The Story of St Francis of Assisi.
St Francis is an apt name for the Churches new initiative to reach out to people and preach the word of God through an online chapel.
St Frances himself left behind his old life of luxury and privilege to do something new. He dedicated the rest of his life to serving God’s people, especially the forgotten and the poor. His humility and faith are an example to us all.
St Francis was born in about 1181 in the Italian town of Assisi. He came from a wealthy family and his father was one of the leading merchants in the city.
Francis first considered a military career. But he was captured and imprisoned for a considerable length of time. While he was in prison, he became very ill and because of his poor health he could not pursue a military career.
During his illness he had a vision that changed his life forever. He saw “a large hall hung with armour marked with a cross, and in a second vision he was told to return to Assisi. On his return to Assisi, Francis became more and more drawn to the plight of the poor. He then decided to live with them and spent most of his days begging to support them.
His father was so furious with him for living a life of poverty that he took him to the local Bishop, who he hoped would intervene and bring Francis to his senses. But this only made the matter worse. Francis stripped off his clothes, gave them to his father and said the only person that he would call Father was his heavenly Father. Francis then said that he would live a life in poverty. He referred to poverty as a Lady, saw himself married to the “Lady Poverty”.
From then on, he found a new vocation nursing lepers and restoring churches. He began wearing a brown cassock now characteristic of the Franciscan Order he went around the countryside preaching penance, love and peace. He was such a charismatic preacher that he immediately attracted followers. When he and his companions became a group of twelve, he drew up rules for them and they were finally accepted as a new religious order by Pope Innocent the III. At first, they were called the Friars Minor. Later his group were to be known as the Franciscan Order. A group of women were also drawn to serve God in this way, they are known as the Poor Clare’s.
The spirituality of St Francis.
From the time that St Francis heard the figure one the cross, speak to him in a vision, compassion for the crucified Christ was rooted in his soul. St. Francis focused his spirituality on the suffering of Jesus. His poverty was inspired by the teachings of the gospel and his lifestyle was centred on Jesus himself. St Frances discovered Christ in the poor, the lepers and the most vulnerable in Medieval Society. His poverty was not used to simply deprive himself but was done out of a deep commitment to live a life as close to Christ as possible. His spirituality was evangelical.
He was driven by an overwhelming love of his saviour, Jesus Christ and his prayers showed that he had a understanding of the transcendent mystery of the Holy Trinity. He was overcome with gratitude for God’s invitation to share his Trinitarian life.
St Francis saw that the suffering and death of Jesus was to be used to bring about reconciliation to those who have sinned.
He awakened in the church a new sensitivity to people and their problems. He used Jesus’ example of forgiveness in his own teaching, to bring about solutions to problems that had caused people to live in conflict with each other.
St Francis’ aim was to bring about peace and reconciliation with all citizens. By teaching them of about the cross of suffering that Christ endured, His desire was to challenge the disharmony brought about by sin. He set about motivating a new awareness in the church to the plight of its people. Wherever he could, St Francis himself set about improving conditions and encouraging people to live in harmony.
The methods he used to bring about harmony were unusual for his day, that was known for its bloody feuds. His solution was not to set one class against another but to negotiate peace. He used his position to heal the social environment, by trying to bring both sides in the conflict to a better understanding of the love of God.
St Francis gave away every material thing so that he could come before God with nothing. He recognised that God was all powerful and “rich beyond measure,” that everything he had came from God, even life itself, therefore he could surrender his whole life to God and that God would provide for him. This is such a wonderful commitment of faith based on Jesus teaching to his disciples in Luke 9:1-6 to go out “take nothing for your journey” these instructions of Jesus were a great inspiration to St Francis.
He felt great compassion for the poor and the lepers and had a vision of one called the Lady of Poverty. Poverty is given a human form for him dressed in rags but showing the beauty of the Gospel of Poverty as a way of following the teachings of Christ.
St Francis saw God in the beauty of creation. He loved animals and his extraordinary affinity with them shows his delight in the whole of God’s creation.
He preached that the world was created good and beautiful but, had been spoilt by humankinds sin. He preached to both man and beast that the universal ability and duty of all creatures is to praise God (a common theme in the Psalms) and the duty of humankind is to protect and enjoy nature as both the stewards of God’s creation and as creatures themselves.
There are many stories about the life of St. Francis. Perhaps the most famous incident that illustrates the Saint’s humility towards nature is recounted in a collection of legends and folklore that sprang up after the Saint’s death.
It is said that, one day, while Francis was travelling with some companions, they came to a place in the road where the trees were filled with birds. He told his companions to wait so that he could go and preach to his sisters the birds. The birds surrounded him, intrigued by the power of his voice, and not one of them flew away. He is often portrayed with a bird, typically in his hand.
Another legend from the Fioretti tells that in the city of Gubbio, where St Francis lived for some time, there was a terrifying wolf who had killed some people as well as several animals. St Francis took compassion on the townsfolk and went up into the hills to find the wolf. His companions who had offered to go with him took fright and ran away, but the Saint pressed on. When he found the wolf, he made the sign of the cross and commanded the wolf to come to him and commanded him to stop harming people. Miraculously the wolf closed his jaws and lay down at the feet of St. Francis. He led the wolf into the town and made a pact between the startled citizens and the wolf. Because the wolf had ‘done evil out of hunger,’ the townsfolk agreed to feed the wolf regularly. In return, the wolf would no longer prey upon them or their flocks. He even made a pact on behalf of the town dogs, that they would not bother the wolf again. Finally, to show the townspeople that they would not be harmed, Francis blessed the wolf.
On World Environment Day 1982, Pope John Paul II said that St. Francis’ love and care for creation was a challenge for contemporary Catholics and a reminder to all people to assume responsibility for nature and the environment, so the environment would be preserved for future generations.
On the occasion of the World Day of Peace, January 1, 1990, Pope John Paul II wrote that the Saint of Assisi “offers Christians an example of genuine and deep respect for the integrity of creation … ” He went on to make the point that: “As a friend of the poor who was loved by God’s creatures, Saint Francis invited all of creation – animals, plants, natural forces, even Brother Sun and Sister Moon – to give honour and praise to the Lord. The poor man of Assisi gives us a striking witness that when we are at peace with God we are better able to devote ourselves to building up that peace with all creation which is inseparable from peace among all peoples.”
St Francis was so anxious to share his devotion to Christ with the local people that he built a crib at Greccio to remind the people there of the poverty and humble beginnings of the infant Jesus.
From the time that St Francis heard the figure on the cross speak to him in a vision, compassion for the crucified Christ was rooted in his soul. Two years before he died, as the result of the intensity of his meditation on Christs suffering, he was marked with stigmata.
A more recent example of someone living out their love of Christ, by serving the poor and vulnerable was Mother Teresa of Calcutta, while being deeply committed to Jesus Christ as saviour of the world.
Both Mother Teresa and Pope Francis made choices that have convinced many other Christians of their holiness. They have shown that it is possible to hold together a belief in Jesus as the light of the world and show a love and commitment to a wide section of humanity. At this time of crisis brought about by the Covid 19 virus we are all called upon to help those less fortunate than ourselves and to show love and commitment to each other.
(Compiled by Revd Peta May – Eastertide 2020)