HERALD OF HOPE
BISHOP JAMES T. SCHUERMAN
On Oct. 4, we celebrate the Memorial of St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis is one of the most beloved saints of all time, honored for his embrace of poverty, his compassion toward those in need and his love for all creation.
In 1182, Francis was born in Assisi in Umbria. His father, Pietro Bernodone, was a well-to-do merchant. His mother’s name was Giovanna. At the time of Francis’ birth, Pietro was in France on business. Giovanna named her newborn Giovanni in honor of John the Baptist. When his father returned, he added the name Francesco, because of his love for France. Growing up, Francis learned some French and Provençal from his father, and got to know the courtly stories and troubadour songs of the day. He learned his father’s trade as a seller of cloth and became a skillful buyer, but also a big spender. He was a wealthy young man about town and a leader among his friends. People appreciated his spirit of generosity and his attention to the feelings of others.
When Francis was 20, Assisi was getting involved in a war with neighboring Perugia. Francis joined Assisi’s army, hoping for adventure and glory. However, Assisi’s army was defeated, and Francis was taken prisoner. Released from prison after a year, he became seriously ill. The illness lasted about a year. While undergoing some change of heart, he still saw himself as a soldier, and volunteered to fight in support of the Papal army in southern Italy. When he reached Spoleto, he rested. In a dream, he heard a voice saying, “Follow the Master rather than the man.”
Francis returned to Assisi, gave up his former ways and began to pray and meditate. One day when he was out riding, he met a leper. At first, he backed away from him, but then dismounted and gave him some money, and then took his hand and kissed it. Later, Francis would refer to this as the moment he left the world. After this event, he began to visit leper houses and hospitals, giving money and clothing to help those who were suffering.
In the year 1205, Francis was praying inside the church of San Damiano. He heard a voice from the crucifix saying, “Francis, go and repair my church, which as you see is in ruins.” He took the message literally, and sold some of his father’s cloth to raise money to begin repairing the church. His father, frustrated by the change in his son, saw this as the last straw. He took Francis to the bishop’s court to get his money back. The bishop told Francis to give the money back, as it rightfully belonged to his father. Francis gave the money back, renounced his inheritance, and took off his clothes and gave those back, as well. Someone found a laborer’s smock, and he clothed himself in that. This marked his conversion to a life of poverty and dedication to God.
For two years, Francis lived as a solitary, dividing his time between prayer and tending to the poor. He collected alms around town, and worked manually repairing three churches: St. Damiano, St. Peter and the Portiuncula. At Mass in the Portiuncula, Francis heard the Gospel of Jesus sending out his disciples with no possessions, no money, no sandals and no walking stick. Francis understood this as his true vocation. He gave everything away, wore only a shepherd’s tunic with a hood, and tied a cord around his waist.
Francis began preaching a message of repentance and peace in the streets of Assisi. Within a few weeks, about a dozen disciples including a merchant, Bernardo da Quintavalle, a lawyer and cathedral canon, Pietro Catani, and a farmer, Giles of Assisi, joined him. Francis called his group the fratri minores or “lesser brothers.” They lived in a rickety cottage outside the town, and there Francis instructed them in the religious life and drew up a set of rules based on the evangelical councils (poverty, chastity and obedience). Francis took the rule to Rome to get approval. In 1210, Pope Innocent III gave it verbal recognition. He invested the members of the group with the clerical tonsure, and gave them the authority to preach the message of repentance.
Around this time, Francis was ordained a deacon. Out of his own humility and the high regard he had for the priesthood, he did not proceed any further with Holy Orders.
The new order began to grow, and Francis divided the friars into provinces. Along with St. Clare, Francis founded a second Order, which became known as the Poor Clares.
During this time in history, towns were growing, presenting challenges to the Church, which had a largely rural pastoral mission. Heresy was rife, and religious practices not sanctioned by Church authorities were beginning to appear. There was a need for a return to a purer, simpler form of religion. The friars began to meet the spiritual needs of the people – devotional life, preaching, confessing, and counsel.
In 1219, during the time of the Fifth Crusade, Francis sailed to Egypt, and landed at Damietta, which Crusaders were besieging. His intention was to speak to the Muslims about Christianity, even if he had to die as a martyr. When he arrived, Francis found the crusading soldiers as much in need of repentance as the Muslims, but had little success with them. He even tried to stop the Crusaders from attacking the Muslims at the Battle of Damietta, but failed. The Sultan of Egypt received Francis courteously and allowed him to preach, and let him go free without harming him. From there, Francis visited Palestine, before returning to Italy.
Francis founded the Third Order of Penitence in 1221. The Third Order was for people who sought to live the Franciscan ideals in the world. It was a way to experience a more personal spiritual life than could be found within the formal structures of the Church.
Francis submitted a new Rule for the fratri minores, and in 1223, Pope Honorius II accepted it. Francis had already resigned as Minister General of the Order in 1220, giving that position to Brother Elias of Cortona.
In 1223, Francis spent Christmas in Grecchio. There, he put together a living manger scene to help people to contemplate the Christ Child born in Bethlehem.
In an isolated place in the mountains north of Arezzo in August 1224, Francis received the stigmata. He tried to conceal these wounds, but soon it became well known that he had received the wounds of Christ on his hands, feet and side.
The final two years of his life were fraught with physical suffering. He went blind, and had constant stomach problems. He paid a final visit to St. Clare at San Damiano, where he composed the “Canticle of the Sun.” From there he went to Siena, where the friars thought he would die. He recovered a little and was taken to Assisi, where he dictated his Testament. In it, he told the story of his conversion. Francis died in the Portiuncula in 1226.
The life and example of St. Francis of Assisi has inspired people for centuries. Through his poverty and holiness, he showed us how to gain spiritual treasures. He strove to live the Gospel in simplicity, and became a living example of the transforming power of the love of God.