ST. FRANCIS of PAOLA:
Founder of the Order of Minims,
Patron of Mariners
Our Franciscan saint St. Francis of Paola is interestingly the namesake of our beloved St. Francis of Assisi.
Francesco Alessio (his real name) was born at Paola, a small town in Calabria, Italy on 2 April about the year 1416. His parents Giacomo d’ Alessio and ViennadaFuscaldo were very poor but outstandingly holy, virtuous and industrious people who made it their chief aim to love and to serve God.
After many years of childlessness they were finally blessed with a son through the intercession of St. Francis de Assisi to whom they had incessantly prayed and appealed to. Naturally they named him Francis.
When St. Francis brought about the healing of infant Francis’ eye they vowed that he would don his “little habit.” This meant that they would send their boy to spend an entire year in a Franciscan monastery. This was in keeping with medieval practice.
Educated by Franciscans
This he did at the age of 13 after having received his early education in the Franciscan friary at San Marco, a town in the same province. In that year he spent with the Franciscans he proved to be an exemplary model to all not only in his abnegation and love of prayer but by his extraordinary humility.
His parents then took him on a pilgrimage visiting Rome, Assisi and other shrines.
Becomes a Hermit
Because he was “horrified by the worldliness and wealth of Rome” though merely 15 years old Francis decided that he wanted to live according to the ideals of poverty the life of a hermit modeled after his namesake.
Choosing to austerely live in a lonely cave by the sea about half a mile from Paola the young eccentric but charismatic fifteen-year-old hermit quickly won the hearts and admiration of his neighbors.
Thus when attracted by his holiness two other men who also wished to live as anchorites joined him. Before he was twenty his neighbors in 1452 helped them build three cells to live in and a chapel. Here they sang psalms and heard Mass said by a nearby priest. The date 1452 is considered to be the foundation of his order.
The three formed the nucleus of what they first called the Order of the Hermits of St. Francis. When many disciples followed him, to accommodate their burgeoning community in 1454, once again neighbors, friends and acquaintanceswho greatly loved him came to the rescue to help them build a church and a monastery. Both common people and nobles personally and enthusiastically carried the building materials to the site.
The Order was confirmed by a bull of Sixtus IV in 1474 as the Order of Hermits of St. Francis of Assisi with Francis as Superior General.
It was not till 1492 that they formally changed the name of their ever rapidly growing community to the Order of Minims. They chose that name to signify their desire to be considered the minimi or least important in the Church of God. Like their founder’s namesake and model HUMILITY was to be their hallmark. Because Francis believed with all his heart that obedience is the backbone of faith, his followers were all to always obey with humility. This was the foundation of the Minim Friars.
Order of Minims
Francis set a rather severe rule (though unwritten for the first 57 years) for his followers. In addition to the three monastic vows of penance, charity and humility he added one of fasting and a perpetual Lent with not only total abstinence from meat but from all animal products such as milk, butter and eggs. Thus did they have to observe a perpetual Lent. This was because he considered fasting to be the “royal road to self-conquest.” Charity was his motto and humility the virtue he constantly stressed.
They practiced a life of utter poverty and austerity. Francis himself slept no longer on a rock but still on the ground on a plank using a stone or a log for a pillow. Only when he was extremely old did he allow himself a mat.
In spite of the severity of its rule (penance, charity and humility) the Order grew rapidly with other monasteries being founded in southern Italy and Sicily. Even a Second Order for nuns and a Third Order for those who would continue to live in the world was founded by Francis for whom he also wrote a rule. All Italy was then full of praises for this saint, prophet and wonder-worker.
When Francis died his convents numbered over 400 spread over Italy, France, Germany and Spain.
The Fame of Francis
In the meantime the fame of Francis grew and grew. Numerous miracles were wrought through his prayers. Not only did he have the gift of prophecy but also the gift of reading consciences. It is said that he even had immunity from the effects of fire being able to handle burning coals with his bare hands. It is no wonder that he was regarded as one of the major miracle workers of this time.
Also said was that the “his success in converting hardened sinners was matched by his ability to avert a plague, by miraculous cures of physical diseases and the raising of several dead people to life!”
Francis had even gained a reputation for insight, compassion, wisdom and healing. However because of his outspokenness in reproving the King of Naples for his evil ways he was persecuted to a certain degree.
Goes to France
But it is because of his fame of insight, compassion, wisdom and healing reaching France that in 1482 when King Louis XI of France was at his death-bed Pope Sixtus II ordered Francis to come in answer to the call of the King as he felt that Francis could cure him.
So going there under papal command Francis tried to cure the deeply depressed monarch but was unsuccessful. But what he did was more remarkable. Not only did he effect the King’s entire conversion but he prepared him for a penitent death. He even comforted him when he said, “Even the lives of kings are in the hands of God and have their appointed limits.”
Francis explained to the monarch that praying for the king’s recovery would be against the will of God for even kings have limited life spans and should trust in God to take them at the right time.
In this way did the king learn from Francis how to die in peace with the Lord. During the many inspired conversations they had together it was as if the Holy Spirit was speaking through Francis as he was an unlearned man. This is why the king died peacefully in the humble monk’s arms.
This so delighted Charles VIII, Louis’ son that on his becoming king he chose the saint as his adviser. Because he and Louis XII his successor valued his counsel so much they did not permit Francis to leave the Court.
Francis thus remained in France for 25 years establishing his Order there with Charles VIII and Louis XII as his special benefectors. During that time he was able to restore peace between France and Brittany and to prevent war between France and Spain.
In the meantime the royal family threw their influence behind the Minims endowing them with several monasteries in France and Italy.
In fact Francis spent the rest of his life at the monastery of Plessis, France which Charles had built for him besides another at Amboise, at the spot where they first met. Knowing that his end was near he spent the last three months in complete solitude.
When he took gravely ill on Holy Thursday in 1507 he gathered his friars around him and lovingly encouraged them in their way of life. Then on April 2 on Good Friday after receiving Communion he stood barefoot with a rope around his neck and died. This was a practice developed by his order. He was ninety-one.
It was Pope Leo X who on May 1, 1519 canonized Francis. Because of his numerous sea-related miracles he was declared patron of sea-farers by Pope Pius XII on March 27, 1943.
Today the number of members of the Order of Minims is considerably reduced mostly found in Italy and Spain only.
When the Hugeunots dragged his body from it s tomb in 1562 they found it still incorrupt. Tragically in their ignorant malice they burned it.
SOURCES of REFERENCE
Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Vol. II pp 10 – 13
Pocket Dictionary of Saints – p 197
The Watkins Dictionary of Saints – p. 92 – 93
A Year With the Saints – April 2
Butler’s Saint for the Day – pp 151 – 152
Illustrated Lives of the Saints – Vol. I pp 143 – 144
My First Book of Saints – pp 73 – 74
Saint Companions – pp 122 – 124
Saint of the Day – pp 71 – 72
Voices of the Saints – pp 448 – 449
Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives Group I Card 30
The Way of the Saints pp 174– 175