St.Francis of Assisi, Our Patron
St.Francis of Assisi – Our Inspiration (1182-1226)
Our Patron, St Francis of Assisi is well-known for his love of poverty, his humility, care of environment and his love of animals. In 1980 Pope John Paul II declared him patron saint of the environment/ecology. He and Catherine of Siena are the two patrons of Italy. St. Francis of Assisi, lover of all creation, champion of justice, patron saint of animals and the environment, founded the Franciscan Order.
In 1182, Pietro Bernardone returned from a trip to Francis to find out his wife had given birth to a son. Far from being excited or apologetic because he'd been gone, Pietro was furious because she'd had his new son baptized Giovanni after John the Baptist. The last thing Pietro wanted in his son was a man of God -- he wanted a man of business, a cloth merchant like he was, and he especially wanted a son who would reflect his infatuation with France. So he renamed his son Francesco -- which is the equivalent of calling him Frenchman.
Francis enjoyed a very rich easy life growing up because of his father's wealth and the permissiveness of the times. Handsome and witty, Francis spent his youth pursuing extravagant pleasures. Francis wanted to be a noble, a knight. Battle was the best place to win the glory and prestige he longed for. He got his first chance when Francis joined his fellow townsmen to fight the Perugians in one of the petty skirmishes common at the time.
Most of the troops from Assisi were butchered in the fight. Only those wealthy enough to expect to be ransomed were taken prisoner. At last Francis was among the nobility like he always wanted to be...but chained in a harsh, dark dungeon. Finally, after a year in the dungeon, he was ransomed. Strangely, the experience didn't seem to change him. He gave himself to partying with as much joy and abandon as he had before the battle.
The experience didn't change what he wanted from life either: Glory. Finally a call for knights for the Fourth Crusade gave him a chance for his dream. But Francis never got farther than one day's ride from Assisi. There he had a dream in which God told him he had it all wrong and told him to return home. And return home he did. What must it have been like to return without ever making it to battle -- the boy who wanted nothing more than to be liked was humiliated, laughed at, called a coward by the village and raged at by his father for the money wasted on armor.
Francis' conversion did not happen overnight. God had waited for him for twenty-five years and now it was Francis' turn to wait. Francis started to spend more time in prayer. He went off to a cave and wept for his sins. Sometimes God's grace overwhelmed him with joy. But life couldn't just stop for God. There was a business to run, customers to wait on.
One day while riding through the countryside, Francis, the man who loved beauty, who was so picky about food, who hated deformity, came face to face with a leper. Repelled by the appearance and the smell of the leper, Francis nevertheless jumped down from his horse and kissed the hand of the leper. When his kiss of peace was returned, Francis was filled with joy. As he rode off, he turned around for a last wave, and saw that the leper had disappeared. He always looked upon it as a test from God...that he had passed.
However, according to his first biographer, Thomas of Celano, the most important event occurred at the ruined chapel of San Damiano outside the gate of Assisi when Francis heard the crucifix above the altar command him: “Go, Francis, and repair my house which, as you see, is falling down.” Taking this literally, Francis hurried home, gathered fine cloth from his father’s shop, and rode off to a nearby town, where he sold both the cloth and the horse.
He then tried to give the money to the priest at San Damiano, who refused it. This prompted Francis to throw the money out the window. When his father heard about this, he was angered and saw this as an act of theft-and put together with Francis’ cowardice, waste of money, and his growing disinterest in money made Francis seem more like a madman than his son. Pietro and summoned him before the civil authorities. When Francis didn’t respond, his father dragged Francis before the bishop of Assisi and in front of the whole town demanded that Francis return the money and renounce all rights as his heir.
Before the bishop, Francis “without a word peeled off his garments even removing his breeches and restored them to his father.” Completely naked, in front of the crowd that had gathered he said, "Pietro Bernardone is no longer my father. From now on I can say with complete freedom, 'Our Father who art in heaven.'" The astonished bishop gave him a cloak, and Francis went off into the freezing woods -- singing. And when robbers beat him later and took his clothes, he climbed out of the ditch and went off singing again. From then on Francis had nothing...and everything.
Francis went back to what he considered God's call. He begged for stones and rebuilt the San Damiano church with his own hands, not realizing that it was the Church with a capital C that God wanted repaired. Scandal and avarice were working on the Church from the inside while outside heresies flourished by appealing to those longing for something different or adventurous. Soon Francis started to preach. (He was never a priest, though he was later ordained a deacon under his protest.) Francis was not a reformer; he preached about returning to God and obedience to the Church. Francis must have known about the decay in the Church, but he always showed the Church and its people his utmost respect.
Slowly companions came to Francis, people who wanted to follow his life of sleeping in the open, begging for garbage to eat...and loving God. With companions, Francis knew he now had to have some kind of direction to this life so he opened the Bible in three places. He read the command to the rich young man to sell all his goods and give to the poor, the order to the apostles to take nothing on their journey, and the demand to take up the cross daily. "Here is our rule," Francis said -- as simple, and as seemingly impossible, as that. He was going to do what no one thought possible any more -- live by the Gospel. Francis took these commands so literally that he made one brother run after the thief who stole his hood and offer him his robe!
Francis never wanted to found a religious order -- this former knight thought that sounded too military. He thought of what he was doing as expressing God's brotherhood. His companions came from all walks of life, from fields and towns, nobility and common people, universities, the Church, and the merchant class. Francis practiced true equality by showing honor, respect, and love to every person whether they were beggar or pope.
Francis' brotherhood included all of God's creation. Much has been written about Francis' love of nature but his relationship was deeper than that. We call someone a lover of nature if they spend their free time in the woods or admire its beauty. But Francis really felt that nature, all God's creations, were part of his brotherhood. The sparrow was as much his brother as the pope.
In one famous story, Francis preached to hundreds of birds about being thankful to God for their wonderful clothes, for their independence, and for God's care. The story tells us the birds stood still as he walked among him, only flying off when he said they could leave. Another famous story involves a wolf that had been eating human beings. Francis intervened when the town wanted to kill the wolf and talked the wolf into never killing again. The wolf became a pet of the townspeople who made sure that he always had plenty to eat.
Following the Gospel literally, Francis and his companions went out to preach two by two. At first, listeners were understandably hostile to these men in rags trying to talk about God's love. People even ran from them for fear they'd catch this strange madness! And they were right. Because soon these same people noticed that these barefoot beggars wearing sacks seemed filled with constant joy. They celebrated life. And people had to ask themselves: Could one own nothing and be happy? Soon those who had met them with mud and rocks, greeted them with bells and smiles.
Francis did not try to abolish poverty; he tried to make it holy. When his friars met someone poorer than they, they would eagerly rip off the sleeve of their habit to give to the person. They worked for all necessities and only begged if they had to. But Francis would not let them accept any money. He told them to treat coins as if they were pebbles in the road. When the bishop showed horror at the friars' hard life, Francis said, "If we had any possessions we should need weapons and laws to defend them." Possessing something was the death of love for Francis. Also, Francis reasoned, what could you do to a man who owns nothing? You can't starve a fasting man, you can't steal from someone who has no money, you can't ruin someone who hates prestige. They were truly free.
was a man of action. His simplicity of life extended to ideas and deeds. If there was a simple way, no matter how impossible it seemed, Francis would take it. So when Francis wanted approval for his brotherhood, he went straight to Rome to see Pope Innocent III. You can imagine what the pope thought when this beggar approached him! As a matter of fact he threw Francis out. But when he had a dream that this tiny man in rags held up the tilting Lateran basilica, he quickly called Francis back and gave him permission to preach. The Pope approved the Franciscan rule of life, according to tradition, on April 16, 1209. The Friars Minor, or Lesser Brothers, as they came to be known, were street preachers without possessions. They preached and worked first in Umbria and then, as their numbers grew, throughout Italy.
During Lent of 1212, a wealthy young noblewoman, upon hearing Francis preaching, became deeply touched by his message. Realizing her calling, Clare begged Francis to allow her to embrace the new manner of life he had founded. On Palm Sunday, Francis received Clare at the Porziuncola, thereby establishing the Order of Poor Ladies, later called Poor Clares.
Sometimes this direct approach led to mistakes that he corrected with the same spontaneity that he made them. Once he ordered a brother who hesitated to speak because he stuttered to go preach half-naked. When Francis realized how he had hurt someone he loved he ran to town, stopped the brother, took off his own clothes, and preached instead.
Francis acted quickly because he acted from the heart; he didn't have time to put on a role. Once he was so sick and exhausted, his companions borrowed a mule for him to ride. When the man who owned the mule recognized Francis he said, "Try to be as virtuous as everyone thinks you are because many have a lot of confidence in you." Francis dropped off the mule and knelt before the man to thank him for his advice.
At Christmastime, 1223, Francis displayed the first known crèche in the town of Greccio, near Assisi. Wishing to reveal the authenticity of Christ’s birth, the story goes; he brought in a manger, hay, an ox, and an ass. When all was ready, people from around the valley were “filled with joy” at what they saw and Greccio was made, as it were, “a new Bethlehem.” It is believed that from this incidence the idea of making crib during Christmas emerged in the Church tradition.ve it.
Another example of his directness came when he decided to go to Syria to convert the Moslems while the Fifth Crusade was being fought. In 1219, accompanied by another friar and hoping to convert the Sultan of Egypt or win martyrdom in the attempt, Francis went to Egypt where a Crusader army had been encamped for over a year besieging the walled city of Damietta two miles upstream from the mouth of one of the main channels of the Nile. The Sultan, al-Kamil, a nephew of Saladin, had succeeded his father as Sultan of Egypt in 1218 and was encamped upstream of Damietta, unable to relieve it. In the middle of a battle, Francis decided to do the simplest thing and go straight to the sultan to make peace. When he and his companion were captured, the real miracle was that they weren't killed. Instead Francis was taken to the sultan who was charmed by Francis and his preaching and that the Sultan received Francis graciously and Francis preached to the Saracens without effect, returning unharmed to the Crusader camp.
Francis did find persecution and martyrdom of a kind -- not among the Moslems, but among his own brothers. When he returned to Italy, he came back to a brotherhood that had grown to 5000 in ten years. Pressure came from outside to control this great movement, to make them conform to the standards of others. His dream of radical poverty was too harsh, people said. Francis responded, "Lord, didn't I tell you they wouldn't trust you?" He finally gave up authority in his order -- but he probably wasn't too upset about it. Now he was just another brother, like he'd always wanted.
Francis' final years were filled with suffering as well as humiliation. In the summer of 1224, Francis went to the mountain retreat of Alvernia, not far from Assisi. During this time of reflection and fasting, he prayed that he might know how best to please God. Opening the Gospels for the answer, he came upon references to the Passion of Christ three times. As he prayed during the morning of the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross on September 14, he beheld a figure coming toward him from the heavens. It was here that Francis became the first recorded stigmatic in Christian history. He received the marks of the nails and the lance wound that Christ suffered, in his own body.
Years of poverty and wandering had made Francis ill. When he began to go blind, the pope ordered that his eyes be operated on. This meant cauterizing his face with a hot iron. Francis spoke to "Brother Fire": "Brother Fire, the Most High has made you strong and beautiful and useful. Be courteous to me now in this hour, for I have always loved you, and temper your heat so that I can endure it." And Francis reported that Brother Fire had been so kind that he felt nothing at all.
How did Francis respond to blindness and suffering? That was when he wrote his beautiful Canticle of the Sun that expresses his brotherhood with creation in praising God. Francis never recovered from this illness. Suffering from the stigmata and from trachoma, Francis received care in several cities (Siena, Cortona, Nocera) to no avail. In the end, he was brought back to a hut next to the Porziuncola. Here, in the place where it all began, feeling the end approaching, he spent the last days of his life dictating his spiritual testament. He died on the evening of October 3, 1226, singing Psalm 142(141). On July 15, 1228, after a process of unprecedented speed, Francis was canonized by Pope Gregory IX.
Through his example, St. Francis reminds us that we are called to bring about justice and peace in our world, to end violence and war, poverty and oppression and to protect our fragile planet. St. Francis believed in peaceful dialogue with all our brothers and sisters. He calls us to be instruments of peace and healing by turning from weapons of violence to acts of love. Happy are those who endure in peace.
Francis of Assisi is revered as the Patron and Model of Religious Brothers. It is because he had a vision of Universal Brotherhood of all human beings. This would mean that, as children of God we all belong to the one large family of God. As created by God in his image, every human being shares in the divine dignity. There is no room for any division based on race, color, caste, nationality, community or whatever. We form one human family. My dignity as a human person derives from my belonging to this human family.
In fact, Francis’ vision of Brotherhood goes far beyond. For him the whole of cosmos is bound together in a fraternal bond. So he could speak of Brother Sun, and Sister Moon, Brother Fire and Sister Water and Sister Mother Earth. Saint Francis of Assisi has a powerful message for the men and women of today: humans are not to dominate or exploit God’s creation; rather they are to befriend it, respect and protect it. This alone will ensure harmony and peace in the created order.
As an itinerant beggar preacher he was widely known for his holiness, his empathy for the poor and his radical self-giving to the Lord. Inspired by his example, many put aside their possessions, joining him as penitent preachers of the Gospel. In 1209 they gave birth to the Franciscan Brotherhood. The movement he created survived the centuries and lives today in the world through thousands of men and women. He was a listener to the language of creation. He considered himself as a small part of a remarkable universe inhabited by animals and elements that were all connected as Brothers and Sisters. He educated others with his actions by embracing lepers, calming a marauding wolf with kindness, travelling to Syria to preach to a Muslim Sultan in the midst of the Crusaders.
In 1979 Pope John Paul II proclaimed Saint Francis as the heavenly Patron of those who promote Ecology: He believed that world was created good and beautifully by God but suffers a need for redemption because of primordial sin of humans. He preached to human beings and beast the universal ability and duty of all creatures to praise God and the duty of men and women to protect and enjoy nature as both the stewards of God’s creation and as creatures. He offers an example of genuine and deep respect for the integrity of creation. This poor man of Assisi gives us striking witness that when we are at peace with God we are better able to devote ourselves to building up that peace with all creation, which is inseparable from peace among all peoples.