Who has not heard of St. Francis of Assisi? This Monday, October 4th, we mark his memorial. Among all the Saints of the Catholic Church, St. Francis is likely the one most well known across religious lines. Many may not be aware of the details of his life but if nothing else, we find statues in gardens, on front lawns, Francis depicted with birds or other animals, and touted to be the patron saint of ecology. Yet, Francis was far more than a respecter of the environment. For within all of creation, he saw, felt, and deeply respected the Creator behind the creation. But more than that, Francis was a man filled with the spirit of Christ, who gathered around him thousands of followers, and in a very real and true sense, rebuilt THE Church, though he first wondered if his task was more humble – to rebuild a Church.
It has been said that more than any living saint, Francis most resembled Jesus Christ. That’s quite a statement when you think of it. Don’t all Saints resemble Jesus? Hopefully, on some level we resemble Jesus. But, in Francis’ chosen poverty, simplicity of life, joy of spirit, love, tenderness, charismatic personality, his wisdom and humility, and his life which became a living icon of virtue, to have met and seen Francis was to have met and seen Christ himself. I think most of us would have walked away from such an encounter speechless or at the very least, deeply impressed.
St. Bonaventure, in writing a definitive life of St. Francis, said this:
By the power of his extraordinary faith he tasted the Goodness which is the source of all in each and every created thing, as in so many rivulets. He seemed to perceive a divine harmony in the interplay of powers and faculties given by God to his creatures and like the prophet David he exhorted them all to praise God.
It strikes me that most of what we know of Francis of Assisi, Italy covered a short period of about 20 years. Before his conversion at the age of 26, Francis enjoyed the good life. Born to a wealthy family, a strong willed Father, a loving Mother, Francis enjoyed the popularity of youth in Assisi an his Father, Pietro, became enamored with all things French. Thus, he offered a kind of nickname to his son Giovanni – the new name of Francesco. Basically, it meant “Frenchy.” But, the name has stuck for all time.
Well, Francis, a young man in his mid twenties, was moved by a sermon he heard preached in the year 1208. The Gospel passage which changed the course of his life till his death in 1226 was on Matthew 10:9 about Jesus call to his disciples to go forth and preach the good news, free and unattached to all material possessions, led Francis to embrace a life of voluntary poverty. “Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Lady Poverty” and such deep mystical attachment to God’s creation became his new wealth.
The rest is religious history, as may be said. Francis wasn’t just running wild through the fields by any means. Many other young men found in Francis a new life and a deep attraction. He lived a life of penance, love, and peace. Calling all to be brothers and sisters in the Lord and live the Gospel in literal imitation.
From a Cross in Assisi, a cross that any pilgrim can still pray before, Francis heard Christ speak the words, "Go, Francis, and repair my house, which as you see is falling into ruin." Once Francis realized his invitation to repair not a Church but the Church, he set out with enthusiasm. In his simple life, his genuine love, and gift of seeing the presence of God in all creation, Francis gathered the band of follower we know today as the Franciscans. Anyone who has been to the beautiful hilltop town of Assisi in central Italy knows that Francis still lives there in his spirit. I will always remember the great privilege of celebrating Mass before the tomb of Francis with a group of pilgrims.
So much more than is possible here is written about this extraordinary “other Christ” who though he walked this earth 800 years ago, remains ever alive in every time. You can search the internet and find a wealth of inspiring information on Francis and the Franciscan Orders of Men and Women.
By the time of his death at the age of 44, after bearing the wounds of Christ (the stigmata) on his body for the last two years; blind and poor but filled with joy, Francis entered eternity.
Below is his famed Canticle of Brother Sun:
Most High Almighty Good Lord, Yours are praise, glory, honor and all blessings; To You alone! Most High, do they belong, and no man is worthy of speaking Your Name!
Be praised, Lord, with all Your creatures, and above all our Brother Sun, who gives us the day by which You light our way, and who is beautiful, radiant and with his great splendor is a symbol to us of You, O Most High!
And be praised, Lord, for our Sister Moon and the Stars. You created them in the heavens bright, precious and beautiful!
And be praised, Lord, for our Brother the Wind and for the air and the clouds and for fair weather and for all other through which You sustain Your creatures.
And be praised, Lord, for our Sister Water, so useful, and humble, and chaste!
And be praised, my Lord, for our Brother Fire, through whom You light up the night and who is handsome, joyful, robust, and strong!
And be praised, my Lord, for our Sister, Mother Earth, who supports and carries us and produces the diverse fruits and colorful flowers and trees!
Praise and bless the Lord and give thanks to Him and serve Him with great humility!
Be praised, my Lord, for our Sister, bodily Death from whom no living man can escape!
Woe only to those who die in mortal sin; but blessed are those who have done Your most holy will; for the second death can cause them no harm!