October 4: Saint Francis of Assisi

c. 1182–1226
Memorial; Liturgical Color: White
Patron Saint of animals, ecology, and merchants. Co-patron of Italy


<<<      A merchant’s son of eccentric sensibilities goes radical      >>>

Though originally baptized by his mother as Giovanni (John) in honor of Saint John the Baptist, today’s saint was renamed Francesco, or “Frenchy,” by his father Pietro de Bernardone after Pietro returned home from trading in France. Pietro loved France, and his son’s romantic, troubadour spirit likely flowed from that same cultural source.

Francesco grew up in a middle-class home that engaged in the sale of fine cloth. Francis was a skilled merchant in the family business, but he enjoyed spending money more than earning it. He was a man about town, a leader among his friends, and well liked for his concern for others. He was also a failed knight. When he was twenty, Francis joined a civic-minded Assisi militia in a battle against a neighboring city. When the militia was routed, Francis was spared death and instead held for ransom due to his fine livery. He was held prisoner in a rank dungeon for a year before the ransom was paid. He returned to Assisi a more reflective man. Subsequent military service for the Papal States ended abruptly when Francis heard a voice tell him, “Follow the master rather than the man.” He sold his expensive armor and horse, returned home, and began to spend hours in prayer.

Shortly after this turning point, Francis met a leper on the outskirts of Assisi. He initially recoiled, but then dismounted, gave the man some money, and kissed his putrid hand. This was the start of his frequent visits to leper houses and hospitals. When Francis heard a voice from the cross say to him, “Francis, go and repair my church, which as you can see is in ruins,” he sold a large amount of cloth and his father’s horse at a neighboring market town. Coming back to Assisi, he donated the proceeds to a priest at the church of San Damiano on the outskirts of Assisi. Francis’ father was irate. His son had sold cloth from the family store, and a horse, and had then

given away money that was not his. This was stealing, and Francis was put in prison. A dramatic scene then unfolds between Francis and his father in a church square, in the presence of Bishop Guido of Assisi and his court. Pietro demands the return of his money. The Bishop supports him and says the Church cannot accept stolen money. Francis returns the coins. But then Francis goes further. Piece by piece, he removes his clothing until he is naked before everyone’s eyes. He then says, “From now on I will not say ‘My Father, Pietro Bernardone’ but ‘Our Father, who art in heaven.’” There is not a single reference in any contemporary Franciscan document to Pietro after this dramatic incident. Francis was now cut off, disinherited, and on his own.

Francis eventually begins to wear a rough smock which he ties around his waist with a cord. He lives alone in absolute poverty, prays, helps the sick, rebuilds nearby run-down chapels, and preaches and begs in Assisi. Men begin to follow his lead, and the first fire of the worldwide Franciscan order ignites. The “Lesser Brothers of Assisi” is recognized by the Pope, Francis is ordained a deacon, and the Order’s explosive growth can only be called miraculous. Saint Francis is the first great founder of a religious order since Saint Benedict in the 500s. By sheer allure of personality, holiness, and vision, not intellect or organizational skill, he imparted a mysteriously powerful charism to his followers. He was ardent in his love for the Holy Eucharist and insisted that churches be well kept in honor of the Lord’s physical presence.

Francis died in his forty-fourth year and was canonized just two years later, in 1228. Saint Francis may be the most well-known person of the second millennium. A measure of his massive impact can be gauged by observing that it is not uncommon for Saint Francis to be seen as the ideal of Christian virtue and poverty, even over and above the religion’s very founder.

Saint Francis of Assisi, you held the Holy Eucharist in such holy reverence you dared not be ordained a priest. Your love of the Word of God complimented your love of His creation. Help all Christians to have your same balance of love for God, the Sacraments, and all God’s creation. Amen.

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