I cannot tell you how much St. Francis has helped me in my life with all of the wonderful creatures that Our Dear Lord has entrusted to me, protecting and healing them. St. Francis is one of my favorite saints, and I love him very much, a “giant” of holiness. Today, the Universal Church celebrates his Feast Day.
Dante Alighieri, the famous poet, the author of the Divine Comedy, said of St. Francis, “A sun was born into the world.” Francis was born at the end of 1181 or the beginning of 1182, to a rich family, his father being a successful cloth merchant and being raised by an adoring French mother. He lived a carefree life, most interested in chivalrous ideals and chivalrous dreams of greatness and nobility. Francis, age 20, participated in a military campaign, was taken prisoner and later released because he was so very ill. This illness caused Francis to search his soul and look inward to his purpose in life, to determine and define what was important in life. He had abandoned his worldly lifestyle and began to notice the beauty, purpose and virtues of God’s creatures, whom he loved and how they lived in simplicity.
One day, Francis rode the plain of Assisi and noticed a disfigured and horrible looking leper man. Francis got off his horse, wherein the leper outstretched his hands to receive alms. But Francis did more than give him money, he kissed the leper because he saw Jesus in Him, he saw “Jesus in disguise,” as Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta would say – an event that changed Francis’ life.
After his exchange with the leper, Francis visited hospitals, served the sick and the forgotten, gave clothes and money to those who needed it. On a particular day in or about 1205, Francis was praying at the Church of St. Damian outside the walls of Assisi when he heard a voice, an interior instruction that he took to heart, “Francis, go and repair my house, which you see is falling down.” Francis thought that Our Lord meant to repair that specific Church, when indeed and in fact Our Lord was referring Francis to renew and repair His Church. Pope Benedict XVI tells us, “…that at that moment, St. Francis was called to repair the small church, but the ruinous state of the building was a symbol of the dramatic and disquieting situation of the Church herself. At that time, the Church had a superficial faith which did not shape or transform life, a scarcely religious clergy, and a chilling of love. It was an interior destruction of the Church which also brought a decomposition of unity, with the birth of heretical movements. Yet, there at the centre of the Church in ruins was the Crucified Lord, and he spoke: He called for renewal, He called Francis to the manual labour of repairing the small Church of St. Damian, the symbol of a much deeper call to Renew Christ’s own Church, with her radicality of faith and her loving enthusiasm for Christ.”
Francis took clothes and supplies from his father’s storage house, selling these items, as well as selling his father’s horse. He brought these monies to the priest at St. Damian, but the priest would not take the money, Francis leaving the money on a window sill. Francis’ father learned what had happened and demanded that Francis return everything that he had taken from him, reporting the matter to Bishop Guido of Assisi. The Bishop told Francis to return these monies to his father, “He (God) does not wish His Church to profit by goods which may have been gotten unjustly.” Francis responded, “The clothes I wear are also his. I’ll give them back.” He stripped off his clothes and gave them to his father saying, “Hitherto I have called you father on earth; but now I say, ‘Our Father, who art in Heaven. “ Clothes of a laborer were found and given to Francis, wherein Francis made a cross upon the cloth with some chalk and left.
Pope Benedict tells us about another event that comes to mind , of the dream of Pope Innocent III in 1207. “…he saw the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the mother of all churches, collapsing and one small and insignificant brother, whom the Pope recognized as Francis , when Francis later visited him.” Pope Benedict goes on to say, “…it is important to note that St. Francis does not renew the Church without or in opposition to the Pope, but only in communion with him. The two realities go together: the Successor of Peter, the Bishops, the Church founded on the succession of the Apostles and the new charism that the Holy Spirit brought to life at that time for the Church’s renewal. Authentic renewal grew from these together.”
In 1208, Francis lived as a hermit, but then had another internal transformation, affected by the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ discourse to the apostles whom he sent out to evangelize and teach the nations. Accordingly, Francis went out just as the apostles did to teach by example, living in poverty and preaching the Gospel. He had other brothers, companions who followed his way of life. On one particular day, Francis told the brothers they were going to preach. Francis and his band of brothers walked through a town but said nothing. One of the brothers asked Francis why they didn’t preach. Francis told him that they did preach saying, ”Preach the Gospel constantly, and when necessary, use words.” It was, therefore, Francis’ incredible example of holiness, and that of the brother companions, that taught the people of God.
In 1209 Francis and his brother companions travelled to Rome to propose to Pope Innocent III the plan for a new kind of Christian life. The Pope welcomed Francis and of course, recognized Francis from the dream that he had. The Pope welcomed Francis and encouraged him. Pope Benedict XVI tells us that “St. Francis really did have an extremely intimate relationship with Jesus and with the word of God, that he wanted to pursue …: just as it is, in all its radicality and truth. It is also true that initially he did not intend to create an Order with the necessary canonical forms. Rather, he simply wanted, through the word of God and the presence of the Lord, to renew the People of God, to call them back to listening to the Word and to literal obedience to Christ. Furthermore, he knew that Christ was never “mine” but is always “ours”, that “I” cannot possess Christ that “I” cannot rebuild in opposition to the Church, her will and her teaching. Instead, it is only in communion with the Church built on the Apostolic succession that obedience too, to the Word of God can be renewed.” And Pope Benedict goes on to say that “Francis knew that the centre of the Church is the Eucharist, where the Body of Christ and His Blood are made present through the priesthood, the Eucharist and the communion of the Church. Wherever the priesthood and the Eucharist and the Church come together, it is there alone that the world of God also dwells. The real historical Francis was the Francis of the Church, and precisely in this way he continues to speak to non-believers and believers of other confessions and religions as well.” Indeed and in fact, in St. Francis’ “First Admonition,” he says very passionately:
“Wherefore, O you sons of men, how long will you be dull of heart (Ps. 4,3)? Why do you not recognize the truth and believe in the Son of God (John 9, 35)? Behold: daily he humbles himself (Phil 2,8) as when from heaven’s royal throne (Wisd 18, 15) he came down into the womb of the Virgin. Daily He Himself comes to us with like humility; daily he descends from the bosom of the Father (John 1, 18; 6, 38) upon the altar in the hands of the priest. And as he appeared to the Apostles in true flesh, so now also he shows himself to us in the sacred bread. And as they by their bodily sight saw only His flesh, yet contemplating Him with the eyes of the spirit believed Him to be very God, so we also, as we see our bodily eyes the bread and wine, are to see and firmly believe that it is His most holy body and blood living and true. And in this way, the Lord is always with His faithful, as he Himself says: “Behold, I am with you until the end of the world (Mt 28, 20).”
And in the writings of St. Francis, (Francis of Assisi, Scritti, Editrici Francescane, Padova 2002, 401), Pope Benedict reminds us of the love that Francis had for Jesus in a special way in the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist, “Let everyone be struck with fear, let the whole world tremble, and let the heavens exult, when Christ, the Son of the living God, is present on the altar in the hands of a priest. Oh stupendous dignity! O humble sublimity, that the Lord of the universe, God and the Son of God, so humbles himself that for our salvation He hides himself under an ordinary piece of bread.”
Francis and his friars became numerous and established themselves at the Portiuncula, or the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, the center of Franciscan spirituality. Clare, a young woman of Assisi from a noble and wealthy family loved Franciscan spirituality, and established the Order of Poor Clares, the second Franciscan order.
Pope Innocent III’s Successor, Pope Honorius III, in 1218, issued a “Bull” which is a formal document, a pronouncement, which supported Francis and his development of the first Friars Minor, who began to spread the Gospel to other European countries, and even in Morocco. In 1220, Francis visited the Holy Land, sowed the seed which is evident in today’s world, making this place the Site for the Order, showing today the great merits of the Franciscans in the Holy Land. After Francis returned to Italy from his missions, he developed his “Rule” which was approved by the Pope.
Francis also had great communication skills with God’s creatures and control of them, a gift given to Him by God. “His love for and power over the lower animals were noted and often referred to by those who knew him: his rebuke to the swallows while he was preaching at Alvian, “My sisters the swallows, it is now my turn to speak. You have been talking enough all this time;” the birds that perched around him while he told them to praise their Creator; the rabbit that would not leave him at Lake Trasimene; and the tamed wolf at Gubbio…” Francis even had a pet falcon that he loved very much, who accompanied him where he went.
In 1224, Francis saw a vision of Jesus crucified in the form of a seraph, and after that vision, received the stigmata from the Seraph Crucifix, becoming one with the Crucified Jesus. Francis, thus, suffered with the wounds of Christ. Francis died humbly, on the earthen floor, on October 3, 1226, in the Portiuncula with his brother friars.
Pope Benedict XVI I believe summarizes St. Francis beautifully. He said: “It has been said that Francis represents an alter Christus, that he was truly a living icon of Christ…Indeed, this was his ideal: to be like Jesus, to contemplate Christ in the Gospel, to love him intensely and to imitate his virtues. In particular, he wished to ascribe interior and exterior poverty with a fundamental value, which he also taught to his spiritual sons. The first Beatitude of the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:3) found a luminous fulfilment in the life and words of St. Francis. Truly, dear friends, the saints are the best interpreters of the Bible. As they incarnate the word of God in their own lives, they make it more captivating then ever, so that it really speaks to us. The witness of Francis, who loved poverty as a means to follow Christ with dedication and total freedom, continues to be for us too an invitation to cultivate interior poverty in order to grow in our trust of God, also by adopting a sober lifestyle and a detachment from material goods…”
Finally, Pope Benedict XVI says, “Dear friends, Francis was a great Saint and a joyful man. His simplicity, his humility, his faith, his love for Christ, his goodness towards every man and every woman, brought him gladness in every circumstance. Indeed, there subsists an intimate and indissoluble relationship between holiness and joy. A French writer once wrote that there is only one sorrow in the world: not to be saints, that is, not to be near to God. Looking at the testimony of St. Francis, we understand that this is the secret of true happiness: to become saints, close to God!”
Happy Feast Day, dearest St. Francis! I hope you are having a big party in heaven today with Our Lord, the Blessed Mother Mary whom you loved and honored, with the angels and the saints, along with all of God’s blessed creatures! I love you!
Sources: General Audience of Pope Benedict XVI, Paul VI Audience Hall, January 27, 2010, website of the vatican, the “Holy See”
“The Body of the Lord,” website of the vatican, the “Holy See”
One Hundred Saints, Bulfinch Press, AOL Time Warner Book Group