The Strengths of St. Francis

What is at the core of one of the most beloved figures in history?

Posted Oct 04, 2017

DepositPhotos/VIA Institute
Source: DepositPhotos/VIA Institute

Growing up Catholic I was always fascinated by St. Francis of Assisi. My mom would say this is because I loved his love for animals. He is often depicted in paintings and sculptures as being surrounded by small animals. There are stories of how he saved a village by taming a vicious wolf and how he preached to flocks of birds. Also, I’m high on the strength referred to as “appreciation of beauty” and no doubt I was enjoying learning about someone who shared this strength.  

I’ve had the opportunity to counsel many Franciscan priests, friars, and leaders over the years, and as a whole, there are a number of positive qualities I would use to describe them. One, in particular, stands out: gentleness.

Perhaps these men and women are following in the footsteps of their cherished saint? More on this later.

Today, October 4th, is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. Feast days are times to remember and celebrate the benefits that the saint brought forth to the world. St. Francis is regarded as the patron saint of animals and of the environment, therefore, people tend to pray in his name when they have a wounded or sick animal or around issues of climate change.

In his short life (about 44 years), St. Francis founded religious communities for both men and women. Despite being an influential leader, he emphasized and lived a humble life of poverty. He was not afraid to connect with people of other faiths and was deeply caring for the environment and all living beings. He was so dedicated to living life in a Christ-like way—some say more than any other human being—that he is sometimes remembered as alter Christus (“another Christ”).

When the average person hears the word “saint,” one of the first to usually come to mind is St. Francis. Stories of his life abound in works of art, movies, music, and writings. Despite his fame, no one seems to say much about his character strengths—who he was at his core.

Let’s examine St. Francis through the lens of his core character. To do this, a Franciscan scholar, someone who knows more about the details, nuances, and psyche of St. Francis than anyone, Jean Francois Godet-Calogeras, took on a unique project. Jean Francois took the gold-standard test for measuring character strengths, the VIA Survey, as if he were St. Francis of Assisi. The results are very interesting. Here are some of the details that shed light on the character of this fascinating saint.

1.) Lots of high strengths!

First, there are so many highly rated character strengths it poses challenges to those interpreting the results. There are several potential meanings for this but the one that’s most likely in this situation is that St. Francis was a character-driven person. He lived and preached goodness. He insisted on living in poverty which kept him balanced and grounded. This helped him to simultaneously achieve many things and maintain a focus on spirituality and living a life of many strengths.

2.) Signature strengths

It has been found in scientific studies that those strengths highest in one’s VIA Survey profile are signature strengths—those most essential to who you are. St. Francis’ 5 highest strengths, all tied for #1, slightly beating out the others, are (in no particular order): appreciation of beauty/excellence, love, gratitude, spirituality, and zest.

This returns me to my observation of Franciscans I made earlier on gentleness. While gentleness is not a specific character strength, it might be best described as a “compound strength”—a combination of several character strengths. Perhaps many of these top strengths of St. Francis—when brought together—reflect gentleness? Someone who is grounded in gratitude yet looks outside themselves to connect with the sacred (spirituality) and with the “little things” in nature (appreciation of beauty) while maintaining a high level of warmth and care in how they treat others (love)?

Another observation is that these 5 strengths strongly represent heart-oriented strengths. Heart strengths are those character strengths that are more emotion-based and easily felt in our bodies. They tend to be humanity-oriented and important for connecting with others.

3.) More signature strengths

Closely following the top 5 strengths is another cluster of 5 strengths that perhaps round out the unique character of St. Francis. These are bravery, curiosity, humor, judgment/critical thinking, and kindness. These strengths show St. Francis was not afraid to take risks and to face opposition. At the same time, he had strong capacities for connecting with others, as well as offering support and care for them. He was able to balance his expression of heart with an expression of mind, logic, and analysis.

Making it Practical

We know that one of the most important ways to enable character strengths is through role modeling. Many people—Christians and non-Christians alike—uphold St. Francis of Assisi as a role model. Having a greater sense of the signature strengths of St. Francis can give us something substantive (and realistic) to pursue. Rather than trying to "be him," try to be more like his best qualities.

How might you be like St. Francis and bring forth more gratitude or appreciation for beauty in your life? How about enabling your love, spirituality, or zest? It just might make you more gentle.

With gratitude

Special thanks to Jean-Francois Godet-Calogeras for engaging in this project several years ago. Extra special thanks to positive psychology researcher, Professor Charles Walker of St. Bonaventure University, who conceived of this project, around the question—what would happen if a leading scholar/historian of an influential person took the VIA Survey of character strengths on their behalf?

Stay tuned for more projects like this one in the future!