“Why after you? Why after you?” asks Brother Masseo of Francis. “. . . You are not a very handsome man, nor possessed of great learning or wisdom. So why is all the world running after you?” (Little Flowers of St. Francis, Ch.10).
Each year at this time – a few weeks before the feast day of our beloved St. Francis on October 4 – we pause a while to reflect on this question and all the possible answers.
Little Known Facts About St. Francis
Founder of the Franciscan Orders
Willing or not St. Francis was to found a religious order that was to have one of the widest Christian following in the world.
The warmth of his personality combined with his joyous preaching soon caused him to have followers and it is an interesting coincidence that like Jesus he started off with twelve disciples. Although unlike Christ who got his Apostles from the common people – mostly fishermen, the followers of Francis were mostly well-to-do citizens like Francis was himself.
His first followers joined him because they were attracted by his fine example. However the first disciple was an unknown Assisian who for some unknown reason, maybe dissuaded by Francis himself, parted from him.
However his next disciple was Bernard da Quintavelle of noble blood and as similarly wealthy as the Bernardones. A good man but extra cautious and a little older than Francis, Bernard must have been really impressed by this self-made spiritual tramp that he was willing to give all his worldly possessions to the poor and follow in Francis’s footsteps.
A young man with knightly ambitions next eyed Francis with keen interest. How could this half-mad man attract two staunch solid sensible citizens of the town? Was this the way to be the true Knight that he wanted to be? Seeking his answer in prayer Giles went to St. George to pray for light. When he came across Francis and got to know him he told himself that in this simple person with the smiling eyes he saw his true Knight of the Round Table. So humbly he asked Francis to allow him to become a member of his company.
Bernard, Peter and Giles. These were the first three Franciscans. Others, including a priest, were to follow until they reached twelve. Thus haphazardly the first little company was formed. Peter Catanel, a lawyer, was the next recruit.
Together with Bernard and Francis they went to the church of St. Nicholas to consult the Gospels as God’s will for them now that they had become a body or society.
After praying together, Francis opened at random the book of the Gospels. Asking the parish priest to explain the first passage he saw they were told: If thou hast an eye to be perfect, go then and sell all that belongs to thee; give it to the poor and so the treasure that thou has shall be in heaven; then come back and follow me.”
Closing the book shut and then opening it again at random the new message read: “Take nothing with you to use on your journey, staff or wallet or bread or money; you are not to have more than one coat apiece.”
A third time the book was closed, open and read: “If any man has a mind to come my way, let him renounce self and take up his cross and follow me.”
This was it. This was how they would live. Thus started out the life and rule for all those who wished to join their company. Left to Francis alone, he would have insisted on the strictest literal sense of the Gospel as they read it and this would have been the sole essential rule of the order.
When Francis’s two new companions had settled their earthly affairs they donned a similar rough tunic cinched only at the waist by an old rope and thus began their life of poverty and humility.
Two by two the brothers, as they were called, set off down the countryside to do their mission: Preach as you go telling them that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. These were the golden days as they followed the example of Francis’s exuberant, enthusiastic happy self.
The Good News was being preached again. No, not formally in churches but as they passed through little clusters of huts this delightful band asked the people to love, fear God and be sorry for their sins. And wherever they went they preached “Peace.” When asked who they were they simply answered “The penitents of Assisi.”
But life was hard and food was in short supply so that one night the brothers were awakened by the moans of one of them who cried, “I am dying. I am dying. I am dying of hunger.”
And the crowds that listened to them were not always so kind. In fact while some gladly accepted what they had to say – they were more the exception than the rule. For the most part the crowds laughed and jeered at them mocked and opposed them.
However because the number of beggars had now increased at an alarming rate, the people began to complain to the Bishop. Once more he called Francis and suggested to him a more practical way of earning a living. But Francis was adamant and gave his now famous argument against the possession of wordly goods: “Possessions cause disputes and lawsuits, troubles well calculated to destroy the love of God and our neighbour. That is why we are agreed about having no wordly goods in this world.” Bishop Guido must have been a most exceptional bishop because he allowed Francis to have his way.
Even the Benedictine abbot who had control over the little chapel of Porziuncola allowed Francis to keep it permanently. However Francis insisted it merely be a loan, not a gift, paying the Abbot yearly a jar full of lasche, the little fish found abundantly in Lake Trasimeno. The Abbot, in turn, sent back every year, too, a jar of oil.
Given thus permission to stay in what Francis long ago felt was home, the brothers built crude huts of wattle under the trees of Porziuncola. An alternative home was a rough horse and cattle shelter at Rivotorto, a mile or so from Porziuncola.
Interestingly, the shelter was divided into cells just by pieces of chalk.
Francis and the Pope
Now that Francis had companions living the religious life that he felt to be the right way – that is, God’s way – Francis wanted to seek not only advice but approval and who else could better give it to him than the head of the church on earth – the Pope himself. Here one can see how Francis’s simple mind worked.
Never mind that he was the formidable Pope Innocent III. He, Francis had been commissioned by someone greater than the Pope – God himself – to repair His church. So Francis made up his mind to see the Pope and ask his permission to continue along his religious way.
So in the early summer of 1210 the little company trudged southward a little over a hundred miles to Rome.
Fortunately for Francis his good friend Bishop Guido of Assisi was in Rome at the same time and “received them with delight.” He introduced them to the Cardinal of Sabina who was greatly impressed when Guido related to him the whole story of Francis and his friends.
The Cardinal, deeply moved by these strange but sublime penitents, told the Pope, “I believe I have found a man of truly perfect life who only desires to live according to the life and ideals of the Gospel. He, I think, is someone whom the Lord can use to reform the Holy church across the face of the world.” Because the Pope had the highest regard for the Cardinal and because he was also worried about the Church’s growing lack of spirituality and morality wanted to see this man of whom the Cardinal spoke so highly of.
So it was that the humblest man in Christendom (he even made Bernard the head of the delegation) was to speak to the most powerful of all the Popes. You can just imagine how shocked and startled the Pope must have been to see this shabby group of barefooted men dressed in the coarse tunic worn by Umbrian peasants. Francis, himself, who he heard so much of, was a “short thin man with burning eyes whose face bore the marks of penitential self denial.”
However when Francis kneeling at the Pontiff’s feet, explained their way of life and their purpose, it was Francis’s turn to be taken aback when he heard the Pope – like Bishop Guido before – admonish and tell him that maybe the life they were leading was too hard. Never mind Francis himself – maybe he could take it. But he had to think of those who would follow his footsteps but lacked his fervour, grit and enthusiasm.
As usual Francis was adamant. He argued that Jesus, who had promised eternal life and everlasting happiness to all, would not begrudge them the few crumbs which was all they needed in this earthly life.
However the Pope asked him to rethink what God wanted of him because he, the Pope, knew how frail human nature was.
Once more it was the Cardinal who came to Francis’s aid. After the audience the Cardinal reminded the Pope that if he refused the request of these poor penitents just because their ideals seemed to be too harsh and unpractical, it was as if he were condemning the evangelical life itself. Furthermore since it was Christ himself who was the author of evangelical perfection – then to deny it would be blasphemous. Since the Pope couldn’t argue against that he agreed to see Francis again.
The Fairytale of Francis
But before the Pope could even speak Francis told him a fairytale. “Once upon a time,” he said, “there was a very beautiful lady who was extremely poor and lived in the desert. However, upon seeing her, the King fell deeply in love with her and married her, but she refused to leave the desert. Their children, who were as beautiful as their mother, were told not to be ashamed that they were so poor because they were the children of a great king. The time came for them to present themselves at the court.
The King upon being informed who they were, greatly admired their beauty. He told them, ‘Don’t be afraid. I am your father. If I invite strangers to my house, how much more ready I am to invite my own sons.’ He then asked his wife to send all her children to court.”
Francis then explained that he was the lady of the desert and God was the King of Kings who assured him that he would look after them all (his disciples). Francis further argued that if God was ready to provide for everybody, how much more would he be ready to provide for those who followed His Gospels.
The Pope’s Dream
We are not certain if this fairy tale did the trick in changing the Pope’s mind. What we do know was that recently the Pope had had a vivid dream. In it he saw the Lateran Palace shaken to its foundations, with its tower leaning over and its walls on the verge of collapse. Vainly the Pope tried to cry out but even his hands refused to clasp themselves together in prayer. Then, out of the blue, came this strange ugly man with a cord-tied waist who ran toward the church. Leaning on its tottering walls he suddenly grew larger and larger till he became strong enough to prop up the walls and thus save the church.
Approval of Rule of St. Francis
So Francis’s Primitive Rule was approved by the Pope. However there is to be found no exact wording of this rule – only a collection of Gospel texts (probably the ones he opened at random when the Franciscan order was just starting).
“My brothers,” said the Pope, “go with God and preach penance as the Lord leads you. When the Most High has multiplied your small numbers, come and see me again without hesitation and I will grant you more favors and entrust you with more important missions.”
Franciscan Life After Rome
And so Francis and his companions on their return from Rome continued their life as itinerant preachers, sleeping in abandoned churches and leper houses, possessing no property and begging for their food whenever they could not obtain it by honest labor.
Actually there was no need for their rule which was little more an ideal than a rule in the traditional sense. It was just a papal sanction for them – now officially called the “fratres minores” or minors or lesser brethren – to live in evangelical poverty and what a poverty it was!
Different from the poverty of other religious orders that while accepting their novices’s renouncement of personal possession, the order itself didn’t, Franciscan poverty, on the other hand, was a new concept. It required them to own but one tunic and no books (too expensive). It forbade travel on horseback (travel of the rich) as well as the comfort of their own home. The rude crude wooden houses of the friars were called loca (places) not convents and were considered not homes but merely stopovers or places of transit. Thus poverty encompassed not only the individual members but the whole order itself.
No wonder Francis decided to call his motley group “lesser brethren” so that they would always be poor and humble folk subject to all seeking to do the lowly menial things despised by others.
As if this discomfort was not enough the first friars and the ones that came after them not only abstained from eating and drinking for long periods but kept long vigils, endured bitter cold and performed manual labor that taxed their bodies to the very extreme. They chose to wear the roughest and harshest hair shirts hiding them from view under their tunic.
Money was to be avoided at all cost as it was the symbol of man’s enslavement to the false values of the world and the cause of envy, hatred and war. In fact, it was the exact opposite of love and peace.
Yet while these Franciscans were poor in body and material possessions they were unbelievably rich in their lightness of heart and gladness of spirit that thus enabled them to endure without a complaint or grumble their chosen harsh life style.
To them perfect joy was enduring all the hardships in life patiently and without dismay. Thus the spirit of simplicity and gladness animated the followers of Francis who gradually grew and grew that in barely ten years after they obtained papal sanction for their Rule, the original dozen now numbered three thousand all trying to live up to Francis’s ideal of a “new people, small, special unlike their former selves in life and words, content only to have God.”
As for Francis he kept on preaching the word of God before thousands and thousands bringing his message of peace. Now that word had gotten around that he had not only been received by the Pope but given his approval – the status of Francis suddenly changed. Now there was a clamor for him to preach in the different churches even in the cathedral itself!
Though his rundown tunic was torn and patched, his appearance pitiful and his face unbeautiful, his words rang out dissolving the hatred of ancient grudges and restoring peace through reconciliation. He hardly ever slept and he generously shared whatever little he possessed.
Part 5: Coming Home
Poor Francis, though still a young man (in his early forties) his “brother body” (as he fondly referred to his physical person) was worn out. Having a naturally frail constitution since his youth Francis made matters worse by the vigorous demands and abuses he made on his poor body. Besides the pain from ulcer, malaria and trachoma, he now suffered the open Stigmata on his body.
While in the past he was able to push his body to go on in spite of the terrible sufferings that he bore in silence – now there was no way he could go on. All his friends and brothers were deeply worried and concerned about him.
Succumbing to their wishes and pleadings he underwent several drastic medical treatments that seem terribly cruel and primitive by today’s standards. His eyes were cauterized by supposedly the best physicians of the papal court. Proclaimed unsuccessful Francis submitted to an even more painful and gruesome operation wherein they cut all his veins from the ear to the eyebrow and even perforated both ears! Again with no positive result. Soon his stomach, legs and feet became swollen and the pain in his stomach became so intense that he could hardly take in any food at all.
At no other time had Francis suffered so terribly. Suffering a pain that was more than a mere mortal could endure Francis tried to find solace in music. He begged a brother to please find a harp so that like saintly men of old they could use music to praise God and at the same time to soothe their spirits. He felt that by singing the praises of creatures and other songs his pain would be changed to joy and his spirit consoled. However the brother hesitated to do his bidding fearful of a scandal (making joyful music instead of praying and reflecting in contemplation of death).
That night Francis heard from afar a harp that played music far lovelier than any earthly music. God had granted him his wish and played him a heavenly serenade.
On the last spring of his life the doctors, having decided that they could do no more for him, prescribed a change of scene. Francis was taken to Siena where he vomited so much blood that everyone expected him to die right then and there. So the brothers knelt around his bed, asked for his blessing and for his last message.
After blessing them and all his brothers now and in time to come, Francis had a brother write down his last three wishes for them: First, he wanted them to love one another as he had loved them. Second, he desired that they forever love and observe Lady Poverty and finally that they remain ever faithful and loyal to the Church.
But Francis did not die then as expected. So Brother Elias, seeking this opportunity to glorify the Franciscan Order of which he was head, had the living skin and bones of their Founder brought home to Assisi. But fearful that their old enemy the Perugians would try to snatch their Saint who was now considered a living relic and bring him to their city, they passed a long, circuitous and rough road passing through Gubbio, the city where Francis first tramped, prayed, laughed and sang after his conversion.
Instead of taking him to Porziuncola they brought him to Bishop Guido’s palace where his body could be heavily guarded. It seemed as if Francis was tracing his roots back to where he first stripped himself in order to wear the rags of poverty.
It was while he lay in the palace that he dictated his Testament, the document which revealed his ideals. It was here, too, where Francis when he felt too weak to sing would ask his brothers to sing for him the “Canticle of Creatures,” a song he composed in which all creatures of God whom he loved so much were named in praise of the Lord. (This song is considered the most ancient and precious Jewel of Italian poetry). When chided by Elias to keep recollected and silent rather than singing Francis said, “O let me rejoice in God and in praising Him in all my sufferings, since by a wonderful grace, I feel myself so close to my Lord that, in the knowledge of His mercy, I can sing again.”
Thus it was that the dying Francis comforted himself by singing even when he was told by the doctors that his end was near. He felt a joy so great that he wrote this final verse of his Canticle of the Sun:
Praised be my Lord, for our Sister mortal death,
From whom no man alive will escape
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Blessed those who are found walking in your most holy ways
For the second death will bring them no evil.
Knowing that he had but a few day left, Francis requested that he might be transferred to his beloved Porziuncola “so that the life of the body should end where the life of the soul had begun.” Once there he lost no time in dictating a letter to his faithful friend Lady Giacoma die Settisoli. Scarcely had the letter been sent than she arrived bringing all the things he asked her to bring. The End
When he had but a few hours to live Francis made a very shocking request. He said, “When you see that the end has come, put me naked on the bare earth again as you did the day before yesterday; and leave me there after death for the time it takes to cover a mile walking.” This was Francis’s concluding rite to his beloved bride, Lady Poverty.
He then asked two of his brothers to sing for him once again his Canticle of the Sun. As they sang Francis vainly tried to sing with them. He had come full circle starting his life singing and dancing in the streets of Assisi and ending it with the song of praise of God on his lips. As he died a flock of skylarks rose above the roof as if to accompany his soul on his journey to God, his maker.
As the brothers carried his open bier back to his native city of Assisi, the skylarks again once more appeared and sang overhead. As per the request of Francis the procession stopped outside the convent of San Damiano so that Clare and her sisters could bid him a fond farewell.
It is only fitting that the funeral services were held at the church of St. George where Francis first learned the meaning of chivalry. God’s own knight had truly come home.
Why Saint Francis?
Brother Masseo was actually teasing Francis, whom he loved dearly, when he asked him this question because he very well knew the answer. To Brother Masseo, Francis was John the Baptist come to life again! (How ironic that Francis was actually given the name John at baptism only his father, who was away at that time, didn’t like the Name. So disregarding that name he gave him a second name of Francesco or Francis. Thus Francis was the first saint to be called by his nickname.)
Like John the Baptist, St. Francis called God’s people to repentance and to newness of life in Christ. And like Christ himself, he came among us “to make the good News come alive again in human hearts.”
In this time of parish renewal and as we approach the feast day of our dearest patron saint we reopen our hearts and minds to Christ by following (like St. Francis) the Lord’s command to, “Repair my house.”
Please come and join us to observe the Feast of St. Francis.