St Francis of Assisi
Who was he?
In 1182 his father Pietro Bernardone had just returned from a trip to France to find out his wife had just given birth to a son, however far from being excited about being home or apologetic about being away, Pietro was furious because in his absence she had their new son baptised Giovanni after John the Baptist.
Unfortunately he wasn’t happy about this as he felt that having this name would lead him to become a man of god instead of a man of business, a cloth merchant like himself, he also felt that he should have a name that would reflect his infatuation with France, so he changed it to Francessco.
Francis enjoyed a rich and easy life growing up, because of his father’s wealth being a silk merchant and because of a lot of freedom which was enjoy at this particular time.
From very early on everyone loved Francis, he was a happy, charming, even a charismatic person, a born leader, a charmed life, If he was fussy, people excused him, if he was ill, he was taken care of, he did poorly in school, no one pulled him up on it, he was too easy and laid back for his own good, no one gave him any boundaries or tried to teach him what to do.
As he grew up, he become leader of the “it” crowd who spent their nights at wild parties, he attached himself to a lot of groups of young people addicted to evil and vice, even Francis said of himself that he lived in sin during this part of his life.
Francis developed his father’s love with France. He loved the songs, he loved the romance and he especially loved the adventurous troubadours of France who wandered through Europe.
Despite his carefree youth, Francis was good at business, but he wanted more, more than wealth, but not to be a man of God, he wanted to be noble, a knight, and battle was the place to win glory respect and admiration.
He got his first change when Assisi declared war on the enemy town of Perugia.
Unfortunately, this didn’t go well and most the troops from Assisi were killed, only those wealthy enough to pay a ransom were taken prisoner, and Francis was one of those taken, at last he had got his wish to be considered part of the nobility be it chained in a harsh, dark dungeon.
Finally, after a year he father paid the ransom, however the whole experience didn’t seem to change him, he still continued to party with the same joy and abandonment as he had before battle and imprisonment, he still wanted, craved from life, Glory. Finally, there came a call for knights for the fourth Crusade and this was the chance for his dream to be for-filled.
Before leaving Francis had to have a suit of amour and a horse, this posed no problem for the son of wealthy father, and not just any suit, this one had to be decorate with gold and it had to have a magnificent cloak, he did relent and give the cloak to a poor knight, but leaving he boasted that he would return a prince.
Francis didn’t get any further than one days ride from Assisi. There he had a dream, God spoke and told him that it was all wrong to go into battle and to return home, and back he went. This must have been very humiliating for him, this for the boy who wanted nothing more in life than to be liked, being laughed at, being called a coward by the whole village and having the anger of his father for the waste of money on the amour and cloak.
Francis conversion did not happen overnight, God had waited for him for twenty-five years and it was Francis’s turn to wait for God.
Francis started to spend more of his time in prayer, he went off alone to a cave, and tried to come to terms with the realisation of all his past sins.
Coming to know God took him over, but he felt life couldn’t just stop for God, life had to continue, the business still had to continue, customers still had to be served.
One day when he was out riding through the county side, (Francis who loved beauty, who was very choosy about the food he ate, who hated deformity) came face to face with a leper, repulsed by what he saw, nevertheless jumped down from his horse and kissed the hand of this leper. When the man returned this kindness Francis was filled with joy, however as he was riding off, he turned around to wave and saw that the leper had disappeared.
He maintained that this was a test, sent from God and that he felt he had passed.
His continued search for conversion led him to an ancient church in San Damiano, while he was praying, he heard Christ from the Crucifix speak to him, “Francis repair my church”.
He assumed that this meant the building he was in, the bricks and mortar that were crumbling.
Acting in haste he went home and took fabric from his father’s shop to sell to get the money to repair the Church, unfortunately his father thought this as act of theft, added to Francis past cowardice, his past waste of money and his growing disinterest in material things, it made him seem like a madman is his Fathers eyes.
His Father dragged Francis before the Bishop and in front of the whole town and demanded that he return the money and renounce all his rights as his heir.
The Bishop listened and was very kind to him and said that if he returned the money, God you provide the rest. This was all that Francis need to hear, he not only returned the money, but stripped off all his clothes, the clothes his Father had bought until he was only wearing a basic shirt and in front of all the gathered crowd he said Pietro Bernardone is no longer my father, from now on I can say with complete freedom, “Our Father who art in Heaven”.
Wearing nothing but rags he went off in to the woods, singing as he went, and when robbers beat and later took his clothes, he climbed out of the ditch and continued on his way singing again, from this point on Francis had nothing but had everything.
Francis went back to what he considered Gods calling, he begged for stones and rebuilt the San Damiano church with his own hands, not realising it was the holy church that God wanted to be rebuilt, however scandal circulated by working on the inside of the church when unorthodox views flourished on the outside, people looking for something different or adventurous.
Soon Francis started to preach the word of God, he felt he was never a priest; however he did become ordained a deacon under protest.
Francis was not a reformer, he preached about returning to God and obedience to the Church
Slowly he attracted a following, people who wanted to follow and share his life, sleeping in the open, begging for scraps, but above all loving God.
With followers Francis knew he now had the direction he craved in his life, so he opened the Bible in three different places, he read about the rich young man selling all his goods and giving them to the poor, the order to the apostles to take nothing on their journey and the demand to take up the holy cross daily.
So that’s what he decided to do, live by the Gospels. Francis took them literally, he even made one brother run after a thief who stole his hood and offer him his robe.
Francis never wanted to found a religious order, his former self thought it sounded too military.
He felt he was expressing Gods brotherhood in the “doing” and his followers came from all walks of life, from the fields and towns, from the nobility and common people, universities and the church, and from the working class, Francis practiced true equality by showing honor respect and love to EVERY one, whether they beggar, rich man clergy or thief, the Francis brotherhood included all of God’s creation, Francis loved nature but his relationship went deeper than that, Francis really felt that nature, all of God’s creations were part of his brotherhood, his followers, from the insets, birds and mammals to scholars and popes alike.
Stories abounded about him preaching to hundreds of birds, telling them to be thankful to God, and them only flying off when he said they could leave.
Another story is of a Wolf who was saved by Francis after the towns people wanted to kill it for killing humans, Francis intervened, talked to the wolf into never killing again, and the wolf never did, he became a pet to the townspeople, and they made sure he never went hungry again.
Francis and his companions went out to preach, at first, listeners were very hostile, men in rags talking about Gods love, people thought they had some kind of madness, and they were right, because the same people noticed these barefoot beggars wearing rags but they all seemed to have a joy about them, a celebration of life, people asked, how can you have nothing but still be happy and joyful, soon those who had thrown abuse, greeted them with smiles.
Francis did not try to get rid of poverty, he tried to make it holy, when his friars met people who were poorer than them, they gave part of their habit. They work for all that they needed and only begged when they had to, Francis would not let them except money, and when the bishop expressed horror at the friars hard life, Francis would say, if we had possessions, then we would need weapons and laws to defend what we have, Francis also said, what can you do to a man who has nothing, you cannot starve a hungry man, you cannot steal from someone who has no money, you cannot ruin someone who holds no station in life, they are what you can call, truly free.
Francis was a man of action, his simple way of life extended to ideas and deeds. It didn’t matter how easy, hard or impossible the task was, the right one was chosen, that way was followed.
When Francis wanted the approval for his friars or brotherhood, he went straight to Rome to see Pope Innocent the third. Innocent didn’t think much of this small beggar of a man approaching him, he even threw him out, but when he had a dream about this tiny man in rags holding up the tilting Lateran basilica, he quickly called Francis back and gave him his blessing to admit the brotherhood to come under the Churches authority and therefore allow Francis to preach without repercussions of heresy.
Sometimes his confidence led to him making mistakes, however he corrected them with the same confidence.
He once ordered a brother to go and preach half naked, however this brother had a stutter, and when Francis realised that this was a task that upset the brother and he had hurt someone he loved, he ran to the town, stripped his own clothes off and preached instead.
Francis acted from the heart he didn't have time to put on airs and graces and took advice with a simple heart.
Francis did find persecution and martyrdom of a kind not among other religions but among his brothers. When he did return to Italy, he came back to a brotherhood that had grown beyond all recognition, pressure came from the outside to gain control of this great movement, to make them conform to the norm, his dream, his ideal, was too harsh people said, but Francis said Lord didn’t I tell you they wouldn’t trust you?
On 29th September 1220, Francis give up his authority in his order, to become like any other brother, just as he had always wanted.
Francis final years were filled with suffering as well as humiliation, praying to share, one day in Christs passion, he however had a vision and received the stigmata, (the marks of the nails when Jesus was crucified) along with the lance wound that Christ suffered on his own body.
Years of poverty and wandering took their toll on Francis, when he began to go blind, the pope ordered that his eyes be operated on, at this time meant cauterising his face with a hot iron, Francis prayed that he could endure this, and it was said he felt nothing at all.
Francis wrote of his blindness and suffering in his beautiful Canticle of the Sun, a religious song composed by him, it goes on to praise and thank God for his brotherhood and with the animals he refers to as brothers and sisters of mankind in rejecting material things in favor of poverty.
Francis never recovered from his illness, and he died in Assisi on 3rd October 1226 at the age of 44.
Pope Gregory IX canonised (made a Saint) on the 16th July 1228, he was designated Patron saint of Italy, he later became a supporter of animals and the natural world, it also become customary for church to hold pet services on his feast day which is the 4th October.
Along with lots of other patronages, he is especially remembered as the patron saint of Animals Merchants and Ecology.
To this day Francis is considered the founder of all Franciscan orders around the world.