Saint Francis of Assisi
Rightly or wrongly, the thirteenth has been called "the greatest of centuries." It has, at any rate, given Christianity two of its most influential and beloved saints: Saint Thomas Aquinas, who with his brilliant works of philosophy and theology enriched the mind not only of his own century but also of those that followed, and Saint Francis of Assisi, his counterpart and contemporary, who gave Christianity a heartbeat that can still be felt in the twentieth century.
Saint Thomas is admired and looked upon with awe for his immense talents and accomplishments, but Francis is universally loved and embraced with the affection with which one caresses a child. Francis is one saint whom Protestants and non-Christians accept and sometimes claim as their own. Francis of Assisi has stirred the imagination of the world for seven hundred years and, if the ever-growing membership of the numerous branches of the Franciscan Order and the endless stream of books, magazines, and pamphlets devoted to his life and spirit are any indication, his popularity and importance show no sign of diminishing.
Born at Assisi, in central Italy, in 1181, into a merchant family of substantial means, Francesco ("the Frenchman," because of his father's heavy trade with France) was trained to take over his father's business. Like many a teen-ager today, Francis cared to learn neither the ways of business nor his lessons at school, preferring to have a good time by lavishly spending his father's money. Though not licentious, he was very much a playboy. With his charming natural qualities and his love of the French courtly poetry and love songs he would have made the ideal troubadour. When Francis began giving food and money to any beggar he encountered, his father, Peter Benardone, was far from pleased, yet did not take the boy seriously.
War broke out between the cities of Perugia and Assisi, and Francis, twenty years old and dreaming of knighthood and glory, marched into battle. But he was soon taken prisoner by the Perugians and fell ill. As he suffered, he seemed to gain spiritual strength, for afterwards he became very serious in his demeanor. A short time later, outfitted in a handsome suit of armor and seated one fine horse (looking much more formidable than his slight frame ordinarily would indicate), he set out to join forces that were fighting for the pope against the Germans in southern Italy. But he suddenly became ashamed of his fine appearance when he saw an old warrior poorly clad, and he persuaded him to change clothes and armor Francis never reached the front, for twice he was taken ill and dreamed strange dreams. In one, he saw his father's warehouse filled with military trappings instead of bales of cloth, and on each shield was emblazoned a cross. In the other, a heavenly voice seemed to tell him to turn back, "to serve the master rather than the servant."
He returned to his old life but did not enjoy it. Friends, noticing his preoccupation, told him he was in love. "Yes," he said, "I am going to take a wife more beautiful and worthy than any you know." As he courted Lady Poverty, many strange things started happening that made his parents, especially his father, worry about him. Suddenly, he left on a pilgrimage to Rome, where he exchanged his expensive clothes with a beggar on the steps of Saint Peter's and spent the rest of the day asking for alms. He dropped the money he collected into the poor box at the Tomb of the Apostles and returned penniless to Assisi.
Very humanly, he loathed the sight of lepers, of whom there were many who lived like hermits in the caves among the mountains. Riding one day, he met one who was especially hideous to look upon, but resisting the impulse to flee, he dismounted and, pressing alms into the poor creature's outstretched hand, embraced him tenderly and kissed him. When Francis looked back, the leper had disappeared, and he understood that Christ had appeared to him in the form of a leper.
Now passionate with the fever of divine love, he visited hospitals and ministered to the sick, praying long hours to learn what God willed for him. One day, while praying at Saint Damian's, an old ruined church outside Assisi, he heard a voice form the crucifix say three times: "Francis, go and repair my house, which is falling down." Francis later came to realize that the "house" which was falling down was the Catholic Church itself, not just Saint Damian's, and that he was being called to help rebuild Christendom. But at first he took the words very literally and, selling some of his father's goods to buy materials, set about rebuilding the old church.
Peter Bernadone was furious when he heard of this. He savagely beat the twenty-five year old youth, had him jailed, and then disinherited him. The bishop of Assisi required Francis to return the purchase price of the goods he had taken. Francis did as he was told, adding, "The clothes I wear are also his," and stripping himself, gave them to his father. The bishop could not help admiring the youth's fervor; he covered him with a laborer's cloak and, shedding tears, gave him alms. Francis thanked him, marked a cross on his garment with a piece of chalk, and went forth singing the divine praises on the highway. There he was beset by robbers who asked him who he was. "I am the herald of the great king," replied Francis. Finding him without money, the robbers threw him headlong into a ditch piled with snow.
Francis eventually repaired Saint Damian's with his own hands, and he went around preaching penance to the people. He begged from door to door for a few scraps of food each day. He took his way of life from the Gospel he heard on the Feast of Saint Matthias, "Freely you have received, freely give...Do not keep gold...nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor staff...Behold I am sending you forth like sheep in the midst of wolves" (Matt. 10:8-10, 16).
Francis did not seek men, but men began to seek him. At first three followed him, among them Bernard de Quintavalle, a rich and influential tradesman, and Brother Giles, a very simple person who was to become one the legendary figures of the early days of the Franciscan Order.
Soon there were twelve in the little body of itinerant preachers, but there was no definite plan. They slept in barns and worked in the fields for their food. A primitive rule was drawn up, which consisted simply of the counsels of perfection: "If thou wilt be perfect, go, sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, ...and come, follow me" (Matt. 19:21).
It now seemed advisable to obtain papal approval, so the group in a body submitted their Rule to Innocent III. The pope was of the opinion that there were too many religious communities already, yet he could hardly disapprove of a group whose primary aim was to carry out the evangelical counsels. So he reluctantly consented. They were, in spite of their lack of theology (only one poorly trained priest among them), permitted to preach penance and receive minor orders, but Francis and most of the others never went on to the priesthood. Thus early Franciscanism was essentially a lay movement.
The Franciscan ideal of poverty has undergone many alterations in its outward practice; indeed, changes began within Francis' own lifetime. Absolute poverty, of course, was unattainable -- the brothers had to wear at least some form of clothing and had to have some kind of food for nourishment. To the end, however, Francis would not permit the order to own any property or temporal goods, though eventually the need for some kind of headquarters became apparent. The group therefore settled at a place called Portiuncula (the "little portion"), a little more than two miles form Assisi (late at other places), the friars paying nominal rent (an occasional basket of fish) to the Benedictines, who held the property for them. Eventually the order became known as the Friars Minor, indicating that they should be lowly among their fellows.
In the spring of 1212, a young girl heard Francis preach in one of the churches in Assisi and left her home to be his follower. Francis established this girl (Saint Clare) with other maidens in a little house near the Church of Saint Damian, which became the first Franciscan convent for women.
Francis apostolic mission took him to many lands -- Syria, Dalmatia, and Morocco -- where he made unsuccessful attempts to convert the Moslems. Meanwhile, his order spread rapidly to Spain, Germany, and Hungary. He was horrified upon his return to learn that modification shad crept into the order, and he refused to enter a monastery erected by Franciscan at Bologna because it was too fine. His simplicity conflicted with the giant, sprawling movement his order had become, and consequently the Franciscan Rule has been frequently revised.
In 1224, on Mount La Verna, where he often went to pray, occurred the miracle of the stigmata, by which Francis was marked with the wounds of our Lord's Passion. "Nothing gives me so much consolation as to think of the life and passion of our Lord," he once said. "Were I to live to the end of the world, I should stand in need of no other books." Out of respect for the stigmata, he henceforth wore shoes and stocking and kept his hands covered.
Francis had a genuine poetic gift, and his "Canticle of the Sun" is one of the finest Italian lyrics. He loved to refer to all creatures as brothers: Brother Sun, Brother Sky, Brother Fish; he called his body Brother Ass and idle members of his community, Brother Fly. Near the end of this life he cried, "Welcome, Sister Death!" On October 3, 1226, at the age of forty-five, while the Passion of our Lord was being read aloud to him, he died. His memory is kept vivid in the three branches of Franciscans: Friars Minor, Friars Minor Capuchin, and Friars Minor Conventual, besides numerous branches in the sisterhood. None of his followers has ever been quite like "God's Troubadour," but they all continue his great work of love and penance and his ardent desire to be and to call others to be true followers of Christ.
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