HIS PAST TUESDAY was the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. He has always had a very special place in my heart. St. Francis was introduced to me when I was very young. I have seen movies about him and read his stories many times. And when I grew up, I went to Franciscan University of Steubenville which is run by the Franciscan TOR friars.
St. Francis is often accused of being a “hippie” because of his love for nature and his “free spirit.” But when it comes to the liturgy, he is definitely very straight and only offers the best to God. A good example would be the Portiuncula chapel outside of Assisi that St. Francis rebuilt. If Francis was a “liturgical hippie” as people said, he wouldn’t have built the chapel and the Franciscans would be worshiping in caves. But instead of celebrating the Mass in a cave, St. Francis rebuilt the Portiuncula with the best material (not to mention that it actually looks like a church instead of a rocket).
Another example demonstrating the love St. Francis had for the liturgy is how he and his brothers adopted the Old Roman Liturgy as the rite of their order. When the pope asked Francis which western rite the Franciscan would like to adopt, the saint decided to take the Old Roman Rite even though the Galican Rite was the most popular liturgy at the time. Because of his decision, the Roman Rite was preserved and the Church Fathers of the Council of Trent were able to “make Roman Rite great again.”
ROFESSOR NICHOLAS WILL, one of my teachers when I was studying for my undergrad degree in sacred music at Franciscan University of Steubenville, was interviewed by the National Catholic Register a few days ago. The full article entitled, Revealing the Real Music of St. Francis of Assisi, can be found here.
I was very surprised by the last part of the interview. The last question is: “Was St. Francis involved in polyphony?” And the answer to that question is “Yes.” Professor Will says paintings from the Basilica of St. Francis may indicate that polyphony was part of the Franciscans life because the friars are depicted singing with their mouths forming different vowels. I never expected that Franciscan friars may have been contributors to the development of the polyphonic music!
Here’s what Will said in the interview regarding Francis and polyphony:
Saint Francis very well could have been a practitioner and admirer of sacred polyphony. It was still in its early stages in his time, but frescoes from the Basilica of St. Francis may indicate that polyphony was part of early Franciscan life. Friars are depicted singing with their mouths forming different vowels. This would seem to indicate they were not all singing the same part, but would have been singing independent vocal lines simultaneously—a hallmark of polyphony. It seems safe to say that, even if St. Francis himself didn’t participate in polyphony, at least some of his early friars (many of whom were musicians) did.
So, when someone accuses St. Francis of being a “liturgical hippie”—or create some sort of “spirit of St. Francis”—we won’t be confused again. St. Francis loved the Church’s liturgy and gave to God the very best.
Editor’s Note :
It’s worth considering what St. Francis wrote in his Epistola ad clericos about the Mass:
Let us all consider, O clerics, the great sin and ignorance of which some are guilty regarding the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and His most holy Name and the written words of consecration. For we know that the Body cannot exist until after these words of consecration. For we have nothing and we see nothing of the Most High Himself in this world except [His] Body and Blood, names and words by which we have been created and redeemed from death to life.
But let all those who administer such most holy mysteries, especially those who do so indifferently, consider among themselves how poor the chalices, corporals, and linens may be where the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ is sacrificed. And by many It is left in wretched places and carried by the way disrespectfully, received unworthily and administered to others indiscriminately. Again His Names and written words are sometimes trampled under foot, for the sensual man perceiveth not these things that are of God. Shall we not by all these things be moved with a sense of duty when the good Lord Himself places Himself in our hands and we handle Him and receive Him daily? Are we unmindful that we must needs fall into His hands?
Let us then at once and resolutely correct these faults and others; and wheresoever the most holy Body of our Lord Jesus Christ may be improperly reserved and abandoned, let It be removed thence and let It be put and enclosed in a precious place. In like manner wheresoever the Names and written words of the Lord may be found in unclean places they ought to be collected and put away in a decent place. And we know that we are bound above all to observe all these things by the commandments of the Lord and the constitutions of holy Mother Church. And let him who does not act thus know that he shall have to render an account therefore before our Lord Jesus Christ on the day of judgment. And let him who may cause copies of this writing to be made, to the end that it may be the better observed, know that he is blessed by the Lord.
ALSO : Could St. Francis of Assisi read music? Probably! Before his conversion, he grew up as a member of a rich and prominent family. At that time, the education of a nobleman would have included how to read music. That was considered “normal” for anyone in a wealthy family—in addition to astronomy, philosophy, and many other subjects. It would not be surprising if St. Francis could indeed read music.