St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast day we will celebrate on October 4, is one of our most beloved saints. People have always been drawn to St. Francis because of his joyfulness, and his love of God, people, and nature.
Francis Bernardone was born in Assisi in the Umbria region of Italy around 1181, one of two sons of a wealthy merchant. As a young man, he enjoyed having a good time with friends and spending money extravagantly. When Francis was twenty-two years old and serving in the military, he was taken prisoner by the Perugians and imprisoned for a year. Afterward, he suffered from a long illness for almost a year. When he recovered, he planned to return to the military, but changed his mind because of a dream, and devoted himself to prayer, penance, and giving money, food, and clothing to the poor. At this time, he encountered a leper while out riding his horse one day. Although he found it difficult to even look at a leper, he got off his horse and kissed the leper’s fingers. This experience led him to have charity for all people and he later volunteered to take care of lepers.
Francis spent much time in prayer at the Church of San Damiano, and eventually moved into the church. It is believed that he had a mystical experience one day, while praying before the crucifix, and that he heard Jesus speak to him, saying, “Francis, go and repair my house, which you see is falling down.” Interpreting what he heard to mean that he ought to repair the church building, he sold some material belonging to his father as a way to raise money for the church. Francis’ father was very angry and forced him to return home, but while his father was away, his mother let him leave and he went back to the church. Finally, in the presence of his bishop, he returned the money to his father and renounced his inheritance. Francis stayed for a time in a monastery, then with a friend, and in abandoned churches. Francis then returned to the Church of San Damiano where he begged for donations and did manual work to obtain money to repair the building and also repaired other churches. He began wearing a simple tunic which became his habit. Two men asked to join Francis, which was the beginning of the Order of Friars Minor. Before long, there were twelve friars in their community.
Francis was inspired to make his rule of life based on the Gospel of St. Matthew 10:7-11, in which Jesus told His disciples, “As you go, make this proclamation: ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand. ‘Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, drive out demons. Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give. Do not take gold or silver or copper for your belts; no sack for the journey, or a second tunic, or sandals, or walking stick.” Some biographers tell of Francis hearing this Gospel reading at Mass and immediately knowing that this was how he wanted to live.
Francis was a very faithful Catholic. Consequently, in 1210, Francis and his companions went to Rome to seek Pope Innocent III’s approval of their rule. After the Pope’s approval, they returned to Assisi where a Benedictine abbot let them use a small chapel, the Portiuncula, which was named in honor of Our Lady of Angels. When Pope Innocent III approved the rule, he commissioned Francis and his brothers to preach, and eventually preaching became part of their mission as they traveled to different towns, speaking to individuals and groups of people. Francis and the friars always greeted people by saying, “May the Lord give you peace.” Francis also evangelized others without words, preaching by the example of his life.
Inspired by Francis’ preaching, a young woman named Clare wanted to live in a similar way as the friars, and Francis helped her found a contemplative order for women, which became known as the Poor Clares. Lay people were also interested in Francis’ spirituality, and they were able to become members of the Third Order, in which they lived in the world but followed a Franciscan rule of life for lay people, which involved prayer, penitential practices, regular meetings, and service to others.
Francis wanted people to live in peace with one another. On a trip to the Holy Land in 1219, at the time of the Fifth Crusade, Francis and one of the friars had a meeting with the Sultan of Egypt. According to Francis’ biographers, the men listened respectfully to one another and Francis spoke to the Sultan about Jesus and Christianity. This meeting was the beginning of peaceful relations between the Franciscans and Muslims, and eventually the Franciscans becoming the Custodians of the Holy Land for the Church.
An incident in Francis’ life, led to the tradition of the Christmas nativity. In 1223, Francis asked a man in Grecchio to create a nativity scene for a church. At the Midnight Mass, while Francis gave the sermon, he held the figure of the baby Jesus up and the man who created the nativity scene reported seeing it become a real baby.
Francis often meditated on Jesus’ suffering on the Cross. While on a retreat on Mount Alvernia, an angel (a seraph) appeared to him, and afterwards, he received the stigmata (the marks of the wounds suffered by Jesus in His crucifixion). The wounds caused him pain, but he kept the stigmata a secret from most people.
At the end of his life, Francis suffered from poor health, as well as a disease of his eyes that caused sensitivity to light and took away most of his vision. In his last days, he composed a stanza on Sister Death for the Canticle of Brother Sun, and dictated a testament about his life. A few weeks before he died, he asked to return to the Portiuncula, and his friars brought him there to stay for the remainder of his life. Francis died at age 44 on October 3, 1226, in the presence of his brother friars. Francis was canonized a saint on July 16, 1228. During his lifetime, and afterward, many miracles were attributed to him.
St. Francis’ spirituality was based on following the example of Jesus as presented in the Gospels, which is why he emphasized prayer, love of one’s neighbor, care for the poor and sick, and a strict practice of poverty, in which the members of his community did not own anything. St. Francis also had a great devotion to the Blessed Mother.
One of the most important aspects of St. Francis’ spirituality was his love for Jesus in the Eucharist. He usually participated at Mass every day and often received Holy Communion. In his letters and other writings, he emphasized that Catholics should have faith in Jesus’ presence in the Blessed Sacrament, show Him great reverence, and receive Holy Communion worthily. In his “Letter to All Superiors of the Friars Minor”, he requested that “In all your sermons you shall tell the people of the need to do penance, impressing on them that no one can be saved unless he receives the Body and Blood of our Lord. When the priest is offering sacrifice at the altar or the Blessed Sacrament is being carried about, everyone should kneel down and give praise, glory, and honor to our Lord and God, living and true”. To honor Jesus’ Presence in His churches, St. Francis taught the friars a prayer that Franciscans still pray today: “We adore you, Lord Jesus Christ, here and in all your churches in the whole world, and we bless you, because by your holy Cross you have redeemed the world.”
St. Francis had great respect for priests and encouraged other Catholics to honor them as well because it is priests who offer the Sacrifice of the Mass. One of the first members of Francis’ community was an older priest, Father Silvester. Francis did not feel called to serve God as a priest himself, but was ordained as a deacon.
St. Francis had great appreciation for God’s gift of creation and a special connection with animals. He saw the beauty and goodness of God reflected in His creation. He composed a poem of praise, “The Canticle of Brother Sun,” which begins and ends with praise and thanks to God, and praises God for aspects of His creation including the sun, moon, water, and fire.
St. Francis is considered a reformer, but he did not work to reform the institution of the Church, but to reform himself, and to encourage others to reform themselves as well, through conversion, repentance, penance, and the practice of charity. He understood that the Church could experience renewal only if Her members were transformed through the holiness of their lives.
Prayer of St. Francis
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring your love
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, your joy.
Master, grant that I may never seek
so much to be consoled, as to console
to be understood, as to understand
to be loved as to love with all my being.
For it is in pardoning that we are pardoned.
It is in giving selflessly that we receive,
and it is in dying
that we are born to eternal life.
The Canticle of Brother Sun (by St. Francis)
Most High, all-powerful, good Lord,
all praise, glory, honor and blessings are yours.
They belong to you alone, Most High,
for no one is worthy to mention your name.
Praised be you, my Lord, with all your creatures,
especially Sir Brother Sun.
He is the day and through him you give us light.
He is beautiful and radiant with great splendor,
and bears your likeness, Most High One.
Praised be you, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars.
You formed them in heaven clear and beautiful.
Praised be you, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
through the heavens –cloudy and serene —
and through every kind of weather.
Through them you give sustenance to your creatures.
Praised be you, my Lord, through Sister Water.
She is very useful, humble, precious and chaste.
Praised be you, my Lord, through Brother Fire.
Through him you light up the night;
he is beautiful, cheerful, robust and strong.
Praised be you, my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth.
She sustains and governs us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.
Praised be you, my Lord, through those who forgive out of love for you,
and through those who bear infirmity and tribulation.
Blessed are those who endure in peace; you, Most High, will crown them.
Praised be you, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death,
no living person can escape her.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin;
blessed are those who die in your most holy will,
for the second death shall not harm them.
Praise and bless my Lord.
Give him thanks and serve him with great humility.
~ Louise Merrie