30 September 2022

Saint of the Week – St Francis of Assisi

Name: Giovanni (‘Francesco’) di Pietro di Bernadone Born: 1181/2; Assisi, Umbria Died: 3rd October 1226, Assisi, Umbria Feast Day: 4th October Patron Saint of: Franciscan Order, animals, ecology, merchants.

There is quite possibly no other saint in the history of Christianity whose life has inspired such a vast body of literature and art as St Francis of Assisi. His short but remarkable life is a mix of history and legend that is at times impossible to disentangle. Born Giovanni di Bernadone, his father was a cloth merchant, whose business travels to France influenced Giovanni to such a degree that he was given the nickname ‘little Frenchman’ or ‘Francesco’ in the local Italian dialect. In his youth, Francesco was a true romantic, enchanted by the troubadours whose songs espoused the ideals of chivalry and courtly love. The success of his father’s business as a cloth merchant enabled Francesco to dress well and live a rather indulgent youth. His involvement in a war with the neighbouring city of Perugia saw him captured and imprisoned for about a year. His dreams of knightly honour dashed, he was released and returned to Assisi. Having lost his former joie de vivre Francesco become almost sullen and introspective as he reassessed his entire life’s ambitions. In one encounter with a leper he succeeded in over-coming his repulsion and in bestowing a kiss of brotherly affection. It marked a significant reordering of his life’s priorities, and the first inkling of his ability to fall in love with ‘Lady Poverty.’ By now he was living a life of radical prayer, fasting, and penance. Francis began begging for alms to the horror of his parents who severed ties with him, following an incident where he sold some of his father’s cloth to provide alms for poor beggars. It was at the neglected church of San Damiano, just outside Assisi, that Francis distinctly heard the voice of Christ from the Cross: “Go, Francis, rebuild my church which as you see is falling into ruin.” Francis took this quite literally and set about rebuilding the dilapidated building stone by stone. In time, as more and more followers flocked to him to imitate his life of radical evangelical poverty and charity, he understood the fuller sense of those words.

Francis was always a devoutly loyal son of the Church. When it became clear that he was unwittingly the founder of a new religious movement, his first instinct was to go to Rome to seek the approval and blessing of the Pope. The night before meeting Francis, Pope Honorius III had had a strange dream of a poor beggar holding up a church on the brink of collapse. Upon seeing Francis the Pope immediately recognised him as the figure he had seen in his dream, and received the ‘poverello’ graciously. In due course Honorius III gave his approval for the Order of Friars Minor, known popularly as the Franciscans. The order spread like wildfire across the European continent shaping the course of Christianity for the next eight centuries like few other movements in Church history.

In 1224, two years before his death, St Francis received the stigmata in an ecstasy while on retreat on the remote mountain of La Verna, a sign of his perfect configuration to Christ Crucified. He died on 3rd October 1226 at the age of about 44. He was immediately venerated as a saint by the faithful, and formally canonised less than two years later. St Francis is a reminder that the greatest reformers of the Church are never revolutionaries or angry and well-funded lobbyists, but always saints, who begin not by wanting to change everybody else, but by seeking to change their own lives. St Francis lived the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience with an assiduousness and passion rarely rivalled, because he knew and experienced the love of Jesus Christ.

The feeble, two-dimensional Franco Zeffirelli caricature of St Francis as a medieval, environmentalist hippy skipping through the fields, entirely misses the depth and complexity of his character. Francis was a living exemplar of the paradox of the Christian Gospel, holding together in tension apparent opposites. He was carefree yet deeply serious; he was unconventional and yet thoroughly orthodox; He appeared to have no clear plan for his life, yet none sought to live more strictly according to the rule of the Gospel; He was coarse and dirty in appearance, yet flawlessly refined in character; he had a profound love for the beauty of creation; yet he was utterly detached from material possessions; he was a deeply introspective mystic, yet drew thousands to himself with his warm, charismatic personality; he was a rigorous ascetic, and yet the most passionate of lovers; his life was marked by the radiant joy of a troubadour, yet also the suffering of a stigmatist; he renounced the world and actively sought the lowest place, yet ended up among the most popular figures in human history. In his perfect conformity to Christ he became one of the most brilliantly original saints of all time.

St Francis of Assisi, pray for us!