Soldier Saints: Francis of Assisi
Resurrection is counting down to Veteran's Day by featuring Soldier Saints. Logan Isaac created this countdown as a way for churches to support and welcome veterans. The excerpt below is reposted by permission from Logan's book For God and Country [in that order], © 2013 Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Va.
Francis is well known for his work reforming the Roman Catholic Church after a vision he had at a church in San Damiano, Italy. Jesus appeared to him, saying, “Francis, repair my church.”
He became an advocate for the poor, preached to the animals, and even tried to convert an Egyptian sultan. He founded a religious order once his mendicant followers became too numerous, pleading his cause for the “Order of Friars Minor” before the Vatican, and apparently shaming church hierarchy by his audacious acts of charity toward the poor. So many voluntarily destitute friars only highlighted the opulence of the Roman Catholic Church; the Vatican did not need this attention.
Today, Francis is widely known as the founder of the Franciscans, friars and priests committed to living the Rule of Saint Francis, including a vow of poverty. He is one of the most famous saints, in part because his order is so large.
Francis is also popular among military chaplains, and it is not uncommon to see a prayer attributed to him adorning their offices. The famous Prayer of Saint Francis begins with “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” (1) He even apparently has his own military weapons arsenal installation in St. Augustine, Florida!
It should not surprise us that Francis is associated with the military. After all, he was a soldier, having participated in a military campaign against the Italian town of Perugia in 1201 CE.2
The episode ended tragically, as Francis was taken as a prisoner of war, one of only nine survivors from Assisi. He was released by ransom, but he would never be the same. He was known to have trouble sleeping because of nightmares, people witnessed him talking to himself or to animals, and he had anxiety issues. He was not unlike many war-weary veterans in our own day.
Then again in 1204, he set his feet upon the road to war, this time toward the Fourth Crusade. He hoped to return a prince, with all the glory and prestige afforded knights who returned safely from the Crusades.
He returned with a different kind of crown entirely. Just a few days out from Assisi, Francis had a strange vision that convinced him to literally turn his back on the battlefield. Leaving the promise of glory behind him, he pursued the Prince of Peace and settled for rags over riches.
But he never turned his back on his fellow soldiers. In fact, eight of the first ten men who followed him in his life of poverty were veterans of the same campaigns in which he fought. (3)
He is known for his work with animals, often retreating to the wilderness to preach to the flora and fauna. Every October, many churches bless their animals, as Francis was thought to have blessed the beasts of the field.
But there is another way to see this. Veterans rehabilitation groups now offer low-cost “emotional support animals” to help traumatized veterans recovering from the hidden wounds of war. This begs the question of Francis: was he blessing the animals, or were they blessing him?
Francis’s ties to war were great, and are often overlooked. But he was a soldier through and through. Like military leaders in todays armed forces, he never asked his followers to do anything he himself had not already done-whether fasting or begging for alms.
His loyalty to the church to which he belonged was learned in the fiery fields of battle with which he was familiar. One of the most recognized religious figures in history was not just a pious man; he was a soldier saint, a true reflection of God in our broken world.
God of the earth and everything on it, you gave us your servant Francis, who brought your glory to all the world and all who live in it. May we, by his example, come to a greater thankfulness for your creation, the beauty of the land, and our fellow creatures that walk, swim, and fly therein. Keep our hand from war as you did with brave Francis. Convict our hearts to love the flora and fauna as readily as we do our fellow human beings. Strengthen our efforts at peace, both before violence breaks out and after it subsides. Help us to care equally for those we send and those we receive, that we may honor the created dignity of their lives as we honor the life of this, your most holy servant, with the help of your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.
1. See page 188 for more on this peculiar prayer and its military related background.
2. According to Jeff Matsler, a military chaplain and a classmate of mine, the campaign was actually a small Crusade declared by the pope after the merchants of Assisi rebelled by refusing to pay certain taxes. Their archenemy, a city across the river called Perugia, was only too happy to indulge. Jeff’s presentation “Post Traumatic Saint: Understanding Healing and Resiliency Through the Life of Saint Francis of Assisi,” was released December 6, 2012, iTunesU: https ://itunes.apple.com/us/itunes-u/milites-christi/id477245098.
3. This figure, eight of the first ten of his followers, was cited by Chaplain Matsler in his presentation, which none of the three history professors in attendance disputed.