St. Francis and His Revolution

By Robert Ludlow and James Meyer


Editor’s Note: The following article was adapted from Robert Ludlow’s “St. Francis and His Revolution,” which appeared as an editorial in THE CATHOLIC WORKER (January 1953, and reprinted in Thomas Cornell and James Forest [eds.], A PENNY A COPY, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1968, pp. 150-154) and James Meyer, SOCIAL IDEALS OF ST. FRANCIS, St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1938. Numbers in brackets refer to pages in the Meyer book.]

Those who place their hopes in political means … might do well to pause in this busy world of ours and think somewhat on St. Francis of Assisi and the method of St. Francis. “St. Francis,” states Father James Meyer, “effected his revolution on an entirely different field. To effect the change he did not kill a single human being, he sequestered not a single man’s property, closed up not one man’s business, inaugurated no new banking policy, initiated not a single repressive measure, wrote not a single law into the codes of the day,” … . St. Francis , who eschewed violence and politics, was more instrumental in effecting the downfall of an undesirable social system, than any politicians of his day, or any committees, or any organized group of dissidents. [27] Says Father Meyer, “Francis struck at the iniquity of it – especially with two provisions of the rule of the Third Order. One was the provision that the Tertiaries must not bear arms, the other was that Tertiaries must bind themselves with no oath, except where duly constituted authority rightfully required it.” [37] And it must be remembered that literally thousands of lay people joined the Third Order, so much so that the feudal lords were besides themselves with wrath and appealed to Rome to stop this madness. This madness which deprived them of serfs because the Third Order members refused to bear arms or take oaths of fealty to the lords. …

Of St. Francis, Father Meyer adds: “Coercion … of another person against the latter’s convictions was as repugnant to him as sin. Violence had no appeal to him, not even against the Saracen or bandit. Similarly, whatever amounted to compulsion, such as reducing his neighbor to a plight where self preservation demanded his surrender to terms, was odious to him … .” [33] He was similarly opposed to repressive measures “because when you use violent repressive measures, you challenge secret resentment; what the victims cannot do in public they do in secret.” [25]

St. Francis realized that reform cannot be a mass produced affair. [10] What did he do? How did he come to head a movement?

By dint of minding his own business! [27]

His first and consuming thought was of doing the thing that should be done by himself – not getting the other fellow to do it, much less of making the other fellow do it against his will. [28]

That is the lesson of the life of St. Francis. That is the nub of the Franciscan way of life. [30] It consists in knowing to the full our responsibilities and carrying them out regardless of cost to ourselves and regardless of what anybody else may do. [43] Thus we end these pages where we began them – with the stress on individual effort. [112]

[Editor’s Addendum: The method of St. Francis surfaced as the Three Point Program in 1936: “The Tertiary resolves (1) To commit no sin of heart or hand for the sake of goods of fortune. (2) To observe moderation in acquiring and enjoying all goods of fortune. (3) To share his goods of fortune with God and neighbor – … .” [12] It is highly reminiscent of Albert Jay Nock’s patient and quiet way of changing society: The only thing that can be done to improve society is “to present society with one improved unit. In a word, ages of experience testify that the only way society can be improved is by the individualist method …; that is, the method of each one doing his very best to improve one.” Or as Voltaire put it in CANDIDE: “Cultivate your own garden.” See Albert Jay Nock, MEMOIRS OF A SUPERFLUOUS MAN, New York: Harper Brothers, 1943, Chapter XVI, Section 1, page 307.]

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