“My God and my all.” ~ St. Francis
When most people hear St. Francis of Assisi, they think of cute animals or the green movement. But, this is far from the real St. Francis. Because of his profound relationship with the Lord, St. Francis was able to have a profound gratitude for all of God’s creation, and in turn love and serve his brothers and sisters in need. But, he didn’t start out a great saint . . . he started out as a typical young person, interested in the curiosities of his day and age (the early middle ages)–parties and chivalry.
St. Francis was born Francis Bernadone in Assisi in 1182 to Pietro and Picca Bernadone. His popularity among his peers was well noted, and he was determined to prove himself as a knight. However, while on his way to serve in Pope Innocent III’s army, he fell ill on his way and was taken captive. It was at this time that the Lord spoke to St. Francis in the quiet of his heart, asking:
“Francis who can do more for you the lord or the servant?” Francis answered, “the lord.” God replied: “Then why do you leave the lord for the servant, a rich lord for a poor man?” And Francis asked, “Lord, what would you have me do?” God said, “Return home and you will be told what to do.”
From then on, Francis began to desire to serve the King of kings and to be a holy knight in His court. This, indeed, was the beginning of St. Francis’ conversion.
St. Francis began to desire a simple life, a poor life. Previously, Francis was repelled by the lepers who lived in a commune outside of Assisi. Now, with his new thirst for the Lord, he was impelled not only to serve but even to embrace the lepers after an encounter with a leper in whom Francis truly recognized the face of Christ suffering.
Following this experience, St. Francis grew in his desire for Christ. One day, while praying in front of the Crucifix at the dilapidated San Damiano Church, St. Francis heard Christ speak to him from the Cross, saying “Francis, rebuild my house, for as you see it is falling into ruin.” St. Francis immediately began to rebuild San Damiano, and two other churches following . . . until he realized that Jesus was not simply asking him to help rebuild buildings, but to help rebuild the Body of Christ–the men and women of his day and age.
While many in Assisi thought Francis had gone crazy, men slowly began to follow him–among whom were his former companions and clergy members. St. Francis was particularly inspired by three passages from the Sacred Scriptures:
- “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me (Matt 19:21).”
- “Take nothing for the journey, neither walking stick, nor sack, nor food, nor money, and let no one take a second tunic (Lk 9:3).
- “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me (Matt 16:24).”
Soon, many men began to follow St. Francis. St. Clare was the first woman to present herself to St. Francis, with a desire to follow his way of life. St. Francis set up a convent for St. Clare and those who joined her at San Damiano, and this was the beginning of the Poor Clares. Through their life of poverty and contemplation, the nuns complimented the work of the Friars. Over time, many lay men and women began to live the ideas of the Gospel, and St. Francis established the third order for them partake in the spirituality and works of the Franciscan Family.
From this point on, St. Francis and his companions strove to live the Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and to be ever faithful to the Church. St. Francis sought the approval of Rome through Pope Innocent III, and the final version of the Rule was approved in 1223. St. Francis was dedicated to a life of prayer and service, had a profound devotion to Christ in the Eucharist and understood the primacy of Liturgical prayer (The Mass, Liturgy of the Hours, the Sacraments). He taught his brothers, known as the Lesser Friars (Friars Minor), not primarily through his words, but by his example.
He was dedicated to serving the poor and preaching the Gospel from town to town–bringing the Good News into the cities where people now lived. This sociological shift had caused many people to lose their faith and become secular. The Lord specifically inspired St. Francis to live a style of religious life–known as the mendicant tradition–to reach the men and women of his day and age who were living in cities far away from the old monasteries that had at one time been the center of Catholic life and devotion.
St. Francis strove throughout his life to come closer and closer to Christ, so much so that toward the end of his life, while in prayer on Mount La Verna, St. Francis received the gift of the Stigmata–the five wounds of Christ Crucified–on his very body. He and St. Pio (Padre Pio, a Franciscan priest) are the only known saints in Church History to have received all five wounds.
St. Francis died on October 4, 1226, with the words, “Let us begin, brothers, to serve the Lord God, for up to now we have done little or nothing” on his lips. His profound humility and knowledge of his human weakness enabled St. Francis to receive the grace of God to be transformed into a humble instrument of peace and joy. His example inspires countless men and women to this day to lay down our lives in service of our brothers and sisters in need, and to keep Christ as our only Treasure. St. Francis of Assisi, pray for us!