Saint Francis of Assisi (Part 2)
If God can work through me, he can work through anyone.
This is the second part of an article dedicated to the life of Saint Francis. Part one can be found here.
In February of 1208 AD, Saint Francis attended Mass in the chapel of Saint Mary of the Angels and heard the day's gospel reading - the "Commissioning of the twelve".
Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.
“And as you go, preach the message, ‘The kingdom is at hand!’…Take no gold, nor silver, nor money in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff; for the laborer deserves his food. And whatever town or villa you enter, find out who is worthy in it, and stay with him until you depart.”
Inspired by this sermon, and feeling the God had moved his heart, he wore a coarse woolen tunic and tied a knotted rope around his waist. He went out pleading and exhorting the people of the country to practice penances, brotherly love and peace. WIthin a year, he had attracted eleven followers to his cause, all living together in a deserted lazar house near Assissi, spending their time wandering the mountains near Umbria.
Bernard of Quintavalle was the first brother to join Saint Francis in this new way of life. He sold his permissions, gave the proceeds to the poor and took up residence with Saint Francis. Wanting to test the holiness of this new leader, he pretended to fall asleep and waited to see what Saint Francis would do. The Omnibus of Sources recorded the following:
With Bernard secretly observing him, Francis got onto his knees and raised his hands in prayer. Then Bernard was amazed to hear Francis earnestly repeating throughout the night “My God and my all!” The Little Flowers of Saint Francis informs us that Saint Francis repeated the words while marveling at and contemplating the goodness of Almighty God (Omnibus of Sources, p. 1303).
Saint Francis had a deep affection for nature, believing that the creatures of the wild were not just animals but creations worthy of his brotherhood. There are many legends of his care for animals - once he persuaded a wolf that had killed a villager to never kill again so that the people wouldn't kill him, another that he preached a sermon to a flock of birds who patiently stood still as he walked among them. They flew off only once Saint Francis gave them permission. In his writing the Canticle of the Creatures, he refers to the Sun as Brother Sun and the moon as Sister Moon. He would later refer to his body as "Brother Ass the body" and sought pardon to him for the penances he undertook.
In 1209, he composed a simple, clear rule for his friars (followers) known as the Regula primitiva or Primitive Rule:
“To follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in his footsteps.”
He led his now 12 followers to Rome to seek approval of Pope Innocent III for his order. Initially, Pope Innocent was skeptical and hesitant to approve the order. That night, the Pope saw in a dream Saint Francis holding up the church of San Giovanni in Laterano. The following morning, on April 16th, 1210, he gave his approval and the Franciscan Order was officially founded. Saint Francis chose to not be ordained a priest.
Saint Francis took poverty and brotherly love to the most extreme he could think of. If he or his friars met someone poorer than them, they would frequently rip the sleeves off of their habit and cheerfully give them. He instituted a rule for the Friars that when they begged for food or necessary supplies they were to refuse any money. Famously, when a bishop showed horror at the Friar's hard life and lack of possessions, Saint Francis said:
"If we had any possessions we should need weapons and laws to defend them. You can't starve a fasting man, you can't steal from someone who has no money, you can't ruin someone who hates prestige. They were truly free."
In 1211, the noble woman Clare of Assisi heard Saint Francis preaching, and believing herself to be touched by God to respond and answer his call wished to take on a religious life. Her cousin Rufino first joined the Friary, and on March 28th 1212 (Palm Sunday) Clare left quietly at night from her family's villa and joined Saint Francis. Together the Order of Poor Ladies was formed and lodged them near San Damiano. This became the first monastery of the Second Franciscan Order, now known as Poor Clares. For those who could not leave their homes and families, he formed the Third Order of Brothers and Sisters of Penance, a fraternity of laity and clergy who observed the Franciscan principles in their daily lives.
in 1219, Saint Francis with another friar travelled to Egypt hoping to bring peace to the region as it was during the Fifth Crusade. A Crusader army had been besieging Damietta and the Sultan al-Kamil was encamped north of the city, unable to break the siege. He proceeded to walk through the camp unharmed and was greeted by the Sultan's guards. They allowed him entry to the tent where Saint Francis met personally with the Sultan. Tradition holds that the Sultan was so touched by his preaching that not only did he grant permission for Saint Francis to travel the holy land preaching, but also remarked:
"I would convert to your religion which is a beautiful one -- but both of us would be murdered."
By this time, the Order had grown exponentially and the organizational structure was showing great strain. He returned to Italy and first prepared a new and more detailed rule called the "Rule without a Papal Bull" which instituted greater organizational structure and reaffirmed the devotion to poverty and an apostolic life. On September 29th, 1220, he handed over leadership of the order to Brother Peter Catani and then to Brother Elias. Two years later he created the second rule called the "Rule with a Bull" which was approved by Pope Honorius III. Once created, Saint Francis began to withdraw from external affairs.
While praying at Verna in preparation for Michaelmas, Saint Francis had a vision and received the Stigmata. Saint Bonaventure wrote:
“While Francis was praying on the mountainside, he saw a Seraph, with six fiery and shining wings, descend from the height of heaven. And when in swift flight the Seraph had reached a spot in the air near the man of God, there appeared between the wings the figure of a man crucified, with his hands and feet extended in the form of a cross and fastened to a cross. Two of the wings were lifted above his head, two were extended for flight and two covered his whole body. When Francis saw this, he was overwhelmed and his heart was flooded with a mixture of joy and sorrow. He rejoiced because of the gracious way Christ looked upon him under the appearance of a seraph, but the fact that he was fastened to a cross pierced his soul with a sword of compassionate sorrow (Luke 2:35).”
Immediately following the vision, imprinted on his body were the markings of the five wounds of Christ. Years of poverty had taken their toll on his body by this time. When he bgan to go blind, the Pope ordered his eyes be operating on, which at that time entailed cauterizing his face with a hot iron. Tradition holds that as the flame drew close to his face he said the following:
"Brother Fire, the Most High has made you strong and beautiful and useful. Be courteous to me now in this hour, for I have always loved you, and temper your heat so that I can endure it."
He reportedly felt no heat or pain from the fire.
He travelled home to the hunt near Porziuncola, the very spot where the Franciscan movement had begun. Knowing his life was rapidly approaching the end, he spent his last days dictating his spiritual testaments. As he sang Psalm 142, Saint Francis died on the evening of October 3rd, 1226. His final wish to his brothers was:
“When I am dying, lay me naked on the ground . . . and let me lie there after I am dead for the length of time it takes to walk one mile unhurriedly”
The Brother's honored this request and reverntly placed his body on the ground for a half hour. Saint Bonoventure would write of this:
The gesture of Francis lying naked on Mother Earth strikingly reveals how comfortable Francis had become with the whole world of creation, including his human body. Like Adam before the fall, Francis was not ashamed of his nakedness. Francis had become keenly aware that Jesus, in his incarnation, had entered our world and transformed the earth (and the human form) through his saving presence among us. Saint Francis had come to believe that both the earth and his body—through the incarnation of Christ—had become profoundly good.
“At last, when all of God’s mysteries were fulfilled in him,” writes Bonaventure, “the blessed man fell asleep in the Lord. One of his brothers and disciples saw his soul under the appearance of a radiant star being carried aloft in a shining cloud over many waters on a direct path into heaven.”
Pope Gregory IX pronounced Saint Francis officially as a Saint on July 16th, 1228 and laid the foundation stone for the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi the following day. On November 29th, 1979, Pope John Paul II declared Saint Francis the Patron Saint of Ecology for his love of nature. He also wrote a challenge for contemporary Catholics reminding them:
"not to behave like dissident predators where nature is concerned, but to assume responsibility for it, taking all care so that everything stays healthy and integrated, so as to offer a welcoming and friendly environment even to those who succeed us."
"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 honor and praise to the Lord. The poor man of Assisi gives us 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."