Theology of the heart- Life of St. Francis of Assisi

THE LIFE OF ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI
Founder of the Order of Friars Minor
 1182-1226

By SCTJM
 

Feast Day: October 4

"my God, and my all."

 


Life of Saint Francis

Saint Francis was born in Assisi (Italy) in 1182. After squandering his youth away in having excessive fun, he converted, renounced his inheritance, and he offered himself totally to God. He embraced poverty,  and lived an evangelical life, preaching to everyone about the love of God. He gave his followers some wise norms that were later approved by the Holy See. He founded an Order of friars and his first female follower, Saint Clare, founded the Claritians through his inspiration.

A Saint for Everyone

There certainly does not exist any other saint that is as popular as he is, both among Catholics as well as Protestants and even among non-Christians. Saint Francis of Assisi captured the imagination of his contemporaries by presenting to them poverty, chastity, and obedience with purity and strength of a radical testimony.    

He became known as the Poor one of Assisi by his marriage with poverty, his love for the birds and all of nature. All of this reflects a soul in which God was his everything in an undivided manner, a soul that was nourished by the truths of the faith and who had offered himself entirely, not only to Christ, but also to Christ Crucified.

Birth and Family Life as a Nobleman

Francis was born in Assisi, city of Umbria, in the year 1182. His father, Pedro Bernardone, was a rich cloth merchant. The name of his mother was Pica and some authors affirm that she belonged to a noble family of Provenza.   Both his father as well as his mother were affluent.  Pedro Bernardone traded especially in France. Since he was in France when his son was born, people nicknamed him “François” (the Frenchman) even if his baptismal name was John. In his youth, Francis liked the romantic traditions that the troubadours promoted. He had money in abundance and he flaunted his wealth. He was not interested in his father’s business or in his studies; he was only interested in having fun with vain things which are commonly called “enjoying life.” However, he was not in the habit of licentiousness and he was very generous with the poor who asked him out of love for God.  

Finding of a Treasure

When Francis was 20 years old, discord between the cities of Perugia and Assisi exploded. While in the war, the young man was imprisoned by the Peruginos. He was in prison for a year and Francis withstood it joyfully. However, when he was freed, he fell gravely ill.  This illness tested his patience and strengthened and matured his spirit. When he felt sufficiently strong, he was determined to join the army and fight in Galterio and Briena, in the south of Italy. With that purpose he bought an expensive armor and a beautiful mantle. One leisurely day, however, when he was wearing his new outfit, he came across a poorly dressed gentleman who had fallen into poverty. Moved with compassion before this unfortunate person, Francis exchanged his rich clothing for those of the poor gentleman’s. That evening he saw a marvelous palace with rooms full of weapons over which had been engraved the sign of the cross, and he seemed to have heard a voice that told him that those weapons belonged to him and his soldiers.   

Francis left for Apulia with an unburdened soul and the confidence of winning, but he never reached the battle line. In Espoleto, city of the path from Assisi to Rome, he fell sick again and during his illness he heard a celestial voice that exhorted him to “serve the master and not the slave.” The young man obeyed. At the beginning he went back to his former life, although taking things less lightly. Upon seeing him lost in his thoughts people would tell him that he was in love. “Yes,” Francis would reply, “I am going to marry the most beautiful and the fairest from all those I’ve met,” he was referring to “lady poverty.” Little by little, with much prayer, he began to conceive the desire of selling all his goods and buying the precious pearl of which the Gospel speaks. 

Even though he ignored what he had to do to attain it, a series of clear supernatural inspirations made him understand that the spiritual battle began by mortification and victory over instincts. On one occasion when he was strolling by on horse through the prairies of Assisi, he came across a leprous man. The wounds of this beggar terrorized Francis; but instead of fleeing, he approached the leprous man who extended his hand to receive alms. Francis understood that the time had come to take the step for the radical love of God. Despite his natural aversion towards leprous people, he renounced his will, approached him, and gave him a kiss.  That changed his life. It was a gesture moved by the Holy Spirit, asking Francis for a quality of an offering, a “yes” that distinguishes the saints from the mediocre people. 

Saint Bonaventure tells us that after this event, Francis would often visit isolated places where he would lament and cry over his sins. As he vented his soul he was heard by the Lord. One day, meanwhile he prayed, Jesus Christ Crucified appeared to him. The memory of the Passion of our Lord was etched in his heart in such a way that each time he thought about it, he could not contain his tears and sobs.

“Francis, repair my Church which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.”
From thereafter, he began to visit and serve the sick in the hospitals. Sometimes he would give his clothing away to the poor; other times he would give away the money he had with him. He would serve them with great care because the prophet Isaiah tells us that Christ Crucified was rejected and treated as a leper. In this way, he would develop his spirit of poverty, his profound sense of humility and his great compassion. On certain occasions, meanwhile he prayed in the church of San Damiano in the outskirts of Assisi, it seemed to him that the crucifix repeated three times, “Francis, repair my Church which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.” The saint, seeing that the church was found in a bad state, thought that the Lord wanted him to repair it. So he left immediately and took a large quantity of clothing from his father’s store and sold them along with his horse. At once, he took the money to the poor priest who was in charge of the church of San Damiano and asked him permission to live with him. The good priest consented to allow Francis to stay with him, but he did not accept the money. The young man placed it on the windowsill. Upon finding out what his son did, Peter Bernardone headed angrily to San Damiano, but Francis was very careful to hide himself.  

Renouncing of the Inheritance of his Father

At the end of some days spent in prayer and fasting, Francis reemerged back into society, but he was so disfigured and poorly dressed that the people would make fun of him as if he was a crazy person. Very taken aback by the behavior of his son, Pedro Bernardone took him home, beat him furiously (Francis was 25 years old), placed grasshoppers on his feet, and locked him up in a bedroom. Francis’ mother made sure to set him free when her husband was away and, that way, Francis was able to return to San Damiano. His father went again after him, hit him on the head, and threatened him that if he did not return immediately to his house then he would have to renounce all of his inheritance and pay him the money from the clothing he had taken. Francis did not have any difficulty renouncing his inheritance, but he told his father that the money from the clothing belonged to God and the poor. 

His father forced him to appear before Bishop Guido of Assisi who exhorted the young man to return the money and to trust in God, “God does not desire that His Church enjoy goods that were acquired unjustly.” Francis obeyed to the letter the bishop’s order and added, “The clothing that I am wearing also belongs to my father and so I have to return it to him.” At once he took off his clothes and handed them over to his father, telling him joyfully, “Up to now you have been my father on earth. But from now on I could say, ‘Our Father, who art in Heaven’.” Pedro Bernardone left the Episcopal palace “trembling from indignation and profoundly wounded.”

The bishop gave Francis a worker’s used clothing that belonged to one of his servants. Francis received the first alms very gratefully; he traced the sign of the cross over his clothes with a piece of chalk and put it on. 

Call to Renouncing and Denial

Right away, he left in search of a convenient site where he could settle down. He was joyfully singing the divine praises on the camino real, when he bumped into some bandits who asked him who he was. He responded, “I am the herald of the Great King.” The bandits beat him and dragged him into a ditch covered with snow. Francis continued his path singing the divine praises. In a monastery he obtained alms and work as if he was a beggar. When he arrived in Gubbio, a person who knew him took him home and gave him a tunic, a belt, and some pilgrim sandals. Francis used them for two years at the end of which he returned to San Damiano.     

To repair the church, he went to ask for alms in Assisi, where everyone knew him as rich and, naturally, he had to put up with the mockery and the rejection from many. He himself made sure to transport the stones that were needed to repair the church and he helped the construction workers. Once the reparations were done in the church of San Damiano, Francis took on a work similar to the early church of Saint Peter. After, he moved to a small chapel named Porziuncula that belonged to the Benedictine Abbey of Mount Subasio. It is probable that the name of the small chapel referred to the fact that the chapel was built in a reduced plot of land.   

The Porziuncula was located on a plain about four kilometers from Assisi, and in that time, it was abandoned and almost in ruins. The tranquility of the site pleased Francis as well as the title of Our Lady of the Angels in whose honor the chapel had been built. Francis repaired it and made it his residence. It is there that on the feast of Saint Mathias in 1209 heaven showed him what was expected of him.   

At that time, the gospel of the Mass for Saint Mathias’ feast day said, “As you go, make this proclamation: 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand.'…Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give... Do not take gold… or a second tunic, or sandals, or walking stick…Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves” (Mt 10: 7-18). These words penetrated to the deepest part of Francis’ heart and taking these words literally, he gave away his sandals, his walking stick, and his belt and he was left with his tunic tied to a cord. Such was the habit he gave his brothers a year later:  a crude, wool tunic similar to that of the shepherds and farmers of the region. Dressed in that way, he began to exhort people to penance with so much energy that his words penetrated the hearts of his listeners. When he came across someone on his way, he would greet him with these words, “The peace of our Lord be with you.”

Extraordinary Gifts

God had granted him the gift of prophecy and the gift of miracles. When he would ask for alms to repair the church of San Damiano, he would be accustomed to say, “Help me finish this church. One day there will be a convent of religious sisters there in whose good name the Lord and the universal Church will be glorified.” The prophecy was verified five years later in Saint Clare and her religious sisters. A resident of Espoleto suffered from cancer that had horribly disfigured his face. On one occasion, upon coming across Saint Francis, the man tried to throw himself at his feet, but the saint stopped him from doing so and instead, kissed him on his face. The sick man was instantly healed. Saint Bonaventure would comment about this, “I do not know which act one has to admire more, if the kiss or the miracle.”  


New Religious Order and Visit to the Pope

Francis quickly had numerous followers and some wanted to become his disciples. The first one was Bernardo de Quintavalle, a rich merchant from Assisi. At the beginning, Bernardo would observe with curiosity the spiritual growth of Francis and he would often invite him to his house where he always had lodging available for Francis. Bernardo would pretend to be sleeping to observe how the servant of God would quietly get up and spend a long time in prayer, repeating these words, “Deus meus et omnia” (My God and my all). He finally understood that Francis was “truly a man of God” and at once he begged him to be admitted as his disciple. From that moment on, they would attend Mass together and studied Sacred Scripture to know the will of God. Since the signs from the Bible coincided with their goals, Bernardo sold everything and distributed the money amongst the poor.  

Pedro de Cattaneo, a canon from the cathedral of Assisi, asked Francis to be admitted as his disciple and Francis “granted them the habit” together on the 16th of April 1209. The third companion of Saint Francis was his brother Gil, famous for his simplicity and spiritual wisdom. 

In 1210 when the group consisted of 12 members, Francis composed a brief and informal rule that entailed primarily the evangelical counsels to attain perfection. They took it to Rome to present it for approval from the Holy Father. They travelled by foot, singing and praying, full of happiness, and living off of the alms that people would give them. 

Pope Innocence III was opposed at first. On the other hand, many cardinals thought that the existing religious orders needed to be reformed, that new ones were not needed, and that the new manner of understanding poverty could not be practiced. Rome did not want to approve this community because it seemed too rigid in reference to poverty, but at the end a cardinal said, “We cannot prohibit them from living how Christ established it in the Gospel.” They received the approval and they returned to Assisi to live in poverty, prayer, holy happiness, and great fraternity, together next to the church in the Porziuncula. Cardinal John Colonna argued in favor of Francis and thought that his rule expressed the same counsels the Gospel used to exhort others to perfection. Later on, the Pope recounted to his nephew, who in turn told Saint Bonaventure,  that he had seen in his dreams a palm tree that grew rapidly and afterwards, he had seen Francis holding with his body the basilica of Saint John Lateran that was about to fall down. Five years later, the same Pope would have a similar dream about Saint Dominic. Innocence III ordered that Francis be called and verbally approved his rule; he then conferred the tonsure upon him along with his companions and gave them as a mission to preach penance.

The Porziuncula

Saint Francis and his companions transferred temporarily to a cabin of Rivo Torto in the outskirts of Assisi from where they would leave to go preach all over the region. Shortly after, they had difficulties with a farmer who was claiming the cabin as his own so that he may use it as a barn for his donkey. Francis responded, “God has called us to prepare stables not donkeys,” and he immediately left the place and headed towards the abbot of Monte Subasio. In 1212, the abbot gave Francis the chapel of the Porziuncula with the condition that he always conserve it as the main church of the new order. The Saint refused to accept the property of the small chapel and only consented to borrowing it. As a proof that the Porziuncula would continue as property of the Benedictines, Francis would send them every year, in recompense for the loan, a basket of fish taken from the neighboring stream. 

On their part, the Benedictines would, in turn, send them a barrel of oil. This same custom exists today between the Franciscans of Saint Mary of the Angels and the Benedictines of Saint Peter of Assisi.  

Around the Porziuncula the friars built various primitive cabins because Saint Francis did not allow the order in general or the convents in particular to own any temporal goods. They had made poverty the base of their Order and their love for poverty would manifest itself in their way of dressing, in the utensils used, and in each one of their acts. They were used to calling their body “brother donkey” because they considered it as something made to transport loads, to receive beatings, and to eat little and poorly. When Francis would notice a friar being idle, he would call him “brother fly” because instead of cooperating with others he would ruin the jobs of others and bother them. Shortly before dying, considering that man is required to treat his body with charity, Francis asked forgiveness from his body for having treated him perhaps with too much rigor.  

The saint had always opposed the indiscrete and exaggerated austerities. On one occasion, seeing that a friar had lost sleep due to excessive fasting, Francis took him some food and ate with him so that he would feel less mortified. 

Subjection of the Flesh to Thorns; God Grants Him Wisdom

At the beginning of his conversion, upon seeing himself attacked by violent temptations of impurity, he would roll over naked over the snow. When the temptation was still more violent than ordinary, the saint furiously disciplined himself. Since this was not enough to drive it away, he ended up rolling over brambles.    

His humility did not simply consist in a sentimental rejection of himself, but rather in the conviction that “before the eyes of God man’s worth comes from who he is and nothing else.” Considering himself unworthy of the priesthood, Francis only reached becoming a deacon. He detested with all his heart peculiarities. When he was informed that one of the friars loved silence so much that he confessed his sins using signs, he responded with disgust, “That does not come from the spirit of God but from the devil; it is a temptation and not an act of virtue.” God illuminated the intelligence of his servant with a light of wisdom that is not found in the books. When a certain friar asked him permission to study, Francis answered that if he repeated with devotion the “Gloria Patri” he would become wise in the eyes of God.  


In reference to poverty of spirit, Francis would say, “There are many who by habit multiply pleas and practices of devotion, worrying their bodies with numerous fastings and abstinences, but when they hear one small word that sounds injurious to their person or when one tiny thing is taken away from them, they immediately are offended and irritated. These are not poor in spirit because the one who is truly poor in spirit loathes himself and loves those who hit him on the cheek.”   

Nature

His contemporaries speak with frequency of the care Francis had for animals and the power he had over them. For example, there is a famous story about when he reprimanded the swallows when he went to preach in Alviano, “Sister swallows, now it is my turn to talk; you have talked enough.” What are also famous are the anecdotes of the birds that would come to listen to him when he sang about the greatness of the Creator, of the rabbit that did not want to separate himself from him in the Trasimeno River, and of the wolf of Gubbio that was tamed by the saint. Some authors considered such anecdotes as simple allegories and others attributed to them a historic value.

Adventure of Love with God

The first years of the Order in Saint Mary of the Angels were a period of training in poverty and fraternal charity. The friars worked in their duties and in the neighboring fields to earn their daily bread. When there was no sufficient work, they would ask for alms door to door, but the founder had prohibited them from accepting money. They were always prompt in serving everyone, particularly the lepers and the maids.  

Saint Francis insisted that lepers be called “my Christian brothers” and the sick did not cease to appreciate this profound delicateness. He would tell the friars, “All of the brothers should try to practice good works because it is written ‘Always do good things so that the devil finds you occupied.’ Also, ‘Idleness is the enemy of the soul.’ That is why the servants of God should dedicate themselves continually to prayer or any good activity.”   

The number of companions of the saint increased. Amongst them is the famous “juggler of God,” friar Juniper. Because of the simplicity of the brother, Francis would repeat, “I would like to have a forest full of Junipers.” Once when the people of Rome had gathered to receive friar Juniper, his companions found him playing peacefully with the children outside the city walls. Saint Clare would call him “the toy of God.”   

Saint Clare

Clare had left Assisi to follow Francis in the spring of 1212 after having heard him preach. The saint was able to establish Saint Clare and her companions in San Damiano, and the community of religious sisters soon became for the Franciscans what the nuns of Prouille were to the Dominicans: a wall of feminine strength, a hidden flower and fruit garden of prayer that made fruitful the work of the friars.

Evangelization of the Muslims

In the autumn of 1212, Francis, unhappy with everything he had suffered and worked for the souls in Italy, he was resolved to go evangelize the Muslims.  He set sail in Ancon with a companion and headed for Syria, but a storm caused the boat to shipwreck on the Dalmatian coast. Since the friars had no money to continue their trip, they were forced to hide inside a ship to return to Ancon. After preaching for a year in central Italy (a man of Chiusi put at the friars’ disposal a retreat center in the mountain of La Verna in Toscana), Saint Francis decided to leave again to preach the Muslims in Morocco. God, however, wanted them to never arrive at their destination: the saint fell ill in Spain and he then had to return to Italy. There he dedicated himself to passionately preach the Gospel to the Christians.   

Humility and Obedience

Saint Francis gave his Order the name “Friars Minor” out of humility since he wanted his brothers to be the servants of all and to always seek the most humble places. With frequency he would exhort his companions to manual labor and if he allowed them to ask for alms, he prohibited them from accepting money.  Asking for alms did not represent something shameful since it was a way of imitating the poverty of Christ. Concerning the excellent virtue of humility, he would say, “Blessed is the servant who is found amongst his inferiors with the same humility as if he was amongst his superiors. Blessed is the servant who always remains under the rod of correction. He is a faithful and prudent servant who for each fault he commits he hurries to make amends: interiorly through contrition and exteriorly through confession and completing the penance.” The saint did not allow his brothers to preach in a diocese without the expressed permission of the Bishop. Among other things, he stipulated that “if one of the friars became separated himself from the Catholic faith in works or words and did not correct himself, he should be expelled from the Association.” All of the cities wanted to have the privilege of housing the new friars and the communities multiplied in Umbria, Toscana, Lombardia, and Ancon.

Growth of the New Order

It is told that in 1216, Francis solicited from Pope Honorius III the indulgence of the Porziuncula or the “forgiveness of Assisi.” The following year he met Saint Dominic in Rome who had preached the faith and penance in southern France at the time Francis was “a gentleman of Assisi.” Saint Francis also had the intention of going to preach in France, but since cardinal Ugolino (who later became Pope Gregory IX) discourage him from doing so, he sent in his place brothers Pacific and Agnelo who would later introduce the Order of the Friars Minor in England. The wise and giving cardinal Ugolino exercised a great influence in the development of the Order. The companions of Saint Francis were so numerous that a certain form of systematic organization and common discipline would forcibly be imposed. Thus, the Order was divided into provinces, at the head of each a minister was placed who was “in charge of the spiritual good of the brothers; if any one of them would become lost due to the bad example of the minister, he would have to respond for him before Jesus Christ.” The friars had already crossed the Alps and had missions in Spain, Germany, and Hungary.

The first general chapter met in the Porziuncula in Pentecost of the year 1217. In 1219, the chapter “of the mats” took place; it was so called because the cabins needed to be built in a hurry with mats to accommodate the delegates. It was told that around five thousand friars gathered. It is not at all strange that in such a large community the spirit of the founder would have diluted itself slightly. The delegates found that Saint Francis would offer himself excessively to adventure and they demanded a more practical spirit. What seemed to them as an adventure was in reality a great trust in God. The saint became profoundly indignant and replied, “My dear brothers, the Lord called me to the path of simplicity and humility and it is through that path He persists in guiding me, not only me but all those who are prepared to follow me... The Lord told me that we should be poor and crazy in this world and may that one and no other be the path through which He takes us.  May God confuse your wisdom and science and make you return to your primitive vocation even if it is against your will and if you find it defective.” Francis insisted that they love Jesus Christ and Holy Catholic Church and that they live with the greatest detachment possible from the material goods, and he did not tire of recommending them to fulfill as exactly as possible everything the Gospel commands.


Greatest Privilege: Not enjoying any privilege

He would travel through fields and towns inviting the people to love Jesus Christ more, and he would always repeat, “Love is not loved.” The people would listen to him with special care and he would be amazed at how much his words influenced their hearts to motivate them for Christ and his Truth. His words were a reflection of his life in imitation of Jesus. He would say:

“He who truly loves his enemy is not ashamed of the injuries his enemy provokes, but rather he suffers out of love of God due to the sin that drags the soul who offended him, and he manifests his love to his enemy with works.”

To those who proposed that he ask the Pope permission for the friars to preach in all parts without authorization of the bishop, Francis stated, “When the bishops see that you live holy lives and that you have no intentions of attempting against his authority, you will be the first to beg that you work for the good of souls entrusted to him. Consider how the greatest of all privileges is enjoying no privilege….” When the chapter ended, Saint Francis sent some friars to the first mission in  Tunisia and Morroco, and he reserved for himself the mission with the Sarracenes in Egypt and Siria. In 1215, during the Council of Lateran, Pope Innocence III had preached a new crusade, but such a crusade had reduced simply to reinforce the Latin Kingdom in the East. Francis wanted to brandish the sword of God.

Saint Francis went on a devote pilgrimage to the Holy Land to visit the Holy Places where Jesus was born, lived, and died: Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jerusalem, etc. As a remembrance of this pious visit, the Franciscans are in charge since centuries ago of being custodians of the Holy Places of Holy Land. 

Mission before the Sultan

On June of 1219, he embarked in Ancon with 12 friars. The ship took them to Damietta at the mouth of the Nile. The crusaders had established in the city and Francis suffered much upon seeing the selfishness and the dissolute habits of the soldiers of the cross. Consumed by zeal for the salvation of the Saracens, he decided to cross over to the enemy’s camp, even as much as the crusaders told him that the head of the Christians came at a price. Having obtained the authorization of the pontifical delegate, Francis and brother Illuminated approached the enemy’s camp, screaming “Sultan! Sultan!” When they took them before the presence of Malek-al-Kamil, Francis declared daringly, “It is not men who have sent me, but almighty God. I come to show you, you and your people, the path of salvation; I come to announce the truths of the Gospel.” The Sultan was left impressed and begged Francis to remain with him. The saint replied, “If you and your people are willing to listen to the word of God I will gladly stay with you. And if you still waver between Christ and Mahoma, order that a bonfire be lit; I will go inside it with your priests and you will see which one is the true faith.” The Sultan answered that probably none of the priests wanted to go inside the bonfire and he could not subject them to that trial so as not to cause a revolt.    

It is told that the Sultan went to say: “If all the Christians were like him, then it would be worth it to be a Christian.” But the Sultan, Malek-al-Kamil ordered Francis to return to the camp of the Christians.  

Discouraged by seeing the reduced success of his preaching amongst the Saracens and Christians, the Saint went to visit the Holy Places. There he received a letter in which his brothers urgently asked him to return to Italy.


Crisis of Adapting Leads to Clarification of the Rule

During the absence of Francis, his two vicars, Mathew of Narni and Gregory of Naples, had introduced certain innovations that tended to standardize the Friars Minor with the other religious orders and frame the Franciscan spirit within the rigid scheme of monastic observances and ascetic rules. The religious sisters of San Damiano already had their own constitution drawn by Cardinal Ugolino using the rule of Saint Benedict as a base. Upon arriving in Bolonia, Francis had the unpleasant surprise of finding his brothers lodged in a magnificent convent. The saint refused to place his feet inside it and so stayed with the preacher friars. At once he called for the guardian of the Franciscan convent, reprimanded him, and ordered the friars to leave that house.

Such events had according to the vision of the saint the dimensions of a true betrayal: it dealt with a crisis out of which the Order had to leave either sublime or destroyed. Saint Francis moved to Rome where he obtained from Honorius III the naming of Cardinal Ugolino as protector and advisor of the Franciscans since he had deposited a blind faith in the founder and he possessed a great experience of the matters of the Church. At the same time, Francis offered himself ardently to the task of revising the rule. For this he summoned a new general chapter that met in the Porziuncula in 1221. The saint presented the delegates the revised rule.   
 
As for poverty, humility, and evangelical freedom, which are all the characteristics of the Order, they remained intact. They represented a challenge from the founder to the dissidents and legalists who behind his back plotted a true revolution of the Franciscan spirit. The head of the opposition was brother Eli of Cortona. The founder had already renounced being director of the Order, such that his vicar, Friar Eli, was practically the general minister. However, he did not dare oppose the founder whom he respected sincerely. In reality, the Order was already too large, as Saint Francis himself said it, “If there were fewer friars the world would see them less and would desire that there be more.”   

At the end of two years during which he had to move each time stronger against a current that was tending towards moving the order in a direction that he had not foreseen and that seemed to jeopardize the Franciscan spirit, the saint took on a new revision of the Rule. Afterwards, he transmitted it to Brother Eli so that he may hand it down to the ministers. The document, however,   got lost and the saint had to dictate the revision again to Brother Leo amidst the clamor of the friars who affirmed that the prohibition of possessing goods in common could not be practiced.  

The rule, as it was approved by Honorius III in 122, represented substantially the spirit and the way of life for which Saint Francis had struggled since the moment he stripped himself of all his rich clothing before the bishop of Assisi.

Third Order

About two years prior Saint Francis and Cardinal Ugolino had composed a rule for the association of laypeople who had associated themselves to the Friars Minor and who belonged to what we now call the Third Order, built in a spirit of the “Letter to the Corinthians” which Francis had written during the beginning years of his conversion. The association, which was formed by laypeople dedicated to penance and who led a life very much different to the one accustomed to back then, became a great religious strength in the Middle Ages. In current canon law, the terciaries of the diverse orders still enjoy a status specifically different from the members of the associations and Marian congregations. 


Representation of the Birth of Jesus

Saint Francis spent the Christmas of 1223 in Grecehio in the valley of Rieti. In such an occasion he had told his friend John of Vellita, “I would like to make a kind of living representation of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem so as to witness, so to say, with the eyes of the body the humility of the Incarnation and see Him lying on the manger between the ox and the donkey.” Indeed, the saint built in the hermitage a kind of cave and the neighboring farmers attended the Midnight Mass in which Francis participated as deacon and preached about the mystery of Christmas. It is attributed to him to have begun the tradition of “Bethlehem” or “birth.” Thomas of Celano tells us in his biography of the saint, “The Incarnation was a key component in the spirituality of Francis. He wanted to celebrate the Incarnation in a special way. He wanted to do something to help people remember the Child Jesus and how he was born in Bethlehem.”  

 Saint Francis remained various months in the retreat of Grecehio, consecrated in prayer, but jealously hidden to the eyes of men the most special graces that God transmitted to him in contemplation. Brother Leo, who was his secretary and confessor, affirmed that he had often seen him during prayer be elevated so high above the ground that he could barely reach his feet and on some occasions he could not even do that.  

Stigmatas

Around the Feast of the Assumption of 1224, the saint retired to the mountain of La Verna and built a small cell there. He took with him Brother Leo, but he prohibited anyone from coming to visit him until after the feast of Saint Michael. It is there where on or about September 14th, 1224, the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, the miracle of the stigmatas took place. Francis tried to hide from the eyes of men the signs of the Passion of the Lord he had printed on his body. Therefore, he always had his hands inside the sleeves of the habit and he used socks and shoes. Nevertheless, wanting the advice from his brothers, he communicated to Brother Illuminated and some others what had happened, but he added that certain things that had been revealed to him no man on earth will ever discover. 

One time when he was sick, someone proposed reading a book to him to distract him. The saint responded, “Nothing consoles me more than the contemplation of the Life and Passion of our Lord. Although I have to live until the end of the world, only that book is enough.”  Francis had fallen in love with holy poverty meanwhile he contemplated Christ Crucified and meditated the new crucifixion he suffered in the person of the poor. 

The saint did not reject science, but he did not desire it for his disciples. Studies only made sense as means for an end and they could benefit the Friars Minor if they did not prevent them from dedicating a longer time of prayer and if they taught them to preach themselves than to speak with others. Francis detested studies that nourished vanity more than piety because they made charity become lukewarm and dried the heart. Above all, he feared that lady science would become the rival of lady poverty. Seeing with how much anxiety they would go to school and look for books for his brothers, Francis exclaimed one time, “Impulsed by the bad spirit, my poor brothers will end up abandoning the path of simplicity and poverty.” 

In his writings this is what the saint said about the vigilance of the heart, “Let us protect ourselves from the malice and astuteness of Satan who wants men not to have their minds and hearts directed to God. He prowls around seeking to become the owner of the heart of man and, under the appearance of some recompense or aid, to drown in his memory the word and precepts of the Lord, and he intends to blind the heart of man through the worldly activities and worries, establishing his abode there.” 

Before leaving mountain La Verna, the saint composed the “Hymn of praise to the Almighty.” Soon after the feast of Saint Michael he finally descended to the valley, marked by the stigmatas of the Passion, and cured the sick whom he encountered on his way.  

Sister Death

The really hot sand of the desert of Egypt affected the vision of Francis to the point of being almost completely blind. The last two years of the life of Francis were of great suffering that it seemed that the cup had been filled and flowed over. Strong pains due to the deterioration of many of his organs (stomach, liver, and spleen) were consequences of the malaria he contracted in Egypt. In the most terrible pains, Francis offered to God everything as a penance and for the salvation of souls since he considered himself a great sinner. It was during his sickness and pain when he felt the greatest need to sing. 

His health progressively became worse. The stigmatas made him suffer and weakened him, and he almost lost his sight. In the summer of 1225, he was so sick that Cardinal Ugolino and Brother Eli forced him to go to the Pope’s doctor in Rieti. The saint obeyed with simplicity. On his way to Rieti he went to visit Saint Clare in the convent of San Damiano. There in the middle of his most acute physical sufferings, he wrote the “Canticle of Brother Sun” and adapted it to a popular tune so that his brothers could sing it.   

He then moved to the mountain of Rainerio where he submitted himself to the brutal treatment that the doctor had prescribed to him, but the improvement that it produced was only momentary. His brothers took him then to Siena to consult other physicians, but by then the saint was already dying. In the will he dictated to his friars, he recommended fraternal charity, he exhorted them to love and observe holy poverty, and to love and honor the Church. Shortly before his death, he dictated a new will to recommend that his brothers faithfully observe the rule and work manually, not for the desire of luxuries, but to avoid idleness and to give a good example. “If they do not pay us for our labors, let us go to the table of the Lord, asking for alms door to door.” When Francis returned to Assisi, the bishop gave him accommodations in his own house. Francis begged the doctors to tell him the truth, and they confessed that he only had a few weeks to live. “Welcome, Sister Death!” he exclaimed and at once, he asked to be transported to the Porziuncula. On the way, when the procession was at the peak of a hill from which the panorama of Assisi was visible, he asked those carrying the stretcher to stop for a moment and so he turned his blind eyes in the direction of the city and begged for the blessing of God for the city and its residents.

He then ordered the stretcher bearers to hurry up to arrive at the Porziuncula. When he felt death approaching, Francis sent a messenger to Rome to call the noblewoman Giacoma of Settesoli, who had been his protectress, to beg her to bring with her some candles and a sackcloth to wrap himself, as well as a piece of cake he really liked. Happily, the lady came to the Porziuncula before he died. Francis exclaimed, “Blessed be God who has sent us our sister Giacoma! The rule that prohibits the entry of women does not apply to our sister Giacoma. Tell her to enter.”   

The saint sent his last message to Saint Clare and her religious and asked his brothers to sing the verses of the “Canticle of the Sun” in which death was praised. He immediately begged that they bring him a piece of bread and he distributed it amongst those present as a sign of peace and fraternal love saying, “I have done my part, may Christ teach you to do your part.” His brothers laid him down on the floor and covered him with an old habit. Francis exhorted his brothers the love of God, of poverty, and the Gospel “above all the rules,” and he blessed all of his followers, both the present as well as those absent.

He died on the 3rd of October of 1226, after listening to the reading of the Passion of the Lord according to the Gospel of Saint John. Francis had asked to be buried in the cemetery of the criminals of Colle d’Inferno. Instead of doing it that way, his brothers took the cadaver the next day in a solemn procession to the church of Saint Jorge, in Assisi.  He was buried there until two years after his canonization. In 1230, he was secretly transferred to the great basilica built by Brother Elia.

The cadaver disappeared from the site of men for six centuries until 1818. After 52 days of searching, it was discovered under the high altar, many meters down below. The saint was no more than 44 or 45 years when he died. We cannot relate here not even in a summary, the daring and brilliant story of the Order he founded. Let us simply state its three branches, Friars Minor, Capuchin Friars, and the Conventional Friars Minor; they form the largest religious institute that currently exists in the Church. According to the historian David Knowles, upon founding that institute, Saint Francis “contributed more than anyone to save the Church from the decadence and disorder in which it had fallen during the Middle Ages.”    

Saint Francis of Assisi, ask Jesus for us to love him as intensely as you reached! 


General Audience by H.H. Benedict XVI about St. Francis...

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