On his deathbed, Lenin reportedly uttered, “To save our Russia, what we needed . . . was ten Francises of Assisi.” Lenin was right: St. Francis of Assisi is one of the greatest saints in the history of the Church. Almost single-handedly, he helped revive the medieval Church in the 13th century with the foundation of his mendicant Order of Friars Minor, the Franciscans. He had many preternatural gifts as a mystic, healer, and leader, as well as a special symbiosis with nature. It is not surprising that Dante dedicated a canto in Paradiso to St. Francis, calling him a “prince” who “was all Seraphic in his ardour.” More than these great many gifts, however, St. Francis’ success was rooted in his desire, to live a life in imitation of Jesus Christ, particularly the crucified Christ. Many people today erroneously think of St. Francis as a sandal-wearing, milquetoast peacenik whose greatest legacy was in gracing birdbaths everywhere. Rather, St. Francis lived a life of radical conformity and divine union to the sacrificial life of Christ. In retracing the life of St. Francis, we can see how his divine union with Christ grew and developed through successive stages of personal martyrdom.
As with many young people, especially those coming from a wealthy family, Francis in his youth was given to follow the vanities of life. Tradition holds that he loved wine, food, and feasts, and lived a life of indulgence. The lyric poems of troubadours and wandering minstrels also held sway over his imagination. Perhaps they sparked his daydreams of becoming a gallant knight, fighting chivalrously in a far off crusade. In fact, it was not long before the high-minded youth was caught up in a skirmish in 1202 against the nearby rival city of Perugia. In the battle the young Francis was wounded and taken captive. He was held in prison for a year, during which time he developed a long and protracted illness. Eventually, after his release and his continuing maladies, his thoughts began to turn away from knightly adventures and worldly desires. He then began to spend long hours in intense prayer, religious exercises, and in the contemplation of God. This was his first conversion.
It was in this period that Francis had a miraculous encounter with a leper. He had discerned in prayer that God wished him to deny himself and conquer his self-will. To this end, his conscience was tugging at him about his strong aversion and disgust of lepers. One day, tradition has it that while he was riding through the countryside, he came upon a leper. Recalling his resolution, he approached the afflicted person, gave him some alms, and kissed his diseased hand. Upon remounting his horse, he turned to look back at the person, but no one was there. From this point on, Francis began to visit and minister to lepers in hospitals and other undesirable places, washing their sores, kissing them, and eating with them. With this, he began his process of detachment from himself.
While praying intently in a chapel at San Damiano in 1205, and kneeling devoutly before a large Byzantine crucifix, Francis heard the voice of Jesus. He saw the lips on the image of Jesus move and heard the voice of Jesus say to him, “Francis, go, repair My house, which as you can see, is falling completely to ruin.” Three times Jesus spoke this to him. Francis was overwhelmed by the miraculous vision, and sought at once to repair, literally, the chapel at San Damiano. Initially he sold some of his father’s possessions to pay for the repairs at the chapel. Later, under direction from the Bishop, he understood that it was wrong for him to have taken his father’s wealth. At last, to the astonishment of the Bishop, his father, and many witnesses, Francis stripped his fine garments off piece by piece, and renounced all his possessions, save a hair shirt he had on. With this nakedness, Francis officially detached himself from his father and the world, and embraced a life of poverty.
For several years Francis lived in a small cottage, in an intense life of prayer and severe bodily discipline. He also begged for money to continue repairs to the chapel and other churches. After repairing San Damiano, he moved on to repair San Pietro della Spina, and then, the Portiuncula, or Little Portion, dedicated to Our Lady of the Angels. St. Bonaventure later recounted that Francis’ restoration of these three churches symbolized the three orders he would later establish: the Order of Friars Minor, the Poor Clares for women, and the Third Order of St. Francis for the laity. During mass at the Portiuncula, he heard the gospel reading, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics.” (Lk. 9:3) This made a profound impact upon Francis as if Jesus Himself had commissioned him. He set off with only a common peasant’s tunic tied by a cord, to preach the good news of penance and salvation to all he met.
Francis, the “poor man of Assisi,” continued to live the life of renouncement and poverty. With Francis’ tremendous charisma and preaching, he soon began to develop a large group of followers. They too were converted to a life of radical poverty of Christ, of begging and serving the poor and preaching the Gospel. Their life of self-martyrdom consisted of mortifications, penances, and prayer. In 1209, after Pope Innocent III had a remarkably vivid dream of Francis holding up the papal Lateran Basilica, he gave approval to the first Rule of the Order. They had tonsured haircuts and an austere habit made of coarse grey cloth with a pointed hood and a knotted cord around their waist. Francis was also ordained a deacon; in his profound humility, he did not deem himself worthy to be ordained a priest. Once his Order was established, the friars lived by the rules of poverty, chastity and obedience to the Roman Catholic Church.
Francis also sought to evangelize others and save souls, which manifested itself in his missionary work. In 1219, Francis travelled with the crusaders to Egypt, but not as a knight in battle as he had imagined in his youth, but now as a missionary for Christ. Pope Honorius III had enacted the Fifth Crusade to retake the Holy Land and Jerusalem. Since his initial conversion, Francis had been living a life of spiritual martyrdom and physical mortifications. Now, with the crusaders surrounding the Egyptian city of Damietta on the edge of Cairo, Francis was prepared to offer up his life as a true martyr for Christ. After warning the crusaders that they would lose the battle and suffer horrible losses, they attacked anyway. Once the Muslim forces won the battle, with some 5,000 crusaders killed and another 1,000 taken prisoner, a truce was called. It was at this time with the battle barely simmered down that Francis and one of his companions were permitted to enter the camp of the Saracens and approach the Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil.
Francis boldly entered enemy territory, prepared to die, armed only with his zeal to save souls. He was immediately beaten and chained by the Saracens, and brought before the Sultan. There, he informed the Sultan that he came as a messenger of God to reveal the truth of Christianity and save the Sultan’s soul. Despite the Imams’ urging to cut off Francis’ head, the Sultan was moved by Francis’ concern for the Sultan’s eternal salvation. One of Francis’ companions described the Sultan, “that cruel beast,” who in response to Francis, “became sweetness itself.” By God’s grace, Francis was allowed to stay for weeks in the court of the Sultan, discussing theology and evangelizing him. The Sultan refused to convert to Christianity, at least publicly and be killed by his followers, so Francis eventually returned to the crusader encampment, undoubtedly to their amazement. According to oral tradition, the Sultan converted on his deathbed and embraced the faith of St. Francis. Francis’ companion, Brother Illuminato, said that after hearing Francis preach, the Sultan “always had the Christian faith imprinted in his heart.” As a lasting legacy of Francis’ encounter, the Franciscans were later made custodians of the Christian holy sites in the Holy Land and Middle East, a position they still hold today. After his brush with martyrdom, St. Francis updated the Order’s Rule of 1221, Regula non Bullata, chapter XVI, on travelling and evangelizing in Muslim territory by quoting the Lord thusly: “Behold I send you as sheep in the midst of wolves.” (Mt. 10:16) His recommendation was to boldly proclaim the Gospel of Christ, even if it meant persecution and death.
In 1224, St. Francis climbed a remote mountain La Verna for a forty-day fast and spiritual retreat for the feast of St. Michael. On the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, September 14th, while contemplating the passion and death of Christ, St. Francis had a vision of a six-winged Seraphim fixed on a cross and flying towards him. As it came closer, he recognized that it was Jesus with his hands and feet nailed to the cross. St. Francis understood the vision to mean that he himself would be transformed by his seraphic love of God into a perfect image of the crucified Christ. Waking from the vision, St. Francis found he had received Christ’s wounds into his very own body, holes in his hands and feet, and a wound in his side. He had received the sacred stigmata as a testament to the oneness of spirit he had with Christ, recalling the words of St. Paul, perhaps the Church’s first stigmatist, “For I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” (Gal. 6:17) For the next two years until his death, St. Francis bore the stigmata as a sign for all, enduring this painful martyrdom supernaturally manifested in perfect unity with Christ’s passion.
St. Francis embraced his sufferings out of love for God and his neighbor. St. Bonaventure quotes him as saying, “Nothing would make me more happy than to have you afflict me with pain and not spare me. Doing your will is consolation enough, and more than enough, for me.” It was at this point that the saint composed his “Canticle of Brother Sun,” including the line “May thou be praised, my Lord, for those who forgive for the sake of They love and endure infirmity and tribulation.” Having trouble walking from the wounds in his feet, and his eyes now nearly blind, the little poor man of Assisi approached death on the evening of October 3, 1226. In recollection of his initial conversion, and in perfect imitation with the poverty and death of the Lord, he asked to be placed naked on the ground in anticipation of his own death. With his dying breaths, St. Francis implored his followers to hold fast to the Gospel and the faith of the Church. With that, he entered into his eternal reward.
In meditating on the life of St. Francis we are reminded of the stages of martyrdom he went through in his life, from renouncing his wealth and possessions, to serving lepers and the poor, to placing himself in danger by evangelizing Muslims, to suffering through infirmities, to eventually receiving the very wounds of Christ Himself with the stigmata. As much as anyone in the history of the Church, he imaged Christ perfectly. St. Francis believed in a life of sacrifice, poverty, and humility. It was St. Francis’ seraphic love and humility that led him to create the first creche, or manger scene, in its beautiful simplicity and reverence on one Christmas night for midnight mass. He lived his whole life out of this great love for the Lord, in imitation of the life of Christ. He also believed that vicarious and redemptive suffering, when offered to God, can be meritorious for the salvation of souls. His concern for the salvation of all souls was central to his life. As members of the Mystical Body of Christ, we are all called to complete what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ and share in His redemptive work, for as Jesus said, “where I am, there shall My servant be also.” (Jn. 12:26) Let us be there now, with St. Francis, our brother, as we honor him on his feast day.