Folks are sometimes amused when I tell them that I first met St. Francis in a history class. It was the spring semester of my sophomore year of college. He grabbed me right away. Presented as someone who opted out of the emerging capitalist economy, Francis appealed to the punk rock kid who wanted to critique and drop out of the 'system.' But he was also an intensely Catholic Christian and so appealed to my emerging desire to become a catechumen.
At that moment, not yet having consented to God's invitation to baptism within his Catholic Church, I had found my first Francis.
Over the years I've encountered other Francises. Just two years after that semester I found myself as a senior in college, filled with the vainglorious zeal that told me I was going to be a Franciscan friar. I talked to vocation directors and went on vocation weekends. I remember having in my Shorter Christian Prayer two different holy cards of Francis I had received from different vocation directors. One had Francis standing in a field with a serene expression, surrounded by happy-looking animals. The other showed Francis praying in a ragged habit with a look of devout anguish on his face. Two more Francises were presented to me for my discernment.
Which is the real St. Francis? All of them, I suppose, and none.
Sometimes the assertions we make about St. Francis say more about ourselves than they do about him.
For me, the further I go in my little journey as a Franciscan, Francis himself seems to become more obscure. Who is this funny man of thirteenth-century Umbria? A irresponsible adolescent, a failed soldier, a bad son, a bold religious experimenter, a mystic of intense prayer, a stigmatic, a hapless founder of a movement to which he bequeathed a beautiful but near-impracticable dream that leaves us his followers either in a happy state of semper reformanda or an eternal fractiousness, depending on what side you're on and how you decide to look at it.
When people tell me about Francis as if he were the patron saint of 'faithfulness to the magisterium' I wonder about Francis's seeming unwillingness to take up any accepted or respectable form of religious life. When they tell me about Francis the tree-hugging, peaceful hippie, I think of him saying that guardians should chain up brothers who don't say their Office. There are so many Francises. Francis 'the man of the council.' Francis in solidarity with the outcast from society. Francis loyal to the Pope. Francis the critic of hierarchical power. Francis the ecologist. Francis the alter Christus.
Who is my Francis now? I'm not sure. He's all of these. But he's somewhat more mysterious than all of them, and gets more mysterious over the years. But it's a mystery I still want to follow. Because even if can't always articulate it, his way is the best way I can see for me to become a disciple of Jesus Christ.