The Limits of Franciscanism

The Limits of Franciscanism

Ryan Savitz & Vince Riley 


The tradition of St. Francis is grounded in the love and respect for all creation. This love and respect is frequently characterized by gentle affection. There are other times, however, when the best way to offer love and respect another human being involves a certain level of discipline, disagreement, and/or rebuke. We explore the limits of Franciscanism in this article. Specifically, we will discuss the types of situations where the Franciscan approach is not entirely gentle and soft and how, in these situations, we may appropriately temper our love and respect with correction and character building. Our discussion is inspired by our years as college educators, and we explore the aforementioned limits using Biblical and extra-Biblical sources.


St. Francis was born in Assisi, Italy, in approximately 1182. After spending a period of time in Perugia as a prisoner of war, he returns to Assisi in 1203. In 1205, he departs for Apulia to join an army defending the papacy of Innocent III against the Empire, perhaps hoping to earn a knighthood. He suddenly becomes ill, and returns to Assisi a greatly changed man.[1] Following his return home, St. Francis no longer finds the same type of meaning in the worldly pleasures that he had previously enjoyed. Rather, he develops a zeal and love for all of creation, more than simply for himself. According to Thomas of Celano, it is at this time, that Francis hears a call from God to “repair my [God’s] house. As you see it is all being destroyed.”[2] Francis develops a philosophy that may be referred to as biocentric.[3] More specifically, Francis develops a deep respect and reverence for all living things.

At this point, we briefly pause to provide some context for this article. The theme of this article was inspired by a situation where a student presented with a history of unusual behavior. At first, this student was given an academic accommodation and opportunities to make up for their academic shortcomings. Eventually, however, it was seen that an element of academic dishonesty was most likely a factor. It was, at this point, that accommodation needed to morph into correction. In this article, we will first briefly discuss some core Franciscan values, and the most common ways in which the Franciscan tradition is typically viewed. After that, we will discuss the limits of Franciscanism, and when Franciscan Christian values may compel us to act in ways that are not popularly associated with the Franciscan tradition.

Core Franciscan Values

While there is no “official” list of core Franciscan values, the key themes are widely agreed upon. At Neumann University, where the authors are employed, these values are considered to be reverence, integrity, service, excellence, and stewardship.[4] Similarly, at Marian University, the core values are listed as human dignity, peace and justice, reconciliation, and stewardship.[5] As can be seen, there is a great similarity between these two universities’ interpretations of the key values of the Franciscan tradition and this can easily be seen to be the general trend when investigating the interpretations of various Franciscan institutions and organizations.

In the introduction to their study of the attitudes and spirituality of 388 Franciscan brothers and sisters, Büssing and his colleagues adopt the definition of compassion as “a feeling for and as another person which leads to caring intentions to alleviate the suffering of others.”[6] Their study shows that these contemporary Franciscans understand “Compassion” in terms of “Peaceful Attitude/Respectful Treatment” and Gratitude/Awe.”

Franciscan values are often encapsulated in words like respect and dignity. Treating others with respect and dignity is generally done in a manner characterized by reverence, peace, acceptance, and accommodation. While this is generally the case, there are situations where the best way to respect the dignity of a human being involves some degree of correction or rebuke. In the next section of this article, we look at how this can be done in a Franciscan manner that simultaneously shows respect for the human while obeying God’s law above all else.

“Limits” of Franciscanism

The word “Franciscan” for many of our colleagues conveys the “warm and fuzzy” thoughts associated with Franciscan values. However, the word “limits” in the heading of this section may be easily misconstrued. In this section, we do not so much look at the limits of Franciscanism, but, rather, we look at how, under certain circumstances, Franciscan values may best be lived out in ways that are not commonly or popularly understood as “Franciscan.” More specifically, we will look at how St. Francis was able to correct, admonish, and rebuke in a loving manner, and the Biblical principles that support these actions.

To begin, it is noted in the Legend of the Three Companions that St. Francis lives and suffers with his fellow brothers.[7] Given this constant closeness, it is only natural that he sees instances where a brother might experience, or even give in to, some sort of temptation. At these times, we are told, St. Francis deals with a brother “not as a judge, but as a merciful father.”[8] Nevertheless, we are also told, that, when necessary, Francis rebukes delinquent brothers and imposes suitable punishment. This fraternal correction can be considered an outgrowth of Francis’ servant leadership, under the characteristics of listening, empathy, healing, and awareness.[9]  

What makes a punishment suitable is a matter of judgment. This way in which Francis and the brothers live alongside one another can be described by the word considerare, which means “to sit with” as well as “to reflect upon.” Consideration of others is an essential element of Franciscanism. The sort of familial love the brothers feel for each other allowed for fraternal correction, for appropriate rebuke and punishment. Indeed, imposing a suitable punishment without knowing the entire story would be impossible. Above all, as St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, himself a Franciscan leader, preaches to us in his “Morning Sermon on St. Francis” (1255) that a spirit of meekness is required to make correct judgments and, in this spirit of meekness, it is possible to impose a correct punishment.[10]  

There are two important things to note in the above anecdote from the Legend of the Three Companions. First, all that Francis does, he does with love and mercy. Second, despite his love and mercy, Francis does use rebuke (with consequences) when necessary. This follows the admonition of Solomon in Proverbs 27:5 that “better is an open rebuke than hidden love.”[11]  Fourteen centuries later, Augustine of Hippo echoes these sentiments in his letter to Vincentius that “it is better with severity to love than with gentleness to deceive.”[12]

Such holy rebuke can be seen to have good consequences. As we read in The Assisi Compilation, the brothers develop a tradition of embracing and kissing the feet of anyone they might have insulted.[13] Similarly, The Little Flowers of Saint Francis recounts a story in which Brother Bernard, a former lawyer and the first follower of St. Francis, asks him that “every time that we’re together you [must] rebuke and correct me severely for my shortcomings.”[14] Moreover, this request comes after the Saint requires Brother Bernard to rebuke him regularly and severely so that Francis could grow in humility. These responses to correction are true acts of humility and repentance, and may have developed out of the discipline that Francis instills in the brothers. This humility and repentance also reflect the Apostle Paul’s direction to acknowledge “those who care for you in the Lord and admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work” (1 Thess 5:12-13).

Thomas of Celano records a second of example of learning through discipline in the correction of a brother who handles money.[15] In this story, a brother transfers some money that a worshiper had placed by the cross onto the windowsill (such handling of money was against the brothers’ rules). Francis rebukes the offending brother, who has voluntarily confessed his misdeed, and orders that brother to pick the money up with his mouth and place it on a donkey’s manure pile. Upon seeing this, all of the brothers are struck with fear and contempt of the offending brother’s sin. In this instance, not only does rebuke teach the offender a lesson but, additionally, instructs the whole community. This provides an example of how both sin and sanctification can spread through a community.

While it is beyond the scope of this article to get into a discussion of soteriology, we can see examples of how invitations toward salvation propagate in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. In the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, a wealthy young man (a rich official in Luke) asks Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life. Jesus first responds by saying to keep the commandments. When the young man responds that he already does that, Jesus tells him that if he wants to be perfect, he should sell what he has, give to the poor, and come follow Him.[16] In Acts 16, the jailer who originally imprisoned Paul and Silas asks Paul what he must do to be saved. Paul and Silas answer him by saying “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved – you and your household.” The salvation that spreads throughout the jailer’s household anticipates the new attitude that spread among the Franciscan brotherhood seen in the story of the brother who handled money.

It is also important to note again that St. Francis acts out of love when correcting others, but also makes this fact clear to those being corrected. In fact, some of the stories reveal that Francis corrects his brothers for being too hard on themselves, for practicing austerities that are too severe. The Legend of the Three Companions testifies to this:

"Moreover, the pious father used to reprove his brothers who to him were too austere, exerting too much effort in those vigils, fasts, and corporal punishments. Some of them afflicted themselves so harshly to repress within them every impulse of the flesh, that they seemed to hate themselves. The man of God forbade them, admonishing them with kindness, reprimanding them with reason, and binding up their wounds with the bandages of wholesome precepts."[17]

Sometimes in order to reveal the error but not embarrass or disrespect the person in error, Francis chooses to use humor or “playfulness” – as Michael Redington calls it in his paper on servant leadership[18] – to make his point, acting as God’s fool.

For example, one very popular story from a Middle Ages’ lives of the saints titled The Golden Legend which was written by the Dominican brother Jacopo de Voragine relates how Francis, seeing that his fraternity is in danger of violating their poverty and humility by giving themselves an Easter meal with tablecloths and glassware, borrows a beggar’s hood and staff, and begins pounding on the outside door while the brothers are eating, crying to be admitted. After he is admitted, he sits on the floor with his plate on the ashes and admonishes his brothers “I saw a table set and made ready, and I know it is not the table of poor men begging from door to door.”[19] This type of the “holy fool” or “fool-saint” who humiliates himself publicly in order to teach, correct, and share insight or wisdom with others without humiliating them is especially well-known in the Eastern Rite and Orthodox churches, but also in other religions, such as Islam, with its tales of Goha and the Nasreddin stories.

In the Bible, some of the Jewish prophets are also noteworthy for their apparently foolish actions: Isaiah preaches naked for three years (Is 20) as a sign of the shame and captivity that the people of Judah will face. For days, Jeremiah walks the temple courts in Jerusalem with a wooden yoke on his shoulders signifying the coming servitude to Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon (Jer 27-28). Ezekiel lies on his side for more than a year to symbolize the coming siege of Jerusalem (Ezek 4).

Francis and especially his early follower Brother Juniper are sometimes Western Christian examples of such fool-saints. Since Eastern Christian customs were still well-established in Italy at that time, as demonstrated by the icons of the San Damiano cross, perhaps Francis was familiar with stories of fool-saints. In any case, Francis knew his Bible, and the stories of the prophets.

Even when Francis appears to foolishly resign his “leadership” of the Order of Lesser Brothers in 1220, and surrenders it to Peter Catanio, it may be that he chooses this course of action to practice “servant leadership” by modeling humility and obedience to his brothers, many of whom were backsliding from the original Franciscan values.[20]

Another story recounts Francis’ apparently foolish but courteous “correction” of a prince of the Church, Cardinal Ugolino, who had been designated the Protector of the Order of Friars Minor. Brother Angelo Clareno relates this story in his Book of Chronicles (Prologue and the First Tribulation), when the future Pope Gregory IX finishes saying Mass for the brothers and the people of Assisi and decides to preach a little more:

"Before leaving, the Lord Cardinal preached the word of God to all there, both the brothers who had gathered in a great multitude for the chapter, to the devout persons there, and the people of the city of Assisi. He was a wise man and led a good and upright life. After wisely, eloquently, and effectively preaching for the edification of souls and the correction of conduct, at the end of his sermon he turned to complimenting, commending, and praising the brothers. He extolled their life and perfection with repeated praise, in an effort to attract and inflame all the people present to reverence and respect for the brothers and their holy religion. When the sermon was finished, Francis knelt before the Lord Cardinal and asked both for his blessing and his permission to say a few words to the brothers and the people in his presence. Having received the blessing, he spoke to all of them: "Out of the great good will and charity he shows to everyone, especially toward my brothers and religion, our revered Father the Lord Cardinal has been greatly deceived. He supposes and believes that there is great holiness in us, unique virtue, and love of perfection. But it would not be right for us to provide the occasion for falsehood and lies. Both you and he would be deceived if you believed in that perfection and excellence that he preached to you about us: it would be an occasion of harm and great danger, both to you and to us. We are ungrateful to God for our vocation; we do not have the works and accomplishments of real poor and humble men, or real lesser Brothers, and we are not striving to have them as we promised. I have only one wish: that the Lord Cardinal and all of you may know the works, words, and desires which Lesser Brothers ought to have and demonstrate, so that you are not deceived about them, and they may not deceive and mislead themselves and you as well."[21]

The fact that the same human beings are simultaneously in need of correction and deserving of praise may be related to the mystery that all humans are simultaneously sinful and created in the image of a Holy God.

An important common thread runs through all of the preceding stories. Namely, all correction that is given should be done in a manner that is appropriate for the situation, and with love, humility and the intention of drawing the individual closer to God.


In this article, we examined the ways in which Franciscanism may be lived out in ways that are not usually associated with Franciscanism in the popular imagination. Specifically, we looked at how correction and rebuke are sometimes necessary, and how correction may be given in a manner that is consistent with the Franciscan ethos.

Rebuke, correction, and discipline may not be the first words that occur to most people when they think of the Franciscan tradition. That said, we have seen several instances where St. Francis himself, as well as his brothers and companions, uses rebuke, correction, and discipline when necessary. The key characteristics of the ways in which this rebuke, correction, and discipline are employed are as follows. First, Franciscan rebuke must follow the Biblical principle that it is, at times, better to openly rebuke someone than to love them quietly, if this person is clearly in error (Prov 27:5). Indeed, it would not be loving to allow a person to continue on an erroneous path without letting them know that we love them too much to let them proceed on a path that might lead them away from God. Second, it is important that all discipline is given from a place of meekness.[22] It is important that discipline not be done out of ego or a sense of superiority. Next, punishments and consequences that are imposed should only be given with complete knowledge of the individual and the circumstances surrounding the situation. This emphasizes the notion of considerare, which stresses the importance of being in close relationship with others. Finally, humor is a useful tool in the process of discipline, as it can help defuse tense situations and prevent the person being admonished from feeling embarrassed.


Ryan Savitz is a professor of mathematics at Neumann University in Aston, PA. He holds a Ph.D. in business administration from Touro University International and an MS in statistics from Temple Universit. Ryan teaches a variety of mathematics courses, including statistics and calculus. His research interests range from applied statistics to the pedagogy of mathematics and Franciscan studies. Ryan may be contacted at

Vince Riley has served as Disability Services Coordinator and as an adjunct instructor at Neumann University in Pennsylvania since 2006. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Religion from Temple University and a Master of Arts degree in English as a Second Language as well as a Professional Diploma in Secondary Education from the University of Hawaii. In 2009, he completed the Certificate in Franciscan Studies Program sponsored by the Association of Franciscan Colleges and Universities at the University of St. Francis.


[1] Paul Sabatier, Life of St. Francis of Assisi, trans. Louise S. Houghton (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1902), 2, 20.

[2] 2 Celano 10 (Francis of Assisi: Early Documents 2. The Founder, ed. Regis J. Armstrong, J.A. Wayne Hellman and William J. Short (New York: New City Press, 2002), 249) (hereafter FAED 2).

[3] John Mizzoni, “Franciscan Biocentrism and the Franciscan Tradition”, Ethics & the Environment 13 (2008): 121-134.



[6] Arndt Büssing, Daniela R. Recchia and Thomas Dienberg, “Attitudes and Behaviors Related to Franciscan-Inspired Spirituality and Their Associations with Compassion and Altruism in Franciscan Brothers and Sisters,” Religions 9 (2018).

[7] Legend of the Three Companions 34, 40 (FAED 2: 88, 92).

[8] Legend of the Three Companions 59 (FAED 2: 102).

[9] Georgia Christiansen and Jean Moore, “Francis: A Model for Servant Leadership”, AFCU Journal: A Franciscan Perspective on Higher Education 8 (2011): 74-84 (75-76).

[10] Bonaventure, “Morning Sermon on St. Francis” (FAED 2: 508).

[11] New International Version.

[12] Augustine of Hippo, “Letter (XCIII) to Vincentius”, in The Confessions and Letters of Saint Augustine, ed. Philip Schaff. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church 1:1 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1886), 408.

[13] The Assisi Compilation 41 (FAED 2: 143-144).

[14] The Little Flowers of Saint Francis 3 (Francis of Assisi: Early Documents 3. The Prophet, ed. Regis J. Armstrong, J.A. Wayne Hellman and William J. Short (New York: New City Press, 2002): 571) (hereafter FAED 3).

[15] 2 Celano 65 (FAED 2: 290).

[16] Matt 19:16-30, Mk 10:17-31, Lk 18:18-30.

[17] The Legend of the Three Companions 59 (FAED 2: 102).

[18] Michael Redington, Playfulness and Servant Leadership (La Crosse: Viterbo University, 2010).

[19] FAED 2: 793-794.

[20] 2 Celano 143 (FAED 2: 340).

[21] Book of Chronicles 89-106 (FAED 3: 404).

[22] FAED 2: 508.