by Robert Miller, OFS
Francis has his hands on our heads. We sit beside his deathbed, and he has his hands on our heads in blessing.
Multiple versions of Francis’ passing have come down to us, and although they disagree on some points, his blessing of his brothers is an event repeated over and over, etched in the memories of the first Franciscans. But to understand what Francis is doing here, we have to recognize that throughout his final days, he behaved in ways that re-enacted various characters from the Bible, and his biographer Thomas of Celano highlights these. Francis knew the Bible inside and out, and always laced his words with Scripture. He read the Bible as a vision for imitation and heard Scripture as addressed to him and his followers, personally. So in his last hours he variously repeats actions of Moses, Solomon, Job, and—here—Jacob.
Francis, blind from his long-term trachoma, has one brother—Elias—on his left and another on his right. Other sources tell us it was Giles. But he crosses his arms so as to place his right hand on the head of Elias to give the greater blessing, and his left hand on the head of Giles.
This gesture comes from Genesis chapter 48. The patriarch Jacob is dying, blind from age, and the two sons of his beloved son Joseph are brought to him: his grandsons Manasseh and Ephraim. The elder, Manasseh, is seated at his right for the greater blessing; the younger Ephraim, on his left. Like Francis will, Jacob crosses his arms so as to give younger Ephraim the greater blessing. Joseph interrupts and tries to correct him, but just as Francis will, Jacob verbally confirms that he is giving the blessing precisely as he wishes. Or rather, precisely as God wishes, because the meaning here is that God sees not as we see and the future is in his hands, not ours.
But there is a problem for us in Francis’ actions that Jacob’s don’t produce: the trouble with Elias. For some of you, that name has raised some hackles. If you are less familiar with early Franciscan history, Elias is our black sheep. He’s not a Franciscan Judas; he’s much more complicated. Elias was Francis’ lifelong friend, he led the first Franciscan mission to the Holy Land, and he had served Francis as his vicar in charge of the Order for the previous five years, before spending every moment of Francis’ last days by his side. Clare loved him dearly. A lot of false tales were told about Elias a century after the fact, and he was not nearly as wicked as they portrayed him.
Nevertheless, Elias was an entrepreneur. His capital campaign launched immediately after Francis’ death built a massive, magnificent basilica over the saint’s tomb. When Elias became Minister General in 1232, he deployed his managerial skills—not bothering with General Chapters and micromanaging the Order to positions of great ecclesial and political influence. On the one hand, he worried about clericalism in the Order and worried about sacrificing the Franciscan charism to academic theology. On the other hand, he thought the solution was to delegate nothing and meld the Order to his own wise guidance. And since his health was “never great,” he needed many “allowances” on austerity and accommodations when it came to things like fasting. At the friars’ demand, he was removed from office in 1239. Still thinking far too highly of himself, he felt he alone could repair relations between Pope and Emperor and got himself excommunicated. Only on his deathbed was he reconciled to the Church, and never to the Order.
Jacob blesses Ephraim over Manasseh prophetically, as the tribe of Ephraim will come to dominate much of later Israel. But Francis wouldn’t have needed prophetic vision to see Elias wouldn’t end up well. They had known each other since childhood. It was Elias who had brought Francis, years earlier, the complaint of certain friars that the Rule he had written was too harsh, and probably Elias who had conveniently “lost” that Rule—which Francis simply re-wrote. To understand why, in spite of this, Francis crosses his arms to give Elias the higher blessing—over Giles, the only one of his First Companions to end up beatified—we need to consider the Gospel text Francis asked his brothers to read at his deathbed.
Of course, Francis would ask for a reading of Christ’s Passion, as he himself bearing the Stigmata underwent his passion. But Francis specifically asks for the Passion according to St. John, knowing it lacks the Last Supper, in spite of his own love of the Eucharist. And he asks the brothers to start reading as early as John 13, leaving them nine chapters to read over the next 45 minutes or so. So he must have really wanted them to hear John 13.
Francis wanted the foot washing. Jesus “lays aside” his robe and he washes his disciples’ feet: a task so lowly the Law exempted Jewish slaves from being made to do it. John the Evangelist is explicit that Judas is still there, and that means Jesus washes Judas’s feet, too. Not only that, Jesus says, “If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
When Francis blesses Elias “I bless you, my son, in all and through all,” he’s quoting Eph 4:6 “preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace: one body and one Spirit, …one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Francis continues, “as the Most High has increased my brothers and sons in your hands, so too, upon you and in you, I bless them all.” This blessing is about unity and service in the Body of Christ, from Elias to Giles.
My Franciscan sisters and brothers, and my fellow Christians, we have emerged from our pandemic lockdown filled with judgment and mutual suspicion. If someone from the outside were to read the comments on Secular Franciscan social media posts over the last twelve months, they would say not “See how they love one another” (1 Pet 1:22), but “See how much they criticize one another.” We judge each other not merely for who voted for whom but over how we sign our emails, over immunizations, and over facemasks.
And I know that, to a certain extent, we Franciscans have always had our factions. But the joke that only God knows how many branches there are to the Franciscan family is not something we should be proud of.
Do not misunderstand me. I am not suggesting we ignore sin or injustice; I’m not saying “Can’t we all just get along?” I’m saying that we should be able to pray for the sister or brother we are the most angry at, the most distrustful of, Francis’ blessing of Elias: “May you receive every blessing you desire and may your every worthy request be fulfilled.” Especially if it is a fellow Franciscan. “May your every worthy request be fulfilled.”
But here’s the thing: Getting to that prayer can be an aspiration for now, a goal. Because tonight we’re not the ones giving the blessing; Francis is. Francis has his hands on our heads, and he blesses us. Whether we’re more like Elias or more like Blessed Giles, the mystic who had amazing visions of God and was filled with inspired words even the Pope came to hear. I know I’m far more of Elias than Giles. Francis knew who each of them was already, and blessed them simultaneously with both arms extended at the same time. Francis’ prayer is for the unity of all those who follow Christ in Francis’ footprints, and for the witness of that unity to the rest of the world.
There’s one episode from Francis’ final days that tonight’s reading lacks but appears in several other accounts: his blessing of the city of Assisi. He says, “Lord, just as I used to think this city was the abode of wicked, evil men with a bad reputation throughout the entire region, so now I realize that because of your abundant mercy and in your time, … it has become the abode of those who…offer the fragrance of good life and good reputation to the whole Christian people.” Except Assisi was just as violent and corrupt as when Francis was young! Only sixteen months before his death, Assisi had once again taken sides and joined in a bloody civil war in Perugia. What had changed was the presence of the Franciscans.
And here we are in post-2020 Washington, DC, Conventual Friars sitting with Capuchin Friars, the single but wonderfully multifaceted Secular Franciscan Order, all of us still committed to living simply, loving Jesus, and embracing the Gospel Way of Life together, alongside Christians and non-Christians—drawn to Francis of Assisi as they have been for 800 years—praying with us and watching us for what Thomas of Celano saw when he wrote:
Among them, there was no envy, no malice, no rancor, no mocking, no suspicion, no bitterness. Instead, there was great harmony, constant calm, thanksgiving, and songs of praise. These are the lessons by which the devoted father instructed his new children not so much in words and speech but in deed and truth.