By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Oct 4, 2018)
In the High Middle Ages, the theme of the merciful love of God was certainly not the exclusive property of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, and the Dominicans. The early Franciscans also contributed to the Church’s meditations on Divine Mercy in their own distinctive way.
For example, we know from The Life of St. Francis, written by St. Bonaventure (1217-1274), that one of the divine perfections that St. Bonaventure saw most clearly reflected in St. Francis of Assisi was the Divine Mercy. Bonaventure writes the following lines in the very “Prologue” to the biography:
In these latter days the grace of God our Savior has appeared in his servant Francis to all who are truly humble and lovers of holy poverty. In him they can venerate God’s superabundant mercy, and be taught by his example to live in conformity with Christ, and to thirst after blessed hope with unflagging desire.
Later in the same work, St. Bonaventure tells us that one of the principal intentions of St. Francis’s own prayers was pleading for mercy upon the world, on the basis of the sorrowful passion of Jesus Christ (chapter 10, section 4):
When the man of God was left alone and at peace, he would fill the groves with sighs, sprinkle the ground with tears, striking his breast with his fist, and having found there a kind of secret hiding place, would converse with his Lord. There he would answer his Judge, there he would entreat his Father, there he would entertain his Friend; and there also on several occasions the friars who were devoutly observing him heard him groan aloud, imploring the divine mercy for sinners and weeping for the Lord’s passion as if it were before his eyes.
Still later in his biography, St. Bonaventure tells the story of the words of St. Francis about Divine Mercy to a hardened sinner that brought about the man’s conversion (chapter 11, section 6):
Another time, a noble woman, devoted to God, came to the saint to explain her trouble to him and ask for help. She had a very cruel husband who opposed her serving Christ. So she begged the saint to pray for him so that God in His goodness would soften his heart. When [St. Francis] heard this he said to her: “Go in peace, and without any doubt be assured that your husband will soon be a comfort to you.” And he added: “Tell him on God’s part and on my own, that now is the time of mercy, and afterwards of justice.” After receiving a blessing, the woman went home, found her husband and delivered the message. The Holy Spirit came upon him (Acts 10:44) making him a new man and inducing him to answer with gentleness: “My lady, let us serve the lord and save our souls.” At the suggestion of his holy wife, they lived a celibate life for many years, and both passed away to the Lord on the same day.
We know from other sources that the message of Divine Mercy was also on the mind of St. Francis at the time of his death. In a biography entitled Francis of Assisi: The Man Who Found Perfect Joy (Sophia Institute Press), Michael de la Bedoyere tells how, as Francis lay dying, he asked his brethren to sing with him the “Canticle of the Sun” that he had composed in praise of the Creator.
Brother Elias, seated by his side, protested: “Should you not keep recollected and silent?” Saint Francis replied (p. 302): “O let me rejoice in God, and in praising Him in all my sufferings, since by a wonderful grace, I feel myself so close to my Lord that, in the knowledge of His mercy, I can sing again.” As the litter on which he lay was carried out in sight of the city of Assisi, Francis offered up this prayer (p. 315-316):
Lord, whereas this city was in olden times a place inhabited by wicked men, I see now that through Your great mercy, in Your own good time, You have been merciful to it more than to other cities. You have chosen it to be the home of those who acknowledge and give glory to Your holy Name. It is giving the world an example of good report, saintly life, full and pure teaching, and of evangelical perfection. I ask You then, my Lord Jesus Christ, Father of all mercy, to overlook our ingratitude, and always to bear in mind Your great pity, that the city should forever be the home of those who truly know Thee and glorify Thy blessed Name forever and ever. Amen.
The Little Flowers of St. Francis
If we turn from these relatively reliable sources on the life of St. Francis to the early legends told about him, as recorded in the delightful 14th century collection known as the “Fioretti,” or “The Little Flowers of St. Francis,” we find several touching and beautiful stories about Divine Mercy. Although some of this material is indeed legendary, it is also traceable in part back to oral testimony from some of the earliest companions of the saint. Thus, the whole collection breathes something of the childlike spirit of the early friars: poor mendicants who lived as “holy fools” for the love of Christ Jesus.
Three examples from The Little Flowers of St. Francis will suffice. In each of these examples, the Merciful love of God — manifest in His willingness to forgive sins — is the central theme.
The first is entitled “How St. Francis taught Friar Leo to answer, and how he was never able to speak except to say the opposite of what St. Francis desired” (Chapter 9):
Once, in the beginning of the Order, St. Francis was with Friar Leo in a place where they had no books for saying the Divine Office. When the hour of matins came, St. Francis said to Friar Leo, “Most dear companion, we have no breviary with which we can say matins, but so that we may spend the time in the praise of God, I will speak and you shall answer as I will teach you. See to it that you do not change the words in any way other than I shall teach you. I will say thus: ‘O Friar Francis, you have done so many evils and so many sins in the world that you are worthy of hell,’ and you shall answer, ‘It is true that you deserve the lowest place in hell.’”
Friar Leo, with dove-like simplicity replied, “Willingly, father. Begin in the name of God.” Then St. Francis began to say, “Friar Francis, you have done so many evils and so many sins in the world, that you are worthy of hell.” And Friar Leo answered, “God shall do so much good through you that, as a result, you shall go to Paradise.” St. Francis said, “That isn’t what you should say, Friar Leo, but when I say, ‘Friar Francis, you have done so many wicked things against God, that you are worthy to be accursed from God,’ answer thus: ‘Truly you are worthy to be sent among the accursed.’” And Friar Leo answered, “Willingly, father.”
Then St. Francis, with many tears and sighs and beatings of the breast, said with a loud voice, “O my Lord of heaven and earth, I have committed so many wicked deeds and so many sins against You that I am altogether worthy to be accursed from You.” Friar Leo answered, “O Friar Francis, God will make you so that among the blessed you shall be singularly blessed.” Now St. Francis, marvelling that Friar Leo answered contrary to that he had bidden him, rebuked him saying, “Why do you not answer as I teach you? I will speak thus: ‘O Friar Francis, miserable sinner, think you that God will have mercy upon you, seeing that you have committed so many sins against the Father of Mercy?’ And you Friar Leo, little sheep, shall answer, ‘In no way are you worthy to find mercy.’” But afterward, when St. Francis said, “O Friar Francis, miserable sinner,” etc., Friar Leo answered, “God the Father, whose mercy is infinitely greater than your sin, will show you such great mercy, and beyond that will give you much grace.”
At this reply, St. Francis, sweetly angered and patiently upset, said to Friar Leo, “And how is it that you have had the presumption to act against your vow of obedience and have already so many times replied contrary to what I have commanded you?” Friar Leo answered very humbly and reverently, “God knows, my father, that each time I resolved in my heart to answer as you have bidden me, but God makes me speak as pleases Him, and not according to what pleases me.”
At this St. Francis marvelled and said to Friar Leo, “I beseech you very lovingly that this time you answer me as I have told you.” Friar Leo answered, “Speak, in the name of God, because you can be sure that this time I will answer as you would have me.”And St. Francis, weeping, said, “O Friar Francis, miserable sinner, think you that God will have mercy upon you?” Friar Leo answered, “Yea, and not only so, but great grace shall you receive from God, and He shall exalt you and shall glorify you forever, because whoever humbles himself shall be exalted, and I cannot speak otherwise in that God speaks through my mouth.” And in this way, in that humble strife, with many tears and much spiritual consolation, they kept watch until daybreak.
Our second example is taken from Chapter 26, and describes how St. Francis converted three robbers by preaching to them about God’s mercy:
“Let us go,” said one [of the robbers], “to St. Francis, and if he gives us hope that we may be able to turn from our sins to the mercy of God, let us do that which he commands us, if by so doing we may deliver our souls from the pains of hell.” This counsel was pleasing to the others, and so all three of them being agreed, they went in haste to St. Francis and spoke to him thus, “Father, by reason of the many horrible sins which we have committed, we do not believe that we can turn to the mercy of God. But if you have any hope that God will receive us with mercy, indeed we are ready to do what you shall bid us, and to do penance with you.”
Then St. Francis received them lovingly and benignly, with many examples, assuring them of the mercy of God and promising them that of a certainty he would obtain it for them from God, showing them that the mercy of God is infinite, and even if our sins were infinite, the mercy of God is greater than our sins, according to the Gospel. St. Paul the Apostle said, “Christ the blessed came into the world to redeem sinners.”
Through these words and similar teachings, the three robbers renounced the devil and his works. St. Francis received them into the Order, and they began to do great penance.
Our final example comes from Chapter 45 of The Little Flowers of St. Francis, and tells how a certain Friar Matthew relieved a soul of an inordinate fear of damnation:
What vexed [Friar John] worst of all was that a demon stood ever before him, holding in his hand a great scroll on which were written all the sins he had ever done or thought. It spoke to him continually, saying, “For these sins which you have committed in thought, word, and deed, you are condemned to the depths of hell.” And he began not to remember the good things he had done, or that he was in the Order, or that he had ever been in it; and eventually he truly believed that he was damned, even as the demon had told him. Whenever he was asked how he fared, he answered, “Ill, for I am damned.”
Now when the friars saw this, they sent for an aged friar, who was called Friar Matthew of Monte Rubbiano. He was a holy man, and a great friend of Friar John’s. Friar Matthew came to him on the seventh day of his affliction and saluted him. He asked him how he fared, to which he replied that he fared ill because he was damned. Then Friar Matthew said, “Do you not remember that I have often heard your confession and that I have wholly absolved you of all your sins? Do you not remember that you have been serving God in this holy Order for many years? Further, do you not remember that the mercy of God is greater than all the sins of the world, and that Christ the Blessed, our Savior, paid to redeem us at an infinite price? Be of good hope that for certain you are saved.”
While he was speaking, since the period of Friar John’s purgation was now ended, the temptation left him, and consolation came unto him. Then Friar John spoke to Friar Matthew with great joy, saying, “Because you are weary and the hour is late, I pray you go and take some rest.” Although Friar Matthew did not want to leave him, in the end, after much urging, he left him and went to lie down. Friar John remained alone with the friar who was caring for him. Suddenly Christ the Blessed came with great splendor and with an exceedingly great fragrance, just as He had promised him that He would appear to him a second time when he had greater need of it. He healed him thoroughly of all his sicknesses. Then Friar John, with clasped hands, gave thanks to God, because he had brought the long journey of the present miserable life to so fair an ending. Commending his soul into the hands of Christ and yielding it up to God, he passed from this mortal life to the eternal life with Christ the Blessed, whom he had so long waited for and desired to behold.