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St Francis of Assisi

St Francis of Assisi
  • Century: 12th Century, 13th Century
  • Patronage: animals, environment, ecology, Italy, merchants, stowaways, cub scouts,
  • Feast Day: October 4th

Born in 1181 or 1182 to a well-to-do merchant family, the life of St. Francis is the very stuff to which the already canonized Catholic saints aspire!  A lover of life as a young man, a big spender, well-dressed, more play than work, St. Francis freely used his money to indulge himself, although never to the destructive extremes of debauchery.  He contemplated a military career after having been taken prisoner in a civil strife; he even purchased a stead, armor and regal clothing.  However, he ultimately turned from this venture after his conscience was struck by two things: the sight of a poor man and a deterring dream.  The encounter with poverty and the enlightening dream began a series of on-going moments in St. Francis life where God spoke to him, cryptically nudging him to a life of holiness.  The voice was so persistent, convincing and endearing that those who knew St. Francis noticed the distraction of their friend and swore he was he had fallen in love.

Slowly he began selling his possessions to increase his giving to the poor, and he devoted more time to prayer.  The scene that lead to St. Francis’ vocation is nothing less than storybook-amazing.  One morning while at prayer he heard the Crucifix say, “Francis, go and repair my house, which you see is falling down.”  Of course, St. Francis thought God was speaking of the local church building in disrepair, so he took a load of clothe from his father’s storehouse, loaded it up on a horse and sold both the clothe and the horse to give the earnings to the Church!  Needless to say, this upset his father, who beat him violently for the charitable action—literally dragged him home from the Church and locked him in chains in his room!  However, St. Francis’ mother took pity on him, unshackling the poor boy, who immediately ran back toward the Church.  Yet he was intercepted by his father, who warned him that he would be disinherited if he did not return home, as well as return the money for the clothe and horse.  St. Francis, stubbornly went to the Church.

At this point, the local bishop heard of the disruption caused within the wealthy family and called for St. Francis to appear before him.  Having heard of how the money was obtained which St. Francis donated to the Church, he asked that St. Francis return the money to his father, as he was afraid the contribution was not freely given by the owner.  It was at this point that St. Francis declared, “The clothes I wear are also his.  I’ll give them back.”  At this he stripped naked and became the wayfaring holy man whom we have all briefly glimpsed in reading.

From begging for alms, to preaching the word, to praying mystically, the escapades of St. Francis range from his kindness to animals and God’s creatures, to his battling temptation and impurity by rolling in snow and thorn-bushes.  A man visited by Christ Crucified, he suffered the Church’s first recorded stigmata—which is celebrated by its own feast day on Sept. 17.  St. Francis, too, was a celebrated diplomat whose answer to the Holy Lands was to convert the Sultan, as opposed to fight the Crusades.  A contemporary of St. Dominic and St. Clare, this man’s witness to the Faith shone to and saved the world.  Upon his death he requested to be buried in a cemetery for criminals.  However, this request was denied.

Volumes have been written on this man.  G.K. Chesterton writes a moving account.  St. Bonaventure’s writings demonstrate a heroic admiration.  Plenty of Catholics and non-Catholics continue to be fascinated by the holy character.  Indeed, perhaps the most accurate description of St. Francis is from the opening paragraph for his feast-day (Oct. 4) in Butler’s Lives of the Saints: “It has been said of St. Francis that he entered into glory in his lifetime, and that he is the one saint whom all succeeding generations have agreed in canonizing.  This over-statement has sufficient truth in it to provoke another namely, that he is the one saint whom, in our day, all non-Catholics have agreed in canonizing.  He captured the imagination of his time by presenting poverty, chastity and obedience in the terms of the troubadours and courts of love, and that of a more complex age by his extraordinary simplicity.  Religious and social cranks of all sorts have appealed to him for justification, and he has completely won the hearts of the sentimental” (Butler, iv, 22).  

Practical Take-Away: St. Francis & the New Evangelization

The witness of St. Francis continues to speak to the world.  The Faithful should reflect upon his life and discover his unreserved literalness and total dedication to the Gospel.  Many people admire St. Francis today for his animal-love, or his environmental stewardship.  Indeed, such was the man.  But he was also a peacemaker.  He was also poor, chaste and obedient.  He was a man of God, following Christ’s own heart.  That is precisely where it is difficult to get a handle on St. Francis, especially in light of ourselves.  In an article by G.K. Chesterton, St. Francis is accurately described as “the happiest of the sons of men.”  St. Francis’ joy, is what bears witness to the world.  People love St. Francis—even when they fail to recognize Christ accurately!  His joy was contagious…IS contagious!  Chesterton, however, seeks to discover where the joy comes from: “Yet this man undoubtedly founded his whole polity on the negation of what we think the most imperious necessities; in his three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, he denied to himself and those he loved most, property, love, and liberty.”  Wow!  Christians derive their name from a willingness to follow Christ.  Sometimes in our abstract, rationalizations we make the Cross a cinch to tote around.  But not when it is St. Francis’ literalness calls us out.  Before we can follow Christ, are we willing to follow His underling; the servant before the Master?!  It would serve us well to follow St. Francis even into the places that we fear to tread.  St. Francis took the leaps that we now face—with all the same uncertainties and questions.  But he had Faith.  Do you?  Then what are you waiting for?  The time for cafeteria Catholics has ended.  Do we admire St. Francis, the whole man, the saint?—or do we simply want to do the things we like about him and avoid the things that scare us?  Cafeteria or Catholic?  Your answer holds the key to the New Evangelization!