Thomas and Bonaventure marks a major distinction between the Dominican intellectual tradition and the Franciscan intellectual tradition

In the Franciscan intellectual tradition a relational Triune God in consistently the basis of God’s own nature which is love and goodness. Bonaventure’s approach to the Eucharist is one of devotion and affection.  He in fact co-opts a devotion and affection directly into his Theological treatment which he taught at the University.

Enrico Mazza writes; “ In his view ( Bonaventure) the Eucharistic species are as it were the garment or veil which covers the Body and Blood of Christ.  When he takes the subject of the communion he speaks of nourishment and also of the welcome given to a guest, of the Sacrament of union, and of a burning coal.

The burning coal is the Body of Christ in His Passion. And it is in this sense that Bonaventure defines the Eucharist as a memorial :  The Eucharist is as it were a burning coal that sets on fire those who remember the Passion, because in so doing they have a kind of affective experience of the Passion…. The Eucharist is a living memorial because Christ Himself is present in it”. Mazza 216.  Jesus said; “Do this in memory of Me”. We could translate this with the mind of Bonaventure as saying; “when you do this you bring Me back”.

Like the Sadducees with their trick question regarding the woman whose seven husbands all died the Cathars heretics tried to mock the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist being bread and wine by asking what did the mouse eat when it burrowed into the tabernacle

St Thomas took the view that in fact it did eat the Body of Christ.  St Bonaventure took a completely personal position saying that Christ is present under the Bread and Wine of the Sacrament only to the extent that the Sacrament is ordered to  human use.

This minor question enables us to see  the difference between the Eucharist teaching of Thomas and Bonaventure. St Thomas is more objective and more closely linked to his analysis of being.

St Bonaventure is more closely linked to a personalist perspective that is based on the institution of the Sacrament of Christ, namely that the Eucharist is for a human use namely for eating and this intended purpose determines the very nature of the Eucharistic bread.

“ In the view of Bonaventure the deeply affective response of Francis is echoed in the his prayers.  He prayed; “Let my soul always thirst for you alone, Lord.  O Bread of celestial life descended from heaven , Bread of Angels, sustenance of Saintly souls, our daily bread that is beyond mere substance and is possessed of all savor, sweetness and delight.  You whom the holy Angels long to behold shall be the perpetual food and drink of my heart.  O fountain of life, O fountain of wisdom, O fountain of knowledge, O fountain of eternal light, O torrent of desire and fertility in dimension of God…  You alone shall be all in all to me”.

iii) John Duns Scotus

All Theologians of the middle ages understood creation as an act only God could perform.  Often, however, the emphasis is on God’s power.  The  Franciscan intellectual tradition does not start with God’s power. Rather it starts with God’s absolute freedom. This is where Scotus begins.  From a Philosophical point of view God’s freedom in Scotus has no limit, and from a Theological point of view it is God’s love that has no limit. There is a clear connection between God’s absolute freedom and God’s love.  A Divine act of freedom is a Divine act of Love. His concept of God is profoundly Trinitarian and relational.

This teaching of Scotus had an enormous impact on the Franciscan intellectual tradition. Everything created in the Universe exists because of God absolute freedom and because of God’s unlimited love.  All of creation is a gift.  Nothing in creation is necessary.  Everything in this sense is grace, an unmerited gift of God.

It is in this context that Scotus sees the Eucharist as the marvelous longing of God to give himself to us.  The Eucharist is totally gift and we should respond with total affection , devotion and surrender. The Eucharist is a huge affirmation by God of human dignity.

Francis and Clare felt themselves surrounded by gifts.  In his Testament St Francis writes, “The Lord gave me, Brother Francis, thus to begin to doing penance in this way;….. the Lord Himself led me among the lepers and I showed mercy to them.”

If you were to ask Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas for a definition of a human being they would say a human being is a rational animal.  Scotus found difficulty with this view.  He would say that God has clearly created rational animals but has never created a single rational animal.  And so Scotus brings into the philosophy of  Aristotle, the idea of thisness. God is concerned with this person, each unique person.

Scotus doctrine of thisness applied to the human person makes each person of unique value in the eyes of the God.  Each person is wanted by God  and loved by God.  One could even say thisness is our personal gift from God.  And so when God comes in the Eucharist He comes in this unique person.  He is there for me, He will embrace me and fills me with his grace.

The theology and understanding of the Eucharist as experienced in the Franciscan tradition has had many practical fruits down through the centuries and has importance for the contemporary situation.

Fruits of Franciscan Eucharistic Theology over the centuries and for today

a) It emphasizes belonging

The Franciscan understanding of the Eucharist is God’s reaching out to be one with us and to make us one with each other.  “Where ever the brothers may be and meet one another, let hem show  that they are members of the same family.  Let each one confidently make known his need to the other, for if a mother loves and cares for her son according to the flesh, how much more diligently must someone love and care for his brother according to the Spirit” Rule of St Francis; Rule of St Clare.

To belong is a fundamental human need. Belonging like the soul itself cannot be measured but is there anything more real or felt?  Though invisible belonging holds us with unbreakable cords to those we love.  What touches those we love deeply affects us. The little hen defending its chicks from the fox, the sheep dying to protects its lambs, the little child crying in an unfriendly hospital ward is begging to  belong to a friendly shoulder.  Long ago Marx identified alienation as a pervading disease of our times, it is the root of violence and of the abandonment of relationships in family, village and nations.  In spite of the advancing communications the loneliness of human people is a constant cry in the dark.  An extensive  individuality leaves people forsaken, weak and meaningless.

Belonging is at the heart of African civilization and culture. The Church as family was the theme of the first African synod. Those of the older generation in South Africa who hail from rural villages bemoan the falling apart of the center.

In the Mass, in the Eucharist  the Church today offers a sense of belonging. The Eucharist as personal, as belonging, as sharing in the intimate life of the Triune God is the secret treasure where the madding crowd can find itself and others.

A young lady getting married searched everywhere for material to make a suitable wedding dress. Though she tried store after store she was never satisfied. Finally, an exasperated shop assisant asked her; “Please explain exactly what you want”. The girl replied;”I need a material which rustles when I wear it”. “Why must it rustle,?” asked the assistant.  “Because my bridegroom is blind and I want him to know that I am beside him and with him in everything which happens on the day”, replied the girl. Francis and Clare heard the rustling of the Bridegroom in the Eucharist. As Celano would say of Francis; “in prayer he felt the touch of the Bridegroom”

Francis and Clare experienced in the Eucharist a total sense of belonging, belonging to God.  That is why they were able to leave everything, that is why they were companions to the poor, that is why they went away so often with the Lord to experience sense of belonging.

Through the Eucharist the Lord who wished to gather His chickens under His wings calls our impersonal globalized world to come to Him and find each other. But the celebration of Eucharist must be reverent, it must be filled with a sense of real presence, it must be participative and it must express itself outside the doors of the assembly.  Space must be found for people to recognize their own reality in the celebration and sharing,; and this demands prayer, preparation and knowledge of  his people on the part of the priest.

b) The Goodness of the Eucharistic Lord; serve the poor!

St Francis was above all struck by the wonderful humility and poverty of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist.  In receiving the Eucharist he too wanted to become food and bread for the poor.  Francis shared intimately the life of the lepers, the poor.  In the old leper hospital below Assisi there used to be an inscription “here the Franciscan Order began”.  He wanted always to be with them.  He spent his life among them.  Having received the Eucharist he wished to become eucharist for others.

The Franciscan saints  have witnessed their time and time again.  In a special way all those Brothers, all of whom were noted for the Eucharistic love, brought the hospitality of Christ to the poor. We remember St Felix begging on the streets of Rome, sharing with the poor and then spending the night in adoration praying for his benefactors and for all who came to this humble brother with their dreadful problems.  St Paschal Baylon is the patron of all Eucharistic sodalities spent years as porter of his friary in Spain offering hospitality to all travelers.  We remember St Francis Mary who died in 1866 had as his ideal, “I came to the Friars to be a beast of burden”.  He walked the streets of Genoa begging for the poor from door to door

To list them all would turn this talk into a litany.

Bishop Moorman writes of the Third Order; “ Besides nursing the sick in their homes these people were to receive poor people who were ill or homeless into their hospitals. There were to  carry food to the hungry and sit by the dying, to visit and pay for chaplains for prisoners,….  these devoted layfolk brought the love of Christ into home where dirt, disease and death were all too common”.

Elizabeth, Queen of Hungary, expelled from her inheritance built a little hospital in  Marburg to which she personally carried the abandoned poor and diseased to nurse and wash them herself; when funds ran low she went fishing to feed her poor .  She died at the age of 24 worn out for the poor but filled with the joy of the Eucharist. She is the patron of the secular Franciscan Order.

The theology of Scotus is centered on the supreme dignity of the individual human being. Such a theology, energized by the Eucharist calls Christians to be preeminent in the struggle for human rights. And this struggle must be expressed by love, for Scotus the human person is an affective rationality.

For Franciscans the Eucharist is the daily reminder of the goodness of God. It is a call for the Church to become Eucharist.  Unless the goodness we receive is echoed in our care for the poor we must question the reality of our faith in that which we receive. The Eucharist is energy. It was given with the washing of the feet, it was given so that we should wash feet. If we don’t see Christ in the poor do we really perceive him in the tabernacle or at Mass?

Why is it so easy to reduce the Celebration of the Eucharist for ministers to ritual  and be unconcerned with crying needs of real people?

c)The Eucharist; life of a humble Church.

Just before he died St Francis said in his Testament; “The Lord gave me, and gives me still, such faith in priests who love according to the rite of the holy Roman Church because of their orders that, were they to persecute me, I would still want to have recourse to them…  And I do not want to consider any sin in them because I discern the Son of God in them… And I act in this way because, in the world, I see nothing corporally of the most high Son of God except His most holy Body and Blood which they receive and they alone administer to others”.

It was the Church which brought the Eucharist to Francis and his love for priests was one expression of his reverence for it. Countless Franciscan saints saw in the church the body of Christ which gives us the Body of Christ. We remember the preaching of Anthony of Padua, Bernadine of Siena, John Capistran, Lawrence  of Brindisi, Leonard of Portmaurice and Cardinal William Massia.  One thinks of the Poor Clares living in enclosure to adore the Eucharist praying for the building up of the Church.

With the Dominicans for 400 years the Franciscan Order was THE mission order of the Church in China already in the 13th century, to India, Japan, Israel, and all  the lands of South and North America. Not so long ago we celebrate the 5th centenary of the Franciscan in South America.  Later with the Jesuits and for 200 years now with new missionary congregations the service of he Church continues.

In recent years the Church has had to suffer and as usual its greatest dangers have again come from within itself, often from its own priests. The spirit of the world, the spirit of appropriation, of material comfort has dulled the zeal and conscience of some.  In place of priests washing feet we are given a heavy, stifling clericalisation.   The Eucharist is a call to humility, a call to remember the humility of the One hidden behind bread and wine. Coming to the Lord in poverty we discover the great joy there is in meeting the richness of a generous God.

In South Africa with its 6,000 independent churches the presence of the Eucharist may seem to some to divide us; but it is a call to understand the gift Christ  has given us, a gift he wishes to offer to all, a gift based on faith and commitment to Him.

Rejection by the world, the disappearance of clericalism, the puncturing of false status is a call to find real nuggets of joy again – in humility, a humility so finely emphasized by Francis and so evident in the Eucharist.

The humility of the Eucharist does not attack wealth as such; rather it tells us, not to be satisfied with material things there- are many gems of beauty in the world to which wealth can make us blind.

A little boy who had been badly burned languished in hospital for many months. A kindly nurse took an interest in him.  Each day she spent hours with the little fellow telling him that he would indeed walk again, but he must try. And try he did. Hours went by each day until with the help of the nurse’s hand he was able to stand. But he would not let go her hand. He had no confidence in his little damaged legs. She would encourage him each day but he was too afraid to stand alone. She prayed for him, praised every effort and cajoled him. At the end of one day’s long trial and effort he slowly let go her hand and marvellously there he stood. He stood for thirty seconds and then fell back with a great expression of triumph on his pillow.  He had done it.

At that moment the nurse glanced at the T.V. where a medal ceremony of the Olympic games was taking place. An athlete received a gold medal while the flags of his country were raised, while the anathem was played and while the world acknowledged him. For the nurse the triumph of her little boy was for her a far greater joy than a thousand Olympic Medals.

There are great and beautiful moments in life, the Eucharist invites us to notice them.

d) Franciscan Eucharistic theology, the beauty of all Creation.

Francis saw in the Eucharist a confirmation of the sacredness of all creation. “ He rejoiced”, wrote his friend Thomas of Celano, “in all the works of the Lord’s hands.. In beautiful things he discerns Beauty itself; all good things cry out to Him; ‘the One who made us is the best”. 2 Celano

St Clare, that great Franciscan saint of the Eucharist prayed; “He is the One whose beauty all the heavenly hosts admire unceasingly, whose love inflames our love, whose contemplation is our refreshment….” How awesome are Clare’s dying words after her hidden life of poverty; “Thank you, My Lord, for having created me”

The insistence on the Eucharist as gift reminds us that all is gift. And the theology of Scotus makes Beauty a central moral category.

Gifted with the nourishment of the Lord’s Body and Blood through the instrumentality of humble bread and wine we should easily move to realize how the Lord nourishes our whole existence with all He has created.

e) The Eucharist a source of joy and hope and peace.

“How can anyone be lonely with Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament”, said the Franciscan Matt Talbot, a Dublin working man.  And St Francis; “ We should wish for nothing else and have no other desire , we should find no pleasure or delight in anything except our Creator, Redeemer, and Savior; He alone is true God, who is perfect good, all good, every good, the true and supreme good…”

There must be a sense of confidence and joy when one believes and knows that one lives with the God of supreme goodness and love and that He has chosen me, this individual and that He wishes to give Himself as gift constantly to me. Franciscan life has always had a certain gaiety, a simplicity and joy. The individual was important for Francis, for Scotus and for the community today.

The fioretti with Juniper, Leo, Masseo and Francis himself  is a religious high jinks unparalleled in religious life. The miracle plays, the processions, the celebrations, the liturgical functions, the popular missions and devotions brought lightness, excitement and holiness to generation after generation.

The emotions which most cripple joyful living today are fear, anger and resentment. What more could God have done to show us a medicine. In Africa so much belief is centered on witchcraft in different forms, much time and money is expanded in seeking remedies. Do we present the Holy Eucharist as the touch of Him for whom all things exist and by whom all things exist. Grounding the faithful’s vision and trust on such  a medicine should surely bring hope and peace.

Franciscan theology has always been affective. Let me conclude with the praise of St Margaret of Cortona; “ I am not surprised that the martyrs should have run to meet death, a smile upon their lips and  joy in their hearts. With the strength I acquire here at the tabernacle nothing would stop me and I should count for nothing the most atrocious tortures. What should I not do for love of my Jesus? With the children of Israel, I would sing in the fiery furnace; with Mary Magdalene I would cling to the foot of the cross; with St John I would plunge into the caldron of burning oil, with the martyrs I would not only steep my lips in the chalice of bitterness, but, if possible, die a thousand times daily for God; so great is the joy I feel here in his presence.”

William Slattery ofm

23 Sept 2009.


Posted in Bishops Corner.