Feast of St. Francis of Assisi
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Perhaps, after Our Lady, the most beloved Saint of all time is St. Francis of Assisi, “il Poverello” (the Little Poor Man). His character twisted into that of an idiotic hippie, St. Francis’s image hasn’t fared well, so one must dig to find the truth about this glorious Saint.
He was born in Assisi in 1181 or 1182, the son of Pietro Bernardone, a wealthy cloth merchant, and his wife, Pica. Christened “Giovanni,” his father — most likely because of his fondness for France — later changed his name to “Francesco” while Francis was still an infant.
He grew up to be not only handsome, but fun-loving, even frivolous due to his parents having spoiled him a bit. He dressed in fine clothes, loved feats of arms, and was lavish with money though, even then during his wild days, he had great compassion for the poor.
When he was twenty years old or so, he and his townsmen got involved with a skirmish with the townsmen of Perugia. The men of Assisi lost that battle, and Francis was taken prisoner. For a year he languished in a Perugian prison, becoming ill and, in his adversity, began to turn his thoughts to greater things. When his health returned and he was released, however, he put those greater things to the back of his mind and resolved to have a military career, but it is now that God began to intervene in interesting ways. He’d arranged to join with a local knight to take arms against the emperor, but the night before he was to leave, he had a dream of a long hall lined with armor, all of which was marked with a cross. A voice said, “These are for you and your soldiers,” and Francis took it to mean he would be a great prince. He and the knight set off, but when they reached Spoleto, Francis became ill again and was told in another dream, by the same voice, to return to Assisi. He did. But he returned a different man, a more spiritual man who had less interest in the reveleries of his youth, and more interest in solitude and prayer.
He soon decided to “take a wife of surpassing fairness” — “Lady Poverty” — and began spending his wealth on the poor, the sick, and the Church. One day he was riding a horse across the plains of Umbria when he encountered a leper. He was naturally repelled, but the spirit of Christ overcame his repulsion, and he embraced the man, giving him all the money he had. He emptied his pockets again during a pilgrimage to Rome, when he saw the paucity of offerings left at St. Peter’s tomb. After he did so, he exchanged his fine clothes for the tattered rags of a beggar.
After returning to Assisi, he was praying one day in the Chapel of San Damiano, before an iconic Crucifix which has become known as the “San Damiano Crucifix.”
While deep in prayer, he heard a voice say to him, “Go, Francis, and repair my house, which as you see is falling into ruin.” He went to his father’s shop, took expensive cloth, and sold it and his horse for the money to make literal repairs to the chapel. The chapel’s priest wouldn’t accept money gained in that manner, and Francis threw it at him in disdain. Francis’s father was livid, so his son hid himself away in a nearby cave for a month, emerging squalid and emaciated. His appearance invited mockery, and he was tormented by locals until his father retrieved him, beat him, bound him, and imprisoned him in a closet. His mother freed him in his father’s absence, and he returned to San Damiano where he found a a place to live with the priest’s help. Francis’s father, though, went to the city consuls to force his son to give up his inheritance, something Francis was very happy to do. He took off his clothes and handed them to his father with the words, “Hitherto I have called you my father on earth; henceforth I desire to say only ‘Our Father Who art in Heaven.'” His embrace of Lady Poverty was almost complete.
He took to the hills of Assisi where he was confronted by a band of robbers. When asked who he was, he told them, “I am the herald of the great King!” whereupon they took what little he had and threw him into a snow bank. He emerged half frozen and crawled to a monastery where he stayed for a time, working in the kitchen.
From there he went to Gubbio, where a friend gave him the cloak, scrip, and staff of a pilgrim. He returned to Assisi and begged people for stones with which he could restore the chapel of San Damiano that he’d been commanded to repair. Stone by stone, with his own hands, he did rebuild it, and then went on to repair the Chapel of San Pietro outside the city, and the tiny chapel of the tiny town of Santa Maria degli Angeli (St. Mary of the Angels) below the city.
In 1208 he was attending Mass at that third chapel, in Santa Maria degli Angeli, and heard Our Lord’s words as recounted in the tenth chapter of Matthew: “Do not possess gold, nor silver, nor money in your purses: Nor scrip for your journey, nor two coats, nor shoes, nor a staff; for the workman is worthy of his meat.” He took these words literally and to heart, and immediately threw away his cloak, wallet, and staff. Now his embrace of Lady Poverty, the keystone of the Franciscan charism, was consummated, and he began to wear the coarse tunic made of wool, with a cincture made of a knotted rope. Instead of the mockery that had met him earlier, people began to listen and wonder, attracted by his peace and demeanor.
He acquired two disciples, the first among these being a town magnate, Bernard of Quintavalle, and the second being the canon of the cathedral, Peter of Cattaneo. They repaired the church of San Niccolo where Francis tried to determine God’s will for them by three times randomly opening the Gospel that sat on the altar. Each time he did so, the passages he found recounted Christ’s telling His disciples to leave all and follow Him. Taking this to be their rule of life, Bernard, and Peter began to wear habits like that of Francis, and built huts near his by the chapel of Santa Maria degli Angeli.
They were soon joined by a third man, Giles, and so were able to go two by two into the world and spread the message of Christ. The group grew from four to eleven, and it was at this point that Francis made his first written Rule and went to Rome for Pope Innocent III’s approval of it so they could form an official religious order. Innocent is said to have rejected Francis at first, but then changed his mind after he had a dream in which he saw Francis holding up the St. John Lateran Basilica. In any case, Francis and his men returned to Assisi with the tonsure and known as the “Friars Minor,” the official name for the Franciscan Order.
In 1211, the Benedictines gave them the tiny chapel at Santa Maria degli Angeli which Francis had repaired earlier, along with the small tract of land (a “porziuncola”) that surrounded it. This became the center of the Franciscan Order, and the small chapel came to be known as “the Porziuncola” 1 since then. There near the Porziuncola they built a few huts of wattle, straw, and mud which they surrounded by a hedge. From there, they would go out two by two, finding work where they could, and begging when there was no work to be found. More men joined up, including Brother Juniper — the exasperating “renowned jester of the Lord” whose story is recounted in “The Little Flowers of St. Francis” — and “the Three Companions” who later wrote about Francis’s life: Angelus, Leo, and Rufinus, a cousin of St. Clare who was to meet up with St. Francis during Lent of 1212.
The eighteen-year old Clare, after hearing Francis preaching, was moved to beg to be allowed to follow his way of life. On Palm Sunday she secretly left her father’s house and, with two friends, went to join up with the friars who met them bearing torches in a procession at the Porziuncola. Francis cut her hair, gave her a habit, and sent her to live with Benedictine nuns until the friars could build a convent for her. The Benedictines were kind enough to give him the Chapel of San Damiano, the first chapel Francis had repaired with his own hands, and the friars built a convent there to adjoin it. Clare and her Sisters — who were then known as the “Order of Poor Ladies” but are now known as the “Poor Clares” — made this their home.
In Autumn of that same year, Francis’s plan to go to Syria to convert the Saracens was spoiled when he was shipwrecked en route, off the coast of what is now Eastern Croatia and Western Serbia. He evangelized in central Italy before making another attempt to convert the infidels, this time in Morocco. But once again, he ran into trouble: he became quite ill and never made it out of Spain. Back to Italy he went, to preach and to convert souls. He became wildly popular, with crowds gathering where he went and falling under his spell. Once, while preaching in Camara, Italy, so many people wanted to join his order after hearing him preach that he decided to fashion a third order for laypeople.
In 1219, he made his third — and this time successful — attempt to encounter the infidels. He made it to Syria was taken prisoner, but used the opportunity to meet with the Sultan and attempt to convert him. Though he was unable to convince him of the Truth of Christ, he was able to get the Sultan to agree to treat the Christian prisoners of war better.
Back in Italy, he had to spend time reorganizing his Order and re-writing his Rule, said Rule becoming known as the “Regula Bullata.” In 1223, in Greccio, Italy, he was inspired by his love of Christmas to set up a nativity scene, a devotion that Catholics still practice to this day.
In 1224, he was given the great honor to bear the stigmata of Christ. The story is told by Thomas of Celano, in his biography of St. Francis — Vita prima S. Francisci — written in 1228-1229:
Two years before Francis gave his soul back to heaven, while he was staying in a hermitage called “Alverna” after the place w here it was located, he saw in a vision from God a man with six wings like a seraph, standing above him with hands extended and feet together, affixed to a cross. Two wings were raised over his head, two were extended in flight, and two hid his entire body.
When the blessed servant of God saw these things he was filled with wonder, but he did not know w hat the vision meant. He rejoiced greatly in the benign and gracious expression with which he saw himself regarded by the seraph, whose beauty was indescribable; yet he was alarmed by the fact that the seraph was affixed to the cross and was suffering terribly. Thus Francis rose, one might say, sad and happy, joy and grief alternating in him. He wondered anxiously what this vision could mean, and his soul was uneasy as it searched for understanding. And as his understanding sought in vain for an explanation and his heart was filled with perplexity at the great novelty of this vision, the marks of nails began to appear in his hands and feet, just as he had seen them slightly earlier in the crucified man above him. His hands and feet seemed to be pierced by nails, with the heads of the nails appearing in the palms of his hands and on the upper sides of his feet, the points appearing on the other side. The marks were round on the palm of each hand but elongated on the other side, and small pieces of flesh jutting out from the rest took on the appearance of the nail-ends, bent and driven back. In the same way the marks of nails were impressed on his feet and projected beyond the rest of the flesh. Moreover, his right side had a large wound as if it had been pierced with a spear, and it often bled so that his tunic and trousers were soaked with his sacred blood.
Alas, how few were worthy of viewing the wound in the side of this crucified servant of the crucified Lord. How fortunate was Elias, who was worthy of seeing it while the holy man lived, but no less fortunate was Rufinus, who touched the wound with his own hands. For once, when the aforesaid brother Rufinus put his hand on the holy man’s chest in order to rub him, his hand fell to his right side, as often occurs, and he happened to touch that precious wound. The holy man of God suffered great anguish from that touch and, pushing the hand away, he cried out to the Lord to forgive him.
He carefully hid the wound from outsiders and cautiously concealed it from those near him, so that even his most devoted followers and those who were constantly at his side knew nothing of it for a long time. And although the servant and friend of the most high saw himself adorned with many costly pearls as if with precious gems, and marvelously decked out beyond the glory and honor of other men, he did not become vain or seek to please anyone through desire for personal glory, but, lest human favor should steal away the grace given to him, he attempted to hide it in every way possible.
At around this time, his body — which he humorously referred to as “Brother Ass” — began to betray him. Tubercolosis, dropsy, eyesight failing almost to the point of blindness, he knew his time was upon him. He went to the Chapel of San Damiano to vist St. Clare, and there, living in a little hut in the garden of the convent, wrote his “Canticle of the Sun.” He then moved on to Assisi, to die in his beloved Porziuncola, surrounded by his brothers — including a woman he deemed a brother, the Lady Jacoba whom he referred to as “Brother Jacoba.” On Ocotber 3, 1226, they read to him the account of Christ’s Passion from the Book of St. John, and then he recited Psalm 141. After praying the last verse, after having prayed, “Bring my soul out of prison,” he died. The Catholic Encyclopedia tells us what happened next:
…his body was, on 4 October, borne in triumphant procession to the city, a halt being made at St. Damian’s, that St. Clare and her companions might venerate the sacred stigmata now visible to all, and it was placed provisionally in the church of St. George (now within the enclosure of the monastery of St. Clare), where the saint had learned to read and had first preached. Many miracles are recorded to have taken place at his tomb. Francis was canonized at St. George’s by Gregory IX, 16 July, 1228. On that day following the pope laid the first stone of the great double church of St. Francis, erected in honour of the new saint, and thither on 25 May, 1230, Francis’s remains were secretly transferred by Brother Elias and buried far down under the high altar in the lower church. Here, after lying hidden for six centuries, like that of St. Clare’s, Francis’s coffin was found, 12 December, 1818, as a result of a toilsome search lasting fifty-two nights. This discovery of the saint’s body is commemorated in the order by a special office on 12 December, and that of his translation by another on 25 May. His feast is kept throughout the Church on 4 October, and the impression of the stigmata on his body is celebrated on 17 September.
Customs and Readings
Because of his great love for God’s creatures, today might bring the blessing of animals at your church.
The stories concerning St. Francis were collected and put together by Brother Ugolino in the early 14th century, roughly seventy years after St. Francis died. The collection is referred to as “The Little Flowers of Saint Francis” (I Fioretti). I present them here
Or download it and the following works in .pdf format from this site’s Catholic library:
- The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi
- The Life of St. Francis, by St. Bonaventure
- The Lives of St. Francis, by Thomas of Celano
- St. Francis of Assisi, by G. K. Chesterton
- Life of St. Francis, by Fr. Cuthbert
Footnotes and Notes:
1 “Porziuncola” is also sometimes written as “Porzioncula,” “Porziuncula,” “Portiuncola,” or “Portiuncula.” Since the time of Pope Honorius III, a pilgrim can gain a plenary indulgence on August 2, the date of the Portiuncula’s dedication, by visiting the chapel and making a good confession. This tradition is called “The Feast of Pardon.”
2 There is a prayer commonly, but erroneously, attributed to St. Francis. Though it’s a lovely prayer, it was written not by the Saint, but in 1912 by an unknown in France. As explained by the Franciscan Archive (link offsite and will open in a new window):
The first appearance of the Peace Prayer occurred in France in 1912 in a small spiritual magazine called La Clochette (The Little Bell). It was published in Paris by a Catholic association known as La Ligue de la Sainte-Messe (The Holy Mass League), founded in 1901 by a French priest, Father Esther Bouquerel (1855-1923). The prayer bore the title of ‘Belle prière à faire pendant la messe’ (A Beautiful Prayer to Say During the Mass), and was published anonymously. The author could possibly have been Father Bouquerel himself, but the identity of the author remains a mystery.
The text of the prayer in English and its original French, which, unlike the English version, also speaks of discord and unity, of error and Truth, and of finding by losing oneself:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow 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, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
Seigneur, faites de moi un instrument de votre paix.
Là où il y a de la haine, que je mette l’amour.
Là où il y a l’offense, que je mette le pardon.
Là où il y a la discorde, que je mette l’union.
Là où il y a l’erreur, que je mette la vérité.
Là où il y a le doute, que je mette la foi.
Là où il y a le désespoir, que je mette l’espérance.
Là où il y a les ténèbres, que je mette votre lumière.
Là où il y a la tristesse, que je mette la joie.
Ô Maître, que je ne cherche pas tant
à être consolé qu’à consoler,
à être compris qu’à comprendre,
à être aimé qu’à aimer,
car c’est en donnant qu’on reçoit,
c’est en s’oubliant qu’on trouve,
c’est en pardonnant qu’on est pardonné,
c’est en mourant qu’on ressuscite à l’éternelle vie.