There was a saying in Francis’s era that all the theology that Christians needed to know was fully taught in the cross. Think about that for a moment: all we need to know is fully taught in the Passion and crucifixion of Christ. What does the cross teach us?
Yet, sometimes, we may have some resistance to the cross. We may think that focusing on the cross it is pre-Vatican II and focuses too much penance and suffering; that the cross is too remote or abstract, or is not really relevant to us in the modern world. We may think that themes like “redemption and atonement” are fundamentalist ideas. We may not even like the theology of the cross, as it implies original sin, suffering, and our need for atonement. Theological concepts such as “blood sacrifice, substitution, ransom, debt, and redemption” are sometimes used to describe the theology of the cross.
Yet, the cross was foundational in Francis’s Christian way of life and remains a fundamental aspect not just of Franciscan spirituality, but of Christianity in general. Our Church teachings, Tradition, and Holy Scriptures have long supported the way of the Cross. The Catechism says, “Taking up one’s cross each day and following Jesus is the surest way of penance… The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle. Spiritual progress entails the ascesis and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes.” 1 Scripture says, “If a man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” 2
For Francis, the cross was crucial to his understanding of God’s love and redemptive mercy. From the beginning of his conversion, St. Francis had a great devotion and veneration for Christ crucified, and he never ceased to preach this devotion until his death. Francis’s relationship with the cross began at the little church of San Damiano, where he heard Jesus speak to him. Here is the account from Bonaventure:
"For one day when Francis went out to meditate in the fields, he walked near the church of San Damiano which was threatening to collapse because of age. Impelled by the Spirit, he went inside to pray. Prostrate before an image of the Crucified, he was filled with no little consolation as he prayed. While his tear-filled eyes were gazing at the Lord’s cross, he heard with his bodily ears a voice coming from that cross, telling him three times: “Francis, go and repair my house which, as you see, is all being destroyed.” (Bonaventure: Book II: 536-538) 3
At that point, Francis kneeled down and said the following prayer:
"Most High glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart and give me, Lord, a correct faith, a certain hope, a perfect charity, sense and knowledge, so that I may carry out your holy and true command. Amen." 4
The cross continued to reveal itself as a foundational part of Francis’s spirituality when he received the mission of the Order together with Bernard of Quintavalle, his first follower, at the church of St. Nicholas. Opening the Bible three times at random, the Scriptures were: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to (the) poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21). “Take nothing for the journey” (Luke 9:3). “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Francis went with Bernard who immediately gave away everything he owned.
The cross, in the form of a TAU, became like a standard for Francis which he wore on his garments. In front of the bishop and townspeople, Francis stripped himself of his father’s clothes, divesting himself of his last worldly attachments. Then he dressed himself in the penitential tunic in the form of a TAU. He drew a cross with chalk on it to mark himself as a penitent.
Thomas of Celano wrote, “Francis preferred the Tau above all other symbols: he utilized it as his only signature for his letters, and he painted the image of it on the walls of all the places in which he stayed.” In the famous blessing of Brother Leo, Francis sketched a head (of Brother Leo) and then drew the TAU over this portrait. The Antonian Order (founded in 1095) was a penitential order that cared for lepers, and on their habit was painted a TAU. Francis was familiar with them, because they staffed a leper house in Assisi and a hospital in Rome near the church of San Francisco a Ripa. St. Anthony the Abbot of Egypt was (and still is) depicted in icons with the TAU. The TAU originates in the Old Testament: “and the LORD said to him: Pass through the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and mark an X on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the abominations practiced within it” (Ezekiel 9:4).
In the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, Pope Innocent III referenced the TAU and quoted this verse in reference to the laxity and corruption in Church and the profaning of the Holy Land by the Saracens. St. Francis, who was at the Council, heard the Pope open the Council on November 11, 1215 with these words: “I have desired with great desire to eat this Passover with you” (Luke 22-15). The Pope continued, “The TAU has exactly the same form as the Cross on which our Lord was crucified on Calvary, and only those will be marked with this sign and will obtain mercy who have mortified their flesh and conformed their life to that of the Crucified Savior.” Pope Innocent III Innocent announced that for him, for the Church, and for every Catholic at the time, the symbol they were to take as the sign of their Passover was the TAU Cross. He ended his homily with “Be champions of the TAU.” Francis did just that.
Francis often wrote of the cross:
"And the Lord gave me such faith in churches that I would simply pray and speak in this way: “We adore You, Lord Jesus Christ, in all Your churches throughout the world, and we bless You, for through Your holy cross You have redeemed the world. " 5
"And the will of the Father was such that His blessed and glorious Son, Whom He gave to us and [Who] was born for us, should, through His own blood, offer Himself as a sacrifice and oblation on the altar of the cross: not for Himself through Whom all things were made, but for our sins, leaving us an example that we might follow His footprints." 6
"The rule and life of these brothers is this: to live in obedience, in chastity, and without anything of their own, and to follow the teaching and the footprints of our Lord Jesus Christ, who says: “If you wish to be perfect, go and sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” And, “if anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Again: “If anyone wishes to come to me and does not hate father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” And: “Everyone who has left father or mother, brothers or sisters, wife or children, house or lands because of me, shall receive a hundredfold and shall possess eternal life.” 7
“and you willed to redeem us captives through His cross and blood and death.” 8
Francis even wrote an in-depth devotion to the cross in his “Office of the Passion” which he wrote for the friars to say from Holy Thursday to the Easter Vigil.
Perhaps Francis’s understanding of the cross is best revealed in a story told in the Little Flowers of St. Francis “On Perfect Joy.”
"One winter day Saint Francis was walking to the chapel of Saint Mary of the Angels from Perugia with Brother Leo, and the bitter cold made them suffer keenly. Saint Francis called to Brother Leo and said, “Even if one of our brothers gives sight to the blind, heals the paralyzed, drives out devils, gives hearing back to the deaf and makes the lame walk, write that perfect joy is not in that.” And going on a bit, Saint Francis cried out again in a strong voice, “Brother Leo, if a friar knew all languages and sciences, and if he also knew how to prophesy and to reveal not only the future but also see the secrets of the consciences and minds of others, write down and note carefully, that perfect joy is not in that.” Brother Leo, in great amazement, finally asked, “Father, I beg you in God’s name, what is perfect joy?” And Francis replied, “When we come to Saint Mary of the Angels, soaked by the rain and frozen by the cold, all soiled with mud and suffering from hunger and we ring at the gate and the porter comes and says angrily, ‘Who are you?’ and we say, ‘We are two of your brothers,’ and he contradicts us and says, ‘You are not telling the truth, you are two rascals who deceive people and steal from the poor. Go away!’ Oh, Brother Leo, write, that is perfect joy! And if we endure all his insults and injuries with patience, oh, Brother Leo, write, that is perfect joy! And now hear the conclusion, Brother Leo. Above all the graces and gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ gives to His friends is that of conquering oneself and willingly enduring sufferings, insults, humiliations, and hardships for the love of Christ. For we cannot glory in all those other marvelous gifts of God, as they are not ours but God’s, as the Apostle says, ‘What have you that you have not received?’ [What do you possess that you have not received? But if you have received it, why are you boasting as if you did not receive it (1 Cor 4:7)]. But we can glory in the cross of tribulations and afflictions, because that is ours, and so the Apostle says: ‘I will not glory save in the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ!’ (cfr. Gal 6:14) 9
Francis’s words here echo the words of St. Paul written in his letter to the Corinthians:
"Therefore, that I might not become too elated, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong." 10
In these words of both St. Francis and St. Paul, we see a keen devotion to the cross not just as an abstract theological idea, but as a personal way of life. We see in both of them a radical commitment to imitating Christ on the cross by not only embracing their “crosses” but by precisely finding contentment, joy, even glory and strength in them. By finding “power in weakness” and “glorying in tribulations and afflictions,” Francis and Paul received spiritual strength. And this is precisely what sets Christians apart radically.
And when we live our lives dedicated to the cross in such a radical fashion, something changes inside us. For most of us, it is spiritual, emotional, maybe psychological. But for some, it is also physical. In fact, some have concluded that St. Paul received the stigmata on his body due to the words he wrote, “I bear the marks of Jesus on my body” (Gal: 6:16). St. Francis, too, had this experience. The cross that was imprinted internally on his heart some twenty years earlier in San Damiano mysteriously manifested itself externally on his body in the stigmata.
Francis went to the mountain of Laverna in 1224, two years before he died, to fast and pray in honor of the feast of St. Michael the Archangel (Sep. 29). The month of September is replete with images of the cross, including the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14). On September 17, Francis received the stigmata. The Legend of the Three Companions said:
"From that hour [after the locution at San Damiano], therefore, his heart was wounded and it melted when remembering the Lord’s passion. While he lived, he always carried the wounds of the Lord Jesus in his heart. This was brilliantly shown afterwards in the renewal of those wounds that were miraculously impressed on and most clearly revealed in his body. From then on, he inflicted his flesh with such fasting that, whether healthy or sick, the excessively austere man hardly ever or never wanted to indulge his body. Because of this he confessed on his death bed that he had greatly sinned against “Brother Body.” … We have told these things about his crying and abstinence in an incidental way to show that, after that vision and the message of the image of the Crucified, he was always conformed to the passion of Christ until his death." 11
Thomas of Celano said that the cross that was imprinted internally on his soul at San Damiano would manifest itself externally on his body in the stigmata on Mount Laverna. “From that time on, compassion for the Crucified was impressed into his holy soul. And we honestly believe the wounds of the sacred Passion were impressed deep in his heart, though not yet on his flesh.” 12
There on Mount Laverna St. Francis prayed for two gifts: to feel in his body the pain which Jesus felt during his Passion and to know in his heart the love which Jesus felt for all humanity. And Francis, mysteriously, received the stigmata – the wounds of Christ – on his hands, feet, and side:
"On a certain morning about the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, while Francis was praying on the mountainside, he saw a Seraph having six wings, fiery as well as brilliant, descend from the grandeur of heaven. And when in swift flight, it had arrived at a spot in the air near the man of God, there appeared between the wings the likeness of a man crucified, with his hands and feet extended in the form of a cross and fastened to a cross…. As the vision was disappearing, it left in his heart a marvelous fire and imprinted in his flesh a likeness of signs no less marvelous. For immediately the marks of nails began to appear in his hands and feet just as he had seen a little before in the figure of the man crucified." 13
Francis was at once overwhelmed with joy, but doubled over with pain. The prayer that Francis made is remarkable. Francis had dedicated his life “carrying the cross” of Christ. The love of God that he discovered through the cross determined everything he did and how he lived his life. He loved Christ on the cross so much that he desired to be with him where he was – there on the cross. That is why he made this twofold prayer -- to feel in his body the pain of the cross, but also in his heart the love that Christ had for all people. In fact, there is a connection -- a oneness -- between sacrifice and charity. The cross, in fact, is the ultimate sacrifice, the ultimate charity of God.
The life of Francis was now inexplicably and mysteriously united to that of Christ. The Incarnation of Christ, the “masterpiece” of God’s creation, indeed, the whole purpose of creation (to use the words of Scotus) culminated in the Passion and crucifixion as the highest expression of God’s love, charity, and mission: “When Jesus had taken the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit” (John 19:30). The life, love, and mission of Christ were marked by the two great feasts of Christmas and Easter. Similarly, Francis’s life and devotion to Christ was defined by the two great events of the re-enactment of the nativity scene at Greccio (the Incarnation) and the reception of the stigmata at Laverna (the crucifixion).
Ultimately, the wounds of the stigmata were and remain a mystery. Just like the cross of Christ. And as there were some who doubted at the time of Francis, so there remain those today who doubt it, as well. Some have concluded that Francis had contracted leprosy (cf. Chiara Frugoni: “the Life of Francis” and Donald Spoto: “The Reluctant Saint”). Yet, the stigmata remained a mystery also to St. Padre Pio who himself said that he himself did not understand the stigmata.
Finally, it is important to note that as Christians and Franciscans we do not put our hope solely in the cross. The cross was not the ultimate goal that the great saints sought: Heaven and the Resurrection were. The cross is not our final vocation: the Resurrection is. The cross is the mere pathway to the Resurrection. Without the cross there is no Resurrection; unless God comes down in the world, there is no way to go up to Heaven. Thus, in the end, suffering on the cross does not have the final word: the Resurrection does. By embracing the cross, Christ shows us the way. And Francis, by embracing it, is an example of how we should live.
1: Cf. Paragraph 1435; 2015, Catechism of the Catholic Church (1997 edition).
2: Matthew 16:24
3: Cf also Thomas of Celano II (Book II: 249-250); Legend of the Three Companions (Book II: 75-78).
4: This prayer is mentioned in several manuscripts. They all indicate that Francis prayed it at the foot of the crucifix of San Damiano.
5: Testament, 5
6: Second Version of the Letter to the Faithful, 11-13
7: rule of 1221, chapter I
8: rule of 1221, chapter XXIII
9: The Little Flowers of St. Francis, Part I, Chap VIII
10: 2 Cor 12:7-10
11: Legend Three Companions, Chap V
12: 2 Celano 10 (Book II: 249)
13: Bonaventure, Major Life, chap. 13