Francis of Assisi

“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. Where these is hatred, let me sow love” – Francis of Assisi

Long before the monumental reformations of Martin Luther or John Calvin, a young Italian aristocrat gave up wealth and position to follow Jesus Christ. His legacy is known the world over, Holy orders attempt to emulate his ways, and numerous biographies are written of him . Writer G. K Chesteron wrote, “If you want to see the Sermon on the Mount put into practice, look at Saint Francis of Assisi.

Loved by people of all faiths, Francis exemplified a life radically transformed by the presence of Christ. Centuries later, his voice still echoes from the past.

Giovanni Bernardore, better known as Francesco, the founder of the Franciscan order, hailed from the little town of Assisi, in Central Italy, 1182. He was an aristocrat, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant. He lived a life of privilege and wanted for nothing. Indeed, it is recorded that his life was one of wine and women, with no indulgence denied. A rich playboy of his time, he also aspired to be a knight in service to his King and Country, a pursuit his parents were proud to support.

In 1201 Francis joined a military expedition against Perugia and was taken captive for a year. Francis was 20 years old. Once freed, he became seriously ill. This illness fortified his patience and strengthened and matured his spirit.

After his recovery, Francis joined a knight of Assisi who was riding south to fight under Walter de Brienne for the Pope against the Germans. Having fitted himself with the finest of armour, he set forth for glory. However, on route he met a fellow knight poorly clad and was so touched with compassion that he exchanged clothes with him. That evening, he dreamed he saw his father’s house transformed into a castle, its walls hung with armour, all marked with the sign of the cross, and he heard a voice saying that the armour belonged to Francis and his soldiers. Confident now that he would win glory as a knight, he set out again, but on the first day, he fell ill. While lying helpless, a voice urged him to turn back, and “to serve the Master rather than the man.” Francis obeyed.

Initially, he returned to his former way of life; however, his thoughts and aspirations had shifted. Upon seeing him deep in thought, people would tell him that he was in love. “Yes,” Francis would reply, “I am going to marry the most beautiful and the fairest from all those I’ve met.” He was referring to “lady poverty.” Absorbing himself in prayer, the desire to sell all his goods and buy the precious pearl of which the Gospel speaks grew. To place his treasure in Heaven – not on earth.

A series of supernatural inspirations made him understand that the spiritual battle began through humility and denying the sinful nature. On one occasion when he was strolling by on horse through the fields of Assisi, he came across a leprous man. The wounds were repulsive to Francis, but instead of fleeing, he approached the leper. Francis understood that the time had come to confront fear and step out in faith and love. Despite his aversion towards leprous people, he renounced his will, approached him, and gave him a kiss. That event changed his life. It was a gesture instigated by the Holy Spirit.

His quest for enlightenment led him to the ancient church at San Damiano. While he was praying there, he heard Christ speak to him, “Francis, repair my church.” Francis assumed this meant the crumbling building he was in. Acting impetuously, he took fabric from his father’s shop and sold it. The money earned would be used to repair the church. His father saw this as an act of theft and his growing disinterest in money as the antics of a madman. Pietro dragged Francis before the Bishop and in front of the whole town demanded that Francis return the money and renounce all rights as his heir.

The Bishop told him to return the money and said God would provide. That was all Francis needed to hear. He not only gave back the money but stripped off all his clothes — the clothes his father had given him — until he was wearing only a hair shirt. In front of the crowd that had gathered he said, “Pietro Bernardone is no longer my father. From now on I can say with complete freedom, ‘Our Father who art in heaven.'” Wearing nothing but rags, he went off into the freezing woods — singing. And when robbers beat him later and took his clothes, he climbed out of the ditch and went off singing again. From then on, Francis had nothing…and yet possessed everything.

Inspired by a sermon from Matthew 10:9 (in which Christ has encouraged people to renounce everything and go forth and proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven), Francis devoted himself completely to a life of poverty. Barely clad and barefooted, he started preaching the value of repentance. Within a year, Francis had 11 followers; however, he felt unworthy to be ordained as a priest. His small community came to be known as ‘lesser brothers’.

During his short life, Francis travelled to Spain, France, Switzerland, Dalmatia, and most famously to Syria, the Holy Land, and Egypt during the Fifth Crusade. He attempted to bring peace between the Christians and Muslims, gaining the admiration of the Muslim leader, the Sultan of Egypt. Whilst others sought a crusade of violence, Francis exemplified the message of love and repentance. He embraced poverty and realised such a life was crucial in removing the idols of materialism from one’s heart (Blessed are the poor).

 

“May God bless us with just enough foolishness
To believe that we can make a difference in the world,
So that we can do what others claim cannot be done:
To bring justice and kindness to all our children and all our neighbors who are poor” – Francis of Assisi