The Little Poor Man of Assisi has been called the best “imitation of Christ” ever. Some incidents from his life hint at his universal appeal.
St. Francis of Assisi (1181?-1226) sits atop every list of favorite saints. Why?
For one thing, we know more about him than we know about nearly any other medieval saint. We have his own words in the different editions of the Rule he left for his friars; in his Testament; in his poems/prayers such as “The Praises of God,” “The Prayer Before the Crucifix” and “The Canticle of the Creatures” (also called “The Canticle of the Sun”), and in various letters and blessings.
Two years after Francis’s death, he was pronounced a saint by Pope Gregory IX. Within the next 20 years, several of his followers had penned biographies.
Besides fact-based remembrances, many legends about him sprang up and were collected into books such as The Little Flowers of St. Francis. Now entire libraries are devoted to writings and other media about him.
Another reason for Francis’s popularity is that his personality and interests were so wide-ranging they are hard to contain in one article. So much is known and said about him that he has become something of a blank screen onto which we project what we want to find there. Every age decides what’s most important to emphasize. For instance, today we stress his rejection of materialism and his love of nature as valuable antidotes for our consumerism and ecological disregard.
St. Francis’s feast day is October 4. Besides his popularity among Catholics, he is one of those saints honored by non-Catholics. There are even Anglican Orders of Franciscans.
Besides the Order for men he started, he helped the Lady Clare found a new way for women to follow Christ, the Order of Saint Clare. And his Rule for lay people is used by many third orders of sisters and brothers as well. Now Francis’s spiritual sons and daughters minister all over the world.
Rejected His Father
Many incidents in the life of St. Francis strike universal chords. Young people sense a kindred spirit in him because he had to work so hard to distance himself from his father. Pietro Bernardone was a wealthy cloth merchant just as the Italian middle class was beginning to rise.
Pietro had been in France on a business trip when the boy was born. Upon his return, he immediately changed his son’s name from Giovanni (John) to Francesco (the Frenchman) because he was enamored of the culture of France.
Pietro had grand plans for his firstborn. But Francis was a happy-go-lucky kid whose mind was not on business. At first, all he wanted was to have a good time.
Francis was the leader of the town’s teens. He was not particularly good-looking, if the early portraits of him painted by Giotto and Cimabue are to be believed. (Of course, in those days nobody smiled in paintings, certainly not future saints.) But, to attract others so readily, Francis must have had a very engaging smile and manner.
When Francis began to see himself as a glorious knight, he convinced his father to outfit him, an expensive endeavor. Two stories are told of his time as a knight. In the first he got caught up in the war between Assisi and Perugia in 1202, and was captured and became ill. His father had to ransom him, and his mother nursed him back to health. In the second, in 1204, Francis started out again to fight but, to the scorn of his friends, he had a dream and returned home. (Dreams and following one’s heart were very important throughout his life.)
Francis was at loose ends, but one incident changed his life. He had always been afraid of lepers, but he suddenly decided to embrace one he met on the road and give him all the money he had with him.
After that day, Francis began to wear cheaper clothing. He sold his horse and left the money on the windowsill of the Church of San Damiano, a small chapel a mile or two outside Assisi. Then he decided he would help the parish priest by literally rebuilding the chapel.
One day the Lord spoke to him from the chapel’s crucifix: “Francis, go and repair my house, which you see is falling down.” Little did Francis imagine at the time that the Lord had meant not just this small chapel but the entire Church!
Needless to say, Pietro was now embarrassed by the actions of his beloved, but spoiled, son. He abused Francis with insults and demanded the return of his money. He turned to Bishop Guido of Assisi to back him up. But when the bishop confronted Francis about filial responsibilities, Francis responded by stripping naked and flinging away all his clothes. He said, “Hitherto, I have called Pietro Bernardone father. . . .From now on, I say only, ‘Our Father, who art in heaven.’”
While dramatic gestures like these emphatically made Francis’s point, they must have pained his parents no end.
Single-minded for the Gospel
The other point in Francis’s life with which everyone can identify is the struggle to find a life’s work. Many of his friends became his followers, starting with Bernard Quintavalle, a rich merchant who decided to sell off all his goods, Peter Catani, a canon of the cathedral, and Giles, a man of great gentleness and purity of spirit. About these men and others who joined the movement, Francis simply says in his Testament, “The Lord sent me brothers.”
At first Francis and the brothers repaired chapels and tended to lepers who lived on the plain below Assisi.
But Francis had a gift for being merry and had been influenced by the French troubadour tradition. He and his followers started singing the praises of God while working, something that attracted a great deal of attention.
On the feast of St. Matthias in 1209, Francis heard the Gospel (Mt 10:7-19) that was to guide the rest of his life: “And going, preach, saying, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. . . . Freely have you received, freely give. Take neither gold nor silver nor brass in your purses . . . nor two coats or a staff.”
Francis cast off his shoes and belt but kept his rough woolen coat, tying it with a rope. This outfit became the prototype for the Franciscan habit. Francis and his followers took as their mission to preach the love of God. They would greet those they passed on the road with “Our Lord give you peace.”
Preaching Peace and Love
The sheer optimism of Francis’s message invigorated those who heard it. With ongoing petty wars between city-states, corruption in the Church, rampant disease and hunger, the Middle Ages were not known for being happy times. But Francis wanted people to know how much God loves them. It was a message they — and we — needed to hear frequently.
We tell children as the first point in their catechesis that God is love and that God loves each of them personally, that God will take care of them through good times and bad. Francis emphasized this positive. In my hometown parish church when I was growing up, I remember two of the priests had very contrasting personalities. The pastor greeted school children with “Morning, pupils,” while one of the associates always said, “Good morning, scholars.” Guess which priest’s Masses all the altar boys wanted to serve?
G.K. Chesterton, the great Catholic writer of the early 20th century, wrote of Francis: “What gave him his power was this: that from the pope to the beggar, from the sultan of Syria in his pavilion to the ragged robber crawling out of the wood, there was never a man who looked into those brown burning eyes without being certain that Francis Bernardone was really interested in him.”
Allied to this optimistic and care-filled message was the Franciscans’ other main emphasis: repentance. If God loves you so much, how can you respond except by a conversion of heart?
Sought Church Approval
Regardless of movie portrayals, Francis was not some “hippie.” He realized that, to be credible, his movement needed some rules and structure. So he wrote a Rule of life for them, mostly by cobbling together Gospel passages and emphasizing simplicity of life, manual labor and poverty.
In 1209, he convinced Pope Innocent III to approve it verbally after the pope had a dream of St. Francis holding the Church of St. John Lateran, the Vatican of its day, on his shoulder.
Francis’s revised Rule received papal approval in 1223. It required that Franciscans always choose a leader in communion with the pope. Crowds flocked to hear the Franciscans, especially after they learned that the pope backed him.
No Plaster Saint
Although the movement kept growing, Francis wasn’t perfect, and he didn’t always succeed. He fasted often, but once he broke his fast by eating chicken. The next day, he had one of the brothers take him to town with a sign declaring his sin. On the other hand, he once deliberately broke his fast to eat with a friar who was unable to fast as long as the other friars and needed company.
In 1219, Francis went to Egypt to meet with Sultan al-Kamel in a private appeal to convert the Muslims. He was well treated but made no headway. The ivory horn given to him by the sultan is kept in the Chapel of Relics at Assisi’s Basilica of St. Francis. But Francis’s gentle approach to converting the “infidels” can set the model for interfaith dialogue today.
Francis’s health often laid him low, and he returned sick from his Middle East trip. His severe fasts and mistreatment of “Brother Ass,” his term for his body, accelerated his physical decline.
When he was nearly blind, he wrote that glorious praise of God, “The Canticle of the Creatures.” In it he somehow managed to praise Brother Fire, which had recently been used to cauterize his eyes: “Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom You light the night, and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.”
But the hardest thing for Francis to bear was having to turn over to others the management of his beloved Friars Minor. (That was his name for his followers because he wanted these “lesser brothers” to see themselves as lowly and in service to the Church.)
Franciscans joke that difficult times are “perfect joy.” One Francis story describes him returning to the friars after preaching and being caught in bad weather. He and his companions looked — and smelled — so bad that they were turned away and tossed into a bumble bush. He commented ironically that this was “perfect joy.”
Committed to Poverty
Francis died at the age of 45. He was so committed to poverty that he wanted to die naked, but finally accepted another friar’s cloak to cover and warm him.
Francis saw poverty as an essential element of the life he wanted for the “lesser brothers” and as the gateway to true freedom. His followers, however, have spent the last 800 years squabbling about how much money they really need to accomplish the Gospel mission.
Never ordained a priest, St. Francis allowed his friars to convince him to become a deacon so that he could read the Gospel to them. The Order of Friars Minor remains to this day a mixed order of priests, deacons and brothers, one with the primary task of preaching — regardless of their ministry.
To Bring Christ Closer
All of us can pray the prayer Blessed Pope John Paul II said the first time he went to Assisi in 1979 as pope: “My heart opens to our patron saint and cries, ‘You who brought Christ so close to your age, help us to bring Christ close to our age, to our difficult and critical times. Help us! . . . Help us . . . to bring Christ closer to the Church and to the world of today. . . . The difficult social, economic, and political problems, the problems of culture and contemporary civilization, all the sufferings of persons today, their doubts, their denials, their disorders, their tensions, their complexes, their worries . . . . Help us to express all this in the simple and fruitful language of the Gospel.’”
The first person I want to see in heaven when — and if — I get there is St. Francis. I know I’ll find him by the sound of merry laughter. TP
Barbara Beckwith spent 37 years working at St. Anthony Messenger magazine, which is owned by Franciscans. She has made three trips to Assisi, including a Franciscan pilgrimage in 2004.