OUR PATRON/ST. FRANCIS
Francis of Assisi lived more than eight centuries ago, but remains one of the world’s most popular saints. The son of a wealthy merchant, he renounced the carefree life afforded him to embrace extreme poverty and champion the message of Christ. His transformation has inspired books, movies, the names of cities, the writings of Dante and even a painting by Rembrandt.
But the greater legacy of St. Francis is the religious order he founded in the early 1200s. Known as the Friars Minor, and eventually the Franciscans, its offshoots include the Poor Clares and Capuchins. As for Francis, he “became the means of renewing the youth of the Church, and of imitating the most potent and popular religious movement since the beginnings of Christianity,” according to The Catholic Encyclopedia.
Francis Bernardone was born about 1181 in the region of Umbria, a remote area of Central Italy located near Tuscany. The landscape is a stretch of green hills and blue rivers and “on the plain are the famous Umbrian grapevines,” according to Fodor’s account of the region that appears in The Francis Book. Francis lived a life of privilege in the region’s town of Assisi, but that changed when he became a prisoner of war at the age of 20.
He is said to have reflected on his purpose during his confinement, and when released a year later heard God’s call to restore his Church. At first Francis literally heeded it by using some of his father’s resources to rebuild the bricks and mortar of the area’s parishes. But when his father objected to his projects, Francis came to realize the greater message from God.
He gave up his inheritance, moved into a cave and spent his days evangelizing, tending to lepers, assisting the poor in their daily tasks and cleaning churches out of respect for the Eucharist. Francis was described as “a mystic whose overpowering faith compelled other men to follow him,” by writer Joseph Roddy, and soon, 11 men joined him in his work. The group sought to become a religious order, and in 1210 it was granted that status by Pope Innocent III.
Francis was ordained a deacon in order to be able teach the Gospels, but in his humility he never sought the priesthood. Through his homilies, he enlightened the people of Central Italy and other places in Europe, as well as those in Egypt, where he preached during the Crusades.
Francis was also a writer, and one of his best known works is ‘The Canticle of Brother Sun,’ a poem that praises God. Francis’s other endeavors included constructing what is believed to have been the first Nativity Scene, in 1223. He also was a lover of animals. Francis was known to preach to flocks of birds, and once talked a ferocious wolf out of terrorizing a village, according to accounts of his life in the popular book, “The Little Flowers of St. Francis.”
It was Francis’s character to respect all of God’s creatures, and the statues of him often seen dotting today’s neighborhoods reflect that aspect of his personality. Francis was also “serene of mind, sweet of disposition, and zealous in prayer,” according to his biographer, Thomas of Celano, who worked alongside the future saint as a Friars Minor.
Francis lost much of his sight in his later years, and was imprinted with the stigmata, or the wounds of Christ, in 1224. He died in 1226, at about the age of 45, and just two years later was canonized. St. Francis’s feast day is Oct. 4, and he is the first of a number of saints to have been members of the Friars Minor or its branches, among them Anthony of Padua and Padre Pio.
Today, the order and its many divisions are represented around the globe. By some accounts, there are more than one million people serving God under the banner of the Franciscans. Their work is varied, be it preaching, tending to the needs of the poor and sick, or overseeing the care of certain shrines in the Holy Land. But collectively, they are men and women whose service is no doubt inspired by the words of their founder: