In Donald Spoto"s book, The Reluctant Saint, he speaks of the historical context in which St Francis lived. "Ordinary or extraordinary, every life is simultaneously enriched and limited by historical circumstances; it is, therefore, impossible to comprehend the achievement and struggles...of any life without reference to the context of its immediate past...if St Francis had been completely dissociated from the world of his time (13th century Italy), he could never have had so profound an influence upon it." (1) European history of the 12th and 13th centuries is filled with swirling and dynamic social change. The continent had begun to arouse from the ignorant and impoverished years of feudal social structure of the preceding Dark Ages. Both Francis and Clare were favored by living in the city of Assisi which was actively involved in this progressive stream of consciousness and both were born to families of economic and social privilege. With such opportunities available to them, they could have enjoyed an expanding lifestyle of independence and wealth.
We, 21st century secular Franciscans, inhabit a world swirling with conflict and change very similar to that which Francis experienced. Our society wrestles with progress which challenges the status quo of governmental and religious authority, social value and morals, economic systems and a cascade of expanding information and scientific findings in the midst of a shrinking planet of human globalization. But in all such periods of human history, the revelation of God's love and purpose toward the whole creation has sought to be heard and be acknowledged in the lifestyle of each person. Francis and Clare discovered that "voice of God" for their lives and, in their response, we may discover ways to respond to the Divine Presence in each of our lives.
Francis would not have wished that those who follow his Christian lifestyle be known by the designation of "Franciscan". Yet we call ourselves "secular Franciscans" because we utilize examples from his life to help "flesh-out" a manner of living which reflects the teachings of Jesus Christ. We seek to follow the Gospel pattern of love and ministry which can be expressed in our 21st century social context. Francis' ultimate desire was to fully experience Jesus in his life and ministry. As followers of Jesus, this also should be our greatest desire and the foundation upon which our lives are built.
Upon reading the stories about Francis, it becomes obvious that the saint was a little man with a large and open heart; one filled with love and compassion for all creation around him. Yet, we also discover that he was a man of great "extremes" in behavior who could be very strict about the virtue of his actions and those of the brothers who followed him. Some of these examples of "extreme" behavior by Francis were triggered by his 13th century understanding of the world and its people, while some were conditioned by the accepted teachings and structure of his Roman Catholic Church. When we read about the lives of Francis and Clare, we need to remember that social and informational context in which they lived. It is very different from that which we currently experience.
And this leads me to the final thought which should always be kept in mind by modern secular Franciscans. Toward the end of Francis' life, he indicated to his followers that he had a very important "last teaching" for them. At that time Francis could tell them that he had lived and struggled with every fiber of his being to experience and express to others "that fullness of the presence of Jesus Christ" in his life. Now, as death was soon to close his earthly ministry, he wanted his followers to realize that it was "their time" to run a similar life course...their time and opportunity to fully experience and express the Gospel lifestyle to "their world". And such is true for those of us modern secular Franciscans. Our challenge and struggle is NOT to replicate that early Franciscan lifestyle but rather to take Francis' example and weld it with our understanding of Jesus' teaching ministry so that this can be manifested in our 21st century social environment. This is how Francis and Clare may continue to speak to our modern world by the manner in which we, modern secular Franciscans, live and love.
(1)Spoto,Donald; The Reluctant Saint, Penguin Compass Press 2001, p.13.