The Gift of the Saints – St Francis of Assisi

INTRO When talking about the Creed, we explored a little our belief in the ‘Communion of the Saints’ – that ‘great cloud of witnesses’ that have lived profoundly aspects of Jesus’ divine humanity and humane divinity, witnessed to His Word and Love in the flesh of their own lives. Now as part of the Church, the Body of Christ, from their place in the presence and heart of God, in the Resurrection, they are the most alive people among us, eternal flames of God’s Love and Light to inspire us, accompany us on our pilgrim journey through life.  Utterly central to our faith is that the Eternal Divine Word (the Son of the Father) becomes Flesh and enters into human history, ‘gets inside our skin’. At the centre of our understanding the Eucharist we celebrate is that He is our Food and Drink that transforms us into His own being, His Word made Flesh in our lives, in our present world. Reverencing and learning for the Saints is part of our Incarnational Faith: seeing what our humanity can be like if we let Jesus into our lives!  We need to experience the Word lived in our human flesh and blood. So today I would like to begin to introduce you to some of my ‘heavenly friends’ who have influenced my own journey of discipleship.

St Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) I was about 13 years old when I sensed God’s call to serve as a priest. One warm summers day, I cycled to an open air swimming pool in Harpenden in Hertfordshire, with a library book in my duffle bag. I began to read the story of St Francis of Assisi. Of course I had already heard of him, but knew little or nothing about him except weird stories about preaching to animals! But something drew me to read about him – rather Someone – the Holy Spirit! It was the beginning of a life-long friendship. (I later discovered that St Ignatius Loyola began his conversion and vocation by reading the lives of the saints while he was convalescing from injuries sustained in battle!)

Assisi is a most beautiful hilltop town in Umbria, with a very long history going back to Etruscan and Roman times. Francis, born into a rich cloth merchant’s family towards the end of the 12th Century was as a boy and young man by all accounts something of a spoiled brat. There is a story that he was born of a French mother while his father was away travelling and trading in cloth. When the child’s father returned home he was furious that his wife had named the child ‘Giovanni’ (after John the Baptist) and insisted (women’s voices didn’t count for much!) renaming him ‘Francesco’ – which means ‘Frenchman’ – his father loved everything French! I suspect that the radical prophet John the Baptist always took an interest in this child! Young Francesco wanted for nothing and was something of a playboy, a dreamer and a romantic! He yearned for glory, to be a knight, courageous and chivalrous – and victorious! And all the young women of the town loved him and all the young men wanted to be in his company and party with him. 

The chance for glory came when Assisi decided to attack their Umbrian rival, the city of Perugia. With fine armour and clothing off he went – to horrendous disaster. All but the wealthy soldiers were butchered on the field of battle – the rich ones, like Francis were imprisoned to be ransomed by their wealthy families. He was imprisoned in appalling conditions for a year awaiting freedom. Utterly dejected and in inner turmoil, he returned to Assisi a different man. Like many in all ages, he turned to God in his prison. Did he have visions? Who knows … but I guess what followed was something of a nervous breakdown. And like many who experience such trauma, it changed his life and he discovered another self – not self-centred but ready for self-giving.  A little later he was recruited to go as a Knight on Crusade to the Holy Land, only to turn back and face accusations of cowardice from the town that once ‘adored’ him. Here is the beginning of his conversion – and his pacifism as well as poverty. Later he was to see possessing ‘things’ meant you had to defend them and that led to conflict, violence and war. He was now committed to living peace and seeking to build peace. No wonder he is the Patron Saint of Peace-makers and pacifists. Later he did go to the Crusades with some of his friars – but not to fight (he was unarmed) but to dialogue with the Sultan. The muslim leader was immensely impressed and Francis and his friars returned unharmed to Italy.

From childhood Francis had a great fear of and revulsion for lepers – the great outcasts and poor of the age, feared and shunned by all. A key moment on his journey of conversion was when he riding in the countryside and came across a leper. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, he got off his horse and embraced the leper, kissing him – he spoke of how his mouth was filled with sweetness – and he experienced an extraordinary freedom. Looking back along the path the leper had disappeared and Francis recognised that the leper was Christ! His conversion was sealed and from then on he cared for lepers and lived the rest of his life with and for the outcasts and impoverished, wearing their rags.

The next key moment was when he was praying in the ruined and disused chapel of San Damiano just below Assisi.  The Byzantine Cross that hung in the ruins seemed to speak to him – ‘rebuild my Church’, the crucified Christ said. Francis gathered friends and money and started rebuilding this chapel – only to discover that later that Jesus was calling him to rebuild the holiness of a Church that had lost its way in wealth and corruption. It was at this time that he also experienced the call to be ‘betrothed to Lady Poverty’ – a radical poverty whereby he possessed nothing and found that all creation was in reality his! Three Gospel passages spoke to him especially: Jesus love for the young rich man, inviting him to sell everything give to the poor and follow Jesus (he turned away saddened from the loving gaze of Christ); the missionary instruction of Jesus to ‘take nothing for the journey’; and the call to ‘take up the cross each day and follow Jesus’. These three Gospel passages became the simple and radical Rule of these joyous ragged wandering friars. Francis took the Gospel seriously and lived them radically. He was wedded forever with the poor: he was Good News to the Poor and he and his friars sang the Good News with joy and freedom among the disaffected poor whom the Church had lost but Francis regained. No wonder today’s Pope who took his name, Pope Francis, insistently calls us to become ‘the Church of the Poor, the Church for the Poor’. When Francis and his ragged group of brothers went to Rome to present their radically simple Gospel rule, at first the Pope sent them packing: but then had a dream of a a man in rags holding up the collapsing Lateran basilica (the Cathedral Church of Rome). He got the message! Francis and his brothers were brought back to the Pope who immediately approved their rule and way of life. And before his early death (at the age of 45), more than 10,000 men had joined the friars and the Poor Clares were also established, as well as the innovation of the ‘Third Order’ so that lay people, married and single, young and old could live the Way of Francis in the context of their lives in the world. 

Francis had a deep love for Christ Crucified and towards the end of his life, as he was beginning to go blind, he received the Stigmata (the wounds of Christ on his body) in a profound mystical experience at the mountainous retreat of La Verne. And after he turned completely blind, about 2 years before his death, he composed his famous Canticle of the Creatures – “Laudato si’”. 

His contemporary significance:

St Francis of Assisi is truly a ‘Man for All Seasons’ – his radical acceptance of Gospel living will forever challenge all who seek to be disciples of the Christ ‘who had nowhere to lay his head’ and was ‘anointed to be Good news to the Poor’. 

His conversion through meeting Christ in poor (reflected in other lives – St Vincent de Paul, St Oscar Romero etc). Being powerless and homeless among the powerless and homeless.

Taking the Gospel seriously as an authentic way of life and love – joyful witness to the Christ; 

Innovator of a new form of witness and missionary life; commitment to the renewal of the Church by bringing us back to Gospel and the Poor. Radical reformer just by daring to be himself with joy and freedom.

Interfaith dialogue – the Sultan during the Crusades

Man of prayer and deeply in love with the Lord – in love with the Crucified Christ – where do we find this same Crucified Christ?

Reconciler and peace-maker

In Communion with all Creation

Quote Laudato si’ No 10-12

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