Significance of Saint Francis for Prison Ministry

This article represents an edited version of chapter four in Donald Stoesz’, Magic of Fiction in Illuminating Transformation (Victoria: Friesen’s Press, 2019), pp. 63-77.

Saint Francis’ life, imprisonment, conversion, and discipleship have something to teach us about ministry. After becoming a knight in battle, Francis ended up in prison, came down with a life-threatening fever, and returned home with his wild streak intact (Michelle Soavi, Saint Francis). He visited his father’s workers and ministered to the lepers in the woods.

These events brought about a crisis of faith. Jesus told the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:10 that he had to sell his possessions if he wanted to enter the kingdom of God. Francis took Jesus’ instructions literally and became a beggar.
A second crisis of faith had to do with remaining celibate. The Catholic tradition was firm about celibacy in regard to priests and nuns. The records are not precise about what this entailed for Francis. We do know that he had a dear friend, Clara, who joined him in his vow of poverty and became a religious sister.

A third crisis of faith had to do with obedience. Francis was perceived as an idiot, madman, fanatic, and fool (Julien Green, God’s Fool: The Life and Times of Francis of Assisi, translated by Peter Heinegg). People concluded that his actions were the result of his fever, his fervour, his tumultuous relationship with his father, his time spent in prison, his misadventures in chivalry, his madness, and/or his radical sense of spirituality.

Francis was able to demonstrate his orthodoxy. He devoted himself to renovating an old church. He regarded communion as a key part of worship. He devoted his preaching to repeating the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. He received permission from the Pope to form a band of followers.

Impetus for change is real when a person is convicted and sentenced to incarceration. Shame and guilt are powerful factors that motivate a prisoner to take a serious look at their past life. Loss of freedom, loss of reputation, loss of relationships, and loss of livelihood occurs as a result of imprisonment.

Saint Francis is helpful in this regard. He willingly gave up money, marriage, and independence. Francis showed his father that there was something more valuable than money. He demonstrated to Clara that the intimacy of spiritual love surpassed earthly love that bound one person to another. And he proved to the pope that his spirituality was reflective of the church’s celebration of the body of Christ in word, deed, Eucharist, fellowship, and communion.

The men that I worked with were willing to steal and sell drugs and commit fraud in order to become rich. Their need for excess and greed landed them in a situation where they had nothing to show for their efforts. They ended at the opposite end of the spectrum of wealth and success they were hoping for.

A similar need for discipline was evident in the men who came to prison for sexual crimes. Their preoccupation with sex ended them up in a situation of enforced abstinence. The safeguarding of sexuality within broad emotional, spiritual, and social frameworks allows us to be sexually active in a way that is not possible for those men who have few boundaries. Their need to abandon taboos ended up in a prescribed state of abstinence.

The same result occurred for those men unable to obey the law. Their anti-authoritarianism was so severe that they were now under the thumb of taskmasters who told them when they could get up, when they were supposed to work, and when they were supposed to go to sleep.

We live within the bounds of authority, sexuality, and salaries because we consider these aspects of our lives to be part of what it means to be fully human. We conform to the demands of our bosses because we want a pay check at the end of two weeks. We are sexually faithful because we want to keep our relationship commitments intact. We live on a reasonable amount of money because we know that riskier adventures in the stock market or frequent changes in jobs can result in a worse financial situation than before.

This mediocre lifestyle results in a mediocre spirituality. The underlying meaning of money, sexuality, and obedience is not directly evident because we have accepted the general norms of living within our financial means, enjoying sex within the bounds of faithfulness, and being obedient in our work and social situations. Our spirituality has not been severely tested because none of these three disciplines has become a problem.

The matter is quite different for the men with whom I worked. Their obsession with sex, their insatiable need for money, and their inability to listen to anyone but themselves brought them face to face with the law. External bounds were necessary because no internal ones were adequate to rein them in.

The willingness of Saint Francis to be “abnormal” comes into view. It is hard for us to watch Francis disassemble himself from normality because it makes us question the normality under which we are living. How can any one be called to such charisms of poverty, chastity, and obedience when less extremism will do?

Chaplains journey along this road of privation because this is the only path available for inmates in order for spirituality to shine on the other side of pain and suffering. We enter into the lives of these men as they face the facts that they have been richer, more promiscuous, and more disobedient than we have been in our staid, middle-class existence. These prisoners face the fact that they are now poorer, more celibate, and more obedient than we need to be.

Francis forced me along with the men I worked with to face the starkness of the spiritual life. It is only as we give up human intimacy that divine intimacy is possible. It is only as we surrender ourselves to human authority that we understand what acquiescence to God really means. And it is only as we give up control of money that the satisfaction of heavenly desires is possible.

Prayer of Saint Francis
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love, Where there is injury, pardon,
Where there is doubt, faith,
Where there is despair, hope,
Where there is darkness, light,
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek To be consoled, as to console,
To be understood, as to understand, To be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Donald Stoesz is an ordained minister with Mennonite Church Alberta. He worked as a prison chaplain for thirty years with Correctional Service Canada under a contract system before retiring in 2020. He is currently working part-time as a pastor with the Lutheran Church (ELCIC). He is married to Naomi Brubacher and they have four children.

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