Today we celebrate Francis of Assisi, who not only turned into fire but set the world on fire with his generosity, creativity, imagination, dedication to the poor and his austere living of the Gospel. He had a profound faith, a deep prayer life and an abiding love of God and creation. Many commentators have called Francis “a Second Christ,” because he tried in so many ways to be exactly like Jesus.
He was born in the Tuscan country side of Assisi in 1181 to a wealthy cloth merchant. Francis enjoyed a very rich easy life growing up; he received little formal education and during his early years he was preoccupied with having fun. Today, we would perhaps say he is among the bold and the beautiful, the rich and famous, and the young and the restless! As a young man, he was popular, charming, enjoyed practical jokes and was usually the life of the party. He was good at business, but wanted to become a troubadour and write poetry. Everyone loved Francis. He was constantly happy, a dreamer and a born leader.
When he was twenty years old he was eager to be a knight and took part in a battle of a nearby country, yet his townspeople were defeated and he spent a year in prison. After his return to Assisi, he became seriously ill and dissatisfied with his way of life.
He endured a spiritual crisis and devoted himself to solitude, prayer and service of the poor. One of the many conversion experiences of his life that is told was when he was riding one day; he came face to face with a leper who begged for money. Francis had always had disgust for lepers, and turning his face, he rode on; but immediately he had a change of heart and returned to the leper and gave him all the money he had and kissed his hand. As he rode off, he turned around for a last glance, and saw that the leper had disappeared. From that day on he dressed in rags and gave himself to the service of the lepers and the poor.
Another conversion moment is told when he was in the nearby Church of San Damiano. While he was praying, he heard Christ on the cross speak to him. “Francis, repair my church.” With this mandate and with the words of the Gospel, “The kingdom of God is at hand, cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, drive out devils; freely have you received, freely give. Carry neither gold nor silver nor money, nor bag, nor two coats, nor sandals. . .”
Francis, then at once felt that this was his vocation and proceeded to preach to the poor. In time, 12 others joined him in preaching the Gospel and working among the poor. They took literally the words of Christ when he sent his disciples out to preach. They would have no money and not property, individually or collectively.
Their task was to preach declaring the love of God by their words and actions. Francis called his order the “Order of Friars Minor” or the order of lesser brothers. They were to live as brothers of all, to reveal by their love that all human beings are sisters and brothers. Francis did not live in a monastery but among the people, and in that world, he sought and found God.
His approach was an Incarnational approach – God was a loving Father/Creator and all that Francis had was gift, Christ was his Brother and the Spirit of that love lived and burned in him. Following the Gospel literally, Francis and his companions at first frightened their listeners as these men dressed in rags talking about God’s love. But soon the people noticed that these barefoot beggars wearing sacks seemed filled with constant joy. They celebrated life.
An early biographer gives an account of Francis’ physical appearance. “In stature he was rather on the short side, his head of moderate size and round, his face long, his forehead smooth and low, his eyes of medium size, black and candid, his hair dark, his eyebrows straight, his nose even-shaped, thin and straight, his ears prominent but delicate.
In conversation he was agreeable, ardent and penetrating, his voice firm, sweet-toned and clearly audible, his lips delicate, his beard black and rather sparse, his neck slender, his shoulders straight, his arms short, his hands small, with long fingers, his feet small, his skin tender, his clothing rough, his sleep brief and his bounty most liberal.”
Francis’ brotherhood included all of God’s creation. He had a deep love for animals and a special fondness for birds. He liked to refer to animals as his brothers and sisters.
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 them, only flying off when he said they could leave.
Another famous story involves the wolf of Gubbio. Out of hunger, the wolf took to attacking the people of Gubbio as they worked in their fields. The people were so frightened of the wolf they didn’t dare go out into the fields without armed protection. Francis said to them, “Let me go out to talk with the wolf.” So he went out to meet the wolf and spoke with him, who became docile at his approach and so the wolf returned with Francis to meet the people of Gubbio. Francis arranged a peace pact between the people and the wolf. The people would feed the wolf and in return the wolf would live peacefully with them.
Francis’ final years were filled with much suffering. Praying to share in Christ’s passion he had a vision and received the stigmata, the marks of the nails and the lance wounds that Christ suffered.
Years of poverty and wandering had made Francis ill. In his final months of his life, being blind and enduring intense suffering, he joyfully and with cheerfulness wrote his beautiful Canticle of the Sun that expresses his brotherhood with creation in praising God. He died at the age of 45 and at which time there were now several thousand members throughout Europe to carry on his mission and call. He was canonized two years later.
So what is the Good News for us today?
• Francis speaks to us to live with joy, simplicity and faithfulness to the Gospels. Let us dare to search for meaning and fulfillment in our relationship to God even when we may look a little foolish or even when it may call us to make drastic changes in our attitudes and behaviors.
• How do we go about doing this? Francis’ words are these . . .
“Start by doing what's necessary; then do what's possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”
• Then we will be turned into fire!
St. Francis Feast October 2015 Jean Hinderer, CSA